May 12, 2020 § 6 Comments
Part of Brevity’s “how I wrote the essay” series from authors in the Fury anthology.
Nonfiction writers are pack rats. Not in the “I-already-have-three-hundred-and-fifty-seven-ceramic-owl-figurines-but-I’m-going-to-go-ahead-and-get-this-one-too” kind of way (though when it comes to our books, that hoarding quality is real, and many of us have unwieldy stacks that overrun our shelves and are getting the better of our living spaces). Rather, nonfiction writers are mental pack rats. We have a certain way of being in the world—a hyper-attentiveness to what we see, hear, and experience—that compels us to collect many of the images, conversations, and stories we encounter and stack them on the shelves of our minds even if we don’t quite know what we plan to do with them. Sometimes they stay there for years, gathering dust, before we discover the shapes of their narratives and can finally bring them to the page.
This is exactly what happened with the story that became the basis for my essay, “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be” that found a home in the anthology, Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era. In January of 2008, only twenty-four hours after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake had decimated the Caribbean nation of Haiti, I met Henry. He was an international student from Port-au-Prince enrolled in my Business Writing course at Northeastern University in Boston. It was the first night of class, and when he introduced himself and told us where he was from, I felt the rise and swell of the sadness that had gripped my chest all day as I’d watched one catastrophic image after another fill my television screen. Suddenly those images felt very close. “Is your family okay?” I couldn’t help but ask. And when Henry answered that he hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone, my chest tightened even more. After class, I asked Henry to send me updates on his family’s status, and he did. His sister was missing. His other siblings and parents were digging through the rubble of her last known location round the clock hoping beyond hope to find her alive. After five painful days of searching, they found her body.
For weeks after Henry’s last message that told me this news, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, about his family. I couldn’t let go of the mental image of what the physical toll of digging for that long through bricks and dust and twisted metal and broken glass must have been on Henry’s family. I kept picturing their hands, and I kept trying to write about them. Nothing landed. I couldn’t figure out the meaning I was trying to unravel out of this account. I couldn’t find my way in. Eventually, I gave up. But not before tucking Henry and his family into the folds of my memory, hopeful that eventually I’d find a reason to tell his story.
And in 2018, only one day before the 10th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, that reason presented itself when, in a closed-door meeting with a group of lawmakers, Donald Trump wrote off immigrants of color, specifically from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, by reportedly referring to their nations of origin as “shithole countries.” His vile and racist comments marked a new low in a presidency that regularly showcased the deep flaws in Trump’s character. I felt the same outrage that reverberated around the world in the wake of his remarks, and I felt something else—a wave of grief for the people he dismissed so callously at a time when their remembered sorrow and shared loss were so raw. People like Henry. The President’s words and that wave of grief gave me the narrative in which to locate Henry’s story. I pulled it out of storage and the words I needed to do it justice finally came.
I’ve been thinking about how the evolution of this essay—specifically the idea of stories that wait for the right time to land—feels particularly resonant for our current moment. Like many others I know, I’m struggling to see past the fog of fear and uncertainty that hangs in the air. I’m caught up in the stories of Covid-19, in the accounts of so many lives indelibly changed by illness, by economic hardships, by inconceivable personal and collective losses. As a writer, I feel an instinctive pull to share these stories, a persistent responsibility to bring the faces on the other side of the staggering numbers into view, a deep longing to make sense of my own churning emotions in the midst of it all. And yet, though I keep trying to find them, the words won’t come.
Maybe this reminder of how much time passed between the events that defined Henry’s story and my ability to fully access it can help make the judgy stares of my blank screen and blinking cursor a little more bearable. Maybe it can tell me to afford myself a little grace. Let myself simply watch, listen and gather the stories of this time, trusting that somewhere on the road ahead is the glint of understanding I’ll need to spark them into being.
From “The Biggest Hole Is Where the President’s Empathy Should Be”
My evening plan to discuss the value of good writing in the workplace seemed so unimportant in the face of this personal crisis. I wanted to stop class there. Cancel it for the night, send everybody home, and let Henry go do what he had to do. But Henry was here in this classroom, his notebook open on his desk, ready to learn. Stoic. Poised. His demeanor spoke to a kind of resilience that I’d rarely encountered. One that says, Today, this is what I have to do. A resilience I needed to honor.
Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Creative Nonfiction, and other notable journals. She teaches writing at Northeastern University and Merrimack College in Massachusetts and Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She is completing a memoir about living with the ten-year secret of her father’s HIV disease before his death in 1995.