Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is an essay collection by Emily Rapp Black that follows two female artists for whom “create or die” and “laugh or die” are important mottos. These artists, Frida Kahlo and Rapp Black herself, live through their share of heartache. They know that art is survival, especially after several “crucible experience[s].” For Kahlo: polio, a “philandering husband,” miscarriages, and a street car crash that is followed by thirty-two operations, including one that leaves her an amputee. For Rapp Black: five surgeries during her childhood (a birth defect requires that, at the age of four, her left leg be amputated), two divorces, and the loss of her first child—her nearly three-year-old son, Ronan—to a terminal illness, Tay Sachs disease.
“When you don’t understand the meaning of something you read, whose fault is it? Yours or the writer’s? It has to be someone’s fault. Everything does. Anyway, I just ask because this is my book. Do you think I understand everything in this book? If I don’t, can you?” (Epigraph Footnote #4)
My mother kept secrets and spoke to me in a kind of code. Nothing was straightforward. From childhood, I had to figure out how to read her mind, to intuit the contours of her reality. If I developed empathy, at first, it wasn’t so much a way to find a connection as a survival strategy. (xx)
Secrets, taboo topics, and mystifying family tensions set the stage for Sherry Turkle’s memoir, The Empathy Diaries. Her memoir is a transformational journey from an anxiety-infused childhood to an adulthood devoted to psychological insight and excellence in scholarship. Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Professor of Social Studies, Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her highly regarded books, especially Reclaiming the Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age and Alone Together, probe the psycho-social impact of the digital world.
It is quite drizzly on this 2nd of July–the perfect day to deliver our next batch of micro reviews for your reading pleasure.
This month, we are bringing you four “true stories” that defy convention, and play with the idea of what it means to write about reality. We have a book of poems that take language from someone else’s diary to tell a new kind of truth. Auto-fiction, which uses fiction as a vehicle to explore a very real autobiography. A hybrid essay-poem that plays with space to portray family truths lost to history. And a book of essays that doesn’t shy away from the ugliest, strangest, funniest parts of what it means to be human.
We hope our picks this month inspire you, and give you space to ponder what it means to tell the truth.
Autobiography is the most personal genre and the most generous. By definition it favors the up-close gaze. It is the fruit of self-absorption but also the turning of self-centeredness to purposes far beyond narcissism. Ancient writers, who rarely saw their reflection, spoke of the first-person narrative as a kind of mirror for the reader. For centuries, we have been entranced by the near magical link between someone else’s self-disclosure and our own self-empowerment. The Latin for looking glass, speculum, is related to a broad family of intriguing spin-offs such as speculation and introspection but also respect and, charmingly, even spice. Meredith Talusan’s memoir, well seasoned with sharp intelligence and rare powers of awareness, is a courageous gift of self that delivers keen insight into the mystery of visualizing who we are and who we long to be.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s illuminating essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias, details her tumultuous relationship with schizoaffective disorder. In her opening essay, “Diagnosis,” Wang writes:
Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy. Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense; we divide the interminable days into years, months and weeks.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot is like balloons filled with paint exploding against a white canvas — c. Heart Berries is Mailhot’s debut memoir told in a cyclical narrative touching upon her experience as a writer, mother, mental health patient, and partner all informed by her identity as a First Nations Canadian living in the U.S. It is the story of love, and loss, but most of all it is a story about storytelling. Mailhot writes:
“Things were created by story. The words were conjurers, and ideas were our mothers” (105).
Peter McGough and his partner (in business and romance) David McDermott rose to prominence in the 1980s New York art scene. Their paintings have a vintage feel with a contemporary twist (a still life of flowers has the blossoms arranged into the shape of a dollar sign). Their later photography has a much more mysterious feeling, truer to whatever periods they were aping. Mentored by Julian Schnabel, their work appeared in three Whitney Biennials and graced a 1986 cover of Artforum.
Asian-American literature is finally having its moment in the United States. In the past four years, books such as Min Jin Lee’s, Pachinko and Ocean Vuong’s, On Earth We Are Briefly Beautiful have made their way to the New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year lists and have been nominated for a variety of prestigious awards.
As readers, Americans are hungry for new voices in Asian-American literature. While Amy Tan and Haruki Murakami have been the exception rather than the trend, there has been very little representation of voices in contemporary literature. However, authors like E.J. Koh are finally changing things.