In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the
The Prairie Schooner Blog
Vol. 4 Issue 5. October 7, 2015. Ed. Paul Hanson Clark.
Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz | Reviewed by Alyssa Martino
Trespass by Thomas Dooley | Reviewed by Anna Saikin
Things We Lost in the Fire by Vuyelwa Maluleke | Reviewed by Katie Schmid
Wendy C. Ortiz. Excavation: A Memoir. Future Tense Books, 2014.
Few true stories have made me as squeamishly uncomfortable as Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation. The memoir, appropriately titled, feels like an archeological dig into the narrator’s past: when Ortiz was thirteen, she had an affair with her 8th grade English teacher, “Mr. Ivers” (name has been changed). The unfolding scenes are graphic and candid—so much that I’ll confess the more explicit material made me cringe and want to pretend I’d never read these pages.
But I couldn’t stop reading. I just couldn’t. I finished the book in two days, completely absorbed by its vivid images and the narrator’s self-deprecation. Maybe I was enamored with Ortiz’s lyrical prose, or her dips into present tense, these glimpses of an adult reckoning with her troubled coming of age. Or maybe it was her admirable ability to hold herself accountable, too, and not force blame onto others—her alcoholic parents, or even Mr. Ivers (now a registered sex offender)—when it would have been easy, natural even, to do so.
Last fall, a professor in my MFA program set up a Skype discussion for students with an essayist. In a good essay, everyone is equally implicated, he told us. Essays are about complexity.
I believe this to be true of any literary nonfiction, especially memoir. It would be too easy to see Ortiz’s story in black and white, as a classic perpetrator-victim or predator-prey tale. What’s so impressive—and uncomfortable—about this memoir is that Ortiz turns those tendencies and perceptions onto their spines.
Perhaps the thirteen-year-old Ortiz—a girl who desperately wanted to be loved, who hoped to be a writer, and who was manipulated by an older man in a role of power and authority—is just as responsible as her pervy English teacher?
Of course with more distance from the memoir, it feels strange to place much blame on Ortiz, and difficult to feel anything but rage that we live in a world where young girls can be so exploited. Even so, the book’s raw honesty about Ortiz’s intentions and insecurities allows its readers to question—if only for a few chapters—society’s dominant narrative of sexual predators. –Alyssa Martino
Thomas Dooley. Trespass. Ecco, 2014.
Trigger Warning: Rape, Child Abuse
Thomas Dooley’s first collection, Trespass (Ecco, 2014) tells the story of a family broken by sexual violence. The speaker relates how his father raped his niece in a series of vivid poems, but t he event is treated with a strange delicacy. As the family strives and fails to overcome the tragedy, the speaker’s attention to his father’s feelings of inadequacy rather than the niece reads like a betrayal. These poems are unnerving in their ordinariness and convey the family’s lingering heartache in sparse, poignant verse.
The book is divided into three parts, tpart he first and third dealing with the trauma and how it affects the family. Many poems in these sections imagine the body of the speaker’s father as he matures, a sense of loss captured in the highly sexualized language. Two companion poems, both titled “Late Bloomer,” describe the father and the niece as they enter puberty. One tells how the speaker’s father “told me once / he thought his body / was small / and quiet / like a girl’s.” The other, a poem in which the identify of the speaker is ambiguous, describes puberty like a fall from grace, something that causes shame but is nevertheless desired. The third section brings closure to some of the discomfort, as it returns to the settings and events of the first.
The book's middle section, an extended reflection on the speaker’s affairs and losses as an adult, flows from and into the events of the past that surround it. The verses here are more experimental and associative with language, but their thematic and structural difference to the rest of the collection makes them feel as if they are from another book. It’s a bold risk for Dooley to take, and while there are some interesting passages, the tenor never reaches the fevered pitch of the selections that bookend the collection. Even as the speaker attempts to forget a lost love, the poems wonder whether we can forgive the trespasses that shape our lives in ways both large and small. –Anna Saikin
Vuyelwa Maluleke. Things We Lost in the Fire. Akashic Books, 2015.
South African poet Vuyelwa Maluleke’s chapbook, Things We Lost in the Fire, is a collection of women. The women populating the poems are in transit—leaving, or looking for the courage to leave—and in trouble. In “My Mother Says,” the speaker takes gruesome stock of what she has inherited in her embodied girlhood, “Girls like you are always attractively disfigured;/all your holes on the inside and no one to visit the wounds” (11). In this image, as in many of the poems in the collection, Maluleke’s speaker visits the wounds of these women to catalogue, take stock, and witness. The task of the collection is not to make museum exhibits out of suffering, however, but to observe and repair. The poems are, at times, a catalogue of violence, but the observation of the wounds takes on an aspect of ritual, wherein the speaker constructs a counter-narrative to speak back, as in her poem “Black Girl,” where a speaker coaches herself through her loneliness:
You are brave. That is what you’ve always been,
but you’ve never believed it until a man said it was true.
You’re going to have to learn that you don’t need a man.
The collection is full of such fierce, quiet wisdom. Maluleke is also a spoken word poet and I hear her voice here in the cadence of colloquial speech. The rhythm of the everyday is punctuated brilliantly by her startling images: “She is a wound bigger than her body,” the speaker observes of her friend’s grief in “On Losing Her Father,” and the common phrases of grief fall away before the accuracy and sharpness of her observation.
This collection is also a collection of South Africa, of blackness, of rewriting dominant narratives hell bent on erasure, as in “1978” wherein the speaker asks her mother to tell her about the past:
We were staying alive to bury each other
when Carletonville and Soweto were being accused of many
things at once, of being restless mouths,
black and not wanting to swallow lightbulbs—to make ourselves ghosts.
And in the face of such insistent annihilation, Maluleke’s speaker does what she does best; she tells a true story:
when you tell us to forget it,
you speak like people desperate to commit new sins
while we are still trying to forget your fathers
walking into our homes without
Alyssa Martino recently received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of New Hampshire. Her essays are published or forthcoming in Author Magazine, Narratively, Transitions Abroad, and War, Literature & the Arts. Anna Saikin is the review editor for NANO Fiction, and am completing a PhD in English at Rice University. Katie Schmid has been published in Best New Poets 2009, Quarterly West, Hobart, [Pank] and The Rumpus, among others.