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What We’re Reading: Wondering Who You Are

2015 October 29

What We're Reading

WWYA-coverWondering Who You Are by Sonya Lea (Tin House Books, 2015)

In 2000, Richard Bandy was diagnosed with a rare and serious form of appendix cancer. An elective form of risky and then-experimental surgical chemotherapy worked, but complications that followed the procedure resulted in an anoxic brain injury. The brain injury caused him to lose not only his memory but also all traits of his former personality. The outgoing, driven, masculine (and sometime violently angry) man was replaced with a quiet, emotional, and passive one. The author of Wondering Who You Are is Sonya Lea, Richard Bandy’s wife. Lea’s unsettling and raw memoir blends medical drama, personal narrative, and the story of a long — and ultimately enduring — marriage.

Bandy and Lea married and had a family while they were both young. Although they loved each other deeply, their marriage was not always an easy one. Lea struggled with alcoholism for several years, and Bandy struggled with an anger that at times became physical. But, despite their lows, the two always found their way back to each other; it’s clear through her telling that they shared a profound love. However, following her husband’s brain injury, Lea finds herself thrust into an incredibly difficult scenario: her husband is alive, but he’s not the same man to whom she was married. Over the course of several years following the brain injury — and with much rehab, therapy, and neurological care — Bandy eventually regains enough skill to fully function, and he is eventually able to return to work. Despite that, he never recovers many memories, and his personality remains vastly different.

Of course, this situation raises fascinating questions: who are we without our history? What happens to our identities when we lose our historical moorings? Lea spends the bulk of the memoir facing these questions along with her husband — although they’re each forced to face these questions in their own, much different ways. In some aspects, Bandy’s injury has insulated him from the gravity of the situation: he grieves, but he is also unable to live in anything but the present. Lea, on the other hand, understandably dwells in the past, desperate to bring her husband as she knew him back. She writes,

I see that Richard isn’t scared of our situation. The sadness he occasionally feels is because he’s concerned about my suffering. I’m the one who is terrified of losing my identity. Especially the “us” that I think I remember. While I’m making dinner, crying to my friends, listening to my husband snore, I slowly wake up to the truth that I have no idea what makes me “me.” And the thing about truth is that it dismantles even as it inhabits.

As time goes on and it becomes obvious that her husband will never be the same man he was before his brain injury, Lea becomes cognizant of the shift she’s undergoing. Bandy’s not the only one who has lost something; Lea, too, grieves for the man, the memories, and the shared identity that the two have lost. She grapples with the way she now feels for her husband; initially, his new personality is deeply unsettling. She is unhappy with his maddening passivity, unhappy with what she feels is the loss of his masculinity, and unhappy with the loss of intimacy between them. She has to decide whether she can continue to view him as a “complex, intimate partner.” In an attempt to rediscover their love, the two travel together, relocate frequently, even invite a third party into their marriage. Although the path back to happiness is winding, the risks they take together eventually do serve to reawaken Lea’s love — or, more accurately, they allow Lea to begin to accept her husband for who he is now: “Sometimes things are mysterious in our relationships, and then we get to see our beloved, and it cracks the heart wide open.”

As she fills in Richard’s memory with the history of their marriage, she admits that she could downplay their more unpleasant chapters, but that to do so would dishonor their truth. The same can be said for this book. There are many unsettling — even angering — moments, and as a reader, I had to be conscious to set aside my own identity and judgments and remind myself that she was telling her story as it unfolded for her and her husband. She shares with her readers intimate thoughts, emotional conversations, and the most private scenes of her relationship with Richard. These are daunting subjects to write about, and I commend her for a willingness to write candidly about the intimacy within a marriage — the book is a page-turner because of this approach.

Lea’s stark, intense, and beautiful writing, combined with her unsettling but compelling subject matter, means that Wondering Who You Are is a memoir that will stay with me for a long time to come.

Have you read any books that you enjoyed but were unsettled by? If so, were you able to separate yourself from the book and understand what it is was that made the book difficult for you? Did needing that introspection add to your opinion of the book or detract from it?


Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: A Review

2014 October 10
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The Writing Life

This summer, a great and wonderful circumstance led me to the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Hosted by Tin House and housed on Reed College campus in Southeast Portland, Oregon, this workshop was the miracle I didn’t know I needed. It was the kick in the pants I didn’t ask for. Most of all, it was deeply touching, intellectually stimulating, and rife with endless seeds of inspiration!

Okay, I’m gushing clichés. But seriously, stick with me while I lay out the excellence which was #THWW14.

Tin House logo

I had the honor of participating in Kevin Young‘s Poetry workshop with eleven other poets. We ranged in age from 20 to 44 and came from all over the U.S.: Indiana, L.A., Florida, Albuquerque, Washington, Maryland, North Carolina, N.Y.C., Portland, OR., et cetera. We had six days of two-and-a-half hour workshops, and each day we workshopped two poets, each for an hour. In the remaining time, Young took requests. We wanted to know… everything: How to begin publishing seriously? What makes a good title? How does one improve & develop his/her writing process? And he obliged, graciously. However, what was so affirming about asking these questions was being in a room with other people who were wondering the same things I was. Furthermore, since the group was diverse and generous, we were able to offer each other heaps and heaps of advice, recommendations, and encouragement.

The community that we developed in the workshop classroom extended out onto the campus and throughout the rest of the week. As is always the case, I learned just as much chatting with my colleagues over lunch and in between lectures as I did during workshop. This was aided by the environment and atmosphere which were carefully crafted and supported by Tin House.

In addition to the workshop, each day held multiple opportunities for stimulating discussion and cross-genre consideration through lectures, seminars, and readings. This year’s faculty included: Matthew Zapruder, Mary Ruefle, Kevin Young, D.A. Powell, Jo Ann Beard, Nick Flynn, Robert Boswell, Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Dee, Anthony Doerr, Ann Hood, Kelly Link, Antonya Nelson, Dana Spiotta, Wells Tower, Joy Williams, Rachel Kushner, and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. And several special guest writers and editors made themselves available, also through seminars, lectures, one-on-one sessions, and readings.  I attended lectures by: Lacy M. Johnson on the Chronology of Memoir, Bianca Stone on Ekphrasis and Poetic Comics, Ann Hood on How to Write a Kick-Ass-Essay, Jo Ann Beard on transfiguring the Personal into the Universal, Kevin Young on the Hoax Poem, Matthew Zapruder on “the meaning” of poetry, D.A. Powell on silence in poetry, and Mary Ruefle on the Imagination. Actually, I’m getting a little hot and bothered just thinking about the innovation and intensity of these conversations! These writers questioned me in ways I wasn’t ready for, and also on matters that I desperately needed to be challenged in. Obviously, I cannot speak highly enough of my experience with the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, but I also have to acknowledge that it’s not the only opportunity of its kind.

There are countless workshops, conferences, retreats, and residencies for writers each year, and each one offers a unique setting for creative exploration and development. Tin House’s workshop emphasizes networking and highlights the most current arguments and trends in Creative Writing. Other workshops and residences are more interested in creating a laboratory for the writing process. Still others offer interdisciplinary opportunities and even collaboration with other artists in residence. How wonderful and endless. Or, how overwhelming! If you’re thinking about pursuing an intensive writing experience, I suggest Poets & Writers’ database. (The Association of Writers & Writing Programs [AWP] also has a search engine, but I find it more difficult to navigate.) And you might think about asking yourself a few of the following questions as you vet your options:

What is my creative focus right now?

Do I have a specific project in mind?

What stage am I at in my process or project?

Do I need time & space for writing or revision? Or both?

Am I looking for feedback? What kind of feedback (peer, faculty, publisher)?

What is my budget?

What is my timeframe? What season would work best for me? How much time can I devote to this experience?

Clearly, there’s much to consider. And much to be gained. There’s more I’d like to share from my experience, but in the interest of readability, let’s call it a day. Tune in next week for “The Goods,” where I spill the beans about what Kevin Young, and other writers, think everyone should read.

What We’re Reading: Someone Else’s Wedding Vows

2014 March 13
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What We're Reading

Someone Else's Wedding Vows CoverSomeone Else’s Wedding Vows by Bianca Stone (Tin House Books and Octopus Books, 2014)

Human relationships—from familial and fraternal to romantic and sexual—have always provided material for poets. And there is no better event for observing all types of relationships than at a wedding, a truly literal and figurative joining of two groups of families and friends. In her new collection, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, Bianca Stone offers her creative insights into various relationships.

The title poem, “Someone Else’s Wedding Vows,” was inspired by assisting her sister, a wedding photographer, at a few events. The narrator is a wedding photographer lamenting her own relationships and choices in life as she photographs someone else’s big day.

And it’s true

I spent my whole life in fear of sharing my mind

but with a longing for it to be taken.

Year after year I could not even order myself to be touched.

I became a waitress who looked sad, dropping occasionally

into the bed of a maniac, who looked sadder

and meaner.

In an interview with TellTell Poetry, Stone states that after observing the weddings she realized “[s]omeone else’s vows are meaningless, and yet, they’re all so analogous. It both revolted and excited me.” As “Someone Else’s Wedding Vows” comes to a close, the narrator offers her own toast.

And where it’s driest I sit down with my wet drink.

I drink for the incidental. The heart of dust.

For my family and all their uneven moods.

For this audience of discreet psychotics

posing for photographs.

For the living deer ravaging gardens.

For the touch of sub-shrubs: lavender,

periwinkle and thyme—

touching the lingering otherness—

for this not being known,

rarely knowing

and for the ordinary monstrous knowing I love.

Stone’s poems succeed with her use of creatively mundane imagery. She declares, “My name looks good in gangster font” when considering her educational degrees in “The Future is Here.” She laments her flatlining intellect in “Dishes”—“Now my intelligence is a line of hieroglyphs, / a blouse fluttering.”

In the final poem, “Practicing Vigilance,” Stone begins with a startling, yet entirely apt, image.

Every day I try and write down one terrible thing.

One terrible thing—I’m filled with them,

carry each one

like an organ locked in a Coleman cooler.

The terrible things in your life, whether they’re things you’ve done or thought or had done to you, can be as simultaneously revolting and awe-inspiring as the organ in the cooler, and like the organ, sometimes you need those terrible things to survive. Because they are, and always will be, a part of you.

But by the end of the poem, Stone succinctly gets to the heart of all human relationships.

I’m coaxing the black bull out of my mouth

with a red flag and a beer. I’m constructing

out of my faulty genes,

my last sentence, my last thing

which addresses the dilemma obliquely:


we will perceive our own pain in others.

And we will know if we are capable of loving them.

We aren’t alone in suffering terrible things in our lives. Everyone has their own set of terrible things. It’s only a matter of finding a set of organ coolers we are willing and able to love.

Stone uses her worthy insights to deconstruct and analyze human relationships in the poems of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, but she is also an accomplished visual artist, having created ink-and-watercolor comics and videos using her poems. Although there are no illustrations in Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, parts of some poems have been previously illustrated and can be viewed on her website. She described her use of illustration in a 2012 interview with The Comics Journal, “In my work I prefer to have the images move away from literal illustration of what the text is saying. I want to use the image as another element of form in poetry—to have the image offer more space for the reader to interpret and create meaning on their own.” Perhaps in her first full-length collection, Stone wanted the poetry to stand on its own. Speaking with Poetry Foundation, Stone admits, “I don’t want to tell anybody how to interpret a poetic line. It’s not good for the poem.” Stone did the cover illustration for Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, but I do wish more of her art had been included. The poetry, while strong on its own, is a whole new experience with the visuals (view her video for “Elegy with Judy Garland & Refrigerator” here).

Do illustrations enhance or diminish poetry? If combined with other media, does a poem become something other than a poem?