Jenna London on Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge”

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams braids several primary story lines to illustrate the author’s love of and affinity to nature, particularly birds, and the rising water level of the Great Salt Lake, with the narrative thread of her mother’s battle with and eventual death from cancer. Williams also illustrates the intrinsic connection the women in her life—Mormons in Utah—have with the land. Throughout the book, the author uses various elements of nature to gain personal perspective. Williams provides the reader with scientific, anthropological, biological and historical information told through strong language and vivid scenes.

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Like The Shepherd’s Life and The Nine Mile Wolves, animals are an integral part of Refuge. Williams shows her connection to wild animals without anthropomorphizing them. Instead, her scene-driven book presents birds as an essential aspect of the ecosystem as well as a source of solace and education.

Williams uses birds as a metaphor for her own life throughout Refuge, as illustrated in the following quote:

“With each breath, it threw back its head, until the breaths grew fainter and fainter. The tiny chest became still. Its eyes were half closed. The barn swallow was dead.

Suffering shows us what we are attached to—perhaps the umbilical cord between Mother and me has never been cut. Dying doesn’t cause suffering. Resistance to dying does.” (53)

Williams writes the scene in which a barn swallow dies. Next, she analyzes the act of suffering and dying. Rather than applying human tendencies to birds, Williams does the opposite. This technique empowers nature and builds on the idea that humans and birds are intrinsically connected. The above reflection occurs after a scene, making the passage more complex and meaningful. If no musing was included and the chapter had simply ended with the sparrow dying, the bird may not have represented the narrator’s mother. By adding the three sentences of meditation where she did, Williams serves to make a self–discovery and prompts deeper thinking on the part of the reader.

Primarily, nature’s role is to represent a higher power and therefore provides a source of comfort for the narrator. Williams presents the spiritual yet circular relationship she has with the birds: she prays so their presence will give her peace. But she also uses the solace to strengthen her own character by learning to listen to the world around her—human, animal and inanimate. Williams frequently demonstrates her spirituality and commitment to the Mormon faith. She does so in a manner that portrays nature as a primal and spiritual entity that is not idealized. Immediately after a passage in which Williams quotes the Mormon scripture, she writes:

“I pray to the birds.

I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.” [149]

She immortalizes birds without either anthropomorphizing them or including scientific background. Additionally, Williams pays homage to nature without romanticizing it. Isolating the reflection in this manner reveals the spiritual aspect of the author, separating her from the organized religion to which she subscribes.

Williams’ infatuation with and wealth of knowledge regarding birds is the most obvious way nature is empowered throughout Refuge. Williams is a reliable narrator as is clear from her descriptions and concise writing. In one instance, Williams begins a new section in her chapter entitled “California Gulls” with the following:

“The gulls were flying to their nesting colonies on the islands of Great Salt Lake. What they gain in remoteness…they sacrifice in food supply… Round trips are made from Hat and Gunnison Islands to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Daily. White pelicans, double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, also colony nesters, must make these same migrations to the surrounding marshes of Great Salt Lake.” [71]

Her desire to provide scientific information in a manner that the non-informed reader can enjoy and use as a learning resource is also empowering to nature. The inclusion of background intertwined with scene shows that the narrator has a relationship with nature beyond the spiritual. This aspect may make her more believable to some readers, which not only empowers nature, but also shows the realistic aspect of it.

Nature’s oppression is most strongly represented via descriptions, backgrounds and scenes about the rising lake levels and habitat destruction in and around the Great Salt Lake. The author’s father recounts the cloud that resulted from the atomic bomb testing conducted in Utah when Williams was a baby:

“I remember the day…It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. We not only heard it, but felt it…We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.” [283]

Williams could have easily idealized or give human-qualities to the non-human in this passage, but she picks a superb moment to remove herself from the scene. She presents this life-altering moment from the point of view of someone who is not be as attached to the natural world, which emphasizes the severity of the experience. Again, Williams validates the narrator to the reader, which in some aspects empowers the environment. However, igniting chemicals in the middle of the desert to be absorbed by the atmosphere or ground is an extreme example of humans suppressing the environment. Williams subtly provides a contrast through the non-subtle event of the mushroom cloud. This technique certainly distinguishes the writing as a realistic portrayal of nature.

In Refuge, nature is regarded as a source of learning, strength, healing and peace. Williams focuses on birds to illustrate her passion for science, nature and spirituality. She describes her role in a matriarchal family and demonstrates how the women pass their belief in the land on to younger generations of girls. When an author, like Wiliams, is most committed to offering a unique perspective and deeper level of analysis of nature, the intrinsic connection between nature writing and humans become most obvious. When these aspects are either not in balance or are absent altogether, nature writing can become unbalanced and can be perceived as weak or unbelievable writing. Nevertheless, it is the presence of balanced contradictions of the environment that make for the strongest and most complex works of nature writing.

 

Editor’s Note: This completes our three-part series by Jenna London. This analysis of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge pairs particularly well in the classroom with London’s analysis on Rick Bass’s Nine Mile Wolves here. You can read Jenna’s first piece in our nature-writing series on The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

 

A Truly Gigantic Journey: Uncovering Leah Lax by Stacey Engels

Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a simple collage I made over a quarter century ago, after getting my heart broken. The message it transmits is no longer one I want to reiterate to myself, but I have left this little creation out, within view, because I still love Kafka. And because, as a writer trying to fathom the mystery of my own existence, I have to look back to that young artist whose fears and desires shaped the life I have now.

Affixed to a square piece of poster board is a smaller square of yellowed paper; a quadrant showing the pointillist face of Kafka in four phases of dissolution. In the upper left corner is a complete image: wavy, parted hair, elfin ears, thick brows, otherworldly stare. In the lower right corner, the all-seeing eyes are rimmed with darkness. The right side of the face is all but gone and the left side is shadowed. There is a cluster of letters above the thick, black brows: L I T E R A L I T E R L I. As the tubercular-looking man fades, his legacy – the words he has left behind – grows.

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Glued below this four-part portrait is a neat strip of paper on which I typed, in all caps:

THE JOURNEY IS SO LONG THAT I MUST STARVE TO DEATH IF I RECEIVE NOTHING ON THE WAY. NO PROVISION CAN SAVE ME. FOR HAPPILY IT IS A TRULY GIGANTIC JOURNEY.

This was my solution, at twenty-four: Just Write. That last, miraculous eight-word sentence – the headspinning unexpectedness of it, the discordant notes adding up to an indissoluble alloy of terror and joy – made me feel that writing was a religion to which I could happily sacrifice life.

Fifteen years after making that collage, I met Leah Lax at Yaddo. While some of us handled the free-time-bonanza that was a few weeks in an artists’ colony like addicts on a bender, disappearing into studios and interacting as little as possible with others, Leah was like an open water swimmer: at the end of the day, she stepped gracefully out of her creative flow, and you could tell she had covered distance. She was grateful to be among people, breaking bread, and she was grateful to return to her solitary work.

One afternoon, we went for a walk around the lake. We talked some about our lives and more about our projects: mine was a play based on the life and art of a Canadian painter, and Leah’s was a memoir about leaving her Hasidic community and beginning life as a secular lesbian. She had converted in her teens and her attraction to orthodox life had come, in part, from her desire to study holy written teachings, though of course her study was restricted because she was a woman.

Hearing her speak about the pull of the words themselves, about the world of light that opened out beyond the forest of little black symbols on the page, was to hear my own silent feelings given voice, even though my interest had only ever been in literature.

When, years later, we became friends on Facebook, I felt I could see Leah’s life story flowing by, a stream of photos and articles and videos and notes. In 2015, after ten years together and three months before gay marriage was legalized nationwide, Leah and her partner traveled from Texas to D.C. to tie the knot. Within months of this, her memoir was out in the world, and suddenly, Leah was uncovered: she and her book seemed to be everywhere.

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Part of the beauty of Uncovered is in how Leah conveys the love she felt for the rituals and language and the community in which she lived, while revealing her slow but neverending struggle to reconcile with her religion’s negation of the female. Throughout the book, she describes different experiences of mikvah, a ritual bath for purification after menstruation, communicating not just the details of an ancient and gynophobic ceremonial practice, but the solace and silence of women-only rituals.

From an early age, Leah’s secular life was infused with a love of art and music – her mother was a painter and Leah was a cellist. (She still plays.) We learn that disorder and mental illness in the home spawned her craving for a rigidly ordered life and witness the breaking away from her Law-governed life as complicated, frightening and often painful. Yet the recurring motif of ritual immersion crosses over seamlessly from her religious life to her artist’s life when she collaborates with photographer Janice Rubin on the groundbreaking Mikvah Project. In other ways, too, we see that art and the sacred have always been intertwined in Leah’s life.

A few pages into Uncovered, I found a line that reminded me how Leah and I had slid into such easy, heartfelt connection: “I would remain obsessed with grasping strange language for wordless things.” And toward the end, a description of her new belief system, which may explain the innumerable FB pictures of Leah smiling – at readings around the country, with Susan, with dog, with Dvorak piano quintet, with other writers: “Such a good, quiet joy rises in me, a profound sense of simple being, of presence… We are simply here. Now.”

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StaceyEngelsStacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.

Read Stacey’s “In the Classroom” piece on Vivian Gornick’s book The Odd Woman and the City here.

 

Sam van Zweden on “Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger,” by Fiona Wright

Writing the body is tough. As a thing with defined borders (like skin), and further borders within those borders (those we’re socialised to obey) that we dare not trespass against, it’s particularly tough to write the body in an open, curious, and freeing way. In attempting to write my own body, I constantly bump up against roadblocks – attitudes I dare not bend, taboos I fear to breach, assumptions I need to acknowledge before I can move past them and into something meaningful. It’s confronting territory, and possibly the highest stakes thing we can write about – that vehicle that allows us to be.

Compound the difficulty of writing the body by adding the controlling behaviours typically seen alongside eating disorders. The stakes become dangerously high. It’s no small feat, but Australian writer Fiona Wright manages to recreate this tension between control and chaos in her essay collection, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Echoing the open and closed written modes of Wright’s identity as both a poet and a critic, this work manages to strike a balance.

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These essays take a variety of stances on hunger, as experienced through Wright’s own anorexia. Essays about travel explore the way encounters with the broader world have informed the author’s guilt and ambiguity towards eating, while other essays consider the ways that eating disorders are portrayed in the work of well-known and much loved Australian authors such as Carmel Bird, Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Wright’s pathology is reflecting in the writing as some of the obsessive detail-oriented thinking that is part and parcel of Wright’s experiences of hunger.

What makes this collection so exciting is Wright’s ability to effortlessly engage with theory, dipping in and out of ideas that might otherwise come across as quite heavy. While the subject matter is hefty, and rightly so (I’m not suggesting anyone approach eating disorders jovially), there’s an element of playfulness about the work. Curiosity is the driver.

There’s no doubt that writing eating disorders is fraught. Wright herself acknowledges this in her essay, ‘In Hindsight’, describing how her fellow patients refer to books like Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness and Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as ‘how-to manuals’ and ‘triggering as fuck’ (respectively). As a woman writing on the topic of eating disorders and hunger more generally, Wright must have been aware of the generic specificity of her subject matter. Eating disorder memoir = misery memoir, is the expectation. Cataloguing pathologies and redemptive recovery narratives seem to be the norm for other books on the topic. It’s clear from the get-go that this isn’t the kind of book Wright wants to write. She calls in theory from a number of sources – literary, scientific, historical – and at this point it would be easy to wield these things as weapons in the battle to beat down any possibility of her work being ‘misery memoir’ or ‘sick lit’ – but, with a huge amount of grace, this isn’t what Small Acts of Disappearance does. Instead, Wright holds the theory she employs lightly. That’s not to say that she doesn’t take it seriously, because at times the book feels like a metaphysical and psychological puzzle. Rather, Wright experiments with various sources of possible explanations for the unexplainable, and she does so with curiosity, in a written mode that is distinctly female, and fiercely strong for it. Wright’s uncertainty about that experience is a weapon in its own right.

Small Acts… approaches the body and hunger with the openness of a poet, with the rigour and insight of a critic. It breaks open borders at the same time as it wrangles something unspeakable into a sensible shape.

It would be too easy for a voice like Wright’s to slip between the cracks in the Australian reading climate. Broadly, ours is not a readership (or reviewing culture, or publication culture, or award culture…) that deals well with hybrid forms. We prefer neat boxes. Our nonfiction comes overwhelmingly from older white men and tells our colonial history. Wright is part of a new generation and sensibility among nonfiction writers: the self matters. The small, mundane self matters. Hybrid and experimental styles offer something that ‘historical’ accounts and comfortable generic boundaries cannot. Small Acts is making its mark in the Australian nonfiction landscape, too – shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the work is object of plenty of discussion not only in literary circles but in mainstream publications, too. The dynamic is shifting: It’s okay to write things that tell humble (but deeply important) stories. It’s okay to write things that don’t fit cleanly into genre boundaries. It’s okay to write about yourself. Wright’s work is one of those leading this shift.

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SAMVANZWEDENSam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. She has written for The Big Issue, The Victorian Writer, Killings, The Wheeler Centre and others. In 2015, she was a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship and Melbourne City of Literature Travel Fund recipient. Her work-in-progress, Eating with my Mouth Open, was shortlisted for the 2015 Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers. She tweets @samvanzweden and blogs at samvanzweden.com.

 

 

 

 

 

R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.

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I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:

SWARMING

 

Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly

 

back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling

 

wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel

 

all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath

 

breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.

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W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com

Don’t Say It: Meghan Daum Writes It in “Unspeakable” by Amanda Page

We may not talk about the topics Meghan Daum covers in her most recent essay collection, but reading about them is a pleasure and a practice I return to again and again.

It’s rare that I wait impatiently for a book to be released. During these times, I watch online bookstores for the release date only to then drive in frenzy to the local bookstore and pounce on the first available copy I can find. Once it’s in my hands, I don’t let go–not even to let the clerk scan it. I’ll have one hand on it at all times until it’s been read through to the end. Then, the obsession wanes, and I can relax back into my detached indifference to the onslaught of new titles delivered to the world daily.

It was in one of these frenzies that I got myself to the bookstore and purchased Meghan Daum’s essay collection, Unspeakable. I read her first collection, My Misspent Youth, when I was busy misspending my own youth. It was enough to make me a fan, but it wasn’t until I read Daum’s memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, that I thought, “She gets me.” The number of kindred authors in my life is a low one. I keep an eye on their upcoming work. When Unspeakable hit the shelves, I was happy to sit down with a familiar voice. Daum is a writer who works in subject matter relevant to my life: debt, house obsession, childlessness, and as she states in Unspeakable, being a member of Generation X, that “passing thought” of a generation, that “minor player” of a demographic.

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In the introduction, Daum confesses that all of the essays in the collection were written with the sole purpose of being essays in that specific collection. She states that writing about oneself is a specialty, albeit a lazy one. I nod my head in agreement and understanding. One thing I must emphatically state about my relationship to Daum’s work is this: I relate.

I relate to her take on her personal life, when she refers to engaging in online dating as “field work.” In “The Best Possible Experience,” she refers to her engagement in one particular romantic relationship as “anthropological curiosity.” Daum continues to date a man who sounds self-absorbed and even a little creepy, all because she’s interested to see what will happen. I think of this as a tenant of a writer’s life. We do an awful lot, and we extend ourselves and our comfort to stay in strange situations, just to see where the story takes us. This particular trait isn’t discussed enough, I think. But therein lies the point of Daum’s title (and entire collection.)

The book is called Unspeakable precisely because she is discussing topics that often do not make it into the dinner conversation. Or, for that matter, the conversation with best gals over brunch. The subject matter on the table is hard to talk about. Daum takes it on and makes it digestible for those of us willing to read it.

Daum’s collection begins with the death of her mother, includes an essay in which she explains how she will never be a mother, offers thoughts on her life as a dog owner/mother, and then ends with her own brush with death. Maybe it is the product of being composed for the sole purpose of existing in this collection, but the order seems deliberate, careful, and eases us into each new unspeakable theme.

The topics themselves are not unspeakable. We lose our mothers. We may not have children. We may prefer raising dogs to raising kids. It’s what is said in each of the essays that bring the theme – and the title – to life for the reader. In “Matricide,” Daum tells of the experience of packing up her mother’s apartment – while her mother is slowly dying in said apartment. She tells of the watchful, maybe judgmental eyes of the hospice workers. She tells us what she loved about her mother and what she didn’t. It may seem strange to offer words of resentment or frustration in an essay about your dying mother, but while reading it, the content doesn’t seem cruel. It seems honest.

In another essay from the collection, Daum claims to be an “honorary dyke.” She tells of spending a lot of time with lesbians when she was a young woman, even though she never questioned her heterosexuality. She dressed like a lesbian and preferred music by lesbian artists. She took on the most basic, stereotypical traits associated with lesbians, and therefore sought to call herself (or be called by lesbians) an honorary member of a tribe. This essay that seems young and naive – maybe better suited for her first collection, though I don’t think of any of the essays from My Misspent Youth as young or naive. It’s not the voice of “Honorary Dyke” that’s young, it’s the desire for the title that seems juvenile to me. But, maybe that’s the point. The desire for such a thing might come from an immature or unidentifiable place, but that doesn’t mean it should not be spoken.

I can’t tell if that’s the collection’s greatest strength, or a trick of the title. The essays get away with being confessional or revealing a naive or cruel thought of the author, but since we’re dealing with what is often unspeakable here, it’s all fair game. We’ve been warned–on the cover. The writer isn’t dealing in “appropriate” material here. And that’s the point.

Daum isn’t dealing with unspeakable acts, either. She hasn’t dealt out cruelty that she must confess or defend. I can’t think of a single defensive line in the entire text. She’s simply revealing some thoughts you may not feel comfortable with having, let alone admitting. For instance, in “The Dog Exception,” Daum writes about the connection some humans have with the canine kind. She describes the loss of her dog, Rex, and how in a lot of ways, that loss is harder than losing a human loved one. She states what only a few seem to understand or are willing to say, and those few often get demonized for it.

That’s why those few often don’t say it, and that’s why we need Daum to do it.

Daum had an edited collection of essays enter the world less than a year after Unspeakable was released. Though she doesn’t offer an essay of her own to the anthology, her essay from Unspeakable, titled “Difference Maker,” about how she is comfortable with being a child’s court appointed advocate and that’s as close to being a mother as she ever needs to get, is a handy precursor. The anthology is called Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. For a long time, the words “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed” have been used to describe willingly childless adults. Those words were not, somehow, unspeakable. I’m eager to see if the authors she selected were able to defend their decision with the same stoic sense of absurdity and honesty that Daum presents the unspeakable themes of her collection.Selfishcvr

I like an honest conversation. I also like to get to the deep stuff quickly. I’ve been told that I “get deep fast.” I don’t have a lot of patience or interest in small talk. Strip away the niceties and I can get to know you. This is what I like most about Daum’s collection: I get to know her, and in doing so, I get to know myself a little more, a little better. I relate.

She opens a door, and I make a mad dash through it, much like I make to the bookstore when an author I admire (or to whom I relate) offers up a new piece of work. While I’m waiting for the next one, Daum’s Unspeakable makes for an excellent re-read.

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AmandaPageAmanda Page is an assistant professor of writing and humanities. She lives in Ohio with her two dogs and various drafts of personal essays. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking. You can find her musing about the essayist life at amanda-page.com.

Assay@NFN15: Exploring Women’s Bodies, Sex and Sexuality in Writing Non-Fiction

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Anna March, Heidi Czerwiec, Jen Fitzgerald, EJ Levy, Ashley Perez

Panel description: Our physical lives and sexuality are central to human experience
and therefore worthy topics of consideration in our writing. However, writing the female body/sexuality presents unique rewards and challenges for non-fiction writers and readers alike. This variously diverse panel will explore, through a feminist lens, these issues and their intersection with under-representation of women in publishing non-fiction. As a group, we will explore the frequently cited concern that contributions by women to the non-fiction field are disproportionately in the area of memoir/personal essay. We will interrogate whether that is a valid concern or if it’s a veiled diminishment of the worth of those categories. We hold the position that women’s bodies and sexuality deserve rich, serious, diverse, nuanced and varied consideration and will discuss how we can broadly foster such writing.

Anna March introduced the panel as a discussion of how women’s sexuality and bodies are valued or not, and how that affects our writing.

Jen Fitzgerald drew from her experience as the former VIDA Count Director to describe the current literary climate from a gender perspective. In addition to counting bylines in magazines, Fitzgerald counted bylines in every volume of Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and Best American Short Stories from 1986 through 2010. Allowing for margin for writers who don’t identify along traditional gender binaries, she found that Best American Essays was the series most heavily dominated by male writers. According to her counts:

  • 53% of works published in the Best American Short Stories series were written by male writers.
  • 61% of works published in the Best American Poetry series were written by male writers.
  • 71% of works published in the Best American Essays series were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald pointed out that, as with counting bylines in standalone journals and magazines, counting Best American bylines provided real data to support anecdotal evidence of gender disparity in publishing.

Since 2010, female writers have gained some ground in the Best American Essays series. From 2010 through 2015, 62% of the works published in Best American Essays (and 53% of the works listed as notable essays) were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald also noted that Best American anthologies edited by male guest editors always skew more heavily toward male writers, while those edited by female guest editors are either balanced or skew slightly toward male writers.

VIDA counts have documented, not changed, the literary landscape, Fitzgerald said. She encouraged writers to challenge the status quo, for example by interrogating recommended reading lists and building foundations on which women’s writing can exist.

Heidi Czerwiec discussed how her work constantly requires her to navigate the ethics of writing about bodies that aren’t her own. She described four recent projects that in some way appropriated the stories of other women:

  • The poetry collection Self-Portrait as Bettie Page incorporates the story of pin-up model Bettie Page.
  • The poetry manuscript Maternal Imagination draws on women’s birth stories to offer a female perspective on the monstrous body.
  • The poetry manuscript Sweet/Crude investigates the sex trafficking of women in the Bakken oil patch.
  • In writing about her adopted son, Czerwiec tells his birth mother’s story.

In all of these works, Czerwiec seeks to bring to the page underrepresented issues in need of representation, such as:

  • Sexual and artistic agency
  • Historic shaming of mothers
  • Effects of the Bakken oil boom on women
  • Socioeconomic divides in the experience of motherhood

Czerwiec writes about other women’s bodies in order to amplify their voices. At the same time, she implicates herself within her own writing, explicitly acknowledging her privilege and culpability.

Anna March introduced herself as a writer focused on relationship/marriage and feminist issues, as well as an inheritor of three generations of sexual shame. She characterized writing about women’s lives as an act of rebellion, quoting Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Writing about women’s lives, she said, is taking ownership and wielding political power.

In light of the gender disparity in publishing, as documented by VIDA, March made four recommendations to women writers:

  1. Do the writing. Don’t stop.
  2. Listen to women’s stories, read women’s stories, buy women’s books and publications.
  3. Push back with editors and agents when writing about women’s bodies and sexuality. Be willing to articulate why these topics are important.
  4. Clamor for the writing we wish to see. Write to editors. Be part of creating a world in which this writing is upheld.

March acknowledged several barriers facing women who write about their bodies, as well as suggesting ways to overcome each barrier.

Barrier: Internal shame

Overcome by: Knowing that other women will come forward with similar stories after you’ve shared your story

Barrier: Fear of negative comments

Overcome by: Realizing that those people will find something negative to say no matter what a woman writes

Barrier: Fear of damaging real-life relationships

Overcome by: Being upfront with the people you write about

Ultimately, you may choose not to tell certain stories, March said, but don’t let fear keep you from telling.

Ashley Perez described the process of writing an essay about her experience with sex and pain. She recalled feeling consumed by this story and unable to find peace until she told her truth in writing. Beyond the cathartic benefits of creating an initial draft, Perez shared several insights she gained while working with an editor to shape the story for publication.

  • As with other writing, narrow your focus. Determine what specific thing your essay is about. That one thing defines this piece of writing. Don’t worry that it defines you or all of your writing.
  • Consider whose voice has authority in your writing. Whose lens are you writing through? Even when we think we’re writing from our first-person perspective, we might discover that we’re letting other voices speak for us.
  • Decide who will have access to your drafts while you are writing. Avoid sharing drafts with people who will pressure you to censor your work.
  • Sit with the parts of your writing that make you uncomfortable. Those may be the most important parts of your story.
  • Engage with a literary community to find supportive editors and readers.

EJ Levy noted that at least one editor at Harpers claimed that unlike men, women tend not to pitch again after they’ve been turned down once. She encouraged women to pitch repeatedly until the door opens.

Levy then read a piece titled “Notes Toward an Essay on Hair,” a portrait of her female body exploring the ritual of shaving her face.

**

Kim Kankiewicz is the co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts nonprofit outside of Seattle. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Full Grown People, LARB, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Washington Post, and con-text. Find her online at kimkankiewicz.com. Twitter: @kimprobable

Writers to Read: In Praise of Odder Women — by Stacey Engels

StaceyEngelsOne warm evening after work, I landed up at KGB Bar in the East Village for a reading by Vivian Gornick. Having been in New York City for twenty years, I often search out nature rather than art, or see things my friends are in, or have made, or are reading. Or I just see friends, because that is an event in itself. Organizing dinner or a drink or a walk is usually a production preceded by weeks of near misses, last minute cancellations, reschedulings.

On the far side of this small, venerated literary bar, dug in as though they have been here for a while, are two people who have lived more than a century between them. It so happens that one of them is a friend of mine from Yaddo, and Facebook. Between us is an ocean of professional-looking young people who look as though they approach their art consumption, and perhaps their art-making, professionally. My friend is leaning over the small table to hear her friend.

I order a glass of wine, and, as I wait, and wait, and wait for it, feel some strange swelling of gratitude for the elderly, un-speedy bartender. Is it hip to have a bartender remaindered from the seventies, I wonder? What is the story here? When I get my wine and swivel in the direction of my friend and her friend, they are gone.

The minutes roll away, and away. Then there is a shuffling and mic check at the end of the bar, where the lectern is set up, at an angle precisely out of my eyeline. Vivian Gornick is introduced. Vivian Gornick begins to speak.

I will not see Vivian Gornick at all this evening, but I will hear her voice, which is why I am here. I will be filled with her voice, and I will think, as I often do, how different my life would have been if I had heard voices like this when I was young. When teachers and writers had so much power over the formation of my ideas about literature and reality, and so misused that power: by stating there were no women writers on the syllabus because there were no women writers who were up to par with the men on the list. By making it clear that the raw material of my inner life could not, without vast manipulation, be shaped into something worth reading.

Gornick’s new book, The Odd Woman and the City, is a chronicle of inner life as it intersects with being in the world, whatever that may mean: conversations with doormen, the rising and falling of romance, helping a stranger on an icy street, moving through the city with the words and thoughts of other writers coloring what you see and how you think about them.

As I sit, head lowered, listening, a world rolls out under my eyelids: eternal, immortal New York intertwined with vanished and vanishing New York. A portrait of the artist as an odd woman waking up in a world in which it is okay to be alone, unmarried, without children, okay to be a woman in love with a city and with books. It is revolutionary, I think, to let yourself begin again in the now.

[My mother and I] leave the diner and walk to the bus stop. “Let’s stand here,” she says, pointing to a spot a few feet beyond the sign. “It used to throw me into a rage,” she explains, “that the driver would always pass the sign and stop here. I never understood why. But now I realize that it is actually easier for him to lower the step here for people like me than it is at the sign.” She laughs and says, “I’ve noticed lately that when I don’t get angry I have more thoughts than when I do. It makes life interesting.”

The book begins (and ends) with Gornick reaching out to her friend Leonard, who sometimes depresses and irritates her, whom she sometimes irritates and depresses. All of The Odd Woman and the City is suffused with this prickly, loving dissatisfaction. It captures something essential in New York life; how loneliness, obstacles, insanity and inconvenience crush in on one from all sides. How every day there are stark reminders of the dreamed-of life, and of the life you are really living. And every day, the archaeological layering of voices that make up New York – voices from hundred year-old books, voices from windows in Hell’s Kitchen or Broadway revivals or a seventy-nine year old woman in an East Village bar – make you grateful for the life you are really living.

**

Stacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.