Monday, September 27, 2010

The Sun: Chicken Soup for the Graduate Student Soul

After reading through my first three issues of the non-profit literary journal The Sun, it didn’t surprise me to find the slogan, “Personal. Political. Provocative. Ad-free”, as the header on the journal’s website. This journal is nothing if not personal, both in content and in philosophy. Gracing nearly every page of each issue are stories about people. Stories about all manner of things: women who want to try sticking their finger up their husbands’ anus, about working as an aid practitioner in war-torn Sierra Leonne, about Hurricane Katrina, about alcoholic fathers, about buying a new car, about living as an amputee. A plethora of political and oh-so-personal stories abound.

There are no advertisements. There are pictures.

Oh yeah, The Sun also provides complimentary subscriptions--$39.00/yr for the rest of us—to prisoners, people with limited income, the homeless, women’s shelters etc. The cumulative effect of all of this is a warm-fuzzy going home for Thanksgiving kind of feel. A friend of mine recently commented that after having read several literary journals she had concluded that it was “mostly writers who read them.” “Nobody else really reads them,” she repeated to me.

The Sun is the kind of literary magazine you can safely assume is read by non-writers; it is accessible and I like that. Perhaps this is why it is one of only three literary magazines that can be found of the shelf of my local Bookman’s; when I asked why this was so, the cashier told me they were ‘really popular’. Usually this is something we hold against a book (journal in this case) but since I am usually one of the plain popular dopes who fall right in line with the mainstream, I decided to withhold judgment.

Then there is the section called Sy Safransky’s Notebook where the journal’s editor-in-chief publishes excerpts from his supposed notebooks (“My cat Zooey woke me up this morning. He licked my hand, then stretched out besides me […] That’s what we all want, isn’t it? A place at the table. Room in someone’s heart”), as well as a section called Reader’s Write in which readers are encouraged to write in on a variety of topics from Porches, to Saying Yes, to Small Victories, to Change of Heart.

The Sun blurs the line between professional writer, reader, and editor; each is contributing to the magazine in a less than conventional way (i.e., the writer is contributing personal journal entries and readers are called upon to submit a short piece of literary nonfiction). This is another way in which the journal seems to want to establish a personal relationship and dialogue with its readership.

To wit:

“Your magazine has shown me that I am not alone.”

Bridget Willey, Sun reader

“‘I’ve felt so many things. It’s not like a magazine. It’s more like a person, a friend.’”

Ashley Walker, author

Editor-in-chief Sy Safransky resists defining the magazine, claiming that labels feel reductive (between the labels is where the magic happens, he says), but the journal’s online mission statement describes the journal as a fusing of the personal and the political, as an attempt to honor the genuine and the spiritual, and as an effort to “invoke the splendor and heartache of being human.” According to Sy, “exploring the vagaries of the human condition”, and “honoring the mysteries of the heart” are the driving forces behind his vision for The Sun.

Even for me—an infamously uncritical consumer of inspirational (read cheesy) writing—this seemed like a lot of times to mention the human heart and the human condition and the human spirit, and all this talk about being best friends with the magazine and being uplifted started to make me a little uncomfortable. That was when I noticed a section at the end called Sunbeams (eek!), which turned out to be a page of inspirational quotations. I was about to put it down then and there—write it off as not a serious literary journal—when a quotation (“to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”—Simone Weil) caught my eye. I sheepishly wrote it down, like a spy taking notes in a badly lit Eastern European café. I had to admit: I liked that section. I liked the chicken noodle soup, rolling around in your snowsuit, man who triumphs over terminal disease feel of it all. Let’s face it—most of us like to read stories about people like us, about people who are challenged in great and mundane ways; a lot of us like to read for that gem of meaning, so that along with the writer, we too feel we have learnt something.

This is what The Sun delivers. Not to mention pretty good writing. No, this is not Chicken Soup for the Graduate Student Soul (despite my earlier allusion to chicken soup), but it is writing of fairly high caliber. Though the journal is by and large interested in the narrative essay, recent issues have shown new enthusiasm for more experimental forms.

In the January 2009 issue, Cary Tennis’s Since You Asked features a conglomeration of pieces culled from the writer’s advice column on, and though this was not written as a cohesive essay (or an essay at all for that matter), it is interesting to examine the way it works as a piece of nonfiction— or what Sy Safransky might call a ‘true story.’ Each response works as a sort of micro essay in and of itself. Help-seekers write in about a variety of problems, such as the neglectful wannabe Hollywood boyfriend, the guy who doesn’t like finding right-wing propaganda in the loo, the woman afraid of falling into a complacent and passion-less rut with her boyfriend, the guy who ditched his pregnant girlfriend as a teenager and is now dealing with the fall-out.

The questions themselves seem suspiciously uniform in style (not to mention the curious content…I mean, who takes the time to write to an advice columnist about the fact that they are feeling, meh, kinda irritable?), which leads one to wonder if they are real at all. Perhaps they function rather, as a sort of intro to the topic at hand, i.e., provide Tennis with the opening he needs in order to pontificate/ “essay” on his subject of choice. The last response in the piece for example, becomes an enraged mediation of the fact that bad things happen to good people, concluding with the words, “It’s the truth. You’re wiser now, though black-and-blue, sobbing in the firelight, waiting for the dawn.” It’s the truth. The author provides us with a final truth in each of these vignettes: a lesson if you will. And this seems similar in structure and ambition to all the pieces in The Sun. There’s an issue, it’s discussed, and some kind of resolution—or revelation—takes place.

Emily Rapp’s “Surviving the Body”, an essay about an amputee who goes to Korea to teach English, ends on a similar note. “Grace,” she tells us, “can only be experienced when we fail.” The reader is left with an image of Emily literally burying her discipline stick in the yard (presumably symbolizing the various types of violence portrayed in the essay). As in many of the magazines other pieces, things are tied up and—quite literally—buried. Though the end seems to suggest that the essay’s largest ambition is related to the experience of triumph over failure, the essay as a whole feels as if it is divided into two vectors: violence and healing. Rapp moves predictably back and forth between these two threads: the egregious violence (including spousal abuse, date rape, corporal punishment),which she witnesses in Korea; and short sections of prose describing the various therapies and surgeries (including learning to walk again) that she underwent as a result of a congenital bone-and-tissue disorder.

The most engaging sections of the essay are those where Rapp uses vivid imagery to describe her leg, doctors, and the various procedures she underwent. Ex. “Wooden limbs and rubber feet hung from the ceiling on frayed cotton straps. The legs were like body parts hung out on a laundry line, estranged and neglected, waiting to be claimed and inhabited by a person who would give them a reason to exist. My dad and I sat in silence, watching the limbs sway in the feeble breeze from the single ceiling fan and listening to the whine of the saw in the room.” Perhaps this is a result of temporal distance, but these sections feel better processed, and more wholly digested, than the parts that take place in Korea. In Korea, Rapp gives the reader scenes of physical abuse (her kicking the American soldier in the mouth with her carbon and steel foot, the young girl being made to endure physical torture in the schoolyard for their transgressions) but there is little reflection on what these scenes might mean, in particular with relation to the healing vector of the essay. Though the essay closes with a climactic image and a lesson (grace can only be experienced when we fail) one is left wondering (as we often say ad nauseum in our MFA workshops): was it earned?

The micro essay “The Things We Say When We Say Goodbye” by Alan Davis, a tender portrait of Davis’s Uncle Joe, is similarly precarious. A conversational tone, employing snippets of dialogue, and anecdotal memories, creates a picture of a peaceful man. We come to know Uncle Joe via his belief systems: his philosophy of life. The essay is divided into two sections, each ending on a hefty, yet puzzling note. The first section (a brief sketch of Uncle’s Joe’s religious beliefs) ends with the words: “Those were probably my last words to him, aside from the things we say when we say goodbye”. The sentence echoes the essays title, and one expects it to be picked up again later in the essay (what are the things we say to each other when we say goodbye?), but it is not. The second chunk is a speculative account of Uncle Joe’s death terminating in the unexpected conclusion that “disaster was always, is always, a heartbeat away”. ??? This dramatic conclusion felt particularly unearned, but perhaps such are the limitations of working with such a short format.

The essays in The Sun all seem to beg a similar question. While we all want to take a journey with the writer and feel we have arrived somewhere by the end, essay upon essay of tidily wrapped up narrative, may leave us wondering how much of the human condition is really being represented here. The stories in this journal are powerful, and it is possible to be drawn along by the plot points themselves—not to mention some authentically well written prose—but there is a fairly polished quality to the magazine that may be problematic for some.

1 comment:

  1. Jacqueline. I agree that this journal had a tremendous amount of heart. And I feel like I'm all about the heart this semester, so I dug these essays. P.S.--I'm a cheese head, too.