Tuesday, December 17, 2013

ADVENT 12/17: Sonya Huber on Grout, Tiles, and Eduardo Galeano's Three-Volume Essay

What goes on under a space break, as the writer pivots the reader from one chunk of text to another?

The space-break is a varied and versatile beast, a piece of super-punctuation with meanings that can be diametrically opposed. In some cases that white horizontal stripe is the edge of a container that closes off inquiry and exploration or opens the option for a reader to respond. The space-break sometimes holds the reader at a distance or interrupts a narrative to call attention to the constructed nature of the essay, of language, or of thought and narrative itself.

On the other hand, a sliced and diced narrative doesn’t have to be constructed with disruption in mind. Multiple space breaks don't have to result in a jarring or disrupted reading experience, and a "broken" text can be stitched together effortless with space-breaks that feel like an organic part of the text itself. One of the best examples of cohesive space-break brilliance comes from the work of Eduardo Galeano, an Uruguayan master of the collage and author of Memory of Fire, which offers a collage of fragments as a three-volume opus first published in 1986.

This stunningly readable, wild and aching portrait of the Americas reads strangely like a graphic novel, with action and agony coming to vivid life on each page. If you live in the Western Hemisphere, you'll recognize your home in the violence of colonial contact as it is humanized and made vivid and literary and specific through Galeano's focused gaze on Latin America. Each short piece in the collection is a beautifully wrought essay; some are more than a page but many are ten to twenty lines. Almost every piece contains enough context to stand on its own, and each has its own title, marking it as a separate instance or snapshot and setting it apart. The language snaps with urgency and also with playfulness, with sorrow and color.

This three-volume essay is built from such chunks of text, yet Galeano's fragments dangle like varied fruit from a sturdy branch of chronology. Each small essay is preceded by its year and has a separate title. The reader understands that the events from the Caribbean to Chile, with forays into North American and Europe, occur at the same time in a radiantly tragic mash-up of reality aligned with a spine of time to challenge the conception of the nation-state; the aim of this construction comes from content and message, as Galeano aims to present a more unified whole and to make sense of our hemisphere's history. Within each volume, there are no sections and no chapters. The only break occurs due to the physical limitation of a volume’s weight and thickness. This kind of fragmentation seeks unity for the purpose of composing a true mosaic. To further serve this unity and to ease the drastic disjunctures of geographical focus, Galeano’s pieces are each followed by a subtle list of numbers that refer to a source list in the appendix. 

Each of these small pieces could stand alone as a separate essay that reflects and refracts the larger subject. The language is fiery and riveting, yet the sentences are often simple and declarative. As one example, a piece in Volume II, Faces and Masks, is preceded by the heading “1736: Saint John's, Antigua,” located according to Galeano’s structure in time and place. This heading is followed by the title: “Flare-ups.” The complete entry reads:
They sealed their oath drinking from the same earthenware bowl a mixture of rum, grave dirt, and rooster's blood, and an earthquake of drums exploded. They had the powder ready to blow up the governor and all the chief gentry of the British Island of Antigua. So the prosecutor told it. So the judges believed. 
Six black slaves die of hunger, lashed to the stake, and another five are broken to pieces. Seventy-seven are burned alive. Two others save themselves by telling lies that condemn their fathers to the fire.
The conspirators are charcoal or putrid meat, but they wander along the beach at dawn. While the low tide bares marvels in the sand, fishermen cross paths with the dead, who are seeking water and food to continue their journey to the beyond.

Galeano’s pattern, after vivid detail and humanization of a moment like this one of the aftermath of a slave rebellion, is to use his endings to subtly tether each short or piece to the spiritual, the political, or the humane, or the ethical. In “Flare-ups,” the last two sentences function to contrast the violence of the slaves’ demise with the sense that their spirits live on, though restlessly.

Throughout this work, Galeano positions himself as a shaping narrator without including the word "I." His work is not about himself, and his essays fragment massively across geography, point of view, and subject, though their overarching goal is to document the impact of colonialism and contact on the Western Hemisphere. Despite this experimental structure, I do not lose sight of Galeano as I read. The formal construction of his work never creates a hide-and-seek game of language in which the focus is Galeano’s subjectivity as the elusive prize. Instead, Galeano uses his pieces as lenses to capture an elusive and ambitious whole that is beyond himself but filtered through his point of view as a lens.

Galeno's work has helped me realize that I long for a clear sense of the narrator in fragmented works, especially when my attention is broken repeatedly. I want the guarantee that in exchange for the juxtapositions and occasional whiplash of the space-break, I am being jostled for a larger purpose.

I hold up Galenao as an ideal because I've watched myself hit the "double-return" as a reflex that isn't always positive. Some of my attempts at literary essays made a lattice that conveniently allowed me to not confront several difficult intersecting realities in my life. At a moment of excruciation, where I might be approaching a reckoning with exactly what I wanted to say and yet needed to hide, I might conveniently pivot away to a distracting sentence on an unrelated topic or a reference to a definition in the Oxford English Dictionary. This, I think, is the alluring danger of the space break. I'm not arguing "against" the fragmented essay, but instead pursuing my own difficult relationship with the impulse to bolt away from either the reader or my subject matter—in other words, the world.

As a writer, every time I want to hit the "Return" key twice, I ask myself what it is I'm steering away from, and whether there should be one more sentence to anchor the connection between the reader and the narrator before I bolt away.

If the fragmentation is working well and working with the reader, I think those cracks are where the light gets in, as Leonard Cohen sings. Fragments work through the surprise and contrast of juxtaposition, by bringing two unlike ideas next to each other so they can "talk" to each other, which some would say is the genesis of all art.

Some abrupt jump-cuts are cleanly delivered after a bomb of sorts has been dropped on the reader; such a white space makes a case for the stoicism of the narrator. This abruptness or rupture is sometimes confused with suspense, but for me, as a reader, it comes with a hint of irritation. Such essays might aim to spare the reader by withholding, but sometimes that feels strangely more invasive than the over-sharing of unprocessed memoir. In both cases, unmediated pain of the work’s content is not narrated or made into meaning through the means of a functioning relationship between reader and narrator.

In the essays I most love, the narrator helps me locate where he or she stands as a subject, even if the essay is not about the "I." I want essays in which the narrator lays himself or herself bare for something that matters beyond the essay itself. I hunger for essays that advocate, that care and expose their wounds and also achieve art, that use the tool of fragmentation in the interest of a larger goal. Galeano's work shows that the "broken" essay can let in light, as he is ever-explicit in his language and his point of view, honing in on atrocities and using adjectives, images, and the power of research to show us what side he's on.

So...what can a space break do? This is only a partial list:

1. Draw attention to the surface craft, construction, and language involved in an essay's creation; to create a piece of aesthetic beauty that succeeds based on its ability to rise to the challenge of its own formal constraints. The "grout" of the essay—in the form of the constraints the author imposes for the creation of the essay, or in the form of language—becomes the focus, rather than the tiles.

2. Draw attention to the constructedness of expression and the fact that we can't ever know anything for sure. Shatter old ways of telling stories. Interrupt a narrative for the sake of claiming that unified narratives are illusory. The narrator in such pieces is saying, "Check it out: this is grout and tiles."

3. Create a “false mosaic” in which research, though not integrated, stands for a simulation of this wide-angle view. The pleasure in these research-mosaics comes from the facts themselves, the trivia, which are interesting to the reader as curiosities. This would be one of those tiled pieces where the chunks of ceramic are composed of wildly different materials.

4. Interrupt a narrative or stream of thought for the sake of challenging one's self to think deeper in an essay. Catch one's self in the act of laying tile for the purpose of moving deeper into an idea; pivoting toward meaning.

5.  Create a truly integrated mosaic, as Galeano does, in which each piece is a shimmering translucent tile that can stand on its own and in which the broad view builds as one steps back to create a unified and meaningful experience for the reader.

And there are probably many more possibilities. 

What's important to me is something relatively simple: a striped and stippled essay doesn't have to arc away from the reader. An experiment in form doesn't have to foreground that form; the form can disappear and become a transparent container. I only say this because I believe there’s a trend in the discussion of the essay that leans toward formal and structural experimentation. I love to read such works, and I play at writing them occasionally. Still, “the essay” as seen from this perspective might be entirely defined as a piece of nonfiction devoted to the self-conscious foregrounding of language. 

This not the only possibility for the essay, however, nor should it be the essay’s definition. The essay will not be circumscribed. 

Another type of essay—my personal ideal—uses language in the service of goals intimately connected to content and accessibility, a perfect mosaic of form and function in which neither grout nor tiles distract. Galeano’s work as one example reaches outward to the reader and can seem at first glance to be simpler or driven by lowly content—is it art or mere history, we might ask?—but such works (I put the work of Scott Russell Sanders here as another example, and George Orwell as a third) can be as carefully constructed as their more embroidered cousins. The goal of accessibility, which Ned Stuckey-French discusses in his ongoing work on the politics of “middlebrow” culture and the essay, and in Galeano’s case might also be seen as populist—is also a formal constraint, and success in achieving that goal requires equal discipline in the act of construction.

One of Galeano's chief achievements is putting the agony and the ecstasy, the trivial and the murderous, in a sequence that feels randomized by geography but that is given shocking meaning through chronology. The brokenness is used in the function of larger sense and accessibility, and the white space is a brief pause to pivot, a springboard from which to dive into the next moment, as each moment unites with previous moments and broadens outward. His aim is not to conceal or to create a veil of language but to use the pauses of his space-breaks as the gaps between a ladder's rungs to move us up to where we have needed perspective, with the narrator as guide to help us reach such heights.

Sonya Huber lives on the east coast but hangs out in the midwestern borderland between memoir and the essay. She is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. She teaches at Fairfield University and in Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

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