It has been hard to read lately. If this has been true for you—and if, like me, the printed word has always been your escape hatch from reality these last two (three? seven?) months—you can appreciate the sense of utter strangeness created by this absence of reading. My mind floats over the surfaces of novels, instead of digging in. I’m envious of people reading voraciously.
Before the lockdown, though, I bought two books by faculty I’ve known and worked with as a writer. When we can’t be with each other in person, connecting to these mentor figures by reading their words has given me a sense of restoration, as well as a charge to do better, and be grateful.
How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences by Sue Silverman is a collection of essays about memory, those that help us endure, as well the kind that we’d rather keep hidden from ourselves, and the kind we question. It’s both ironic and not that the title of the book mentions death, since if there was ever a guide for how to live, this is it. Silverman’s essays are about survival—the individual and the collective, how they wind together, and how we pass on memories, and their inherited trauma, both with intention and by accident. A character known as “The Knife Thin Man” carves a path in and out of Silverman’s essays, appearing and disappearing, His presence serves as a reminder that as women, we’re particularly likely to question the authenticity of our own memories, as well as to grapple with the message that our bodies are inherently toxic.
What do we do with those memories that carry with them the ability to sink us? According to Silverman, in order to survive and grow, we have to collect them, transform them, and let them transform us.
Maids is a collection of prose poems by novelist Abby Frucht reflecting on race, class, and gender in the context of her Long Island childhood and the black women who worked for her family. If Silverman’s essays tunnel into the #MeToo movement, Frucht’s poems do the same with whiteness. Maids is rife with reflections on moments that will make white folks cringe with recognition, even if, like “the doctor’s daughter” characters, we’re accessing our own childhood memories. What happens to our cognition around race when those memories resurface? Do we allow our shame to make us disappear? Frucht’s astonishing sentences aren’t simply artful, they also reflect a struggle to comprehend and process the world, and often, failing. Why is a white man so interested in why a black man is sitting with the doctor’s daughter on her porch? What do we do when the moment of action—right or wrong—passes us by? Frucht’s poems urge us not simply to move on, but to consider what our means of disturbance might be. Remaining still is not an option.
Right now, when we’re frightened and frustrated and often on the verge of spinning out, we need art to help us access hope. These books urge us to touch on the painful and the frayed, in order to take that road.
Chanel Dubofsky writes fiction and non-fiction in Brooklyn, NY.