Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Welcome to Syntax Club

Inspired in part by A Public Space's read-through of War and Peace with Yiyun Li (though that project is certainly better conceived and executed than this one), I am pleased to announce a new Essay Daily limited series offering: Syntax Club!

Syntax Club is a more leisurely, laid-back space dedicated to collectively reading through works essayists might find interesting with a particular eye towards sentence-level content. Hopefully Syntax Club will let us improve the quality of our own sentences by understanding what precisely is appealing about specific moments in other works.

Starting next Tuesday, May 5th, I am going to be using some weekday spaces here at Essay Daily to do a read-through of Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, a hybrid work which combines an essay, a formally playful critical apparatus, imitations of ancient Greek poetry, and a "novel in verse" which retells a classical myth. I picked this book for Syntax Club because I am a little fond of it and because I feel that there is a kind of essayistic thought underpinning much of the work (or if not essayistic, at least of value to essayists).  Additionally, Anne Carson is precisely the type of "lyric" author many of us think of when we use terms like "lyric essay", so even though this work is technically a novel I am not particularly concerned about the genre boundaries.

I'll post quotes and some light analysis here on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. For next week I'll be covering the two sections called "Red Meat" as well as the short "Appendix" sections which precede the novel-in-verse itself. After that I will move through the novel itself, doing 1-3 sections each Tuesday through Thursday until we have finished the book (the sections are all rather short, and the book itself can easily be read entirely in a long afternoon). I encourage you to read or re-read along if you like and post your own thoughts in the comments, but don't feel obligated. Again: Syntax Club is a leisurely space.

We will focus on the following questions for this read-through:
--How is this work essayistic, or possibly of value to essayists?
--What is distinctive, noteworthy, excellent, or interesting about the sentences in this work?

Procedural Questions and Answers:

Who is Anne Carson?
A Canadian poet, translator, and professor of Greek/Latin. Many of her projects are "hybrid" works which somehow re-work classical or ancient materials. People generally tend to find her work highly interesting or totally insufferable; I am in the former camp, although I understand and respect the latter. I wrote about another, much more directly essayistic work of hers on here a few years back, during a somewhat sad time in my life.

What is Autobiography of Red about?
It uses a re-working of the myth of Geryon and Herakles to attempt complex ("demandingly broad", a friend of mine recently called it) thinking about adjectives, time, interiority, and a number of other things. Like I said: people find it either interesting or insufferable.

Where can I purchase Autobiography of Red?
Any independent bookstore still shipping material should be able to acquire a copy. I am fond of Antigone Books in Tucson. There exists a Kindle version, though I cannot really recommend Amazon. Also, you can find a remarkable number of things on the internet if you search for a book's full title + the letters "pdf" in Google.

What sort of content will you be posting?
Interesting quotes from the book, thoughts on how this is valuable to essayists, and breakdowns of particular sentences with an eye towards their mechanics and "craft" (forgive me that terminally vague word).

Is there anything else I should know?
Several people have told me that another of Anne Carson's works, Bakkhai (a translation of Euripides' Bacchae), treats gender in a way that is at best "confused and confusing" and at worst "hurtful to trans people". I have not read Bakkhai, nor do I plan to; this project should not be taken as a wholesale endorsement of Carson and all her works.

Why are you doing this?
I legitimately feel this book has something that might be of value to us. I have struggled to articulate what that something is, and  I hope this project will help me figure it out. I also think Carson's syntax is legitimately worth breaking down. Also, I live alone and work remotely and now find myself in dire need of something to help structure my life during these times.

Aren't the high school students you teach for a living reading this book right now?
It was on a list of 5 titles they could pick from for an independent study project.  When I taught these same students as 8th graders last year I made them read some excerpts in order to identify examples of anaphora and epistrophe--as a group my students absolutely hated the book. Truly loathed it. I feared they might leave a severed horse head on my doorstep in retaliation. Only 4 or 5 students chose to do it this year. I do not plan on telling my students about Syntax Club, and the projects they are working on have little-to-nothing in common with the approach I am taking here.

I sent you an email about an unrelated issue some time back and you have not responded. Do you hate me?
I can say with 98% certainty that I do not hate you, but I am extremely bad at communication. Please feel free to bump the email thread.

I cannot tell how serious or unserious any of this stuff you are doing right now is.
Neither can I?

*

Will Slattery helps curate things here on Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.




Monday, April 27, 2020

Essaying John Prine

We've noticed that many essayists were, like us, traumatized by the recent death of singer/songwriter/musical-essayist John Prine of Covid-related complications. In celebration of his work and spirit, we've decided to collect short work from our essaying community to assemble into a collage/group-essay/whatever-it-may-be. If you would like to participate, here's what we would ask of you: 1) a few of your favorite lines from a Prine song, and 2) a micro (500 characters or less) essay response to those lines. The response can go along any through-lines or tangents you choose, so long as it's under 500 characters.

You can submit responses via this Google Form any time before Wednesday May 6th at 11:59 PM Pacific Standard Time. After that, we will collect the lyrics and micro essays and follow up with each of you for another brief round of responses. Essayist John Proctor will collect these into a portfolio here on Essay Daily as a communal essayistic tribute to this artist whose death has rippled through so many of our lives.

John Prine, One of America's Greatest Songwriters, Dead at 73 ...

Monday, April 20, 2020

Reasons for Naming: George Estreich On Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias

Reading Esmé Weijun Wang’s book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, I remembered a passage from a poem I used to love. Early in “The Art of Poetry” (1975), Kenneth Koch addresses the relation between sanity and art. Doing so, he voices the assumptions that Wang’s book explores, exposes, and undercuts:
Mental health is certainly not a necessity for the
Creation of poetic beauty, but a degree of it
Would seem to be, except in rare cases. Schizophrenic poetry
Tends to be loose, disjointed, uncritical of itself, in some ways
Like what is best in our modern practice of the poetic art
But unlike it in others, in its lack of concern
For intensity and nuance.
     Of writers supposed to be “mad,” like Christopher Smart, Koch writes:
. . . I wonder how crazy they were,
These poets who wrote such contraptions of exigent art? 
Koch’s poem is often tongue-in-cheek (“To write a poem, perfect physical condition/Is desirable but not necessary”), but here he seems serious. In its extreme forms, “crazy” is incompatible with art, and “schizophrenia” is paradigmatically extreme.
     I wonder what Esmé Wang would think of this. Though she’s been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, the essays in The Collected Schizophrenias are also “contraptions of exigent art”: in Koch’s terms, they are intense, nuanced, tightly composed, carefully joined, and powerfully self-aware. Because the essays are mostly written from a place of relative stability, they might seem to confirm the idea that schizophrenia and art are incompatible, that lucidity as we ordinarily understand it is required to construct these “exigent contraptions”—or that Wang is one of the “rare cases” able to construct them. And yet I suspect Wang would refuse Koch’s poetic framing. Her project is more radical, challenging the very assumptions about writers, readers, literature, and illness on which Koch’s lines depend. Essay by essay, she crisscrosses the territory of “the schizophrenias,” driven less by story than inquiry: How should the disorder be named, described, accounted for? If schizophrenia is the question, what sort of writing might constitute an adequate answer?

*

For Wang, telling a story about a diagnosis means reckoning with diagnostic stories, and throughout her book, analysis and narrative are intertwined. You can see her approach in “Diagnosis,” the book’s first essay, in which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual functions as a kind of anti-essay, a foil for Wang’s project. The DSM is impersonal where Wang’s book is personal; a “bible” of authoritative classification, where her essays are sinuous and disruptive; a true collection of the schizophrenias, where her book is partial, suggestive, its title ironic. And yet the DSM-5, for all its authority, is an act of naming, culturebound and flawed. It may be a “clinical bible,” but, “like the Judeo-Christian bible. . . [it] warps and mutates as quickly as our culture does.” Riffing on her own religiously inflected language, Wang writes:
After all, it is easy to forget that psychiatric diagnoses are human constructs, and not handed down from an all-knowing God on stone tablets; to “have schizophrenia” is to fit an assemblage of symptoms, which are listed in a purple book made by humans. 
     The DSM-5 is one kind of book, one kind of writing; her book is another, an apostate’s response to medical scripture. Wang sharpens the contrast by quoting, in full, the DSM’s description of her diagnosis, then dissecting the description with metaphor: “To read the DSM-5 definition of my felt experience is to be cast far from the horror of psychosis and an unbridled mood; it shrink-wraps the bloody circumstance with objectivity until the words are colorless.” The metaphor is both an example of, and rationale for, imaginative writing. It aims at accounts true to the experience of schizophrenia from the inside: descriptions that avoid the “shrink-wrap” of categories, the tidiness of diagnosis, its bloodless objectivity.
     Though Wang is eloquent on the limits of psychiatry, her view is far from black and white. She has an essayist’s independence: open to many perspectives, beholden to none. Even as she cites the language of disability rights (“neurotypical,” “ableist”), for example, she also accepts the category of “sick,” and would be glad for a cure. She is a deft anatomist of stigma, but she rejects the idea that stigma is the sole cause of suffering. Quoting the National Institute on Mental Health, she writes that “schizophrenia afflicts 1.1 percent of the American adult population,” then comments:
I am aware of the implications of the word “afflicts,” which supports a neurotypical bias, but I also believe in the suffering of people diagnosed with the schizophrenias and our tormenting minds. 
That I am aware/I also believe distills Wang’s approach. She interrogates her own assumptions, even as she questions those of others; she is willing to rest in contradiction, in the unresolved. Addressing the controversy over “person-first language,” for example—the idea that someone should be described as “a person with schizophrenia” and not “a schizophrenic”—she offers a sardonic comment: “Our conditions lie over us like smallpox blankets; we are one thing and the illness is another.” The figure includes, and transcends, the debate. A “smallpox blanket” is both separate, in a person-first way, and intimately invasive, but it also implies that “person-first language” is unequal to the experience of the condition. Something more—a metaphor, a narrative, an essay—is required. Wang's metaphor suggests contexts beyond the individual person: a “blanket,” something you might drape over a patient, suggests the damage caring can do, and “smallpox” links medical classification to colonial power.
     Though Wang is capable of metaphorical fireworks, the essays don’t depend on them. The voice she adopts is typically quiet, unornamented, controlled. (That’s expressive in itself, as if to suggest the effort required to stay balanced.) I was drawn to plain-seeming sentences that were torqued beyond plainness:
Showering became a challenge shortly after I began to hallucinate in college.  
I considered myself lucky to have hallucinations I could ignore. 
I did all the normal things I could think of. 
If you held a Lyricism Detector to these sentences, the needle would barely move. They read less like arias, more like deadpan asides. Still, their overtones are complex. They’re funny: the hapless attempt to try and remember what normal people act like, the comic difficulty of showering set against the catastrophic intrusion of the unreal. That comic mismatch suggests the existential problem: how do you navigate a world of normalcy with a breaking brain? How do you “think of” normal things to do, when thinking itself is at issue? How do you perform normalcy, in a world that polices the abnormal?
     Some writers’ essays are like crowns or necklaces: key phrases sparkle, like gems in a setting. Wang’s essays are more like an electrical field, in which every sentence, even or especially the seemingly plain ones, is charged. Here, for example, is the opening to “Perdition Days,” an essay about living in the depths of illness:
I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead. 
In a stereotypical version of schizophrenia, the disease produces nonsense, and its absence produces clarity. But in these sentences, coherent expression is evidence of cognitive fracture. In the same essay, Wang offers a brief snippet of a journal written in crisis:
11:13 p.m.
I am Esmé.
I am a writer.
I have been married since 2009.
I have living parents.
I have a brother, who is married.
I am 5 ft. 4.
I was born in Michigan.
My birthday is June 8.
Flowers I love: ranunculus, peonies, sweet peas, jasmine, anemones.
If we had a girl, C. wanted to name her Magnolia.
We had magnolias at our wedding.
Nesting a journal entry in an essay is a suggestive move: Wang takes a private assertion of identity, then repurposes it as a public one. Under the pressure of this double context, the list’s meanings multiply. As a journal entry, the list suggests the struggle towards a shared reality. But as part of an essay, the list demonstrates the ability not only to perceive the world others do, but to bear imaginative witness, to reframe one’s past perceptions, to hold them in suspension with the present. To create an exigent contraption of art.
     Moreover, the very fact of the list is suggestive: even at her worst, Wang’s first impulse is to write. Art looks outward to an audience; the list looks outward, from the indefinite brain-space in which she is lost. The list's structure is also significant. It begins with knowable fact, then trails away into an associative chain about flowers. In other words, it doesn’t just register someone trying to cling to a shared reality; it dramatizes a writer using words to do so, and having the words betray her. There’s a similar gesture in the essay “L’appel du Vide,” where Wang describes taking Polaroid self-portraits in the midst of crisis, just to prove to herself that she exists. In one sense, the act is evidence of profound disturbance. In another, it is only what we do as writers: we externalize what we think and feel, make an object out of it, something another human could hold and assent to; something we can ourselves look at, to understand what we are.
     Even in the depths of psychosis, Wang frames her identity to herself in social terms, reminding herself that she is a writer, spouse, daughter, and sister. The Collected Schizophrenias is haunted by a paradox: an ultimately isolating disorder is negotiated in public, and its meaning occurs at the intersection of the damaged brain and the world. It’s possible to imagine a very different book, one which dwells on interior experience, which describes, at length, the terrifying hallucinations that Wang mentions in passing: the threatening voice, the locomotive suddenly appearing in the street, the corpse in the back seat of the car. But Wang’s accounts of unreality are spare and deliberate. Instead, she narrates herself experiencing the worst of her illness in the presence of others. Believing herself to be dead, she talks with her husband, who calmly offers evidence for the fact that she is alive. Answering a nurse’s query in an institution, she asserts that she feels fine, but is disbelieved; watching a movie with friends—one of whom shares her diagnosis—she begins to panic, as the movie’s world becomes more real than her own, and asks her friend if he feels the same; walking down the street with another friend, she starts at demons in the shadows, then pretends nothing happened; hallucinating a menacing voice in a dorm shower, she asks her roommate afterward if she heard anything. (“You’re crazy,” her roommate tells her.) Schizophrenia is negotiated among others, a fact that entails hope and pain: some rare souls lift her up and sustain her, while others—most—condescend, exclude, or edge away.
     For Wang, schizophrenia is unavoidably social, a frame suggested by one of the book’s epigraphs (from Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind): “More than any symptom, the defining characteristic of the illness is the profound feeling of incomprehensibility and inaccessibility that sufferers provoke in other people.” For Wang, this means that life involves performance: fabricating a persona, someone comprehensible, accessible, recognizable as sane. Wang explores the meaning of performance throughout the book, but particularly in the essay “High-Functioning,” where she suggests that the performance is less to express the self than protect it. Words are only part of the performance: appearance is key as well. The adversarial nature of the act is suggested by metaphors of war. “When I browse the virtual aisles of La Garconne,” she writes, “I am considering a uniform for a battle with multiple fronts.” Fashion is “armor”; her put-together appearance is a “weaponized glamour.”
     But “weaponized glamour” could describe Wang’s prose style as well: a polished, deliberate, carefully assembled version of the self. The essay is a different kind of performance, a display of identity on the author’s terms. But unlike the performances narrated in the book, the essays fully and publicly embrace the fact of illness. They are public gestures in which schizophrenia is neither hidden or normalized. Rather than contrive a perfected, capable persona, Wang is willing to question perfectionism itself: to expose her uncertainties, to show the damage the category “high-functioning” does, to confess that she nonetheless clings to the idea. She has a self-scorching honesty: “Because I am capable of achievement, I find myself uncomfortable around those who are visibly psychotic and audibly disorganized.” Here, as throughout the book, her preference is for the truth of the unresolved.

*

In Wang’s radical openness is a subtle challenge to the reader. Wang doesn’t just demonstrate the lucid self-awareness that tends to be equated with normalcy and credibility; she questions our devotion to lucid self-awareness, to normalcy, to credibility itself. The performer questions the terms by which the performance is understood:
If the conversation winds its way to my diagnosis, I emphasize my normalcy. See my ordinary, even superlative appearance! Witness the fact that I am articulate. Rewind our interaction and see if you can spot cracks in the façade. See if you can, in sifting through your memory, find hints of insanity to make sense of what I’ve said about who I am. After all, what kind of lunatic has a fashionable pixie cut, wears red lipstick, dresses in pencil skirts and tucked-in silk blouses? What sort of psychotic wears Loeffler Randall heels without tottering?
In this narrative, Wang addresses an imagined interlocutor. But with the turn to the imperative mood, she is also, I think, addressing the reader.
     Throughout the book, her meditation on writing is intertwined with a meditation on reading. Even as we sink into the imaginative world she creates, she asks what it means to sink into an imagined world. For Wang personally, this is a serious issue: in “Reality, On-Screen,” she recounts carefully choosing which movies to see, lest she begin to believe that what she sees is real. (She avoids seeing The Hunger Games for a long time.) She explicitly links the dawn of psychosis with the experience of art: for her, the growing sense of delusion, when it comes, “feels like breaking through a thin barrier to another world.” In “The Slender Man, The Nothing, and Me,” Wang remembers her childhood absorption in The Never-Ending Story, from which she created, with friends, an elaborate, ritual-filled imaginative world; eventually her intensity drove her friends away. As an adult, her therapist advises her “to avoid consuming fiction while delusional”: “This, after listening to the audiobook of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls . . . had me disoriented and believing that I rode horses and was at a boarding school.” She reads Marilynne Robinson’s Home, “knowing that I would likely become merged with the fictional world there, and I did.” And yet storytelling can lead her back to reality as well. In “Perdition Days,” she writes: “Like a child asking for a bedtime story, I left my studio and crawled into bed with C. at six in the morning. I said, ‘Tell me about what is real.’” Her husband does: he tells her about their house, their lives together, her parents, and so on. She writes, “None of this solved the problem, but it did help. It was as comforting as a bedtime story would have been.” To write is to create alternate worlds; to read is to enter them. Both, then, are kin to schizophrenia.
     In this light, the book’s title is extraordinarily suggestive. If the essays are in some sense “schizophrenias,” then to read them is not just to enter the author’s world of perception vicariously. It’s to be reminded that reading itself, like schizophrenia, is a liminal, boundary-crossing experience. The title calls attention to the book in the reader’s hands.
     By implicating the reader, Wang brings the book’s paradox close to home: schizophrenia is both alien and familiar. It is as strange as believing that poison is in your tea, and as ordinary as reading. For readers unaffected by the schizophrenias, Wang’s achievement is to make this paradox plausible, to make schizophrenia seem at once familiar and utterly other; and by moving toward this perspective, the reader moves towards greater understanding of Wang herself, who inhabits this duality. As such, reading becomes a bridge, and writing is an answer to the isolation, both personal and social, that the condition brings. If schizophrenia is defined by “the profound feeling of incomprehensibility and inaccessibility that sufferers provoke in other people,” then Wang’s essays combat that feeling with art. They are comprehensible, accessible. And yet they keep an honest distance: they open a window on Wang’s experience, but they don’t angle for pity or empathy. We are never far from the fact that we are reading words, a construct, a version, and that much of the experience is beyond words to convey. 
     It’s that combination of openness and distance that I found compelling. The voice is credible, in what is revealed and what isn’t. That credibility is itself a theme of the book, and its achievement. In a book about a doubly isolating condition—one that impairs cognition, and is deeply stigmatized—an act of communication is moving in itself; in a book about a fractured self, the reconstitution of an intact persona is significant; in a book about the loss of a shared reality, the essay becomes a room both the reader and writer can enter. But the reader enters on the writer’s terms, guided by prose both expository and dreamlike. It is more than clear; it questions the idea of clarity itself, and the reader’s assumptions about brains supposed to possess it.
     Which brings us back to Koch’s “The Art of Poetry.” Brilliant and funny as it is, that poem nonetheless is grounded in a different view of writers, readers, and the value of art. I’ve used that poem as a foil here, less to criticize its framing of mental illness than to illuminate what Wang is after. She is as aesthetically exacting as any writer in poetry or prose, but she is clearly after something more disruptive, useful, and politically engaged than “poetic beauty.” As her riffing on fashion demonstrates, beauty is more than a goal: it’s a tool, a means to an end. The essays, as I’ve tried to suggest, are an answer to schizophrenia, an attempt to both contain and express a deadly subject. But they also answer to the question: Why do so, and for whom? If we grant that the essays are beautiful, what is the beauty for?
     In “Diagnosis,” Wang writes: “A diagnosis is comforting because it provides a framework—a community, a lineage—and, if luck is afoot, a treatment or cure.” Note the word comforting, which points to Wang’s primary concern: not only what is true or beautiful, but what heals—or, absent healing, consoles. As accounts of illness, the essays begin where the diagnosis ends: they’re a fuller act of naming. Even an accurate diagnosis is only a starting point. The patient needs meds; the person needs meaning, a framework built from everything available, a shared reality, something less like an institution and more like a home.






George Estreich is the author of a poetry collection, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Shape of the Eye, and Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves. His essays and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Aeon, The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Jill Christman: Indelible (Campus Sexual Assault): a class, a podcast, & a conversation



In December 2018, I wrote here about the unacceptably high rates of gender-based sexual violence on our campuses and asked what our specific responsibilities as teachers of nonfiction writing might be in both supporting student survivors under Title IX and contributing to the cultural shift we’re going to need to enact real change. At the core of my argument was the guiding principle of my life and work: stories are power, and when power is lost—say, in an assault or simply by existing in a culture that supports sexual violence—finding a way to tell our stories can help us to not only reclaim that lost power, but to access power we never knew could be ours.

I also questioned the common interpretation of Title IX guidelines that assigns faculty the role of “responsible employee,” and thus mandates that writing teachers report disclosures of sexual violence whether the student consents or not—which policy, of course, flies in the face of everything we’re trying to teach about consent. The more I learned about Title IX, on my own campus and across the nation, and the more I read about the current state of sexual violence, the more I came to understand that my outrage wasn’t enough. I needed to do something, and at the end of that 2018 Essay Daily post, I outlined my plan: I’d received a fellowship to spend a semester teaching a single fifteen-hour course examining sexual violence on our nation’s campuses and thinking about the role storytelling had to play in making a change.

The parameters of the course were unique and defined by the fellowship: it would be the only class on my schedule, I would interview and select a team of students from across disciplines who would in turn be taking just one (giant, daily, all-consuming) class and we would engage with the community and make something.

So at the end of August 2019, just three days after I turned fifty, the fifteen of us gathered for the first time in the classroom that would become our home for the next sixteen weeks—think: large Tupperware snack box to keep out the mice, needlework and paintings and idea boards all around, one table stacked with blankets and another covered with recording equipment, daily mugs of steaming tea, coffee, and cocoa. We had many guests—from sex crime prosecutors and deans to victim advocates and self-defense teachers—and we ate a fair amount of chocolate. And bread. Lots of bread. Our classroom was a converted garage at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry in the 1927 Kitselman mansion southwest of campus. My office had a glowing gas fireplace (a lifelong dream fulfilled), carved tiles, and a hidden compartment behind the bookcases with a locked safe. I never cracked it so I’m afraid I can’t tell you what’s hidden inside.



The students came from across disciplines: Creative Writing, Rhetoric and Writing, Literature, English Education, Telecommunications, Women and Gender Studies, Psychology, Criminal Justice, Speech and Audiology, and Accounting—and yes, the writing students have done a lot of work on the scripts, the accounting student handled project management, and the TCom student mixes our sound to this day, but one thing we said going into that intense semester was that we would stretch ourselves, learn new things, take turns behind the viewfinder and keyboard and microphone. Each week of the semester, a different pair of students picked up the camera to create a mini-documentary capturing the work of the week. Everyone got to hold the camera. Everyone got to experience firsthand how we control and affect every story we frame, select, and edit. (If you want a glimpse of our team at the mansion, an impossibly long time ago, here is our mini-documentary from our first week together in August 2019.)

We worked our butts off, beginning the semester with intensive reading, podcast listening, and documentary viewing. In week two, because we said we were going to do make a podcast but we had no earthly idea how, we brought in a media consultant, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams, for a two-day podcasting bootcamp. Juleyka came in and showed us our path, laying out the steps we would need to take to produce a podcast—a central mission that we dubbed “our greater goddess.” As in, “Wait. Is this how we should be spending our time? How will this serve our greater goddess?” This was a lesson in mission-drift prevention.

Turns out, making a podcast takes a lot more than mouths moving in a room with a microphone, and our semester was not without breakdowns, setbacks, and many, many problems to be solved. One student initiated and ran weekly “self-care respites” with yoga, art, meditation, gratitude exercises, and the like—and let me tell you, we needed these breaks because some weeks were long, too long, and others flew by and left our deliverables to-do list fluttering in the wind like an autumn leaf. In retrospect, our mansion time was not bad training for the quarantine we didn’t know then was coming up to meet us and we would have made for some pretty good reality television. But we never gave up.

Like pissed off, broken-hearted, well-resourced badgers, we dug into everything we could find that affects campus sexual violence—prevention efforts, educational programs, support services, media coverage, legal issues, gender identity and discrimination, the larger rape culture, state-level sex education, etcetera—and throughout, we conducted interviews and recorded stories. We studied the successes (e.g., did you know that self-defense courses combining physical prevention techniques and risk reduction programming can reduce a participant’s chance of a future assault by a rate of up to 66%?), failures, and betrayals across the many systems and institutions connected to sexual violence during this vulnerable time for college students. (We may or may not have been forced to employ the phrase Fuck the patriarchy in a professional setting with some regularity.) With a focus on storytelling and the power we claim by gaining agency over our own stories, we considered not only recovery and prevention, but also what it might take to create permanent, positive, systematic change.

Burning through post-its and whiteboards, we generated and considered over 140 podcast titles before landing on Indelible after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s unforgettable testimony during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings. “Indelible in the hippocampus,” Blasey Ford said, “is the laughter.” Indelible became both our name and a vital narrative tool. Each themed podcast episode features both expert analysis and additional interpretation from our host and is built around the most important element: a survivor’s story. We listened, we believed, we supported, and at the end of every interview, we asked: “What, for you, is indelible?”

And you know what? We did it.

By the end of the Fall 2019 semester, we had a podcast name and a pending trademark application, a logo, a website, a social media presence, scripts, hours of interviews and transcriptions, both original music and licensing, a target listener, a trailer, a pilot, and a plan for the full first season. We celebrated with a showcase in a lovely, many windowed room in the center of our campus—with actual in-the-flesh people. That wonderful night now seems so long ago, but the Indelible crew got dressed up and hosted a double premiere, screening our thirty-minute class documentary and giving our audience the very first listen to the trailer for Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence. Sixteen weeks after it had all begun, somehow we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do: we’d made a trailer and our first podcast episode, produced a documentary film about our process, and developed a presentation on student-driven learning for the Fall 2020 Jana’s Campaign Midwest Campus Safety Summit.

The students also did things I hadn’t outlined in the original course plan, such as shooting those weekly mini-documentaries and building a website and a social media platform to support students and survivors of campus sexual violence. Essentially, we’d taken a deep dive into a complicated subject—survived, then thrived, and built the scaffolding for an ongoing podcast, and potentially (a hope, a dream), a nationwide collaboration. At Indelible, we’re nothing if not ambitious.

Here’s some of what I said to my students on the night of the showcase:
What a joy and a challenge and a privilege it has been to come to know each of you and watch you do your thing—individually and collectively.
I am so proud. Coming into our classroom that first week, you started out by showing me you were ready. All of you. You understood that just because the alarming statistics on gender-based violence haven’t changed in the past thirty years, that doesn’t mean we are helpless. You have exhibited such grace and ferocity. Such tenderness and power. Such giant hearts and nimble brains. You have made the conversation about sexual violence on our own campus bigger and it is growing all the time. You shared the skills you already had and you all developed new ones. Also? You were full of surprises. You made art. You wrote words. You captured sound. You listened so carefully. You believed. You treated every story with care. You treated each other with care. You treated yourselves with care. It’s like you’re magic, right? Remember this feeling on your hard days. Do what you love and work for what matters. The problem of sexual violence, in the larger world and on our campuses, can feel so huge. What we are working toward is nothing less than a cultural shift, but you are moving us in that direction and the sum of your efforts is powerful. I know this conversation has only just begun. There’s not a one among you who’s the shutting up type. Thank you for your commitment. You inspire me.
And they did. And they do. Because here’s the thing, we’d planned a full season, but we simply didn’t have the time to finish interviewing, writing, recording, and mixing all six episodes. So I asked the students if anyone could return to work with me in the spring. I proposed just three credits and one goal: finish season one. And do you know what? More than half of the students did want to keep working. Eight chose to continue in their varied roles as social media coordinators, reporters, producers, researchers, script writers, composers, website designers, and sound mixers. They wanted to finish what they started.

In the meantime, of course, our university has moved exclusively online, but we continue to do our work from a distance. In a time when our brains are consumed by thoughts of COVID-19 transmission, respirator shortages, and social distancing guidelines—by every kind of grief—having something like Indelible to occupy our attention has felt like a gift. Since January, we’ve dropped the trailer—that’s how we podcast folks talk—and the first three episodes: Beginnings, Aftermath, and Title IX. We’ve got three more cooking, all of which will be out in the world by the end of May—Legal, Greek Life, and Empowerment Self-Defense. We wanted to end the season on a note of hope.

I know it’s hard to think about anything other than COVID-19 right now. I get it. I’m with you. I’m writing now in a room with a poet (who’s also an assistant department chair and Zooming all the time), a couple of scratching dogs, and two e-learning kids. When all this is over—and it will be, at least sort of—we’re going to return to our campuses. Many things will have changed because of the pandemic, but the problem of campus sexual assault will remain. 

So, we hope you’ll start by listening—as we did. You can find Indelible: Campus Sexual Violence on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Indelible is a great resource for college classrooms—online and face-to-face. What we’ve learned on our own campus is that the more we talk about the issues surrounding campus sexual violence, the more everybody talks about it, and when we normalize these initially difficult conversations, they spread and multiply. There are fewer places for misinformation, shaming, and perpetrators to hide.

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Last September, the Indelible crew took to the main intersection on our then-bustling campus with microphones to ask passing students what they knew about things like Title IX, campus resources, consent, and the heightened risk at the beginning of the fall semester called the red zone. You can hear snippets from these reporter-on-the-street interviews in Episode 1, but here’s a spoiler: the students knew very little about how to protect themselves and what to do in the aftermath of an assault. Do you know who they did know? Lots of friends who’d experienced an assault. Early on in this process, I fielded concerns—and those worries made me worry: Why would we have a class to talk about rape? Won’t this upset the students? Mightn’t we give the impression that our campus somehow has a bigger problem than other campuses?

We all have a problem. But here’s the thing my university understood in its support of this important project: Talking about sexual violence is not the problem. Giving survivors the opportunity to tell their stories is not the problem. Sexual violence is the problem. I’ve never met a secret that did anyone any good, and we don’t make change by keeping quiet. Stories embolden stories and each truth told holds up the next. At Indelible, we want to get even louder and we want you to join us.


We invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and behind-the-sounds material. For more information about our process and the podcast, detailed resources for students and survivors, and short curated lists of reading/listening/viewing recommendations, check out our our website. If you’re a survivor of campus sexual violence or you know someone who would be interested in sharing their story on Indelible (always anonymously with names, locations, and sometimes, voices disguised)—or if you want to share an idea, resource, or suggestion—please get in touch with us at indeliblepod@gmail.com.

I’ve been saving my big ask for the end, and really, it’s more of an invitation. Immersive learning classes are an amazing opportunity, but students graduate and semesters end. This is good and I’m already celebrating the next great things these Indelible-founding students will do in this world, but here’s the thing: we don’t want Indelible to end. I am trying to develop a model that will not only sustain this project and conversation, but make it even bigger, using what we’ve already built as a scaffolding from which others can hang their stories, research, and analysis. Hear me out. What if we tried out a method of crowd-sourcing episodes of Indelible from other institutions and from across disciplines? Imagine a poetry class, say, that produced an episode on spoken word activism to fight campus violence. Or a history class charting the history of Title IX legislation and campus implementation. Or maybe an anthropology class recording the stories of a particular population of international students? The possibilities go on and on for all the reasons that we need to keep this conversation going in the first place. If I’ve learned anything from working with this original cohort of Indelible students, it’s that if we create a space to safely consider a problem—say, campus sexual violence—and offer the most powerful tool we possess—storytelling—the students will find a way. They will step in and create their own change, again and again.

Could we share labor and resources on the Indelible platform in a way that would through its very process expand the conversation about campus sexual violence across the country? I think so. I really do. I know we all have a lot of other things on our minds right now, but if you believe, in the future, that you or your students or colleagues in other departments or at other institutions might be interested in contributing content to Indelible, please drop us a note at indeliblepod@gmail.com and we’ll get back with you—with gratitude, and eventually, a plan. Thank you for giving it some thought.

These next weeks are going to be hard. I am wishing you and your beloveds health and peace. I’d like to close with the Toni Morrison quotation I shared with the Indelible team during our first week together:

“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

Be safe, friends.






Jill Christman is the author of two memoirs, Darkroom: A Family Exposure and Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood, as well as essays in magazines such as Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, Longreads, River Teeth, and True Story. Her awards include an NEA Prose Fellowship and the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. A senior editor for River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, she teaches at Ball State University. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com and @jill_christman.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Stewart Sinclair and His Advanced Fiction Class: 4'33 in a Pandemic

On March 15, I held the final in-person class of the semester with my students at City College in Harlem. Then I took the hour-and-a-half train ride home to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. This semester I’m teaching Advanced Fiction, but in truth, while the students are still responsible for writing short stories and critiquing each other’s work, much of our attention has been on collectively processing the moment in which we now find ourselves, a moment in which every one of our actions, large and small, is consequential; a moment where every second seems charged with meaning, whether or not we do anything at all.
     As I moved our classes online, I decided, like many instructors in similar situations, to create a blog where we could explore some of the questions that arise from week to week. In part, this is an admission of failure on my part as an instructor. Maybe I should be doing more to cloister off my classroom, convert it into its own space where our work is isolated from the world around us. But I can’t compartmentalize my thoughts, and it seems that many of my students find themselves in the same position. Even when the topic is not explicitly related to COVID-19, the subject invariably arises.
     A couple weeks ago, the subject of the blog was boredom and silence. I introduced students to John Cage’s notorious composition, 4’33”, which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence,” and I then asked my students to “perform” the piece for themselves. I asked them to listen to a recording of 4’33 and then write down what they experienced.
     The prompt had nothing directly to do with this pandemic, but as I read through their responses, I realized that it provided a snapshot, or rather, a multitude of snapshots, of this moment. With their permission, input and collaboration, the following is a collection of these snapshots, windows into the lives twenty New Yorkers sparing a moment of silence.



Fourteen days in and I find more joy in watching the birds land on my window than I do from Netflix. As the days in which we’re stuck inside get longer, my senses, and the sense of sounds more than anything, improve. The sound of Mom's fish hitting the frying pan in the kitchen; my sister talking on the phone two rooms down the hall. I found myself reminiscing on conversations with people from my job. People I couldn’t stand, and yet, miss dearly. —Lashaune Wright

I've gone from a juggling two jobs and school to being confined to my home. I didn't think the restlessness I’ve been feeling would allow me to concentrate, but slowly I was able to just be. The second movement came around and I could hear a few things, mostly the vibration of my refrigerator. There was the occasional car breezing by and the birds chirping in the yard. I also heard the quacking from the ducks that live in the park up the block. All these things took part in my silence. —Stephany Santos

The hum of my refrigerator and the muffled sound of the standard Carnival Cruise "hold message" while my husband tried to cancel our vacation with the phone on speaker. There were sirens, wind chimes banging against my porch, and the sound of my own breathing. I expected to hear a shift or something come from the track, but I heard nothing but my own environment, and then, the sound of the man’s voice announcing that this was the next “part.” —Dalia Viera-Gonzalez

I felt my feet touch the ground, my eyes blink, I heard the sound of the wind clatter on my terrace door and the rambling of ambulances. I got to think and reflect. I remembered an argument with my boyfriend today. I said some things I wish I could take back. —Skye Alexander

I live in a small place with my father, sister and six animals, so it's never quiet if people are home. I started this "performance" just after my family had come home with groceries. Even with my door closed, I could faintly hear my sister's music, her conversation with my father, and with our younger cat. The older cat was in my room. I could hear her grooming herself, tongue against fur and the soft jingle of the bell on her collar. I also heard a faint static-y sound. It was probably in my own head along with the lyrics of a song I've been listening to on repeat all day. I’m not sure I got anything out of that. I found this pointless. But at least my cat was with me. —Henny Neustadt

A bird, not a pigeon, had something to say in the middle of the night with a lovely solitary song. I heard a voice on the street, the man with Tourette’s syndrome explaining his mind to the world. One ambulance. The refrigerator compressor whirred and then stopped. The low hum of traffic from the FDR Drive offered a comforting sense of routine business. The last time it was this quiet was the week after 9/11 when they blocked off our neighborhood. Now, the surreal feeling is the same, but the fear is worse. —Don Macleod

I’m in my room in the Financial District, far from nature, far from the countryside, far from my home in Armenia. I feel homesick. Normally, being far from home on your first visit to New York would mean forgetting that homesickness. But this isn’t “normal.” Now my whole world is this little deck surrounded by tall buildings. I have to look up to find the sky between the crisscrossing fire escapes. From here, I can hear the hum of the air conditioner, the non-stop sound of police and ambulance sirens, my breath, each click of my mouse, which is so much louder when you focus on it. Inside, the curtains wave gently in the wind. —Arpa Hacopian

My computer fan was a constant soft whirring, while later on I heard the muffled noise of the microwave stirring from the kitchen, and the distant sound of cars driving by. While I did have an urge to fill the space with something louder, like music or the background noise of a T.V. show, what I was hearing wasn't silence at all. It sounded like something more akin to white noise; a constant thrum of wave frequencies, like static. —Soyna Girdhari

I’ve been isolated since we transitioned to “distance learning” two weeks ago. My only vantage on the outside world has been one walk to my grocery store down the street to get some chicken thighs, butter and hot dog buns. I was interrupted by the sounds of sirens, something I hadn't been accustomed to in my quiet Washington Heights neighborhood. The sounds of the apocalypse seem to be the only thing permeating what I spend my time doing every day. The days blur together. Four a.m. has become my new eleven p.m., and while my last semester in college was set to be one of the most important ones in my undergraduate career, it’s become a hassle to even read a story or turn in an assignment. This silent moment didn't really calm me or provide any insight because most of my days are spent in a sort of silence filled with the occasional murmur of the other family members living in our home. —Micah Lopez

I live with a toddler, so I couldn't get lost in silence the way I wanted to. I was wearing headphones, buried under two quilts, and still I could still hear The Wiggles playing from the living room. Whatever the case, I noticed the "silence" during the performance was not silent at all. I could hear what sounded like waves and light splashes of water which then had me critiquing the recording itself because, if this is an exercise in silence, why are you producing sounds? Unless I imagined that, which would be interesting. —Anthony Ruiz

I relocated, away from New York, to my parent's house in Wisconsin last week. We're in the middle of a thunderstorm now. I heard the sound of rain hitting my roof and occasional thunder. Inside, my dog was chewing on an antler. At the same time, Seth Rogen was laughing on the tv while Superbad was playing. I also heard the back and forth of a crayon moving across paper as my mom colored at the kitchen table. —Cooper York

I live across the street from the FDR Drive. In my left ear, I heard cars whirring, the occasional motorcycle. In my right ear, I heard the doors in the apartment opening and closing, the water running in the kitchen, and the tv playing Indian soap operas. You would think the highway noises would get annoying, but it's preferable to tinnitus. That's partly why I'm never really all that comfortable with silence, because then I'm stuck listening to that high-pitched echo invading my daydreams. I like to think of the car noises as the sound of the blood of New York being pumped through its veins. It's like the sounds of a forest or a waterfall. There’s a natural soothing to it that makes you feel like you’re tapping into a small part of something bigger than yourself. —Sydul Akhanji

I could hear my boyfriend breathing in the next room, our living room, as he did yoga. Practicing mindfulness and meditation has become a regular thing in our home since this quarantine thing happened. Mindfulness is something I have always found as a way to ground myself, bring everything going on in my life and settle it, and process it in a way that doesn't disturb my inner peace. I could hear my breathing and the vibration of my iPhone as my sister texted me. I heard the rumblings of my stomach, the creaking of my chair, the rustling of my sweater, the wind outside, the neighbors upstairs walking, their dog barking. —Mame Wallace

I live along Riverside, so all I could hear were cars, and dogs barking, although I'd say remarkably less than I would normally hear this time of year. I'm used to the clicking of dominos, music, and loud conversations and laughter from the street, so to only hear the muffled hum of a car or the ticking of the analog clock in the living room was admittedly haunting. I thought a lot about the performance as I took a short walk today to the park and back. Then too, I felt the haunting presence of silence on my shoulders, but I also felt an intimacy with my immediate environment. I saw budding flowers and trees, a small patch of the park was a vibrant green with birds fluttering about, which all made me smile behind my face mask. —Paris Green

I heard the sound of my space heater, clunky footsteps upstairs, and my little brother screaming at his friends. I realized how alike the sound of the house creaking and raindrops are. I enjoyed that discovery. I also found that my brother's voice sounded exactly like our older brother's voice. And how if I didn't know better, I would've thought it was him playing video games in the other room. Overall it felt a lot like meditation, which I really haven't had the chance to practice since this whole pandemic hit our lives. —Maia Krempel

It’s 5 a.m. No one is making noise in my house. The sound of my dad's tv isn’t there to drown everything out. I still have the loud pounding against my ear from my tinnitus, even though I’ve gotten used to it. It can prevent me from hearing certain things if they aren’t loud enough, but some sounds crept through. Airplanes in the sky, a train passing by, the wind outside, the static from my tv, a song stuck in my head (“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad”). —Lisa Lupo

It’s around 10:30 p.m., so most of the public life outside has died down now. Even with the pandemic, you would usually still hear dogs barking, the scraping of bicycle and car wheels on the pavement, and a few people talking loudly to each other. But with everyone in the house asleep except for me and my father, up in the attic, and he with his headphones watching something on Netflix, only a few sounds came up to meet me. The occasional gust of wind slapping the windowpane; the creak of the fold-out chair I lay my computer on; the skin on my hands as I rub them from boredom; my pulse. —Gabriel Noel



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Stewart Sinclair is a writer whose reportage, personal essays and narrative nonfiction has been featured in Lit Hub, Guernica, The New Orleans Review, The Million, The Morning News, and elsewhere. Recently his essay “Search Party” was selected for True Story, a mini-magazine from the editors of Creative Nonfiction. He is currently working on his first book about class, identity and motherhood in a fractured America. @stewsinclair
















Monday, April 6, 2020

Spring Quarantine Reading Recommendations & Riffs Part 2

Dear Essay Daily Readers,

Since many of us are going to be stuck inside for a while, and especially because we know many writers with new, exciting books of nonfiction whose book tours just got blown up by coronavirus concerns, we are inviting you to send us brief (or not-so-brief) riffs on the books (essays and cnf especially, 2019 and 2020 especially) that you're most excited about or are most looking forward to. We'd love to drive readers to new and notable books, and to get them to buy the books from their local retailer of choice. We'd particularly love to direct you to our favorite local bookstore, Antigone Books, who will ship or do curbside pickup! It costs a little more than Amazon, sure, but we need bookstores to survive the next 6 months or everybody loses.

So we'll be publishing a series of riffs and recommendations here over the next few months. Want to join us? Send us yours here. Or ping back to Part 1!

Buy these books from Antigone Books!




Ander Monson recommends Three Books


Well, one of my new kittens totally barfed on my copy of A. Kendra Greene's The Museum of Whales You Never See in the night. Not sure if it was Frank or Jax, but whichever one was the barfer, he also winged Hanif Abdurraqib's Go Ahead in the Rain, which I was able to clean and which now holds only a memory of the incident, but Greene's book just got too fucked up to read, so I had to order another. However, as it was an ARC I'd been sent by the author, and the book's not even out until May, the barfing sucked doubly.
     In order to finish it I had to decide whether I would wait a month for its publication or keep going through its barfed on pages. I was already a third into Greene's fascinating tour of the weird museums and collections of Iceland so the decision wasn't an obvious one. I liked it enough that I kept reading, barf and all, which should tell you something. Recommend! This is a cool book especially for anyone interested in the nature of collections, libraries, museums, and collecting, and the people and places that abet these activities. I'm looking forward to getting my clean copy on its release in a few weeks.
    The cats missed Melissa Faliveno's Tomboyland entirely, so I didn't have to decide. I'd already finished it (I blurbed it) and it's great. A series of essays on growing up in Wisconsin and beyond it. Perhaps for obvious reasons I was particularly infatuated with her visiting Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, the "Troll Capital of the World." Tomboyland is an excellent series of meditations on the midwest, moths, Twister, gender, moths, loneliness, sports, and lots more. You should pick it up.
     I'll recommend a few more books your way in a couple weeks, but the last book I'm recommending here is Andre Perry's Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now, his first collection of essays, which was also not barfed on. Come for the wild formal experimentation, and stay for the intensity of Perry's thinking about music, self, race, the midwest and what it does and does not mean, and for whom. I've rarely seen vulnerability used as intensely in a book of essays. Unsparing is an accurate word to describe this book and the quality of his gaze, and that unsparingness is aimed at all involved, particularly himself. I was particularly moved by the scene with the spider in one of the later essays, which you'll understand when you read the book.

Buy from Antigone Books!

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Ander Monson is the author of, among other things, two new books from Graywolf: I Will Take the Answer (essays) and The Gnome Stories (fiction).




Kristine Langley Mahler recommends Evidence of V

I recently finished Sheila O'Connor's hybrid book Evidence of V (Rose Metal Press, 2019), the sort of dream-book I feel like I've been needing to read but had no idea it was possible. In Evidence of V, O'Connor culls together erased-and-partial documentation from the 1930s on the little-known practice of incarcerating teenage girls for the crime of "immorality" in order to imagine into the slim case file kept on record for her grandmother, who was one of those girls. I'm overwhelmed by how flexible O'Connor makes facts, how insistently she reminds the reader that documentation is never complete, how many voices are erased even as they are "recorded" by others. Evidence of V is a wildly exciting book for the nonfiction/hybrid genre as it blurs facts into recorded fictions and reverses fiction into the closest we can get, sometimes, to facts.

Buy from Bookworm Omaha!

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Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work was named Notable in Best American Essays 2019 and has been recently published/is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, The Normal School, and The Rumpus, among others. She is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief at Split/Lip Press.






Paul Crenshaw recommends The Mysteries of Haditha


The Mysteries of Haditha, by MC Armstrong, Potomac Books, coming in Fall 2020. Gripped by the idea of seeing for himself the wars that had shaped America since 9/11, Matt Armstrong strapped on a bulletproof vest to embed with Navy SEALS in one of the most dangerous areas of Iraq. As a first reader of his book and a few of the essays that make it up, I can say it is as revealing as a bomb blast, not only of war and the past, but of the lies we tell ourselves as human beings. It's a deadly combination of experience and exposé, written by one who has seen war firsthand, and who works to uncover all its hidden secrets.

Buy from Antigone Books!

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Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, and Tin House. Follow him on Twitter @PaulCrenstorm






Sarah Ruth Bates recommends Uncanny Valley


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see Silicon Valley from the inside, then thought, but whoever was inside it wouldn’t be able to see it critically, then thought, but whoever was outside of it wouldn’t be able to see it fully? Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley answers that nest of questions, in a nested book. From the first line, her narrator announces herself as both close enough and far enough from the tech scene to reveal and eviscerate it:

Depending on whom you ask, it was either the apex, the inflection point, or the beginning of the end for Silicon Valley’s startup scene—what cynics called a bubble, optimists called the future, and my future coworkers, high on the fumes of world-historical potential, breathlessly called the ecosystem.

Uncanny Valley has the lucidity and sharpness of parent-supported underpaid coworkers shittalking their bosses on a Brooklyn rooftop (which Weiner herself fully cops to being, and which I used to be the Boston analogue of). The book’s not bitter, though, not jaded, because the narrator is sweetly, even tragically, hopeful. Weiner depicts a self who believed, at least mostly, in the shared fantasy. That credulity allows self-deprecation and critiques of the book’s subject to converge. The result: a narrator we’d follow anywhere, taking us into boardrooms we wouldn’t usually get to see. In this moment when a lot is happening and it feels like maybe no one is positioned to watch all of it unfold and tell us about it later, Uncanny Valley gives a satisfying account of a similar previous moment. It’s also emotionally possible to read during quarantine: neither too depressing nor too Pollyanna.

And it’s a good read for Essay Daily’s regulars because the memoir grew out of a personal essay. Writer-readers can take notes.

Buy Uncanny Valley from Antigone Books!


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Sarah Ruth Bates is a writer currently based in Tucson, AZ. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Essay Daily, Hobart, Outside, Boston Globe Magazine, Off Assignment, Appalachia Journal, WBUR Cognoscenti, and WBUR ARTery. She's a first-year in the nonfiction MFA program at the University of Arizona, where she serves as Managing Editor of the Sonora Review. Catch her at sarahruthbates.com and @sarahrbates.




Cathy de la Cruz recommends Samantha Irby and more

I used to only listen to audiobooks while taking solo road trips. During my last big solo road trip (December 2018-January 2019 from San Antonio, TX to Los Angeles, CA and back), I listened to so many great nonfiction books: Brené Brown’s The Power Of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage (I learned so much and I left the audiobook with a friend who I thought I would appreciate it in Tucson, AZ), Patti Smith’s M Train (I had listened to Smith’s music all throughout my life, but never read one of her books and listening to this as an audiobook felt like I wasn’t alone for eight hours a day, but like I was having a conversation with a friend.), and Tara Westover’s Educated (I didn’t want to stop driving, I just wanted to keep listening! It was the scariest book I’ve “read” in forever—it’s like haunted nonfiction.).
     I hadn’t really listened to an audiobook since. I tried to listen to a novel that will remain nameless while driving around the Pacific Northwest in March 2019, but it turns out that fiction doesn’t work for me while driving. I’ve tried. Nonfiction and podcasts are the only things I like listening to while on the road.
     I am not on the road anymore. I don’t know when I’ll be on the road again. I am currently on day 23 of indefinite self-isolating in apocalyptic New York City. I work remotely every weekday from 9-5 in my quiet one bedroom apartment. The only things I hear while working are my upstairs neighbors who are either exercising or playing with their secret pet I have never seen, sirens, oh so many emergency sirens, occasional music blasting from cars (the other day I stood up and danced to The Notorious B.I.G. and I actually hoped someone saw me through the window because I wanted to have a real live connection with another human being that was something other than a delivery transaction, and sometimes I hear people asking for money outside…loudly.
     Guess what? All the isolation and silence became like a solo road trip, so I have started to listen to nonfiction again. I have been listening to Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You. essay collection and I can’t stop laughing. Would this book have been a “comfort read” if I wasn’t scared I was going to get the plague just from walking outside? I do not know, but I am so glad it is here with me in my one bedroom apartment to comfort me. Irby is one of the funniest storytellers I have ever read/listened to. I can’t stop laughing and that’s very rare these days.

Buy Wow, No Thank You. from Antigone Books!

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Cathy de la Cruz is a writer and artist from San Antonio, TX currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She works in publishing and has an MFA in Visual Arts from the University of California, San Diego and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona.