Tag Archives: Winter 2021

We Are Bridges: A Memoir

Cassandra Lane
The Feminist Press ($17.95)

by Dustin Michael

Cassandra Lane’s debut memoir, We Are Bridges, is a powerful and intimate exploration of personal identity and family history. Spanning the chasms of what cannot be known, what has been lost, and what has been stolen, the book underscores how often information goes missing and proposes what must be done to reconnect with what remains.

The story begins with a pregnancy test and the narrator contemplating the uncertainties of bringing a Black child into a hostile and hateful world. This turns out to be an echo of an earlier episode from Lane’s family history, a gruesome and unforgettable scene that finds her great-grandmother Mary, pregnant and alone, standing in the shadow of the body of her lynched husband. It is Mary’s story that forms the first pier of the bridge that links Lane’s past and future, her ancestry and her descent, the childhood she remembers and the child she ultimately bears.

The memoir is composed of an interlocking series of vignettes (Lane calls it a “hybrid” in her prologue), beginning in 1904 and spanning roughly a century in the leadup to Lane’s own impending motherhood. Lane leans into the wordplay of her family’s last name, “Bridges,” and adopts the symbol as an organizing conceit for her narrative, but the fluid elegance of her prose more closely evokes the form of a dancer leaping into empty air, reaching out for an unseen hand, a connection drawn through motion.

A creative writer by nature and a journalist by training, Lane’s curiosity propels each chapter. She is a confident storyteller with a style both lyrical and luminous. Her years of experience conducting interviews and chasing leads are evident in the questions she asks of her subjects, the way she draws information out of relatives and strangers alike, but it is her piercing interrogation of her own memories that truly captivates. As Lane trains her investigative arsenal on her own past, the work achieves the kind of translucence familiar only to great memoirists, as the unbearable brilliance of the author's intellect shines through the tissue of her memories like sunlight through leaves.

As Lane tells this tale and searches for her place in it, she finds that so much is speculative, despite her best attempts at factual reconstruction. She brings her journalistic skills to the project of telling her family’s history accurately, but sometimes, the information is not forthcoming; other times, it is simply gone. In a situation all-too familiar to African American genealogists and memoirists across the country, Lane discovers that many of even the most fundamental documents, like the birth certificates of her ancestors, have been lost to time.

Given this difficulty, the title of We Are Bridges resounds even more. Lane has set herself an essential task by doing what she can as a writer—verifying and validating the lives of those who came before her, confirming their existence, drawing from them strength and inspiration, and locating herself within their lineage.


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Life in a Field: Poems

Katie Peterson
Photographs by Young Suh
Omnidawn ($19.95)

by Rachel Slotnick

To call Katie Peterson’s Life in a Field unsettling is an understatement. The collection eludes narrative and logic, insisting on hybridity. Readers must remind themselves to embrace confusion and linger in the discomfort. The point is to get lost in the field.

“Follow me,” Peterson seems to say in her opening lines, initiating a fable involving a girl, a donkey, and a secret. Almost immediately, we are confronted with maternal separation, followed by a gruesome breeding pattern. In these words about a farm animal, the reader discerns a thinly veiled critique of our society’s obsession with control over women and uteruses. Alongside the donkey, there’s the girl growing into puberty: her “hips widened, her breasts began to require confinement.”

There is an urgency to these poems. The aforementioned girl swims downstream, paired with a photograph of a child in her baptismal pool. “Do you want to know if she swims naked?” Peterson teases. My eyes travel the rigid face of the girl in the photograph, a stranger to her body. I think of the donkey, failing to recognize his mother. “When you work with animals,” Peterson writes, “they are always moving out of the picture.” But there is this girl, trapped in the frame.

In the poem, “HEARD IN CHURCH,” we read of the “Man who rode the donkey / Greatest cowboy of them all.” Donkeys are adorned with a dorsal stripe, a bisecting pattern beneath their fur, said in liturgy to be the shadow of the cross. “They call them Jerusalem donkeys,” Peterson writes, “and they are prized.” With this revelation, the poems take on an accusatory tone. What are we to make of human behavior, tearing this holy creature from his mother and putting him to work in the field? Peterson’s poetry makes one uneasy, but the disease is beyond the page.

Without flinching, the narrative returns to maternal separation. “If you lose something, for example if you lose a baby, you might wish for another. But if you lose another baby after that, and this time you are farther along, there are two different paths the mind might take.” Peterson debates the logic of wishing for one healthy baby as opposed to wishing for two. She enumerates the second path, “well, it’s not a path, it’s a person—the second person wishes for two babies, because now two are owed him or her.” The mathematical intonation is heart-wrenching here, reducing miscarriage to a word problem in which two trains are leaving the station at different times.

We can’t ever quite return to the fable with which the book opened; everything has been transformed through the lens of what we now know. Of donkeys, Peterson writes: “Most families can only afford one,” and now the donkey has shapeshifted to an unborn child. Thematic words seep through, refusing to submit to the child’s realm in which Peterson originally attempted to contain them: “the afterbirth of his nervousness,” jolts our attention, while “our second try has given birth to something small” sits unnervingly in our mind’s eye.

The story then splinters into metafiction, addressing the reader’s discomfort directly. “This story is not your story. You are not meant to relate to it,” Peterson writes, and there it is: She absolves our distress, in much the same way as a confession might absolve sin, allowing for a bit of confusion. “You are meant to pitch a tent inside this page like a down and out person might do by the American River . . . You are meant to believe you can live here.” But we don’t want to live in this story. It is uncomfortable, it is lonely, it is provocative, and it is familiar.

“What do you do with the story you didn’t wish for?” In the closing pages of Life in a Field, the girl and the donkey are faced with the tragedy of the climate: falling skies, droughts, brushfires, and floods. “This story intends to refute the creation of the world,” Peterson writes. “As it says in the Bible, I appeal to you on the basis of faith in things not seen.” Does poetry require faith? Are words things unseen? What if the field in which we linger is merely a paragraph, a collection of nouns and overgrowth? Poetry, Peterson warns, is not meant to be a palliative. In the final photograph, a woman wears a donkey mask. Or perhaps, a donkey wears a woman mask, braying for help.


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The Invisible Painting: My Memoir of Leonora Carrington

Gabriel Weisz Carrington
Manchester University Press ($26.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Gabriel Weisz Carrington’s The Invisible Painting: My Memoir of Leonora Carrington shares the author’s memories of growing up in the Mexico City household his remarkable mother, surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, created with his father, photographer Emerico “Chiki” Weisz. The book gives an intimate, at times albeit fleeting, glimpse into the real world of his mother and her work.

Raised in Cockerham, England, where she was ensconced in her well-to-do family’s “Victorian mansion,” Carrington fled to Paris as soon as she possibly could, where she quickly met up with the Surrealists. Possessing a profoundly strange beauty—in many photographs a disquieting, haunted aura envelops her face as if she has just been shocked into recognition of consciousness—she wound up living with artist Max Ernst in a rather idyllic small town in the southeast of France until Ernst was jailed by the Vichy government. After this, “locals, who both hated and envied the life she led with Max, turned their backs on her,” and Carrington ended up in Spain before being institutionalized for a time. When her father attempted to send her to South Africa for further institutionalization, she married the sympathetic artist and diplomat Renato Leduc in a burst of desperation, then fled to New York City and on to Mexico City.

Ernst also ended up in New York City, marrying the heiress Peggy Guggenheim. Weisz Carrington includes here a group photo of expatriate artists. Ernst sits in the second row with his adult son Jimmy (from his first marriage) and Guggenheim standing behind him. Carrington sits on the ground in front of him to his left. Friedrich Kiesler, casually lounging beside her, stares at her rather than facing the camera like everyone else, while Stanley William Hayter sits on her other side with his face partially still turned towards hers, as if he had looked towards the camera just in time. Between the two men, Carrington stares intently forward, ever steadfast in her “refusal to be treated like a sexual object.” Notably, Guggenheim and photographer Berenice Abbot are the only other women in the photograph of fourteen “artists in exile.”

After arriving in Mexico City, Carrington’s marriage with Leduc naturally faded away. As Weisz Carrington nonchalantly describes, “As the years went by, she met my father, Chiki, and they decided to live together.” Each of them had had their own near fatal dalliances with the Vichy government; coming together no doubt gave them opportunity to benefit from the mutual support and understanding of each other’s difficult personal past. Living in Mexico City, they joined the many fellow artists, writers, and thinkers who had fled Europe as the Nazis advanced during World War II.

Having now raised a family of his own, Weisz Carrington still lives in the same home, which creates interesting opportunities for reflection:

The table where I now sit was a meeting ground where we discussed politics and art as well as the more trivial details of our day-to-day existence, all the while sharing food, each of us serving ourselves from the kitchen. It was a place where we could establish our identities and share the challenges life brought us. During these meals, we would choose whichever words best expressed what we wanted to say; sometimes, those words would be in Spanish, sometimes in English or French, as each language carried its emotional substance. We referred to this mixture as ‘volapük’, a term coined in the nineteenth century by Johann Martin Schleyer to describe a mixture of English, German, and French. If only I could go back and be a fly on the wall during those long-ago conversations between Edward James, Luis Buñuel, Aldous Huxley, Octavio Paz, Remedios Varo, Wilfrerdo Lam, Alice Rahon, and all the others who at one point or other sat around this very same table, enjoying themselves, gossiping and laughing.

We do become privy to how Carrington’s behavior could mirror the real yet unreal appearance of many of the creatures that populate her paintings; Weisz Carrington shares how, “she often behaved as though our whole lives were an ongoing conversation briefly interrupted by the practicalities of day-to-day existence.” he was providing a typical home life, yet one filled with extraordinary and unusual emphasis upon esoteric and arcane occult knowledge. Occasionally, there was discussion of her work: “She spent hours learning about and practicing meditation, and she kept a sketchpad next to her bed that she filled with drawings and notes. ‘My paintings don’t come exclusively from dreams,’ she once declared. ‘Some scenes emerge from altered states of consciousness. Others—who knows where they come from.’”

For those readers already invested in Carrington’s art, it’s difficult not to desire something more from this memoir—foremost a bit of that “fly on the wall” perspective the author himself yearns for. Weisz Carrington offers some notable reflections upon works by his mother and a few books of hers in his possession, and succeeds in conveying the atmospheric qualities of growing up in her presence, yet in the end the son’s writing is, perhaps inevitably, only a pale reflection of the mother’s accomplished art.


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Long Rain

Lenard D. Moore
Wet Cement Press ($16)

by Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein)

Long Rain, the tenth book from micro-press Wet Cement, merges Japanese and Western poetic sensibilities. Lauded poet Lenard D. Moore infuses the tanka form with vivid personal memory, modern motifs, and Black Southern geography and history. The result is a beautiful collection conveying the contemporary and the traditional, the transitory and the timeless.

These five-line poems—well suited to the book’s small, almost pocket-sized format—sometimes depart from the 31-syllable tanka form, but their seeming simplicity reflects Moore's deep engagement with the genre as a poet, an anthologist, and someone long active in haiku literary organizations.

The poems in Long Rain use juxtaposition in subtle and surprising ways. The first is the layering of observations of nature with personal and historical detail grounded in the Carolinas, Moore’s home. The book is organized according to the four elements (earth, wind, fire, and water), and each section begins with a brief prose introduction on a specific memory. The first is of Great-Grandma Fannie: “She stood ironing board-straight, as if she had a basket on her head, born twenty-four years after the Civil War.” This distinctly Black American frame then opens onto brushstrokes of contemporary nature: “in an instant / blue jays switch places / on the powerline.”

The presence of elders and the human figure in nature is persistent: “red summer sunrise – / a lone old woman sniffing / the wind-tipped roses . . ./ thin white clouds floating / over the distant mountains.” This musical example shows Moore combining the traditional Japanese contemplation of nature with the insistent figure of the lone old woman. He juxtaposes human appreciation of what is rooted—the fierce immediacy of the roses and their lure of pleasure—with a distant background of something floating out of reach.

Many poems convey the culture of the Black South: “Funeral Parlor: / a black man rolls the casket / down the crowded aisle, / little by little his shoes / shadow / shine in the white light.” The poems also often pay attention to work, labor’s depiction embedded in rapidly rendered images of beauty: “washing pink sheets / she bends over the washtub / this sunsplashed morning / and how warm wind scatters / the scent of her perfume.” These poems on human labor are placed near poems on the labor of the animal world, such as one on the guinea hen “searching for new eggs/in the increasing dimness.”

Along with the specific portrayal of Black labor is the motif of blackness as an aesthetic element: “the aged panhandler / in black alligator shoes”; “a trail of black exhaust / coming toward my windshield”; “a swoop of flies / blackening the dead dog / in the hayfield.” This motif of blackness is often merged with human sensuality and sexuality: “the salty wind slipping / into the cottage / her black panties drift backwards / on the rusty hanger.” Here Moore transforms the modest suggestiveness of Japanese tanka into American cinematic vividness.

Reading them, one doesn't feel that the beauty in these poems is a place to rest or hide; Moore gives us interplay rather than an ideal. The refrain of the human presence, whether soothing, stimulating, or simply persisting, is like a bass note amid the treble of dynamic natural elements, and one that implies a larger social web. Yet, the motto of the poems might be “stick to savoring.” Moore foregrounds human pleasure while indicating the constraints of history, and, beyond it, an ephemeral reality that transcends the human.

These layered elements rapidly yield, as in a magician’s trick, a complex sense of time: the quick, precise image from direct observation, memory, or Carolinian history is juxtaposed with the fleeting, distant movement of birds, wind, or clouds, showing a world that is both intensely personal and profoundly impersonal. Time is at once local, historical, and eternal—all in a seemingly simple five-line tanka.


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Catalogue Baby:
A Memoir of Infertility


Myriam Steinberg
illustrated by Christache
Page Two ($24.95)

by Lisa Rizzo

Winner of a 2021 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature, Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of Infertility tells the story of Myriam Steinberg’s quest to become a mother. Like many women today, Steinberg spent her early adulthood focused on her career; it was only as her fortieth birthday approached that she realized that if she wanted to have a child, she had better begin. She hoped her partner would join her in parenthood, but when that relationship ended, she decided to go it alone and found herself navigating the sometimes strange world of Trying To Conceive (or TTC, one of the many terms and acronyms Steinberg explains in the book’s glossary). She begins her journey with great optimism, but as her attempts fail, she finds herself enduring progressively more invasive procedures.

Steinberg pulls no punches when it comes to relating the details of her medical history. In her preface, she states, “There is so much silence around the pain that can accompany miscarriage and difficulties in conceiving. I hope this book will help de-stigmatize a terribly lonely experience.” Bravely taking the reader through every messy and heartbreaking moment, she structures Catalogue Baby in four sections, one for each year in her four-year saga. Some of the sections contain chapters titled with the name of a baby conceived but then miscarried; these parts of the book are heartbreaking to read, as Steinberg finds herself pregnant over and over, only to have her hopes repeatedly dashed.

It is with the depiction of this emotional rollercoaster that the graphic form of this memoir becomes important. While Steinberg’s narration helps orient the reader, and her simple, honest language effectively conveys the many angles of her experiences, Christache’s artwork, rendered in shades of maroon and black, propels the story via vivid images of raw emotion. The fusing of language and image allows the reader to linger, taking in the experience. One example of this is at the end of the chapter “Dahlia,” when an entire page is filled by one illustration: a black background with a grey figure huddled in a corner. A shimmer of pink floats up from her body. Steinberg’s only words: “I never did find out if I was right about the baby being a girl.”

Although Catalogue Baby is filled with such moments of anguish, Steinberg often uses humor to lighten the mood. This is another place the art plays a key role. One character in the book is Steinberg’s animated biological clock, which accompanies her to many of her appointments and sometimes seems to act as her conscience or her inner voice. There are also talking sperm and eggs, as well as dollar signs floating through the air when Steinberg pays for yet another expensive procedure. These subtly cartoon-like beings create imaginative respite for the reader (and perhaps the author herself), spaces to breathe before moving on.

This is a story of great determination, an epic journey filled with heartache and triumph; the author learns a great deal about herself along the way as she is forced to give up her fantasy of how she “should” become a mother. Steinberg describes both her medical procedures and her emotional state with utter honesty, while Christache’s illustrations often leave nothing to the imagination. While the author’s willingness to lay herself bare on the page may be startling at times, it affirms the need to confront the shame and secrecy that shroud this part of many women’s lives.

Those who have experienced infertility may find comfort in Steinberg’s commitment to breaking the silence about the emotional and physical toll this struggle can bring, yet this book can also serve as a lesson of hope for almost anyone dealing with difficulties in life. A story of courage and persistence, Catalogue Baby is a vibrant reminder of why so many people read memoirs: In learning about the specific lives of others, we might find shared emotional truths.


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Tenderness

Derrick Austin
BOA Editions ($17)

by John Bradley

Tenderness isn’t a quality often used to describe contemporary poetry, but it’s certainly an appropriate title for this book, Derrick Austin’s second. In “Taking My Father and Brother to the Frick,” for example, the narrator notes how museumgoers regard the paintings, and then poses this question about his Black father and brother: “Who has looked at either of you lately / with such tenderness?”

Austin knows how to transform vulnerability into tenderness, yet never ignores the history that surrounds him, as demonstrated in these lines from “Epithalamium” (the first of two poems with this title in the book):

In this lush expanse a man
was lynched
at the beginning of the century
I was born in.

The speaker was born not just into a century, but into a web of violence targeting those like himself, a gay, Black man. When he writes about visiting Mexico in “Obsidian Mirror,” what surprises him is his acceptance there: “We were black men in a city / an oasis, where we need not / flinch at another’s approach.” The word “flinch” says so much.

If there’s one poet who seems to have been a major influence on Austin’s style, it’s Frank O’Hara. This can be seen in the names of the author’s friends who populate these autobiographical poems: “Morgan and Danez rowed in the Grand Canal at Versailles” and “Drinking rosé at Gib’s, I thought of you typing / in your dream house near Canada” and “Vanessa and Rubi point their kids toward water birds breaking funny poses to fly.” Austin’s phrase “casual intimacy” in his poem “’And Also with You’” best describes this style, but this intimacy extends to the reader as well, often with a direct, soul-baring statement, as in the closing of “Black Docent”:

Whistler painted The Peacock Room
140 years ago. Slavery had not been excised
from the Americas. I’ve wanted
to be hurt into gold.

In viewing Whistler’s The Peacock Room, the artist’s lush use of gold brings the closing all the more clarity and bite.

While the vast majority of the poems are personal, Austin shows he’s able to explore historical figures with the same delicacy and insight that he brings to the present. In “The Devil’s Book,” Austin writes about Tituba, an enslaved girl in Salem, Massachusetts, who was the first accused by the Puritans of witchcraft. The poem states: “Tituba was no witch. She simply saw the nooses / each citizen held,” a line chilling in the way it resonates with our current society’s constant violence toward people of color. Austin’s direct statement feels like an x-ray.

The other historical poem in the book is a persona poem in the voice of George Villiers, who “was a favorite of King James I of England and likely his lover.” In a series of couplets, we hear Villier’s testimony: “I ignored my wedding vows and you the state. / What’s more erotic than the dream of control?” Even in an erotic love poem, however, Austin reminds us of aforementioned injustice: “During your reign, witches burned.” Love cannot remove all fear and cruelty from the heart, the poem reminds us.

It’s easy to see why Tenderness won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award. Over and over, Austin demonstrates his skill with these sensitive, lyrical poems. It will be fascinating to see if Austin will move further beyond the autobiographical in future and continue exploring historical fault lines.


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All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis

Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson
One World ($29)

by S. Leite

In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report warning of runaway global warming if swift action is not taken to mitigate climate change. Called a “Code Red for Humanity” by UN Secretary General António Guterres, the report specifies the need to reach net zero emissions by 2050. For those who have begun to feel jaded by the constant stream of such news, a term was coined by the Bureau of Linguistical Reality in San Francisco—"brokenrecordrecordbreaking”—which gives a name to “the feeling of déjà vu experienced when reading that this year’s catastrophe records are, again, the highest ever.”

The Bureau of Linguistical Reality is just one of the organizations and individuals featured in All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, a book co-edited by marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and climate strategist Katharine K. Wilkinson. This book helps readers understand who is working to disrupt our fossil-fueled world, and unsurprisingly it’s women—many of them BIPOC—leading the way. All We Can Save groups a wide range of essays, poetry, and artwork into eight solutions-oriented sections: Root, Advocate, Reframe, Reshape, Persist, Feel, Nourish, and Rise. In addition to organizing the book around themes, the editors have annotated the text, drawing attention to important terms, insights, and statistics. For those new to climate activism, these notations can equip readers with a foundational understanding of climate-related issues and provide an entry point to the conversation; for those who are already active players, the annotations act as quick references that can be used to engage different stakeholders.

Together, the collection of voices serves its intended purpose as “a balm and a guide for the immense emotional complexity of knowing and holding what has been done to the world, while bolstering our resolve never to give up on one another or our collective future.” The women working on the frontlines of climate change remind us that we cannot rely solely on scientists and technology to “fix” the climate crisis. As Rhiana Gunn-Wright, one author of the Green New Deal resolution, points out, “Science can help us to understand the extent of the climate crisis, identify its causes, and measure its severity. It can even suggest time lines for action. But it cannot tell us what policy solutions to pursue. It cannot tell us what to do—not definitively.” Rather, as the introduction points out, what to do with the data is up to a “mosaic of voices—the full spectrum of ideas and insights for how we can turn things around.”

While All We Can Save features inspiring examples of success, its contributors do not shy away from highlighting the deep paradigm shift that is still needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Many of the authors stress the connections between environmental and social injustices, underscoring the entanglement of direct and structural violences that have been committed based “on a worldview of domination that supports an extractive economy.” The book does not offer easy solutions, stating explicitly that there is no one clear path that leads us where we need to go, but collectively, the authors of All We Can Save demonstrate that we need both a bottom-up and a top-down approach to make change. The crucial takeaway is that we cannot assume someone else is doing the work for us—the consequences of inaction are too big.


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Praying by Looking:
An Interview with Jordan Kisner

photo by Ebru Yildiz

by Benjamin P. Davis

I first encountered the work of Jordan Kisner via her essay about the scholar and activist Silvia Federici entitled “The Lockdown Shows How the Economy Exploits Women. She Already Knew,” a piece that teems with the transformative possibilities of social action. In the context of pandemic-related pessimism, I felt energized by Kisner and Federici’s conversations. While they took place on simple walks through a park, these conversations were also global, looking to Indigenous politics across the Americas in order to consider ways of living in human community that offer alternatives to the exploitation of capitalism. This led me to seek out Kisner’s essay collection, Thin Places: Essays from In Between (Picador, $18), where I found that her analysis of big issues was set alongside generous personal reflection and insightful commentary on the symbols, habits, and gestures that make everyday life meaningful. To talk more about these connections between the structural and the personal, I reached out to Kisner in early 2021. What follows is the result of our slowly thinking together over the course of the year.


 

Benjamin P. Davis: In your essays you take the tone of a fellow traveler, as opposed to an omniscient commentator. For example, there’s a moment in Thin Places, in the piece “Habitus,” where you pause to tell your reader about what had been preventing you from writing that essay: “I had it all in mind, and still I experienced that feeling of inability every time I sat down to write, a panic more precise than writer’s block, more a failure of ethics than of imagination or creativity.” Speaking about what prevents her from writing is something Gloria Anzaldúa, a key figure in “Habitus,” does as well. Can you say more about that decision—to tell your reader about your difficulty in finishing the essay?

Jordan Kisner: I love the phrase you use, “fellow traveler,” because that describes the way I want a relationship between a writer and a reader to feel—companionable and bonded by shared curiosity. I find myself attracted to that feeling as a reader, and I want to cultivate it when I write. Still, the moment you point to in “Habitus,” where I hit a wall in the process and confess that directly to the reader, felt like a risk. Writers struggle often with the writing process, and that is rarely as interesting as the subject they’re struggling with. In this case, I decided to include it because the reason I was having a hard time writing turned out to be an example of the phenomenon the essay was trying to describe: In many places in this country, your goodness, your respectability, even your safety are contingent on your compliance with a version of “American-ness” that champions nationalism, whiteness, affluence, and conformity—and living in that kind of cultural atmosphere leads some people who don’t fit those descriptors to feel obliged to contort or hide parts of themselves and their histories to fit the script, so to speak.

I was struggling to say what I wanted to say about these dynamics because the only way I could do so with any reasonable authority was to relay my own experience as a daughter and granddaughter of a Mexican-American family from South Texas with a complicated relationship to American identity, whiteness, passing, and shame—and I had the sense that to write about that in public would cause conflict with and embarrassment for my family. (I also look more like my father’s side of the family, which adds a layer of anxiety and impostor syndrome to the prospect of writing about these subjects.)

When I had gotten my mother’s blessing to write about some of her experiences growing up, I knew that I wanted to include a mention of my block and anxiety to emphasize how intense and intergenerational the pressure not to talk about these subjects can be. It also simply felt like the most honest thing I could do at that point in the essay—to admit failure and proceed from there.

BPD: In the line I quoted above, you wrote of a “failure of ethics” in drafting the piece. When I write more personal essays, I always run into the fact that life as it is lived is so much more complicated than life as it is told—I find myself choosing between portraying the experience as I recall it, with all the missteps and complications, or making it more palatable. In Thin Places, you consistently portray experience through all of its imperfect recollection, showing us ethical complications of life as it is lived while acknowledging that most of us consider “the fantasy of escaping into some system of blinding simplicity and idealism.” Why is it important to stay close to reality in essays, even and especially as that involves sharing moments of ethical failure?

JK: I think there’s a strong ethical argument for choosing to retain nuance and complication in an essay, but honestly, I make that choice—when I do, which I hope is more often than not—for reasons of practicality and aesthetics. Complication, messiness, hesitation, and fallibility are interesting! An untidy narrative is more engaging than a tidy one, and a writer wrestling with her own fallibility is more exciting to me than one who elides it. The impulse to present a seamless, unimpeachable story or argument is so strong, but it’s worth asking: who and what purpose does that serve? If you are trying to write what is true, useful, and compelling, the reality of the situation is typically better than what you might invent to smooth the rough edges.

BPD: “Habitus” is not only the title of the aforementioned essay, but it is also a key word running through Thin Places, one that reverberates across other essays. In “The Big Empty,” for instance, you define it as “a sociological term for the ways habits of body and mind are created by imitating those around you, and the way groups of people form coherent social practices.” What about this concept holds so much significance for you?

JK: I find myself susceptible to this phenomenon, and so it intrigues and vexes me. I have a strong mimicking impulse, whether it’s accidentally picking up other people’s gestures, accents, or turns of phrase. I’ve always chalked this up to curiosity and delight—I like people, and I like discovering all the various ways of being one can manifest. I’ve also always suspected that this trait makes me more susceptible to having a worldview, or a habitus, that is heavily influenced by my surroundings. This seems both like a beautiful thing (communities form coherent identities because we need and care for each other; I love that I carry the mannerisms of people I have loved) and a fraught one: how much do I determine my own worldview? Is such a thing even possible? Desirable? What are the habits of mind and body I am absorbing from the culture(s) in which I live—can I even see them clearly?

BPD: On the point of soaking up our surroundings, your essays suggest that how we see and occupy space is not only a political question, but also, fascinatingly, a theological question. You argue that it matters if, with the twentieth-century mystic Simone Weil, we learn to cultivate a prayerful habit of attention; it matters if, with the contemporary poet and superb reader of Weil Christian Wiman, we feel a “universally animate energy.” What is it about attention that can lead to what you call “praying by looking”?

JK: I’m compelled by Weil’s idea that attention is prayer. It seems true to me that paying attention to something is a form of devotion, and that offering your absolute attention brings you closer to an experience of the absolute. I don’t pray in any religious sense, but I think the habit of paying true attention—to each other, to our environment, to the space we occupy together—makes us better, though it can also be uncomfortable. Cultivating that habit of attention makes me a better writer when I can manage it.

BPD: Can you say more about how attention can be uncomfortable?

JK: There’s a conference of mourning doves outside my window right now, which has been going on for probably a half an hour, though I only just noticed it. They’re having their breakfast, eating seeds off the ground. I’m happy to see them, my bird neighbors, though now that I’m looking at them I’m also thinking about the fact that the particular soil they’re eating their seeds off of isn’t safe for humans to grow our own food in due to decades of contamination and poor care. Is there anything I can do about this little patch of dirt to rehabilitate it? When would I have time for that? But what am I busy with, and is it really more important than that? Paying attention is always like that: delight and sorrow and self-implication.

BPD: Two other themes of your essays are waiting and listening. “I waited for the real moment when I’d know what to build a life on and how to be,” you write in “Attunement”; “It didn’t come.” And your epigraph cites Mary Ruefle’s line “I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.” What is the potential, perhaps even the ethical potential, you find in waiting and listening?

JK: Back when I was starting Thin Places, I said to a friend that I wanted to write a book full of people waiting for things. The emotional and spiritual tension of waiting for something as yet withheld is fascinating—for one thing, it mirrors the experience of reading a good story or essay, in which the reader is held artfully in suspense until the ending, with its answers or resolutions, arrives. To feel that feeling in real time—“Where does my own plot go next? What is its meaning?”—is an exciting, terrifying experience, and probably a universal one. It can be tempting (for me, at least) to want to force myself past the waiting and into some kind of action or determinative feeling or thought, but I started to realize that that’s often driven by impatience and anxiety—and that there’s a lot you’ll miss in the way of observations, opportunities, self-knowledge, creative potential, even relationships, if you’re unwilling to be held in suspense.

BPD: In what I take to be poking fun, in “Attunement” you describe your M.F.A. program as “going to classes with people who worked for hours on a single sentence and talk[ing] about devoting themselves to catching inspiration and channeling it into book form.” How does this dual sense of work and devotion play out in composing essays for you?

JK: I was poking fun, I suppose, but also I found it moving to be surrounded by people who treated as sacred something I feel to be sacred, especially after having worked in a corner of corporate publishing that was pretty mercenary and jaded. I find it’s important to be earnest about things—to really care about what you care about, without reservation or disguise—while trying to correct for an attitude of preciousness that can creep in when you’re doing creative work. Light self-mockery is a good way to bring myself back in line.

Early on, writing felt more to me like devotion than like work. I only knew how to write when “inspired,” which meant that I often didn’t write. Learning to treat it like work, like a practice that I sit down to do whether or not I’m feeling inspired, felt key to making a sustainable life and to making the amount and quality of work I wanted to. (Inasmuch as I have—this remains a work in progress.) I find it easier to think of writing as a practice than as a job. Maybe that’s because practices can retain a devotional quality. You engage an ongoing practice (like writing, painting, meditation, whatever) out of desire and curiosity rather than as a means to a 401k.

BPD: Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Lauren Christensen called your writing “ethnography.” Would you agree? How do you think about your method?

JK: I’ve never thought of my work as ethnography, but I understand why someone might suggest that. I do often find myself in the position of trying to decipher the ideologies or customs of some group of people. But I think where my work fails to be ethnography is that I’m always implicated in the group being observed. Because all these essays take place in America, I’m part of the culture that’s under inspection, and usually there’s some personal curiosity that has drawn me to the scene. The implied distance of the ethnographer can’t really exist in that case.

I don’t have a notion of my method, per se. When reporting or interviewing, I tend to think of myself as simply asking people to tell me what they care about, and working hard to be a critical, kind, worthy recipient of the confidence they’re placing in me by answering. When making essays I usually have two gestures in mind, one structural/intellectual and one relational: writing toward what I don’t yet understand and writing as though I’m speaking directly to someone I care about.

BPD: Also on the point of working very hard, in April of 2021, you spoke with the Marxist feminist Silvia Federici about how U.S. society undervalues domestic labor. In that article, you observe that the 2016 prayer camps at Standing Rock, and in particular the practice of “commoning” that occurred there, provide a corrective to unwaged domestic labor. “Everyday life is the primary terrain of social change,” you quote from Federici. Thin Places portrays everyday life across the country as well as across class and identities. What’s at stake for you in writing about this terrain?

JK: If you believe Federici that major social change happens at the level of the mundane or daily (which I do), then writing about “everyday life” could be part of producing the social change you wish to see. I’m not necessarily that kind of writer—if there’s any social change I hope to bring about with my writing then it will be pretty obliquely accomplished.

Everyday life is also all of life, practically speaking. We only get life in days, and all days combine something of the mundane and the marvelous, no matter whose day you’re considering. I enjoy writing with the daily in mind because I find it beautiful and strange and sometimes terrible. It’s what I want to spend my time thinking about.


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Whereabouts

Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf ($24)

by Erin Lewenauer

Originally written in Italian and now translated by the author, Jhumpa Lahiri's third novel contemplates a contemplative year. Broken into easy, melodic sections—"At the Bar," "On the Street," and "At the Trattoria"—Lahiri’s voice establishes a quick intimacy with the reader. The plot opens with an unnamed, middle-aged, woman narrator considering a year-long fellowship in an Italian city where she'd be free to work in the mornings and dine with scholars throughout the day.

Enchanting and moody, the story begins with an image of death when the narrator passes a roadside memorial: "I've never seen the mother or any other person in front of the plaque. Thinking of the mother just as much as the son, I keep walking, feeling slightly less alive." The scenes meander, as does the narrator along the streets of this foreign yet familiar place she's chosen. As she walks, she reflects on youth and age: "What did I do? I read books and studied. I listened to my parents and did what they asked me to. Even though, in the end, I never made them happy. I didn't like myself, and something told me I'd end up alone." She describes writing and living in another language, and more subtly, the way we translate ourselves throughout a day and a life.

Intensely bound to herself, the narrator explores her circumstances with a therapist, and from time to time we see sharp reflections about her life, past and present. The therapist, and thus the reader, is never truly let in, however:

At every session she would ask me to tell her something positive. Unfortunately my childhood harbors few happy memories. Instead I would tell her about the balcony off my apartment when the sun is shining and I'm having breakfast. And I would tell her how much I like to sit outside, pick up a warm pen in my hand, and write down a sentence or two.

Quiet, confrontational, and consistent, the narrator eloquently observes the layers of activity within each place and passerby, as well as how people shade and eclipse one another, come together and drift apart. Sometimes she's in her own head, sometimes she sifts the thoughts of others, but always she seems to stand just on the threshold. Her narration begs the question: What can we capture of life, especially with this contraption of writing?

Readers looking for easy or simple answers won't find them here. Questions serve as Lahiri’s plot points, and Whereabouts turns out to be a strikingly dark book despite taking place in sunny, charming Italy. But it's also an escape, each scene big as satisfying rain drops plunking down one by one during a long afternoon, and the author collects them, like bright marbles, in intense appreciation. The care Lahiri takes with these small moments is a comfort and a wonder, purporting that life is significant even when formless. It's scenes, not a play, this life. "There's no escaping the unforeseen. We live day by day."


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Motley Stones

Adalbert Stifter
Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole
New York Review Books ($17.95)

by Barbara Roether

An early critic once accused Adalbert Stifter of being interested mostly in “beetles and buttercups,” poking fun at his apparent lack of great themes. In his preface to the first edition of Motley Stones in 1852, Stifter wrote in reply, “Fashioning great or small things was never the aim of my writings, I was guided by other laws entirely.”  Franz Kafka, on the other hand, famously called Stifter, who was born in 1805 in what is now the Czech Republic, his “fat brother.” Thomas Mann, W. H. Auden, and Marianne Moore have also been among his many admirers. The works of Jean Giono are somewhat reminiscent of Stifter, but overall his uniqueness is almost impossible to explain. For the fortunate reader about to discover him for the first time, Isabel Fargo Coles’s new translation from the German deftly captures the strange rhythm and flow of Stifter’s telling.

Whatever the other laws Stifter was guided by are or were remains a subject of great mystery, for it is almost impossible to say by what subtle technique Stifter enchants us, but he constantly does. Motley Stones is so infused with the deep magic of simply being that it borders on the transcendent, which is an impressive feat for a collection of stories in which people, mostly children, simply wander around the Alps doing things. And yet the world of Stifter’s prose feels eternal and elemental, much like the stones the stories are named for (Limestone, Tourmaline, Rock Crystal, Cat Silver).

In “Granite,” the first story, a boy has had a run-in with the “wagon oil man” and gotten into some trouble with his mother. His Grandfather, in order to console him, takes him for a long walk in the mountains, a walk that passes through all the temporal and geographical history of the region. Each forest grove, each alpine view is imbued with the stories of the lives that have been lived around it. The Grandfather tells the boy of the time the plague swept through, and half the people of the countryside vanished, but a young boy, left alone when his family died, found a young girl sick in the grass, and nursed her back to health. Everything turned out all right. The narrative, simple on the surface, is deftly complex in its shape, rising into the mountains then circling back to the village and to the starting point of the boy’s day, weaving even the wagon oil man into the full sweep of local history.

In “Rock Crystal,” the story most emblematic of Stifter’s style, a brother and sister walk across a mountain pass to visit their grandmother on Christmas, but are caught in a snowstorm on the way back. The simple innocence of the children is set against the brutal threat of the icy mountains around them, mountains that change in shape and character without ever allowing them to find a way down:

   But as they walked, they could not tell whether they were coming down the mountain or not. . . .
   “Where are we, Konrad?” asked the girl.
   “I don’t know,” he replied.
   “If only I could see something with these eyes of mine,” he went on, “so that I could get my bearings.”
   But there was nothing around them but blinding whiteness, everywhere that whiteness which itself merely drew a shrinking circle around them . . .

Stifter’s sentences, too, seem to be looking for a way out of the storm: “The way was always through the snow, always through the snow, and the surroundings never changed.” This sort of repetition and an often-racing rhythm in the language contribute to the feeling of enchantment so prevalent in this work.

One can be tempted to compare Stifter’s work to fairy tales, but there is no “Once upon a time” here; somehow everything is happening right now, and always has been. Each walk or journey passes landmarks that lead us to understand how the past is present in the narrative. And since children are almost always at the center of Stifter’s stories, we’re thinking of the future too, everything happening in an exaggerated fullness of time.

Stifter’s sensibility is pervasively aligned with the natural world, which is always, in its grandeur, its fierceness, and its plenty, somewhat supra-natural. Read today, when beetles and buttercups have a new cache, Motley Stones feels like a new kind of environmental writing. In Stifter it’s the people who are predictable, benevolent, and ultimately innocent. How rare it feels these days to imagine ourselves this way!


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