Why I Write About Iraqis: Novelist Helen Benedict on the obligations of fiction

    

I am neither Muslim nor a war veteran, Middle-Eastern nor a foreign correspondent, so when people find out that I have written two novels (Wolf Season, Sand Queen) featuring an Iraqi woman and her family, their first question is often, “Why?”

This question arises because it is still so unusual for American novelists to write about Iraqis that people genuinely don’t understand my interest.

Of the increasing number of novels and story collections, and even movies, coming out of the latest Iraq War, only a smattering feature Iraqis as full human beings. Most do the same thing Vietnam war fiction did for so long – tell the war story entirely from the point of view of American soldiers, while the population of the country they occupy fades into background. When Iraqis do appear, it is usually as either a clownish interpreter or a villain.

This trope is even worse when it comes to women. For years, no Iraqi women have appeared in American fiction, except as wailing widows or black-clad figures in the distance. The only American fiction I know of, other than mine, that features an Iraqi woman as a full character is Matt Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood.

Why do we keep writing about the war and leaving out Iraqi women? After all, the UN tells us that more women and children die in today’s wars than men. Yet war remains, as it has for millennia, an almost entirely male story.

When it comes to the U.S. war with Afghanistan, we writers have done somewhat better. Flashes of War by Katey Shultz, The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Battacharya, and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini are all powerful works of fiction featuring Afghan women as fully realized characters. I might point out that all these authors are civilians, one is a woman, and two were not born in the U.S.

I was first drawn to writing about Iraq when we invaded in March of 2003 and began raining bombs down on the citizens of Baghdad. Very soon after “Shock and Awe,” as our initial attack was so gloatingly called, a blog called Baghdad Burning began appearing on the internet, written by an anonymous young woman who called herself Riverbend, a computer technician with English so perfect she sounded like an American college student.

I read that blog religiously. Riverbend’s thoughts and feelings were just as “like us” as my own daughter’s, yet she was describing day-by-day what it was like to live under the U.S. invasion – what it was like to live through the overwhelming, heart-freezing injustice of war.

I then began reading other Iraqi blogs, along with every translation I could find of Iraqi poetry and fiction, most of which was written by and about men before our invasion. I also turned to YouTube and found videos and documentaries made by Iraqis. The most remarkable was one made by an anonymous woman who put on a burqa, hid her handheld camera under it, and drove around the Iraqi countryside interviewing women about what they were suffering. What she was doing was so dangerous, she explained into the camera, that the video would only remain up on YouTube for a day or so. Sure enough, it disappeared. I only hope she didn’t disappear, too.

After that, I sought out Iraqis around New York, former interpreters for the U.S. military, journalists, or government, and their families, all of whom had been granted the special visas reserved for those who have served us for two years and passed over a year’s worth of security checks.

I met Nour, who had been imprisoned and tortured in Abu Ghraib at the age of 16 for writing a poem Saddam Hussein didn’t like. Having learned English out of love for language and literature, she later become a translator for an American journalist. She and the journalist were kidnapped in Baghdad and shot in the back. The journalist was killed, but Nour survived and came to the U.S. with the help of his widow.

I met Hala, who had fled Baghdad with her husband and children after her brother and 15-year-old son were killed in the war. She and her children spent hours with me, helping me with the kinds of details I needed to create my Iraqi characters. When her son, who was nine at the time, heard my English accent, he insisted I had written the Harry Potter books.

I met Mohanad, who had grown to love the American soldiers he had worked with as an interpreter in his country. He had taken the job because he hated the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and wanted his people to have a true democracy. He was now living in Albany, learning a trade and hoping to make a life free of war and death.

I met Yasir, who, as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, had saved many lives, risked his own many times, and had become close friends with his American sergeant. Now he was in Boston, studying. He and his wife gave me a bountiful and delicious Iraqi lunch.

With the help of all these generous people, and out of Riverbend and my reading, my characters Naema Jassim, her husband Khalil, and their son, Tariq, were born.

Now, as Wolf Season comes out, the Trump administration’s latest attempt to ban Muslims from our shores is about to go into effect on October 18, and we are once again in a political climate invested in dehumanizing and villainizing refugees. So, I fully expect to once more hear the question, “Why do you write about Iraqis?”

Here is my answer.

I write about Iraqis because we have hurt them so badly and taken no responsibility for it. Because we owe them. Because it is the mission of artists and novelists to fight stereotyping that reduces people to nothing but targets. Because Iraqis are human beings who deserve all the rights and dignity and sympathy and understanding that we ourselves think we deserve.

I write about Iraqis because all of us need to stop being afraid of the victims of our wars and brutality, and embrace them instead.


Helen Benedict is a professor at Columbia University and the author of seven novels, including the just-published Wolf Season, and her previous novel, Sand Queen, a Publishers Weekly “Best Contemporary War Novel.” She writes frequently about justice, women, soldiers, and war. Her coverage of sexual assault in the U.S. military inspired the Academy Award-nominated documentary The Invisible War, and her work instigated a landmark lawsuit against the Pentagon on behalf of victims of military sexual assault. Benedict has spoken at West Point, the U.S. Air Force Academy, Harvard University, TED Talks, and the United Nations, among others.

A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, including the book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women in Iraq, and a play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. She lives in New York.

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National Book Awards finalists announced; 15 of 20 are women

The National Book Foundation has announced the finalists for the 2017 National Book Awards in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. Notably, of the 20 finalists, 15 are women. The winners will be announced at a ceremony on November 15.

Here are the finalists:

       

Fiction:

Elliot Ackerman — Dark at the Crossing

Lisa Ko — The Leavers

Min Jin Lee — Pachinko

Carmen Maria Machado — Her Body and Other Parties: Stories 

Jesmyn Ward — Sing, Unburied, Sing

Nonfiction:

Erica Armstrong Dunbar — Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge

Frances FitzGerald — The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

Masha Gessen — The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

David Grann — Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Nancy MacLean — Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

Poetry:

Frank Bidart — Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016

Leslie Harrison — The Book of Endings

Layli Long Soldier —WHEREAS [all caps sic]

Shane McCrae —In the Language of My Captor

Danez Smith — Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems

Young People’s Literature:

Elana K. Arnold — What Girls Are Made Of

Robin Benway — Far from the Tree

Erika L. Sánchez — I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Rita Williams-Garcia — Clayton Byrd Goes Underground

Ibi Zoboi — American Street

 

National Book Foundation honors “5 Under 35” — and they’re all women

  

The National Book Foundation, which sponsors the National Book Awards, has announced the winners of its “5 Under 35” award for exceptionally promising young writers who debuted in the past year, and all are women.

According to the NBF, each recipient “promises to leave an indelible mark on the literary landscape.” The writers are selected by previous recipients of the award. The honorees receive $1,000 and will be honored at a reception on November 13.

“At a moment in which we are having the necessary conversations surrounding the under-representation of female voices, it’s a thrill to see this list of tremendous women chosen organically by our selectors,” said Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “These writers and their work represent an incredibly bright future for the world of literary fiction.”

  

The honorees are:

 Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky (selected by Chris Bachelder, 2016 National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The Throwback Special)

Halle Butler, Jillian (selected by Lydia Millet, 2016 National Book Award Longlist for Fiction for Sweet Lamb of Heaven)

Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose (selected by Angela Flournoy, 2015 National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The Turner House)

Leopoldine Core, When Watched (selected by Karan Mahajan, 2016 National Book Award finalist for Fiction for The Association of Small Bombs)

Weike Wang, Chemistry (selected by Sherman Alexie, 2007 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature for  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian)

Learn more about the honorees and their books here.

Turning her mother’s life into fiction: Anne Raeff talks with Barbara Ridley about her new Holocaust novel, WHEN IT’S OVER

  


I recently had the pleasure of reading this moving novel inspired by the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II. The protagonist is Lena Kulkova, a young Jewish woman who comes of age in Prague during the 1930s. There she is a member of a group of leftists and falls in love with a charismatic activist, Otto, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Before the war breaks out, she follows him to Paris and eventually joins him in England, where they spend the war years and where most of the book takes place. Although they are relatively safe in England, Lena is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the fate of her mother and sister who stayed behind in Czechoslovakia.

Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review, and BLYNKT. This is her first novel. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and dog. Find her online at http://www.barbararidley.com.

Anne Raeff is a novelist and short story writer. Her book of stories, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in a variety of literary journals, including New England Review, ZYZZYVA, Antioch Review, and Guernica. Her novels are Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia (2001) and Winter Kept Us Warm, which will be published by Counterpoint Press in February 2018.

Raeff: My first question is about how you came to write this book. Is it a book that you have always wanted to write, have always been writing, or was there something that pushed you to take up your pen now after all these years?

Ridley: It didn’t occur to me to write this novel until the death of my mother in 2002. A friend of mine, a woman I had known for over 40 years, asked me how it was exactly that my mother had ended up in England, and when I started to tell her, she said: that is an amazing story! And I realized, yes it is. I had done very little creative writing before—just occasional poems or stories over the years—but I had published several academic articles, so I knew how to string words together on the page. So I thought: okay, maybe I could do this. But I didn’t start writing until three years later.

Raeff: I am wondering why and how you made the decision to tell your mother’s story as fiction. Did you consider writing it as memoir or biography or did you conceive of it as a novel from the start?

Ridley: I pretty much realized right from the start that I would write it as fiction. I had always known the outline of what had happened to my mother and her family during World War II, but there were a lot of gaps.  And the people who might have been able to fill in the gaps were either dead or memory-impaired. (I tried.) So, I thought, well, I love fiction, I’ll make up what I don’t know.

Raeff: What was the most unexpected detail or information that you came across while you were doing research for this book and how did this affect the shape that the book took?

Ridley: First: I came upon a book on my parents’ bookshelves—this was after they had both gone, but before we had cleared out the house and their hundreds of books. It was a small 1940’s style Penguin paperback called The Internment of Aliens. I was astonished to learn that thousands of Germans, both Nazi sympathizers and Jews or Communists who had fled for their lives, were interned in England in 1940, as “enemy aliens.” It was very controversial, and this book, written at the time, was a polemical critique of the policy. I knew nothing about all this, and I found it fascinating. It became an important element in Lena and Otto’s story.

Then later, I was given the opportunity to read the letters my father wrote during the war. Initially, I hoped they would contain more information about the early stages of my parents’ relationship. But in spite of the fact that they were written to one of his closest friends, they were almost entirely devoid of any personal information, and didn’t mention my mother at all!  Instead, they offered long, detailed, and fascinating insights into the political climate during the last two years of the war, leading up to the defeat of Churchill and the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.  I always knew Labour won this election, but how was it that Churchill, the great wartime leader, lost so badly? And how would it have affected my protagonist: the euphoria of this victory against the backdrop of the revelations about the fate of those sent to concentration camps? This was very interesting to me, and I incorporated it into the last section of the novel.

Raeff: Since the book is so rooted in your mother’s story, can you talk a little bit about how you learned her story? Did you grow up hearing the stories that would later become the core of this book, or were you the one who initiated discussions about her past?

Ridley: I grew up knowing the general outline of how she was a refugee during the war, and she told a few stories about the group living together in the tiny cottage in the village. But she didn’t talk about it often or in detail, and certainly she never dwelt on the emotional impact of her family’s past. When I was in my thirties, after I had already moved to California, I interviewed her, recording an oral history on a 90-minute cassette tape.  This was 20 years before she died, and the first and only time she told me a lot of the story that forms the core of the novel. She gave me a glimpse there of her hopes and her anguish about the fate of her family members left behind, but we rarely talked about it more after that.  Years later, I had that tape transcribed, and I referred to it a lot while writing. Unfortunately, the tape ran out just as she was talking about the man who formed the basis of the character of Otto in the novel—and I can’t remember if she told me more about him, but if she did I didn’t record it.

Raeff: Since the book is based on a true story, I am curious to what extent you used the facts and actual details of your mother’s life. I am especially interested in knowing whether the main characters surrounding her existed and whether their roles in her life and in politics are the same?

Ridley: Broadly speaking, yes. My mother was involved in the Socialist Youth movement in Prague in the 1930’s. The man whom I call Otto in the novel did exist, but I know very little about him or their relationship, so most of that is fictionalized. But it’s true that he was a spy for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, she did follow him to Paris, and he was instrumental in finally getting her an entry permit for England—after many failed attempts. The characters Muriel and Milton in the novel are based on my grandmother and father, and their politics are pretty accurately portrayed. My grandmother came from a very privileged background but developed an unorthodox lifestyle and liberal views.

Raeff: In the book both Lena and the British man she ended up marrying were activists, socialists. Did your parents continue to be active in politics in England until late in life? Did their politics change? How did their activism affect the way you view the world and the choices you made?

Ridley: My father continued to be active in politics, and in the 1950’s ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Parliament as a Labour Party candidate. I grew up a “red diaper baby,” as it used to be called in the U.S.  At the age of two, I declared that “there are two kinds of parties: the Labour Party and birthday parties,” and soon I was taken to “Ban the Bomb” demonstrations.  Later, my father became disillusioned with Labour for moving too much to the center. I was constantly exposed to his running commentary on current affairs, which was very different from the narrative I heard at school or in the media.  So I learned to be skeptical and form my own opinions.

My mother became a 1950’s stay-at-home housewife, and was not directly involved in politics, but they both maintained a left-wing outlook throughout their lives, and my mother was an early supporter of the Green Party.  But they lived in a staunchly conservative upper-middle class area, where they were very different politically from their neighbors, and they took a conservative newspaper. In England, as you may know, the daily newspapers are all national, not regional, but distinguished from each other by their political bent.  So usually, if you see what kind of newspaper someone reads, you pretty much know all you need to know about their social class and political affiliation. But my parents read the Daily Telegraph, the most conservative of the quality papers. They preferred its news coverage, they said.  I found that odd.  I was eager to escape the conservative small-town environment in which I was raised, and head for the big city, and I have chosen to live most of my adult life in the politically-liberal San Francisco “bubble.”

Raeff: Because I am also the child of immigrants and refugees from World War II, I was particularly interested in Lena’s loyalty and feeling of connection to England, her adopted country. As the child of an immigrant, growing up English, what were your struggles?

Ridley: My mother was loyal and grateful to Britain, but as an immigrant, she also had an outsider’s perspective, and she often mocked English mannerisms and certainly English cooking, the way the vegetables were boiled into oblivion, for example. (This was back in the 50’s and 60’s; it’s vastly improved now.) So, I always felt different, and somewhat of an outsider myself. I had a mother with a foreign accent (which was uncommon), and then there were all the political differences I just mentioned, plus we didn’t go to church, which was a big deal. My parents were not religious, which was unusual back then, and in school—the equivalent of what we would call a public school in the U.S.— we had to begin every day with Christian prayers.  So I always felt odd, and that I didn’t completely belong. And then, in an interesting parallel, I ended up as an immigrant myself, moving to another continent, to find a place where I felt more at home.

Raeff: I am always interested in how a writer’s profession or work influences his/her writing. Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your years as a nurse practitioner shaped you as a person and a writer?

Ridley: That’s such an interesting question. I loved my work as a nurse and then a nurse practitioner and I spent most of my career in rehabilitation nursing, working with people with neurological disabilities, helping them adjust to life after devastating injury or disease.  As a person, this has made me always appreciative of my own good fortune and health. As a nurse, I felt privileged to witness the huge range of response to trauma and adversity.  I had to accept wherever my patients were coming from, and acknowledge their perspective, not impose my idea of what they should be feeling.  I was always inspired by their resilience.  Perhaps this informs the way in which I write about my characters facing trauma and my ability to get inside their heads, interpreting scenes from different points of view.

Raeff: Do you have any advice for other writers who are working on books that are so closely drawn from real historical events?

Ridley: I worked very hard to make sure that all the historical details were correct, and that I was not introducing any objects or language that would not have existed at the time. I think this is very important. You don’t want the reader to be thrown out of the story and not trust the authenticity of the world you are creating.  But working as I was from family history, I learned that you have to be able to view the narrative as a separate entity, with a life of its own. My protagonist is based on my mother, but Lena is not my mother. She became a character that I created. During the process of writing the novel, and workshopping chapters, I would sometimes receive feedback that this action or event was not “believable.” And I had to resist the urge to say, “But it really happened.” It is not enough that something really happened; it has to be believable within the arc of the story.

Raeff: What are you working on now or, if you haven’t started something new yet, what are you thinking of working on next?

Ridley: I am working on another novel—completely different, set in contemporary California, and very much based on my years of clinical experience. It’s about a young woman having to reinvent herself after a spinal cord injury.

Eight women make National Book Awards fiction longlist

The National Book Foundation announced the 10 finalists for the National Book Award for Fiction this morning, and it’s an impressive list full of pleasant surprises. The first is that eight of the 10 nominees are women; another is that six of the eight are women of color; and the last is the presence of several surprising dark horse selections from small presses.

    

While it’s no surprise to see Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach among the finalists, it’s gratifying to see this kind of attention given to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, an epic saga of the struggles of ethnic Koreans in Japan, Lisa Ko’s Bellwether Prize-winning The Leavers, and Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. 

Independent publishers are represented by Counterpoint Press of Berkeley with A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Graywolf Press of Minneapolis with Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties: Stories and New Issues Poetry & Prose at Western Michigan University with Barren Island by Carol Zoref.

    

Finalists will be announced on October 4, with the awards ceremony to be held in New York on November 15.

The complete list:

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman (Knopf/Penguin Random House)

The King Is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón (Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House)

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Press/Grove Atlantic)

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (Algonquin Books/Workman Publishing)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Grand Central Publishing/Hachette Book Group)

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (Counterpoint Press)

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)

Barren Island by Carol Zoref (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

 

THE OTHER SIDE: a powerful portrait of rape and recovery

I am re-posting my August 2014 review of Lacy Johnson’s THE OTHER SIDE in response to her moving Facebook posts about her experiences coping with Hurricane Harvey this week. Johnson lives in West Houston and teaches at the University of Houston, and her daily open letters have provided a detailed, eloquent, and very empathetic view of Houstonians’ struggles during and after one of the worst natural disasters ever to strike the U.S. I encourage you to read her posts and then to buy and read her remarkable memoir.

lacy-johnson   the-other-side

The Other Side: a memoir

By Lacy M. Johnson

Tin House; July 15, 2014

$15.95, 219 pages

In a time when the issue of violence against women has once again become part of the common conversation, with Republican politicians and pundits expressing dismaying lack of knowledge and sensitivity about rape and women’s sexuality, Lacy Johnson’s new memoir, The Other Side, is a blast of reality therapy, a potent dose of The Truth.

On July 5, 2000, when Lacy Johnson was a 21-year-old college student, she was kidnapped and raped by the man she had recently broken up with. The Suspect, as she calls him, had planned his revenge carefully, renting a basement apartment and soundproofing a bedroom in order to torture the young woman who had grown tired of his physical abuse and dared to leave him. Although The Suspect had chained her with U-bolts to a primitive, handmade chair  in the room with blue Styrofoam walls, Johnson managed to escape when he left briefly and drove herself to the police station.

While The Other Side starts with her escape and the beginning of the police investigation, the bulk of the book concerns the events leading up to that summer day 14 years ago and her attempt to recover and rebuild her shattered psyche.

How did she come to fall in love with, and eventually live with, a sociopath? Perhaps because he was her Spanish teacher at the local university, a graduate student and TA who was “twice the age of his students, at least.” Later, a professor in the Spanish department will describe him as “erratic and disorganized as a scholar, but affable, a gifted, erratic dilettante.” Such a man could well be appealing to a certain type of  young woman. Johnson makes clear that, like many otherwise intelligent young people, she made many poor decisions.

Johnson discusses her sexual and romantic past and her erratic lifestyle without sugar coating events or offering any apologies. She does not claim to be an innocent, inexperienced young woman. But the point, of course, is that none of this is at all relevant to the crimes committed against her. Johnson was not “asking for it.” As we observe The Suspect and learn more about him, we see clearly that his abuse of Johnson both during and after their relationship is about wielding power ruthlessly.

While the story she tells is, sadly, hardly unique, it is the manner of her telling that makes The Other Side one of the most riveting reads you are likely to experience this year. Johnson assumes the coolly removed voice of a detective or journalist in telling much of her story. She refers to those involved as The Female Officer, The Detective, My Good Friend, My Handsome Friend (the man she was dating at the time of her abduction), and My Older Sister. After she breaks up with The Spanish Teacher, he becomes The Man I Used to Live With and, later, The Suspect. She alternates between an objective, almost hard-boiled retelling of the case involving The Suspect and The Victim, and a brutally honest personal narrative that will have you spellbound, holding your breath for pages at a time. This is a book best devoured in a single sitting, if you can handle the intensity.

What follows the kidnapping and rape are a frustrating series of events. The Suspect returns to the apartment before the police arrive and finds Johnson gone, withdraws a large amount of cash from an ATM, and flees to Mexico. This is just the start of his journey to avoid arrest. As the local police captain says six days after the crime, when the case has expanded to involve an international pursuit, “He’s a very intelligent individual who is scaring me.”

Johnson writes beautifully and with a philosophical bent about the aftermath of that July day. She is confronted by a range of emotional and physical responses, some of which make sense and some of which perplex even her educated, introspective mind, but she copes as best she can. The story of her attempts to overcome the experience and transform herself into someone not defined by it is difficult to read yet gripping nonetheless.

Her psychological state in the weeks and months following her rape is well captured in this description of her visit to a psychiatrist. “The Psychiatrist tells me to take the blue pill for depression and anxiety and the white pill for lack of appetite. The yellow pill is for forgetting: it puts me to sleep so long without dreaming I forget to wake up. I forget what my name is. I forget where I live.

“I know it’s the blue pill that makes all the feeling go away because I start taking it first. And by feeling, I mean feel-like: I do not feel like getting out of bed. Or like getting dressed, or drinking water, or eating food. I can’t keep food down anyway. I do not feel like puking my guts out so I do not eat. I do not feel like going to work. Or like walking alone from my car, across the parking lot, now or ever again. The editor at the literary magazine where I am an intern calls and wants to know where the banner ad is and I say I’m sorry; I’m a little behind on that. I’ve had some personal issues lately. The editor says, Your issues are not my issues. Get it done today. Maybe he thinks I am faking it. Am I faking it? I do not feel like asking this question. Or like being awake. I do not feel like watching television or reading a book. I do not feel like watching the sun come through the blinds. I would rather feel nothing all day.”

She also discusses the self-conscious existence of the female. “That image, of the self, does not belong equally to everyone. As a woman, I must keep myself under constant surveillance: how do I look as I rise from the bed, and while I walk through the store buying groceries, and while I run with a dog in the park? From childhood I was taught to survey and police and maintain my image continually, and in this role – as both surveyor and the image that is surveyed – I learned to see myself as others see me: as an object to be viewed and evaluated, a sight.”

Johnson reclaims herself, in part, by telling her story – to herself and to others. She reminds us of the many facets of a story. Is there a story at all, just one story? “There’s the story I have, and the story he has, and there is a story the police have in Evidence. There’s the story the journalist wrote for the paper. There’s the story The Female Officer filed in her report; her story is not my story. There’s the story he must have told his mother when he called her on the phone; there’s the story she must have told herself. There’s the story you’ll have after you put down this book. It’s an endless network of stories. This story tells me who I am. It gives me meaning. And I want to mean something so badly.”

Later, “in graduate school I begin trying, in earnest, to write. I write about anything but The Man I Used to Live With…but it always comes back to him, to all that happened…. It’s the only thing that pulls me out of bed: these poems that lie and misdirect, that circle and circle all the things I can’t say out loud. Each day I begin writing, I think, This is it. Today is the day. As if typing anything other than that unthinkable thing were a kind of breaking free. Each day, as I’m sitting at my computer, watching the words accumulate on the page, I feel elated, euphoric. Look at how far I’ve come, I think. How far these words can carry me.”

Near the end of The Other Side, Johnson writes, “I’m afraid the story isn’t finished happening. Sometimes I think there is no entirely true story I could tell. Because there are some things I just don’t know, and other things I just can’t say. Which is not a failure of memory but of language.”

The Other Side is anything but a failure. The fact of Lacy Johnson’s telling and the manner of her telling it constitute a triumph over others’ attempts to control her life and the stories she tells herself and us. The Other Side is a viscerally powerful, gorgeously written memoir about rape and recovery that readers will not soon forget – in part because they are likely to read about it being nominated for, and winning, much-deserved literary awards in the coming year.

TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS explores haunted family relationships with empathy and grace

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts: Stories

By Caitlin Hamilton Summie

Fomite Press: Aug. 8, 2017

201 pages, $15.00


I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We are in the Golden Age of Short Stories. More story collections are being published now than ever, and the quality is unsurpassed. In general, major publishers don’t love story collections because they don’t sell as well as novels. They’ll use them to introduce a new writer they’ve signed, because he/she will come to them with a backlog of stories which can be released while the writer works on their debut novel (which is what the publisher really wants). It’s a good way to get new talent under contract while they develop (like signing a young baseball player and assigning him to the minor leagues for a year or two). On the occasions when a new writer comes to a publisher with a novel that is worthy of publication, the publisher will use a short story collection as a gap filler to buy time for the writer to work on their second novel.

But, in most cases today, a short story collection is likely to be published by a small, independent publisher or university press. As a result, they fly below the radar and rely on reviews and word of mouth to reach potential readers. That is where blogs and social media can play a key role in helping writers and readers connect.

The latest example of a stellar short story collection from a small press is Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, a ten-story, 200-page book that deserves your attention. As the title suggests, Summie’s characters are at crossroads of various kinds; they are struggling for emotional independence, attempting to resolve long-standing conflicts (usually familial), and trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world. These are quiet, intimate stories driven by character more than plot, yet they are compelling in both their dramatic tension and often unsettling (but not unsettled) resolution.

Set mostly in rural and urban Minnesota, with detours to and New York City, these stories are probing examinations of the seemingly small, mundane moments that reverberate through our lives. Life-changing decisions or events do not always arrive in the form of violent confrontations or shocking accidents. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at old family photo albums (as in “Patchwork”) or failing to show up at your grandfather’s deathbed because you just can’t bear it (as in “Geographies of the Heart”).

The opening story, “Tags,” takes place in WWII-era Kansas City, where young Dolores bides her time playing marbles with her friend Jimmy and fighting with her teenage brother Larry while she waits for her father to return home from the war. Jimmy learns that his father has been killed in the war but at least he has his father’s dog tags. The situation will be more complicated for Dolores. Summie sensitively depicts what it was like growing up during the war, when the world was nearly incomprehensible to a young girl.

“Growing Up Cold” finds John returning home to Minnesota from Japan following the death of his sister, Lonnie. The renewal of a long-simmering conflict between John and his older brother James adds to the tension in a family that is now down to three men, his mother having died several years earlier. John has lost his mother, his sister, and, in a sense, his brother. But he has his own way of grieving, which his father and brother find mystifying. The story’s potent ending creates a sort of peace, or at least a truce.

“Brothers” treads similarly fraught sibling territory. A car accident has left 28-year-old George in a wheelchair. He has abandoned graduate school and his girlfriend in Minneapolis and moved to the family cabin in the woods of Wisconsin, thinking a quiet life of furniture making will suit him best now. But his younger brother Ephraim wants him to return to the Twin Cities, to be near him and his parents and close to top-notch medical care. Ephraim’s visit to the cabin brings matters to a head.

“Patchwork,” “Geographies of the Heart,” and “Taking Root” feature the same characters. In “Patchwork,” recently unemployed Sarah MacMillan decides to write the family history, but she encounters resistance from her grandmother, Catherine, who insists that her sister Cecily be left out of the story. That only spurs Sarah on to investigate what Cecily had done to be the subject of such longstanding scorn. Her determination to write about Cecily, while maintaining her relationship with Catherine — and what she learns about not just Cecily, but the whole family — forges a hard-earned respect between the two women.

In “Geographies of the Heart,” Sarah’s grandfather is dying; she is his constant companion, while her sister Glennie, an OB-GYN, is physically and emotionally absent, to Sarah’s constant frustration and disappointment. Eventually, the sisters struggle to reach each other across the resulting chasm.

In “Taking Root,” which concludes the MacMillan trilogy and closes the collection, we catch up with Sarah, who is now married to Al, a religion professor, and the mother of Amelia. They’ve recently suffered a miscarriage, which has left them grieving in different ways. Sarah and Amelia decide to take a road trip, and Al is soon caught up in the labor and delivery of his neighbors, Howard and Norda, which stirs up the recently settled sediment of his emotions. The cavalry arrives in the form of Glennie, now one of the best OB-GYNs in Minneapolis. And Al manages to keep his head above water, where he can see the sunlight.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts can sound depressing in the description, but Summie’s empathy for her characters’ humanity is so strong, and her prose so lovely, that a palpable warmth emanates from the stories despite their physically frigid settings. I look forward to the publication of her first novel; the trilogy in this collection suggests that she will be equally accomplished with the longer form.