Monday, July 29, 2013

Living Within The Ellipses

“In Mexico, I was, am, and always will be a welcome guest in a rented house, one I can never fully own.” —Ilan Stavans

          For years, Ilan Stavans has challenged my notion of what defines a Mexican. When I was an undergraduate studying rhetoric, I stumbled upon his cultural commentaries. I remember his name to me had nothing to do with someone from Mexico, instead his name simply evoked a writer, probably of South American descent. He was a Borges or a Quiroga of whom I had yet to know or encounter. I was young and had much to learn. I was also a college kid trying to write and make sense of my own experiences. I looked towards books for answers. In the years after, as an essayist, I’ve learned to contemplate the “I,” to find ways to examine the multiple layers of the ‘self.’ As a reader, I've also learned to understand how other writers take on the challenging and often difficult questions that emerge when one examines these layers.

         Early in Ilan Stavans' book On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, Stavans addresses his own inner contradictions while recounting the lyrics to the classic Jorge Negrete rendition of “Mexico Lindo y Querido.” In the mere action of enjoying the song, Stavans (who’s real name is Ilan Stavchansky) is set to wonder on his own “Mexican-ness.”

        His memoir poses the question:

        What makes Stavans a Mexican when he is fair-skinned, blonde, browned-eyed third-generation Mexican of Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry? 

        Stavans understands the duality in his life: growing up in a country where its customs felt foreign and were yet familiar; where his upbringing was an insular existence within his middle class Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City; and his Yiddish and Hebrew always led eastward—aliyah—to a motherland, a territory that remained intrinsic and nostalgic to the old guard yet met with such ambivalence by Stavans’ generation. He poses another question, one that brings him anguish. If he were to die, where would he be buried? Where would his allegiances lie?

        What Stavans discovers is that in his own desire to define himself, he realizes that he can’t fully find a satisfying answer—a fact that Mexican-Americans are born into. 

         As a child, language was my way of understanding my identity. Spanish was my first language, despite the fact I was fully bilingual before the age of four. I was the son of Mexican-American migrant farm workers who in the 1980s moved around the United States picking fruit for a living. Spanish was the language I used with my parents, the private one. I also used it in the migrant camps with the rest of the farm worker families, most of whom were undocumented immigrants. I learned very early about these stark divisions. English for me was outward, more open and free to use in schools, in stores, and on television. This understanding of using one language intimately over another is an important aspect of a multilingual child’s life. Early in my life I met Spanish and my culture with the same apathy as Stavans did his Yiddish and much of the diaspora.

        My childish thoughts: I know how to speak Spanish. I grew up in its world. For me, Spanish represented the past, my parents and my grandparents own past, their world and their struggle and my present, a waiting station. For me, English was mine (can one own a language?) and it represented a future, a world outside of the one I lived in. For me, Spanish moved with emotion and heart. English moved intellectually, with mind.

        These childish thoughts, not so childish. I knew then, much the way Stavans approaches the notion of language identity in his memoir, that defining oneself through the language we speak, leads to discovering a space that we (and our families) create. When the approach to the memoir is this way, suddenly, one’s geography, the places one lives, or one’s allegiances to our nationalities are not as crucial as how the language influences and moves within these elements.

        Stavans’ paternal grandmother, Bela Stavchanksy, emigrated from Warsaw, Poland in the 1920s to Tampico, Mexico. Bobba Bela was a natural polyglot, a woman who spoke six languages–Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and English––giving Polish and Russian up as a way into a new environment. Her past forges into future. 

        Stavans: “Her past needed to be overcome, even erased, if survival was to be achieved.”

       As Stavans’ grandmother willingly lets go of the languages of her past, she does what many immigrants do when detached from their homelands. They recreate what they had before as a method of preserving aspects of who they used to be.

       Bobba Bela devoured books with ambition. She even wrote one herself. Her diario, described her life in the Warsaw suburb of Nowe Brodno and her setting roots in Mexico City. Stavans refers to Bobba Belas’ der yishuv (the settlement) in Mexico City as an exact recreation of the shtetl in Poland, as if to “reghettoize [herself] in enclaves with little but business with the outside world.” 

       These enclaves in Mexico City developed and flourished into Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues, and schools that Stavans generation grew up in and, as he observes, remain insular and away from the “real” Mexican culture even today. Stavans asks an interesting question: did Bobba Bela ever fully leave Nowe Brodno? The answer, for me, carries an air of irony and contradiction.

       As Bobba Bela turned away from the languages that identified her past life, she kept one, Yiddish, as her intimate language, the one she spoke to her family often times, Stavans recalls, fusing it with Spanish.

       So, I wonder myself, why did Stavans’ grandmother shun her native languages and so willingly adopt the new one? Wouldn’t doing so have seemed a betrayal against her past, a sin against her identity? In Bobba Bela’s case, history shows us the inevitability of the situation for Jews across Europe at that time in the twentieth century.

        I’m aware my questioning is informed by what many Mexican-Americans who straddle the lines between identity and language across the borderlands go through everyday.

       Ni de aquí, ni de allá.
       Not from here, not from there. 

      Stavans describes his life this way: “To leave and return.”

      For me, this phrase evokes the journey many migrant farm workers, so many undocumented, in the United States embark on every season. Like wandering Jews, many do so without choice. Their lives dictated—we leave only to return. A movement: between past and future. And then again, with only very little to hold on to.

       I grew up in migrant camps. Many of these farm worker camps themselves were insular communities shut out from the outside world. I remember as a child asking my parents why we lived there. Our exile from the comforts of our American citizenship was beyond my control; my parents thought it an advantage to not have to worry about finding a place to live in a strange town, a simple room for a family of five was enough for them. Even then I wondered why did we have to live in such squalor, such poverty? This didn’t feel very “American” to me. I grew up wondering about the difference between myself and what I thought an American should be.

      A guest in a rented house, one can never fully own. 

      To this day, when I meet new people, many ask me what I am. Once a lady at a dinner party was appalled when I told her I was of Mexican descent. “You certainly don’t look Mexican. You have no accent. And your facial features are…”

       She allows her thought to trail off—Dot. Dot. Dot. 

        Clearly the woman who questioned my background, diluted and misguided as I take her comment to be, irritates me to the point I begin to ask questions. What truly makes me a Mexican if I am American-born and speak English without a trace of an accent? Can my only connection to owning my "Mexican-ness" be by skin and blood? And although I love and treasure my heritage, I've hardly set foot in my ancestors' country, so I feel no allegiance outside of rooting for Mexico's national soccer team during the World Cup, an allegiance that so many Mexican-Americans feel strongly about. I often wonder how many of these Mexican-American soccer fans can recite the Mexican national anthem, let alone "Mexico Lindo Y Querido," besides during a drunken stupor? I can't. Recently, I watched Mexican actress Salma Hayek recite both Mexican and American anthems on Letterman—Dot. Dot. Dot.

       I begin to understand that I'm just challenged with the same notions and difficult questions Ilan Stavans puts forth in his memoir.

      Around the time I finished reading On Borrowed Words, comedian Louis C.K. discussed in a Rolling Stone interview his “complex racial identity.” Louis C.K., a comedian who in his own way essais about the self on his television show, refers to himself as an “accidental white person,”  and explains how his “Mexican-ness” shaped his artistic identity. The Huffington Post picked up on the magazine cover story and referred to it as “Louis C.K. talks his ‘Mexican Past’.”

      I find humor in that phrase “Mexican past,” because in a way, traversing the border north, one is unavoidably forced to also give up one’s past. One assumes the future to be the achievement of the “American Dream.” Then again, it is easier if one is fair-skinned, white, guero, much like Louis C.K. and Ilan Stavans, to do something like that. Louis C.K. acknowledges this privilege as a “leg up in society,” while Stavans prefers to meditate on the repercussions of that “leg up.”

      And what, after all, attaches us to the land where one is born and raised?

      I’ll say for a Mexican-American (and the immigrant), the answer is never an easy one, but perhaps the best answer lies within the tension. 


César Díaz is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He teaches writing at Austin Community College and will teach creative nonfiction at St. Edward's University this fall. He is feverishly thinking, reading, and writing a memoir and a collection of essays. He is a very busy man.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Majestic Ruins: The Work of James Agee

My connection to James Agee’s work, particularly his nonfiction, feels deeply personal, and nearly impossible to articulate.  When I write “particularly his nonfiction,” I mean  “particularly his entire oeuvre,” because I’d say that nearly all of it might be considered nonfiction.  His fiction, “A Death in the Family” and “Morning Watch” both highly autobiographical, would be framed as memoir most likely were he to write them today.
Ever since I was sixteen, and attended tiny St. Andrews School, nestled in the mountains of Tennessee, one of the same schools Agee attended (along with Exeter and Harvard), I’ve seen him as a kind of role model, both for good and ill.  My role models have always looked nothing like me and have always tempted me with their wicked ways, both linguistically and temperamentally.  In grad school (I first wrote “grand” school, when I was a “gradual student” to quote John Irving), I identified with my teacher and sometime downstairs neighbor, Barry Hannah.  In High School, it was James Agee, in whose eponymous library on the campus of St. Andrews you could find me studying under the not-so-watchful eye of the librarian Mrs. Gooch on most days.  Unlike most of my fellow St. Andrewsians, I lived for Study Hall, and I immersed myself in Southern literature full of madness and disgrace, my PB&J – which accounted for how thin I was back then.  As in the children’s story in which an alligator is raised by ducks and thinks he’s a duck, too, I somehow forgot that I was Jewish, born in New York, and had nothing in common with possessed Southerners like Hannah and Agee. 
            I had something in common with Agee, besides going to St. Andrews and sitting through Anglican chapel services.  Agee and I had both lost our fathers when we were young, his when he was six and mine when I was seven.  But that wasn’t what forged my connection with him.  By the time I graduated from St. Andrews, I had read absolutely zip of James Agee’s work.  Now why is that, I wonder, in a place that half-prided itself in forging at least part of young Jim’s character?  The only thing that Agee wrote that was pushed on me – I can’t speak for other St. Andrewsians of the time – were the letters of James Agee to Father Flye, a former teacher at St. Andrews who lived past 100 to Agee’s 45, dead of a heart attack in Manhattan in the back seat of a cab on his way to see a doctor.  Not that Agee’s work was discouraged – I remember seeing Agee’s autobiographical novel A Death in the Family on the shelves of the library.  I might have even picked it up.  I might have even stolen it to read later. 
            But Agee wasn’t really Southern Literature as defined by St. Andrews at the time.  When I took Mr. Norton’s Southern Literature class, we read four Faulkner novels.  Couldn’t one of Agee’s works have supplanted one of the Faulkner novels we read?  After all, one of Agee’s works, “The Morning Watch,” took place at St. Andrews, for heavens sake, but Mr. Norton, who didn’t seem to care for Flannery O’Connor either, whose great grandfather had had two horses shot from under him when he was defending against the Northern Aggressors, decidedly preferred the old South to the new, even assigning us a book about Quadroons and Octaroons, The Grandissimes: A Story of Creole Life, written by George Washington Cable in 1880.  Too late now for me to turn in a negative teacher evaluation for Mr. Norton – not that we were ever asked to fill out such things, but the Grandissimes I could have lived without.  Agee, on the other hand . . . I’m not sure if it would have helped me or hurt me to read LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN at the age of sixteen.  It probably would have confounded and devastated and frustrated and sometimes bored me as it has since I first discovered it years later.  
We’re all ruins in the making, and that’s what I love so much about Agee, that he was a ruin on the page, when he ventured in 1936 with Walker Evans down to Alabama for Henry Luce’s Fortune Magazine and met the three white tenant farm families, forming a kind of ruinous circle of human enterprise and squalor that he found himself in for several weeks, and that he tried, in vain (he thought) to capture on the page.  He wrote:
If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.  It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odor, plates of food and of excrement.  Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art; and I could trust the majority of you to use it as you would a parlor game.
A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.
As it is, though, I’ll do what little I can in writing.

It’s what Walker Evans called “night writing,” and I think it could only be written by a twenty-seven year old who takes himself seriously to the point of pomposity.  Still, I love that – I love all the flaws of this great ruin of a book.  In it, I see all our failures to capture what we want to capture, yours and mine.  I’ve passed the time when I could conceivably write such a majestic failure.  I’m out of grand school though still a gradual student, which means my failures have become increasingly fatal, like a car’s slow oil leak.  
Had Mr. Norton taught James Agee, I’m not sure how I would have reacted, but I would have reacted.  The Grandissimes still sit in me, undigestible. 
I only discovered Agee later when I first read his gorgeous evocation of place, “Knoxville, Summer 1915,” followed by “A Death in the Family,” my stolen copy when Mrs. Gooch wasn’t looking, and “The Morning Watch.”  But first, I acted out “The Morning Watch.”  Although I wasn’t taught Agee’s work, I was taught some good old-fashioned Southern self-destructiveness at St. Andrews: a little drunkenness, a little pot, a lot of pining for sex, and even more conflict about religion.  Jew or not, I had to participate in the high Anglican rituals of the campus along with all the other Agee wannabes.  All of the students were required on the eve of Easter Sunday to participate in “Morning Watch,” a kind of relay prayer in which we were required to pray alone to Jesus in the chapel for fifteen minutes before being relieved by another student.  My watch came at 3 a.m., punishment, I’m sure for being a Jew from New York City, punishment for getting the award from Mr. Norton for best student in his Southern Literature class (“It pains me to give you this award, Mr. Hemley,” he told me when I went to receive it on the St. Andrews stage that May).  What was I suppose to say to Jesus?  Agee suffered spiritual torment during his own stint with Jesus during Morning Watch.  For me, there was only burning resentment at having been awakened so early for something I didn’t believe in.  But there came a reward.  One of the girls I had a crush on – none of the girls were crush-exempted, actually -- suggested that we do what the main characters in Morning Watch did in Agee’s book: ride our bikes out to the lake and go skinny dipping.  She didn’t have to ask twice.  Half a dozen of us Agee Heathen rode our bikes out to the lake and luxuriated in the warmth and freedom of being sixteen and not on the downhill slide.  And from that moment, throwing off my clothes, skinny bones and all, when I hit the water, that’s the time I mark as when I first understood something about literature. 

Listen to Samuel Barber's musical rendition of Agee's "Knoxville: Summer 1915":

ROBIN HEMLEY is the author of ten books of nonfiction and fiction, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and many other awards for his prose.  From 2004 - 2013 he was Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa, and he is the founder of the biennial conference NonfictioNOW.  A Contributing Editor of The Iowa Review and Publisher of Defunct Magazine (, he currently directs the Writing Program and is Writer-in-Residence at Yale-NUS in Singapore. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

Graffiti as Essay -- Alison Stine on Street Art

Safari, Mama, Hot Boy, Serv—these are the names of a handful of graffiti artists in my small, Southern Ohio community. My favorite street artist calls them all painters, though until recently, I would have called them writers.  After all, that is mostly what they do: write, again and again, their names on brick walls; down alleyways; in stickers plastered over utility poles, slapped on the back of No Parking signs.  

But that is not all they do.  Some create collages using carefully arranged stencils.  Others paint free-hand: a world of color, shapes, and mystery.

I know some people don’t think of street art as art at all, but trash: destruction of property, evidence of gangs.  But where I live, in the foothills of Appalachia, a place of shuttered brick factories and an old insane asylum, a place of trailer doors kicked in for drug raids, of weeds and of rust—graffiti does not consist of gang signs so much as life signs, evidence of a searching consciousness, of a struggle. And where I live, graffiti is not plastered on active subway cars or cared-for houses so much as abandoned buildings, desolate alleys, places of neglect and waste and sorrow—places that are already scarred. 

One artist did a large painting on a highway bridge, targeting that spot specifically to cover up obscenities scrawled there by a rapist.  One painted “Serve + Protect?” on the sheriff’s department, the police station, and the courthouse walls (before he was caught). Someone has been painting “Happy” in red bubble letters, shaped like balloons tied together with string: Happy at the back of the slum apartments, Happy in the alley paved with glass, Happy on the vomit-covered dumpster.
How is this an essay? 

How is it not?  Who’s writing all these messages?  Why are they writing them?  How? Who is it for?  If the purpose of writing is to communicate, entertain, intrigue, sing, or challenge, graffiti is a mystery—the only mystery I know—that is alive, that is ongoing, another poem around this corner; another chapter down this street, appearing overnight. 

If the definition of essay is “to try,” what is trying harder than the making of covert, illegal art, a making often conducted in darkness, under extreme time constraints, physical pressure, and the threat of great personal peril?  Street artists have been chased by drunks and junkies, tackled, heckled, threatened, and of course, arrested.  Painters jump fences, squeeze under wires, scale walls, dodge trains, lean over rooflines, dangle their bodies over streets—all for the chance to say something that may or may not be allowed to live.

What is a purer attempt than to make art many people hate, most people don’t even see, and which will likely be erased or defaced in a manner of days?

The first graffiti was made by a Neanderthal in El Castillo, Spain.  He pressed his hand on a cave wall, then blew red pigment around his hand’s shape—a street artist taught me that. 

It’s pure essay.  It’s pure attempt.

A new essay now: Safari, who has scaled the highest buildings in town to write that name, large and white, has someone painting alongside of him or her: Peach.  I think Safari is a man.  And I think Peach is a woman, and here they are, essaying together, on the top of a brick building: PEACH on one side, SAFARI on the other, covering almost the entire back, paint dripping down like fifteen-foot fangs.

They would have had to scale the building; lean over the roof (a six-story drop), bricks pressing into their stomachs; and write upside down, using rollers with extensions—all to say only one word each: their names.

I’ve been a writer for most of my life.  But never before have I felt the impulse to create as much as when I stood in an alley, gazing up at those names. 

I wanted to say something then; to reach out to a stranger; to make him feel alive, as I did; to make him turn around.  To be heard, to be seen, to be recognized—that’s what graffiti is essaying: I was here, I lived, I tried, I tried, I am trying—no matter what you think of me—still.

Alison Stine is the author of two books of poems: WAIT (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), and OHIO VIOLENCE (University of North Texas Press, 2009).  Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Better, Diagram, and Southern Humanities Review, and her nonfiction books have been finalists in the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Book Prize. She makes her home in Appalachia.

All photos by Alison Stine.  All art belongs to the artists.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On the Morning After My Twenties - Emily DePrang on Joan Didion

Being an idealist in Austin in the summer of 2001 was almost perfunctory.  Y2K had given everybody the morbid thrill of impending disaster followed by the cocky thrill of still being able to buy gas with a credit card. The WTO riots in Seattle in 1999 had definitely done something, maybe, or at least had given the feeling that something had been done. (The passive voice can be useful.) When I sat in an airplane hangar next to a straight-edge punk girl and watched footage of the riots set to “Rage Against the Machine,” I felt they meant something, though I couldn’t have said what. Bush v. Gore had given diverse groups something to fight together, and this was before September 11, when we re-learned fear and obedience and found out exactly to what degree a small, committed band of citizens can change the world.

Tom Petty supposedly said, “I don’t go to Austin. The weather’s too nice, the girls are too pretty, and the dope’s too cheap. I can’t get anything done!” Damn straight. And the nothing that a lot of people got done back then (I moved away in ’04) was a kind of spastic activism (spaztivism?) that burns a lot of energy but doesn’t get a lot done. You know, the kind of activism that can usually be called a “gesture.”

I was an old hand at gestures. I always wanted to be two things: a writer and “good.” I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be but I knew how to be good: gestures. One meal a week doesn’t keep anybody from starving to death, but getting up early on a Saturday to go serve it makes you “good.”

Then, in the summer of 2001, I read Joan Didion’s “On the Morning After the Sixties.” In the space of ten minutes, it reversed my polarities. Suddenly, I knew exactly what kind of writer I wanted to be and I had no idea how to be good.

It’s short enough to reproduce in full. I read somewhere that Didion used to type Hemingway out just to see how the sentences felt, so I’ll type her essay here from the copy of “The White Album” I was reading that afternoon. I’ll do so as a gesture to the many years I thought she was right.


“On the Morning After the Sixties”

I am talking here about being a child of my time. When I think about the Sixties now I think about an afternoon not of the Sixties at all, an afternoon early in my sophomore year at Berkeley, a bright autumn Saturday in 1953. I was lying on a leather couch in a fraternity house (there had been a lunch for the alumni, my date had gone on to the game, I do not now recall why I had stayed behind), lying there alone reading a book by Lionel Trilling and listening to a middle-aged man pick out on a piano in need of tuning the melodic line to “Blue Room.” All that afternoon, he sat at the piano, and all that afternoon he played “Blue Room” and he never got it right. I can hear and see it still, the wrong note in “We will thrive on/keep alive on,” the sunlight falling through the big windows, the man picking up his drink and beginning again and telling me, without ever saying a word, something I had not known before about bad marriages and wasted time and looking backward. That such an afternoon would now seem implausible in every detail—the idea of having had a “date” for a football lunch now seems to me so exotic as to be almost czarist—suggests the extent to which the narrative in which many of us grew up no longer applies.

The distance we have come from the world in which I went to college has been on my mind quite a bit during those seasons when not only Berkeley but dozens of other campuses were periodically shut down, incipient battlegrounds, their borders sealed. To think of Berkeley as it was in the Fifties was not to think of barricades and reconstituted classes. “Reconstitution” would have sounded to us then like Newspeak, and barricades are never personal. We were all very personal then, sometimes relentlessly so, and, at that point where we either act or do not act, most of us are still. I supposed I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error. It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise.

At Berkeley in the Fifties no one was surprised by anything at all, a donnée which tended to render discourse less than spirited, and debate nonexistent. The world was by definition imperfect, and so of course was the university. There was some talk even then about IBM cards, but on balance the notion that free education for tens of thousands of people might involve automation did not seem unreasonable. We took it for granted that the Board of Regents would sometimes act wrongly. We simply avoided those student rumored to be FBI informers. We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.

To have assumed that particular fate so early was the peculiarity of my generation. I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults. That most of us have found adulthood just as morally ambiguous as we expected it to be falls perhaps into the category of prophesies self-fulfilled: I am simply not sure. I am telling you only how it was. The mood of Berkeley un those years was one of mild but chronic “depression,” against which I remember certain small things that seemed to me somehow explications, dazzling in their clarity, of the world I was about to enter: I remember a woman picking daffodils in the rain one day when I was walking in the hills. I remember a teacher who drank too much one night and revealed his fright and bitterness. I remember my real joy at discovering for the first time how language worked, at discovering, for example, that the central line of Heart of Darkness was a postscript. All such images were personal, and the personal was all that most of us expected to find. We would make a separate peace. We would do graduate work in Middle English, we would go abroad. We would make some money and live on a ranch. We would survive outside history, in a kind of idée fixe referred to always, during the years I spent at Berkeley, as “some little town with a decent beach.”

As it worked out, I did not find, or even look for the little town with a decent beach. I sat in a large bare apartment in which I lived my junior and senior years (I had lived a while in a sorority, the Tri Delt house, and had left it, typically, not over any “issue” but because I, the implacable “I,” did not like living with sixty people) and I read Camus and Henry James and I watched a flowering plum come in and out of blossom and at night, most nights, I walked outside and looked up to where the cyclotron and the bevatron glowed on the dark hillside, unspeakable mysteries which engaged me, in the style of my time, only personally. Later I got out of Berkeley and went to New York and later I got out of New York and came to Los Angeles. What I have made for myself is personal, but not exactly peace. Only one person I knew at Berkeley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time. A few of the people I knew at Berkeley killed themselves not long after. Another attempted suicide in Mexico and then, in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement, came home and joined the Bank of America’s three-year executive-training program. Most of us live less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time. If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man’s fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending.



Oh, Joan.

It’s so easy, from a postprandial drowse on a leather couch in the sun, to consider apathy the most existentially valid attitude toward life. And it’s so easy, when sentences are beautiful and methodical and frank bordering on shameless, to mistake their content for truth. To a young person manic with good intentions but stalked by the fear that nothing she was capable of would ever do any good, Didion was a bitter relief.  “Yes,” she told me in her gentle, steady, non-manic voice, “yes. It’s okay that you’re useless because it’s all for shit. Isn’t it nice to be calmer and more mature than everyone who tries?” She was calling my secret name.

Didion, like lots of writers and like myself, suffered from depression. Not “depression,” as she wrote it, but depression, a disease, one with a cause and treatment and symptoms like assuming that a stranger fiddling with a piano is trapped in a terrible marriage.

Like I said, “On the Morning After the Sixties” reversed my polarities. Suddenly I knew exactly how I wanted to write: nonfiction, the socio-personal, the essay, the careful cadence, the voice that commands quietly, abstract-concrete-abstract-concrete—all that. And I simultaneously stopped knowing how to be “good.” She was right, after all: man is flawed, social institutions are going to be flawed, and if I were honest, it would be awful nice to live “outside history.” I underlined it. I felt both called out and excused.

I still made gestures after that, but less and less. I stopped believing anything I could do would “affect man’s fate in the slightest.” I stopped looking for my barricade. This didn’t exactly help my depression. But medication did, and so did realizing how dumb this beautiful essay is. “Why should the individual make an effort on anyone's behalf unless there’s a good chance of, like, fixing the human condition?”

There’s no such thing as mankind. There’s no such thing as arriving or winning, and there’s no scorecard at the end. But we all run out the clock somehow.

How did I idolize someone who could look at an integrated lunch counter and say, “Meh”?

She wrote real purty.


Emily DePrang is a staff writer for the Texas Observer. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Black Book, Fourth Genre, and some anthologies. She won the 2012 SDX award for Public Service in Magazine Journalism from the Society of Professional Journalists and is a 2013 National Health Journalism Fellow. She was the nonfiction editor for Sonora Review while getting her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, class of 2011. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Wendy Rawlings on Natalia Ginzburg's THE LITTLE VIRTUES

From the cover photo on a book of criticism about Natalia Ginzburg’s work, she looks directly at the camera with an expression so sour she might have been sucking on a lemon. A woman past middle age in a dark sweater and incongruously cheerful flowered blouse, she’s leaning on an elbow that anchors a stack of papers. The photographer seems to have interrupted her in the midst of a writing session. Or perhaps the photo was taken during Ginzburg’s time as an independent left-winger in the Italian parliament, to which she was elected in 1983, and we’ve interrupted her conducting some important government business.
     She was a tough nut. You can gather this from her essays even without seeing the photo or knowing anything about her life, which was shaped by Mussolini’s fascism. The youngest of five children, she was kept at home in Palermo, Italy till the age of eleven to try to prevent her from catching infectious diseases. A biographer notes that it’s no wonder this isolation encouraged the “morbid introspection” characteristic of her writing. Her father, a socialist, was arrested in 1922 and taken from the family. Later, her first husband, a Jewish Marxist, was tortured and killed by fascists, leaving her with three small children.
     The whole of Ginzburg’s life was punctuated at regular intervals by death, forced geographical relocation, and financial hardship. She had plenty to write about, and she did, publishing stories and novels as well as nonfiction. But despite the difficulty of her life, she tempers her writing with gallows humor. In one of my favorite essays, “Worn-Out Shoes,” Ginzburg recalls, “During the German occupation I was alone here in Rome, and I only had one pair of shoes. If I had taken them to the cobbler’s I would have had to stay in bed for two or three days, and in my situation that was impossible.”
     Ginzburg published several collections of essays, but the one I love most is a slim volume called The Little Virtues. In just a few more than a hundred pages she speaks with the brevity of Hemingway about all the things in human life that are important and will eternally be important: love, war, poverty, death, generosity, loss. I admit that when I came across this book for the first time I had just finished reading a novel by Nicholson Baker called The Fermata in which the narrator very exhaustively and exhaustingly describes stopping time (a skill he has picked up) in order to remove a co-worker’s clothes and examine her pubic hair. Much as I enjoyed Baker’s narrative pyrotechnics, I was feeling a little spiritually depleted. The Little Virtues proved to be the literary version of a palate cleanser.
     The book’s title piece is part philosophical treatise, part childrearing manual, part socialist primer, part compendium of useful aphorisms a la Poor Richard’s Almanack. She advances the claim that children “should not be taught the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth...not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.” Though published in 1962, these values seem radical to me even now and much in contrast to current American childrearing practices. “The money we give our children should be given for no reason; it should be given indifferently so that they will learn to receive it indifferently,” Ginzburg advises. Hear that, parents who hand their kids a twenty for each “A” they earn?
     The effect of war and privation on Ginzburg’s writing shows itself in the way she pares expression down to its essence. “A house is not particularly solid. It can collapse from one moment to the next,” she says matter-of-factly in an essay called “The Son of Man.” She is speaking here of the war that swept across Europe in the 40’s, but this essay came to mind after the tornado that cut a swath through the town where I live, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2011, and again more recently, when parts of Oklahoma were obliterated by tornadoes. “Behind the peaceful little vases of flowers, behind the teapots and carpets and waxed floors there is the other true face of a house – the hideous face of a house that has been reduced to rubble.” Such are the observations of a woman writer who refused to write flowery prose about flowers and teapots or smile for the camera. She had more important things to write, and I’m glad she wrote them.


Wendy Rawlings is the author of The Agnostics and Come Back Irish. Her essays and stories have appeared recently or will soon in AGNI, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Florida Review. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alabama.