Monday, July 6, 2015

Maggie Messitt: On Finding & Vaulting Story

I watched her search for my story (thinking little of what she would find. After years of reporting inside a small rural community in South Africa, I arrived at Thoko's homestead on a Sunday morning, this time as a customer. A traditional healer, she’d said to me once that she’d never thrown the bones for a malungu and told the malungu the truth, the whole truth—only the shiny parts. She’d said that she’d be honest if I wanted, that I could count on her reading each bone as the ancestors placed them. At the time, I nodded and smiled. She knew little of my life, but after spending so many months, years even, so intimately at her side through obstacles and successes, inside her ndumba and shebeen (backdoor illegal pub), I was finally ready to sit there and hear her tell me about my life. Inside her ndumba, I sat, legs swept to the side, and watched Thoko begin something I’d seen her do a dozen times over the previous year.  Her voice grew raspy. And she began to speak to her ancestors. She shook, lifted, and released the bones into the air, onto the mat, across the floor. She pointed to the constellation of objects and told me what she could see. Her wooden spear pointed to specific pairings and single items, each telling me something about my life and my family. Some were shiny. Some were dark. A few secrets, things I’d recently discovered and some I would only discover months later, were on her ndumba floor, for both of us to see.)

Lists push what I don’t know how to say onto the page (knowing no other way to parse through life’s hard parts. After years of long form journalism, years of writing about others, my first blank page staring back at me was meant for me. I spent a year looking at the list I transcribed from Thoko’s ndumba, everything the ancestors told her about my present, and everything they outlined for my future—the story of my life had been plot-lined through futsu seeds and coins and the bones of animals that roamed nearby. But, years later, I could not write of this life, the life she told me about, with the same ease I’d grown accustomed. I had so much to say, but I’d lost my long form voice. My marriage had slowly stolen my words and I grew to speak only when spoken to. After—once things were over—I maintained this silence for many years, on the page and in person. Words about others have come back, but words for myself are still hard to come by. And so, I make lists. I trick myself into millimeter steps toward writing about issues of death and violence, infidelity and manipulation, race and the character of a place I still call home. I play with these lists, pushing and pulling them like silly putty, stretching inside some spaces, and rearranging each item or sentence for narrative. I let there be room for absence and leave space for my imaginary reader to make connections. The truth is, I am not writing essays. I write these with no intention to publish. They are a collection of iceberg tips. They are a map for me to explore.)

Our words are often the first thing to go (slipping into survival mode.)

My mother is quiet (choosing to express very little of herself on the page. I’ve rarely seen her write letters. She writes lists. A lot of lists. She rarely tells stories of growing up. And I was more likely to steal affection from her than to receive it unsolicited. She spends ages inside greeting card aisles and writes only Love Kris, Love Mom, or Love Nana inside birthday cards, Valentines Day notes, and milestone congratulations. For serious affairs, she calls the Cenacle for a personalized sentiment and a commitment by the church—her long time rock, the space in which she silently speaks—to pray. On those, she signs nothing. When her third child, my older brother, moved as far away as (at the time) it seemed possible, my mother started to cut Dick Tracey, his favorite comic strip, from the paper each morning and sent a batch at the end of each week. On top of each, she placed a yellow sticky note, wrote the day of the week and one line. The weather. Simple news from home. Eventually, my mother was cutting comics for all six of her children and keeping the post office in business with her weekly priority drops. Tiny paper tweets two decades before I sat at the kitchen table and helped my parents sign up for Twitter so they could follow Pope Francis. Her account remains blank, much like the letters I know she would like to write and the sticky notes she no longer writes. Eventually—soon after her youngest sister, a woman who would send you an eight page handwritten letter, went missing—my mother's words found paper and other people less and less.)

I force myself to find and stretch language inside the confines of form (finding ways to write around and around the subject I should be facing until I am left staring at what I’ve been avoiding. Lists are just one of these. Crots. Panels. Modeling unnamed forms like this very one you see here. Or this one. Or this one. These are all tricks. They are games. They get me moving. And, they push my voice to fill the space. And, now, I have stacks of these shape-shifting pages. Lists as tombstones. Lists as eulogy. A collection of crots in search of myself and our own cartographic existence. Segments that compartmentalize a long string of events I have never shared with another person. And, as I work to tell my aunt’s story, impossible to separate from my own, panels and maps help me explore her life, her art, and the island where she disappeared. I have written these late into the night, on airplanes, in other people’s homes and hotel lobbies in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. Last I counted, I have written more then one hundred and forty of these essay-like-things, digitally stacked inside a vault. Every once in a while, one gets loose and finds itself a home, but they are more about piecing together the plot lines Thoko identified in front of me, my narrative and my mother's, prying open a closed door, rusted by years of pushing away the past or scarred shut. They have become like calisthenics, assaying toward a truth.)

Maggie Messitt has spent the last decade reporting from inside underserved communities in southern Africa and middle America. Author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa, Messitt lived in northeastern South Africa for 8 years during which time she was a long-form reporter, newspaper editor, and founding director of a writing school. Since returning to the US, her essays and reportage have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, Mother Jones, River Teeth, and the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. Messitt is currently a PhD candidate at Ohio University and a 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at Bowers Writers House.

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