Steven Harvey & Sonja Livingston–On “Brief Encounters” and “Sputnik 2”

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On “Brief Encounters”
Sonja Livingston
Dreamlike. Wistful. Bittersweet. That’s how students described Steven Harvey’s “Sputnik 2,” in my undergraduate Creative Nonfiction class at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).  Every week, students take turns selecting a piece from Judith Kitchen and Dinah Lenney’s wonderful anthology, Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction, and lead the class in a discussion of craft and content.
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Valerie Dinavo with “Brief Encounters”

In this case, student Valerie Dinavo selected Harvey’s essay, in which the writer imagines the night he’d stood with his parents looking up into the sky to see Sputnik 2. Harvey doesn’t remember that long-gone night, but knows he was there to see the satellite with his parents based on a letter he’d read, and uses the bulk of his micro-essay to imagine how the scene unfolded. Our class used the essay to discuss the role of imagination in nonfiction, and the line between essayistic imagination and fiction. We lingered over the language, and the reverberation of image and sound—the way the glow from his father’s match echoed the light in the sky, and his parents’ faces were illuminated “for a moment like two crescent moons”. We read the last paragraph a second time and wondered over the haunting image of  “nails driven into the tread overhead, that coffin-lid of stars,” and of the ending, of the boy and his parents who “stood in a darkened field together and looked into the heavens.”
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Madeline Barber

That’s when I looked to the young woman beside me and noticed her notebook brimming with stars! Madeline Barber had sketched a boy standing in a meadow looking up into the sky. She’d taken some liberties, adding a cow and spaceship to the scene, but had labeled her drawing “Sputnik 2” and had clearly sketched out what we’d been discussing. One of the perks of teaching in a school known for its fine arts program (VCU has the #1 visual arts program in a public university in the country) is that my writing classes include a good share of visual artists who doodle on feedback and incorporate visual elements into their essays and, and sometimes, sketch their contemplation of class discussions!

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On “Sputnik 2”

Steven Harvey

Why does a cow float through the night sky of my nonfiction? It is curious. The essay, “Sputnik 2,” was chosen from the anthology Brief Encounters by Valerie Dinavo for Sonja Livingston’s creative writing class at VCU, and while listening to a passage being read aloud, student Madeline Barber doodled a picture of a boy standing in his pajamas in a field of flowers looking into a night sky filled with stars, and off in the corner is a tiny cow that is nowhere in the text. The boy has a wondrous expression on his face, as he stands calm and relaxed, and all of that seems to fit a piece about a child gazing into a late-night sky. Even the space ship off to the side makes sense since I am writing about the time that my family and I observed Sputnik 2 flip-flopping through the stars. But the cow being beamed up into the space craft—where did that come from?

1824685114What Madeline cannot know from the brief selection she heard is that the passage is the ending of my memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, which Judith Kitchen, who co-edited the anthology, chose to publish with Ovenbird Books. It is the story of the suicide of my mother when I was eleven which I reconstructed from over 400 letters that my grandmother gave me. It was a hard book to write. Most of the events before her death I had forgotten, and the knowledge I learned while researching what happened as I was growing up, though invaluable to writing the book, often brought sadness. I rarely get emotional at the writing desk—writing is my job—but several times in the course of composing this memoir I held a letter in one hand, touched the discovery in words on the screen in front of me with the other, and lowered my head.

In the end, though, reading my mother’s letters some fifty years after her death offered solace as well, comfort mixed in with the sadness. “When I read them, I got to know her—for the first time, really—know her and miss her,” I wrote near the end of the book. “Miss her, not some made up idea of her.” The letters and my book do not bring her back—I know the loss is permanent and irrevocable—but while I wrote about her every morning for five years, the pain, that had been nothing more than a dull throb, changed in character, becoming softer, more diffuse, and ardent, like heartache. To me it was miraculous, and writing the book ultimately filled me with wonder.

The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is extensively researched. The facts, though often upsetting, mattered to me and were my teacher. In addition to the letters, I relied on photographs, family documents, interviews, and stories my grandmother told my wife. I viewed TV shows from the past, listened to the songs of my childhood, visited my old hometown, and rode Google Earth to the very motel parking lot where I viewed Sputnik 2. There is even a crucial doodle on an envelope that my dad drew of my mother before I was born that upon careful examination revealed the tension brewing in our young family.

But the truth of this story goes beyond the facts and requires a leap into speculation which happens throughout the memoir, including the passage that Madeline heard. “In my imagination,” I begin, recreating the images as best I can of a reunited family: the glowing faces of my parents as they light cigarettes in the cold, and the sweep of the red ash when my dad points to the satellite casing crossing the sky. I admit that I cannot imagine this moment without thinking about the night that my mother, abandoned by my father, sang “Fever” by Peggy Lee forlornly to the record player, or the day my mother died when I hid under the stairs and looked at the “nails driven into the treads overhead, that coffin-lid of stars that still haunts me.”

But those thoughts do not erase the fact that my mother and I collaborated to write our story, her words mixing with mine. “I took my mother’s words into my mouth like milk,” I wrote, “and fed our story.” It is a gift which we share—a marvel, really—and one which almost did not happen. Yes, I wrote milk. I don’t know where Madeline’s cow among the stars came from, this gift of the creative mind in the presence of words spoken aloud which in itself is a mysterious process, but I hope it was born out of that feeling of wonder which is the bedrock of my book.

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Madeline Barber’s Sketch

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Steven Harvey is the author of a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder and three books of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. A selection from his memoir was chosen by Cheryl Stayed for The Best American Essays 2013. He is a Senior Editor of River Teeth, a founding faculty member in the Ashland University MFA, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website (the-humble-essayist.com).

Sonja Livingston is the author of two lyric essay collections, Queen of the Fall, and Ladies Night at the Dreamland. Her first book, Ghostbread, a memoir of childhood poverty, won the AWP Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has been honored with a New York State Arts Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, an Arts & Letters Essay Prize, a VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Sonja’s work is widely anthologized, including, most recently, in Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. She teaches creative nonfiction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Assay Interviews Anthony Bart Chaney

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“The double bind, stated briefly, was an inescapable paradox in which a message was refuted by its context. ‘Don’t be so obedient’ was one such message. The context was an imperative; the message ordered the listener to ignore that context. One could neither comply nor escape complying.”—Anthony Chaney. Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 320 pages.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Congratulations on the publication of your beautifully written and fascinating book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness (University of North Carolina Press).

By way of providing background to our readers, and giving thanks, I want to note that we met at the 2017 “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute hosted by the University of Washington, The Simpson Center for the Humanities, & supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Institute was created and run by Thaïsa Way, Rich Watts, Ken Yocom, with support from Allison Ong.

I particularly want to say how wonderful it was to meet you at the “City/Nature” Summer Institute, and as a fellow writer, to thank you for our deep conversation about all aspects of writing—and of teaching writing, including Composition. Prior to this interview, our initial conversation took place on a hill in Gasworks Park on the north side Seattle’s Lake Union during the Fourth of July celebrations.

Anthony Chaney: Yes, that was an unforgettable day at a fabulous location. What a gift to have the time to talk at length about a book project while sitting on a hillside amid thousands of people on the fourth of July in Seattle.

Assay (D’Aoust): Let’s start with how your book Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness engages with some of the important conversations and questions from the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute. Two of those questions involved how scholars speak to each other across disciplines and how scholars reach out to larger communities. Bateson is a figure who worked inside and outside the academy, had an astounding grasp of different fields, and impacted many of those fields. In what ways does your book Runaway speak to specific disciplines, across disciplines, and reach out to communities?

Chaney: Crossing disciplines was a theme in Gregory Bateson’s life. He was raised in the tradition of British natural science. He was trained at Cambridge in anthropology. Later, he was took part in the post-WWII Macy Conferences on Cybernetics. Because Bateson’s approach to scientific inquiry was not in any way careerist, he felt little obligation to carve out turf in any particular field. Rather, he followed his research questions wherever they led. They took him from field work with tribal peoples in Papua New Guinea, to reworking psychiatric theories in California, to studying dolphin communication in Hawaii, and to eventually becoming a public intellectual speaking out on social crisis from an ecological perspective.

All this discipline-hopping was in service to one effort: to reorient the life sciences around the concept of information and away from the old Newtonian concept of force. That shift in orientation was part of a much broader transition in the way we organize perception and account for the world around us, a transition toward an “ecological imaginary,” as they say in the environmental humanities.

Because this effort represents such a big shift in the way we see the world, Bateson was ahead of his time. Yes, he crossed disciplines, but there were so few doing what he was doing, it was hard to find others who could appreciate his work. One effect of the insulation of disciplines is that people inside become closed off to ideas from outside. For Bateson, the result was that he often found a more receptive audience, say, when he spoke to mathematicians about biology than he did when he spoke to biologists about biology.

In regard to reaching out to communities, your question speaks to the basic narrative concerning Bateson’s life that I tell in the book. In the 1960s, Bateson is reaching out, trying to find people to share his ideas with, to bounce them off of, like all idea people need to do. He finds a receptive audience in the insurgent youth nation of the 1960s. These folks are very much in the midst of enacting, consciously and semi-consciously, the transition I’m talking about. As I tell it, Bateson and his audience find each other.

Assay (D’Aoust): Your introduction is titled, “Gregory Bateson and the Spirit of 1967,” and your book sets the stage of a “London moment,” using Allen Ginsberg’s attendance at a conference in London, where Ginsberg heard Gregory Bateson speak, to introduce Bateson himself. You have such an astute ability to reference literature in the book, which provides context. If I might add, I was born in 1967. During that time, my mother was working for Carl Rogers, arguably another one of the influential thinkers of that era, and my father was finishing a Ph.D. in biology from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I grew up knowing Gregory Bateson’s name, but many people, as you suggest in the book’s “Introduction,” don’t know Bateson. By way of introduction, you write:

By shifting attention from social crisis to environmental crisis, [Gregory] Bateson gave his audience a kind of keyhole through which to glimpse this new ‘postmodern’ science of complexity and interrelatedness and, in turn, a new accounting of reality. That new accounting suggested not greater autonomy but greater responsibility. It emphasized not emancipation but dependence.

Among many other threads, throughout the book your scholarship conveys the intersection of ideas and references our contemporary moment of climate chaos in profound ways. All this is possible, I think, because of your fantastic skill as a writer. Runaway is crafted; all the research is there, and it is a story and contains stories. Might you talk about the craft of writing this book, particularly with your background as a scholar, writer, teacher, and a musician?

Chaney: How nice to be able to speak about craft, particularly because my training as a writer is from the fine arts side. I always thought about writing the way I thought about music or visual art. An artist’s job is to create an aesthetic experience. Artists strive to charm their audiences, to touch their audiences emotionally, to press their buttons, to break through and engage them.

images2I started out reading novels, mostly, and considered novels the preeminent literary form. But I remember the first real history of ideas that I read. I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just picked it up at a take-one-leave-one shelf at the apartment complex of a friend. The title intrigued me: The Culture of Narcissism. (It had been a big book in the late seventies, I later learned, in some ways influential on Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech.) In any case, that book knocked me out. It hit a lot of the same buttons that novels hit. Again, this had something to do with interdisciplinarity. Scholarly books I’d read in college were all safely within their own particular disciplines. But the writer of this book, Christopher Lasch, mixed history, philosophy, literature, film, social science, and politics. This umbrella approach opened me up to thinking about events and ideas contextually.

But again, I came at writing the book not primarily to document some body of knowledge, as a scholar might. I aimed to create a compelling reading experience around a set of events, people, texts, and ideas. I shaped it with a couple of big narrative arcs. One I already mentioned, about Bateson finding his audience. The other is about the double bind itself, its career, so to speak, as a cultural concept. It starts out in the mid-1950s as a way to think about schizophrenia as a pathology not inside some individual’s body but in their relational environment. Bateson refines the concept, develops it; it resonates with and echoes numerous other contemporary ideas. By the summer of 1967, Bateson invokes some version of it in talking about “the greenhouse effect” to a group of counterculturalists and revolutionaries in London. This may be the first time the prospect of climate change is put before a lay audience. And here the double bind is used as it is often used today in the discourse of ecological crisis—the wicked dilemmas and feedback loops that mock our most common sense efforts.

Those are the two big stories, and I’m glad you noticed the smaller ones, too. Every section of every chapter was crafted narratively to keep a reader interested and turning pages. Few if any characters or ideas are introduced that don’t show up again later to make another contribution to the plot or to have their moment of resolution.

Assay (D’Aoust): You use “Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the [Sixties] decade.” Specifically with reference to the challenges we face with global climate chaos and disruption, and how to bring those facts into the classroom, what impact does Bateson, and by extension your book, have for our understanding of “ecological consciousness”?

Chaney: Everyone knows about climate change. Everyone grasps ecological crisis; we’ve known that for at least fifty years. Yet it still packs the punch that it did the first time, maybe even more so, since we’re now experiencing the consequences of climate change not only in our weather but in our politics. Many of today’s refugees are climate change refugees, are fossil fuel industry refugees. We look around to the old industrialized countries of the West. Many are adopting what one commentator has called “armed lifeboat” policies. Our current president advocates such policies. His presidency is, to a large degree, a manifestation of the politics of climate change.

What example are those of us who have been around a while setting for our students and our children? What are they learning from us other than to avoid looking at or talking about the most important problem we face?

My claim is that the topic is so painful and so disruptive to our most foundational ideas that it can’t bear a prolonged gaze. It seems to me that paralyzing despair and outright denial are both part of the emotional force field that won’t let us give our predicament the sustained contemplation that it requires. I think it was Hannah Arendt who said that anything can be borne if you can tell a story about it. The story I tell happens in the past; we see historical figures confronting and recoiling from these issues for the first time. We can think about the meaning of climate change at a remove. If we can do this, maybe we can dismantle the force field and not be so afraid.

Assay (D’Aoust): You write about multiple threads at once and you juggle the interconnectedness of things. You write:

Bateson’s belief was that the new science of complexity and interrelatedness allowed people to think and talk about things such as their relationship with their ecology, war, psychological pain, and right and wrong with scientific rigor, without resorting to mysticism or moral preachments. Bateson insisted that depictions of reality were self-reflective and reinforcing, and so if people accounted for the reality beyond themselves as material, amoral, and mindless, then they would account for themselves as amoral mindless machines. But if people attributed to the reality beyond themselves the complexities of mind, they would not strip out from their analysis issues of right and wrong, and an account of themselves as moral beings would follow suit.

Would you share how you found your subject?

Chaney: After reading the Christopher Lasch book, I read another one that took up the topic of Gregory Bateson and discussed his ideas in a critical way. I enjoyed reading Lasch–that didn’t mean I believed everything he said. I decided to look into Bateson myself.

imagesBateson’s book Mind and Nature gave me my first glimpse of the science of complexity and interrelatedness—or, as Jeremy Lent has recently called it, “the systems view of life.” This is not Bateson’s science alone–far from it. The ideas of the transition I mentioned earlier are much bigger than any one thinker or scientist. Bateson’s contribution was partly that he was a terrific writer and could communicate with non-experts like me.

There’s that famous line by Henry Adams about how he was a Darwinist “before the letter.” I think many people who read Bateson are Batesonians before the letter. He articulates a perspective that we already know because by now the ecological imaginary reaches far into mainstream thinking. But that doesn’t mean we can put it into words. That doesn’t mean we can grasp the corrosion that occurs between this new way of thinking and the old ways that are still very much a part of us—and especially of our political and economic institutions.

Assay (D’Aoust): To finish, since our readers are teachers and writers and scholars, I’m wondering if you have suggestions about the balance between academic research, writing, and teaching. How does your creative training in writing and music intersect with and support your scholarship? There is an awesome picture toward the end of the book of Bateson with what looks like the sculptural art of an enormous ear, but it’s actually “his underwater listening device.” To me that photograph sums up the emphasis you place on listening in Runaway. You and Bateson seem like very good listeners.

Chaney: Thank you, Renee, I hope that’s true. I enjoy teaching and I try to be good at it, but creative work–which must of course include input–is what it’s all about for me. I’ve always made a place for it and done what I had to do to support it. I spent eight years on this book, and I could have written it in less than half the time if I hadn’t also had to make a living. I’m sure your readers can relate. So my only advice is the same advice I’ll pass on to my teenage children. “Keep a low overhead.” I think Buddhism and stoicism both arrived at a similar conclusion.

Assay (D’Aoust): Thank you so much for your time—and for Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnthony Bart Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas and blogs mostly on environmental issues for the Society for US Intellectual History. He plays bass and write songs for the long-time Dallas band, Lucky Pierres. He’s published personal essays in a number of literary journals, in paper and online, including The New Orleans Review, Reed Magazine, and Chautaqua Review. Here is a link to his blog: https://anthonychaney.com/

 

 

Editor’s Notes:

Visit the National Endowment for the Humanities here.

Visit the “City/Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” Summer Institute here.

Gail Hosking–A Conversation on Leaving the University: Getting to a New Shore With One Old Paddle and One New One I Haven’t Found Yet

“You must take up your oar and go on a journey.”

Tiresias to Odysseus

The quiet, but fidgety Chinese-American student who sits next to the classroom wall sneaking a peak at his cell phone now and then, chooses the subject of Donald Trump for his final research paper in the freshman writing course I’m teaching. His first draft is full of name-calling, like an eager bombast. “Tony,” I say with my instructional smile. “Tony, you can’t do this. This is a rant, not a conversation.” He freezes his eyes on me like he’s expecting an unwanted lecture on the one hand, and desiring direction on the other hand. “An academic paper,” I continue, “is above all else a dialogue, not a tirade. It’s a journey in which you explore the subject and move it forward. He listens and smiles his 18-year-old smile as I keep talking. “Get away from yes-no natter.”

“Ok,” he agrees as he collects his backpack to leave. “I’ll try.”

After several drafts, peer workshops and feedback from me, after they have all handed in a final paper, each student gives a short talk about his or her research exploration. The rest of the class asks questions afterward.

When queried by a peer why Donald Trump was his selected topic, Tony turns to the class and points to himself. “Look at me,” he begins as he jabs his finger into his chest with each phrase. “I’m Chinese, I’m an immigrant, and I’m gay.”

He has our attention.

“I’m like those Mexicans Trump’s trying to keep out with his wall,” Tony continues. As the students ask further questions, an inquisitive interest fills the room.

This moment of honesty and investigation is what I’m going for five days a week at a technical university where I teach writing. It’s an enormous leap from “yeah, I’ll do a research paper, whatever,” to some personal connection that leaves students amazed with a desire to understand more. The change of purpose demands their participation in a conversation the world needs.

When asked what I do at the university, I often answer: “I’m a missionary.” I say it jokingly but it’s the truth of sorts, though I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. My goal is not to turn technology majors into liberal arts majors, or engineers into artists. I am trying, rather, to pull students both inward and then outward toward the world. I’m trying to marry technology to the questions of humanity. At the same time what I’m really trying to do is broaden their understanding and comfort with complexities—to get away from a bi-polar understanding of the world—it’s this or that, black or white—and in doing so hopefully, expand their acceptance of self and other. I’m trying to get them to see that as educated people, they must be a part of these larger, complicated conversations.

imageI love to teach. I love all its details, all its results. I knew early on that teaching would be my life’s work. As a child I often played school, with me always the teacher insisting my students learn. On the army bases where I grew up, our teachers were civilians, and I thought they were gods. I wanted to be like them. I have been teaching since I left college. But little did I know that I would also fall in love with writing some day, and that part of me would grow and blossom. I did not yet understand my strong yearning to shape experiences into coherent thought, nor did I take into account my artistic nature.

Emerson wrote that God comes to us without a bell. And lately without a sound, a growing desire for this other half of my sky—the writer in me—has emerged with a force and feels in conflict with the time needed to do a good job at the university. In the fifteen years I’ve been in academia, the demands have increased with closer assessments, bigger teaching loads and more administrative demands. It’s a kind of grit in my shoe. The tension of such a schedule eats away at me. I consider leaving.

I watch the ink on this paper leave its mark across the page, and for a moment it all feels like magic: the pen, these words, the tide I’m watching come in and slowly return to shore. I ponder what I ask my students to do, which is to keep the emphasis on the grand experiment we call life. Right now I ask myself, as I ask them when they begin to write, to imagine a journey without knowing the outcome.

As friends and family die, time has become more and more precious. Just this morning I found out that the author of Dispatches, Michael Herr—an author I greatly admired—has died at the age of 76. Once, I spoke to him on the phone about his powerful book on Viet Nam, and he told me that after many accolades for his publications and movie scripts, he left that behind for work and study at a Buddhist temple. In his coarse New York accent, he explained as best he could about walking away from one world and into another. “I got off my high horse,” he simply said. By which I thought he meant he stopped clinging to his ego.

I think about this as I consider giving up the recognition and security I receive at the university. With anguish about leaving academia sooner than I had planned, a battle rages inside my head with shame for letting people down, and terror of the unknown. It is easier to stay with the familiar task of semesters than to make a leap of faith. Easier to cling to the shore for security rather than risk letting the river carry me down stream to unknown destinations. Some days as I contemplate my decision, my chest feels like a fist resides in my sternum.

How many times have I asked my students to be curious about what’s next? “Make room for what you do not yet understand,” I’ve said with tender concern for their wellbeing. When they begin their research papers, I tell them, they will have little idea where it might lead and that they must give up insisting they know ahead of time. It takes an entire semester for this to happen. Just as importantly, it takes time for them to believe again that they have permission to ask questions and to change midstream. I show them that the writing exploration is not just a utilitarian skill, but offers tools for critical reflection. As the poet Richard Hugo once wrote, “Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

As I consider leaving, I feel like a stranger entering the once-forbidden land of self on the myriad of army bases where I grew up. There the mission came first, and as a soldier’s daughter I was not to have my own desires. Now, I find a sticky attachment to this story of safety within the fortress, be it an army base or a university campus. When I press against these invisible forces of my past, I feel an enormous resistance. What comes up in its own somatic silent way feels like a kind of control from an establishment pushing against my artistic imaginings. In this liminal space between the past and the future, I am in need of trust and confidence.

IMG_9964In a coffee shop on the last day before I must sign my academic contract for the upcoming school year, or not, I feel the urge to hold on to a familiar place. The narrative arc of semesters holds me there as my pen pauses and my body fills with run-away anxiety. I do my best to pat the nervous concerns like I might a swaddled infant. Around me other writers type at their computers while people talk across tables as if trying to solve the world’s problems. I pause and look up, then back to this paper, then out the window into the distance. Am I refusing the promises of the next season? I wonder.

Later as I am talking with a friend about my intense fretful apprehensions, the acronym AWOL (absent without leave) comes to mind. And when I say it out loud, I burst into tears. “I have abandoned the mission,” I say with a force that surprises us both. A seam has burst and goes straight to the heart of the continued struggle to leave the university or not. The past spills out in front of me. I can hear my long-gone soldier-father telling me to never abandon the mission. Powerful words for a young girl learning to please.

My friend asks me if soldiers ever get missions that end, only to begin new ones. As I let that concept enter my consciousness, my body begins to relax. The sensations around my heart loosen for the first time in months. It is only with this exchange that I realize my new purpose. I want to write with the same cogency I brought to the university. I want to go on teaching in new ways, to pay a different kind of attention to the world now. This is the journey I send my students on: to discover what is not yet known. “Sometimes, “ I tell them, “you don’t know why you have chosen a particular subject. Time and patience will help you unearth those answers.” They stare at me with uncertainty.

The truth is that I gave my all to the university. I went every day with as much grace as I could find even when it was difficult. I found creative ways to understand and teach as I led my students on new paths. Now, inside life’s ambiguities, I am rowing through a stream of new questions without knowing what I’ll find as I turn the bend. I am connecting with what doesn’t die before I die.

By evening I will have written the resignation letter and said what I was once sure would be impossible to say: I’m not coming back. The letter will only hint at the powerful undercurrents in this emotional, personal decision. As I said to Tony about his work, in the end each inquiry is a journey. My conversation here has turned into a meditation on change and desire, nothing I planned in advance.

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When I look back to what I was asking Tony to do, I see that I wanted him to trust his own intellect and then to let his questions guide him through what he found in his complex research. I was asking him to reach beyond what he thought he knew—a difficult, sometimes impossible, human leap—and above all else, to keep his mind open.

Eventually when I return to my office to box up a big stack of books and folders, and to go through the remnants of a daily teaching life, I will stand next to my desk weeping. It will look like I’ve made the wrong decision. And maybe I have, but maybe not. That is the ongoing question my life must speak in its own way. I know already that I won’t miss meetings, agendas and merit reviews. I won’t miss the early morning hours sacrificed for others, the late afternoons at my desk. I won’t miss surrendering my own writing, coming home exhausted. But September will be difficult with muscle memory that feels compelled to prepare syllabi, to memorize new names, to ask questions and to wait for answers. When I hear the news on the radio or read something new, I will, out of habit, be framing an assignment.

When my friends bring their enthusiasm for the word “retirement,” I wince at the term. I find myself shooing this casual term away like an unwanted mosquito. I explain that no, it’s not an actual retirement in the language of Human Resources. I’m simply leaving this particular job. My friends can see the visible existential dread on my face, and are not sure what to say next other than to repeat, “Oh, you will love retirement.”

This morning at my computer, I am alone and feeling it. I sit and stare out the window through a purple orchid on the windowsill. I hear in the distance the traffic going down the street, and when that calms, I hear birds in their early morning feedings on the giant oak along the fence. I feel a warm breeze come through the open window and then gently down from the ceiling fan. I am thinking back to Tony when I asked him what it was he wanted to explore. “What bewilders you?”

I hope he heard me say, “This is your moment. Go for it.”

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Image 2Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter (University of Iowa Press) and poetry chapbook The Tug (Finishing Line Press). Her essays and poetry have been widely published and anthologized. She is a teacher and editor living in upstate New York. She taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for 15 years and holds an MFA from Bennington College.

Colin Hosten on My Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipaul

I often use the second semester of the first-year writing program where I teach as an opportunity to explore rhetoric through different forms of storytelling, including poetry. In particular, I include a short unit of creative nonfiction, primarily as a way to interrogate our expectations of and obligations to truth (whatever that means) in storytelling. I encourage my students to notice how a writer’s “voice” might change from fiction to creative nonfiction—or, more remarkably, how it might not change. V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage provides perfect fodder for our discussion.

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The book is a seminal example of modern travel writing, but I focus on the first two essays in which Naipaul, now living in London, makes the return voyage by sea to the West Indies—the middle passage—and arrives at his birthplace of Trinidad. The island is the backdrop for most of Naipaul’s fiction, including the linked stories of Miguel Street, told in first person by an unnamed narrator who treats the motley crew of characters on his titular street with unassuming respect and appreciation: “A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say ‘Slum!’ because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else. Man-Man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.” But in returning to Port-of-Spain in The Middle Passage, Naipaul himself might have been one of those people dismissing it as mere slum, describing the country as “unimportant, uncreative, cynical.” He portrays the people as “unsure of themselves, having no taste or style of their own.”

Both of these versions of Trinidad seem so real when we read them. Which one is closer to the truth?

This line of questioning allows us to consider the role of storytelling in creative nonfiction, identifying the narrator as a device completely distinct from the writer. What we think of Naipaul the writer should not necessarily color how we read him as a writer. Usually, this idea seems obvious to my students, who are all sophisticated critical thinkers able to separate their emotional reactions from their intellectual work. At this point, I share some more background about Naipaul the writer. In addition to his often scathing, hyper-critical remarks about the West Indies, he has (in)famously said that women are prevented from being the literary equals of men because of their “sentimentality, their narrow view of the world.” Most of my students—and, I’d imagine, most rational people—disagree with this sentiment to the point of disgust.

At this point we read the essay again.

What’s different? How have our impressions changed or not changed? Here, I encourage my students to pay attention to the ways in which language is tied up in identities, how rhetoric can be used to project iterations of our selves onto the page and into the world. It’s a nuance of which I need to constantly remind myself. Naipaul has a complex legacy in Trinidad; he is arguably one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century, our lone Nobel laureate in Literature. But Naipaul himself has all but disowned Trinidad as the land of his birth. Reading Naipaul often leaves me feeling disconnected. I don’t understand how someone who writes so beautifully on the page could say such ugly things about the place where he was born.

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Yet I, too, left the island, and have not returned.

One of the first people Naipaul introduces in The Middle Passage is a man named Mr. Mackay, who laments, “You can’t blame some people for not wanting to call themselves West Indians.” In grad school, I wrote an essay that charts my ongoing attempt to reconcile my existence as a citizen who feels more at home in another country. Trinidad is a unique and beautiful island, perched three miles off the coast of Venezuela at the southern tip of the West Indian archipelago. The country is rich in diverse culture, food, music, festivals. The beaches admittedly aren’t the best in the Caribbean, but they’re still magnificent, and its location so close to the mainland (besides propping up a fossil fuel industry) creates a vibrant set of flora and fauna that sustains a small but growing ecotourism business. Locals joke that God must live somewhere on the island for it to be so charmed. I don’t know about God, but certainly many of his followers do, which in part made it a hostile place to grow up as a gay man. Partly because of its colonial history, partly because of its religiously conservative culture, and partly because it is still figuring itself out as a relatively young republic—the end result is that I fled the island and made a new home for myself in Connecticut, where I can be married to the man I love without fear of legal or other reprisal.

And that’s why I love teaching Naipaul’s essay. It reminds me and my students that reading can be complicated and conflicted. It helps me demonstrate the importance of critical reading that acknowledges and embraces the responsibility of the reader to be conscious of her own biases. Every time I read from The Middle Passage I learn something new, about writing, and about myself—which is ultimately what I want for my students.

****

HostenColin Hosten’s work has appeared in such outlets as The Essay Review, Essay Daily, OUT Magazine, Spry Literary, and the Brevity blog. He is a freelance children’s book writer and editor, and teaches in the undergraduate writing program at Fairfield University. He lives in Connecticut with his husband and their dog.

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part II: Celebration and Humiliation

“This is a very friendly conference.”—Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote Speaker NonfictioNOW 2017

“Life is now.”—Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, President of Iceland

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Harpa Concert Hall, Reykjavik, Iceland

Before NonfictioNOW 2017, I’d met only one of its four hundred delegates face to face: my mentor and childhood friend, Dzvinia Orlowsky; and emailed with just two others: Wayne Koestenbaum, about our interview; and Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, the Conference Project Manager, to help convert her schedule to PDF. Every day, I consulted my own copy of the timetable (its color-coding rendered useless by a monochrome laser printer) to choose which events I’d attend and, later—due to fatigue and overstimulation—to decide which ones I’d skip.

After registration, during the drinks reception at the University of Iceland, I was still as fresh as Icelandic bottled water—the melted glacier ice, filtered through inert layers of lava rock, which I’d been drinking since my arrival two days earlier. Quaffing white wine now, I scanned the room for nonfiction heavyweights. Recognizing a trim figure in a bold shirt and heavy-rimmed glasses, I plowed through the crowd, and assailed Wayne Koestenbaum. He greeted me with warmth, grace, and a firm handshake. I’d already bumped into a friend of a friend, Bradley Wester and, through Orlowsky, met Kathleen Aguero, Richard Hoffman, Michael and Carole Steinberg, and Mimi Schwarz. I now introduced these new acquaintances to Koestenbaum, buoyant in a sea of writers from twenty different countries, in an atmosphere of friendliness and effortless communication that would prove typical for the entire conference.

Next day, I strode down a curved walkway in the Háskólatorg building to Room 102, where a panel, “My Roland Barthes,” with Wayne Koestenbaum, Rachel May, and Xenia Hanusiak was scheduled. Nervous about the impending interview with Koestenbaum, my handwriting was worse than usual, and my jottings about the session made little sense afterward. Yet, the images conveyed by the panelists lingered. May’s portrayal of quilts as stories, “textile as text,” were vivid, as were the elements Koestenbaum connected to “his” Barthes: precision in language, the mode of “recitative not aria,” kinship between words, mystification, glaze and patina, and the chestnut he’d found on Gertrude Stein’s headstone in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. There was much to process. In the end, I forgot to ask Hanusiak about her career as an opera singer and, with my brain in buffering mode, retreated to the cafeteria to stare through floor-to-ceiling windows at fast-moving Icelandic clouds.

* * *

After my videotaped exchange with Wayne Koestenbaum, I felt elated, inspired, and entirely incapable of absorbing anything but food and beer. Optimistically, I assured Koestenbaum I’d see him later in the Nordic House, and he divulged his plans for the Authors’ Evening:

“I think I’m going to read one of the notebooks from my recent book, The Pink Trance Notebooks, which is a series of diary poems, all taken from notebooks I kept in various states of trance … states somewhere between automatic writing and dreaming.”

I missed that reading, and those by Ariel Gore, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Tim Tomlinson, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, and Gerður Kristný; also Heather Taylor Johnson, Fiona Wright, and Quinn Eades’ book launches; because, after dinner, while the sun didn’t set, I crawled beneath a large feather comforter and went out like a light.

The following morning, Hoffman, Steinberg, Schwartz, Hope Edelman, and Desirae Matherly participated in a panel, “When Writers Repeat,” while I stayed in bed with sinuses that demanded rest, and aspirin washed down with glacier water. By afternoon, I’d recovered sufficiently to attend “Memoir Time,” a panel with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, and where I discovered Donna Talarico live-tweeting behind me. She’d arrived on Icelandair’s inaugural flight from Philadelphia to Reykjavík, with mayors of both cities on board (including the “hot” one), which had been diverted to Boston and delayed because of a “bad smell.” After the discussion, I forced a hug on her, threw myself at all five panelists, took photos with Lisicky and Sukrungruang, declared, “I’m a huge fan!” and “I want to submit to Sweet!” and, powered by adrenalin, ran upstairs to catch a ride to Ragnar Kjartansson’s vernissage. The affair was concurrent with Karl Ove Knausgård’s keynote address, and—shoot me—I chose Ragnar over Karl, art over memoir, and music over literature.

On the last day of NonfictioNOW 2017, after a wind-chilled walk along Reykjavík’s harbor, I arrived at Harpa Concert and Conference Center just after Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s keynote address. People were milling about in the foyer, drinking coffee from lidded cups, and it was clear from their comments that I’d missed a memorable speech. I chatted for a while with Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir, who was as bright and communicative as on the first day of the conference, and, entering the auditorium, was greeted by an equally cheerful and relaxed Koestenbaum.

I took a seat in the front row just as a small delegation entered and, in a moment of reciprocal recognition, both President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson and I uttered, “Oh, hello!” He beamed winningly, as he’d done at Kjartansson’s opening. His spouse, Eliza Reid, wearing an all-over-print of white tulips or, perhaps, magnolias, filled the chair next to me. As co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, she’d held the opening address at the other Authors’ Evening I’d not attended. Enthusiastically, I introduced myself as a fellow Canadian, but she seemed unimpressed by this riveting fact, and showed absolutely no interest in my amusing story of how I’d met her husband.

Onstage, Elena Passarello began her introduction: she connected Harpa, or harpa, to “harp,” “harp” to Harpo, and continued with a tribute to Koestenbaum’s The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, crediting the book for her motivation to return to literature after a decade in drama.

Wayne Koestenbaum took the podium and began with a tribute to Aisha Sabatini Sloan. He compared the essence of her keynote to what philosopher and conceptual artist, Adrian Piper, has communicated through her performances:

“Articulate the unspoken frame to politely, or impolitely, refuse the frame and step outside it.”

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Wayne Koestenbaum, Keynote, NonfictioNOW 2017

Koestenbaum then enticed the audience to follow him beyond the frame, into four dazzling parables or allegories, the short essays he wrote for Reykjavík, which disregard borders and classification. The first, “Annette Funicello,” contains this seductive sentence:

“There is no logical connection between Annette Funicello, a beach rose, an inquisitive bee, a beach’s cubicles, and the men who long ago stripped, under my inquisitive gaze, in the vicinity of weakly sputtering public showers.”

The second piece, “Allegories for Iceland,” describes enigmatic encounters with a leather-bracelet-wearing foreigner and a densely bearded stranger, spiraling into implied states of desire and uncertainty, which Koestenbaum guides into an anticipated present:

“A full century after Cubism, why am I trying to reproduce this afternoon’s reality in faithful sentences rather than present to you an askew distillation of the events, filtered through a presiding consciousness? Why is the consciousness overseeing the narration of this fable so lacking in discernment and discrimination? Why is this episode not announcing its relation to the professional gathering during which the tale will be recited?”

Before reading his third parable, Koestenbaum cautioned, provocatively:

“And now, we fall into the abyss. We leave the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.”

Koestenbaum’s “Gaufrage and the Erotic Limitations of Capability Klein” is a collage of contrary components: Japanese woodblock prints, dildos, a mattress store, Lyme disease, a character who calls his sexual limitations “talking points,” and this captivating image of carmine clouds and skunks:

“Last night, in Cap’s backyard, we could see, wandering across the grass, three skunks, each accompanied by a carmine cloud. Carmine is not usually fluorescent. These clouds disobeyed the laws of carmine, and acquired an unnatural day-glow brilliance that wounded the eye lucky enough to gaze at their felicities.”

Before reading the last allegory, “The Sexual Translator,” Koestenbaum explained he’d “issued a call to myself, before sleep, for a dream that would respond to the emergency call of this conference. The dream arrived.” This piece features a figure named Abel Mars, a translator whose labors “sometimes took the form of naps,” and includes a riff on the word “frack” that is as enchanting as it is hardcore:

“‘Frack, frack, frack,’ went the translator’s pathetic litany, as he pushed his hard and then not-hard cock into mine, or onto mine, our two cocks overlapping and competing, never melding. I hypothesized that, by repeating this death-cry or love-cry of ‘frack, frack, frack,’ Abel was trying to intervene in the city’s ecological affairs; perhaps he wished to undo fracking, or to prevent fracking? Perhaps he had developed a speech impediment that turned the word ‘fuck’ into ‘frack’? Perhaps ‘frack’ was a fragment of Victorian slang, an argot I couldn’t understand?”

After a brief question and answer session, Rúnar Helgi Vignisson, NonfictioNOW co-chair (with Robin Hemley, its founder), introduced President Jóhannesson, who read his witty and poignant speech directly from an iPhone, sometimes going off script, yet always following a red thread. A writer and historian, his thoughts were highly relatable not only to the genre of nonfiction, but also to the conference:

“We cannot only rely on sources that remain from the past, or what we can find in the present. We need to add our own interpretations, our own descriptions, and we must allow ourselves to imagine what might have been, when the sources do not exist or are hard to find. Those who control the sources, they will also control history as well, and that cannot be.”

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President Jóhannesson

He quoted from David Lodge’s novel, Small World: An Academic Romance, to emphasize that the real goal of literary conferences is not academic discourse, but human interaction:

“It’s this kind of informal contact, of course, that’s the real raison d’être of a conference.”

Guðni Th. Jóhannesson’s speech flowed into my still-fresh memory of Wayne Koestenbaum’s address, and infiltrated a specific sentence in his answer to a question from the audience:

“I always tell my students that if you wake up in the middle of the night feeling horrified about what you’ve written, it’s a very good sign.”

After the conference, my sentiments needed time to merge and emulsify, and only when this process was complete, did the following paragraph write itself:

I leaned toward Eliza Reid, not gesticulating, as I usually do, and complimented her on her husband’s speech: “That was very moving.” There was no verbal response, only fabric flapping, sleeves waving, two palms striking. I clapped too, but in a different rhythm.

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Blue Lagoon

NonfictioNOW 2017 ended, and Karl Ove Knausgård and Lidia Yuknavitch remained as elusive as Björk. Farewells looming, Dzvinia Orlowsky and I unwound at the Blue Lagoon, afloat in geothermal bliss, extending time beneath silica mud masks. After two more white nights, I flew home, with a single regret: that I hadn’t interacted with even more amiable writers.

I’d met Amy Gigi Alexander, but sailed past Quinn Eades and Sam van Zweden; didn’t see or didn’t recognize: Bob Cowser, Joanna Eleftheriou, Ariel Gore, Leslie Hsu Oh, Anna Leahy, Patrick Madden, Desirae Matherly, Lance Olsen, Laurie Stone, Julija Šukys, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright, Arianne Zwartjes—and a few others with whom I’d already bonded on social media, or would do so later. We now foster our virtual friendships, and wait for another conference to bring us together and, until then, connect through a book, or a page, or a few well-chosen words.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum

 

My NonfictioNOW 2017 by Genia Blum–Part I: Celebrity and Humility

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Genia Blum and Wayne Koestenbaum

Three weeks before the start of the NonfictionNOW 2017 conference in Reykjavík, I emailed the keynote speaker, Wayne Koestenbaum—poet, writer, painter, musician, author of several celebrity-based books and a literary celebrity in his own right—with a request for an interview:

“As a former ballerina writing a memoir, I’ve lived and worked in Europe for almost forty years, danced in ballets, musicals and operas, including three seasons at the infamous Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Besides themes of writing and memoir, I would love to talk art and theater with you.”

Five days later, Koestenbaum emailed back:

“Apologies for my slowness in responding to your gratifying email! Yes, I’d love to participate in an interview/conversation with you. Thanks for the invitation. I look forward to our meeting in Iceland, and to our chance to speak about affinities.”

Affinities! Wayne Koestenbaum! My first interview!

It was also my first conference.

***

In the Seventies, pursuing a European dance career, I left North America on Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines (“We are the slowest, but the lowest”), and took advantage of a bargain-price stopover in Reykjavík that included tours of thermal springs, mud formations, lava fields, waterfalls, and geysers. I lost and regained my balance near a volcanic crevasse, came close to being scalded by escaping steam and, overwhelmed by a fish-heavy dinner buffet, mistook a chunk of whale blubber for cheddar. It’s a wonder I didn’t confuse the entire country with cheese—Iceland’s otherworldly landscape was as alien to me as the far side of the moon.

Retired from ballet, I returned in June 2017 as a writer and a first-time NonfictioNOW delegate. Iceland appeared far more familiar now: tourism had boomed, English was spoken everywhere, and Reykjavík had its own Dunkin’ Donuts. It was my new persona and the opportunity to meet other writers that seemed exotic, more so than a volcanic island and its midnight sun. I’d never even worn a nametag before. After “Memoir Time,” a panel session with Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, Amitava Kumar, Bich Minh Nguyen, and Ira Sukrungruang, I approached Lisicky, proffered my identification, and was thrilled when he recognized my name—though it wasn’t through any familiarity with my extremely slim body of published work, but because I was the fan who’d retweeted and “liked” so many of his posts on Twitter and Instagram.

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NonfictioNOW 2017 Opening Reception

Even off-conference, my nametag was the flying wedge with which I connected with everyone and anyone. At the opening of Ragnar Kjartansson’s first museum show in his homeland, God I Feel So Bad, I searched two crowded floors of Reykjavík Art Museum for the artist I admire. When I finally spotted Kjartansson, he was surrounded by an impenetrable wall of well-wishers. Nearby, a tall, handsome man in a black suit radiated charm—in my direction, I thought. Pulling its black neck lanyard taut, I extended my NonfictioNOW ID, almost grazing his nose when he bowed unexpectedly.

“Hello!”

“Hello, I’m Canadian.”

He beamed, “My wife is Canadian.”

“Oh! You must be the President of Iceland!”

Regrettably, Eliza Reid, the First Lady, wasn’t in attendance, but the star of the evening was still in my line of sight. I pushed the small talk toward an entreaty:

Please, introduce me to Ragnar Kjartansson!”

With an authoritative wave and a loud whoop of “Ragnar!” Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson summoned Kjartansson and his entourage. I swooned and stuttered. Dagur Bergþóruson Eggertsson, the Mayor of Reykjavík (a title journalists often prefix with modifiers like “hot” or “sexy”), also joined us, as did his conspicuously attractive wife—and our group turned into an Icelandic VIP gathering. Only Björk was missing.

The day before, Wayne Koestenbaum, NonfictioNOW 2017 keynote speaker, had spoken to me of the inspiration he receives from minor fame:

“In my writing, even in my lounge act songs, I need to take a word or a phrase which creates an emotional situation for me. It’s often a star’s name, particularly a minor star’s name, a cultural particular.”

We’d met for an informal exchange in the Háskólatorg building of the University of Iceland, in the large foyer which houses the student cafeteria and bookstore, above the lecture rooms where the conference panels were held, in front of a curved white wall we both agreed was reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum. I’d confided in Richard Hoffman that I was anxious about my first interview, and he’d calmed me with an anecdote about one of his own “firsts.” Now, Hoffman winked encouragement from across the room, while next to him, Michael Steinberg, no longer discomfited by my telling him he was a legend, smiled benevolently. Sitting vis-à-vis from Koestenbaum, with my multicolored shawl in serendipitous correspondence with his brightly pattered shirt, I was starstruck.

For his NonfictioNOW keynote address, Wayne Koestenbaum had composed four parables, or allegories and, for one of these, he’d taken a minor 1950s and 1960s TV and movie icon as a starting point:

“The words ‘Annette Funicello’ arrived half an hour before I started writing. I repeat ‘Funicello’ again and again in every sentence, like a chant, ‘Funicello, Funicello, becoming Funicello …’ I was very aware, when I wrote my four allegories, that the first one was nonfiction. I felt it had a kind of ornateness and roundaboutness that pushed against the straightforward narration of a couple of incidental encounters I’d had. I was aware, with the next two, that they crossed the line into fiction. Not because I wanted to flee nonfiction, but because of the humiliation issue. The thing I want to write about at this moment, I cannot just start talking about in public. I need to disguise to some extent, and universalize. I don’t have the distance or the wish to confess on that kind of level. It’s just too self-sabotaging. I was aware I had recourse to something like fiction, and I felt this certain amount of guilt, because of course it’s a nonfiction conference. But I try to think about that in the pieces.”

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At a panel discussion earlier that day, Koestenbaum’s virtuosity in weaving together seemingly disparate anecdotes and ideas had mesmerized me, yet the simplicity of one statement stood out:

“Write what turns you on.”

Wayne Koestenbaum “turns me on.” His books are vibrant compositions, segmented into complementary and juxtaposed sectors, a style also common to his artwork. Humiliation offers variations on its title in fugues that reflect on embarrassment and regret—themes that resonate with the sense of degradation and insufficiency that imbued my classical ballet training. Another book, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, examines opera and queerness, and is dense with reflections on the art form, summoning up recollections of my own intense fascination for the music and its history when I first began performing together with opera singers and musicians. I asked him about Verdi’s Aida, which he describes in The Queen’s Throat as the first opera he saw as a child, mentioning that my mother had made her stage debut in Aida before World War II, as a young ballet apprentice at the Lviv Theater of Opera and Ballet.

“My father is from Berlin, but I think his father’s family came from Lvov—Lviv. I remember Aida, but I don’t remember my response to the singing. I have a visual memory, and I remember the color of the blue sky above the Nile in the third act, and I remember the height of the stage and the blueness. I had a couple of opera records, and was obsessed by the bilingual thing. I remember looking at the opera librettos. With Aida, I remember looking at the column of Italian words, and I’d never seen Italian. In particular, I remember the plural definite article and thinking it was so strange, gli, g-l-i … It was a cluster of opacities that fascinated me, with a wish to untangle them and kind of carve my way into a feeling relationship. There was deep mystery, and I remember vividly the sense of opera as an unknown, and that the unknown was desirable. When I paint, I respond very intuitively to color, relationships of color, ‘feeling toward’ the color.”

The subject turned to Switzerland, where I live. Koestenbaum mentioned Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage and its Swiss-themed suite, as well as a book about Robert Walser, Walks with Walser, by Carl Seelig. My very superficial familiarity with Liszt’s piano oeuvre, and Swiss literature and geography—Vallé d’Obermann is neither in Germany nor is it the origin of the name of a popular dog breed—threatened to embarrass us both. Navigating past the awkwardness, we remained in Switzerland, but returned to art. I mentioned the Rosengart Collection in Lucerne, which displays works by Klee, Picasso, and other modern masters. Koestenbaum continued:

“Are Picasso’s paintings fiction, or nonfiction? Obviously, for me, that’s a term that comes from a literary genre and not painting, but you could say that … Picasso’s paintings represent an emotional and optical truth, a cognitive truth. The transmission of energy from much of Picasso’s work is unmistakable, and it has a certain violence and aggression. I talk about Picasso in one of my allegories, actually, and I talk about his body and my body.”

More and more people drifted into the foyer. A baby started to cry, with the pitch and intensity, perfected through evolution, that ensures no infant’s distress can be ignored.

Lying on a table in front of us, a small video camera had recorded our conversation. An iPhone, meant to function as a second microphone, was on my chair, where it pressed into my left buttock, the slight discomfort balanced by my willingness to abase myself for a literary luminary.

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I joked about the wailing baby, “Better here, than on the plane going home!”

Koestenbaum’s response was both touching and generous:

“But it’s cute! It’s very affirming, to know that there’s a baby here at the conference, and maybe the baby is the child of writers, who will teach it to love literature and language. May the children grow up to be happy readers and writers!”

The baby fell silent, and forty-five fluid minutes of insightful conversation also came to an end. Koestenbaum and I would meet again in two days, at his keynote presentation in Reykjavík’s futuristic concert hall, Harpa.

I leaned forward and tipped sideways, removed the iPhone, and switched it off.

***

Follow Wayne Koestenbaum on Twitter.

GeniaBlumBorn in Winnipeg, Canada, Genia Blum has lived and worked in Europe for over forty years and resides in Lucerne, Switzerland, where she is the director of a ballet school, Dance Art Studio, and presides over a dance foundation named in honor of her Ukrainian ballerina mother, Daria Nyzankiwska Snihurowycz. Her work, for which she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has appeared in or is forthcoming from Solstice Literary Magazine, (b)OINK zine, Creative Nonfiction Magazine (Tiny Truths), and Sonora Review. She is currently working on a memoir titled Escape Artists. She haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.

Creighton Nicholas Brown: “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen'”

When I arrived at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, to register for my first semester as an undergraduate student, I was handed a copy of Neely Tucker’s Love in the Driest Season (2004), a memoir detailing the experiences of Tucker, a foreign correspondent, and his wife volunteering in an HIV/AIDS orphanage and the eventual adoption of their daughter. After I moved into the dorms, much of orientation was devoted not only to navigating my first year of college, but also to discussing the common book with my fellow orientation club members and our faculty advisor. Then, once classes were in full swing, we took a break for three days of symposium, which centered around the ideas presented in Tucker’s life narrative. National and international speakers came to campus to discuss global poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. My early English professors worked the text into their classes juxtaposing Love in the Driest Season with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) to discuss the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic or highlighting the theme of poverty to discuss hunger locally, nationally, and globally.

The goals of this long-established program, which mirror the mission of Concordia, is three-fold: to “stimulate an intellectual discussion among faculty and students,” “introduce students to academic life through a common read and academic discussion,” and most importantly for me as a student at the time, to “learn about issues that shape our world today and in the future.”[1] Reading Love in the Driest Season early in my undergraduate education deeply impacted my time at Concordia College and has continued to shape my scholarly activities and the work I do with my own students at the University of Kansas.

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Well-chosen common books have the power not only to foster faculty and student engagement across campus, but also they offer students an opportunity to critically think about their own subjectivities, the communities they inhabit, and how they can positively influence the affairs of the world through their vocations and civic engagement. Common books, particularly creative nonfiction, demonstrate the strength of narrative to provide alternative forms of knowledge often ignored by those in positions of power and connect the work we do specifically in the Humanities—and more broadly at the university—to issues facing us locally and globally, preparing students to be both critical readers and writers and ultimately civically engaged citizens.

* * *

My first fall as a doctoral student in the English Department coincided with the first year of the KU Common Book.[2] This was new campus-wide initiative aimed at providing in-coming freshmen with intellectual opportunities to engage in meaningful dialogue and foster critical thinking. Faculty and instructors were encouraged to work the text into their courses as appropriate. Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays (2009) was the inaugural choice.

After reading the first essay in her collection, “Time and Distance Overcome,” I was excited to teach Biss’s work in my first-year writing courses.[3] But as I worked my way through the rest of the essays during new GTA orientation, I realized the rest of the collection did not measure up to the first essay. I began to wonder how my students would connect with Notes from No Man’s Land, which to me registered as underdone meditations on heterosexual whiteness, particularly my students who did not identify as such.[4] I chose to teach “Time and Distance Overcome”—only.

The next three years featured one benign selection after another—none of which ever really spoke to the aspirational goals for the program as outlined by KU First-Year Experience and the selection committee. Each of these texts in their own way was glaringly white and did not address issues facing the campus or larger Lawrence, KS, community and did not unpack issues shaping the world my students would be entering after graduation. Then, after a particularly charged and quite-rightly confrontational Chancellor’s Town Hall responding to incidents of racial and gender discrimination and violence on campus, the new KU Common Book for Fall 2016 was announced: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015).[5] I was thrilled! I often use some of Coates’s long-form articles to discuss race, class, and gender in my composition classes. The committee had chosen a book that spoke to more than just my white students, bearing witness to systemic injustice and white privilege. Their choice was timely, and for me, marked the moment when the KU Common Book reached its full potential. I was on fellowship for the 2016-2017 academic year, so I missed the opportunity to teach this important piece of epistolary creative nonfiction.

This year, however, I am back in the classroom and have loved every minute of working through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), this year’s KU Common Book selection, with my students. Similarly to my experiences teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place (1988), on the first day with the text my students grappled with—and many rejected—the sadness and anger presented episodically in the first section of Rankine’s lyric poem.[6] My mostly white students struggled with the toll that micro- and macroaggressions take on the everyday lives of nonwhite, non-heterosexual, non-cis-males. This led to a discussion in which we unpacked the title of Rankine’s collection and what it actually means to be a citizen of the United States. To underscore this, we worked through our founding documents, identifying the Three-Fifths Compromise, the absence of women, and the dismissal of Native Americans as “savage.” Using Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Nina Simone’s haunting cover of “Strange Fruit,” and Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage,” we charted a brief history of blackness in America, moving from slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, from the rebirth of Klan in the early twentieth century to the Civil Rights Movement and ending with police violence and our contemporary political realities. This contextualization helped my students to stop resisting Rankine and begin to listen to what she is saying.

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On the second day with Citizen, as with A Small Place, my students began to explicate deftly the issue of white spaces in Rankine’s second section—my favorite as a reader. This section brings together Hennessy Youngman’s philosophy on the cost of black art for the artist with Serena Williams’s racialized experiences as an African American tennis player. Rankine takes inspiration from Zora Neale Hurston, who remarked, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” to describe Williams in this still predominantly white sport (25). The racism faced by Williams in three different—and very related—moments from her career opened up a discussion about heteronormative white spaces. We talked about classrooms and universities as traditionally white spaces and identified other spaces that historically privilege whiteness. I asked my students to think about times when they were the other in a particular place and what that felt like. After letting them freewrite for a bit, I asked for examples. My students hesitated, and after waiting patiently, I decided to tell my students about my experiences as a queer person entering new spaces, meeting new people, and always wondering who is safe and who might not be. This is the first time I have purposefully and overtly come out to my students during my teaching career. My example worked, and my students began to share their experiences. This section of Citizen and this activity connected our discussions of race, class, and gender in the classroom to the issues we are facing as a nation.

Over the next few class periods, my students eagerly engaged with the remaining sections of Citizen. Once we finished Rankine’s collection, my students began working on their proposals. My composition course has four major projects each building on the one before. They begin with their project proposals in which they outline an issue of race, class, or gender they would like to spend the rest of the semester researching and writing about, and move through annotated bibliographies, researched essays, and revisions of their researched essays into oral presentations. As my students are developing their individual topics of inquiry, I hold conferences to discuss their topics and help them focus and refine their inquiry questions. Again and again, my students remarked how their research interests stemmed from our discussions of Citizen and how that intersected with their individual major areas of study and future vocations.

I have never been prouder as a teacher: My students were connecting our work in my Humanities classroom to their studies in other fields and thinking about how this might be reflected in their future professional lives.

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[1] You can read more about Concordia College’s Summer Book Read here: Summer Book Read.

[2] You can read more about the KU Common Book here: 2017 KU Common Book.

[3] You can read more about this particular essay here: Marissa Landrigan on Eula Biss’ “Time and Distance Overcome”.

[4] You can read a positively different take on Biss and her titular essay here: Silas Hansen on “No-Man’s Land” by Eula Biss.

[5] The Chancellor’s Town Hall was also designed to respond to what was unfolding at the University of Missouri in the Fall of 2015.

[6] You can read my reflection on teaching Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place here: My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

* * *

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he’s completing his dissertation, (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. Creighton also serves as Contributing Editor and Social Media Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. He is both a Cobber and a Jayhawk. Creighton lives, writes, and dog-walks in Lawrence, KS.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! At Assay, we’ve expanded members of our team to include senior editors and contributing editors. Welcome to our new Contributing Editors: Creighton Nicholas Brown, who has also taken over my duties as Social Media Editor (thank you!); Jennifer M. Dean; Micah McCrary; and welcome back to Taylor Brorby. We also welcome our new Senior Editors, who will be reading submissions to the main journal: Christine Cusick; Jenny Spinner; and Julija Šukys. Please take a look at our expanded group over at our masthead.

This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” Look for columns from members of our expanded team. Next week, I’m excited to share with you Contributing Editor/Social Media Editor Creighton Nicholas Brown’s column “On Common Books, Civic Engagement, and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.” This will be followed by a two-part interview/essay from Genia Blum reporting back from the NFNOW17 conference this past June in Iceland. At the end of the month, we’ll feature Colin Hosten’s “Favorite Essay to Teach: “The Middle Passage” by V.S. Naipau.”

We’re always looking for submissions to our “In the Classroom” series and to our main journal. While our focus is nonfiction, we’d love to hear about interdisciplinary approaches to writing. Or perhaps you’re primarily a poet and poetry teacher/writer, but you have a favorite essay you read and teach. We’d love to read about it.

Here are our general guidelines for teachers and writers for “In the Classroom” submissions:

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You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

You can submit via our spiffy Submittable page here.

We would love to feature undergraduate and graduate writers. As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or imageresponse papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already and in the past. Please keep them coming. If there is something we can provide to support your reading, writing, and teaching, please let us know.

Remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal.

With gratitude,

Renée

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Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s essay collection Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. www.reneedaoust.com

Assay’s Academic Year 2016-17 Annual Report

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We’ve had a good academic year here at Assay. Thank you, all, for your contributions, for reading the journal, and for your support. As has become our custom, we are offering our Annual Report to remain accountable.

A favor? Please be sure to like us on Facebook and to follow us on Twitter. Thank you!

Activity:

  • Celebrating Best American Essays: In the past year, Assay published a fall and spring issue: Assay 3.1 and Assay 3.2. In 3.1, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Best American Essays with quite a few excellent pieces on the series itself.
  • We are thrilled to have been able to release our Nick Nelson’s spectacular Best American Essays Project into the world during Year 3–if you haven’t seen it, it’s here! He archived the entirety of Best American Essays‘ Notables and Reprints in a searchable format.

AWP 2017–Washington DC:

  • We conducted our first panel at AWP called Assaying “Our Hybrid Thing”: The Cross-Pollination of Nonfiction Studies and Pedagogy with Assay staff and alumni, including Ned Stuckey-French, Jenny Spinner, Crystal Fodrey, and Taylor Brorby. It was a blast!
  • We had a Bookfair Table, too, which was so much fun! Thank you for your support at the conference. Extra special thanks to our Advisory Board members: Dinty W. Moore for staffing our Bookfair table, and Ned Stuckey-French for being on our AWP panel. It was so great to meet so many of you in person and put faces to names!
  • Conference Panel Reports: During the 2017 AWP conference in Washington D.C., we published ongoing conference reports. If you missed them, check them out here! Many thanks for these contributions, which make it possible for those unable to attend the conference to benefit, too. When you attend a conference, please consider writing up a panel / reading / workshop / chance meeting for our “In the Classroom” series.
  • Stay tuned for the call for panel reports for the NonfictioNow conference in June.

In the Classroom Update:

  • Our ongoing “In the Classroom” series continues to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This past year we were also super pleased to feature interviews. See our interview with writer, editor, and professor Marcia Aldrich, here, regarding the fantastic anthology Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women. We featured an interview, focusing on creative writing obsessions that are particularly useful in the cw classroom, with Deborah Poe, here. Be sure to read our interview with Gail Griffin on being an ally in our Spring 2017 issue and on her creative nonfiction essays, here.
    • We are currently working to more firmly integrate In the Classroom into the main website, so stay tuned for that reorganization this summer.

Syllabi Bank:

  • We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! Expanding this resource will be a priority in Year 4.
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Tootsie: Quality Control.

Submissions:

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or response papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

Looking Ahead to Year 4:

We’re looking forward to next year! Assay’s fall journal issue will release September 1st. Our “In the Classroom” series will continue on October 2nd.

In the meantime, we’re reading for our Fall 2017 (4.1) issue, so please send your wonderful scholarship, informal analysis, and pedagogy!

With gratitude,

Listicle: A Brief International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman Reading List:

In honor of International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman, here is a brief reading list: