Guest Post, George Michelsen Foy: Wording the image, imaging the word: Why illustrations don’t work with fiction (except when they do)

blog(Always I have w)anted to write, and always I have thought it would be natural to include images with text. As a child, in common with most kids, I was brought up on picture books, especially (being half-French) the adventures of Tintin and Astérix and the serial comics in their respective magazines. Children don’t have the bulkheads and prejudices of adults—instinctively they consider all avenues of expression to be equal and available to mingle: mud pies, finger-paints, drawings, words, rhyme, paper, leaves, glue, all borrow from each other and can be co-opted into the final whole. Adults making books for the juvenile readers’ market therefore put words and text together, and children happily go along with this syncretism, years after they know how to read, and no longer need a picture of a locomotive to learn the word for “train”.

What’s surprising is not that I naturally read books with images as a boy, but that as an adult, and especially as the writer I became, I am still interested in reading novels with images, and in writing works of literary fiction or “creative non-fiction” that use images in interesting and useful ways.

I will fine down the focus, since I’m not discussing graphic novels, which put as much narrative load on the images as they do on text; and while I have great respect for this genre, and enjoy Lloyd and Moore’s V for Vendetta, Enki Bilal’s work, and the collaborative mysteries of Léo Malet and Tardy, they are not what I do, they’re not what I’m interested in making. What I love, what I try to craft, are real, meaty novels (and non-fiction stories sometimes) that build complex worlds with words in the inimitable way that traditional novels do, co-opting a reader’s stored associations and memories, both conscious and non-, and employing them to build images in the mind: word-based images that, precisely because they do not provide specific illustration, draw on the symbols and pictures of the reader’s own life, and are therefore far more powerful and emotionally charged than any drawings an author could come up with.

This process must to some extent involve different areas of the brain from those which assimilate the fully formed images of others. What fascinates me, and perhaps this is a hangover from childhood, is the idea that words can and sometimes should include images to enhance the reading experience. (The argument is valid also for sounds, textures, smells and taste, though these are logistically harder to include in a book, so I won’t deal with them here.)

blog 2I’ve tried to insert images in a novel on several occasions, making elaborate pen-and-ink drawings of scenes, which ended up clashing with the narrative, either because they weren’t quite right for my idea of the character, or because they distracted from the thrust of text. The one novel where the process worked, sort of, was about a desperate magazine writer, and Conrad aficionado, who travels to south Asia to write an article about maritime piracy and, like Conrad’s Almayer or Lord Jim, becomes embroiled in and finally defeated by the world in which he at first found refuge. I used quick line drawings of ships and local watercraft I’d made while working on a similar article, and these seemed to mesh well with the story. Despite this small victory, South of Nowhere was never published. And most of the time my efforts at mixing text with images failed miserably.

I turned to books I knew where images successfully enhanced the text, to understand where I might have gone wrong, and why that one unpublished novel seemed to work. I focused on six books—five novels and one slim volume which, to its credit, occupies an indefinable zone between poetry and non-fiction memoir. They were Time and Again by Jack Finney, The Collected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen, Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner, City of Glass by Paul Auster, The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, and Bough Down by Karen Green.

Time and Again as its name implies is a time-travel novel, set in Manhattan, which includes actual photographs of period settings. The protagonist manages, by entering a stage-set full of artifacts from almost 100 years earlier, to go back to the 19th Century;  he knows he has succeeded when he realizes the scene he saw of Central Park West (reproduced in the book) could not have included the perspective it did, had he not actually entered that era. The Rings of Saturn features an unnamed narrator walking around southeast England who, cued by features of the landscape, ruminates on time, death, the individual, and much else besides. (It is insulting and superficial to summarize a complex novel in this way, but if it inspires someone to check out Sebald, it’s worth doing.) The photographs—including images of a caged quail, a window with netting thrown over it, and bodies lined up under trees (at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, apparently)—are blurry and vague and sadly, could be pictures of almost anywhere. In their bleakness and lack of sun, not to mention their dearth of specific referents, they reflect the narrator’s melancholia as he wanders among the relics of European history.

Paul Auster’s City of Glass is a metafictional detective novel, set in Manhattan, that includes a map and a sketch drawn by the protagonist which trace the movements of someone he is following; the illustrations reveal a message defined by those very movements.

The Collected Works of TS Spivet tells the story of a boy who skillfully sketches, diagrams and maps every detail of his life, from the flight of bats around his father’s ranch to his sister’s corn-shucking habits to the incidence of fast-food restaurants in Montana. Most of these charts and sketches are reproduced in the margins. Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Gardner’s last novel, is the story of a college prof’s descent into madness, epiphany, or both, in rural Pennsylvania; scattered throughout are black-and-white photographs of windows and doorways, farm buildings in snow, offbeat compositions of ground cover.

Karen Green’s Bough Down consists of short, beautifully written, often dreamlike descriptions of the author’s state of mind following her husband’s suicide. The brief textual entries are accompanied by mixed-media images: washes of paint, pen-and-ink sketches, old postage stamps, scraps of typewritten text. The overall weft of found objects, of something cobbled together into balance, and of partial veiling (images and words are often blurred by pigment), meshes organically with the lost-and-found narrative that the reader traces through the book.

As I thought about these very different works, I realized they fell into two broad categories: mood, and clue. Time and Again and City of Glass both use images representing New York’s streets to help the reader understand a key development in the plot. The images in Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Bough Down and Rings of Saturn, on the other hand, have little or no evidentiary link to the story being told. The symbols etched upon the page are general, even abstract: windows, rain-washed blurry hills, vignettes of color and erasure, they could illustrate a completely different narrative. The images in Bough Down are particularly effective in conveying the longing for structure, and the structures of loss, implied in the collages and discernible words (“Why did you … the poor dogs. … Erase? OK.”)

TS Spivet falls between the two categories: some of the maps, diagrams and sketches provide evidence to help the reader accept the unlikely dénouement; at the same time, the skill, originality and obsession implied in his draughtmanship reflect a key component of the boy’s character.

Such categories are artificial; many novels with images, like Larsen’s, blur these distinctions, each in a unique way. But as guidelines for thought they must work well enough, for they allow me to understand that my earlier attempts at illustration failed because they were neither useful as clues, nor abstract enough to enhance mood without sabotaging the reader’s internal image-crafting process. Whereas South of Nowhere worked because the ships were almost abstractly rendered, freighters without crew or homeport, boats run by ghosts. Finally, the categories helped me avoid a mistake I was thinking of making, in a novel about a printmaker, by including examples of his art. I understand now I will have to restrict myself to vignettes: corners of an etching, or a sketch of his hand at work, similar to the one at the beginning of this post.

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SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Nicole Rollender

Nicole Rollender

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Nicole Rollender. 

Nicole Rollender is assistant poetry editor at Minerva Rising Literary Journal and editor of Stitches. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Radar Poetry, Salt Hill Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, and others. Her first full-length poetry collection,Little Deaths, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. Her chapbooks are Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio), Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications) and Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, forthcoming this year. She’s the recipient of poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her online at www.nicolerollender.com.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

 

Guest Post, Erin Adair Hodges: The Joy of Quitting

KnittingThough I grew up in a small New Mexican town in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, I somehow found feminism. In my child’s understanding of the women’s movement, I decided that anything related to traditional domesticity was oppressive and not for me. Being bad at chores was a sign of my liberation. Cooking, sewing, baking, and knitting were tools used to limit my ambitions, designed by The Man to keep my hands too busy to put up a fight. By the time I entered college and early adulthood in the ‘90s, I found I was not alone. Women in my circles wore aprons only ironically with combat boots and shaved heads. We mended clothing holes with duct tape.

But by the mid-aughts, this same artsy circle found Crafting. I had long resisted the call to develop expertise in some method of fabric/yarn manipulation, but at 30 I had a no good, very bad year. I was in control of almost no aspect of my life, so in a fit of moderate optimism and self-determination, I borrowed some knitting needles and a book and began the work of teaching myself to knit.

Knitters extol the craft’s meditative aspects, and I admit that being able to focus on something that was not the financial and spiritual hardship I was in had a transportive quality. Soon, I knit several crooked scarves the length of a Florida boa constrictor before moving on to baby blankets for the scores of friends having children. Sure, while my friends were starting families I was 30 and working a minimum wage job at a cupcake shop where my manager was a girl ten years my junior whose penchant for posting misspelled signs worked like a burr in the boot of my soul. But I had knitting! Knitting, which allowed me to transform the formless to works of art and function. Knitting! A feminist reclamation of artistry previously disregarded as purely craft because of its usefulness! Knitting! Knitting would save me!

Except that I hated knitting.

I knit for five years. I watched videos, knit purl purled. I went to knitting circles, printed patterns, dreamed lofty woolen dreams. But knitting is unforgiving. Other crafts allow for the imperfect: so your embroidery looks like a thread monster sneezed? Quirky! Seams on your skirt uneven? Fashion-forward. Knitting, though, requires precision. A missed stitch means that, 40 rows and two weeks later, it becomes clear the piece will not work. It is a Yeats poem, what with the not-holding and the falling apart. The very talented can sometimes work in a solution to what’s already been formed, but mostly you just have to tear it down to the mistake and start again, as many agains as needed. In this way, knitting began to resemble too much my real life, not a distraction from my struggles but a manifestation of them. Knitting reminded me that I had no natural aptitude for anything, and that even in trying my best, I would fail.

So I quit. I broke up with knitting.

Like any really good breakup, I marked the seriousness of the separation with a big dramatic act. I had said I’d quit before only to take the needles back up when some friend produced a hat she swore was a cinch to make and I was so smart I could get this, just try again. I thought each time would be different, that maybe knitting could learn to love me the way it loved so many others. Once I finally admitted that this thing which was supposed to make me feel good instead filled me with frustration and sadness, I knew I had to make the break loud and permanent. I filled a garbage bag with everything connected to my relationship with knitting: books, scores of needles, skeins of artisan yarn, and curiously hooked tools. I then took the bag outside and called my friend Christie to tell her what I’d done. If you don’t come and get this stuff, I said, it goes to the dump. As one of the primary knitting pushers in my life, she drove over right away, happy with the haul even if she thought I was making the wrong decision.

But in the years since, I’ve never regretted pushing knitting out of my life. I am tremendously glad I don’t knit, purl, wind, wend, whatever. I was bad at it and it made me sad, so I stopped. That decision runs counter to an American ethos that derides quitters for somehow lacking character. As a kid, I quit all kinds of things I didn’t like and often felt bad about what this must say about me, and so as an adult I’ve tried to make up for this by sticking to commitments far past the point where it would have been healthy to stop. There’s a perverse puritan satisfaction in doing a thing that makes you miserable, and while my forebears have no doubt looked upon my perseverance from their sedately appointed heavenly quarters with the closest they can come to a smile, I have decided to reclaim the joys of quitting.

***

The year I began knitting I also earned an MFA in poetry and then quit writing poetry. I returned to it many years later, and while there’s plenty about being an emerging writer with wrinkles that I don’t love, I don’t regret having quit that, either. My MFA experience, while positive in some ways, ultimately served to turn me off of the form—I no longer felt that poetry was necessary, and if it was, then I was not necessary to poetry. So for seven or so years, I simply lived—not as a writer but just as a person, navigating and amassing the kinds of experiences that suck us in: marriage and career and babies and sickness and 5Ks and deaths and debt. For several years, the weight of it all threatened to silence me under so many waves until one day an acquaintance at a party threw a life saver and I caught it and it was poetry.

I started writing slowly again, having panic attacks every few poems. I wrote terrible, clunky chunks, garblings I could not show to anyone. But then I started to find value in the making, the crafting, the weaving and suddenly there was joy. Writing! Writing had saved me!

I don’t know where my writing would be, what my voice would be, had I not quit years before. Maybe it would be stronger, less messy, lean and ghost-like. But I don’t care. For me, removing myself from both poetry and even thinking of myself as a poet meant that when I came back to it, I did so with clarity and context. I don’t take myself seriously though I take writing seriously. Years of crappy, humiliating jobs and disappointments tend to beat the pretension out of you, and that’s a perspective I want my poetry to reveal. That’s a truth that being away from poetry has helped me to understand.

In the penultimate episode of the television show “Mad Men,” a main character diagnosed with terminal cancer decides not to fight it simply because she’s expected to, because it’s the show we’re supposed to put on. She defends her decision by saying that she’s fought for plenty in her life and feels blessed to know when to give up, when to move on. I’m not using cancer as a metaphor, even a fictionalized depiction of cancer, because cancer is an asshole that has taken people I love, but rather it’s the attitude of the character that’s instructive. We stand to gain much when we quit, when we strip our lives down of struggle. Most of life is a fight, for food and jobs and parking spaces and love, so why put voluntarily put ourselves in the path of conflicts we can avoid? We can’t quit everything or everyone who drags us down, but we also often don’t allow ourselves the chance to see what we really can cut out.

I say: be a quitter. Release yourself of expectations in order to see what other opportunities that empty space attracts.

Maybe my surrendering knitting and its sister crafts allowed for other creativity to creep back in. Maybe accepting that while I had no knack for knitting, writing for me was a different kind of difficult, not a chore but challenge. I now understand that when I quit poetry before, I did so without ever having really, really worked at it. In my wondrously packed life, there’s little time to take things up as a whim, and so writing again was a decision, creativity handled logically. If you’d asked me ten years ago why I wrote poetry, I couldn’t have given you much of answer. After our reconciliation, I now can, but I think I’ll quit here because I want to and because I have a poem to write.

Guest Post, Robert Detman: From Journal into Blog: Seven Years of Writing about Writing

JournalTo admit to keeping a journal might smack of a twee sensibility, but I’ve kept one for years, and find them rather to be a necessity. These journals have long given way from their original, possibly naval gazing intent, which was to chronicle the days, and have become more useful for literary digressions, and a regular and deliberate writing about writing.

After the intense work of my MFA in 2006, I was writing a lot about process in my journal. While pursuing my degree I was writing in multiple directions creatively, and these experiments led to inquiries and writings on craft. Perhaps because in its normal guise this writing is known as criticism, it has a negative connotation for creative writers. But writing about writing seems to jiggle synapses, opening up my creativity. The beauty of writing about process is that the writing itself is often the process.

A journal, it seems, is the perfect vehicle for exploring topics in a blog. Thus, I naturally turned to writing a blog.

I’ve now written my blog for the last seven years–eleven years, if you count the one that preceded it but which I quit a few years in to go to grad school–and I’ve kept journals for much longer than that. In that time, I’ve written over 100 blog posts, most having to do with some aspect of writing and craft. Much like the critical work of my MFA, writing my blog has kept me within arm’s reach of that academic world–or at least, feeling as if I am still in the conversation.

During the AWP Conference in Minneapolis this year, Charles Baxter led a panel, “The Art of the Art of Writing,” for a discussion based on his Graywolf Press series, and it was the first seminar where I found myself writing down much of what was said. As Baxter said, “Criticism is/can be, an art.” To further make this type of writing palatable, Stacey D’Erasmo, one of the panelists, offered, “Criticism is thought, not judgment.” I was also pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t a jam packed seminar–it was late afternoon when blood sugar levels drop–which gave me solace in that it’s one area where I don’t have to feel competitive. Writing fiction, sometimes, can feel like a competition; whereas writing criticism can be an opportunity to slow down, and to ruminate.

Maintaining a blog about writing is a great habit for writing fiction no less, and I can’t complain about writer’s block; I simply have to find the time to put in some writing, and invariably the ideas begin to flow. I actually don’t believe in writer’s block; Flaubert’s marinating is the occasion for me to write something different.

It may at first seem an odd preoccupation for a self described fiction writer to always return to writing about writing. But as I also review books, which is another form of writing about writing, the end result is a deeper appreciation and understanding–and excitement about–the process of writing. Blog writing occupies the logical part of my brain, leaving the dreamy and surreal side to flourish for my fiction.

Aware of the social network savvy-ness of blog culture, I have infrequently written a blog post hoping to garner hits. I long ago gave up trying to second guess that algorithm and instead have focused on pieces that have interested me, mainly. It’s a surprise usually to see which posts get the most hits. I would be curious to discover the site linked to my piece about short story openings–my single most read post.

I also, contrary to the prevailing wisdom, blog at a snail’s pace. I’ve never seen my blog merely as a place to post bite-sized morsels every week, though expediency has led me to these occasionally. If anything, the blog has become a practice for writing longer pieces. I’ve written a few posts that cracked 2000 words, but for the most part I’ve managed to keep them within 1000 words. I’m sure every writer has their sweet spot in a blog post, and I find 1000 words to be the perfect capsule for many of the topics I’ve written on–it almost subconsciously works out this way. Of course, these topics can be explored in longer essays, but the blog has an immediacy that lends itself to trying a subject out. I’m especially fond of E. M. Forster’s statement, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

There’s no shortage of topics to consider, either, with the irreversible and remarkable changes in publishing over the past decade, or wide-ranging discussions of industry trends, or reviewing un-put-downable fiction. There are a number of think piece type blogs which have been resources for me, and have been models for posts I might write. The more involved with literary matters the better. (The Los Angeles Review of Books, Tim Parks’s blog at the New York Review of Books, The Smart Set, and Arts and Letters Daily are several I check regularly.) In fact, when I first began my blog, I was always surprised–and pleased–to find blogs with a similar sensibility. I couldn’t imagine this bounty if the internet didn’t exist.

In reading other writer’s blogs, I have discovered a diasporic community. So I have reached out–and been reached out to–by a number of interesting bloggers, who are all fascinating to me in their unique approaches to the medium (So many have come and gone over the years, I resist naming any here). This has led to requests for guest blog postings, and one for a serial interview when I published my novel last autumn. Though I may never meet these fellow bloggers in person, it’s been great to know we are connected in a kindred medium and subject.

Finally, one of the great rewards of this practice is that it has given me a log of my thinking over the years, a timeline in a body of work that parallels my creative output, since I’ve also been publishing fiction and reviews regularly when I can. It’s surprising to look back over the years and re-read a piece I wrote about daily writing habits, or a deconstruction on David Shields’s death warrant for the novel, or an essay attempting to describe Gary Lutz’s sentences. Having become something more than the sum of its parts, I often think that my blog is a book. One day it may very well become that.

Robert Detman’s website and blog

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Julia Lichtblau

Julia Lichtblau

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Julia Lichtblau. 

Julia Lichtblau’s work has appeared in the American Fiction 13 anthology,NarrativeThe Florida Review, Best Paris Stories, The Common, Ploughshares blog, Temenos, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the American Fiction Prize, the Narrative Winter and Fall 2013 contests, and won the Editorial Prize of the 2011 Paris Short Story Contest and 2nd Prize in the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Contest. She is book review editor for The Common and has been a visiting writer at New York City’s Harbor School. For 15 years, she was a journalist in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

 

Intern Post, Amanda Strusienski: Taking Detours and Finding my Path Post-Grad

ROad TripI love road trips, especially unexpected ones. Recently, I decided to take a drive to check out the wildflowers that bloom around Phoenix in springtime. I had planned on just driving the 60 to Globe, but I ended up veering toward Superstition Mountain and Canyon Lake. Honestly, I wasn’t sure where I was heading as I drove down the road; I was letting the road lead me. It was an adventure that brought me to a quiet trail in the middle of the desert.

Much like my random road trip, my journey toward a career post-graduation has been filled with many different twists and turns down unexpected roadways. After returning from a post-graduation trip I had expected to land the perfect job. After all a degree promises a good job, right? Yeah, my reality check came in a little late. Like many new graduates I struggled with finding a “career” job. Through a series of events I ended up working three part-time jobs for roughly six months until a full-time one was presented. It was a librarian for an elementary school—a far cry from the editor or writer position I had desired.

Writing, by this time I’d almost forgotten what that was. Following graduation I had started two different blogs, both of which had a scattering of posts. It was as though college had removed the desire to write. The pleasure I used to feel when presented with a blank page was gone. Somewhere along the line the writer in me had disappeared.

So where was I to find my inspiration and desire again? Ironically, it was as an elementary school librarian. Before this job I hadn’t read children’s literature since I was a child. I found myself in the midst of book awards and authors unknown to me. In this position I instructed 31 classes per week, kindergarten through 6th grade. The lessons I presented varied in nature, but my favorites were the author studies, genre studies, and book awards. I had the opportunity to explain the difference between fiction and nonfiction. The best was discussing authors and finding what had been the inspiration of Mo Willems or Judy Blume. Though a different form of literature, I still had the chance to learn from these authors and teach it. That was the best. Being able to add a dimension to the lessons I presented because I knew what a writer thought, or could explain the writing process.  Along the way I found my love of literature grow and a desire to use my skills in the education field. I am so grateful for my time in the library because I found my passion for education.

A few months ago I was offered a position as a curriculum coordinator for the University of Phoenix. Given that this was the opportunity for a career position I was given the difficult task of leaving my little library for a “career” job.  It took nearly two years for me to land this position, but now I find myself using skills I gained with my English degree, such as research, proofreading, and analyzing text. I’m also fortunate that I help design education courses for teachers.  Additionally, I’m now doing freelance work for Green Living Arizona magazine; it’s wonderful seeing my name in print after all this time.

When I left the library my coworker told me that in her seven years she had never seen a librarian get the students as excited about books as they had with me. She also added that I got them interested in books that they never checked out. That was such a compliment to me. I’m convinced that my love of literature and writing was so evident that many of my 800+ students caught the same desire. I can only hope the desire will last as they progress through school.

Just like picking the random road to drive down, my road to a career has had similar twists, and detours. The road has been challenging and confusing on occasions, yet it has held the tenants of any true story. A professor told me the best stories are the ones where the characters face nothing but challenges, that those are the stories that we all want to read. Perhaps that’s part of my story, to not give in, despite the challenges. Maybe it’s cliché—but maybe it’s the truth that can strengthen us on all the roads we travel.

Guest Post, Emily Matyas: The “Selfie” and Assimilation

Not long ago, I found myself in my ancestral homeland of rural Romania. I was dressed in peasant clothing, traversing verdant hills, with camera and tripod in hand. I stopped and faced a huge, conical haystack, assessed its shape, color, the subdued light illuminating it, and the undulating landscape beyond. I set up my camera, hit the timer and rushed to take my place beside the haystack. I repeated this several times. Every so often I looked around to see if anyone was watching.

By and by, I saw an elderly women approaching, leaning over a cane to aid her slow walk over the fields.  I readied my known bits of the Romanian language so I could speak to her. She came up to me and offered a greeting. I responded, and then assured her that “Da, eu sînt Româncă.” I am Romanian.

Yes. At least in the sense that my grandparents, “bunici mei” were originally from a nearby area. That fact, I hoped, would explain the camera, the clothing, and why a foreigner from 10 time zones away was standing here, and photographing herself in front of their haystacks.  I really just wanted to assimilate.

Honestly. Because photographing oneself is not necessarily an act of narcissism.  Sometimes it is a method of connection.

Sure, the so called “selfie,” a picture of yourself usually taken to highlight the fact that YOU ARE THERE or YOU MATTER at any moment, spot or occasion that inspires you to make this statement, and often done on a cell phone, is ubiquitous in American society right now. We have digital photography and a culture orientated toward the individual to encourage it. But that’s different from exploring your identity or contemplating how you belong to a certain group of people. Instead, making images of yourself can be a form of communion with what’s apart from you. It can be also be an exultation of finding the similarities between you – your opinions, your experiences – and, what is, or what you ONCE called  “the other.”  Photographing the self can be a way to absorb into something previously unknown to you. In other words, it is a way to assimilate.

The word assimilate, itself, has many components and connotations. Its Latin root of “simil” means to “make the same.” An online research provides these definitions:

 “to cause something to resemble, liken; absorb, integrate (people, ideas, culture) into a wider society; take in information and understand fully; adapting or adjusting; sustenance, absorption of food/nutrition.”

Webster’s NEW American Dictionary states:

“to bring to conformity or agreement with something else; to digest; to absorb and convert into a homogenous part of the absorbing agent, as, to assimilate immigration.” 

Several of these defining words are of much interest to me concerning my photography, particularly these: adapting, adjusting, integrating, people, ideas, culture, immigration, understand fully, agreement. Even the part about nutrition can metaphorically relate to understanding and agreement.
Actually, the fact that I photograph myself at all, is most likely, astonishing to the people I know.  They understand that I’m not one to demand attention, take the center stage, or boast about my achievements. Why then, do I recently have this insatiable urge to record myself doing mundane chores in bright Technicolor? Furthermore, why am I doing most of these images outside, in full view of the world, and in a peasant costume?? Add to that a camera on a tripod, a few props, myself scurrying to and fro before the timer goes off  – well, this is totally out of character for me. Though actually, it’s not. I’m not trying to call attention to myself specifically. What I am trying to do is understand fully my heritage; absorb family stories; start a dialog about people, ideas and culture, even make a statement about women’s roles and immigration. For these ideals I am willing to put myself in front of the camera.

But that alacrity is a 180-degree flip from how I used to think about photography. Back in the days when I existed on my BA degree in Journalism, and a Nikon film camera, I believed that for an image to be truly relevant, things must be recorded exactly as they are. I abhorred the idea of changing anything in the scene before me. And the best way to do that was to fade into the background as much as possible, and to disturb the people I photographed as little as possible. That definitely meant that I wasn’t in the picture.

I remember working in Mexico with these convictions. My job was to write reports and take photographs for a community development organization. This meant traveling to remote villages devoid of running water or electricity, where I was the only foreigner. I learned Spanish, slept on burlap cots, ate tortillas made from hand-ground corn, and tried very hard to fit in.

Apparently I did a good enough job to fool some people. Once, while looking for a Mexican friend’s home in the small pueblo near the villages, I went knocking on several doors before finding the right one. When one of the erroneous doors swung open, there stood a person from my own country.

He was an expatriate who lived in the town. I was about to apologize, in English, for disturbing him, when he said, in stiff and startled Spanish, “Hola!”  I must have assimilated enough for an outsider to think that I was from the area. Had he been Mexican, however, he would have known right away to say “Hello.” For, as much as I loved it, I could never truly assimilate into Mexican culture.

In Romania, I found a society that felt, looked, and tasted familiar. Many people shared my same skin tone and countenance. Inside their houses were hand-made doilies and embroidered cloths similar to what I’d seen in relatives’ homes in the U.S. The smells of mamaliga (cooked corn meal), sarmales (stuffed cabbage), chicken soup, and fresh pastries took me right back into my aunt’s kitchen. Surely I could assimilate here, in this country where my father’s side of the family began. It was a feat that I only partially accomplished.

It’s a common desire to associate oneself in conjunction with people and places that are familiar. Or to want to understand a past that relates to a personal present. It’s also natural to want to individualize yourself, explain what is unique about you, what you like or what you want to remember in relation to an experience. These two dichotomies present themselves in the act of assimilation versus the “selfie” photograph respectively. It may seem that one negates the other. But in fact they complement one another.

We’ve probably all assimilated and re-assimilated into various groups of people as life progresses. Each new phase brings change and further options. Yet, in the midst of our conforming and re-ordering, there remains the individual, albeit in some societies more than others. Nevertheless, we are still unique, we are still ourselves. And that self refers back to the human desire to belong to a group, because it enlarges our experience as individuals. If we understand this cycle, when we bump up against an “other” society, as so often happens in the modern world, we have the opportunity to encounter a deeper human narrative. Undoubtedly we retain our personal experiences and pre-formed ideologies, but now we can apply the self to adapt, integrate or even understand fully another culture. We can assimilate.

After the exchange with the elderly Romanian woman in the fields, I continued making pictures of myself next to haystacks. I’ll never know what she thought of me, or if she even cared whether or not I fit in. But for me I was encountering my grandparent’s life. And it was an amazing, unforgettable experience.