Monday, June 27, 2016

Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness

   Francis Bacon: Three Studies of Figures in Beds (1972)

Here’s the opening paragraph of John Berger’s “Francis Bacon and Walt Disney,” an essay originally published in New Society and recently reprinted, sans title, in the new anthology, Portraits: John Berger on Artists (Verso Books, 2015):
A blood-stained figure on a bed. A carcase with splints on it. A man on a chair smoking. One walks past his paintings as if through some gigantic institution. A man on a chair turning. A man holding a razor. A man shitting.
The essay begins abruptly, describing Bacon’s work—the equivalent of a cold open in tv or film. The six staccato noun phrases, punctuated as sentences, suggest that this is raw, unprocessed data. The sole complete sentence falls precisely in the middle of the paragraph, backing off for a moment from specifics to offer a somewhat hazy generalization.

Berger takes what you might call an inductive approach to art criticism, beginning not with orienting facts—names, dates, era, etc—but with direct/uninterpreted observation, and working towards general conclusions. This approach can be very persuasive. I’ve used it on occasion myself. The idea is that by beginning with details that anyone can see, the writer and reader process the work together. The argument, when it finally arrives, is not so much argued as discovered.

This “processing” continues in the second paragraph, which consists of questions and observations, along with more description (now in complete sentences):
What is the meaning of the events we see? The painted figures are all quite indifferent to one another’s presence or plight. Are we, as we walk past them, the same? A photograph of Bacon with his sleeves rolled up shows that his forearms closely resemble those of many of the men he paints. A woman crawls along a rail like a child. In 1971, according to the magazine Connaissance des Arts, Bacon became the first of the top ten most important living artists. A man sits naked with torn newspaper around his feet. A man stares at a blind cord. A man reclines in a vest on a stained red couch. There are many faces which move, and as they move they give an impression of pain. There has never been painting quite like this. It relates to the world we live in. But how?
But what should we make of this jarring sentence, dropped (again) in the middle of the paragraph? “In 1971, according to the magazine Connaissance des Arts, Bacon became the first of the top ten most important living artists.” This is one of those “orienting facts” we expect at the beginning of a newspaper article, but here, in the middle of Berger’s meditation, it feels out of place, almost random. Perhaps that’s the point: the dislocation adds to the sense that Berger is sorting through disparate details about Bacon and trying to assemble them into a cohesive understanding. That the paragraph begins and ends with a question underscores the fact that he’s still figuring things out (or is striving to appear so).

For the most part, the rest of the essay proceeds in this searching mode. Berger lists five (numbered) facts about Bacon. He goes on to ponder Bacon’s focus on the human figure, his use of distortion in portraying it, and how the figures in the paintings seem isolated from one another. He considers the empty, stunned expression on the figures’ faces, as if “the worst has already happened.”

He continues this way for 23 of the essay’s 26 paragraphs (or so, depending on what you count as a paragraph). Then in paragraph 24—less than a page’s worth of text before the end of the essay—we finally come to Berger’s first mention of what caught our attention in his title: Walt Disney:
It is not with Goya or the early Eisenstein that he should be compared, but with Walt Disney. Both make propositions about the alienated behaviour of our societies; and both, in a different way, persuade the viewer to accept what is. . . . The surprising formal similarities of their work—the way limbs are distorted, the overall shapes of bodies, the relation of figures to background and to one another, the use of neat tailor’s clothes, the gesture of hands, the range of colours used—are the result of both men having complementary attitudes to the same crisis.
The accidental/incidental feel of the placement of this paragraph is, of course, not accidental. As readers, we are simply along for the ride, observing and working with Berger towards an understanding of this challenging work. The Bacon/Disney comparison, we’re supposed to think, is just another casual observation, a natural extension of the particulars with which the essay began, and no more controversial than the opening description: “A blood-stained figure on the bed.”

At one point in the essay, Berger discusses Bacon’s interest in “accident” in painting. He explains that the painter seeks accident and “colludes” with it to create his figures’ expressions. Collusion with accident: I cannot think of a better way of describing Berger’s artfully artless way of structuring this essay.
 *
Ty Clever's essays have been published by the Woodmere Museum, the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery, Littlejohn Contemporary Gallery, Art21 Magazine, and Essay Daily. He blogs about poetics, style, and art at http://hazlitter.tumblr.com 

Monday, June 20, 2016

On Subversive Publishing and "The Tongue-Like Organ of a Bee," An Interview with Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press


Founded in 2008, Siglio is an independent press in Los Angeles “committed to various kinds of subversions” and dedicated to publishing uncommon books and editions that live at the intersection of art and literature.


Sig – li – on
1. an inverse to a boundary. 
2. a small, unauthorized marvel as opposed to an ecclesiastically recognized miracle. 
3. the tongue-like organ of a bee. 
4. Obs. a perverse taxonomy, e.g. a wunderkammer
5. Archaic. The third rung on the Medieval Ladder of Awe;
         a. Delecta b. Canmena c. Siglio d. Mirabilius e. Elatoria f. Inefiblio g. Agis.





"The word 'publisher' comes from the Latin publicare 'to make public' but I quite like the German word better—Herausgäber, or as in my female case, Herausgäberin—which has in its roots the act of giving."




SM: In "On the Small and Contrary," you write about Siglio Press as an act of resistance "to the literal, the authoritarian and the facile, as the result of an undeterred ambition to share a work of art that might otherwise remain unseen and unread...". I too often feel dismayed at the flattening effects of mass publishing. Can you tell us a bit more about what it means for Siglio to respond to this climate "one book at a time"?

LP: Siglio belongs to a very vibrant community of small, independent publishing houses that operate outside the mainstream which gives all of us the ability to be idiosyncratic, eccentric even, in our passions as well as our methodologies. It also demands that we are nimble, resourceful, relentlessly inquisitive about how to do things differently—and to very high standards. (There is no lowest common denominator in this alternate universe.)

For Siglio, there is perhaps an even greater degree of idiosyncracy and nimbleness since I actively seek out uncategorizable and unwieldy works. That means the list is eclectic and thus the press has diverse readerships (readers who are interested, say, in John Cage’s chance-operation determined Diary may not be interested in Joe Brainard’s scandalous and funny recontextualizations of the comic strip character Nancy—though there is a small tribe of readers who make the leap from one Siglio book to another). This also means that there is no uniformity of design or format, no significant accumulation of titles in a single genre or category, no single marketing strategy to reapply with every title. I’m breaking the most significant rule of mass publishing simply in my lack of desire to repeat a particular success, but also, I should add, in my trust in “the reader,” her voracious curiosity, her sense of adventure, her own desire to lean into the expanse, into the unknown.

That’s why I am empowered to experiment, to take on the risk and the challenge of advocating for writers and artists I believe in, putting work into world—finding the right form and cultivating an audience for it—that might otherwise be invisible or misread or vastly underappreciated.


From Joe Brainard's Nancy 
SM: In another interview with Artbook you write about the way a book can render a visual artist's work in an entirely new form. How a book honors the artwork while also embodying a resistance against other book forms that diminish a work's scale and vision. Can you tell us a little about the process of making a book at Siglio? Do you often partner with artists whose work is entering book form? Or writers who are pairing their texts with design? Are there many makers who produce both their texts and their images?

LP: Most of the artists and writers I publish create hybrid works in which the literary and the visual are absolutely inextricable, but that manifests in extremely different ways. For instance, the artist-poet Robert Seydel created “journal pages” authored by his alter ego Ruth Greisman in A Picture is Always a Book. These are luminescent and startlingly original writings—typed up on paper purloined from old photo albums, adorned with drawings in colored pencils, oil pens, white-out, and ink stamps. If transcribed and typeset (i.e. removed from their physical context), they are still powerful, but their object-ness, the evidence of the “hand” imbues them with further layers of emotional complexity and aesthetic magnetism.

Compare this to the photo-narrative works of French artist Sophie Calle. Her provocative  investigations (calling all the people listed in a stranger’s lost address book in The Address Book, or furtively following a man to Venice in Suite Vénitienne) unfold in linear, classically typeset text paired with photographs that seem to document or surveil but also point to the inscrutable, the oblique, the poetic. Calle’s work is an entirely different species from Dorothy Iannone’s exuberantly sexual and joyfully transgressive autobiographical writings which she weaves into brightly colored, super-graphic, über-embellished ink drawings in You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My FriendsThen there is Karen Green’s Bough Down, an unusual and haunting narrative constructed of crystalline fragments of prose interspersed with her miniature collages. Made not to illustrate the words but as a parallel process of invocation and erasure, each collage—and the creative act of making it—evinces her reassembly of life in the face of devastating loss. The text without the images (and vice-versa) is utterly incomplete.

There are also artists like Joe Brainard, Jess and Richard Kraft who incorporate text, poetic nonsense and narrative suggestion in their collages of appropriated material (particularly comics). Or Ray Johnson, a collage and mail-art artist, who played with language, the form of the letter, and the means of dissemination and distribution. Most recently, I published a collection of artworks by the armless (and legless) 29-inch tall 18th century artist Matthias Buchinger. His gorgeous portraits, coats of arms and landscapes are composed of texts so tiny as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. In other words the drawings are literally made of language.

These are writers and artists who are working far beyond the boundaries of either the literary or visual arts and instead inhabit the often indescribable space between them, inviting readers to read and to look in very unusual ways. Many are also acutely aware of the particular opportunities the medium of the book affords them—not as a transparent container, but as space that—with precise decisions about materiality, design and reproduction—shapes the reader’s (very intimate) experience of their work. 


Detail from Matthias Buchinger


SM: Siglio books “challenge the reader to engage in multiple, diverse, and perhaps unfamiliar modes of reading.” But most of the experimental texts these days still inhabit objects that work two-dimensionally (though there is clearly an argument for the way that book is always a three-dimensional experience). For me, many of the books from Siglio seem to be leaning towards a three-dimensional reading process. I’m thinking of Amaranth Borsuk's Between Page and Screen, in particular. I wonder what you think about the way a text has to shift in consideration of forms that prompt the viewer to approach the reading process differently, and perhaps more spatially? Do you think text that inhabits a new spatial form necessarily needs to be briefer or fragmented?

LPSpatial dimensionality is the raison d’etre of Between Page and Screen which is an “augmented reality” reading experience. On each printed page, there is a very simple, elegant geometric design—no words at all. When you open the book in front of your computer screen, your camera reads the code, in effect unlocking words which now appear floating above the pages of the open book in your hands: you see yourself reading a text (a series of love letters between P and S) which is animate, responsive, mutating and—simultaneously—there and not there. There’s no other Siglio title like it.



From Amaranth Borsuk's Between Page and Screen



And yet, every Siglio book asks the reader to read in quite a different way, sometimes approaching the page itself as a field that defies left to right, top to bottom (as in Richard Kraft’s Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera or Jess’s collage poems). Sometimes the reader is confronted with empty space, a kind of reverberating silence (as in Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women). Or the reader is asked to turn the book, to read along the edges (as in Ray Johnson’s The Paper Snake). There is stunning variety in the formal choices about how text and image hold the page and accumulate into pages of a book: it all depends on the substance and concerns of each particular work. 

In a kind of antithesis to brevity and fragmentation, Danielle Dutton’s novel S P R A W L is a single, unbroken paragraph over almost 160 pages. Danielle and I collaborated on the design and typography, thinking quite a bit about the white space (wide margins and leading) so that we could infuse the reading experience with a seeming evenness and relentlessness of sprawl itself. It is a very playful, very innovative work that, with different typesetting and layout, would conjure a quite different experience for the reader.






SMHere’s maybe a longer question. I had a conversation with book artist Julie Chen back in 2013 about the way art books might only be accessed by a select audience. I asked Chen: 

Where, in an ideal world, would an audience encounter your work? What about the argument that few people encounter an artist's book in their lives? Are the book arts then not a form dedicated to the masses?”
She responded, of course, with a question: 
“Why is a limited edition perceived as being inaccessible when there are a number of copies available for viewing (as opposed to other types of art such as painting and sculpture where there is only one)?” 
And then an answer: 
“While I do want my work to be experienced by as many people as possible, it is intended to be an intimate experience between the reader and the book. The technical complexity of what I am doing, and my belief that the materials, media and structure of the piece all contribute significantly to the experience of the reader, along with the content, means that my production is generally necessarily limited to relatively small editions. But I do feel that they are very accessible by art standards.”

This seems a conversation that is hanging around fine art in general these days, but I wonder how you think it applies to Siglio books and to reaching a modern audience with very few copies? Where, in an ideal world, would an audience get to know Siglio books?

LP: Siglio books are widely available as Siglio’s got fantastic distribution from Artbook/D.A.P. They’re in independent, museum and gallery bookshops, in specialty retailers (like curated design shops and the like), from online retailers (better to go to Powell’s and The Strand than Amazon—don’t get me started), or even better, directly from the source. As an enticement, I give a little gift when anyone purchases a book directly from Siglio—the latest edition of “Siglio Ephemera”—because these sales are critical to the survival of the press.

Julie, as an artist making hand-made books, is challenging the assumption that “the book” as a medium presupposes wide dissemination, but I am publisher publishing books for which dissemination is key. (The word “publisher” comes from the Latin publicare “to make public” but I quite like the German word better—Herausgäber, or as in my female case, Herausgäberin—which has in its roots the act of giving). These are quite different endeavors.

My mission is to cultivate the widest and most diverse audience possible for each title and that requires engaging with all of the mechanisms that make that possible—less expensive offset printing coupled with high production values so that the book is both beautiful and relatively affordable; active distribution and good communication with booksellers so that it’s not only broadly available but also has a small legion of advocates on the front lines; and a marketing strategy based on inspiring substantive reviews so that readers not only know that the book exists but are intrigued by the conversation surrounding it.

In other words, I want to make it as easy as possible for a reader to find out about the book and want to experience it for herself, buy it without looking to hard for it, and be utterly thrilled to have it in hand. 

In an ideal world, I’d just hope for a few more readers.


SM: In tracing the history of books that partner text and images, I often point to illuminated manuscripts, dictionaries and almanacs, concrete poetry, and flux kits. I’ve really enjoyed discovering other book forms like Forrers Reallexicon and My Book House through your work. Are there other lesser-known examples you can bring to our attention?

LPWell, I love all of the things you love! That gamut from illuminated manuscripts to Fluxus publications has influenced me greatly. On the latter front, Dick Higgins and Something Else Press figures very large, particularly with regards to his ideas about “intermedia” and his way of rethinking the space of the book while using mass production techniques. Hansjörg Mayer publications also have had an impact. And I love Wallace Berman’s Semina which has directly inspired the Siglio Ephemera series, particularly in giving it as a little gift.

Really the entire Siglio list is an attempt to fill in the blanks and extend that lineage. Several books are reclamation projects of sorts—the compendiums of works by Dorothy Iannone, Ray Johnson, Joe Brainard, and Jess, the complete Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) by John Cage, and certainly Nancy Spero’s Torture of Women. Others are about introducing completely unknown writers and artists to a potential readership. I’ve published (and co-published) three books by Robert Seydel whose completely hybrid work in part inspired me to start Siglio. When The Paris Review wrote last year that “Book of Ruth is one of the great avant-garde novels of the twenty-first century,” that was a pretty satisfying moment.



Details from It Is Almost That


It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers mirrors the macrocosmic impulses of the press in one book. I started with a deep commitment to Charlotte Salomon’s work which I knew would have to be a cornerstone. A vastly underappreciated and little known artist, Salomon completed her magnum opus Life? Or Theater? A Songplay at the age of twenty-six just a few months before she died in Auschwitz. This is a truly extraordinary work—a multi-layered visual novel composed of almost 800 goauche drawings, some with vellum overlays of text, others with the texts painted in. It tells a multi-generational story (from multiple points of view) about a Jewish family during the Weimar Republic and during the rise of the Nazis. It’s been relegated to “Holocaust” art, dismissed as “illustration,” sometimes compared with Anne Frank’s diary for its autobiographical nature, but it is a mature, wholly innovative, highly complex work of real genius. Both English editions are long out of print, and I basically used my entire rights budget for It Is Almost That to pay for one chapter (and that’s after they gave me a 90% discount!). I think it’s one of the most important works of art and literature of the 20th century.

I’m planning to start something online (maybe Instagram) about books I love, books I perhaps wish I had published, books I’ll never part with. I can tell you a few of those I’ll include early on: Annette Messager’s Word for Word, Tom Phillips’s A Humument, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, and of course several books published by Christine Burgin whom I admire tremendously—Robert Walser’s Microscripts, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, and Zoe Beloff’s The Coney Island Amateur Psychoanalytic Society and its Circle.

From A Humument



SM: I've also learned a lot about visual works from exploring the feminist portal that Siglio hosts along with It Is Almost That. Is there a correlation that you have found between feminist art & writing and experimental texts? Can you point us to a few in the portal that are your favorites?

LPThanks for noticing (and delving into) the feminist portal which is really the brainchild of a former (and amazing) Siglio intern Googie Karrass. Our intention has been to create a sprawling, inclusive space that promotes heterodoxy, embraces contradiction and repetition, injects a little chaos and points in multiple (and ever-multiplying) directions. It absolutely resists any impulse to be authoritative or definitive. Though It Is Almost That was necessarily curated, it also proceeded from a resistance to certain ways of conceptualizing and categorizing work, particularly by women. Instead, I thought a lot about the ways in which the works conversed with one another, bristled against each other, augmented and refuted each other.

Eileen Myles said in her review of It Is Almost That: “Because the frame is image+text, we’re reminded that all of us generally do more. Female artists don’t just stay in their disciplines; we experience, we forage, we play. Intuitively and practically speaking, It Is Almost That is, in effect, a handbook. It, by presenting female art history, shows us how to be an artist.” I think embedded here is the answer to your question—hybridity, experimentation, process are, if not essentially female, then perhaps essential to a way of working that breaks with traditional (read: male) categories and methodologies.

SM: Thanks very much, Lisa.




Lisa Pearson is the founder and publisher of Siglio press.

Sarah Minor runs the Visual Essayists series here at Essay Daily. 






Monday, June 13, 2016

Int'l Essayists: David Carlin on the Essay big and small (in lieu of nametags and a party)


Australia is a big country. There even used to be a magazine show on TV called that: A Big Country. Australians are taught early on in school that ours is the only country that is both an island and a continent. A fact we are supposed to be vaguely proud of, even as its empty facticity masks a much deeper unease around the country’s founding myth of emptiness, which in turn is tethered like a merino sheepdog to the country’s founding ethos of European superiority and exclusion. To understand why Australia in 2016 is reenacting its own history of transportation by establishing penal colonies for asylum seekers on distant Pacific islands as punishment so dire it will deter all those who out of desperation seek to ‘break our laws’, you have to remember that the very first law ever passed by the parliament of Australia was the White Australia Act. The country is big but our hearts are small, apparently. Time to introduce Aboriginal Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko: ‘You say: It's a big country. I say: There isn't much room for everyone's big stories.’

A funny gig, this, in a way: introduce an international essayist. To ‘introduce’, from the Medieval English, is to bring a person into a place or group. I myself am international, in the sense here of non-American, by which is meant non-USA-an. You, my implied reader, is non-international meaning American meaning in turn of the USA. In this case I am taking international, for personal reasons, to mean Australian. All of these semantics are important with introductions. There tends to be a lot of things unspoken when you meet someone for the first time, even in a text.

I feel as if we could be inside what you non-internationals would call an elevator and I would call a lift — that we have only the briefest time together. And actually the problem is that I would like to introduce all the cool and great nonfiction writers of Australia: to open the elevator/lift doors and — surprise! — there they are! Possibly with nametags, definitely drinks and snacks, informal, as we Australians like it, no fuss. In lieu of such a party, I hoped I might be able to introduce three nonfiction writers, instead of just one. But none of the three I chose first was Melissa Lucashenko and she needs to be here — because her essays contain paragraphs like this:

To gain some very slight understanding of mission life, think about your present boss. Now let's say that this person will be the boss, not just of your working hours, but of your entire life, for an indefinite period. It could be one year; it could be the next 20, until he or she is replaced, through a distant government decision, by another manager from an alien culture. Imagine that you need this person's permission to leave your suburb, to visit another town, to be out after dark, to operate an electrical device, to chop down or plant a tree in your garden, to change jobs, to marry, to move house. Imagine that this person can fire you or provide you with a cushy job, remove your kids if he or she wishes, banish you from your home, cut your hair, order you flogged, fine you or imprison you without trial if you try to abscond. This person also controls your bankbook, which you probably have never seen. An important underlying assumption is that this person automatically considers you his or her physical, intellectual and social inferior. There is no system of appeal should you disagree with his or her decisions; there is no requirement on him or her to do anything other than keep you alive. Such was mission life for Aborigines throughout most of the 20th century. 
ML: https://griffithreview.com/articles/who-let-the-dogs-out/

Which is, among other things, a masterclass in introduction.

Melissa Lucashenko’s award-winning essays bring to light Australian stories otherwise untold. These are essays that burn with wit and craft, essays that observe, bear witness, celebrate stuff worth celebrating and agitate against the cruelties of everyday forgetting. Writing in one essay, in typically generous spirit, about various Australian authors she admires, Lucashenko lays out her ethics: ‘These writers work hard to create stories that tell readers that yes, I can see you, and yes, you matter, and yes, you belong here, because this is your story too, and just look at how we all might end up if we try this, or this, or this...’

Door opens, as it were. Listen: try this, or this, or this... And hold on because the elevator/lift is about to get very crowded. The other three writers I want to introduce are Gerald Murnane, Helen Garner and Fiona Wright. Here’s how they sound, three different notes:

Gerald Murnane: ‘The unstable world drifts like an island at the heart of each of us.’

Helen Garner: ‘Last week I had my hair cut. I was pleased, in the limited way one dares to be at this age.’

Fiona Wright: ‘At the time I countered that my head had never betrayed me as my body had, but now I’m not so sure.’

Unstable drifts. Limited. Betrayed me. Dares.

These three, like me, are Anglo-Australian. No doubt that’s why I found them first.

If they have anything else in common it might be this: when they address big stories in their essays, it is by artfully, insistently drawing attention to the small.

Gerald Murnane, famously eccentric in his habits and more likely than any other Australian, it is often said, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature — Teju Cole has called him ‘a genius on the level of Beckett’ — has published ten books of fiction, one essay collection and most recently a memoir about horse-racing. Above his desk in the days when he taught writing at a university he afterwards despised, Murnane pinned the portraits of his heroes: Marcel Proust, Jane Austen and a racehorse named Bernborough, which against all odds came from behind twenty horses in the final straight to win the Doomben 10000, Brisbane, 1946.

In the middle of Murnane’s writing career, there was a prolonged silence occasioned by the abandoning of a novel he was working on. Finally, when he ‘seemed to have crossed, at last, the country of fiction and to have discovered on its farther side a country no less inviting’, he opened his book of essays. Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs, with this ‘declaration’:

I should never have tried to write fiction or nonfiction or even anything in-between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays. [italics added]

Also dwelling in unstable territories of fiction and nonfiction, Helen Garner is almost exactly the same age as Murnane — three years younger, born in 1942 — and, like him, trained as a schoolteacher. Unlike him, she was sacked by the Education Department for using ‘gutter language’ and talking with the kids in her classroom about sex. As for counting, Garner has published six books of nonfiction, seven books of fiction, and three screenplays. She has been buffeted for forty years for writing fiction that was actually nonfiction, or sometimes for writing nonfiction that was a bit too fictiony. Now she is old enough to be recognized as distinguished and even ‘much-loved’. She won the Windham-Campbell Prize for nonfiction in 2016. Helen Garner once said in an interview: ‘I reckon it’d be terrible to be a man in Australia. You have to be so silent.’ This, I’d say, illustrates her capacity for empathy, against the odds.

At this point Melissa Lucashenko, now at the controls of the elevator/lift, opens the doors to reveal the Singapore/Australian writer/performer, Merlynn Tong, reading in full flight from her essay Me No Likey:

Asian girls are so sexy, he continues to coon. My body is the Sahara desert. We have reached a cul-de-sac. I am morphing into a commodity that is tumbling slow motion into a pile labeled ‘ASIAN’. I pull away. I sit up, straight. Mastering my best ‘Asian’ accent for Mr. Almost Lucky, I say in my best Thai-Hong Kong-Japanese-Chinese-Indian impression, ME NO LIKEY YOU, GO NOW PREASE.

Merlynn Tong thus introduces her voice, albeit briefly, as well as essaying a personal and critical perspective on the figure of the (Anglo) ‘Aussie bloke’ (wherein the clichéd shadows of Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin linger). At the same time, forced by the author to do an unfair amount of symbolic heavy lifting, she also introduces Peril, an online journal ‘focused on issues of Asian Australian arts and culture’, (and named with fuck-you irony after the ‘Yellow Peril’, a phrase sadly familiar for many years in our country). Peril is just one of many journals rich in essays in Australia’s vibrant (if severely under-funded) independent literary scene; others include The Lifted Brow, Overland, Westerly and Griffith REVIEW. Thank you, Merlynn Tong.

We all squeeze in, doors close, and I return to Helen Garner. Closing an essay in her recent collection Everywhere I Look, she recounts a scene that features Gerald Murnane. The latter had agreed to accept one of Australia’s richest literary prizes, but only after the prize committee absolved him of the usual requirement to spend half the prize money on travel overseas. Murnane has not travelled nor will ever bring himself to travel by air or sea, which in Australia means there is no way out. The alternative travel plan he proposed to the committee was to visit one by one ‘all the houses in Melbourne he had ever lived in.’ Garner describes how he finished his acceptance speech (in a manner that would have made Thomas Bernhard proud), with:

a long list of all his former addresses in the suburbs of Melbourne: plainly named streets in obscure, lower-middle class suburbs that no one ever goes to or hears about on the news. And as he reeled them off, by heart, without hesitation, in chronological order, we all held our breath, with tears in our eyes, because we knew then that he was reciting a splendid and mysterious poem.[i] 

Just typing out that last sentence, I feel the rhythm of those waves of clauses and their commas, gradually slowing down time, pitching us with her into the middle of this secular incantation.

Tumbling slow motion. Plainly named.

Fiona Wright — one book of essays, another of poems, several awards and nominations — is more than a generation younger than Garner and Murnane. She probably studied them at school or university. She’s one of an exciting new wave of Australian nonfiction writers including Maxine Beneba Clarke, Rebecca Giggs, Quinn Eades, Ronnie Scott, Gillian Terzis, Erik Jensen and Martin McKenzie-Murray, many of whom are also poets, critics, novelists, editors and journalists. Wright’s essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance (2016), on the subject of an eating disorder that consumed her for ten years, is a report made in shattering, crystal sentences, from the farther side of an obsession not so much with eating as with hunger; with the rigorous comforts of the small:

The scale of the surrounding world, even the scale of a single human life, is nothing short of terrifying. Our worlds, our lives, are far too big to see the outline of, too big to find a shape for, too big to map or name or know. We can’t conceive or perceive the world, much less our place within it; we can’t contain its contradictions and variations, its overwhelming possibilities and changeability. But we can plan and re-plan our meals and the exact time we will eat them. We can measure our portions of rice in teaspoons, divide apples into sixteen even pieces, we can even count every chew before we swallow. With a dollshouse-sized world, a narrowed-down, miniature world, all of this changes.[ii]

Like all good essays, those in Small Acts of Disappearance are driven by a desire to unravel what the writer doesn’t know. Wright approaches the cruel puzzle of her illness forensically, from different planes and places: In Increments, In Hospital, In Berlin. There will be no neat, memoir-esque resolutions here. Instead the book is an act of quiet defiance because until now it has been her writing, ‘above all else’, that has driven what she calls her hunger. To write from hunger had felt strong and safe; to write about hunger was to strip away its protection and demand ‘that it be seen’.

Helen Garner forces herself to see things; that’s what it feels like when you read her. In her nonfiction, she is endlessly curious about the details of the world, forever going out into it, pedaling her bike from childcare with her grandson on the back, talking in kitchens with old friends or with the mother of a murdered boy, allowing another writer to show her the haunted landscapes of his childhood — ‘these austere volcanic plains, across which a vast, leisurely body of air is forever passing’[iii] — the same Victorian grasslands, as it happens, in which Gerald Murnane’s writing is obsessively placed. Garner is an investigative reporter in the tradition of Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, although in her own eyes, it would seem, nothing like so grand and worldly. Proud and self-effacing at the same time, she worries away at things. She not only sees and hears the world, she feels it; she lets it seep inside her. And always, a compulsive diarist, she comes home and writes it down. Some of her essays are as if directly taken from her diaries, but if these are diary entries they are testament to a finely honed craft of observation:

A dark sky, striped low down with bands of translucent pearly grey and the faintest, driest yellow. Bare plane tree branches dispersed against it, as in a painting.[iv]

Garner’s essay featuring Murnane is called ‘Suburbia’. As an older woman, ‘ashamed now of my bohemian contempt for the suburbs of my childhood, of my hunger to be sophisticated’, Garner finds herself back in the suburbs, standing out in the street beside her next-door neighbor Chris, a woman she hardly knows:

out the front under the plane trees talking about chooks and the return of the foxes. We talk about compost. I begin to see that suburbia might be merely another term for dirt, or children, or vegetation.[v]

But there is another side to Australian suburbia, as there is to most things. ‘Pause for breath, since people in a hurry cannot feel,’ invites Melissa Lucashenko in her essay, ‘Not quite white in the head’. So, finally, I’m ashamed to admit, I force myself to slow down and read Lucashenko’s award-winning 2013 essay ‘Sinking below sight’ all the way to the end. In this essay, she immerses herself in the stories of people trying to make a life in one of Brisbane’s poorest suburbs, Woodridge. Like Orwell, but also unlike Orwell since Lucashenko had moved into this suburb for the long haul, for economic rather than ethnographic reasons, and had grown up somewhere not dissimilar. It’s not her own story that she wants to get across here, and it’s not her own voice she’s concerned with. She wants to show the strength and intelligence of the women she interviews, and the poverty and violence, both directly physical and structural, that they endure because of government policies. She listens and she lets them speak; for example, the woman she calls Marie:

‘I was arguing with Travis and I'd pulled out a kitchen knife, not to attack him, I was threatening to hurt myself with it, but the cops were outside watching by then. One of them says, "I don't like you, you're just a smartarse," and it's all gone downhill from there.’ 

Lucashenko is compassionate, but also analytic, always looking to the bigger story:

The role of government in shaping her life was mentioned only once, in passing, as I tried to remember the details of Denticare. Marie was interested but mystified by the processes I described: 'So, the politicians, the Julia Gillards and the Tony Abbotts and all that – do they actually make the policies? Or do other people make them and they, like, only support them?' I looked at her bright, questioning face which had been punched a dozen times or more since I knew her as a freckled child, and thought to myself: Good question. 

Good question. Just a smartarse. Since I knew her as a freckled child.

Charmaine, a single mother Lucashenko speaks to in the essay, has ‘got one [kid] in jail and two that are… (here she trails off and begins to cry).’ But when Lucashenko asks Charmaine about her dreams in life, ‘she surprises me by saying she has always wanted to be a writer, and describes reading Aboriginal novels aloud to Aaron before he falls asleep at night.’ The reader is left to wonder what kind of stories or essays Charmaine will write, if and when she gets the chance.

Gerald Murnane’s essays are almost entirely preoccupied with describing his systems and philosophies of writing. These systems and philosophies are exacting and singular. A large part of the pleasure of reading Murnane is the precision of each sentence, as he attempts to describe the idiosyncratic images, thoughts and feelings that surface in his mind:

I believe nowadays that I considered the people of Europe less than real during my childhood because they had no grasslands where they could have discovered the nests of ground-dwelling birds and where the people themselves could have dreamed of hiding themselves if they had to flee.[vi]

In his essay ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’, Murnane describes his formative years as a writer. At first he wanted to be a poet but he failed, and afterwards he failed at writing fiction too, until he realized that it was his concept of the ‘imagination’ that was the problem.

I stopped thinking about my imagination. I stopped thinking of myself as surrounded by a narrow zone of experience while the boundless countries of my imagination lay on its other side. I began to think of a world shaped somewhat as I would read it described twenty years later in a passage from Rilke: a world floating like an island in the ocean of the self. I began to see that I was already well qualified to write about a young man who looked for strangeness beyond what seemed ordinary.[vii]

Strangeness he has found. Above and beyond his published works, Murnane is assembling a vast and meticulously organized archive of unpublished writing, along with letters, drafts and other items, in a set of filing cabinets at his home (now, in his old age, in a small town amidst the ‘grasslands’). It is actually three archives – Literary, Chronological, and ‘Antipodean’ (the latter being ‘a thousand pages…describing…the running of horse-racing in two imaginary countries’). The Chronological Archive, according to the tantalizing summary published by Murnane (the archives themselves won’t be made public until his death), makes its author sound arrogant, cruel, gossipy and perverse (as well as, yes, kind of fascinating), with items titled such as: ‘Peter Carey exposed at last’, ‘Should I tell literature to get fucked’, ‘My brother’s obsession: darkies’, and ‘About music, farting, et al’. One item is entitled ‘I rebuff Helen Garner with much force’. Oh. It appears that Murnane does not return the favour of Garner’s empathy. Hmmm. Perhaps Garner has her own archive: ‘I tell Murnane to get fucked.’

A glimmer of discomfort in the elevator/lift. I imagine Melissa might at this point think it is all pretty funny, this semi-imagined literary sniping. She might quote Tennyson, Orwell or Thoreau, just to change the vibe. Or she might insert this pithy advice: ‘the stories we weave should be for other things than our own delightful self-magnification’ — and thereby open space again for Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. Wright is highly conscious of what she wants her book not to be. She scrupulously avoids any whiff of what she calls ‘sick lit’.[viii] But when she writes: ‘I can’t stand the idea of being common, of being a cliché, even and especially in my illness’, she catches herself, mid-thought, and adds a preface: ‘like all anorexics, ironically enough’… Wright reads her illness against medical histories and fictional accounts of anorexics, such as those of the Australian writers Christina Stead and Tim Winton. Repelled by misery memoir, she finally comes across a collection of essays ‘by writers who were writers before they became ill, not writers who became so because they had been ill’[ix]. She recognizes in the voices of Jennifer Egan and Louise Gluck kindred spirits caught in the terrible lure of the disease: ‘I shared this sense of paring back to something that feels bare and bold and true.’[x]

And as to the role gender plays in eating disorders, Wright’s observations are all the more powerful for being deftly understated. She notices this: ‘in the year that I first became ill, when I ran into women who I’d been to school with, they never failed to tell me that I looked wonderful, that I looked different.’ [xi] And this: ‘My mother too used to ask me if I thought it was her fault, if there was anything that she could have done differently…’[xii] And finally, addressing the gap men need to cross to comprehend the illness, she writes:

I’ll always remember the unconscious hiss of air through my father’s teeth, the sad and frightened look he gave me as I walked outside in the sleeveless cocktail dress I wore at my brother’s wedding, the armholes gaping under my scraggly shoulders, the veins raised and ridge-like down my arms, the professionally made-up eyes huge in my head…How terrible and inconceivable these things must be for fathers, whose bodies have never been political in the same way as their daughters’, who can’t understand why we can’t just eat and save our lives.’ [xiii]

Whose bodies have never been political in the same way. Professionally made-up eyes.

Ding! Time’s up. Time is more than up: either this elevator/lift is very slow or this building very tall. But time can slow down in an essay, and some introductions take time, particularly with a crowd. The last word, a small quiet story from Australia, nothing big at all, is from Melissa Lucashenko:

Only, we are asking you, pause for breath. The Earth is not in any great hurry for your prostrations, fabrications, speculations. Take one day for looking…[ ]…I am earthspeaking, talking about this place, my home and it is first, a very small story. Tell it softly, so that someone might by chance hear you. One valley. A tree with a crooked branch where children swung with children's hands, a soft look of the pasture in the buttery afternoon light. The cold scent of dew on purple-tipped flatgrass, grass that can be stripped and played like a gumleaf if you know how. It is land with a small "l". And the people? They are off to the side somewhere. They are important, yes, but they aren't the whole story. Nothing is the whole story, by itself. Not the people and not the land either. They need each other. So gather round. This earthspeaking is a small, quiet story in a human mouth, or it is no story at all.[xiv]



David Carlin is an award winning Melbourne-based writer and creative artist. His books include The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), Our Father Who Wasn’t There (2010) and the edited anthologies The Near and The Far (2016) and Performing Digital (2015). David wrote and co-produced the radiophonic feature/essay Making Up: 11 Scenes from a Bangkok Hotel (2015), which has been nominated for four awards at the 2016 New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards; he also led the Circus Oz Living Archive research project and co-curated the exhibition Vault: the Nonstop Performing History of Circus Oz for the Melbourne Festival. David is Vice-President of the international NonfictioNOW Conference, Associate Professor of Creative Writing and co-founder of the non/fictionLab and the WrICE cultural immersion program at RMIT University, Australia.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and is curating this Int'l Essayists column. He would love any suggestions, thoughts, comments: @craigreinbold


Other pieces in this series:
Aurvi Sharma on the Body Patchwork, the Text as the Body / the Body as the Text in Meatless Days & the Kamasutra

[i] Garner, Helen 2016, Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing: Melbourne, p. 25
[ii] Wright, Fiona 2015, Small Acts of Disappearance, Giramondo: Sydney, p. 63
[iii] Garner, p. 50
[iv] Garner, p. 84
[v] Garner, pp. 24-25
[vi] Murnane, Gerald 2005, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Giramondo: Sydney, p. 60
[vii] Murnane, p.50
[viii] Wright, p. 171
[ix] Wright, p. 172
[x] Wright, p. 183
[xi] Wright, p. 183
[xii] Wright, p. 116
[xiii] Wright, p. 115


References 
Garner, Helen 2016, Everywhere I Look, Text Publishing: Melbourne
Lucashenko, Melissa 2004, ‘Not Quite White in the Head’, Griffith REVIEW 2: Dreams of Land, https://griffithreview.com/articles/not-quite-white-in-the-head/ [accessed 4/6/16]
Lucashenko, Melissa 2006, ‘Who let the dogs out?’, Griffith REVIEW 8: People like Us
Lucashenko, Melissa 2009, ‘On the Same Page, Right?’, Griffith REVIEW 26: Stories for Today, https://griffithreview.com/articles/on-the-same-page-right/ [accessed 4/6/16]
Lucashenko, Melissa 2013, ‘Sinking Below Sight’, Griffith REVIEW 41: Now We are Ten, https://griffithreview.com/articles/sinking-below-sight/ [accessed 4/6/16]
Murnane, Gerald 2005, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Giramondo: Sydney 
Murnane, Gerald 2013, ‘The Three Archives of Gerald Murnane,’ Music and Literature, http://www.musicandliterature.org/features/2013/11/11/the-three-archives-of-gerald-murnane [accessed 4/6/16]
Tong, Merlynn 2015, ‘Me No Likey’, Peril 20: Yum Chattier, http://peril.com.au/back-editions/me-no-likey/ [accessed 4/6/16]
Wright, Fiona 2015, Small Acts of Disappearance, Giramondo: Sydney


Monday, June 6, 2016

Little House on Old Hopewell Road


On this new installment of Writing The Ellipsis, a young boy spends his summer projecting his own narrative onto television shows.  

Back in the summer of 1990, I enrolled in a science and technology academy hosted by my elementary school. I learned how to balance a checkbook and understand the way banks worked. I designed and built a derby racecar using basic physics. I even went birding and paddled down a swampy canal scouting gators and other wildlife. For most of that summer, I attended these daylong workshops. I was ten years old and aware that I was a poor, smart brown kid bussed to an affluent, mostly white suburban school. This insight fed into my lack of enthusiasm. I wasn’t that interested in checks and balances when my family didn’t even have a bank account. I didn’t have the patience for putting together a soapbox car that eventually broke down on test day. I had some interest in ecology, but when it was revealed that our class was going scuba diving off the Gulf of Mexico, I shied away because I didn’t know how to swim. Even worse, I was deeply ashamed that I couldn’t afford a new pair of swim trunks.

I spent that summer alone. The rest of my family worked long hours splitting their time picking fruit in a field or canning it in a factory while I attended the best and cheapest daycare. Off I went to learn and returned to an empty home with a few hours to kill. The first time we let out early, I was locked outside of my house. I found a way in by crawling through the kitchen window. I remember hovering over the sink with half of my body sticking out. I took in the way everything looked inside. I lived in a small brick home that was always dark and clammy despite the humid Florida heat. The walls were a cold gray and bare of any picture frames. This made the only thing that hung on display, a wall calendar my mother used to jot down work hours, pinned behind the backdoor, all that more austere. In fact, everything in the house gave off a random and utilitarian air. There was a table no one used set off to a corner, its mismatched set of chairs was strewn all over the living area. Some stood as corner pieces next to a musty couch that was so dilapidated it was more comfortable to sit on the cement floor. Another chair propped a small black and white television. I assessed it all in that awkward position I was in, my hands firmly on the sink and my feet dangling out the window. This is my home? I wondered. I tried laughing but instead let out a grunt.

It was hard not to notice the absurdity in my action. I was breaking into a home—this home—my own home that never felt mine. Like a lot of the things in my life then, everything was temporary; everything belonged to someone else. There was a sense that I was living a life set behind the scenes, tucked away from public view. Even the house that I lived in was situated on a crusty dirt path called Old Hopewell Road. Tucked within a thicket of trees, my house was set aside from the migrant camp, which lay hidden farther behind. At that age, I equated my surroundings as indicative of identity. We were given that brick house, I assumed, because we were better than the other families and single men who were garrisoned into the barracks behind our house. I used to walk by that building on my way to school bewildered at why anyone would want to live crammed inside a place with no walls and little privacy. Lucky us, my family had a house that had a back porch where I sat and read books. We were the family of rank because of our U.S. citizenship, a step above the undocumented farm workers. This gave us privileges that the rest in the migrant camp did not. That’s how I saw my world. And yet, that day I broke through that kitchen window, I came to see my family wasn’t that special for having our own place to live. We were just an annex to an encampment disconnected from the outside world. The only privilege I had was that I could move freely between worlds.

*

Old Hopewell paralleled the highway. I waited at the end of the dirt path every morning for my school bus that shipped me fifteen miles to my elementary school. On the way, I kept a low profile by looking out the window. But I was drawn to my bus mates and unwittingly compared myself to them. This made me turn to look every time the school bus stopped to let in a group of children. I was curious how they lived. The bus route took us through the working class farming town of Plant City where I lived, then outward to the neighboring suburbs near Tampa-St. Petersburg. That route was reversed every afternoon and those lavish two-storied homes with the well-manicured lawns and the long driveways that served as basketball courts gave way to strawberry fields and orange groves folded into an array of modest doublewides and lowly trailer parks. Then we neared Old Hopewell, where I was dropped off. I walked all the way to its dead end, and stood for a moment at the hedge of the towering oaks covered in Spanish moss that enclosed the migrant camp, and disappeared.

Everything seemed so established and secure for everyone else on my school bus. No matter the suburbs or the farm town, I imagined that all of the children led wonderful television lives. Every afternoon, they’d get home and walk through that unlocked front door where they were greeted by warm lighting and a massive round of applause. I came home those afternoons to that dismal brick house to plant myself on the cement floor to watch TV. Back then I couldn’t place my unhappiness. My despondency manifested into boredom, rooted in my family’s instability and made worse by those long hours I spent watching soap operas, sitcom reruns, and the local news. I was far too young to understand what was happening to me, within me. I was four years old when my parents sold everything and left Texas to join the migrant circuit. Right then I lost access to the normalcy and stability of an American childhood and entered the transiency and impermanence of migrant farm work, where life was dictated by harvest seasons. I moved around so much (sometimes three or four times a month) that I lost any childhood allegiance to home or school. Friendships were out of the question. I learned quickly that my mind was a refuge from this reality, like a survival mechanism, it was a way to avoid and make sense of that world. My invention of detachment and solitude became this: yes, I lived in my parents’ world but I kept my inner one secret.

*

My childhood felt so illusory. I was aware I didn’t live a “normal” American life that way it had been afforded to others. I just didn’t know what it meant. My guess was that a real life was a scripted life. I saw television shows as emblematic of the way life should be lived. When nothing validated my family’s existence, I drew correlations that matched our narrative. My father became a detective just like actor A. Martinez on Santa Barbara. Oddly enough, my father had the actor’s strong and defined face that made him a dead-ringer for Martinez’s detective Cruz Castillo. Every morning, he’d wake up and made a breakfast cocktail of Coca-Cola with a raw egg (“Como los boxeadores,” my father said), then head out the door for work. I imagined him driving to a big city like Tampa or Miami to their police department to work on solving big murder cases. I began following the soap opera with a voyeuristic enthusiasm of a child eager to know more about what his father did at work. Then at the end of the day, when my father came home with a scowl on his face, marching straight to bed. I prided myself on knowing he’d had a long day solving murders while keeping his love life secret.

Did it bother me that one of the show’s soapy storyline involved Detective Castillo’s secret love affair with a white woman, or that the affair was with another woman other than my mother? At the time, my mother had cut off her long black hair and permed it into a corona of curls that made her look like Vicki Lawrence’s Ma Harper on Mama’s Family, a comparison that brought cackles from my brothers and made our mother exit silently out of the room. In this life, that detail was of little importance. The Detective Castillo narrative—the poor cop, rich debutante—on Santa Barbra gripped me. Their machinations to first subvert the affair and then to have it surface in the face of the high society in Santa Barbara was the stuff that took weeks to sort out. So I started skipping my science and technology academy in order to keep tabs on my father. I’d walk to the bus stop, wait until the my mother and brothers drove past in our large work truck, then stroll back to the house and sneak back in through the kitchen window.
           
I turned the nob from channel to channel for hours, watching the local morning newscasts then game shows like The Price is Right and Family Feud. Some channels had sitcom re-runs mid-morning before the return of the 12 o’clock news and the afternoon soaps. Nothing kept my attention like reruns of The Wonder Years. I saw a lot of myself in Kevin Arnold, the twelve-year old protagonist who witnessed an unstable world evolve through his perspective. Kevin, like me, was a small stubby boy with a thick woolly hair and husky jeans. Through Kevin, I became someone else with an entirely different life. Didn’t matter that it was 1968 (the turmoil then seemed not so different from what I was aware of in 1990), in The Wonder Years I had a stable carefree life. No other show made me take stock of who I was (brown, Mexican, son of migrant farm workers living in a secluded migrant camp) and who I was not (white, American, living an open suburban life). In fact, the more I watched, the more I came to see that the closest I had to that sort of reality was in the form of my older brother. Take the way Kevin and his brother Wayne engage with one another:

KEVIN: Buttface.

WAYNE: What did you say?

KEVIN: Nothing.

[WAYNE pushes KEVIN over and pounds KEVIN'S shoulder with his fist.]

NARRATOR: This is the way most of my conversations with my brother Wayne ended. Apparently he just deeply regretted the fact that I had been born, and he wanted me to feel the same way.

I shared the narrator’s sentiment. Back then I couldn’t have a normal conversation with my brother that didn’t end up in a fistfight. And because he was older and stronger than I was, he was always the victor. I flinched every time Wayne lorded his strength over Kevin. I didn’t know why it hurt me. It seemed unnatural. Then I realized that no matter how hard Wayne was on his brother, Kevin always counted on his girlfriend and best friend. I began disliking projecting myself into someone else’s narrative. Reality had broken through the fantasy and became hard to deny. Instead, I switched off the television and avoided watching the comforts I lacked.

I eventually went back to the summer academy. I wish I could say that I went back of my own accord. But the true reason was this: one afternoon my mother and brothers were let out of the canning factory early and found me cross-legged on the floor, munching on oatmeal cream pie while watching Bobby’s World. I don’t remember much about my return to school other than I was given a small tree and a set of instructions on how to plant it in my yard. I placed that tree at the dead end of Old Hopewell Road, knowing I would never get to see it grow. We moved just before the end of the summer to another secluded migrant camp across town. A few years ago, my brother revisited that house on Old Hopewell Road. He sent me a message with a photo that read:

            BROTHER: This IS IT. The house where we took that pic of us with our three mullets.                                  Lol.



            ME: Wow. That’s not a house. That’s a hut.

And yeah… wow. Earlier I said that as a child I saw my surroundings as indicative of identity. When I look at that photograph of the little house on Old Hopewell Road, I’m taken back to 1990, when I took solace in isolation inside that little hut. But loneliness has a way of making you yearn to be a part of something larger. What was a boy to do but search for a narrative on TV or inside books?

ME: Hey, check this out.



            BROTHER: Hey, that’s my work truck!

ME: Yeah. I listened to the Super Bowl on the radio that year ‘cuz dad had rented some Jackie Chan movie.

BROTHER: Lol! Oh man, those were the days…

            ME: yeah… those were


*

Whenever I revisit The Wonder Years, I see things about it I missed as a child; new layers that have (like a good book) both enlighten and anger me. The adult in me understands how I saw myself in that show. It has such a finite moment in a boy’s life that would make anyone long to revisit over and over, especially if you had no life of your own. And yet today, I no longer find a connection to that world or that story. I have found my own.

Imagine this:


OPENING SEQUENCE



Scenes from the 1990's flash past.


NARRATOR: 1990, I’m ten years old. A lot happened that year. The 49’ers won the Super Bowl, In Living Color hit the air, and I attended the Summer Science & Technology Academy at Pinecrest Elementary, sort of—but we’ll get to that. There’s no pretty way to put this: I grew up as a migrant farm worker. I guess most people don’t even know what a migrant is and what they do—or that farm workers even exists. In a way, you can say those really were the wonder years for us out there in the fields. But it was far from a golden age for kids.





César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. You can read some of his thoughts here, here, and here. Also, sometimes he has things to say on Twitter.