Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Mouthpiece to the Sacred

by Editor in Chief Mary Bast 
The idea of human memory as a folded or patchwork process is familiar to those who read and write braided essays . . . the "threads" combine thematically to form a more complete and pliable piece of nonfiction . . . in handfuls that don't abide by chronological time. Sarah Minor, "What Quilting and Embroidery Can Teach Us About Narrative Form, Literary Hub, 9/22/17.
The best memoir has a clear focus, theme, and takeaway -- something heartfelt, universal, and true. But if recollections are forced to be linear and sequential, there's a risk of oversimplifying the complicated tapestry of life. And this is true not only of nonfiction. Contemporary novels have also left the sequential story structure behind, some by alternating points in time, some by alternating chapters by different characters, the strands then formally braided or at least implied. One fine example is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, a tapestry woven from five voices: Orleanna, Leah, Ruth May, Rachel, and Adah.

Writing about this technique in creative nonfiction, Brenda Miller suggests braiding isn't simply a mosaic with fragmented and juxtaposed pieces:
. . . it has more of a sense of weaving about it, of interruption and continuation, like the braiding of bread . . . What I'm hoping is that by the eating of this bread together we begin to respond to a hunger unsatisfied by everyday food, unvoiced in everyday language. We'll begin to formulate a few separate strands; we'll mull them over, roll them in our hands, and bring them together in a pattern that acts as a mouthpiece to the sacred. "A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay," pp. 14-24, Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard (Eds)
Its break from traditional sequencing is one of the many attractions of Emily Hipchen's memoir, Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption. Even her title evokes an image of parting and reweaving. Readers will admire her writerly brilliance and identify with her experience even if not an adoptive parent or adopted child. One needn't have had a wild and crazy childhood in Texas to fall in love with Mary Karr's The Liar's Club or been a poverty-stricken boy in Ireland to be fascinated by Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes.

The following excerpts from Hipchen's memoir show what Brenda Miller describes in "A Braided Heart" as ". . . separate parts intersecting, creating the illusion of wholeness, but with the oh-so-pleasurable texture of separation."

An early strand in the book is from the author's near present:
Fifteen days ago came the call . . . What I hear is a woman's voice. I immediately think "New York." I immediately think "foreign, unknown, stranger," and tune out all but anything that might be important. The timbre of the voice is deep, it has a girlishness to it though, an under-giggle of helium, so I think "young" . . ." Your father my husband and I would like to talk to you. Will you call us? . . . "We love you very much." There are beeps almost as meaningful as what she says, a hiss of tape. Who loves me? Who. I replay and replay, working the pieces together.
Soon we read a strand from her imagined infant self, only six months after her birth:
Six months ago I was born. Six months ago I was named Mary Beth Delany by the woman who labored thirty-six hours in darkness and daylight to have me and then let me go . . . She set her face into the winter light, moved her left leg, her right leg, and found that she was walking . . .  and from the arms of a nun I stretched out my sloppy fists and smiled toothlessly, grinned and grinned and grinned as I did for every stranger, since everyone was a stranger . . . and they took me into their family, and began calling me . . . Emily. Their daughter.
Then we're back to a near-present strand:
On one of the first days I have contact with Anna and Joe, my father explains about sports . . . He unwraps his arm and stretches it across the table as if the limb were my gift . . . And says, "These are pitchers' arms." And says, "These are your arms." They are, emphatically.
Another strand from the past, when the author was in elementary school:
In fourth grade was the Mendel project. Genetics. Monks and sweet peas. The project consisted of this: a worksheet on which each student was to record all the ways in which he or she resembled his or her parents . . . I told the truth: I was adopted . . . Thus verified, I was given something else to do. I sat all week alone . . . dreaming of my birth-mother coming to gather me . . . .
And a strand that holds both present and past:
I can remember being a child and dreaming my imagined mother alive . . . a better mother than mine, not so short-tempered, not so difficult to understand, not so other-than-me . . . But this is what I struggle with now, here, since it seems paradoxical, since it violates some substratum of feeling I can't yet excavate: for all the trouble I've had and caused, for all that it's taken me to get here, to be thirty-five years old, to be what I am, I can't wish the undoing of it, of any of it. To do so would unmake me.
A later strand frames an internal braiding of the author's own story with that of her newly discovered Aunt Elizabeth:
I am the daughter Anna's sister Elizabeth never had . . . I tell her, "It is difficult, you know, seeing my face walking around everywhere else. After all these years of not knowing . . . [Joe] says Aunt Beth ran away from her family when she was eighteen. . . [her story] becomes the companion piece to my own leaving, it has motives I comprehend . . . the powerful sense of having some control over one's own destiny. . . Our stories overlap and braid . . like mine, her father was violent and controlling. . .
As we near the end, Hipchen reflects on the various parts of her braid:
I wonder, as I sit writing this, this the story of one event's impact, how much of my understanding of what happens to me and to everyone else is really more just our seeing, through the dimness in which we sit, the shadowy outlines of things passing by rolled-up windows, too fast really to be more than blurs, too unfamiliar to be anything but what we imagine them to be? 
Bit by bit, she weaves all together, admitting that some of her braided work must be imagined:
. . . The woman who gave birth to me, the man who helped make me, and the five children they had after me became names and faces to me, exited my unconscious and became incarnate . . . The struggle is in telling a true story when there are so many different kinds of truth, so many different angles, voices, possibilities, nothing linear, nothing really straight and tellable . . . How impossible it all is . . . But you know that's the thing about telling a true story, I think. Usually, to tell it at all sensibly, actually say what's true, you have to line up the bits and pieces you can just about see distinctly and imagine the rest.
Finally, I could find no better mouthpiece to the sacred in this compelling memoir than Emily Hipchen's own words:
We are all children looking for our lost parents. Or lost parents, looking for our children.

". . . Read this book if you want to understand and experience the tangled knot of love, anger, self-doubt, and courage at the heart of adoption memoirs. . . ." ~ Rebecca Hogan, Editor of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and Professor of English and Women's Studies, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

No comments:

Post a Comment