September 25, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Allison Wallis
David Chang’s memoir Eat a Peach is a book about disability, but it is not a disability memoir. A disability memoir, in my opinion, requires that an author be aware that he is disabled. I found myself continually wishing that someone would step in to tell the author that a community of people with bipolar and mental health disabilities exists and an even larger community of disabled people.
This vital missing piece loomed large throughout the book.
Chang recounts growing up with perfectionist parents, and the pressure his father put on him to become a young golf phenom. Chang lost his edge at golf when he hit puberty and his body changed. The author’s lifelong attempts to please his father are an undercurrent that runs through the book
I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America a few years after Chang finished culinary school. Many of my friends at school would take the train into New York City on the weekend to eat at Chang’s restaurant Momofuku. I never joined them, because Chang’s reputation preceded him. As a mostly vegetarian, I was not going to spend the small amount of cash I had at a place with a motto of “Fuck Vegetarians.”
I worked in restaurants for the same reason Chang did. We both had a background in finance. I was looking for a community and needed an outlet for my creative side. That community, however, was only there for me when I was healthy. As my disability progressed but before my diagnosis, I started missing work. Once I became dizzy and grazed my cheek on a hot sheet pan. Another night towards the end of a double shift I fainted and knocked my head against the Hobart mixer bowl. I was not given compassion; instead, I was threatened with termination. The restaurant industry widely welcomes people with mental health disabilities. It shuns the physically disabled and chronically ill.
I know of two people who use wheelchairs and work in restaurants. I know of no one who uses a cane or braces, or who has a chronic illness. I’ve never seen data, but I’d imagine the numbers of people who claim physical disability or chronic illness and have restaurant careers are infinitesimally small.
I wasn’t dealing with substance abuse and bipolar like Chang. Restaurants provided temporary refuge and escape from my quickly disintegrating body and the after-effects of a rough childhood, but in the long term, that work made my problems worse.
I finally found the community I was looking for after I left restaurants for good.
Chang recounts confusion in describing his therapist, who withheld his official diagnosis for years, only recently confirming it. As someone who was misdiagnosed for years, I can empathize with the feelings he may have been experiencing: the nagging sensation that there was something that needed to be uncovered about yourself. How would Chang’s working life have been different with a diagnosis? Would his new self-awareness have tempered his legendary rage and the guilt that followed? Would he have had better relationships with his employees and customers?
Chang’s account of sexism in the restaurant industry raised some doubts for me, as I find it highly improbable that any man who has run a professional kitchen could have been unaware of the rampant, industry-wide sexism and abuse.
He recounts multiple instances of behaving in an abusive manner toward his employees, including describing how “the slightest error or show of carelessness from a cook could turn me into a convulsing, raging mass. The only thing that could snap me out of my fits was punching a wall or a steel countertop.”
The book is chock-full of Chang screaming at and berating his employees, of outbursts of physical anger. Yet, when describing his role as a male chef, he writes, “I pride myself on my empathetic abilities, especially when it comes to other cooks and chefs.” He writes, “The distress of being ostracized and derided as an Asian American had tortured and motivated me for much of my career, and yet I hadn’t connected my own struggles to the way women of all ethnicities were feeling in the workplace.” Chang’s memoir relays a similar disconnect about the larger context when it comes to disability.
As I finished Eat a Peach I hoped that Chang might get an introduction to the disability community. He comes close to realizing the need for systemic change, recognizing that, “The mental and physical toll of working in restaurants is corrosive. It will take generations to undo the harm and build an industry that is equitable for all people of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexualities and beliefs. We need to be responsible for one another.”
I last worked in a restaurant kitchen in 2006, and afterward I spent a very long time grieving the loss of that life. The hardest part of that grieving was coming to terms with how I allowed myself to be treated: the pats on the ass, the too-close encounter in the walk-in, the constant sexual jokes, the having to work twice as hard as any of the men in order to prove myself. I destroyed my body in the process. I wish I could visit seventeen-year-old Allison. I wish I could help her realize her worth.
Allison Wallis is a writer and disability rights advocate. She lives in Hawai’i with her family and writes about life with rare medical conditions and disability.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Paul Pedroza
Those who live with mental illness are familiar with their own unique “aha” moments, those events, dialogues, reactions, or observations served up by others, whether you’re open to them or not, that make you wonder about yourself and the ways you interact with and fit into your world. For many, what follows is a tortuous, often torturous, path towards diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. Individuals place their trust in professionals in a soft science, one in which guesswork comes with the territory and one that relies upon self-reporting, family history, and the client’s actions and experiences in order to provide help, whether psychological or pharmaceutical or both.
Sawchyn’s path into the mental health care system began abruptly after an episode in which the author seems to experience an episode of derealization, rocking and hugging herself and possibly lashing out at her mother who, in her words, was an easy target because she offered nothing but love. There is much possibility here, in the sense that memory can be faulty and unreliable, but Sawchyn perseveres from the start in “An Apology” all the way through the rest of this essay collection. She’s hospitalized. She has a history of cutting, a specific manifestation of non-suicidal self-injury, a symptom common in certain personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, or as the author herself notes, a diagnosis all its own.
After a stint in a state hospital, a place where she felt “like being reduced to dust” (“Wellness Index”), Sawchyn receives her diagnosis— acute psychosis, bipolar I, manic episode— and her medications. The results splice into her core identity. “My identity was intertwined too tightly with a mental health diagnosis” (“An Apology”). She’ll spend the next seven years faithfully dosing herself with what she’s been prescribed and experimenting with other drugs, legal and otherwise. Before long, she’s left to her own devices and her meds when seeking counseling becomes too expensive. She drifts from trip to trip, meets a few men with struggles of their own (“Three Men,” a composite sketch of boyfriends who struggled through suicidal ideation and attempts), and ends up in the Midwest for graduate school. It is here where, with the help of counselors, she discovers her misdiagnosis. For seven long years, she lived a life shaded by bipolar I and all of its symptoms and stigmas, a life ordered and disordered by the medications prescribed to alleviate, to take the edge off.
Many of the essays in A Fish Growing Lungs detail Sawchyn’s struggles and triumphs with processing the misdiagnosis, overcoming withdrawal from medications for bipolar I, and further navigating the recovery process post-reveal. A few questions remain, most of all the question of a probable differential diagnosis— if not bipolar I, then given the symptoms and histories, the cutting, anxiety, her depression and her family’s history of it, the obsessive thoughts about health and safety, then what could it be? The latter few essays offer much hope, but little in terms of demystifying her adjustment post-misdiagnosis, but perhaps this is matter for a future collection.
A Fish Growing Lungs is a dynamic debut that offers hope to readers and writers who are struggling to define and delineate their own lived experiences, and a collection that demystifies diagnosis, misdiagnosis, and the struggles attendant with recovery for those who wish to learn about mental illness and its persistent stigmas.
Paul Pedroza was born and raised in El Paso, Texas. He received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His story collection, The Dead Will Rise and Save Us, is available from Veliz Books. He has completed his first novel, and he is currently working on a second and on a collection of essays.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 23, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Adam Hubrig
At the heart of In Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century is a sense of disabled community. Editor Alice Wong describes finding other disabled voices in print and gathering file folders of clippings of disability stories that spoke to her. Wong writes “My collection led me to community” (xvi). The collection of disability stories Wong collects here similarly leads me to community, and Wong’s work as editor of this volume extends her legacy of disability activism through the Disability Visibility Project.
As a reader, I am bored with disability stories that cast disability as a monolith. Disability Visibility features an immersive cross-section of disabled experiences in 38 essays, each sharing embodied crip wisdom in bursts of nonfiction. While the invocation of “disability” much-too-frequently means white disabled experiences, this collection shines in bringing intersectional representations of disability to light, which helps provide a glimpse into the expansive vibrancy of disabled lives while presenting a range of disabled experiences that include disabled perspectives on Muslim faith (Maysoon Zayid), indigenous chronic illness (Jen Deerinwater), being deaf and incarcerated (Jeremy Woody, told by Christie Thompson), parenting with a disability (Jessica Slice), and many others.
The volume is organized around four sections, “Being,” “Becoming,” “Doing,” and “Connecting.” “Being,” the first of these sections, captures different aspects of being a disabled person. As a disabled reader, I appreciated the thoughtful approach these writers took in detailing the difficulties of disabled lives, in ways nondisabled readers might not expect. Often, these difficulties are the assumptions of nondisabled people. “The peculiar drama of my life has placed me in a world that by and large thinks it would be better if people like me did not exist,” Harriet McBryde Johnson writes in the first essay in this section.
While pop culture disability representations often center “overcoming” narratives analogous to bullshit “motivational” posters like “the only disability in life is a bad attitude,” these essays capture a complex range of feelings about disability. The second section, “Becoming,” centers the lived experiences of disabled people who, as Sandy Ho writes in the section’s “Cafei to Canji,” “more often than not survive along its outermost edges.” These essays capture a range of disabled voices expressing the depth of meaning of their own disabled existence, and features a range of expressions of that meaning in rage, in acceptance, and in joy. As Keah Brown writes in “Nurturing Black Disabled Joy” midway through this section, “My joy is my freedom–it allows me to live my life as I see fit.”
The third section, “Doing,” revolves around the labor of amplifying disabled voices and experiences. In “The Antiabortion Bill You Aren’t Hearing About,” for example, Rebecca Cokley addresses the disingenuous invocation of “disability” by a political agenda that seems profoundly disinterested in disabled peoples’ well-being. In “Lost Cause,” Reyma McCoy McDeid describes the ableism leveraged against her as a developmentally disabled person, as well as her advocacy efforts. This section demonstrates how disabled advocacy–for ourselves and others–is just as diverse as disability itself.
“Connecting,” the book’s final section, features essays reflecting on disability as community. In “Disability Solidarity: Completing the “Vision for Black Lives,” the Harriet Tubman Collective writes “any struggle against white supremacy must also address all of its interrelated flaws–including ableism and audism.” As a section “Connecting” is disabled finding disabled roots and starting grassroots disability movements, from contributor Eugene Grant who finds a dwarf role model in Benjamin Lay to the disability justice collectives of Black and brown disabled folks described by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.
As I continue to seek out community as a multiply disabled reader, this collection of disabled perspectives is everything. I reflect on “The Beauty of Spaces Created for Disabled People”–the final essay in Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century –where s.e. smith writes about the importance of having spaces crafted specifically for marginalized people. Frequently, smith writes, disabled people are often made to feel isolated because of ableist policies. in sharing space with other disabled people a different kind of space is created–“crip space, a communal belonging, a deep rightness that comes from not having to explain or justify your experience” (272). For me, this volume is a portable crip space, a space where I can join other disabled people in their joys and their struggles.
Adam Hubrig is a multiply disabled caretaker of cats. His writing has appeared in Typehouse Magazine and The Lincoln Underground. He currently resides in Huntsville, Texas, where he is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University.
This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.
September 22, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Mialise Carney
I found God in a dusty Christmas Tree Shop on Cape Cod when I was seven years old. God was a white and gold pocket Bible my grandmother insisted on paying for, pressing it into my grimy, sweaty kid hands. I was enthralled by the hastily painted gold “My First Bible” lettering on the faux leather cover, the thin, unraveling ribbon-bookmark, and the plastic smell of the waxy pages, full of tiny, unknowable, archaic words but so easily ripped.
That summer, I dragged my mother to every church within a twenty-mile radius. I attended every Saturday and Sunday mass regardless of denomination, sometimes two a day. I wanted the coolest wood beneath my feet, the brightest stained-glass windows, the highest steeple, the hollowest stone echo to reverberate my restless bones. I wanted to feel infinite and tiny, awful and holy.
Molly McCully Brown parallels these feelings in her recent essay collection, Places I’ve Taken My Body, where she examines her life with cerebral palsy, a painful movement disorder developed at birth. McCully Brown was also captivated by religion and places of worship as a child, especially during a family trip to Spain where she climbed to the peaks of ancient cathedrals and threaded her body through tiny monastery doors.
The memory of her time in Spain leads her to a six-week artist’s residency in Bologna, Italy. Bologna is a beautiful, ancient place full of antique shops and historic churches, but it’s also home to uneven cobblestones, creaking staircases, and murky bars, many inaccessible to her wheelchair. Tired and hurting, McCully Brown writes from her Bologna apartment about the guilt of being unable to experience the city as someone able-bodied. In “In Smoke and Exhaustion,” she writes, “It is unforgivably selfish to have taken this opportunity away from someone who could make more expansive use of it . . . who could tell you, after weeks in this old and stunning city, about more than the hands of the people who smoke here: how they are beautiful, and moving, and then gone.”
McCully Brown highlights how travel is framed by an expectation of the able body, that a disabled person is viewed as selfish for wasting an opportunity if they are not able to climb a hundred decaying steps to see a sunrise or kneel down to pray at a church. Yet, she parallels this expectation by offering what she can of her time in the city: an observation of hands, the impermanence of smoke, present like the city and always in the process of going, moving on.
McCully Brown examines the complexities of anger and its role in her life. In childhood, anger fueled McCully Brown’s determination to recover from multiple surgeries, live with daily painful muscle spasms, and claim her independence to travel alone. But during the uncertain year between undergraduate and graduate school, McCully Brown’s anger became a forest fire, hot and unwieldy, constantly smoldering just underneath the surface. In “What We Are,” she writes, “Some fine thread of devotion has always run through everything I do. It’s tiny and shining and down there somewhere, even overgrown by rage.” Anger is a necessary tool for survival, but it needs to be patiently cared for—a wild, bright forsythia bush cut back each spring to make room for the flowers waiting to grow underneath.
McCully Brown complicates her ideas about survival, exploring memory and what it means to forget in order to survive. As a child she memorized poems, repeating them to herself at night, a disembodied voice swallowing her spasming and aching body until she existed in someone else’s words. As an adult, she imagines the childhood body and its memories, the body that climbed trees and chased her brother in the uneven, roaming fields. In “A Brief Litany of Forgetting,” she writes, “If the space forgetting engenders is an emptiness, a missing thing, a wound, then it is also the field burned on purpose, without panic, to make it fertile for another crop.” What our bodies forget, what that forgetting leaves behind, isn’t a void, but a clearing, ready to be used again, thankful for what came before.
Although I no longer worship a god, I feel a deep appreciation, a humbling, when I stand at the edge of my parent’s yard and look to the swampy woods where I spent most of my childhood, lush and full in the muggy New England summer. I recall the moment when McCully Brown helps her parents move out of her childhood home. She stands at the edge of the field, gazing out to where she knows her favorite climbing tree hides in tall grass, swaying and warm. She knows the tree is there, hidden in overgrowth and she wants to see it again, to return to the memory of it. This itself is a type of religion, a longing to remember a place we are unable to return to, hopeful that the memory, unburdened, is enough.
Mialise Carney is an MFA student at California State University, Fresno. She is a multimedia editor at The Normal School and a creative nonfiction editor at Nightingale and Sparrow. Her work appears in Atlas and Alice, Menacing Hedge, and is forthcoming in Your Impossible Voice. Follow her on Twitter @mialisec.
September 21, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Bruce Owens Grimm
For most of my life, I thought Tarot cards and Ouija boards were for communication with the dead. This is especially embarrassing as someone known for being interested in the supernatural. But lesson learned. What I know now is that both have the purpose of contact, connection. However, Tarot’s a reflection of our own energy back to us rather than an open hotline with ghosts. Understanding the purpose of Tarot is important when reading Cheryl Savageau’s insightful and magical memoir-in-essays, Out of the Crazywoods, as she often consults one of her sixteen decks and explains why early on in the book, “I’m trying to find my life in these cards.” She desires a connection to herself as she learns how to manage her “late in life” diagnosis of “classic bipolar” and how the diagnosis makes her “not ‘normal’, whatever the fuck that is.” It’s a conundrum that many people with mental illness deal with at many points post-diagnosis. Trying to reconcile her past and present self is the reasons she consults the cards. Her search for who she has become provides the current that propels her story.
Out of the Crazywoods contains one hundred and seventeen lyric essays, each no more than a few pages. Savageau, an Abenaki poet and artist, shows her diagnosis rippling through each part of her life in brief and stunning prose. There is struggle, as when she has difficulty keeping a job because she must run to the bathroom, a place she feels safe, due to her frequent panic attacks. There is joy as when she spends time with her grandchildren and cooking for her family. Everyday things shift around her as in the essay “Wet Ashes,” where a smell in her house confounds her because she cannot locate it, “this damn house is haunted with the smell of wet ashes.” Her husband doesn’t smell it. Savageau, who is in her mid-fifties at the time, tells her therapist about the scent and the therapist suggests it’s an olfactory hallucination, which is common for people with bipolar. However, once Savageau and her husband divorce, the stench of wet ashes disappears.
Water guides, reflects. As she says in “Bagw and Tekw,” the books second essay, “all life is water.” Savageau is our guide through her life, and, of course, this book. She states as such in this same essay where the first sentence, “we are studying language together.” This is true in multiple ways. She imparts lessons in Abenaki (“Tekw is moving. Bagw is stillness. River is tekw. Lake is bagw), in this essay as well as throughout the book. But she also provides a way to recontextualize the language around bipolar in terms of stillness and movement rather than up and down, which makes it easier for her to understand its effect on her. It’s encouraging to think of mental illness descriptors in terms of nature. Makes the ebb and flow of symptoms seem less mysterious. Yet, as she says later in the book, “It is so much easier to write about mania…because there’s always something happening…depression is the lying down of desire.” Savageau doesn’t romanticize mental illness but gives us a peek into how she processes it in poetic images. As a poet it’s simply how her brain works.
Like Tarot, a book is a form of communication. At many points while reading Savageau’s memoir, it felt like I was having an actual conversation with it. A dialogue. I wrote responses and told part of my story to her words. I don’t have bipolar, but I do have major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD. Recently, I turned forty-four and through a conversation with a friend, reflected on how many versions of myself I’ve had to let go, let die, so that I could live. It felt like Savageau understood.
Letting past selves go is not easy. In “Blackouts” Savageau “comes out” to an ex-girlfriend, “Guess who’s bi?” I enter it as a subject line on an email to an ex after my diagnosis. In the body of the note, I say, ‘polar that is.’” The two of them meet for lunch and Savageau’s unnamed ex-girlfriend says she is not surprised by the diagnosis, “she knew something was up when I tipped over the dining room table during an argument that time.” Savageau is shocked. She has no memory of this happening, “Blackouts, I’ve been having blackouts. For most of my life, probably. I am not the person I thought I was. And if that’s true, who am I?” When you’re diagnosed with a mental illness, often other people want assurances that you are the same as before. However, no one needs that reassurance more than the person diagnosed. As Savageau does here, you question everything about yourself. You have to start the process of finding yourself again or maybe truly for the first time.
Writing is the bridge between Savageau’s conception of herself before and after diagnosis, it “is one of those places where I am not crazy, the madness of poetry is not the debilitating madness of bipolar.” While she continues to write, she does disconnect from the Native writing community. She increasingly focuses on her Tarot cards – her solace in her isolation. A young writer she’s mentored reaches out, drives Savageau to the mountains, “the land works its magic. I put the Tarot cards away in their boxes. I accept an invitation to do a poetry reading. I slowly climb up from underground.” The climb is not easy. What’s important is beginning that journey. Ultimately, Out of the Crazywoods is a hopeful book. Prior versions of yourself may shatter, but you are not shattered. Out of the Crazywoods ends with an essay about the word Alnôbawôgan, “Becoming Human. It is a word of inclusion. It is the opposite of stigma.” Savageau takes us with her through the whirlpools and calmness so that we may see ourselves reflected, so that we know we are not alone no matter where the current takes us.
Based in Chicago, Bruce Owens Grimm’s haunted queer essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Ninth Letter, Entropy, AWP’s Writer’s Notebook, Iron Horse Literary Review, Older Queer Voices, Ghost City Review, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Fat & Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, which will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, an imprint of Hachette, in 2021. He has taught his Haunted Memoir: What Ghosts Reveal About Life workshop at StoryStudio Chicago and at Arizona State University’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars conference, which named him a 2020 Desert Nights, Rising Stars Fellow.
September 18, 2020 § 4 Comments
By M. Leona Godin
Haben Girma’s memoir, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law contains many gripping moments. For example, in the opening scene, her father is taken off the plane in Ethiopia, leaving seven-year-old Haben, with her limited vision and hearing, to puzzle out the mystery of his absence and how she will make it home to Oakland California by herself.
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law also contains many humorous nuggets about navigating our society’s rampant ableism that creeps even into the mind of her little cousin who demands Haben make him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, while insisting that blind people cannot make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: “You said a blind person can’t make a PB&J. So how can I make you a PB&J?” she asks him to which he responds: “But I saw you!”
“His personal observations contradict the ‘truth’ he learned from society that all blind people are incompetent,” writes Haben. “I want Yafet to reject ableism. If he says that a blind person can make a PB&J, then I’ll make him one.”
Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law strives to dismantle ableism in many ways, one of which is to confront the inspiration porn impulse head on. “Tell her she’s very inspiring,” says a man at a Harvard mentorship social. “I cringe inwardly,” writes Haben. “People with disabilities get called inspiring so often, usually for the most insignificant things, that the word now feels like a euphemism for pity.”
A tenacious and kind impulse to facilitate understanding being one of her most useful and charming traits, Haben does not let the “inspiring” bit get her down. Instead she thinks, “when a nondisabled person uses the word to describe a person with a disability, it’s a sign that they’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable.”
This man, whom Haben’s interpreter had brought over at Haben’s request, refused to use the ingenious system she’d come up with to communicate with fellow students in crowded situations where her hearing impairment makes it impossible for her to participate in casual conversation. It involves a wireless keyboard and a braille computer. As the person types, Haben reads the braille on the display and responds with her voice. She explains her system and asks the man if he’d like to try.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’m enjoying watching you two. This is my card. It was very inspiring meeting her. Tell her she’s beautiful. You ladies take care.”
He walks away, and Haben’s interpreter asks (via the keyboard he refused), what she thought of the encounter. Haben, like so many disabled people I know, uses humor to diffuse potentially soul-crushing encounters. She rests her chin on her hand and says, “That was…inspiring.”
I read the ebook version of Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law using my wireless braille display with my iPhone. Sort of. As someone who started life sighted, spent three decades visually-impaired and only recently became totally blind, I did not learn braille as a child, so I haven’t anything close to Haben’s skills. My go-to accessible technology is text-to-speech software. Often I go back and forth with an ebook—reading braille when I have two hands and listening to my electronic reader when I’m eating or washing dishes.
Perhaps it was because she entered the school system seventeen years after I did—in the post-ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) era, or perhaps because she was losing hearing as well as sight, Haben learned braille at an early age. This is sadly not the norm. Many visually-impaired children are forced into using large print for as long as their eyes hold out and are then encouraged to use speech synthesizers. Often this is because many teachers of the visually impaired do not know braille themselves. The upshot is that only about ten percent of blind people read braille.
Thus I loved reading about Haben’s undergrad experience at Lewis & Clark College, where she was the first braille reader to enter their disability services center, which didn’t “phase them one bit.” With a “pioneering spirit” they embraced the challenge: “They purchased a braille embosser, purchased braille translation software, and then spent the summer learning how to produce braille. They’re not afraid of the unknown; they learn, explore, and discover for the sake of their students and the betterment of themselves.”
Haben demonstrates how her successes are made possible by a system that supports accessibility. Likewise, many of her challenges are the same so many of us face. This is why, I think, she reminds us of the statistics behind her personal struggles: “Around seventy percent of blind people are unemployed.” Although she graduated high school as valedictorian and had an excellent college GPA, “The seventy percent unemployment rate still managed to claim me, leaving me jobless in Jobville, Alaska.”
These reflections come during a summer in Juneau, where she’d sent out application after application to temporary jobs that open up to accommodate the heavy tourist season, and received interview after interview, with no offers: “When you do everything right and society stomps on you, over and over, it creates a piercing, gut-twisting pain. It causes you to question the conventional wisdom that a person who works hard will always overcome obstacles.”
It’s not just Haben’s considerable successes that one remembers from this extraordinary memoir, but also her many invocations of the difficulties disabled people face all the time. Haben’s story shows how necessary and beautiful it is to strive. And continue striving.
Yes, Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law contains many exhilarating moments, like when she climbs up an iceberg dropped by the Mendenhall Glacier and then pushes herself down the ice slide into the unseen, unheard unknown, but it’s the quiet reminders of how success and confidence grow slowly and cumulatively, like the process of glacier formation itself, that make this book memorable.
Leona Godin is a writer, performer, and educator who is blind. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, PLAYBOY, O Magazine, and Catapult, among others. Godin was honored to be a 2019 Logan Nonfiction Fellow. She founded Aromatica Poetica, an online magazine exploring the arts and sciences of smell and taste as a venue welcoming to, but not specifically for, blind readers and writers. Her personal and cultural history of seeing and not-seeing is forthcoming from Pantheon Books.
September 14, 2020 § 1 Comment
By Elizabeth Fiala
Melissa Matthewson in this essay collection, Tracing the Desire Line, examines her mid-thirties as she longs for intimacy outside her fourteen-year marriage. Her husband, a hard-working farmer, finds it difficult to accept Matthewson’s sudden longing for others. Thus, this book centers around conflicts that arise from the husband’s mixed feelings about an open marriage and Matthewson’s conflicted feelings about being a dutiful wife and mother on a rural Oregon farm.
I have never been married nor do I have children or live in a rural setting; yet, I resonate with Matthewson’s feelings. As a single woman, I can date whoever I want, go where I want, and do what I want without permission. Yet, I found myself, like Matthewson, desiring to be more than just a wife, mother, and daughter. As a woman in my thirties, going back to college to earn a master’s degree, while many of my peers are creating families, I want to be identified outside of the stark confines and expectations of marriage and motherhood.
Through Matthewson’s collection, ranging from memoir and lyrical essays to confessional letters and prose poems, the reader is treated to a no-holds-barred exploration of desire, place, and autonomy. Tracing the Desire Line is organized linearly into parts (the before, during, and after of the open marriage), though there are plenty of experimental essays and prose that meander meditatively, exploring motherhood, sex, and nature. Perhaps most surprising is Matthewson’s role as a pirate radio DJ. Her writing about radio and seducing her first lover (with her husband’s reluctant blessing) via an on-air playlist could be a book itself.
Radio is all intimacy and wildness through the airwaves. It becomes a unique outlet for Matthewson’s desire. She writes, “How to explain the ways radio filled me: the nuance of desire, of waves and vibration, both sound and longing, the need to create a charge of want, to stretch heat and flush over the surge of radio.” Is there a Spotify playlist for that?
Pirate radio DJ, like so many of Matthewson’s selves explored here, pushes against her role of “farmer’s wife” and a woman with a husband. In “On Identity: The Farmer’s Wife, Etc.,” Matthewson ruminates on a visitor’s remark: “She called me the farmer’s wife, my identity defined by my husband. I thought, I am not just one story. I’m not just a farmer’s wife, though at times I guess that is what distinguishes me from the rest.” In many ways, Matthewson’s desire for intimacy outside of the marriage is entwined with a desire to know herself: “I’d always wrestled with the idea of self, searching for the peace of ‘This is who I am,’ though I knew I’d never find it.”
It is during a solo trip abroad, Matthewson realizes that in order to “be a free woman” and to truly know herself, “[she] must unlock from marriage.” Opening it becomes a manageable compromise—though not without guilt. Yet, this is not simply a desire of sex for sex’s sake, but a deeper need: a desire for autonomous identity. Thus, it makes these new lovers more layered and complicated.
The rural farm becomes a substantial character with the author’s achingly beautiful descriptions of the Oregon landscape and farm life. It’s the home grounds, as Matthewson calls it, that becomes a connecting point between the various players and their desires. She gravitates to the wildness of her land, writing, “These things are unruly—wasps, bees, dandelion, cotton, mustard, teasel. This weight of summer: the grasses overrun with seed. I haunt the apple trees. In a canoe, I drift.” This duality of nature that she explores, its quaint fields and summer wildfires, mirrors Matthewson’s own duality: her need for stability (a monogamous life with her husband) versus her ache for change (an Edna St. Vincent Millay appetite for more). I couldn’t help but associate this with the book’s cover of a forested path, starting in sunlight and leading around the bend into unknown, untraveled territory.
Matthewson’s writing pulses raw, full of wanting—at times almost harried and frenetic, like someone pacing, chain-smoking in the summer night air. It was hard for me to breathe while reading her words, and readers of Tracing the Desire Line may find themselves turning back and re-digesting morsels like this one:
All I wanted to do was dance to the heavy guitars or kiss a man I didn’t know, or at least, let one desire me, let one strip off my brown jacket in the woods behind the house, let the pine needles tangle in my hair, let the mushrooms stain my lace skirt even though it was cold, even though it was November, even though I was married, even though I’d get sick, I didn’t care, he would strip my brown jacket, maybe pull up my shirt to the cold and fulfill that untouched place most men want to go, but can’t, because there is no way a man can every fully know what a woman holds inside her; it’s so deep it burns even into the morning when the light has washed away all dreams, sins, impossibilities.
Like the wild territory that Matthewson calls home, desire shifts, changes, and morphs with new meaning. The prose’s balance between contemplation and tension keeps the reader alert and the pages turning—this is Tracing the Desire Line’s unique charm.
As I followed the author’s journey and the trepidations that threatened her marriage, I found myself wondering whether or not Matthewson’s marriage or her hard-sought identity would win out. Can she possibly have both, or are they doomed to incompatibility? Can a woman be more than the roles society allows?
As to the ending, you’ll have to discover that for yourself. However, if Tracing the Desire Line has taught me anything, it’s that change through destruction sometimes brings new and better growth…sometimes more sustaining. Matthewson’s path through desire, like a forest fire, blazed hot. Reading about her journey makes me feel a little less alone and a lot less foolish as I follow my own passions and truths. In Matthewson, I found a kindred spirit, and isn’t that what we all desire most?
Elizabeth Fiala is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When not busy battling against the squash beetles in her garden, she enjoys stress-knitting after midnight and falling asleep to true crime podcasts.
September 11, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Debra Gwartney
I’ve long subscribed to Phillip Lopate’s observation that a central aim of memoir is self-awareness. It’s been my aim when I write memoir, anyway. Questions that spur me on once I start shaping a narrative around my personal life go something like this: what remains unsolved in me about said thorny matter in my past? What is it that I have refused to face or acknowledge about how I acted way back when? Beating myself up over mistakes is not what I’m after—instead, I’m curious about that younger self in an earlier time. What she was up to, and why?
It strikes me, then, that some sort of exterior search—that is, a search for a missing person, or for a place infused with history, or for a particular item that rings in one’s memory—is a useful trope for this kind of self-excavation. I’m thinking, for instance, of Jane Bernstein’s stunner of a book, Bereft, in which she searches through physical and anecdotal evidence for the hidden truth about her sister’s murder. Or Michael Ondaatje’s probe through family legacy and lore in Running in the Family. Or Nina Boutsikaris’ bold investigation into her own chronic illness in I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry. The “I” on the page engages in a pursuit that frames the narrative, while the stuff of memoir (questions about identity, that is) rumbles beneath, gaining traction and depth with each page. The parallel threads—exterior search and interior— spark off each other, inform, and catalyze into dimensions of authenticity and relevancy.
D.J. Lee’s new memoir, Remote: Finding Home in the Bitterroots, is yet another example of the dual search, the outside and the inside. The book begins with news of a woman named Connie who is missing in the Bitterroot-Selway wilderness of Idaho (“If you want to disappear, you go to Idaho County,” the narrator’s mother cryptically announces in the early pages). Connie is irascible, insistent, flinty tough enough that she basically socks any peril straight in the nose. She is the wilderness ranger at Moose Creek Station, way, way into a remote Idaho landscape that is largely uninhabited by humans, one of the last bastions of true wilderness in our country.
Connie has been also, for years, an unlikely guide for Lee in her desire to spade through family history and fill in gaps that have chafed at her for years—an unlikely guide in that Connie cuts Lee no slack, and certainly does not slather her with sympathy; of course that’s exactly the no nonsense direction our narrator most needs as she forges ahead. Except now Connie cannot be located. Her absence, and the many valiant attempts to find this doyenne of the forest, weave through the book, as Lee grows more frightened for her friend and more determined to cast light on the gnarly, unburied truths about her own family. Many of these truths are related to her grandparents, who were early rangers at Moose Creek, a decades-long adventure that nourished her grandfather George but left her beloved grandmother, Esther, nearly eaten alive.
So, it’s actually a flurry of searches we find ourselves in with Remote, layer upon layer complicated by the book’s structure—not a conventional narrative with its string of chapters, but instead a series of vignettes that sizzle with subtle synapses, one to the other. Each individual piece dips into a process of discovery that Lee describes as “braided currents, their true power flowing from convergences.” It’s a form that might be called collage, though as I read the book it occurred to me that this is just how a curious mind would operate, poking around over here, and then over there, digging up this corner and then this other, until a larger picture forms, until the pieces fit together with a satisfying click. Or don’t fit together at all, because isn’t that how life is: ridiculously stubborn about dishing out easy answers.
The search for Connie serves as a frame, but it’s Lee’s search for self that quietly drives the narrative of Remote, as is true for every memoir. Well, every memoir I enjoy reading. She must visit this critical location, Moose Creek Ranger Station, of her grandparents’ legacy, and she must stay long enough and return frequently enough that the generational story can wend out of the past and into the present. Lee develops a renewed perspective on her family’s abiding connection with the Idaho wilderness, and on her years of tug-of-war with a spunky grandmother, and on her decades of tensions with her own gentle mother, and on her desire to fix family wrongs as a mother to her own daughter. These are the relationships that have tested her, shaped her over five-plus decades, and Lee realizes that she can hold tight to certain aspects of the history while finally letting go of that which has festered and ached for too long.
Which is also memoir’s turf: no matter what you devote to it, or how much you desperately want that elusive closure, there is rarely a tidy end to any search.
Debra Gwartney is the author of two book-length memoirs: Live Through This, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and I Am a Stranger Here Myself, winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize. Recent work appears in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Sweet. She teaches in the MFA program at Pacific University in Oregon.
September 4, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Vivian Wagner
Rebecca McClanahan’s In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays is an exploration of what it means to live in a place, and, in fact, what it means to live at all. It’s a haunting book, with many detailed glimpses into the everyday realities of apartment-dwelling, rent-paying, and meaning-making in a city that’s at once glorious and difficult. This book is a love letter to New York—a letter that, perhaps, both we and the city need now more than ever.
I read this book in the middle of the COVID 19 pandemic, and as I read, I couldn’t help but think of New York in the grips of the virus, reeling from grief, loss, and confusion. And yet, despite everything, it’s also a city discovering, as it always seems to, a spirit of shared humanity and community.
New York is somehow able to continually remake itself, and McClanahan’s essays document and celebrate this creativity and transformative power. Together, these essays narrate a period when she and her husband, Donald, move from their home in North Carolina to the city to try to make a new life for themselves. Her essays speak of loneliness and disconnection, even as they explore the small connections that the couple is gradually able to make with the people around them. If at first McClanahan feels like she doesn’t belong in the city, over time she comes to see that everyone there is connected, and everyone has a role to play, a story to tell, a song to sing.
The collection begins with an essay called “Signs and Wonders,” which focuses on the small, everyday signs that we seek out to make sense of our lives—and the casual miracles we might find if we look closely enough. It’s an essay about reading and interpretation, and about survival in a peculiar, bewildering place where cut flowers cost less than food. As Donald says, with an inimitable optimism and cheerfulness that we come to know well in this book: ”We’ll just have to eat flowers.”
It’s a kind of Mrs. Dalloway moment, and the party here is, we learn, the tumultuous years that this couple will spend in New York, getting to know the city and themselves, and ultimately being transformed in the process.
McClanahan’s book is haunted by 9/11, as a pivotal, traumatic moment that almost brings the city and its people to their knees. These essays, though, show how 9/11 is also a moment when residents pull together and create a future for themselves and each other, through acts of compassion and kindness both small and large. The essays almost all touch on 9/11 in some way, often tangentially, as if it’s an event that can’t be looked at head-on, a story that can only be told aslant.
The days leading up to the event are narrated in an essay called “‘And We Shall Be Changed’: September 7-11, 2001,” which focuses, among other things, on catching a stray squirrel that falls into the apartment and needs to be rescued. As McClanahan releases the squirrel into the park on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the only hint that something is amiss in the city is the wailing of sirens in the background. At the end of the essay, though, we see not smoke billowing from buildings, but a free-at-last squirrel darting up a tree:
Up, up, stopping at each branch to look down, as if he wants to tell me something. His tail quivers, his head bobs and then, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he’s gone. I watch until there’s no sign of him anywhere, just a shiver in the highest branch, beside a patch of blue, blue sky.
It’s a powerful moment of transformation and, not insignificantly, disappearance. Ultimately, this is an essay about falling into an unknown and sometimes terrifying future—a future that, nonetheless, inevitably changes us. In moments like this, our old selves, like a squirrel darting up a tree, fall away and disappear.
In this way, we shall be changed.
The essays in this collection garner much of their power from McClanahan’s strong sense of musicality and her skillful way with sound and phrase. We learn that she lives next door to a musician, and we hear in several essays about the music wafting through the walls and serving as a kind of unexpected, beautiful accompaniment to their daily lives. McClanahan’s writing is infused with her sense of music, and the “key of New York City” becomes shorthand for the rhythm and notes that make up a life.
While reading this book, I found myself becoming hopeful that New York—and perhaps all of us—can and will survive whatever traumas come our way. Nothing will be easy. There will be cancer, affairs, dying baby birds, urine on the sidewalk. There will be tragedies both personal and universal. But we’ll survive by being there for each other, by listening to one another’s stories, and by cultivating kindness, even toward those who seem to be strangers on the far side of a seemingly-uncrossable divide.
As McClanahan says in an essay called “Hello Stranger,” “Maybe it takes a stranger to wake you up—to your city, your loved ones, your life.” These days, we’re all strangers in a strange place. Perhaps the best—and the only—thing we can do is greet one another, smile behind our masks, and look for whatever twinkle manages to find its way into the eyes.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising, and the recent chapbook, Spells of the Apocalypse.
August 6, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Sonya Huber
The evening I finished your essay collection, This Is One Way To Dance, I couldn’t go to sleep afterward. The structure of the book was buzzing in my head. Does this ever happen to you? (I love that one of your essays is about postcards and correspondence, so I thought I’d write to you.) Your essays span such a wide range of time, and yet you did the most brilliant thing: rather than smoothing them out to make them all “contemporary,” you added notes at the end of each to denote when the essay was written and then when you updated it. One of the opening essays, “Matrimonials,” about Indian weddings and language, movement and return, family and translation and diaspora among so many other topics, provides a kind of map and timeline for the essays that follow. And then each essay is ended with a year for when it was written, and sometimes a second for when it was revised. And then “The World is Full of Paper. Write to Me” has a postscript! I had never thought to do that before. You leave the essay as it is, a moment in time, and then enter a correspondence with the essay itself.
(And we, too, have been in a regular correspondence about the essay, emails and hellos on social media. And is it true that we’ve really only been in the same room a handful of hours in our lives? This is one of the ways that our small community of creative nonfiction writers was knit together, through the first few NonfictioNow conferences in Iowa decades ago now, in unassuming function rooms. I seem to remember talking with you before or after a panel about travel writing, where postcards had been put on the various chairs, in the same room where I sat down the aisle from gangly smiley Phillip Lopate and gawked at him as though he were a rock star. The moments of being that Virginia Woolf talked about, and how one of them was with you. And then maybe a decade later, a similar bubble. We talked for just a moment, stolen in time, about our shared experience—which I knew would come up in the book—of marrying a man with a dead brother. How that is such a thing, the presence of an absence, a man you both know intimately who is a version of your love played in another key, and yet a man you will never know.)
What is fascinating to me about your book is exactly that: how you handle the oddness of the experience of time itself, what it hides from us and what it reveals. The individual essays each present two timelines, one of your life moving forward and one of when you sat down to recall those moments. I think this is what created the mind-blowing yet subtle effect of this collection: the essays are ordered not by “when stuff happened” with the childhood stuff first. They are ordered based on when they were written, so that we are tracking your consciousness as it unfolds through time, as it loops backward and returns to previous themes and changes perspectives. The effect, for me, was of a kind of writing intimacy that one feels in reading letters or diaries: there’s a sense of being in the head of the writer as they have a conversation with what they are writing. It’s like turning over a needlepoint to view the back. But then—whereas a needlepoint’s reverse is often a mess of threads—what you do is you make the back of the essay beautiful. You tuck the ends in and connect them. That’s the image that I keep getting when I think about your book: a flower with many small petals in rings, like a zinnia or marigold or chrysanthemum (and I thought you’d like a colorful metaphor since this book zings with color, the color of saris and weddings and skylines at night and food and sepia memories). The loose ends of the essays all curve and dovetail toward a larger design, making something beautiful, and it wasn’t through forcing them to align. It was through exposing the pattern of their making.
The book is full of returns that nonetheless carry the reader forward, like the “Ring Theory” that is another essay. Even your “Acknowledgements” section at the back is a return, full with the people and places that come up in the essays and notes on process. And then the very last section, “Notes,” offers a series of tiny essays on process, so that the reader ends with the seed of each essay, its inspiration and additional moments and texts that prompted it into being.
What a brilliant and subtle design. I look forward to the time when we can be in a room together somewhere, on the other side of this terrible virus, so that I can hear you talk about process and writing and putting this together, adding yet another ring of petals around your beautiful book.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.