Chauna Craig on James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus”

Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, Assay is working to fill its spring issue with work that focuses on social justice in nonfiction teaching, reading, writing, across all disciplines that claim nonfiction. All approaches to texts are welcome. Deadline: January 1st, but we are reading now. Please see our call here at Assay’s new Submittable Submission page.

We’re looking for work like this, which first ran in our “In the Classroom” series in 2015. We are proudly reposting it today.


Baltimore, 2015.  Los Angeles, 1992.  Detroit, 1967. Los Angeles (Watts neighborhood), 1965, etc. Race riots, urban revolts, rebellions, uprisings. Whatever the media calls the cycle of public eruptions of outrage over racial injustice in this country’s history, we live in a society where the history of racism continues to shape reactions and decisions, even seemingly small ones like whether to accept help when a car breaks down on the side of a road.

James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” was one of my favorite essays to teach in 1998, when it was reprinted in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology. Thoughtful, complex, vivid—it taught me. Seventeen years later the essay remains a model of nonfiction writing for how effectively it combines narrative and reflective meditation and demonstrates how personal experience is often weighted by larger cultural forces.


James Alan McPherson

McPherson’s narrative begins in the late fall of his first year as a professor in Iowa when a friend urges him to get out and explore the countryside, to take a chance and expand beyond his careful circle of home and work. He does so, and his spirits are reawakened: “I began to reconsider the essential importance of risk to the enterprise of life.”

The story really begins when the casual touring ends. His car’s engine smoking on the side of the road, McPherson begins to walk for help. A pair of white men in a pickup truck offer a ride.

When I first read this essay, I thought immediately of James Byrd, Jr., who encountered white men in a pickup in Texas and didn’t survive the meeting. He was tied to the truck by a rope and dragged three and a half miles, his head severed somewhere on that road. What makes McPherson’s essay especially powerful is that Byrd was murdered the year after it was first published. McPherson couldn’t have drawn on that story while writing, as I did when reading. But he drew on everything his life had taught him to the point those men stopped their truck, and we see his mind wavering between the risk of trust and the history of distrust.

He writes,

“The two of them seemed to be laborers, or at least farmers. The gun rack stretched across the rear window took my memories back to the terror of that long road I had traveled to this place. There was the truck, the gun rack, the white faces, the road. But they did not have the oily Southern accent. I accepted their offer, and the passenger moved over and allowed me to take his seat.”

Soon, however, the men volunteer proof of their trustworthiness. They insist that they “like the colored.” When they discover that there are no tow trucks at the service station, they devise a plan to tow the car themselves:

“There’s a rope on the back of this truck.  We can drive on back and tie that rope to the front bumper of your car. Then we’ll just tow her on in to Cedar. You can pay us what you were gonna pay the tow truck, plus we’ll do it for less money.”

Though we have no concrete reason to suspect the men of ill intentions, they are not kind either. They expect to be paid. They expect gratitude for the bargain. Through dialogue and careful characterization, readers are led to identify with McPherson’s growing wariness.  No proof of malice, but no proof of benign intentions either.

The best essays reflect the world, not as we want it to be, but as we experience it. We rarely get incontrovertible evidence to support our hopes or fears. We make the best decisions we can in the moment, while all of our human bias, fears, hopes, risks, denials and confusion compete for consideration. “Umbilicus” embodies the drama of individual risk and retreat in the context of history. As darkness falls and McPherson grows desperate, he agrees to the white men’s plan. They tie his car to their truck, and they start driving. Roads that seemed fairly smooth before now feel foreboding as McPherson tries to steer a dead car, unable to see much, relying on the white men’s skills and care, his only remaining sense of control his brake pedal. He reflects on how “…the old life lessons came back. There has never been a life-affirming umbilicus between black and white.” The rope is no longer in his mind a lifeline, but a danger; the men are no longer rescuers but “two drunk white men” putting his life at risk.

McPherson admits that he acts from this “reduced frame of reference.” I had no trust left in me. He hits the brakes, sending both vehicles into the ditch, even as the rope, the umbilicus, holds. Though at the end of the essay he walks away, we realize that no one ever really walks away from a dead car or a broke-down Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, etc. “Umbilicus” lingers in the reader’s mind, not only because the writing is sharp and vivid, but because it awakens our own (often secret) doubts about the rhetoric of race in this country.


10679674_10205306037194106_650969032157442128_oChauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Lime Hawk Review, and Superstition Review.  Her work has been honored as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Taking My Time: Randon Billings Noble on The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre and elsewhere.  She is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at PANK, and a reviewer for The A.V. Club.  You can read more of her work at

30 April

Today I read to page 32 in The Folded Clock and loved it so much I started writing a letter to a friend – a real letter, not an email or message or text – to tell her about it.  This friend and I used to live in the same city, but now we don’t, so we write letters to each other maybe once a month or so.

I like to write letters. I like addressing the envelope, picking out a stamp that fits the mood of the letter or of the season.  I like the physical act (sometimes inconvenience) of taking it to a mailbox to send it on its way.  I like it when words become an artifact – something with a presence that is held and read and perhaps not too easily discarded.

The Folded Clock is an artifact, a book with an abstract print on its cover that looks like something Vanessa Bell may have painted for the first edition of a Woolf novel.  There is no dust jacket to fuss with or fret over.  It feels good in the hands and to the eye.  It is not easily discarded.

I meant to read only a few pages but I read to page 32.  It was too late at night to start a book but I found myself unable – or unwilling – to stop. The Folded Clock is a diary with each entry beginning with the word “Today.”

Today I wondered What is the worth of a day?

Today, or rather tonight, my husband and I will be watching “The Men Tell All.”

Today I was stung by a wasp.

Today I spun tops with my son.

Today I started reading a book called How to Navigate Today.

The entries are dated but in no particular order.  Each one deepens into a nuanced meditation – an essay, even – on a subject that may only tangentially relate to the opening line.  Thinking about “The Men Tell All” (the penultimate episode of The Bachelorette) turns into a consideration of fiction vs. reality, crushes vs. marriage, how Neanderthals managed to procreate, and why it shouldn’t be surprising that we experience real feelings as a result of fiction.

Each entry makes me think about my own life in similar terms – whatever terms Julavits sets out: writing, watching, stinging, spinning, reading, feeling.

11 May

Today I went to the National Portrait Gallery and thought about the passage of time.  I was looking at an exhibit of the works of Elaine de Kooning and reading the notes on the wall about early work, late work, how the work was influenced by marriage, birth, death … It made me wonder about my own work, my own life.  What will my best work be?  What will be considered a stumble, a mistake?  What will my main influences be, for better or worse?

Much of the above passage I took straight from my diary.

I wonder how much Julavits took straight from her diary and how much she added and how she thinks and feels about her work and life and being in the middle of things.

3 May

Today I ate Thai food with a bunch of poets in Fairfax, Virginia.  I had never been to Fairfax, Virginia but have always loved the name.  It reminds me of Miss Jane Fairfax from an Austen novel, a character I don’t much remember, and never seemed to be clear about even when I did remember.  Was she “good” or “bad” (according the heroine in question)?  You can’t tell from the name (like wicked Wickham or will-less Willoughby) – the X at the end makes her feel somehow suspect.  I could look it up – a Google search is only a few keystrokes away – but, like Julavits, sometimes I prefer wondering to a hard answer.

I like hanging out with poets.  They do a lot of wondering too.

10 May

Today I received an email from the library telling me that The Folded Clock was overdue but I decided not to return it.  I don’t want to rush these readings.  I tend to read them at night when everyone else is asleep and I’m alone and almost giddy at having the quiet and solitude to enjoy a book in a circle of lamplight that feels like a spell protecting my quiet and solitude.  These moments feel illicit (even though they’re not) and I am reminded of Anna Karenina coming home from seeing Vronsky and lying awake in bed, her eyes shining in the dark, thinking only “It’s late, it’s late” with a kind of inarticulate joy.  But I am so happy to be alone with a mind I admire without being interrupted by other minds I admire, especially the two four-year-old minds I live with, that it almost feels like an affair – something valued but kept at the margins, something unknown to the sanctioned people in my life, something they might not fully understand.

17 May

Today I made a list of ways I might start more diary entries with “Today.”  Some of them I have already used, some of them I have not.

Today I stopped watching Sons of Anarchy after a particularly vicious prison rape.

Today I went to “Muffins with Mommy” at the twins’ preschool and had my hands painted green.

Today I watched a series of World War II planes fly over the Potomac.

Today I tried to clean out a closet but didn’t.

There’s something compelling about starting each entry with the same word.  It acts as an organizing principle when diaries – and lives – usually don’t have one.

24 May

Today I finished this piece even though I still haven’t finished The Folded Clock.  I feel a little guilty about this, but the series is called “Writers to Read” not “Writers I’ve Read.”  And I’m still reading – I returned the library’s copy but immediately bought my own.  I didn’t want too long a pause in our conversation, Julavits’s and mine.  I want to keep turning the pages, seeing how our lives and thoughts unfold against each other’s.  I don’t want to hurry this relationship to its inevitable 290-page end.  I want to slow the clock and savor the time.  I want there to be more todays.

The Setting and the Story: Joan Didion’s “The Santa Ana”

VivianWagnerVivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, McSweeney’s, The Pinch, Silk Road Review, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.

Every time I read Joan Didion’s description of the hot, dry Santa Ana winds I get homesick. I’m a native Californian, but I’ve lived for many years in a village in southeastern Ohio, and we just don’t get winds like that around here.

Didion’s Los Angeles is, for many of my students, a foreign world. Yet I’ve found that her essay, “The Santa Ana,” inspires them as they describe their own Midwestern and Appalachian worlds. It’s an essay, in short, about the importance of setting, and about how the place where a story happens cannot be separated from the story itself.

“The Santa Ana,” which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967 and later was published as part of “Los Angeles Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, describes a culture of crime and freeways, forest fires and wind. It’s a landscape inextricably tied to emotion, perspective, and experience:

“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, blowing up sandstorms out along route 66, drying the hills and nerves to the flash point.”

This low-grade anxiety serves as the beginning of Didion’s essay, and that anxiety underlies everything that is to come. It’s the setting of her story, and it’s also the story itself. She draws on history, folklore, and science to describe the Santa Ana, comparing them to the foehn winds of Austria and Switzerland, the hamsin of Israel, and other “persistent, malevolent winds.” During such winds, she argues, crime increases, depression deepens, and everything that’s bad in Los Angeles gets worse. It might or might not be the result of the wind whipping up positive ions – “what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy,” she says – but whatever the legitimacy of the science behind this claim, Didion uses the wind to get at what she sees as the heart of Los Angeles’s culture. She describes the crime waves and traffic jams, the suicides and murders, that accompany the Santa Ana, referring both to news reports and to small moments in her own life: “I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.”

Ultimately, Didion builds to a metaphorical crescendo:

“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

I remember when I first read Didion’s description of the Santa Ana winds. I was in college, and it struck me at once as an exaggeration of the emotional effects of fairly common winds and a brilliant description and analysis of a place and its people. After reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I never looked at Los Angeles the same way again. It’s not a complete portrait of the city, by any means. It’s filtered through Didion’s late 1960s perspective and her interpretation of the city’s moral and cultural character. But it’s a deep and resounding portrait, one that tells a story of a place through the physical experience of its landscape.

I like to use this essay as a starting point, part of a prompt for students to write about weather events that they’ve experienced – snow and hailstorms, lightning, hot muggy days, and the occasional derecho. It gets them thinking about the importance of setting beyond just “It was a sunny day” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” Didion makes us see setting not as peripheral but as central, almost like a character itself. And I think this is the most valuable thing about Didion’s essay: it emphasizes the primacy of place, setting, and landscape. Every story, after all, happens somewhere, and Didion makes us think about the importance of where.

Fragments, Moments, and Stories: On Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

blue flowerVivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, McSweeney’s, Silk Road Review, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.


  1. I started reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets this spring on my way to AWP in Minneapolis for the weekend. Feeling restless on the airplane, I downloaded it onto my iPad and began reading. I read and read, all the way to Minneapolis. I glanced up now and then to see the sunset over the prairie of clouds, to see the plane descending through grayness into the city, to see the inexorable approach of the runway. After each glance up, I’d fall back into the book.
  1. Early this morning, I saw the first of my Alaskan wildflowers blooming in my Ohio garden: a blue flax. It had a small yellow center and fine purple lines radiating outward. Delicate and strong, it fluttered in the cool breeze.
  1. I’m easily distracted, as a reader, as a writer, as a person. Bluets speaks to me partly because it lets me read in bits and pieces. To read and then look out the window. To think and then read again. To let my mind wander and then focus.
  1. In second grade, my teacher wrote a note to my parents on my report card: “Vivian tends to daydream.” That word — “daydream” — caught my imagination. I’d never heard it before. I asked my mom what it meant, and she said it meant I didn’t pay enough attention. I realized then that the teacher was right. I thought of all the time during class that I gazed out the window, listening to the desert wind blow sand against the glass. I paid attention, but not always to what the teacher wanted me to. I daydreamed.
  1. My writing has been influenced irreversibly by Bluets. The book has freed me from thinking that narratives must be linear and chronological. I knew this prior to reading Bluets, I suppose, but this book helped me to feel it, to understand it. And, perhaps most importantly, to practice it.
  1. Bluets’ numbered sections work well on an iPad. I’m not particularly proud of the fact that I first read this book in its digital version, but this book grew out of the digital age, with all of its demands and tabs and windows.
  1. I’ve been making recycled paper lately with old bills and junk mail. It’s calming and engrossing. I love how the slurry dries and reveals a few single letters here and there – random a’s and d’s and z’s. Sometimes I mix violets, clovers, and grass in with the paper. A few days ago I accidently mixed in a small flying insect with a handful of leaves. I found it in the paper, its delicate wings outstretched, flattened. I felt bad. I wished I had looked more carefully at what I had gathered, what I had thrown in.
  1. After I make the paper, I stitch it into small journals and chapbooks. I have many of them now, waiting for words.
  1. I’m going to Alaska this summer to spend time with my boyfriend. He’s a pilot, an engineer, a photographer, an explorer. I love his dark, kind eyes. The way he’s always up for an adventure. The way he’s always in the moment. The way, when I’m writing, he sits by me quietly – reading, gazing out at the water, puzzling over his own projects, thinking his own thoughts. I love being with him.
  1. Bluets doesn’t have a story, exactly. At least, it’s not a story in the traditional sense of that term. It’s composed of 240 fragments, facts, details, observations, and story-bits. Together, they add up to what might be considered a narrative about a lost relationship, about the regaining of a sense of self, about depression, about hope. Now that I’ve finished the book, I like to dip back in and read a passage here and there. Maybe the one about bower birds. Or about Derrida. Or about Cézanne. Or about cyanometers. Or about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Each one stands alone, and yet each one belongs with the others.
  1. The blue flax flower in my garden still blooms now, in the early afternoon. The sun’s reached its petals, slightly brightening their shade of blue. In a few days, this particular flower will stop blooming and go to seed, but I see another bud near it, slowly unfurling, waiting for just the right moment to open up.

Lynn Kilpatrick on JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

Lynn KilpatrickLynn Kilpatrick’s essay “(we interrupt this life for what some people might call ‘vacation’)” is forthcoming in The Ocean State Review. Her essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and Ninth Letter. Her collection of stories, In the House, was published by FC2. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College.

I wish I could remember the first time I read JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” It might actually have been when it was originally published, June 24, 1996 in The New Yorker. What I do remember is being immediately taken with the voice of the piece, which is at once knowing, aware of the writer’s perspective of hindsight, and unknowing, returning, as much as possible, to the innocence of the time before the event.

The part that grabs me first is on that first page:

The Milky Way is a long smear on the sky, like something erased on a
blackboard. Over the neighbor’s house, Mars flashes white, then red, then
white again. Jupiter is hidden among the anonymous blinks and glitterings.
It has a moon with sulfur-spewing volcanoes and a beautiful name: Io. I learned it at work, from the group of men who surround me there. Space physicists, guys who spend days on end with their heads poked through the fabric of the sky, listening to the sounds of the universe. Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.

What I love here is how, unbeknownst to the first-time reader, she gathers the pieces of her essay together. The essay begins with her dog, then she introduces the squirrels, slyly, and then the big piece, which at first seems like just a bit of description, just some window dressing: the night sky, the men she works with; then suddenly, the hint, their lives “ticking” away, how blissfully unaware they all are, just then.

I teach this essay to my students, both in creative writing and in literature, so that they might understand how meaning is made, and, perhaps more importantly, how writers and readers arrive at meaning.

Did Beard, nearing the end of her essay, intend to return to the squirrels, writing “Silence. No matter how much you miss them. They never come back once they’re gone”? As a writer, I’d say no. She didn’t set out to write that, but when she got to that point in the essay, that’s where she was, it’s what happened. She followed the threads of her essay, the clues she so clearly laid out in the beginning, and they led her to this conclusion.

For my creative writing students I also want to stress the craft of construction. No, she didn’t plan on writing that line, but then she did. So then what?

The most important details I want my students to notice are in the careful stitching together of the three narrative strands of this essay: her dying dog, her ruined marriage, and the death of her co-workers. Workplace shootings are so commonplace now that readers might fear the essay will veer uncontrollably into melodrama or sentimentality. Combine the shooting with the death of a dog and divorce, and the essay seems almost destined to be overwhelmed by the elements of all three events. How does the essay avoid this, I ask my students. How do we prevent our essays from being overwhelmed by sentimentality?

The answer, Beard shows us, is balance. The workplace shooting takes place in the context of her life with her dog and husband. The story of her dog and husband take place in the context of the shooting. All three events are important. The craft of this essay emerges in the balance of these events.

But how do we take these different events, my students ask, and make one essay? We look at Beard’s essay for a model. We notice how threads from one story, the blackboard at work, for example, show up in other stories (the simile “like something erased from a blackboard”). How it all comes together in the end, her friends gathered at her house, her dog, the inevitable knock at the door that will bring the husband, the return to the dark night sky of the opening scene.

Whether I’m teaching this essay in an Introduction to Creative Writing course, or a Non-Fiction Writing course, or Introduction to Literature, my students and I always come back to language. Why this word instead of another? Why this image to conclude? How does she get the word “plasma” to resonate across the entire essay?

As Beard’s essay closes, the essay demonstrates to us how to construct just such an essay, how to establish the essay as “a place of stillness where the particles of dust stop spinning.” In the case of this essay, the distinct parts come into equilibrium, where each can be understood in relation to the other, where the whole achieves more than the sum of its parts.

Where’s My Chum? Looking for Friendship Lit


Mardi Jo Link ( is the author of the memoir, The Drummond Girls: A Story of Fierce Friendship Beyond Time and Chance, forthcoming in July from Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing. Her first memoir, Bootstrapper (Knopf) was named winner of the Bookseller’s Choice Award, the Housatonic Book Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the Michigan Notable Book Award.  She lives in northern Michigan.

“Every great book ever published is about relationships.”

A grad school professor said that to me once, and her words came back to my ears in full audio last year when I was finalizing revisions on my own book. I’d spent a year working on a memoir about my seven best girlfriends, and for comps I’d started seeking out non-fiction about friendship.

Library shelves and bookstore tables soon proved the accuracy of my former professor’s words. In my field trips I found lots of new books about parent-child relationships (perhaps because it was almost Mother’s Day), about marital relationships and love, about work relationships, and even about our relationships with our pets. Dogs mostly, but cats have their fair share, too.

Books about human friendships were surprisingly few. And often the best ones were being described as not about friendship at all but about something else entirely. Continue reading

Ted Anton on Truman Capote’s “A Day’s Work”

Ted AntonTed Anton is professor of English at DePaul University in Chicago.  He is the author of three books and is working on a fourth, for University of Chicago Press, The Rise of the Microbes, due in 2016.

“A Day’s Work” by Truman Capote (1981) was collected in Capote’s last good anthology of magazine work, Answered Prayers.  It describes a day in April 1979 in which he accompanies his maid, Mary Sanchez, as she cleans three vacant apartments in Manhattan and the Bronx.  Written like a screenplay, the essay seeks complete “transparency” or absence of style, Capote writes in the introduction, offering a clinical take on a funny and haunting odyssey through the lonely city souls of the sexual revolution.   As a day-in-the-life with a working class protagonist, the essay echoes George Orwell or Martha Gellhorn, and its deceptively simple method seems within the reach of students themselves.

Capote and Sanchez quarrel, qvetch, and share their losses, including Capote’s mother’s suicide, his relation with Willa Cather after they met in the New York Public Library, and the sexual bragging of designer Oleg Cassini and the young Senator John F. Kennedy.  Sanchez talks about her children, the death of her estranged husband, Pedro, on a Central Park bench, and the Catholic faith.  The drama builds as they share her potent Peruvian marijuana “to lift the heavies.”

Sanchez’s clients include an alcoholic ex-airline pilot, a promiscuous woman editor and poet, and the “stuffy” Berkowitzes of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, owners of a foul parrot that instigates the climax.  We peek into medicine cabinets and trash cans, read poems and field calls from ex-lovers.  Gawking at the private lives, the content is as unethical as it is touching and funny.

The style seems simple but features several disorienting, expressionist tropes.  The religiously faithful, older Mary Sanchez is the instigator of the drug use.   A deadpan, film noir, police reporter is peeking into the intimate lives of strangers, then soaring in poetic lyricism heightened by the pot.   Behind the cynic is a longing romantic.   Familiar streets become foreign when seen from the African American maid’s view.  The higher they get the closer the two become, until Capote and his “cherub” Sanchez are dancing a wicked salsa in the Berkowitzes’ overstuffed apartment.  Sanchez is “elegant yet smoothly abandoned” as the music builds and the furniture and an obnoxious parrot swerve and loom like German Expressionist elements in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

The kicker is the essay’s coda.  After the Berkowitzes find Sanchez and Capote gorging on their food, Sanchez is fired and they are thrown out into a rainy, chilly street.  Sanchez will take the subway to her isolated, dangerous South Bronx apartment because she refuses to patronize racist taxi drivers.  But right before they part, she pulls Capote into a vacant church.  She kneels and prays for her clients, her children, lost husband, and Capote: “Pray for your mother,” she admonishes him, “for all those lost souls out there in the dark.”

That turn takes us from the modern world of doubt to an ancient level of faith, effective because it is so unexpected.   Students who have been responding to the humor, the illicit details, and the close relationship of a declining gay man and an aging woman of color, suddenly glimpse the essay is about something else entirely.  As a short go-to reading in the first week of class, the essay exemplifies the unique surprise of nonfiction.  The writer is not showboating, as were so many literary journalists of 1970s.  “A Day’s Work” is the report of a child abandoned by his mother, with only the neighborhood maids as his friends.

I graduated from Columbia University in 1979 and might have passed Sanchez and Capote on my way to my uncle’s Bronx flower store.   She resembles closely the Mississippi-born, Chicago woman who helped raise my two children.  “Don’t pray for me,” Mary Sanchez tells Capote.  “I’m already saved.”

Eduardo Galeano’s Genre-Defying Work

Eduardo Galeano died last week, on April 13, at age 74. He was a friend and mentor, whom I’d see whenever I visited his native Uruguay, and from whom I’ve learned so much. I’m still very sad that he’s gone. I want to take this opportunity to share some of his work with fellow writers, because I suspect that many people have not heard of him or read his work, or that some people know him only peripherally, as a socialist polemicist, author of 1971’s The Open Veins of Latin America. But he wrote so much more and better work, stuff that challenged my philosophical and aesthetic assumptions in life-changing ways. In my opinion, Eduardo Galeano is one of the greatest writers ever to grace this planet.

Galeano and Madden

Eduardo Galeano and blog post author Patrick Madden

I first became aware of Galeano though The Book of Embraces, a gift from my Uruguayan in-laws. This was during my graduate studies, when I was steeped in classical essays and was writing long, convoluted pieces. Because the book offered such a stark contrast to what I was reading and writing, I fell in love with Galeano’s efficiency and poetic depth. In the ensuing years, I read every Galeano book I could find and then some (over several years, I would check La Jornada, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México’s online newspaper, every week to find a new Galeano vignette). I found in his writing celebrations and arguments by a keen observer who translated his every vital encounter into quick-striking images (speaking of images: he was a collagist, too, who illustrated some of his books with curious grotesques alongside his texts). I saw that he was concerned with others far more than with himself; that he was a researcher and a listener; that he loved the world, and therefore was not afraid to call out its injustices and hypocrisies. Although Galeano resisted labels and genres, I have always felt that he was in spirit a kind of essayist, apprehending and processing the world’s offerings and creating art.

I have taught Galeano’s books for over a decade, and I often recommend them and give them as gifts. I have never encountered anyone who was not changed for the better by them. So here I will simply get out of the way and share two quick links: one to a selection from The Book of Embraces published in Grand Street magazine, the other to a video of the reading Galeano gave at Brigham Young University in 2006. I hope that you will love them and they will inspire you (and that you will read Galeano’s many books, beginning with my favorite, that first book I ever read of his, The Book of Embraces) .

Thank you to Patrick Madden for this tribute.

Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss

Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, hansen_photoThe Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere, and have earned an AWP Intro Journals Project Award and a notable mention in Best American Essays.  He teaches creative writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.  You can find him at and @silas_hansen.

I teach most—if not all—of the essays in Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss in virtually every class I teach.  I use “Time and Distance Overcome” to talk about segmented essays and utilizing white space, “Relations” to talk about how to successfully blend research and personal experience, and “Goodbye to All That” (alongside Joan Didion’s original) to talk about how essays (and essayists) can speak to and complicate each other. But my favorite essay from the collection to teach?  “No-Man’s Land,” originally published in The Believer.  Why do I love teaching this essay?  Oh, let me count the ways.  But I’m going to focus on just two of them. 1) Her use of research—specifically about pioneers in the American west. The essay, which also lends itself to the title of the collection, is Biss’s attempt to make sense of gentrification and our collective fear of those who are unlike us.  In addition to her own experiences with gentrification, Biss explores the concept in a more academic way—using research about violent crimes, fear, and race—but she begins with Little House on the Prairie. Yes, that’s right.  In an essay about gentrification, we begin with pioneers.  She writes of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood on the frontier, and of her own fascination with the book series as a child.  Then, about halfway through the essay, she tells us about her own neighborhood in Chicago—Roger’s Park, which Biss tells us is one of only twelve neighborhoods in the city with no clear racial majority.  This is where we get to the crux of the essay: that gentrifiers are the modern-day pioneers.  Biss tells us about her white neighbors, who refer to themselves as “pioneers” in the neighborhood.  Then she writes: Continue reading

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams


Karen Craigo

When you love nonfiction, sometimes the perfect book just finds you, exactly when you need it most.

That was precisely the case with Halitosis: Bad Breath Causes and Natural Treatment Solutions by Alyson Rodgers.

Just kidding—it’s April 1, after all. But the book that really brought me face to face with my own troublesome life force is Leslie Jamison’s much-talked-about The Empathy Exams (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014). I’d heard a lot of buzz about the title before I finally got around to checking it out for myself.

I have been thinking a lot about empathy. I recently lost my job—I was a full-time non-tenure track English instructor whose three-year contract was non-renewed—and I’m not proud to admit that I’ve been ping-ponging from deep shame to blessed relief to the most delicious schadenfreude. (My disappearing job is with a rather unremarkable and rather expensive liberal arts college that is dying a slow death from its inability to justify its own steep price tag. Still, it was home.)

The thing is that my colleagues at this university are pretty amazing. They’re brilliant scholars and energetic teachers and amazing supporters—and where a granite wall of schadenfreude is erected, empathy has a hard time finding a crack to spill through.

In The Empathy Exams, Jamison takes on the subject of empathy very directly, with essays that explore the lives of Bolivian coal miners, gangbangers-turned-tour guides, extreme racers, and even herself, viewed through the clinical lens of the professional patient.

The eponymous first essay in the collection is my favorite of the bunch. Jamison offers the unusual perspective of a medical actor—a person hired to present scripted complaints and personal details to medical students so that they can be tested on their diagnostic acumen and, more importantly to Jamison’s narrative, their demonstration of empathy.

It is not enough for the students to give a kind look or a warm smile; to get credit for empathy, the students must say something that demonstrates it. One of the questions on the medical actor’s evaluation sheet specifically asks about “voiced empathy.”

Jamison includes an example of part of her dossier/script, and she also invents one for herself by way of comparison. She has perhaps more empathy for her invented psychiatry patient, Stephanie Phillips, than she does for herself (“CASE SUMMARY: You are a twenty-five-year-old female seeking termination of your pregnancy” …).

The author points out the dagger-end of empathy, a word that comes from the Greek em (into) and pathos (feeling). Empathy requires penetration, Jamison astutely notes: “It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?

Empathy feels pretty natural, I suppose, until you lose it. As I cheer on the slow death of my institution, I have to remind myself of what grows there—the students I love, the faculty who have supported me without ceasing, my very special chair whose love of language has kept me energized.

Jamison, who endures the double-whammy of an abortion and heart surgery in the same month, looks piercingly at her own need to hear the right words from her boyfriend, Dave. She wants empathy.

He understood my pain as something actual and constructed at once. He got that it was necessarily both—that my feelings were also made of the way I spoke them. When he told me I was making things up, he didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling anything. He meant that feeling something was never simply a state of submission but always, also, a process of construction. I see all this, looking back.

Jamison shows in this remarkable book that sometimes the breath of empathy is fetid, rising as much from care as from the need of the empathetic one to connect and to be validated. Empathy can be surprisingly selfish.

And in Halitosis, Rodgers notes that bad breath doesn’t always have its origins in the mouth. Sometimes it’s the throat or the nose or even the stomach—a place unexpected, but when you acknowledge the possibility, then you can begin to pinpoint a cure.

Karen Craigo is on the Advisory Board for Assay.