A Review of Melissa Matthewson’s Tracing the Desire Line

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.

Review of Sejal Shah’s This is One Way to Dance

August 6, 2020 § 6 Comments

By Sonya Huber

shah danceDear Sejal,

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 MemoirHer 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.

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