Thursday, December 24, 2015

David L. Ulin on Best American Essays 2011

I want to look at The Best American Essays 2011 by considering a single essay, but first, there’s another essay we need to discuss. Earlier this month, in the aftermath of the shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, The New York Times published a piece by Susan Straight, who lives ten miles from the site of the carnage, in Riverside. Straight is a cogent observer of life in Southern California; her essay in Best American, which was originally published in The Believer and is called “Travels with My Ex,” traces an encounter with a California Highway Patrol officer that is common but also particular. “He’s pulling her over,” Straight’s ex-husband mutters, as he watches, from behind the steering wheel of a second car, their daughter get stopped on the freeway. “Of course he is. Car full of black kids in the OC.” These aren’t someone else’s kids, however; they are Straight’s kids, which leads to a full-on song and dance of accommodation, rage and resignation and embarrassment. “If there’s anything scarier than Fits the Description,” she explains, “it’s Routine Traffic Stop. … The names or faces we’ve learned over the years. A brother in Signal Hill. Rodney King. The Baller’s basketball coach’s brothers, both of them. My younger brother’s best friend. Shot nineteen times in his white truck as he maneuvered on the center divider of the freeway having refused to pull over. He might have been high.”
     Straight’s New York Times essay relies on a similar sort of movement: to take what had by then already become part of an ongoing national narrative and frame it in the most personal terms. Ongoing national narrative? More like a pair of ongoing national narratives, the most dominant national narratives we have: terrorism and guns. “My daughter had called me the night before,” Straight writes, “voice trembling, about a news story she saw on a 52-year-old waitress who was killed when she asked a customer not to smoke. ‘She was you, Mom,’ she said. ‘She was an ordinary lady working night shift at Waffle House! That’s already a hard job, and somebody shoots her in the face because he can’t light a cigarette!’”
     What does this have to do with San Bernardino? Everything, as it turns out. “Since my eldest daughter was born 26 years ago,” Straight explains, “our family has lost 57 relatives, friends and neighbors to gun violence. My nephew, also 26, wrote his will at age 13 after two friends his age were hunted by gang members and shot, one on a porch and one in a car a few blocks from our house.” It’s impossible to read that passage without thinking of “Travels with My Ex.” In both pieces, Straight keeps steering away from abstraction, bringing us consistently back to the real. “[F]inally,” she writes in The New York Times, “a mechanical arm reached inside a shattered window and pulled out a limp body, which fell unceremoniously into the street.” The body is that of either Syed Farook or Tashfeen Malik, the husband and wife who perpetrated the San Bernardino attack. And yet, that phrase “limp body”—it says exactly what it means, no association, just a body, stripped of agency, that was once a human being. In that moment, the attacker becomes human, not a symbol or an emblem but a person, and the precipitating act becomes personal, as if it could refer to any one of us.
     What I’m talking about is empathy, what I’m talking about is writing between the lines. What I’m talking about is framing everything through the filter of the human, both victims and perpetrators alike. For Straight, the key element is less terrorism than proximity; “Wednesday,” she tells us, “I watched as a mass shooting unfolded on the street where my mother had recent heart surgery, where yards and fences looked so familiar from the aerial view. A place I know.” The essay ends with her ex-husband, calling from a street in San Bernardino, where he is waiting to be picked up by his company’s van. “I get scared,” he says. “I wanted you to know where I was, in case I get shot. Out here, I never know. A black guy thinks I’m in a gang, a Latino guy thinks I’m in a gang, a cop thinks I did something. It could be a white guy who just doesn’t like me. … Then I get in the van and have to hear the radio turned to Rush Limbaugh, and I know he hates me.”
     “Travels with My Ex” involves the same man, the same relationship, the same unspoken fears. After their daughter gets pulled over, Straight swings into action; “My job,” she writes, “is to be the short blond mom.” She approaches the officer, explains the family caravan. “We’re on our way to the beach for a birthday party!” she chirps. “Her dad and I didn’t want to get separated, ’cause we might never see each other again!” We’ve all been there: this move, or assertion of parental status, this stepping in to take care of our kids. But Straight is also walking directly into a minefield of race and privilege, which has ramifications beyond what is happening alongside the road. “The little women,” she confides, “hate when I do this. They imitate me viciously afterward. They hate that I have to do it and that I am good at it.” To help her kids, in other words, she has to bear the burden of their approbation, their disgrace. “Toni Morrison’s novel Sula,” she remembers later. “The mother and daughter are on a train traveling from Ohio to Louisiana, and when the white conductor berates them for being out of the Colored car, the mother smiles at him, a placating, unnecessary show of teeth, and the black passengers hate her, and her daughter is ashamed of the custard-colored skin, and her weakness.” This is how Straight feels about herself.
     One of the requirements of essay writing is to bare these moments, to show our vulnerability and our shame. This, too, is part of the mechanism of empathy, the way it opens up a territory we all share. When I read such a passage—as when I read the expression of her ex-husband’s fear on that San Bernardino corner—I identify, even though this is not my experience. I identify because I have done the same thing for my children, presented the same face to authority, the same uncertain grin. This is what an essay does, uncovers the commonalities between us by revealing the specificity of the author’s life. The universal particular, let’s call it, as in: The more specific or particular an essay is, the more universal it becomes. I think of Straight, trying to make sense of the massacre in San Bernardino or trying to protect her daughter, and I see myself. In that act of revealing, she turns the mirror back on us.


DAVID L. ULIN is the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he spent ten years as book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

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