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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

the reasons we love

A couple of weeks ago, I used an excerpt of Beth Kephart’s A Slant of Sun in class to talk about emotional distance—writing the hard stuff without becoming sentimental. (I also used Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” but I’m not going to talk about that right now.)

A Slant of Sun is a memoir about Kephart’s son Jeremy, who very early on began showing signs of a “pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.” It’s a journey of love, Kephart trying desperately to lead her son out of his interiority and into the world.

This book was recommended to me before I was even pregnant. (Before I ever read anything about pregnancy and motherhood—in those glorious days when I still got nine hours of sleep a night.) But it was recommended because I was having trouble writing about my relationship with my husband, about the different ways we engage (or don’t engage) with the world, about the different ways we react to conflict.

And Kephart blew me away. She was able to describe, through scene and gesture and description, the togetherness and the aloneness that are both so much part of being a couple.

I love this:

“He inhabits his soul with more ease than I do mine, and time does not defeat him: there will be, he predicts, another day. Patient, he waits. An artist, he disdains calculations, expectations, routine, and he is in and out of space and language—prone to laughing, out of the blue, at a joke his brother made, not today or even last week, but decades ago, in El Salvador, at the water hole on the coffee farm beneath a cliff of yellow parrots. He paints and makes the old man young or the plaster bleed or the priest name his assassin, and when my husband makes his guitar sing, he falls deep inside old Spanish, closes his eyes, and finds himself where he wants to be: among the swollen smells of orange rinds and steamed pupusas, above the slow creak of a cotton hammock, near the familiar noise of the domestic help snapping spiders out of bedsheets.”

That’s simply beautiful.

A Slant of Sun was Kephart’s first memoir (and also a finalist for the National Book Award.) She has written a number of other books since then, but her first three memoirs—A Slant of Sun, Into the Tangle of Friendship, and Still Love in Strange Places—make up a trilogy that, she says, “explore the way we love, the reasons we love, the things we do to bring depth and meaning into our vulnerable, implausible lives.”

She’s really on to something here.

I liked Still Love in Strange Places even better than A Slant of Sun, and recommend it to anyone who has lived in or visited Latin America (and even if you haven’t). But I also think it’s an important book because here, again—even more—Kephart is able to look closely at her husband, at herself, and at their relationship, and she does it lovingly and honestly, but never sentimentally. (A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting how hard it is to write about those closest to us, and Kephart puts me to shame.)

From Still Love:

“He is an architect and an artist, not a farmer, and his education is elite and Ivy League, so I can look at him and think his home is where I am, with me, and I can convince myself that I know what he’s suggesting through his tales. But my husband’s home is El Salvador, the rhythms of a language I do not speak, the memories of a jungle that could pitch a man to death, the simple, poetic, unexpected idea that what is to be shared and seen on a sunny day is women rubbing the stains out of their clothes on silver river rocks.”

When I was working on my first draft of Ready for Air, I came back to Kephart’s books because I needed to see that it was possible to show the different ways that D. and I think and inhabit and experience the world. (And indeed, when Stella was in the hospital—and in the months after she was home and I was stuck inside with her, quarantined from the world—we seemed to experience everything differently.) And so I would tumble into Kephart’s books, and think yes, yes. It’s all there.

Her words helped me find a way to write the love (and the togetherness and the aloneness, and the frustration) between me and D. Hmmm, and now I’m thinking this: that my book, though it is largely about learning to love my daughter, is also largely about learning to love and really understand my husband.

The reasons we love, indeed.

3 comments:

Mandy said...

I'm excited to see the new ways you have incorporated D into the book. Those were quite beautiful passages you quoted. I'm willing to bet that many writers feel as if they can only present a sliver of those most intimate with them. At the same time, perhaps there are parts of those relationships that many writers would never want to be able to articulate to anyone but themselves.

Mardougrrl said...

I needed to read this so much! I am also having trouble writing out the relationship between my character and her husband (after their twins are born), as well as the relationship between my MC and her mother. Somehow, it's too close to the bone for me, and I find myself taking refuge in generality and cliches when I want to discover what is really TRUE. It's so easy to skitter along the surface of relationships, both in writing and in life, but it doesn't serve us.

I will absolutely have to read this author. Thank you so much!

moonlight ambulette said...

"writing the hard stuff without becoming sentimental" -- yes! that is the challenge, isn't it? this is good stuff - -thanks.