Sarah Viren

Poets and Writers - - The Genre Of Resistance -

Mine (Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press, March), a col­lec­tion of per­sonal, lyric, and in­ves­tiga­tive es­says about own­er­ship—the cor­po­real, the fa­mil­ial, and the in­tel­lec­tual in form—as well as the re­al­i­ties of loss and iso­la­tion and the idea of be­long­ing and home. Agent: None. Ed­i­tor:

Elise McHugh. First print­ing: 750.

I started writ­ing as a news­pa­per re­porter, and at first I loved that job— ex­cept for one part: I never got to speak. I wrote about crazy, hor­ri­ble things—plant ex­plo­sions, po­lice bru­tal­ity, at­tacks on hol­i­day yard art— and yet I wasn’t al­lowed to say what I thought about those things or how they re­minded me of some­thing, which re­minded me of some­thing else, which would even­tu­ally re­mind me that we’re all hu­man, and dam­aged, and beau­ti­ful, and one day we’ll die.

So I be­came an es­say­ist, and for a lit­tle while I was happy.

But then one day I read that the best es­says sound like a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend, that an es­say­ist should be re­lat­able and lik­able. And I thought, “Shit.” Be­cause how re­lat­able am I? I’m a wo­man. I’m queer. I’m drawn to odd and of­ten con­temptible peo­ple.

At that point I was tin­ker­ing with an es­say about the years dur­ing which I lived among the fur­ni­ture of a man who had killed his neigh­bor—and maybe also his wife and his best friend. The man was a mil­lion­aire named Robert Durst who had been cross-dress­ing at the time to avoid recog­ni­tion, and my es­say tried to un­tan­gle the em­pa­thy I felt for Durst, how I was so lonely then, and I as­sumed he must feel lonely too.

After writ­ing about Durst, I started an es­say on Bonnie and Clyde reen­ac­tors, and then one on ex-gays, one on stalk­ers, on self-mu­ti­la­tion, a dead opos­sum, sex­ual abuse, and mur­der bal­lads. I got preg­nant and wrote a let­ter to a wo­man in prison for mur­der­ing her teenage chil­dren. Then, just as I be­gan to write about that wo­man, I lost my preg­nancy. So that es­say ended up be­ing about ma­ter­nal fil­i­cide and mis­car­riage— nei­ther top­ics that come to mind when you think about hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend.

And yet these are the sub­jects that shake out of my head when I try to es­say, a verb I now rec­og­nize has very lit­tle to

do with re­lata­bil­ity—at least for me, at least for a lot of us. Be­cause the prob­lem with ad­vis­ing writ­ers to be re­lat­able is that not all of us have the priv­i­lege of so eas­ily fit­ting in.

When I write now I imag­ine an au­di­ence of like-minded read­ers. I pic­ture my­self ad­dress­ing a bunch of strange, queer women ob­sessed with fail­ure and hu­man cru­el­ness and loss that leads to lone­li­ness but also mo­ments of bliss. And that is how I even­tu­ally wrote my book. I stopped think­ing “Shit” and started to say, “Fuck you.”

Joan Did­ion once said, “I write en­tirely to find out what I’m think­ing, what I’m look­ing at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” And I agree. But more re­cently I’ve been drawn to a quote by Va­le­ria Luiselli: “How do you ex­plain,” she asks in her lat­est book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Es­say in Forty Ques­tions (Cof­fee House Press, 2017), “that it is never in­spi­ra­tion that drives you to tell a story, but rather a com­bi­na­tion of anger and clar­ity?”

To es­say is to trust that the voice of the sin­gu­lar—the voice of the ma­ligned, es­tranged, os­tra­cized, or ig­nored—de­serves more at­ten­tion than the cho­rus of voices we nor­mally hear, the per­spec­tives we’re told hold weight be­cause they are fa­mil­iar, nor­mal, rep­re­sen­ta­tive. The es­say is a crea­ture best suited for the strange and queer among us. It is a genre of re­sis­tance, one that fal­ters when it’s told to play nice.

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