August 15, 2019 § 1 Comment
by Stefanie Norlin
On the same day I found out Donald Trump had been elected president, my husband and I also discovered we were pregnant with our daughter. I’d gone to the polls the day before and, already suspecting I might be pregnant, had run my fingers over my abdomen as I filled in the last selection on the ballot for Hillary Clinton.
For you, baby, I thought. I’m casting this vote to show you that you can be anything you want to be.
Less than twenty-four hours later, I’d lost that optimism, and in the months that followed, I grew distant from friends and family members who became increasingly strident in their support of the current president’s policies—policies so contrary to our shared value system as Christians that I still struggle to reconcile it all.
It’s a common enough story, one that writer Lyz Lenz knows well. Lenz opens her new book God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America in the middle of her own divorce: a personal break, she writes, that mirrored the national one. She’d voted for Hillary Clinton, while her husband had supported Donald Trump—it was the final fracture in a long series of differences.
Part reportage and part lyrical memoir, Lenz writes to understand the divide she experienced in her marriage and her faith life, as much as to interrogate why churches across America are shuttering closed. As a resident of the Midwest, Lenz sees the landscape as representative of American values and consequently, a bellwether of the larger nation’s feelings about politics and religion. Throughout the book, I sensed Lenz’s desire to understand how a familiar childhood faith had turned into one largely influenced by capitalism, regionalism, and politics—and more than that, to figure out how to reclaim a Christianity that now felt so foreign.
Nowhere is this estrangement clearer than in her chapter “The Pew and the Pulpit.” Lenz writes, “I’m hurt and angry at a Christian ethic that is so tangled in the politics of the Right that voting any other way means I am seen by my family and friends as going against the very will of God.” By working to understand this historical partnering of evangelicalism and conservative ideology, Lenz is gradually able to find solace while still bearing witness to her pain.
Each chapter of God Land is part of a gorgeous literary road trip through cornfields and manufacturing towns as Lenz seeks out people like modern-day circuit riding pastors, megachurch congregants, and a new generation of farmers to talk about the status of faith in Middle America. She often weaves personal commentary alongside these reported conversations, educating the reader about things like epigenetics and trauma, how survival instincts impact the rural mentality, and the embedded masculine nature of Christianity. Some of Lenz’s most lyrical and compelling writing occurs when describing this land or the people in it, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear these people are as much the guides of this story as Lenz is.
Together, they introduce us to a small pioneer church on Bluff Road to help us interrogate the commingling of colonization and the Church; a University of Iowa football stadium to show us how viewing God through a strictly male lens can be problematic; an Asian American reformed church in Bigelow, Minnesota, to reimagine what supporting immigrant communities looks like; and a dim churchyard on Holy Saturday to show us that it’s ok to embrace darkness from time to time.
“Faith in America is dying,” Lenz writes in her final chapter. “Populations are changing. Churches are closing. Small towns and schools consolidating…. The forces of faith, economics, politics, immigration, the internet, technology, racism, and homophobia can be so devastatingly felt. But it’s also wrong to say that this is the end. Maybe the answer is to just sit with death, to hold it in our hands, to examine it, watch it, and realize that it’s not death at all.”
Death doesn’t have to have the last word, at least not for Christians.
Stefanie Norlin is a Detroit-based writer, book lover, and French fry connoisseur. Her words have appeared in Christianity Today, Essay Daily, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her writing at stefanienorlin.com or find her on twitter at @stefanienorlin.
August 12, 2019 § 5 Comments
By Gabriela Denise Frank
I expect nothing less than magic from summer writing workshops.
These forays, which claim a week of precious PTO, land during our best weather in the Pacific Northwest when I might otherwise skip town with family and friends to relax by the shore.
“How was your vacation?” colleagues ask upon my return.
“It wasn’t a vacation. I was at a writers workshop,” I insist—and cringe when they say, “Well, that sounds fun!”
Fun is a breezy hike followed by beers and Smores around a crackling campfire. Fun trivializes the soul-searching and social dynamics that make summer workshops spiritually invigorating and emotionally exhausting. Yes, a workshop affords escape from my job and domestic duties—a brief window of inspiration and community building that tides me over for another year—but writing (and getting better at writing) is hard work. I like to point out that these workshops, a mainstay of my DIY MFA, never involve sleeping in.
“But you enjoy writing, right?” my colleagues counter.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun,” I harrumph.
Last week, I attended the Fishtrap Summer Workshop at Wallowa Lake, Oregon. The theme: Steering the Craft, an honor to Ursula K. Le Guin. Headliners included Luis Alberto Urrea, Jamie Ford, and Oregon State Poet Laureate (and Fishtrap co-founder) Kim Stafford. I came for a generative workshop with Sharma Shields, author of The Cassandra, who led our cohort into the realm of dark fiction.
We began our daily meetings with an “entry task”—forty minutes of writing on a prompt intended to open doors into worlds of magic realism. We came back together to share what we wrote, then had time to finish that piece or work on a longer project. The goal of the workshop was to come away with several new pieces that we could develop further at home.
Though I’m primarily an essayist, I’ve found that cross-genre learning between fiction and nonfiction fuels my abilities in both. In studying the elements of craft, I’ve developed a literary approach to my nonfiction, and my fiction has become better grounded in personal experience and physical detail. Labels aside, it is all writing to me.
It may be a sign of these unsure times, our country’s daily struggle to separate fact from fiction, but I was surprised how our cohort blurred the boundary between lived experience and imagination. Though we were supposed to be writing fiction, we responded to Sharma’s prompts with rebuttal letters, revenge fantasies, and revelations from life that we had been holding onto. While what we wrote was surreal, it was based on our lives.
This class, held in the living room of a burgundy cottage tucked into the edge of the forest, became a space for us to mythologize pain, suffering, longing, and hurt as nosy deer peeked at us through the window. In response to a prompt where Sharma encouraged us to find empathy for someone who had wronged us, my experience of childhood bullying by a kid named Tom tumbled out as a myth starring the Gorgon, Medusa, pursued on a bicycle by a mob of boys.
Fishtrap was my fifth summer workshop. I always hope to “find my tribe” at these gatherings, but it never works out that way. I find myself wishing I was one of those chatty, popular camp-goers who gets everyone’s autograph in my yearbook, but in the end, I tend to forge deep bonds with a handful of writers. My experience in adult education mirrors my college days: excited twilight conversations fueled by spirits, and intimacy made with a few lovely people, many of whom I remain in contact with.
The tenor of each workshop is different. Setting and place play into the experience (Fishtrap came with a high mountain lake and plenty of forest hikes), as does the diversity of the cohort. At Fishtrap, there were many writers of a certain age—mature writers looking to play with nature and magic, people for whom writing carries an element of advocation, cause, and urgency. Very Ursula Le Guin. As a generative workshop, the point of Fishtrap is not to market oneself or jockey for agents—it’s to create community and explore new realms in writing.
Each afternoon, as I surveyed the shore of nearby Wallowa Lake where families camped and picnicked, a stone’s throw from the verdant lawn of Wallowa Lake Lodge where two hundred writers gathered beneath a tent each night in search of transformation, I found myself wondering what brought me here. Why Fishtrap? Why Eastern Oregon? Why dark fiction? Couldn’t I write something cheerful or funny for once?
In rereading the stories I started, I found a common thread: each hearkens back to old hurts that, in life, could not be cured. Essays on these subjects would have fallen flat. Sharma’s workshop helped me channel these realities into myth—into writing that empathized with monsters and misanthropes as a means of helping the hero understand her own hand in her fate and recapture her power. Something quite magical. Like listening to grownups tell stories beneath a lamplit tent at twilight, the night birds singing and swooping overhead as the sun sets behind the purple misty mountains.
Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
Maybe it’s time to admit, mostly to myself, that a summer writers workshop is my kind of fun. Maybe finding one’s tribe means clicking with “only” two or three people out of two hundred who share my chosen peculiarities. Maybe hard work can be classified as enjoyable without diminishing the effort.
Hard work is not the same as a hard heart. The joy of the work is what celebrates it, I think. When people ask how my vacation was, I’ll try to remember that.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey. Her writing has appeared in True Story, Hunger Mountain, Bayou, Crab Creek Review, The Normal School, South 85 Journal, Gold Man Review and The Rumpus. In 2020, she will lead a generative summer workshop in Italy. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com
August 2, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Anita Gill
I had the fortune of hearing Krystal A. Sital read from her debut memoir Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad at HippoCamp 2018 in Lancaster, PA. She spoke of her home, the island nation of Trinidad. She spoke of her family, generations of Trinidadians of Indian origin. But then she sometimes didn’t speak. Instead her mother and grandmother did, as evidenced by Sital’s smooth switch into a patois accent.
Framed around her grandfather’s fall and subsequent decline in health, Sital memorializes the man who had doted on her. But Sital is perplexed by her grandmother and other relatives who have reservations about approving additional procedures to extend her grandfather’s life. “My grandfather. The uncontested patriarch of our family. Did I see the true glimpses of who he was and, like everyone else, choose to pretend it didn’t happen?” she writes. “I wrestle with two images of this man, wanting to know more, need to discover as much as I can to make sense of him, of us all, for allowing him to dominate our lives.”
Over a variety of meal preparations that her mother executes without a glance at a recipe, Sital uncovers the stories of the women in her family and the abuse they suffered under the hands of their patriarch. In giving her mother and grandmother the space to share their stories verbally, Sital provides the same freedom on the page. One of the first sections is for Arya, Sital’s mother, whose story starts as a young girl. In a later section, Sital narrates her grandmother, Rebecca’s story. The two women from different generations are unified in one desire: to have a life better than the one they were born into.
Sital’s narration reveals insights into her complicated role as storyteller, specifically in terms of portraying some of her family members as antagonists. “As I learn about the men in my life—my father, my grandfather—men I’ve been enamored with and admired, they take on dimensions I’ve never imagined,” she writes. “I can no longer see them as just my father and grandfather; they are Dharmendra and Shiva. Fathers, yes. But also husbands. Perpetrators.” Though the men have few redeeming qualities, she examines the bigger picture, in how the country molded the men this way, to pass down the same habits in every generation. This observation is not intended to exonerate her father and grandfather. Rather, it elucidates the societal structure that permits this behavior.
Sital’s story is her mother’s story, as it is her grandmother’s story. They’re inextricably linked, the joys and traumas of a family passed down. It’s only through providing the accounts of her mother and grandmother that Sital can introduce herself into the story as the young daughter born in Trinidad and made to adapt to the U.S. as an adolescent. Like a bricklayer, Sital sets up this foundation with precision and purpose, allowing readers to better grasp the nuanced complications within the family upon migration into the U.S.
Since studying memoir, I had come to believe the narrative had to follow the character “I” throughout. Most of our craft books on memoir center around the individual (in most cases, the writer) and how they experience their unique past. When I think deeper about this, I understand how American individualism influences the way we’ve been taught to write memoir. It was no wonder I struggled when I attempted to capture my Indian family on the page. In a culture where we champion the family over individualism, I hit a roadblock. How could I tell my story when it is intertwined in the larger narrative of my family?
Sital’s expertly executed memoir accomplishes this feat with finesse and poise. Her memoir is a guidebook for how to capture the complex dynamics within a family. Through her arduous work to better understand her ancestry—to appreciate their stories and share in their grief—she is able to finally know herself.
Anita Gill is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.
July 25, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Christine Byl
Don’t judge Far Flung: Improvisations on National Parks, Driving to Russia, Not Marrying a Ranger, the Language of Heartbreak, and Other Natural Disasters by its cover. Or by its playful subtitle, or its slim profile. A jaunty cover and jacket copy might imply Cassandra Kircher’s first collection of essays is breezy, travel-focused and quick to digest, but the opening essay unveils a darker and more nuanced book. Kircher’s essays spring from and interrogate her experience in wild places, first as a kid in a camping family, later as the first female patrol ranger in a remote district of Rocky Mountain National Park. Kircher’s book is no easy roam through feel-good girl-power woods narratives. She traverses complicated terrain: a wounded family, the limits of her own empowerment, and the complexities of human adventuring.
Thank God for that! If I see one more woman-in-nature book praised as “badass” or focused on “living the dream,” I may give up reading them altogether. As a trail designer, mountain traveler, and wildlands addict, I am in many ways the ideal audience for this genre. But I’m also a tough critic. I have a low tolerance for nature writing that falls flat, gets mired in cliché, or reads more enamored of self than world. And enough with the badass trope, which turns every triumph or effort into a gender performance instead of an experience. Why can’t we just be women, throwing ourselves into the world? Kircher shows us we can.
Yes, the book covers road trips, Park Service jobs, and weeks at remote cabins, but also gives us essays on the draw of the back-country garbage pile, or “National Parks deaths” (“fall from rock during night,” “disappeared in snowstorm”). I found the book’s most interesting journey the one into the depths of a family with a depressive, mercurial but loving father. The relationship between parent and child and of both to nature, recurs throughout the essays, sometimes the focus, other times a refractive lens. This subtle choice anchors the collection with a through-line both relevant and moving: “There is, I suspect now as I move along the trail, a way that nature can make you strong enough to survive a father like mine.”
Any successful book is built on good prose; Kircher’s is inventive and supple, not over-written. About waking up on a childhood camping trip she writes, “The next morning my body feels the lines on the air mattress, and I smell earth and canvas. The sun is gold and awake.” As an adult, she drives with her father across a frozen lake and thinks, “At that point my heart will acknowledge the weight that has been handed down to me. It’s a weight that could crack any surface, still pull me under.”
Kircher’s gaze is also outward; she invites other thinkers and doers into her essays, many of them notable women, from Agnes Vaille, the first female summitter of Longs Peak, to Joan Didion, writing on the Hoover Dam, as well as E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, and John Muir. A certain pragmatism runs through as well; she tells us the best ways to remove trash from a firepit or how to call in a fatality on the radio, her insider’s view showing us park as workplace, not just respite.
So many books about epic adventures fail to capture a place’s specificity. Plants and animals and weather become generic backdrop instead of its truest inhabitants. Kircher paints her set with the exactness of the high Rockies and the lake-pocked Midwest: “the darkening color of the gray-green Engelmann spruce”; and lightning—“it’s quick: a wide line of neon fire so close I can’t see it.” As a resident of the subarctic and an ardent fan of tundra plants, I underlined this passage: “It’s no rural legend that alpine flora grows in slow motion. Dwarf willows a few inches tall may be over a hundred years old. Lichens scraped away by a boot take three decades to grow back. The tundra is old fashioned and naked. Wiser than any rain forest. More delicate than fine china.” Hers is a deep, considered literacy.
We are all drawn to books whose details overlap our own experiences, and this one does for me. When Kircher arrives at a favorite backcountry spot, she “feel(s) as if I’m hooked back into a web where everything fits.” I know exactly what she means. But I also love books that resonate across vast differences. My father is not a brooding presence in my backstory. I don’t have adopted children. Sarcastic and antsy, I was never “park ranger material,” and stuck to the trail crew, mostly invisible. No matter. The essays that diverged from my immediate experience drew me in with equal pull, showcasing how a nuanced narrative invites universality.
Whatever your overlap of background is with hers, Kircher is an inviting guide. Absent ego, she is not interested in grand views or bragging rights, but in the ground, stable and shaky, where fathers, bears, and all the rest of us, make a stand.
Christine Byl is the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods, a finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in nonfiction. Her prose has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Sun, Crazyhorse, and other journals. She lives in Interior Alaska.
July 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Melissa Matthewson
If you think of life as a series of devotional moments and, also, of cognitive reasoning, or at least a thinking of one’s self in relationship to others and in relationship to our most vulnerable moments, especially fear, then it reasons that we might arrange a self in such a way that we might interrogate our insecurities, or at least, expose our vulnerabilities. That in this, we can find profound connection with each other. That’s the hope. Perhaps this is the function of art—and why we need it so urgently—that is, art reminds us of our own possible transformation through collective inquiry and beautiful expression.
For instance, I was stopped at a train crossing recently, commuting to work, morning near eight, and paused at the edge of the tracks, taking in the surrounding landscape as the train and the patterns of graffiti art tagged on the steel cars rumbled by. And in the significance of this small moment, I recognized the tessellations of change scratched into the train car, a representation of both beauty and the loss of beauty, which equates to me the purposes of literature: to show the dark and the light.
To think further on this, perhaps the reason I devour books, is to an encounter an inquisitive mind who challenges my notions of the world in unexpected ways. Further, the essay, when written well, makes me feel less alone and serves as an instrument for transformation. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.” This is all to say that this is what Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel’s essay collections does—takes a circumstance of our lives—fear—and transforms it into a book of timeless ideas from which we might or could transform.
The essays in Fear Icons, the inaugural prize winner of the 21st Century Essays series from Ohio State University Press, are invigorating in that they present to the reader a stylistic candy shop from which to sample: essays as letters to iconic figures in popular culture as well as explorations of motherhood, violence, culture, pain, politics, to name a few of the subjects. In essence, Schlegel’s style is spare, controlled, precise, sometimes proceeding with caution. What Schlegel does best is to reveal the dark underbelly of the human condition—asking hard questions about who we are, what we fear. The work is smart and precise in its word choice. At the outset, she asks, “Who are we to each other when we are afraid?” She engages with a historical line of authors – referring to the shadow texts at the back of the book. From Barthes to Maurice Sendak, from Terrance Hayes to Anne Carson, Schlegel situates her own thinking and inquiry within a tradition of thinkers and artists, lifting the narrative to new heights. She also experiments with hybrid forms and lyric narrative—braided essays, letters, fragments, dates and time, numbers, illustrations, white space. Each form speaks to the content that lie within the essay.
My favorite part of Kisha’s collection is when she reveals herself, as the “I,” the persona who shifts and changes as we encounter various stories within the book. She is a compelling character in her own right and she invited me into her stories such that I felt comfortable following her lead. I particularly favored the essays in which Schlegel reveals herself as parent and the ways that we fear for our children and also love them. In one essay early on in the collection, “Gun,” Schlegel opens, “I needed something to be beautiful again, so I took my son to The Nutcracker, to see the sugar plum children dance.” The imagery set forth here feels encompassing and visceral. As in all of Schlegel’s essays, there is an attention and devotion to language, to beautiful sentences, which as both a reader and writer, is what makes me fall in love. As she continues in “Gun,” Schlegel reveals the beauty of motherhood: “For a brief moment, I only felt the weight of his warm body. I feel his legs dangling against my legs, his knees over my knees. Our bodies moved together. He was a little planet in my orbit, and I was a planet in his.” This, juxtaposed to the thread in which Schlegel investigates the violence, death, and trauma of the Newtown school shooting. As she watches her son play, she writes, “I turned away so I couldn’t think of dead children while looking at my living child.” She describes her fear in this essay as she imagines a shooting in a movie theater and how she might respond, how she imagines surviving. She continues to investigate both her own life, her son’s, and the ways we fear, damage, and wound each other, both in specific ways and subtly. Schlegel seamlessly integrates an anecdote into the essay to reveal her own fears by telling the story of a little girl building blocks with her son in the library. She imagines the girl will do something to harm her and writes, “A part of you dies even though you live, the destruction moves all too easily from one person to another. I’m not comfortable thinking this way, but there it is: the idea that the wounded will wound.”
In an essay in which she explores the persona of Dolly Parton, Schlegel visits the Dollywood Amusement Park, and the replica of Parton’s home is the point from which Schlegel investigates notions of beauty, time, nostalgia, and preservation. Parton has changed her appearance in every way possible and in this transformation, Schlegel asks, “What’s it like to preserve yourself this way? What is it that makes us care?” She continues thinking about the persona of Dolly, how we both admire and turn away, with, “Dolly bubbles onward, floating somewhere between a down-home country song and that figment of timelessness called fame. She stays a comfort and so strange, ours and not ours, hers and not hers.” Schlegel then turns her attention to nostalgia, to the strangeness of being human. She thinks of herself as a girl, all the possibility held within, writes of herself, remembering, “I sit cross-legged in the clover, feeling all the strangeness of being alive only to die.” Schlegel doesn’t look away from the difficulty of living, of pressing on in her essays to investigate the dark realm of being, of time, and diminished selves, and “the magpies are already gathering in the corner of the year, waiting for what remains.” It’s an essay that builds through layers and accretions, exposing our terror, exposing our comfort, showing us what it’s like to live.
All in all, I think what is most admirable about Schlegel’s essays is her unafraid progression—she’s not fearful of trying to write the dark, the hard, the sad. She wants us to confront fear, and she does so with depth. I admire her smart, thinking mind and the way she crafts language in surprising ways to show us something we need in order to live—to transform, as Borges said, for the eternal.
Melissa Matthewson’s essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Guernica, American Literary Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives on a farm in the Applegate Valley and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Her first book of nonfiction, Tracing the Desire Line, is forthcoming from Split Lip Press (Sept 2019).
June 7, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Megan Sweeney
A hermit crab seeking more spacious quarters finds an empty shell, waits by the shell if it’s not the right size, and when other house-hunting crabs arrive at the scene, enters a queue of crabs arranged in descending order of size. As soon as the largest crab moves into the available shell, each remaining crab vacates its shell and climbs into the next-size-up, hoping for a good fit.
Like a hermit crab trying on shell after shell, I’ve spent the past few months reading a stack of creative nonfiction. Each time I inhabit the spaces an author creates—her ways of seeing, habits of mind, and orientation to self and others—I hope to experience a sense of home. Lately, though, I’ve begun to feel confined by familiar floor plans. I find myself longing to encounter an “I” who is neither barricaded nor all-engulfing, who leaves ample room for others, an “I” whose introspection includes looking outward, attending to difference both inside and outside of the self. When I enter spaces that house pain, I often want deeper engagement, more genuine dialogue with this resident intruder. I’m eager to spend time in capacious, aerated rooms where experience is distilled, where narratives forged in fire are carefully wrought amid cooler flames.
Lia Purpura’s All the Fierce Tethers is just this kind of place.* In Purpura’s ample spaces, I feel hermit-crab-home. There, it’s possible to mind, to stay with things and make oneself a hospitable place, to hold and be held long enough to see a slug iridesce or a hare exchange one coat for another; to appreciate small moments, the boundedness of lives, the E pluribus unum of an ant hive; to feel the full mess of syringe-assisted peace or the imported, rebuffed peace of boundary-crossing Baltimoreans, so earnest in its imposition. In Purpura’s dwellings, there’s time to still the parts of a day, to conjure a beloved’s presence by adopting her gestures; to explore being unspecialized by a tree or rearranged by all the seeing. It’s work to hold, Purpura writes, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work. Investment—not “money down” but the older form, “the act of dressing to encounter the holy.”
Home to shy and alert screech owls, Purpura’s shelters have state-of-the-art acoustics. They enable ways of listening a listener hardly understands, like listening in to the ground suffocating beneath us, attending to both the presence of ease and the presence of ruin, hearing what we cannot name (an elegy that mourns a thing it never knew), or noticing the mental conversions we perform to prevent grief from overrun[ning] the banks [we] make. Purpura’s abodes accommodate being agog, unguarded, and sincere. And they make space for reading at a range of scales: reading land as body, reading the letter the day wrote me, reading shadows as expressions distilled, and reading a place like a poem by attending to all its dimensions. Under Purpura’s roofs, metaphor is an ecosystem, a way of revealing unseen dependencies, and humans, creatures, and objects are rekinned. The ghosted, shuddery call of the loon isn’t a simple sound of crazy; it’s the grief of a desperate, mercury-poisoned, coal-poisoned bird that cannot care—for its young or about its fate. Listening in, we hear ourselves in the loon’s call.
Reading All the Fierce Tethers has rearranged me. Like species of hermit crabs that find long-term shelter in the company of another—the green-eyed hermit crab who lives with sea anemones on its back, or the Japanese hermit crab who inhabits living coral—I want to reside in the spaces that Purpura creates. I want to be altered, again and again, by her reminders of what it means to be in relation, to live fiercely tethered.
*All italics indicate language from Purpura’s text.
Megan Sweeney is Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her publications include an award-winning monograph, Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons (2010); an edited collection, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading (2012); numerous articles about reading, African American literature, and incarceration; and lyric essays published in Brevity, Entropy Magazine, and Bennington Review. Sweeney recently completed a creative nonfiction manuscript titled Mendings, and she is currently writing a book about prison garb.
May 23, 2019 § 6 Comments
by Vivian Wagner
One cool, April day, seven years almost to the day after my father’s suicide, I sat outside a coffee shop reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. As cherry blossom petals fell around me and onto the pages of the book, I came across this passage in one of its essays, “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness’”
It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always of everything.
The essay ends with the idea that maybe, by joining our wildernesses of sorrow, we can find something like joy:
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Not for the first time in reading The Book of Delights, I found myself crying. And then, as if on cue, a woman walked past with a cup of coffee. I smiled at her through my tears, and she smiled back. It was a brief moment of empathy and connection, of sorrow and joy.
It was a moment, in short, that could have come right out of Gay’s collection.
The Book of Delights is about how everyone lives on a knife edge between life and death, beauty and horror. The book spans the course of a year, from one birthday to the next, with Gay recounting in what he calls “essayettes” his everyday observations and experiences, joys and sorrows. Discussing everything from gardening to race relations, the book’s underlying premise is that connecting with others—particularly in a world rife with division—is central to living a full and happy life.
This practice of writing the essays for the volume is both meditative and interactive, and it leads him down crisscrossing paths shaped by his deep sense of empathy. These are essays about care and concern, and though on the surface they focus on the specific and idiosyncratic details of his daily life, they ultimately aim for a kind of universality, the hidden network of roots and mycelium that holds a culture’s forest together.
In one essay, “Found Things,” for instance, he describes seeing birds swooping through the Detroit airport and witnessing the way their presence brings people together. The idea delight expands through sharing is one of the central themes of the collection. He’s always looking for the small and seemingly insignificant connections we make with one another—a pat on the arm, a friendly glance, a song—that are evidence of shared humanity and, which might well be the same thing, shared mortality.
Race and class are two other central themes in the book. As a black man in the U.S., Gay understands viscerally the ways that people do not always connect and can, in fact, be cruel, dismissive, and violent toward one another. These essays look head-on at the tensions in American culture, even as they seek to find ways to open up fissures of communication, empathy, and understanding.
In one essay, “The Negreeting,” he talks about his desire for communication and acknowledgement between black people on the street—and the disappointment he feels when it’s not always forthcoming. In another, “The High-Five from Strangers, Etc.,” he looks at how what counts as pleasant or delightful is not always universal. As he says,
I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.
And in “Microgentrification: WE BUY GOLD,” he describes sitting in the sun by a café and being told by the owner of a neighboring pawn shop to move along. He doesn’t even need to mention racism in this essay; it’s there in full view.
Nonetheless, the essays in this book all wend toward ground where connections might be made, even if they’re brief, barely-there wisps of recognition. Throughout this collection, Gay remains hopeful that empathy will win.
In its search for connectedness, The Book of Delights is not at all sentimental or trite. Rather, it looks squarely at the rifts between us—rifts that take the form of everything from hatred to casual disassociation—and still dares us to find the tomato plants and songs, the cups of coffee and tears, that we share.
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.