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!

madelinesketching

 

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

*****

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.

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.

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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”

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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

The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

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Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.

Martin Luther King Day 2017 — Online Teaching Resources

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In English Composition courses, I usually assign Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I’ve heard from students that they really appreciate having that reading included. My students also respond very strongly to “Learning to Read and Write” by Frederick Douglass.

It’s possible to listen to MLK read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is especially useful in an online-learning environment. Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute has other excellent resources and curriculum suggestions.

Ned Stuckey-French provides fantastic analysis and context of Martin Luther King’s “Letter” here.

Thank you to Nancy Peck for suggesting the inclusion of original source documents. You can access MLK’s documents through http://thekingcenter.org/archive.

For contemporary and current resources, this NPR report is a useful start: “Ferguson in the Classroom: How One College Took Up Race and Policing This Semester.” The November 2015 NPR report discusses this NYU class developed by Professor Frank Leon Roberts. You can find Roberts’s #blacklivesmatter syllabus and other resources here.

In additition, here is a link to “13 Significant Books on Civil Rights for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

For creative writing courses, and departments, it’s essential to consider Claudia Rankine’s keynote address at AWP/LA (2016). Rankine adapted that address into an essay for The Writer’s Chronicle, found here. Rankine’s masterpiece Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf) should be considered essential reading.

Please also consult the Syllabus on Black Feminism from Melissa Harris-Perry, here.

Here at Assay, you will find our resources and pedagogy articles useful. Here are a few suggestions:

On James Baldwin:

On Civil Rights:

On Empathy:

If you have other classroom resources that you wish to share, I’ll add them to this post as I receive them. Many thanks!

On Shifting the Narrative by Taylor Brorby (Writers to Read: Brian Doyle)

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You and I know this story, it’s the story of Sandy Hook Elementary. We know the outline, we know what happened. But what Brian Doyle does in “Dawn and Mary” is not only dazzling, it is deeply moving—he shifts the narrative focus. For many of us, Sandy Hook is a day of terror, and Doyle helps reveal, sentence by sentence something deeply human: courage, too, existed that day.

The piece begins in simple description, “Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway.” As readers, we’re there. We know this place—we’ve all been to school—and immediately we, because of our own imaginations, start filling in the details of what it looks like—though Doyle employs a type of powerful minimalism of detail to allow us to create our own imagery.

We’re told that most people dive under the table, which later we’re told is what we’re all trained to do. But Doyle narrows the focus of the piece: “But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets.” We know that these two people are important and, little by little we learn about them. Dawn is the principal; her husband proposed to her five times before she said Yes, “she liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.” We then learn about Mary, the school psychologist; she has two daughters—like Dawn—she loves to go to the theater, and she’s due to retire in a year.

But somehow—because we know how this story ends—we know that won’t happen.

In the first six paragraphs we are given simple description about the school, about Dawn and Mary, about their personal details. But the sixth paragraph marks the end of one section and begins Doyle’s focused work on helping shift the narrative. After the sixth paragraph, he brings the reader into the piece:

You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.

He doesn’t tell us what the hallway looks like, but he doesn’t need to. We’re already there—we can see the linoleum, we know the lowered sinks in the bathroom, the little tables and desks. We have been there, and we are there again with Doyle.

Our breath quickens and Doyle writes,

Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies—bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger—must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day.

The entire weight of human history is brought into focus in this section—there is nothing other than this moment. We are in Sandy Hook Elementary with Dawn and Mary.

And then Doyle, is a display of pure humanity, brings the piece to an end. Instead of focusing on the shooter, whom Doyle calls “the boy with a rifle,” we learn that in the particulars of this horrific day, courage lived alongside evil:

The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings. They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?

“Dawn and Mary” is a piece to read over and over. In ten paragraphs, Doyle does more to shift the narrative focus of this tragic event than any piece of news or journalism. By the end, not only does the reader weep, but knows deeper that a piece of humanity has been restored. We know what’s possible, we know what happened, we know that the story of courage is messy and complicated and a necessary tonic to help us go forward with the rest of our days.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMTaylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and a poet. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, Taylor’s work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including Orion, High Country NewsThe Huffington PostTerrain.org, and has received numerous recognitions through grants and artist residencies. Taylor travels around the country regularly to speak about hydraulic fracking, is a co-editor of the country’s first anthology of creative writing about fracking,Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and is Reviews Editor at Orion Magazine. His poetry collection, Crude: Poems, is due out this summer, and an essay project, Coming Alive, is due out in February.

Favorite Essay to Teach: Sui Sin Far’s “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” by Brenna M. Casey

When I teach Sui Sin Far in my classroom, I start with indignation.

Far was a woman of firsts. In the second half of the nineteenth century, she was the first writer of Chinese ancestry to be published in English in North America. Far was one of the first voices writing from newly forming Chinese and Asian American communities. These communities, themselves, were a product of the forced migrations of workers in the brutal coolie trade, indentured and carried across the Pacific on retrofitted slave ships to fill the gaps in labor left by the abolition of slavery at the end of the U.S. Civil War. Far was the first writer to acknowledge the presence of Chinese women and children living in burgeoning Chinatowns, billed all too conveniently by the U.S. and Canadian governments as the temporary sojourn of bachelor laborers. Born to an English father and Chinese mother, Far is one of the earliest thinkers to contemplate multiraciality in an American context. She remains a smart and prolific writer whose work across multiple genres—reportage, fiction, and essays—ushered in the twentieth century. Her currently uncovered works (many of which were penned anonymously or signed with a pseudonym including her given name, Edith Maude Eaton) number some 250 published pieces in over 40 periodicals throughout Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica. Sui Sin Far’s work should be as prized and familiar as Henry David Thoreau or Mark Twain. And yet, no one of my students has ever heard her name.

This, I tell students while pantomiming a frustrated flip of the seminar table, is an all too familiar story for women writers in America. Especially, I say waiting a freighted beat, for women of color.

editheatonphoto1“Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” is organized as the title suggests: a palimpsest of thoughts, memories, conversation fragments, and anecdote that, taken together, form the collagic and painful coming to consciousness of Far’s own racial difference. Despite her ability to pass as a white woman, Far is insistent on enunciating her Chinese heritage. This insistence often results in Far’s immediate vulnerability in the dangerous era of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The form bespeaks the content. Identity formations are a process; the effect of Far’s prose is cumulative. Only as a catalog of Far’s own excruciating education do seemingly inconsequential social interactions take on the stifling weight of Far’s feelings of being between, “something different and apart.”

The essay was written for the New York Independent in 1890, but its content is eerily prescient. Students transiting in their own early adulthood identify with the formative experiences of childhood cruelty and mean-spirited inspection by their peers. Without fail, students of all different backgrounds table a two-part question ubiquitous on college campuses: “Where are you from?” Then: the coded, casual, and insidious racism of the follow-up, “No, where are you really from?”

Far also insists on particularizing her experience as a woman. One episode of “Leaves” relates an unwanted sexual advance from a naval officer who visits Far uninvited. He wants to tell her, he says, about all “the sweet little Chinese girls” he met while stationed in Hong Kong. While we never learn how this incident ends, the menace of its beginning lingers. The officer laughs a little when he introduces himself and Far writes, “The laugh doesn’t suit him somehow—and it doesn’t suit me, either.”

I love to teach this essay because it isn’t perfect. In its do-gooder enthusiasm, Far sometimes reasserts the prejudice she seeks to dismantle. As in the moment when Far is confronting her own ethnic biases and writes that two Chinese men she glimpses in a store are “uncouth specimens of their race.” In another anecdote, Far is tracing commonalities between herself and the black population of Jamaica—a radical moment of interracial solidarity—but never questions the infantilizing characterizations deployed upon a servant class. These encysted bigotries, are not without their merit. They demonstrate to students that ethnic and racial identities are not fixed. Rather, they are untethered from individual bodies, visually unsurveillable, and consolidated only through careful engineering—made and remade by whomever is controlling the narrative.

“A bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness,” writes Far, encouraging her reader to leave natal places and known landscapes. Her travels across North America reveal national differences and parochial similarities “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any,” Far concludes, wresting indignant control of her own narrative, “Individuality is more than nationality.”

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Photo credit James Bernal

Brenna M. Casey is a writer and educator based alternately in Prague, Czech Republic, and Durham, North Carolina. She teaches literature and creative writing at Duke University where she is completing her doctoral work in the Departments of English and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame. She is currently a regular contributor at Ploughshares and you can read her work here.

Writers to Read: Sophfronia Scott on Donald Quist’s “Harbors”

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During contentious presidential elections such as the one that just ended, some voters tend to offer up the notion of leaving the United States should candidate X win. The threat gets tossed about too glibly, especially when for years citizens have left this country after experiencing real—not anticipated—trials and hardships. Donald Quist, a black American writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand, is one such expatriate and he examines his life and the urge to seek a new one abroad in a powerful essay collection, Harbors (Awst Press).

This book comes at a time when the volume of our social discourse is tuned to deafening levels and the back and forth spews at a head-spinning rate. Into the cacophony steps Quist with the fierce voice and loving, but critical eye of a 21st century James Baldwin. And since a whisper draws more attention than a shout, by the time in one of his essays Quist states calmly, clearly, succinctly, “I am angry,” he has us all by the ears and the words resonate to a depth of earth-shaking proportions.

He wasn’t/isn’t always so quiet. As a child growing up with kids from the wrong side of the tracks or, in his case, school bus route, in Maryland, Quist hit a boy and made him bleed for taking his action figure. At 16, frustrated over having to drive one of his grandmother’s drunken friends home, he snatched away her foam-plated Meals on Wheels lunch and demanded she account for her seemingly rude behavior and burdening of his granduncle. However these outbursts only made clear to him what he didn’t understand, an awareness we could use more of today. He learns all is not as obvious as it seems. He learns the truth of what his grandmother, an ardent fan of Jerry Springer’s raucous talk show, often told him, “Boy, pay no attention to what a person says. Watch what they do.”

Quist writes, “I’m reminded that people have complexity and duality, not unlike an exploitative tabloid talk show allowing individuals largely unrepresented in mainstream media to share their experiences.”

He finds himself cloaked in this complexity and duality in “The Animals We Invent,” when he goes to work for the mayor’s office in the town of Hartsville, South Carolina, and finds himself suffering the sting of two worlds when an arson incident leads to a rash of racial profiling encoutners as police seek the perpetrators whom the victim claimed were black males—they weren’t. He fields calls from enraged citizens. “Aren’t you angry?” one asks. Though Quist himself has been stopped by officers he answers with a pragmatic, “What do you want me to say, sir?”

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But the question he’d like to answer in an interview, the reporter doesn’t ask. How can he still speak for the mayor’s office? “If she did ask, I’d answer honestly—I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I wasn’t to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones.”

Quist weathers the storm but the squalls large and small keep coming, one upon the other, until he punches a hole in the door of the restaurant he owns with his Thai wife. He questions why they continue to live in the racial equivalent of a tornado alley. The essay “In Other Words” relates the discussion he has with his wife about leaving the country. He writes at times, in an interesting twist, from her point of view. “… when customers do stuff like the patron who tried to avoid paying the bill earlier, it is hard not to feel like it’s a part of something else, something systemic, a lineage of oppression that frames so many of his daily interactions.”

I call attention to this particular essay because of the deeply personal nature of his considerations. Quist blames no one—not candidates, not police officers, not the nature of their small South Carolina town. He is simply looking for a way to walk through the world without a centuries-old burden upon his shoulders. He writes, “I yearned to go abroad to find myself beyond the classification of my race and nationality. I wanted an opportunity to live in a place where I might move beyond the limits of myself.” And though in Thailand he might, as his wife warns him, only experience different debts and new prejudices, Quist also recognizes the possibility to experience new freedom.

With this concept alone, this idea of a new freedom, he challenges our notions of America as land of the free, home of the brave, by showing us in his beautiful, unflinching prose that no matter how bravely a person might live in this country, he or she isn’t necessarily free. The vulnerability Quist brings to the page is palpable especially as he relates feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment (often in himself) in addition to his anger. He cannot ignore, for example, that his father left Ghana for the U.S. to escape a kind of living that now benefits Quist in Thailand.

He writes in “Junior”: “I wanted to tell you about how leaving makes me feel like a traitor, and about how it feels whenever I read news about black suffering in America. I meant to ask you if the advantages of living in a place ever make it easier to forgive its crimes. I wished to voice to you the conflict I experience daily while enjoying the benefits I have in Thailand and the knowledge that so many are silenced and detained by the same governing force that has made it easier for me to hail a cab. I wanted to discuss military dictatorships promising democracy, decency, values, and standards while violating civil liberties, and talk about how every day I witness others bear the type of suppression that led you to emigrate from Ghana.”

So many writers can rage—so few can show or even connect to what lies beneath it. Harbors is an important human document because the author doesn’t invoke self-pity or even sympathy. Instead he, much as Baldwin did, presents his life as testimony and makes you stand with him equally at a vantage point where all can view the situation and say with utter certainty, Things should not be this way. Quist doesn’t pretend to seek clear answers—he knows there are none. But like any good essayist, he knows it is important to ask the questions and try on many answers. “Once I’ve crossed over this deep expanse,” he writes, “I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.” With Harbors, Quist has already, to a great extent, done this for all of us.

Editor’s note: Read Sophfronia Scott’s “Writers to Read” about Robert Vivian’s Mystery My Country here.

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Sophfronia Scott is author of the novel All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press); her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Ruminate, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. Her forthcoming novel, The Light Lives Here, will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in September 2017. She also has on the way an essay collection, Love’s Long Line Alone, from Ohio State University Press. Sophfronia is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.