We are pleased to announce that former Superstition Review contributor Sigrid Nunez has just released a new book titled What Are You Going Through. Sigrid is a New York Times bestselling author and her newest book is one of seven she has written over her career. What Are You Going Through is narrated by a woman who uses the stories of friends, family members, and even strangers to assess the beauty of human nature through the conversations they hold. The narrator is a passive listener until she gets whirled into a life-changing encounter of her very own. What Are You Going Through is currently available for purchase on Amazon.
“Reading Sigrid Nunez’s absorbing new novel is somewhat akin to having a long conversation with someone who is telling you something very important, but is telling it in a very quiet voice. You have to really pay attention. Be assured, however, that the experience will be worth it. You will emerge calmer, meditative, more thoughtful, as if you have benefited from an excellent literary massage of sorts.” –The New York Times Book Review
Learn more about Sigrid at her website here or by reading her Issue 10 interview here.
“The one thing I always know is mine is my artwork…my writing life…”
During her divorce in 2017, Frankie Rollins began creating her most recent work: The Grief Manuscript, as both a “compulsive and cathartic” way to channel the grief she found herself experiencing.
As humans, we are no stranger to grief—it can come in many shapes and forms, and it often affects us in ways we cannot predict. Oftentimes, we see grief as a negative experience, but, during this raw and vulnerable podcast, Frankie shares how grief can produce beautiful things—if we let it.
Frankie also discusses the power that art and writing provided her with in overcoming grief and turning it into a project that propelled and inspired her.
This Authors Talk with Frankie Rollins and Eric Aldrich is a rejuvenating, gentle (and much needed) reminder that though we may feel the grief of what we have lost, we can always hold onto the one thing that will always be ours—art.
I wrote about my cousin’s death in at least six different essays before I came to write “Finding the Holy in an Unholy Coconut.” I started writing very shortly after his death, in the days I spent with my aunt and uncle trying to help them sort through all of the logistical complexities that accompany unexpected death. It’s not enough to grieve, in America. We also need you to contact Social Security, close out credit cards, and notify banks as quickly as possible.
My first writing was accounting—asking questions about who knew what and when. It was very much the “bleeding into the typewriter” that T Kira Madden critiques in “Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy” and that Penny Zang referenced in her post on the SR Blog last month.
From extremely raw accounting, I moved to narrating, and trying to patch together a complete story even though so many of the details were missing. And, once again, it took very little time to realize that this stage of writing was strictly for me.
The only person who read these early essays was my mentor, Jane McCafferty, whose gentle response, effectively, was to say, “I love you. And no one else should read this.” Jane’s point at the time was that there is a difference between writing as a way of grieving and writing about grief for an audience. I would find my way to the second eventually, but it was going to take time. Still, she urged me to keep writing the story as many times as I needed to.
It took three years to move from accounting, to narrating, to actually crafting. In Geeta Kothari’s creative non-fiction workshop at the Kenyon Review last summer, she asked us to use description of a concrete object to enter into an essay. I had brought a tiny silver bell with me that usually sits on the altar in my pantry, and this bell somehow allowed me to write about my cousin’s death, and my grieving, through the lens of faith and ritual. The next day, she asked us to visit the art gallery on campus at Kenyon, to choose a piece of art that resonated for us, and to use that piece of art to enter the story a second way. And again, I found the themes in my story shifting.
By entering the story from these different angles, I found myself able to move further and further from the specific details surrounding my cousin’s death, and closer to a story about how faith and ritual can both be essential to mourning—and also fall completely short.
After Kenyon, I went to Los Angeles as part of a West Coast road trip. I attempted to submerge my unholy coconut. And last fall in a writing class at Grub Street, a writing organization here in Boston, I found my way into the essay published at Superstition Review this spring, a full four years after my cousin died. The coconut allowed me to enter our story from a different angle, one that enabled me to write an essay that was no longer just for me.
Ultimately, the coconut at the center of this story serves three functions in the piece: It serves as the concrete vessel for the character Neema’s grief. For the writer, Neema, it serves as a symbol that makes the abstractions of grief less abstract—something that can be described, can be held, and can eventually be cast away. And, for the readers, the coconut is the central image that they can carry with them through the entire piece. It gets introduced in the first paragraph, appears even when the story shifts in place and time, and is still sitting on the shoreline at the very end of the story.
It took four years, six vastly different versions of the story in structure, content, and style, and four different entry points to arrive at this published essay. I try to remind myself of these facts when I am stuck in the middle of a draft and can’t seem to find a way forward. If the story is worth telling, I say to myself, then my task is to find the right angle from which to tell it.
Most importantly, I tell myself to be patient. I may have not yet lived, or seen, the angle from which the story is best told.
Joshua and his three sisters on his 7th birthday. Sarah Beth is in the Myrtle Beach shirt.
Years ago, when I was taking an undergraduate fiction writing class, the professor talked about the short fiction he wrote in the year after his mother’s death. He showed his work to a friend, and the friend told him, “I see your mother on every page.” My professor protested angrily, but he went home and realized it was true. He was writing fiction, not autobiographical, not about dead mothers, but deep down, he was writing about his personal loss.
I found something similar happening to me when I was writing “Beagle in the Road,” five years after my brother’s suicide. I was writing about a moment when I was thirteen years old, seventeen years before I lost my brother. At that point, Joshua was five and happy, likely playing with Hot Wheels cars or shooting outlaws in a computer game that came free in a box of cereal. My little brother had nothing to do with my decision to follow my beagle into a busy road, so he didn’t belong in the essay. Still, I found myself embedding my grief into every line, and unlike my professor, I was intensely aware that this was happening, surely because I was (and still am) in the midst of writing a memoir about Joshua. I knew I wouldn’t have written the piece at all if he hadn’t died. After a few years of witnessing my parents’ grief, the beagle memory came back to me, and I suddenly felt horror mixed with my old pride and gratefulness about the risk I’d taken that day.
When I came to the end of the essay, I struggled with how to close without my brother. Throughout the piece, I’d felt his five-year-old shadow running alongside my thirteen-year-old self, both of us buoyant in our innocence of everything that would come later. And in the end, I pictured my brother’s twenty-two-year-old body when I imagined myself dead on the road. So, I tried to shoehorn his suicide into the turn, explaining to readers why I saw this moment so differently years later, after I’d witnessed the broken health and malaise that can follow the loss of a child. But the suicide revelation kept feeling melodramatic, a disrespect to my lost brother and to my parents’ grief. Since Joshua wasn’t present on the essay’s surface, I hadn’t developed him as a character, and readers couldn’t mourn a brother they didn’t know. I finally realized I had to stay in the moment, focusing on the relationships between characters who were actually present: my beagle and me, my dad and my beagle, my dad and me. The audience would understand that my life and perspective had changed in the time since I rescued my beagle. The reason I had changed was beside the point.
Of course, I have my own personal readers like my professor’s friend, people who saw my brother on every page. My most important reader, my writer sister, got it immediately. A poet friend read the essay, expecting a piece about my childhood beagle, and she said, “Wow, this fits right into your memoir!” And it does fit. Eventually, when readers see the piece in context, they’ll know it’s about Joshua. When I describe my dad’s potential grief, they’ll think of that horrible day seventeen years later. They may even cringe as I do over that imagined image of my broken body, thinking of my brother’s body hanging in his closet. But I also know that context also isn’t necessary. Readers who didn’t know my professor couldn’t get the mother connection in his stories, but I’m sure they felt moved by the undercurrents of grief—likely something that’s often happening to me when I find myself moved by a story, essay, or poem in an unexpected way.
In the end, I couldn’t help myself. I was burning to mention Joshua, so I put him in my bio. In creative nonfiction, the biographical note inevitably changes readers’ perception of the essay, so I decided to take advantage of that. But let’s face it: not everyone reads bios. If everyone did, my own undergraduate students would never call female writers “he.” And I know that one-sentence mention of my brother isn’t nearly enough to allow the most careful readers to understand all of the Joshua resonances that exist for people who know me. So, for readers who don’t see this blog post, or connect the piece to my other work, I’ll be content to let that grief stay concealed within my body—my real body, my live body in the essay, my imagined smashed body in the essay—the place where grief always hides.
Today we are pleased to feature author Aaron Reeder as our Authors Talk series contributor. In his podcast, Aaron provides insights into his poems, “Untangling” and “Failed Poem for My Mother,” both published in Issue 18. He reveals that, when he was writing these poems, he was interested in the systems people fall back on to deal with trauma and grief, specifically the system of family.
Aaron also discusses his poems in the context of communication and conversation; both of his poems involve issues in communication, specifically with the speakers’ parents. For example, in “Failed Poem for My Mother,” Aaron shares, “ultimately what I think the speaker wants is that…these two individuals, the mother and the son, would be on the same plane.”
Today we are pleased to feature author Beth Gilstrap as our Authors Talk series contributor. In conversation with Jim Warner (of Citizen Lit), Beth openly discusses her focus on female voices, the South and southern women, grief, the passing of her grandmother, and her experience with depression.
When discussing her chapbook (No Man’s Wild Laura, 2016), Beth says, “I think everything we write prepares us for what we’re writing next, right?” She also candidly shares her experience with grief and how writing has been “a method of survival…a way to put things down and be able to look at it objectively.”
Beth ends the podcast with a bit of laughter when she jokes: “I am not actually dragging carcasses into my home. I am only writing about it.”
Some writers love to talk about their “writing process.” I am not one of those people. I could say it’s because “process” reminds me of something you do to meat, or because “processing” is what people say they’re doing after something horrible happens. The truth is that I’m a private person— a genteel way of saying that I frequently feel simultaneously embarrassed and protective of myself, especially the way my mind works (or doesn’t) in my off-hours from academia. And yet, whenever I sat down to think of some account I could give to this fine website, this set of very personal metaphors occurred, and no matter how much I tried nothing more clever or articulate arrived.
The truth is that often I am surprised to find that I have apoem, the same way one sometimes has an erect nipple—maybe the room is cold, maybe that picture is crooked, maybe someone died—years ago—and you just remembered. Sometimes I have a poem, and sometimes I can’t remember that Allison Horschel* is dead.
She ran cross-country with me in high school. I always liked her in the way, when you’re thirteen, you like everyone who seems braver than you are. She’d hock and spit to show people the way to pronounce her Germanic last name. HOR-schel. We weren’t friends. She was older and loud and funny and crass, and the last time anybody I knew saw her alive she was being stuffed into the back of a cop car in the mill hill—a tiny neighborhood of almost identical houses built by the textile mill that had once dominated the town. At the time of this supposed arrest (“supposed” because, as is the rule in small towns, the truth can get quite bent in successive tellings), she had already graduated; I was still cutting through the mill hill to train for meets.
A few years later, after I moved away to college, my best friend C. had to tell me three times that Allison Horschel was dead—on separate occasions, months apart, because I kept asking after her. C. looked at me in disbelief each time—don’t you remember she’s dead. She died. A horrible car accident.
But I never remembered right away. To say that I felt like a heel each time would be putting it mildly. It was as if my mind just rejected the information—it felt wrong, so it couldn’t be true. At that age I still thought of home as a stage set I had momentarily walked away from, where I could return whenever I wanted, pick up the props and the people as if nothing had changed. She had died on C.’s birthday. Neither of us had spoken to her in years.
Another way of saying it: sometimes a poem is a small expectation breaking—like a knot of hair you can’t untangle. You pull it hard and you let it snap, rip out of your head. It always surprises me—how tough hair is, and how odd it is to see it disconnected from the body. An acquaintance, out of context. Uncanny.
Several friends have told me—as a gesture of what I would like to believe was affection— that after not seeing me for months, years even, they’ll find a long red hair in the pages of a book, or sealed up in a bag of sweaters, or they’re sweeping up getting ready to move house, and they think they could make a wig, really, out of what’s there. I want to believe that love is just such a contaminant— that when separated what we leave behind can be something so personal, so irritating, with the same gestures towards permanence and intimacy.
In the Song of Songs 6:6, the beloved’s teeth are compared to a flock of wet sheep emerging from the water. This analogy is disgusting and therefore permanent to my memory. When I was younger, I never understood describing the parts of a lover in terms of dirty farm animals. Now it makes some sense to me. Real closeness to anybody is never antiseptic or invulnerable. Teeth are wet because they live in the mouth. We are never as clean in our interactions, or in our metaphors, as we mean to be. Every comparison is a stretch.
One of the things I miss about the cows that used to live next to my parents’ property is their smell, the heaviness of it, the steam rising off their urine in the winter. I loved the way their eyes followed you as you walked. According to animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, if you lie down in a pasture and are still for long enough, the cows will circle around to look at you. Maybe lick you. I never thought to try that. I think at the time I would have been too afraid, too squeamish. They lived in their country; I lived in mine, for the most part. Good fences, etc. But that didn’t mean I never put my hand out for their snouts. They sometimes gave them, and let me pet their blazes— the weird imperfect stars of hair that grow between the eyes.
All of this to say, I guess, that I’m still here, holding up a hand. I have not yet lain down in green pastures, so to speak. But I do the work, and wait. Sometimes another hand happens to my hand, sometimes not. Sometimes there are poems. I am told, but do not remember, that many winters of my early childhood, my father would choose a cow, go with the neighbor to the abattoir, and then there’d be a freezer full of bloody meat for us to eat. What I do remember is that I liked drawing on butcher paper on occasion—even though it isn’t the best at taking pigment—because one side had a pearly feel, like skin. Impermanence, intimacy, death. There you are.
I visit home now and eat the soups and cornbreads that have contained many lives. I remind myself of Allison. I fill my cup back up with ice. It is summer in South Carolina— hot and damp. I remember the ratty ties we all wore in our hair in high school, tangled tight to our heads, and how we had to rip them out after running miles on throbbing shins and bloody blisters. When I am finished with my drink I dump my remnants in the sink, ice melted down to half-moons. I make another metaphor.