Saturday, December 5, 2015

Renée E. D’Aoust: Regarding The Best American Essays 2003

I am a first-generation American, and I live in Switzerland, a country where people of color are routinely interrogated by border guards when riding the train across the Swiss-Italian border. The guards walk through the train car, and they rarely question me, a white, middle-aged woman. If you are any color other than white, chances are you will be questioned.

I originally called this piece Notable Quotations from The Best American Essays 2003, because I planned to pick out pithy wisdom from guest editor Anne Fadiman’s choices, quotations telescoping what we’ve lost and learned since 2003. But there’s more to say than a mere list: in this volume, Fadiman champions hefty personal essays that make personal and worldly collisions strikingly clear.

Because of the terrorist attacks across La Ville Lumière on November 13th, Paris is on my mind. It feels like synchronicity that there are three essays in The Best American Essays 2003 (BAE2003) focusing on Paris.

  • In “The Debacle,” Francine du Plessix Gray writes: “As my mother and I left Paris on the glorious sunny morning of June 10, 1940, four days before the Germans took the city, we became part of a panic-stricken caravan whose surreal mayhem still haunts me.”
  • In “Swann Song,” Judith Thurman honors the retirement of Yves Saint Laurent, sharing that in David “Teboul’s made-for-television hagiography,” shown first at the Centre Pompidou, “The ash grows longer on the master’s [Saint Laurent’s] cigarette as he labors over his sketchpad. His French bulldog, Moujik, dismembers a stuffed toy.”
  • In “F.P.,” Myra Jehlen writes that her “friend, who had been born on the left bank of the Seine and never considered living anywhere else, imagined herself dead becoming part of the places that alive she would only consider visiting, as if in her life she’d rehearsed leaving and then in death gone and done it."

At first, I thought BAE2003 wasn’t a particularly timely collection, that it didn’t engage the whole wide world in ways I find urgent and necessary. The essays chosen by Fadiman would have been published in 2002, and as such, I expected to find more of them wrestling with the events of September 11, 2001. I expected to find more sense of the drumbeat to the Iraq war, as a diversion from the Afghanistan war, a shift that palpably occurred in America in the fall of 2002 and on into March 2003 when the bombing of Baghdad started. But then I looked more closely at the anthology, and I further changed my mind as I zeroed in on John Edgar Wideman’s essayistic reflections, “Whose War.” Wideman struggles to explain why anyone “would want to throw more words on a pile so high the thing to be written about has disappeared.” Bingo. How do we articulate fear? Wideman continues:

[A]ll writing pretends to be something it’s not, something it can’t be: something or someone other, but sooner or later the writing will be snuffed back into its jug, back where I am, a writer a step, maybe two, behind my lemming words scuffling over the edge of the abyss. 
I’m sorry. I’m an American of African descent, and I can’t applaud my president for doing unto foreign others what he’s inflicted on me and mine. Even if he calls it ole-time religion. Even if he tells me all good Americans have nothing to fear but fear itself and promises he’s gonna ride over there and kick fear’s ass real good, so I don’t need to worry about anything, just let him handle it his way, relax and enjoy the show on TV, pay attention to each breath I take and be careful whose letters I open and listen up for the high alerts from the high-alert guy and gwan and do something nice for a Muslim neighbor this week.

I wish Wideman didn’t include that apology; we should not require him to apologize for state-sanctioned violence. Our president “kick[ed] fear’s ass real good,” didn’t he? The current mess in the Middle East started with the likes of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and others from that administration. My Italian mother-in-law tells me that America is responsible for all the madness in the world, and it is beyond my Italian-language skill set to both agree and disagree. I carry the blue passport of the United States of America; I see violence all around me. When I read John Edgar Wideman’s “Whose War,” I find myself agreeing more than not with my mother-in-law. While reading the entire anthology and this essay particularly, which ends the collection, I hold a complicated set of perspectives and privileges: the knowledge that my husband regularly travels to Paris for business meetings; the knowledge that I am living a life of privilege I never imagined; the knowledge that I have always lived a life of white privilege; and the knowledge that reading the voices of others helps me to find my ethical voice. Here is another quote from Wideman:

Like all my fellow countrymen and –women, even the ones who won’t admit it, the ones who choose to think of themselves as not implicated, who maintain what James Baldwin called “a willed innocence,” even the ones just off boats from Russia, Dominica, Thailand, Ireland, I am an heir to centuries of legal apartheid and must negotiate daily, with just about every step I take, the foul muck of unfulfilled promises, the apparent and not so apparent effects of racism that continue to plague America (and, do I need to add, plague the rest of the Alliance as well).

From my vantage point across the Atlantic Ocean, my country of origin looks full of “complicated muck.” But it’s also uncomplicated to make a commitment to wake up from Baldwin’s “willed innocence,” to affirm Wideman as he urges us to “negotiate daily… the foul muck of unfulfilled promises.” Even on Swiss soil, I must “negotiate daily” the aftermath of American power and militarism. After each new death in America—all the deaths in America—I say to my husband: “It looks like gun violence and terrorism all over the place there.” My husband, an Italian citizen, answers: “And here we are in Europe on a continent that only seventy years ago was riddled with bullets and burning flesh.”

By chance in June 2011, I tagged along to one of my husband’s engineering conferences. I happened to be sitting on a beach on Favignana, a small island off the coast of Italy, when NATO bombers flew overhead. Many took off from nearby Trapani, flying toward Libya. I had gut-wrenching disorientation, vertigo underscored by sweetness. My focus that week was to try every flavor of gelato available at what I had determined was the best shop on the island. At noon, I was eating my first ice cream cone of the day, and the roar shook my eardrums first and then my gut core. I identified an F-16 coursing through the horrible blue sky toward the south.

“I’m an American,” I thought, “of course, I know how to identify a bomber.”

Each day that week, as I counted my ice cream cones and flavors, I counted the bombers. I saw AWACS, “airborne warning and control aircraft systems,” meant to monitor the ground situation in Libya. Favignana is four miles west of Sicily and approximately 350 miles north of Tripoli. Each night that week, I verified the accuracy of my bomber count by reading the BBC.

On Favignana, I was sitting on the edge of what would become the cemetery of Europe, at the obliterated line between impossibility and possibility, at the specious time between death and survival. I licked my pistacchio cone—still my favorite flavor—and I did not feel Baldwin’s “willed innocence,” so much as I felt inadequate in every conceivable way.

When I read about acts of terror in the world news, particularly grim acts of terror in the United States, performed with guns and perpetrated on sacred spaces meant for faith and education (does it even need to be argued that school shootings are terrorism?), I turn to Adam Gopnik. This year, I turned to Gopnik after #JeSuisCharlie (January), after the Charleston massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (June), after the Paris attacks (November).

In BAE2003, Gopnik does not write of violence, though. He shares a piece about his daughter’s “imaginary friend whose name is Charlie Ravioli.” The essay “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli” is about how friends are made visible, about loving New York City, a place where plans with friends are made and broken, and about how “busyness is our art form, our civic ritual, our way of being us.”

Elaine Scarry and Susan Sontag and Cheryl Strayed all have work in BAE2003, dealing respectively with 9-11, war, and “The Love of My Life.” The latter is an essay many readers will know because it forms the foundation of Strayed’s memoir “Wild”:

Dying is not your girlfriend moving to Ohio. Grief is not the day after your neighbor’s funeral, when you felt extremely blue. It is impolite to make this distinction. We act as if all losses are equal. It is un-American to behave otherwise: we live in a democracy of sorrow. Every emotion felt is validated and judged to be as true as any other.

Strayed writes, “I was bereft, in agony, destroyed over [my mother’s] death.” Think of that destruction for all those who lost loved ones this past week alone.

So here we are more than a decade after our president ran a gung-ho fiasco into the Middle East. In 2011, my husband was two blocks away from a failed pipe bomb explosion in Stockholm, Sweden. He happened to be having coffee with my first boyfriend, Hjalmar, a former Swedish exchange student, who attended my high school for a year on a small island in Puget Sound back in the Eighties. Today, November 21, 2015, it is nine days after the bombings in Beirut, eight days after the bombings in Paris, and one day after gunman took 170 people hostage in Mali. I still feel inadequate in my personal relation to world events, a sense of dread combined with grim mystery.

I was wrong to assume that BAE2003 does not engage the world; it certainly does not showcase an all-too-typical American blind spot even in our post-9/11 world. John Edgar Wideman writes that “the lives lost [on September 11, 2001] mirror our own fragility and vulnerability, our unpredictable passage through the mysterious flow of time that eternally surrounds us, buoys us, drowns us.”

And now, after a weekend away, my husband and I have just driven across the border from Italy back into Switzerland. The Swiss border guards were standing there with bulletproof vests on and machine guns at the ready, checking people leaving Switzerland (not entering). At the foothills of the Alps, we have palm trees and fir trees. Tonight, the moon is a rowboat.

I enter our home and touch the validated entry ticket to the Eiffel Tower. My husband was there—two months ago.

Renée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews "Book of the Year" finalist (memoir category). Forthcoming and recent publications include Brevity, Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Sweet, and Trestle Creek Review. She is an AWP “Writer to Writer” mentor and managing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College, and she lives in Idaho and Switzerland. Follow her @idahobuzzy and visit

Works Cited:
du Plessix Gray, Francine. “The Debacle.” Fadiman and Atwan 112-24.

Fadiman, Anne, and Robert Atwan, eds. The Best American Essays 2003. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003. Print.

Gopnik, Adam. “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli.” Fadiman and Atwan 103-11.

---. “Charleston, and the Next Time.” The New Yorker, 23 June 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

---. “A Massacre in Paris.” The New Yorker, 19 January 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

---. “Terror Strikes in Paris.” The New Yorker, 14 Nov. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.

Jehlen, Myra. “F.P.” Fadiman and Atwan 136-45.

Scarry, Elaine. “Citizenship in Emergency.” Fadiman and Atwan 223-42.

Sontag, Susan. “Looking at War.” Fadiman and Atwan 243-73.

Strayed, Cheryl. “The Love of My Life.” Fadiman and Atwan 291-307.

Thurman, Judith. “Swann Song.” Fadiman and Atwan 308-19.

Wideman, John Edgar. “Whose War.” Fadiman and Atwan 320-28.

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