Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

cover of Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat is a gorgeous novel.

Out of context, because I just want you to go read the book, here’s some proof, to lure you:

p. 199:

“People like to say of the sea that lanme pa kenbe kras, the sea does not hide dirt. It does not keep secrets. The sea was both hostile and docile, the ultimate trickster. It was as large as it was small, as long as you could claim a portion of it for yourself. You could scatter both ashes and flowers in it. You could take as much as you wanted from it. But it too could take back. You could make love in it and you could surrender to it, and oddly enough, surrendering at sea felt somewhat like surrendering on land, taking a deep breath and simply letting go. You could just as easily lie down in the sea as you might in the woods, and simply fall asleep.”

and more, on p. 215:

“Sometimes when she was lying on her back in the sea, her toes pointed, her hands facing down, her ears half submerged, while she was listening to both the world above and beneath the water, she yearned for the warm salty water to be her mother’s body, the waves her mother’s heartbeat, the sunlight the tunnel that guided her out the day her mother died.”

See No Stranger by Valarie Kaur

Cover image of SEE NO STRANGER by Valarie Kaur

A friend asked me to join in a discussion of Valarie Kaur’s See No Stranger at the library, and the invitation ended up being a real gift. Kaur’s wise and practical information toward understanding our shared humanity is so necessary—especially in what feels like an impossibly broken world. One idea from the book has stuck with me. It gives me hope.

p. 27:

“As I move through my day and come across faces on the street or subway or on a screen, I say in my mind, Sister. Brother. Sibling. Aunt. Uncle. I start to wonder about each of them as a person. When I do this, I am retraining my mind to see more and more kinds of people as part of us rather than them. I practice this with animals and parts of the earth, too. I say in my mind “You are a part of me I do not yet know. I practice orienting to the world with wonder, preparing myself for the possibility of connection.”

Some other powerful passages:

p. 10:

“Wonder is our birthright.”

“Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence.”

On Christianity:

p. 22

“In the United States, white supremacy is intertwined with Christian supremacy, one an extension of the other. Any theology that teaches that God will torture the people in front of you in the afterlife creates the imaginative space for you to do so yourself on earth.”

p. 26

“Her name was Faye and she was the first Christian I had ever met who did not believe I was going to hell. I would go on to meet many more people like her and learn that there are many ways to be Christian, just as there are many ways to be Sikh. Our traditions are like treasure chests filled with scriptures, songs and stories—some empower us to cast judgment and others shimmer with the call to love above all. There are no true or false interpretations. There are only those that destroy the world we want and those that create it. We get to decide which ones to hold in our hearts.”

A Constellation of Ghosts by Laraine Herring

Cover image for Laraine Herring's A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS

Laraine Herring’s speculative memoir, A Constellation of Ghosts is a work of literary art, and possibly its own (new?) form. In this remarkable book, I find a frame for understanding and surviving the past. A frame for how to grow beyond the stories we accept into our bodies like breath (in the same way we accept breath: in order to survive).

This memoir is also a kind of how-to book about writing, a shape-shifting dive into bones and blood and story and generational connections and ruptures, and all of it, each vessel and bit that makes us human. 

(I suspect that, in some ineffable way, this book is a method.)

There’s so much in these pages to hold up and show you—I copied out five pages of jewel-like quotations from this memoir, words I will ponder through time—but for the moment, here are a few glimpses:

Page 81

“Please listen:  I am trying to tell you something true about grief and attachment and the shape-shifter that is home, but I am failing because I can’t look straight at it, so first I’m going to tell you a story about my father because his stories merge with my mother’s stories and I inherited much more than green eyes and a ski-jump nose and a love of books. And today, when I find myself standing between two lives, I have nowhere to look for understanding but the past, which does not die, but reinvents itself, masquerading as new thoughts, laughing at our feeble attempts to quiet its fury. One thing is certain: the past cannot be locked in the trunk. Its messages will tattoo themselves on your skin, and the secret decoder ring is story.”

 Page 109

“When we reach adulthood, we often run into trouble when an early belief system comes into conflict with a goal we are pursuing. Until that point of conflict, we rarely consider what stories might be lurking in the understory of our operating system. We’re often not sure where those early beliefs came from, and we definitely don’t remember choosing, ‘Yes, I’ll have this belief system,’ or ‘No, thank you, not this one.’ We absorb and absorb and absorb everything from our contexts, and because we are animals, our biology kicks in here to with our imperative physical needs. This means the larger people who are feeding and housing us when we’re infants and children have a disproportionate amount of influence over the stories we take in. They, too, may not be saying, ‘Look, this is how things are,’ (though sometimes they do), but they will be interacting with each other and with us in ways that will influence what we internalize about our new world. They will be contributing authors to our stories.”

Page 214

“Shadow-you is holding the wild cat stroking your brick nose and wondering how to love what will leave, wondering how to leave what she loves. The cat sleeps.

‘You fed her,’ says Raven. ‘What you feed will stay.’”

I love this book, and I know I will return to it. (Laraine Herring is also a wonderful teacher! You can find out more about her work here.)

Don’t Go Crazy Without Me by Deborah A. Lott

Don't Go Crazy Without Me by Deborah A. Lott (cover image)

Deborah Lott’s memoir, Don’t Go Crazy Without Me, is an embodied act of generosity. The narrator shares her life, turns everything inside out, paws through debris, so we can see how it’s possible for people to love and survive. She writes with unwavering clarity and precision. She never varnishes things, never looks away or shrinks from writing about the intricacy, the sticky quality of finding oneself born into a situation, and staying deeply tied to the other humans who live there.

Reading this narrative—enjoying how boldly and beautifully it’s told—I feel a sense of openhearted optimism. A sense of hope, of humanity’s possibility of survival.

Also delectable is how Lott shares a riveting glimpse into the early writer’s psyche, her awareness about what it is to be a writer. Here are a few bright bits:

p. 186:

“I wrote in the persona of an orphan, inspired by the cheesy Keane print of a huge-eyed, sad girl harlequin that adorned my bedroom wall as my patron saint. The girl in the painting, like the speaker in my poems, was an unloved, misunderstood waif. I wrote in the persona of a child grieving and then turning away from her mother, whose true state she finally recognizes: Look up at me, mother, and feel a moist eye / look up at me, mother / for mother I cry / …so bury your face / and I’ll cover your head. I must walk alone now / for mother you’re dead. I wrote as the confused, estranged girl who, a la some episodes of The Twilight Zone, suddenly realizes that she is dead herself: Don’t hate me / Don’t hate me with wet eyes / Talk to me / Don’t let me cry / …I’ll never know why you were that way / Why did you have to go? / Because I’m dead, you wouldn’t stay?”

[For me, this passage recalled that particular sheen of 1960s & 70s sadness…that ubiquitous art by Keane, from childhood…the images of freaky-sad children and animals that I remember spanned the walls of our veterinarian’s office…I hadn’t thought about how haunting those images were for a long time. Recalling them made me wonder if they were an early seed for my own writing about orphans, or the sense of being an orphan.]

p. 199:

“On the walls of my bedroom, I hung up my poems. They were close enough for a foot to touch when I lay in bed and stretched one leg out toward the cool wall. I’d copied them with colored markers onto butcher paper in my own approximation of calligraphy. In this graphic form, they provided an assertion of self larger than on the pages of my notebook or diary. I saw them when I woke up every morning, and they provided the backdrop as I fell asleep. This is who you are, they said, a writer, an observer, a fighter for freedom and justice. Hang on.”

And finally, on p. 250 (a conversation between the narrator and her brother, as adults)

“‘You know, I’m writing a memoir about our family,’ I say. ‘Do you want to read it?’

‘I’m not sure. I bet if I wrote it, though, it would be a much different story.’

‘To the writer belongs the story. You could write your own version; no one’s stopping you. Maybe if you wrote, you wouldn’t have to hold onto so much actual stuff. Maybe you could find some peace in writing about it.’

‘Has it given you peace?’

I laugh. My brother knows better.

‘At least it takes up less room in my house.’”

May you, too, enjoy this powerful and life-affirming memoir. To learn more about Deborah Lott, visit her website.

Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief by Victoria Chang

 Cover of Victoria Chang's book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief

I love how Victoria Chang employed the form of the letter in her gorgeous book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief. The interplay between her letters and the imagery shimmers with life. And I love how she grapples with gaps in memory, gaps and erasures in family stories, and struggles in the reaching toward understanding that is the human urge, and an impossibly hard urge to sit still within. It’s a gift: there is so much to learn about the writer and the process in these pages.

The beauty and clarity of Chang’s voice in these pieces is simultaneously heartbreaking and heart-mending.

Such as:

“These are the kinds of questions that absolutely did not matter at the time. The things that didn’t matter at the time are often the most urgent questions after someone has died.” (from Dear Mother, p. 27)

“When we say that something takes place, we imply that memory is associated with a physical location, as Paul Ricoeur states. But what happens when memory’s place of origin disappears?” (from Dear Mother, p. 49)

“Each book isn’t just a book, but a period of life, a period of learning how to write. Each book has its own hair color, its own glasses, its own favorite mug, its own computer, its own shirt and pants, its own tears.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 77)

“As I write, more and more of my cells are replaced by language. When they burn a writer’s body, the smoke will be shaped like letters.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 77)

“You told me that suffering can deepen and expand a poet’s work. And that sometimes suffering can put so much pressure on a person that they have no choice but to become a poet. You told me that suffering is one’s fate and that regardless of whether the fates have distributed suffering to me, if I see the world around mew, care about and for other people, face the setbacks of the world, read with hunger, get older, encounter illness, and if life is not lost on me—and if, all the while, I learn how to write better and pay attention better—maybe, just maybe, I would be able to write better poems.” (from Dear Teacher, p. 87)

“I don’t know if you know that Charles Simic once said: The world is beautiful but not sayable. That’s why we need art. I think that’s why we need all art. Not just art from some people. Or whether you know what Osip Mandelstam said: What tense would you choose to live in? I want to live in the imperative of the future passive participle—in the ‘what ought to be.’ I don’t know where this is or what it looks like, but I know somehow it begins with language.” (from Dear B, p. 130)

“Working on these letters and listening to the interviews made me think that grief and memory are related. That memory, trying to remember, is also an act of grieving. In my mothers case, sometimes forgetting or silence was a way to grieve lost lands and to survive. In my case, trying to know someone else’s memories, even if it’s through imagination and within silence, is also a form of grieving.” (from Dear Reader, p. 144)

“In the end, these epistles brought me much sadness and shame to write, but the process was also joyful. I’ve always loved what Jeanette Winterson in Art Objects says about the chisel:

The chisel must be capable of shaping any material however unlikely. It has to leave runnels of great strength and infinite delicacy. In her own hands, the chisel will come to feel light and assured, and she refines it to take her grip and no other. If someone borrows it, it will handle like a clumsy tool or perform like a trick. And ye to her, as she works with it and works upon it, it will become the most precise instrument she knows. There are plenty of tools a writer can beg or borrow, but her chisel she must make herself, just as Michelangelo did.

I’m still learning how to make my own chisel, but everything I write, no matter how crude, is an experiment with my unfinished chisel. Each time I sit down, I pull out my imaginary chisel, listen to the words that come up, like eavesdropping, crane my neck into language, into memory, into silence. And each time I write, the chisel becomes more and more finished and distinctly mine. And with each word, I become more and more myself.” (from Dear Reader, p. 146)

Book Nook Interview on WYSO

On Saturday, March 26, 7am Eastern you can tune in/stream from WYSO to hear Vick Mickunas interview me about The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival. (This is my first ever radio interview!) If you are not awake at 7am Eastern, fear not: eventually, the interview will be available to stream anytime from this page: https://www.wyso.org/show/book-nook.

I’m extremely grateful to Vick Mickunas for taking time to discuss my novel & other ephemera, and more, for creating and sustaining the Book Nook since 1994. And grateful to WYSO for being such a fabulous radio station.

A Rememory of Virginia Hamilton (for the Dayton Daily News)

Cover of The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton

I’m extremely honored to have been invited to write about Virginia Hamilton for the Dayton Daily News. Virginia Hamilton was an early and abiding influence on me, as a writer. In the essay, “A Rememory of Virginia Hamilton,” I reflect, as well, on Virginia’s impact on literature and our local community. The piece was published in print and online on February 6. 2022. (It was a further honor to have this piece appear in print alongside pieces on Paul Lawrence Dunbar by Dr. Herbert Martin and Ralph Ellison by Sierra Leone. And I’m grateful to Leigh Adoff Hamilton and Jaime Adoff for their support, and to Ron Rollins and Nick Hrkman for the invitation.)

Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts

cover of Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts
Me Myself & Him by Chris Tebbetts

Catching up on some book notes, I’m thrilled to spend a moment recommending that you hurry up and read Chris Tebbetts‘ fabulous & fun novel, Me Myself & Him.

I read this novel in 2019, but because the author is a beloved friend from early days, I was “only” able to absorb and enjoy. (There is nothing wrong with reading for pleasure! Please, let’s read for as much pleasure as we can! We need all the pleasure we can get—these days, any days.) In 2019, I was happily distracted by familiar details and voices, and I let myself get swept away in the experience. But recently, I re-read the novel with a blog post in mind.

Even if Chris Tebbetts were not my friend, I would still call this a friendly book. There’s an amiable generosity in the self-deprecating humor of the narrator—the voice—and I can imagine being a friend to the fictional Chris. Fiction or non, I love reading books like this, where the narrator seems honest, earnest, and trustworthy, fully human. In the case of Me Myself & Him, some of this trustworthiness comes from the narrator’s willingness to show his imperfection, his mistakes. I found that aspect of this novel extremely life-affirming. We make choices, we make mistakes, we fuck up. We keep going, despite injury and heartache. We endure shame. Sometimes people grow, and sometimes, people forgive each other.

This novel is a beautiful artifact of connection and friendship. (Very necessary in these times of isolation.) It centers friendship as an openhearted pursuit, through many twists of fate, or plot—and speaking of plot, this novel is so appealing in its puzzle-parts, its twin lines of possibility, in being a rumination on what might happen if.

One of the most compelling textures is the narrator’s storytelling voice. Readers glimpse the interior of the character as he grapples with a complicated relationship with his father. Such as:

p. 13: In a conversation with his father about college:

“Birch had been my first choice, and against all odds, not to mention my own expectations, I’d gotten in, as a film and English double major. I had no idea what I wanted to do yet (as in, when I grew up), but I knew exactly where I wanted to be for the next four years—at Birch. And, just as important, anywhere but Green River, Ohio.

I couldn’t not go to Birch, and Dad knew that, didn’t he?

‘I know you feel forced right now,’ he said. ‘I’d feel the same way. But this is all about choices you’ve made. You do understand that, don’t you?’

This is what I’m talking about with him. It’s like falling down a hole and there’s nothing to grab onto because it’s all lined with that stainless steel logic of his.

Then on p. 28:

Then he did this one thing that he and my mother share. They’ll smile in this patronizing way when I’m acting stupider than I actually am. It’s a harder habit to break than you might think—for me, I mean.

He took a sip of coffee, to let my stupidity sink in. Then he said, ‘Actually, I want two things. I want you to speak with a counselor, and I want you to come work at the lab this summer.’ Felicia moved her head, like maybe an eight of an inch. ‘Assuming you’re still planning on Birch in the fall,’ Dad added.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the bottom of the hole. Please remain seated until we’ve come to a full stop at the terminal and the captain has turned off the HOW DID I NOT SEE THIS COMING? sign.”

And later, on p. 217 in the alternate narrative strand, re: his father’s second wedding:

“I kept forgetting—or losing track of the idea—that everyone else who was coming to the wedding thought of it as this champagne-soaked, all-good thing, and entirely worth celebrating. Mark and Felicia, together forever, whatever.

At the same time, there was a little bit of What the hell is wrong with me? mixed in there. Seriously, why couldn’t I just be neutral about it, or even, god forbid, happy for them? Why did everything always have to be so considered and examined and dissected? By the time you finish dissecting anything, it’s a disgusting mess. So what did I expect? That I was going to chew on all this wedding stuff, spit it out, and like what I saw?

Please.

Honestly, what I really wanted—what I’d always wanted with regard to Dad—was to not think about it. But that never seemed like an option. He had this sway over me; this way of invading my thoughts that only got worse when I was around him. Whether that was about my own weak-mindedness, or his strength, or something else, I don’t know, but I resented it as much as anything.

It was going to be a long three days.”

Although I recoil a bit at implying that authors have a responsibility to make characters “relatable” (no pressure, writers! and I just don’t like that word), I do find the gently neurotic flavor of the narration…familiar. :) Appealing. Reassuring? (Proving that maybe neurosis/over-anxiety is not only in my head.) Maybe because the neurotic bits are so artfully balanced by a round, complicated character. Interior rumination is used judiciously here, by a writer who knows well how to handle texture and pacing—so the rumination is, to me, one of the most delicious parts of this novel.

You can learn more about Chris and his work at the website above, and on Instagram here.

Oh, and p.s., thank you, Chris, for giving young people (and old people) such a beautifully engaging novel as Me Myself & Him that feature LQBTQ+ protagonists! What the world needs!