She was Eurasian; I’m Eurasian. She was a writer; I’m a writer. In one of her memoirs, published when I was twelve, she writes, “Karen is so very much like me in some ways that it is almost unbelievable.” What could she possibly have observed in pre-teen me to allow her to make that claim? Since her death, it’s occurred to me that those aspects of a mixed-race identity — her protean nature, her desire to control information and the narratives made from it — that served her have served me, and may have enabled the least appealing parts of ourselves. Turns out it’s not just my grandmother who deserves my ambivalence.
Self-awareness in the personal essay–being “onto oneself”–is perhaps the hardest part of the writing process. Or it is for me. Of course we have blind spots, limited views, agendas intended and otherwise, but more crucially we write as the one character who, like the nose on our face, we cannot see. We are ourselves the person we cannot ever observe unobserved or hear speak for speaking. So while there are many reasons to read Karen Shepard’s essay “Dragon Ladies” beyond craft–its thoughts on growing up biracial; its depiction of the author’s grandmother, the Chinese writer Han Suyin; its triangulation of grandmother, mother, and daughter; its underlying story of loss–this is an essay I will remember most for how it achieves, through reflection on a grandmother and the page and a mother’s unfulfilled longing, at a painful but remarkable self-portrait.
Deborah Stone’s “The Morality of Choice” in the Boston Review
Deborah Stone is a political scientist who likes to pick up pebbles. For her, this pebble picking is not for the sake of a collection, but pleasurable in itself, as an act of choosing and classifying. In this mind-stretch of an essay, Stone considers this simple act of choosing one pebble over another and its not-so-simple implications.
“How do you choose?” he asked me. “What makes a good one?”I wanted to answer with Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity—I know it when I see it—but that wouldn’t bring Jim into the spirit of this enterprise, and besides, he had hit upon a question that had been troubling me for a long time. Just how do I decide that a stone is worthy of coming home with me?
From selecting pebbles, Stone moves to the moral implications of selecting babies in the adoption process; from classification she moves to discrimination and the human inclination to separate, segregate, and stratify ourselves, to differentiate us and other. Or, in the case of pebbles, the chosen and those left behind.
I am hardly impartial. I judge, I play favorites, I exclude from my company of stones. The utter impetuousness of my decisions boggles my mind. One minute I’m savoring variety, the next minute I’m narrowing my vision to one kind, and soon to one kind of a kind.
In short, Stone sees in her picking of pebbles, striated and flecked, red or quartz-like, as evidence of human nature. And she reveals how our inclination for selection, so trivial in the case of pebbles, can manifest itself as social bonding (adoption) as well as social disintegration (apartheid).–Molly
I think all writers of personal narratives–perhaps all writers, even–grapple with honesty, how to accurately portray their experiences while not harming or selling out others. Sometimes it can be done; sometimes it can’t; most times, it seems, it’s a fine line. Then come the other questions: once the piece is written, do you publish it? Once it’s published, with whom do you share it: your writing colleagues, your personal friends, your family? With the very people who inspired the piece, who appear in the piece, who are portrayed in ways that they might not find flattering?
I’ve read essays galore about this topic, but what I appreciated about Anderson’s handling of it was her attention to a particularly female brand of “terrifying honest”:
I also felt an obligation as a woman and as a writer to let it [honesty] guide me as I told my own stories. I didn’t write with redemption in mind, but when I finished an essay, I sometimes found acceptance: yes, this happened, and here I am, writing.
Anderson also avoids moralizing and resolving in her piece, instead focusing on her true motivations for writing personal narrative:
I do not write to settle scores, nor do I write to comfort others; I write to dive deep and then to rise, to accept that nothing will be tied up with a bow. While I’m responsible for my actions, I’m not responsible for how others feel when they read my work.
This is pretty much the place I’ve arrived at in my writing. (Also, I’ve learned that some essays you just don’t post to Facebook.)
Like these pieces? Check out some of our latest on Vela: Amanda Girraca writes about the meaning of work in “A Life’s Work,” while Lauren Quinn examines the effects of living with violent crime in “Still Moments in Vampire Town.”