“We were miraculous”: Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay

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I’m not sure when I’ve been so moved by a novel as I was reading Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay. It’s a beautiful story, unflinching in its portrayals of grief and absolutely perfect in its prose. To say this is a book about growing up, about first love and first loss is to reduce its subtle sense of wonder and to overlook its nuanced melancholy. LaCour successfully distills the sharp sadness of youth, weaving together the shock and the boredom, the hope and the fear of despair, in a character’s voice who brought me back to myself at eighteen and made me wish that I had heard her then.

The novel takes place in an East Coast freshman dorm, emptied for Christmas, over the handful of days when Marin’s high school girlfriend, Mabel, comes to visit. Over the course of the book, through flashes of memory, we learn about Marin’s former life in San Francisco where she lived with her grandfather in a house by Ocean Beach. We learn about the mysterious death of her mother. We watch as Marin and Mabel grow close. LaCour’s description of teenage sexuality is achingly and subtly rendered. Marin and Mabel’s story is beautifully underwritten, lyrical, and linked to the landscape:

We were miraculous.

We were beach creatures.

We had treasures in our pockets and each other on our skins.

LaCour’s descriptions of loss in all its various forms of death and age and memory and distance and the growing apart and growing different that happens to all of us, are even more evocative:

In my mind, we keep ending, ending. I try to stay here, now, for as long as we can.

I have to admit that I cried through much of this book. But it was a good kind of crying. I cried for the novel’s crystalline wonder, for its perfectly wrought narrator and the way, in her desperate reaching for beauty and truth, she begins to grasp a kind of wisdom.

Reading Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons

IMG_3213What struck me most immediately about Claire Fuller’s second novel was its keen sense of place. Swimming Lessons is set in Dorset on an island that can only be reached by ferry. The water haunts these characters like a physical manifestation of memory. The landscape, like the story itself, turns inviting, then forbidding, and is often both at once.

The present of the novel is predominately carried by Flora, the daughter of Ingrid, a woman who vanished, and Gil, a once famous novelist. Ingrid was presumed drowned when Flora and her sister Nan were children, but Flora, like her father, is determined to preserve her sense of uncertainty, to exist in the space of not knowing. When Gil thinks he sees his wife walking in town, Flora rushes home and Fuller begins an unflinching examination of the damage loss has wrought upon the family.

But, as we see this family in the present, we also experience them in the past through letters Ingrid left behind in her husband’s books. Swimming Lessons is a book that loves books. It is particularly concerned with the reading and telling of stories. As Gil tells his daughters:

Fiction is about readers. Without readers there is no point in books, and therefore they are as important as the author, perhaps more important. But often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind.

Gil is a lifelong student of marginalia and so his wife’s decision to leave her letters behind in his books is an invitation to study the way she read the life they made together. Ingrid’s  letters themselves become the true heart of this novel. Through them we gain insight into her joys and despairs, and her increasing frustration at the shape that her life takes around her. These are wonderful letters in the tradition of female anger that we find in novels from Jane Eyre to The Woman Upstairs. In reading these letters, we are witnesses and co-conspirators, but we also find ourselves culpable.

Swimming Lessons is not an easy book or a light read. Fuller is an expert at plumbing the psychological unease of familial dysfunction. She is also extremely adept at pacing and plotting. As I read, even when I put the book down, it kept turning, restless, in my mind.

Though I wish it had held back some of the melodrama it seemed to descend into by the end and, instead, maintained the subtlety it held at its beginning, the book is a must-read, not only for its craft but also for our times. It’s a reminder of the ways women’s voices are lost, of the ways in which we lose them ourselves, and of the devastation those losses can render.

 

Queer Books I Wish I’d Read

Working with high school students this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the books we keep out of our K-12 classrooms (both intentionally and unintentionally) and queer books are pretty consistently missing. This isn’t new. They were missing when I was in high school. They were missing when my parents and grandparents and great grandparents were in high school too. But that they’re still missing, in a time of marriage equality and increasing mainstream awareness of the importance of transgender rights and growing respect of LGBTQ families– these vast cultural shifts that feel, at times, miraculous, to someone like me who came of age in the conservative retrenchment of the late 90’s and early 00’s–but that, even now, our kids are not getting these books- There’s damage in that, damage that those of us who grew up loving books but not seeing ourselves in our literature know only too well.   

Sometimes I wish I could visit my teenage self and give her a book list. I might give her this one created by BookUp and some of today’s beloved LGBTQ authors. I love the books on this list. I wish my fairy tale loving younger self had been able to read Malinda Lo’s Ash. That book would have meant so much to me then. It means so much to me now. I did read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in high school and I’m so grateful I found that beat up old paperback on my family’s book shelf. I loved that book anyway, the fantastical romp of it, the way it’s main character traveled through genders and time as if such travels were hardly unusual. That book meant a lot to me then and it means even more to me now.

kissing-the-witchBut one book I haven’t seen mentioned is Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch. I didn’t discover this book until this year. That it’s been around since I was in elementary school but that I never found it as a teenager is one of the great literary tragedies of my life. This is one of the books I most wish I’d had growing up. If I could go back in time and speak to my budding bisexual awkwardly closeted teenage fairy tale loving self, I would whisper the name of this book in her ear and send her on a quest to find it. Simply described, this early work of Emma  Donoghue’s (now the critically acclaimed author of Room) is a collection of queer feminist fairy tales. But fairy tales in which the magic occurs in a stylistic, rather than a literal way. And a book full of women narrating their stories to each other, a book in which Beauty’s beast is a woman hiding  in furs and a witch is transformed by the kiss of a girl who could become her, exists in its own kind of magic.

This is one of the most expertly crafted short story collections I’ve ever seen. Each tale weaves itself into the next with what seems like the simplest of tricks–a character from the previous story picks up the narrative thread to tell us her own–but a strategy that builds over time so that, by the end of the book, you have an impression of voices that are all very different and all very much the same. There is a sense of connectedness here: across stories, across women, across time. I wanted to teach one of these stories in my fiction writing class this term but I found it impossible to separate one from the others. These stories belong together, interwoven, multi-taled and multi-voiced, in a way that most short stories in collections, however thematically related, do not.

This book is all about women and our relationships to each other, ourselves, and our world. It’s a story that spins itself outward, passed from mouth to mouth and mind to mind. It’s last words are a summoning, a spell, an invitation to continue the telling.

Reading and writing are how I’ve always engaged most with the world. For a bookworm like me, not having access to or awareness of queer literature meant that it took me longer to understand that I could write about such things. I’d hardly ever, before college, seen them written down. We need to do better in our K-12 schools. We need to tell these stories. We need to pass them along so our next generation of readers can know they are seen and the next generation of writers can see what their voices might be.

Ghosts and Traces

ghostlandI grew up in a household that believed strongly in ghosts. My mom saw them and talked about them and even, sometimes, reported talking to them. When I was a child, I was sure that I’d seen them. But with grown-up-ness came skepticism. These days, I’d classify myself as ghost-agnostic in the same way that I’m god-agnostic. Ghosts might be real or they might not be, but their “realness” is beside the point. I’m more interested in that grey area between belief and disbelief.

Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places is a book of ghost stories for skeptics of the curious kind. He’s much less concerned with the ghosts themselves than he is with their cultural implications. At his reading at Powell’s this week, Dickey discussed the Winchester Mystery House, the inspiration for his new book, and read from the last chapter where he tells of a man who created what essentially amounted to an early-model smart house, all the house’s lights and plumbing and heating programmed through his computer. But, after the man died, the programs continued, “haunting” his grown children with his habits of turning all the lights out at ten and automatizing the plumbing. In this chapter, Dickey argues that the future of haunting will be much like Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” our houses continuing our lives even after we have left them.

I thought this concept of technological haunting was fascinating. It reminds me a little of Sarah Ruhl’s play, Dead Man’s Cell Phone, in which a stranger becomes “haunted” by the phone of a man she finds dead in a cafe. It reminds me of the facebook pages of the dead, still sites to drop in on and leave a quick note. The technological traces we leave behind us—the social media profiles, the cell phones, the emails, the automated subscriptions—   like Ray Bradbury’s story or Dickey’s tale of the smart house, keep orbiting the empty spaces we leave in our wake.

But I’m most used to the notion of haunting as old, as the past–often the distant past– creeping out into the present, the tragedies and traumas of history become inescapable. So  what about these more recent hauntings, the just-past that decides not to die?

The Oregonian recently published a section of Ghostland that focuses on a purported haunting beneath Portland’s St. Johns Bridge by a teenage girl who was killed there in 1949. This is no historical ghost story but one in which the ghost herself is still remembered by the living. There’s something about a remembered ghost–remembered specifically, personally, vividly–that is immensely unsettling. These are ghosts that have not yet had a chance to fade completely to their disembodied selves, to move thoroughly into the space between the historical record, a half memory of place, and our collective imaginations. These ghosts are still half alive.

When my grandmother died, my mom said she came to her to say goodbye. I didn’t disbelieve her. The night my mom died— and even sometime after—I had moments when I was sure she was standing beside me. But those feelings of presence only seemed to highlight the sense of a stark sudden absence.

Grief is a funny place and our ghosts are born of it. Whether the grief be personal or more largely cultural, our ghosts embody it: our simultaneous longing for, and uncanny discomfort with, these world that continue even though they no longer exist.

On Writing Crows

img_2832-2The other day, walking to work in the morning, I could have sworn I heard a crow say “Hi” to me.

The other morning, waiting at the bus station downtown, a flock of crows rose out of the trees and flew through the mist between buildings, their caws echoing through the cavernous streets of the city.

Last year, I saw a group of crows bathing in a stream, using the tiny waterfall that formed from a pile of rocks as a shower.

Once, I watched a crow drop a shelled nut from streetlight, circling after it, catching it up, and dropping it again. I didn’t stay long enough to see the shell break, but the crow seemed pretty perseverant.

I’ve been preoccupied with crows for over a year now. I’ve read up on their habits, their habitats, their brains. Crows are fascinating creatures and, here in the Northwest, they’re one of the most ubiquitous. On walks, I usually see more crows than squirrels. In the cities, they seem to vastly outnumber the pigeons.

I’ve been dive-bombed by crows in the springtime. I’ve been chased by them (let me tell you, being chased by a crow is an uncanny and terrifying experience). I was even clawed by one once while crossing a bridge (it had a reputation for being particularly aggressive in guarding its post).

But every time I sit down to write a story about crows, they elude me. I have countless unfinished tales about these mysterious, curious, terrifyingly intelligent birds, these creatures that seem to watch me just as much as I watch them, but the tales never feel quite finished. They’re always missing something, some secret of corvid-ness, some crow craft that I still can’t find.

Into the Landscape of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping

housekeeping“This perfect quiet had settled into their house after the death of their father. That event had troubled the very medium of their lives. Time and air and sunlight bore wave and wave of shock, until all the shock was spent, and time and space and light grew still again and nothing seemed to tremble, and nothing seemed to lean. The disaster had fallen out of sight, like the train itself, and if the calm that followed it was not greater than the calm that came before it, it had seemed so. And the dear ordinary had healed as seamlessly as an image on water.”

Over this past summer, I read Housekeeping for the first time and was struck by many passages, but most of all by this one. The images are beautiful. The rhythm feels, to me, perfect. And the description of grief resonating through both internal and external spaces before seemingly vanishing, mirrors the shape of the novel itself as well as its central disaster. As she does so often in this book, Robinson melds the human world into the world of the landscape until it is impossible to separate them. The syntactical symbolism of the third sentence with its clauses rippling outwards like the “wave of shock” it describes and it’s repeated “nothing seemed…nothing seemed” create a very solid image to evoke a very uncertain state. The “dear ordinary” feels simultaneously quaint and tragic, embodying the longing for normalcy after catastrophe and the last image is one of tentative, tenuous healing: a calm returned to a surface that is inevitably troubled again.