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This Month In Books: ‘Look at the World, and Not at the Mirror.’
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This month’s books newsletter is about seeing the big picture. It’s about that moment when you glance around a corner to figure out what you’re missing, and how sometimes you don’t like what you find.
“Try to see, Leonel had said. It was what he was always asking me to do,” activist-poet Carolyn Forché writes in her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True. “Try to see. Look at the world, he’d say, and not at the mirror.” Instead of looking at a mirror, Forché became one. As Melissa Batchelor Warnke points out in her review, Forché’s memoir is barely about Forché herself: it’s a record of what she saw and heard in El Salvador — the atrocities, the brewing war, and the resistance; it’s about her mysterious mentor and guide, Leonel; and, most importantly, it’s a facsimile of the conditions, the mood, the tense aura of censorship under which she saw and heard these things. Forché bears witness not just to the facts but to the feeling of living under dictatorship.
“When you are in a very controlling religion like this, one of the ways that they keep people inside is by painting the world outside as a very scary place,” Amber Scorah tells Jacqueline Alnes in an interview about her memoir Leaving the Witness. For Scorah, leaving the Jehovah’s Witnesses was simply a matter of not being able to pretend she believed anymore. When she looked in the mirror, she saw someone she didn’t recognize: “When you’re indoctrinated, your true self is secondary to the persona that you have to adopt to exist in the world in which you live.” Living as that second person became unbearable. She could not unsee herself.
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In Eve Ewing’s book of poetry, 1919, she attempts to see clearly events that happened very close to her in space, but far away in time: Chicago’s Red Summer “riots,” when whites terrorized blacks across the city. In an interview with Adam Morgan, she says, “I think of the people in this book as our neighbors, right? They happen to be our neighbors across the span of a century, but they’re our neighbors. They’re our fellow Chicagoans.” Ewing relates that she was consistently surprised by the fact that she did not already know the things that she was learning. “It shows how compressed history really is.”
Darcey Steinke was similarly motivated to write her new memoir, Flash Count Diary, by the idea that there was a fuller story that she had not been told. In an interview with Jane Ratcliffe, Steinke says that, once her menopause symptoms hit and she tried to educate herself about the process, she found that most menopause memoirs “end with this come-to-Jesus moment of, ‘Then I accepted hormones.’ I’m not against it, but when they accept hormones, they say all their menopausal symptoms go away, so then the journey through menopause kind of stops. … I wanted to hear what it’s like for other women.” Steinke had to write a book of her own just to find out what the natural process is like.
While writing a review of two recent books about, respectively, Jewish history in Canada and the history of antisemitic conspiracy theories, Jordan Michael Smith had a revelation about his past. In his youth, when his family lived in the exurbs of Toronto, he wanted to — and did — become friends with classmates who bullied him with antisemitic slurs. “One of the awful things about oppression is that sometimes you can’t bring yourself to hate your oppressors. You want them to like you too badly.” He had forgotten all about it — “It was strategic forgetfulness, acting like I remembered less than I did. It was more convenient that way, for them and me.” — and had likewise forgotten that he himself had also once bullied a fellow student with a racial slur, a horrifying revelation. “A few years later, the kid we bullied and I became friends, too. I wonder if he forgave me, or just strategically forgot about what I’d done.”
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It’s always a good idea to remember the things you’d rather forget, to see the things you’d rather not see. As Ewing puts it, “These kinds of violent histories are all around us… We have to take the time to stop and seek them out…”
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