These are responses, edited slightly for clarity, to “The Backsides of White Souls:”

I finally had a chance to read your piece. I think it’s excellent; very well written and riveting at points–necessary at this time, as well. It’s an important revelation that the politics in the States are dividing families as well as a nation.

 

I’ve read your essay and to my mind it’s an impressive work. I think you’ve achieved the literary style you were going for, and framing it with the dreams is highly effective. This is a sweeping, layered story but the reader doesn’t get bogged with complex family trees or extraneous details. In fact, it is the casual telling of these details such as your choice of jeans—Lee vs Levis, for example, that give us a closer look at the family landscape. You have a strong storytelling voice and it comes through here, the tone luring us into a seemingly innocuous family narrative.  This essay reveals a lot about beliefs, and made me wonder about acquired beliefs (passed on through families) and those we seek out on our own. This also goes some way towards explaining how entrenched beliefs like those of your grandmother, and of your sister become enmeshed in political discussions. _____  said it has a literary tone and especially liked how you wove the dream sequences into it, and the irony of when you had to apologize to your grandma about writing KKK on her doorstep, your small-boy view realizing that her Christian beliefs would have kept her from such a group, when they in fact they claim their ideology is based in Christian beliefs.

 

This is a powerful piece of writing, Ron!! I had goosebumps through the final page. You have been as careful and objective as possible, and it would be difficult to imagine family members taking exception. But, then, families are families, and there can be long, convoluted emotional histories that defy reasonable intercourse.

 

Thank you for sharing this. Interesting, really well written, and disturbing in places. That heartbreaking image of the man who just wanted a drink.

 

Thanks a lot for sending this. Good to read your own heart-wrenching account of the personal impact of public/political circumstances. Liked the way you weaved the historical and current threads into the family story. Powerful.

 

In terms of content, I never, ever thought about a woman’s branch of the KKK; didn’t know there was such a thing.  In fact, I wondered for a half-a-second if this part of the story was true!  As a “family secret,” it goes back so many generations, it seems like a timely reveal for 2017.  There were turns of phrases, of course, that made me chuckle, not knowing where they were headed–the kid writing KKK in the dust, staggering under the weight of confederate ancestors, the sign on the gate.

 

I find myself, once again, really enjoying (maybe that’s not the right word) but getting into “Sleeping with the Author.”  I am still amazed and envious in the way you two work through issues.  I find myself identifying with both of you, maybe jumping in on both sides of the discussion.  I catch myself thinking, “Ah, good point.”  Also I have to say that I’m glad I’m not on either side.  It would be difficult.  Susan makes a number of points that are to my way of thinking.  AND Ron I believe in what you are trying to accomplish.  No easy task.  I think Susan says editing is probably easier when you are not familiar with the writer. Well that was just amazing. I love the dynamic between you two. Also, I now have to go back and re read the essay to see if I think it’s in your voice. I must have thought it was because I sure was caught up in the thing.

 

Wow, a fascinating exchange with Susan you dish up here! A family story not unlike yours has turned up many times, hasn’t it? … And in some of the damnedest places … Is there something special, unique, something keenly compelling and singularly revealing about your version? There must be for you. What is it? Make it in some gripping way the focus of your attention …. God, forgive me for saying what I have, but I had to say it.

 

I like your piece a lot and it certainly is timely. It is solidly provocative in all the right ways. Formally, I very much liked the way you evoked and layered different narrative positions and time frames. My hesitation was that it lost a bit too much of its momentum in the later part. Seemed to narrow it’s focus a bit too much? Quite possibly this was due to the constraints of the word count limit. Seemed it either needed to be longer or needed to not cite so many details about the Klan. That said, I am indeed happy that it is being published! And I wholeheartedly support you in doing more of this “kind of writing.”

 

CNQ is a perfect fit, a publication that supports critical thinking and would ‘get’ your essay. We need more of these thoughtful, probing pieces floating around in the public sphere for there is certainly enough that is nowhere near reflective or thought-provoking. Congratulations on seeing this through from a seed of an idea to a published thing in what would be considered lightening speed in most publishing circles. I think that’s called focus and perseverance.

 

A real value of your item, Ron, resides … I think … in your depiction of your young self, and your admiration of your grandma. Like a robin teaching a youngster its song, our folk teach us about the “objective,” the “real” world. And later, if we are lucky or persistent or of a certain character, we pull back the veil, just a little bit. Otherwise – this is the world as it is. And I think you illustrate this mightily well.

 

Congratulations on getting your piece published! Perfect timing, and perfect place for it to come out. (Too many p’s.) I found it on the CNQ website and I’ll share it with my social media friends (and the others who wisely stay away from that stuff). It’s a beautiful essay, a reminder that the roots of prejudice are deep, and often hidden from us as we receive the “wisdom” of our elders. As you describe in your own family, for many it is too dangerous and uncomfortable and too much work to question that wisdom. As if life should be easy or the world unchanging.

 

So pleased and honoured that you sent this to me. Thank you. You really did get your shit together. And how beautifully. I hear your voice so clearly. That great, raw, powerful honesty and thoughtfulness of yours. And the touch of your beloved editor, I hear that too. I know how talented she is as well.

 

Thank you so much for sending this essay along. What a story! A compelling read.

 

Thank you for sharing the essay with me … I loved reading it so much. I learnt so much about Ron growing up and having been lucky enough to have met you and knowing what a wonderful person you are. I can’t wait to see you and ask you some questions about the piece and about Rituals you teach at university.  I thought it was very brave and important story to share with the world. I love seeing the photos of you as a child. I loved the interview with Susan and you  … I imagined both of you sitting at the dinner table drinking tea (coffee) and eating date squares as the interviewed rolled. Anyway, Congratulations on a great essay and I can’t wait to read more of your work. I like the way you tell a story and your writing voice, you kept me engaged all the way through.

 

Thanks for sharing. I read the essay and the dialog and can certainly empathize with many thoughts expressed in each. I can recall my first knowledge of the KKK that happened in 1964 while our family was on a brief cattle buying/ family vacation to my mother’s home state of Arkansas. Shortly after lunch hour my father took us to a small town diner for our lunch break.  The tables were all dirty when we arrived , but we sat down at one while our parents went off to the washrooms. On the table was a meager tip and a small white card that I mistook for a business card. I read it briefly then slipped it into my pocket. I was ten years old and somewhat “well read” for a child from “Forked Island” but extremely sheltered from the racial tensions of the day. I was sharp enough to pick-up on the tone and purpose of the card so I hid it for several days but would secretly study it at any private moment that I had.  I contemplated what type of person would intentionally leave a note like this that was designed to “threaten” the recipient and at the same time it was part of what was left as a tip to thank the server. The message on the card was simply. “You have just served a member of the KKK.”  There  was a USA flag, a confederate flag and an illustration of a burning cross on it. After returning home and some time had passed, I showed it first to Mom who At first told me to get rid of it then she told me that my father could explain it to me better. So I took it over to Dad and he did tell me a bit about racial hatred and that the KKK was a thing of the past and that our country was beyond such organizations and individuals who harbored such hate! Boy did the events of the next few years ever prove him wrong.

 

I have sat down and re-read the article twice since you sent it. I find it revealing and important and it leads me to question deep, hidden prejudices that I have inherited. Makes me think and leaves me uncomfortable. What will you do with the ritual manual? Will there be a family ritual were it is burned. Perhaps the life you have lived and the integrity and struggle that you have brought to these questions has already burned the book.

 

I’m glad you were able to get those demons exposed, out in the world.

 

A friend of mine, sent me your essay, “The Backsides of White Souls,” and recommended I read it.  I live in Australia and have not seen any writing on the subject before. (Nor have I come across any writing by white Australians whose ancestors took part in the massacres and other depravities suffered by the indigenous people here, though some may well exist.)  I found your essay most interesting.  The dialogue between you and your editor/wife was fascinating, too!  Thanks for sharing your musings on what you have been grappling with.

 

This morning I found the time, at last, to read your “Backsides.”  I think there’s a good novel in the family history you sketch here.  Have you ever thought of writing it? One passage stirs me to comment.  You write, ” Sometimes overt and personal, racism is also institutional and entrenched. In either form it is armed and deadly.”   These, I think, are not two different forms of racism but overlapping ones.  Racism is the default position in the USA; and your essay suggests it may be about the same in Canada.  As I see it, no one in the US is free of the infection of racism, the expression of which is white supremacy.  Some people (whom we call overt racists) know this and dig in to maintain white supremacy.  Most non-black people since the Civil Rights Movement deny it.  A minority know it and work against it.  But no one, whatever their color, is free of it.  Perhaps I should avoid that last, absolutist statement, but if there are exceptions they are very few.  The currents of culture and history run very strong.  I guess that’s what your essay is about.

 

Thanks so much for the article.  It’s certainly a great and timely piece for Black History month. It’s also a gracious offering of your own troubling experience to help others ‘shut up and listen’ and ‘get their shit together’.

 

There’s a great need for poop in a group behaviour, with the White House providing leadership sound bites like,  “a nice guy like Rob Porter wouldn’t do that”, comments about mud huts in non-white countries, immigrant are what’s wrong with America, yada. And don’t we all love a great military parade! Especially when there’s little aid for Puerto Rico…

I just heard a podcast where they called the inevitable and future process of disinfecting America from the virus of the alt right as “detrumpification.”  Yeah, we will need a great deal of this – miles to go before we sleep….  Let your article strike the first blow for detrumpification with your strong dose of penicillin!  I guess the other problem is building a better immune system for the future.

I also appreciated the opportunity to understand the process you went through in writing it. Oh, and I liked the title and the related quote.

Something else I liked was that you didn’t assume a position of superiority or moral authority when you differentiated your views from those of your right wing family members.  I would have found that challenging if I was writing the article, because I tend to equate the left with moral authority.   However, I realized that your neutrality added to the quality of the article.

Can’t think of anything that I didn’t like or that even made me go hmmm…

On a personal note, I have wondered about your experience of writing the article. I assume that there was a pain factor in writing the article and in releasing to the world. Not that you need to share with the group, unless you are so inclined. I recognize that some of that is included in the article, but I figured there was a lot emotional work that went into decisions about what to include and what to omit.

I also had a thought that somebody like Sam Harris might interview you on his podcast if you sent the article to him.  I know you have much better gigs than this but I would love to see your article and thinking get out to the common folk. I think this is such an important article.

 

Having come this evening from seeing a live performance of Antigone here in Montreal, which, though not as much about racism as it is about gods, ghosts and grief, I might just have been in the perfect frame of mind to read you “Backsides of White Souls” piece, which I have just done.  I hope you’ll take the following criticism as constructive, and maybe healthily un-Canadian in its risking not being nice. I take your word for it when you say it is a seminal, even dangerous testament for you, a vital interrogation/unveiling of your family’s dead.   But how deeply, really, has it scoured your own soul? Examined or exposed thoughts or actions of your own that might not have been as noble as you’d like?  Troubling dreams of visitations, and a knife on the bedpost, don’t tell me very much at all about the darker sides of you.  You stay pretty safe, hidden like what was inside the Life magazine envelope. A less weighty thing: the single paragraph on white nationalism in Canada, though that phenomenon is unarguably terrible, true, and growing, feels gratuitous, (an add-on for your TNQ editors ?), who, if so, should have told you that your own American family’s story was enough of a bitter tonic in itself. It is a real shame, and I suppose telling about this time, that you weren’t able to find an American publisher. Don’t give up on that one. All that said, I do feel I know you a tad better, after having read your piece.  And that’s to the good.

 

Thanks for your brilliant essay. From my understanding, it showed the knit relationship and events that have taken place in your family. To me, it was a good narrative and an intermarriage between oral tradition, historical events and sound memory. I enjoyed every bit of it. As they say, history is the study of the past in relation to the present and which serves as basis for understanding the future.  I am beginning to think about how to weave and craft the many things my deceased grandmother and other loved ones told me before they passed on. I think that I will share it first with my children and see their reactions.

 

 

 

February 1 is the beginning of Black History month in Canada and the U.S.

As a student in the 1960s I asked a black professor what he thought white people should do during what was then called “Negro History Week.”

His reply: “Keep your mouth shut and listen. Get your own shit together.”

“The Backsides of White Souls” is my attempt, having tried to listen, to get my shit together.

 

>> To read the essay click: “The Backsides of White Souls,” CNQ.

>> To read a dialogue about the essay’s writing and editing click: “Sleeping with the Author,” TNQ (The New Quarterly).

 

I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none there are that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk . . . I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious. —W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” 1920

“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.”   –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review, Spring, 1957

 

For further reading on the contribution of white women to racism read “The Women Behind White Power.” Better still, read the book on which it is based: Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae.

 

 

Remembrance is supposed to be good for a community, but much depends how those who remember actually remember.

The Daily Beast reports on Mike Pence’s way of remembering the Holocaust:

“Many Jews have pointed out that Pence, who is an evangelical Christian, imposes a Christian narrative on the Holocaust, comparing victims of the Holocaust to Jesus. His tweet also paints Jewish victims of the Holocaust as martyrs for Israel, as if every Jew who died was an ardent Zionist, deliberately laying his or her life down for a future Jewish state. Pence treats the Holocaust as a holy validation of evangelical support for Israel. Many American evangelicals believe that Israel has a role to play in the apocalyptic end times. The Holocaust, then, for Pence becomes a kind of providential working out of God’s divine plan for the Jews. Israel makes the Holocaust worth it, at least from an evangelical perspective. Hallelujah.

“Pence is unusually blunt in framing the Holocaust as Christian resurrection narrative, but he’s not the only one to try to turn Auschwitz into inspiration porn. The majority of high-profile films and fictional narratives about the Holocaust focus on upbeat endings and salvation. Films like Defiance (2008), The Zookeeper’s Wife ( 2017) and, most famously Schindler’s List (1993) all tell stories about people who saved Jews during the Holocaust. They all end, ritually, with text informing the viewer how many people the protagonists rescued from death in the camps.”

If we want to reflect on the ways that rituals mobilize human memory, we need to take into account some basic distinctions, for instance, short- and long-term memory; muscle, or sensory, memory; emotional and intellectual memory.

When we say that someone has a good memory, we usually mean that he or she is quick at retrieving stored information such as names and faces, directions to work, or the contents of grocery lists. But when we memorialize, is that what we’re doing: recalling information?

In ritualized memorials, who or what is doing the remembering? Each individual? The group? The ritual itself?

And what about forgetting—is it always bad and remembering always good? Alzheimer’s patients can’t remember, and that is bad. But PTSD patients can’t stop remembering, and that too is bad. So we might want to distinguish functional from dysfunctional forgetting, functional from dysfunctional remembering.

That communities and individuals utilize their memories during and after ritual events is obvious enough. After all, memory is required for almost every human activity. But rituals are not exclusively about remembering. They are also about envisioning. (This is the less than perfect word I use to signal ritual’s capacity to look toward the future.) We humans often treat as memories things that we never knew in the first place. I cannot, literally speaking, remember the sacrifices made in the Great War. (In case you’ve “forgotten,” that was WWI.) Why? Because I wasn’t there. I experienced both world wars vicariously—by hearing stories, seeing films, and reading books.

What I actually remember (or forget) are old photos, war stories, newsreels, and memorial ceremonies. Even though commemorations may be indirectly about ancestors or heroes, they are directly about representations. Even if names remain engraved on tombstones forever (and many don’t), the dead will, eventually and inevitably, be forgotten as individuals. Someday, in the future, no one will be alive who remembers the actual people who died in the Holocaust, Norway on the 22nd of July 2011, or in the United States on the 11th of September 2001. Even if people, declaring that they will never forget, continue to memorialize these historic events, they will eventually forget.

We have memorials not only because we remember, but also because we forget. Most memorials, most of the time, are actually acts of imagining, not remembering, the dead. Eventually, all that remains are the collective dead, the ancestors, whom we know only by deploying our ritualistic and artistic imaginations retrospectively, toward the past.

I’m not saying that we invent the dead, but we do imagine and then utilize them for purposes they could not possibly have anticipated. However surely the dead once were, they are now made up. The dead become fictive personages whom we deploy in the present to help us wade into the deep waters of the future.

Assuming we remember, the next question, the bigger one, is what  we will do in the future? In The Night Trilogy Elie Wiesel writes, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

 

 

Vine Deloria Jr. (March 26, 1933 – November 13, 2005) was a Hunkpapa Lakota scholar, author, historian, and activist. For samples of his writings see Spirit and Reason: The Vine Delolria, Jr. ReaderThese two interviews are some of his most thoughtful and critical reflections on spirituality and native people.

Follow this link for an article I wrote while discussing Native American religions with Vine at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Everybody dies, and lots of people immigrate. But few Muslims marry Jews, and Mohawks rarely cross the river to conduct Condolence ceremonies among non-natives. Why? “A Daughter’s Song” doesn’t quite answer the question, but it captures what happens when such events coincide.

Three months after the death of Myriam Azoulay, Mohawks, invited by artists affiliated with Native-Immigrant (a Montreal arts project directed by Carolina Echeverria), offered a Condolence Ceremony for family and friends. This film braids together the ritual and a walk with Stephane, Myriam’s husband, who is accompanied by his daughter and mother-in-law.

For a more documentary-style presentation see A Mohawk Condolence and A Native Immigrant Condolence.

For an interview with Francis Boots and Philip Deering see Mohawk Ritual and Education.

For an article about the event go to Bridging Rituals.

 

Norwegians sometimes refer to July 22, 2011, as their “9/11,” the day their perceptions were changed forever by an act of violence. An assassin exploded a car bomb beneath a government building in Oslo, then ferried to Utoya island, where he hunted down and shot Labour Party youth attending a summer camp. In the end, seventy-seven people were killed, and over three hundred injured. Norwegians sometimes say about the assassin that he was “one of us.”

This is a video about how the event was being commemorated in 2015.

Many viewers comment on the music. People have trouble identifying the instrument. One person wrote that the performance made his hair stand on end. Another commented on how perfectly appropriate to the subject matter it was. Another noted how different it is from the current Norwegian response: silence. The harmonica solo is an improvisation by Bryn Scott-Grimes at York University in 2011, a few months before the July 22 attacks.You can watch the original performance here.

Another experimental video that combines text and image: I Have Feathers Enough, and Toys Too.

Turning 25, musician Bryn Scott-Grimes visits Robert Johnson’s grave site. Later, he visits the crossroads where, the story has it, Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical mastery.

by Susan Scott & Ron Grimes

first published in The New Quarterlyhttps://tnq.ca/sleeping-with-the-author/

 

“When it comes to fighting against white supremacy, it’s not just what you stand for, it’s who you sit with.” –Jamaya Khan, Maclean’s, August 16, 2017

“Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” –Ralph Ellison, Paris Review Spring, 1957

 

Editing the work of friends and family is a common goodwill gesture, often done as a favour, or, as is the case with certain literary couples, by design. John Gregory Dunne once told the New York Times that he and Joan Didion serve as one another’s “first reader, absolutely.” Glen David Gold described his and Alice Sebold’s harmonious writing-and-editing rhythms as expressions of the couple’s “complementary neuroses.”

My spouse and I are three decades into editing one another’s work, a lively partnership we safeguard by confining ourselves to separate sandboxes—his, in academia; mine, in arts and culture. The rise of Trump disrupted this peaceable arrangement. Suddenly, my husband was exploring explosive family history in a personal essay I’d encouraged him to write.

 What I discovered in the process was unsettling. As an editor, I want the truth exposed. As a spouse, I sometimes dread it.

The following exchange with Ron Grimes took place in August and September, 2017, while he was submitting “The Backsides of White Souls” to literary magazines in the U.S. and Canada. If the essay is published, we will link to it, here.

                    –Susan Scott, TNQ nonfiction editor

 

Susan Scott: Canadian editor, American scholar. I wonder, have I done justice when it comes to your incendiary essay?

Ron Grimes: Sure you have. You’re doubting?

SS: The aftermath of Charlottesville, Virginia, got me thinking about the marriage of editing and culture. Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic about Trump’s addiction to flouting norms—even when he’s handed a statement that’s been vetted, he will not stay on script.

His behaviour reinforces this dismissal of the rational, cooling space that editing affords. Left and right, we’re seeing that cultural cooling space collapsing.

But cooling off can also mean constraint. Editing can just as easily undercut what the cultural moment calls for. “House of the Dead” exposes racism in an old American family. Looking back, I wonder, have I simply reined you in?

RG: Sometimes, but I knew you would do that, and I invited it. This essay is personal and dangerous. I kept losing perspective on it and needed your editorial eye. We both know the value of trying to imagine “the reader’s” eyes. We both believe that blindly accepting an editor’s suggestions is a mindless exercise. But we’ve done this before. The ultimate decision is the author’s, so I had to figure out when to let you rein me in and when not to.

SS: Fair enough. I wanted to think with you as you wrote, and I wanted you to think with me—not just resist, or capitulate to my suggestions. Not that you’d ever capitulate, really, but the creative tension between us colours how you write, and how I edit.

So, what about the spousal edit? When is it effective?

RG: Well, for instance, you helped me rethink the knife on the bedpost. I had that image in early drafts, and you wanted me to take it out.

SS: Right, the early draft you sent to friends confessed …

RG: Sorry, it wasn’t confession, it was fact. That knife had hung on the bedpost since my teens. You never complained about it until you read the essay, when you said …

SS: I said, “Okay, even if the knife does hang there, is that how you want to introduce yourself to readers? Unless you want to shock them, think about cutting the reference to the knife.” You still had ghosts and guns. Page one, no less. The knife’s important to the story; how it was handled was the question.

RG: Right, I don’t mind if people dismiss me in the last paragraph, I just don’t want them to dismiss me in the first paragraph.

SS: So, was it a loss, excising the knife?

RG: No, I didn’t excise it. The literary knife is back in now—reframed. I put the actual knife away one day when you were gone (and pulled it back out momentarily to stage this photo). I thought, “I don’t need this ritual object hanging here anymore.” Did you notice?

SS: Ah, so that’s what happened. Editorial prompt as ritual prompt; that’s novel. Anything else come to mind?

RG: You and I both love economy and compression in writing, so I asked you to steal some of my words. I also love hyperbole, sparkle, and spew, so I sometimes dump economy. You suggested cutting:

 

Having moved north of the border to Canada in 1974, one might wish the load of baggage had been left behind, stuffed in a carpet bag and stashed in some remote, deep-south alley. But, as kids used to say in New Mexico, you can’t pee in only one corner of a swimming pool. Canadians put it more discreetly: When America sneezes, Canada catches cold.

SS: Yep, that had to go. Shall we talk about why, or is it obvious?

RG: I still like the passage, but I followed your suggestion. The context was too serious for horseplay. Those lines are now composting in my fragments file, waiting to jump into the next essay.

SS: Right, you know that I’m uneasy, still, about “House of the Dead” going public.

RG: Sorry to hear that. You urged me to write the essay. Why dread it now?

SS: I asked what you wanted to accomplish, and you said you wanted to make a racket, dragging skeletons out of the closet.

RG:  I want white people to talk about being white. So, yes, open the closets and let the skeletons out, let them rattle their bones.

SS: Absolutely, but then what? Scott Gilmore called out Canadian racism in Maclean’s after the violence in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, and that was well before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report. As a country, we’re just now admitting we have skeletons, let alone rattling them. Editing your essay made me realize I need to own up to that reluctance.

RG: Meaning what?

SS: You were starting brush fires using religion and politics as kindling. My response was to tamp down the flames. I argued that the longer the thematic checklist, the greater the danger that your characters would be flattened to little more than props. And on the one hand, that’s true. The more themes piled on, the more the clutter, and the less oxygen for power and precision.

On the other hand, your instinct as a writer is to fan the flames. I edited in favour of a smoulder.

RG: Compared with what’s happening in Charlottesville, I’ve built a tiny Boy Scout campfire surrounded by rocks to keep it from spreading. “House of the Dead” is a complex essay, but I had a hard time figuring out what the argument was. In academic writing I’d start with the thesis and argument. But in this essay I had characters, dialogue and a plot. My problem was less with characters than with plot and setting. They were too elaborate You had to keep straightening out my chronology. Anyway, we agree that an essay needs both a story and an argument, and there’s only so much you can do in 5,000 words.

SS: True enough, but I suggested that you try creative nonfiction (CNF) because it would expose you to techniques for exploring disturbing insights. Of course, like any art form, CNF is demanding. “The essay must be artistically rendered,” as Phillip Lopate says.

Sure enough, there you were, struggling with the form.

Let’s just say, I’m culpable on two fronts. I suggested CNF as a kind of discipline, then pulled back once I saw exactly where it took you.

RG: I asked you to give me homework, and I’ve done it. Sure, “House of the Dead” needs to be artistically rendered, but it also needs to be ethical and critical. The essay takes up unfinished family, ethnic, and national business that implicates living members of my family. I can’t think only about characters. I also have to think about people. Across five generations mine has been a “good” family, respected in the community. Among us siblings one is an atheist, one “believes pretty much what he believed as a kid,” one is far to the religious and political right, and I am, what shall I say, ludically religious. All these categories are inaccurate, but they will do for now. Two of us voted for Trump, two didn’t. If you asked my siblings, probably we’d say we’re not racist; some of us have non-white friends. In the 1970s we had a shouting match, not typical in our family, followed by an agreement never to talk again about race, religion, or politics. We may love each other, but in the current political climate we’re dysfunctional. America is failing, and the family so far is unable to deal the rifts. We haven’t faced our heritage, so we are unable to negotiate America’s loss of moral credibility.

SS: I see that. I also see ethical tripwires in your writing: whether to use people’s names; how fair it is to expose the voting choices and religious beliefs of family members; how to depict polarizing figures like your grandma. Then there’s the question, do you want your readers to empathize with all these figures?

RG: I do fieldwork on ritual, so empathizing is a part of my academic research. I have to consider the ethics of privacy as a part of my profession. I’ve rewritten the voices and depictions of my brothers and sister dozens of times. I care about their feelings, but I also want to tell the truth—as I see it, of course.

SS: I like that you’ve explored the use of dialogue. Now we hear real voices.

RG: Well, my reconstruction of real voices. My sister’s voice was the most difficult to represent, since our conversations kept breaking down. Trump supporters and Christian fundamentalists will likely read her character as courageous, standing up for her beliefs. Liberal readers will read her religious and political views differently.

SS: Either way, what readers want, I think, are compelling characters who make us think and feel. I want to understand your family, and I want your essay to help me do that. Is that an undue burden for the author? Maybe it is.

Are you showing the essay to your siblings?

RG: Maybe it’s a fair expectation of novels or great short story writers, but for me it’s an undue burden. This is a brief essay, and I’ve presented selected bits—characters, not actual personalities—and that’s as true of me as narrator as it is of the other characters. Even though I don’t use my siblings’ names, I decided against springing the published essay on them, so I am showing it to them before publication. I’ll listen to them, but I may not always take their advice. The essay reveals a big family secret. Some relatives may not like that I’ve told it publicly, but the current political crisis in the U.S. makes hiding irresponsible. Anyway, I first sent the essay to readers whose opinions I respect, people who could help me improve it.

SS: That surprised me, your circulating such an early draft.

RG: That’s part of my writing process, to send an essay out early to colleagues, while I’m still open to criticism and suggestions. Later, I’ll dig in, becoming more resistant to changes.

SS: Another classic difference between us: we have a radically different sense of timing. I suggest that authors hone their work before they show it, on the assumption that, the greater their confidence in the piece, the greater their resilience, weathering critique.

But it’s your essay and your process. And, let’s be frank: no matter how well the work is crafted, it isn’t going to heal the family.

RG: You’re guessing. Sure, it could be a bombshell, but it could also lead to some good, difficult conversations. I read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington. Both tell about writing controversial family stories and getting surprisingly receptive reads by relatives. It’s a risk I’ve decided to take. Are you worried?

SS: I am. We seldom see your family. It’s hard enough, resolving minor conflicts at a distance, let alone your airing family secrets. You also take a stand on how the family functions. People will feel hurt. How that’s going to help, I wonder.

RG: People “may” feel hurt. You’re now playing therapist rather than editor, right?

SS: What can I say? It’s a hazard, sleeping with the author.

We both want good, hard conversations about equity and justice, but we both know that those are often easier to have with strangers.

Part of what I love about the small magazine world is that we’re exercising whatever modest power we have to open doors for writers. Releasing work that’s vital and authentic is what attracts me to publishing. Editing, for me, is deeply moral work. So here’s the irony: editing your essay made me aware of fears and inhibitions I wasn’t owning up to.

RG: Okay, I have a question for you. Is this the hardest editing you’ve ever done?

SS: In one way, yes. Academic-creative crossover pieces are hard to edit. Knotty. Resistant. But the truth is, it’s been a hard project because I am invested. We’re a small cross-border family that’s ill-equipped to deal with a lot of fallout.

Unintended consequences—I stew about those, too.

RG: Between us?

SS: No, we’re fine. We have a long history of bumper-car editing. You value hyperbole, I value understatement. We clash a lot.

RG: I’m from New Mexico, you’re from Ontario. Bang, bump!

SS: (laughs) Yes. You’re expansive, vocal. Your last book was over 400 pages. I’m a minimalist who works towards peaceful resolution.

Alice Quinn of the Poetry Society of America has spoken to the New York Times about the sense of urgency she’s seeing, what she calls the “reckoning and responsibility” that’s supplanting the introspective, personal tone of yesteryear’s poetry. We’re seeing the same shift in creative nonfiction. As an editor, I’m a fierce advocate for transgressive stories, but inhabiting “House of the Dead” with you has made me see that I’m also caught between private and public.

Now’s the time for reckoning on several fronts.

That’s where I’m at. And you?

RG: For sure, it’s a time of reckoning. As a Canadian, I too long for peaceful resolution, but as an American I’m not sure that’s always possible. Anyway, I’m still nosing around in literary journals where I hope to publish. I found “The Old Grey Mare,” an exquisite personal essay in the Yale Review by Colin Dayan, who also wrote The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons. We write about some of the same things—ritual, racism, mothers, the South. Reading her essay, then the book, made me realize how similar and yet how different the South is from the Southwest. I sent her an appreciative note. Now we are trading essays.

SS: Say more.

RG: When I read her essay, I thought, wow, that is literary. I wish I could write like that. I vented to you in frustration, “Please, make me sound more like me.” And you retorted that you were trying to get rid of my academic formalisms, make me sound more literary.

SS: Right, storyteller and scholar—you veer between the two.

RG: I don’t care much whether I sound either academic or literary. I would like my writing voice to “sound” like me.

SS: Fair enough. I love your cowboy storytelling voice, but there’s a time and place for it. “House of the Dead” isn’t it.

Umpteen drafts later, did you find the right voice for the essay?

RG: I’d be the last to know.  I’m sure the editors and readers will let me know.

SS: Submitting to this world is new for you. After doing your research, you ended up with fifty-plus pages of notes on literary magazines in the States and Canada. Now you know more than I do. I’m curious, what’s the take-away?

RG: Having taken a grand tour on both sides of the border, I’d say that while magazines might be muses, they’re also Scylla and Charybdis—a rock shoal and whirlpool separated by a narrow pass through which your rowboat essay must pass. Several times I saw submissions rates in the thousands and acceptance rates of two percent. The literary rite of passage is just as daunting as the academic one. I’ve submitted to seven literary magazines and to the radio show, This American Life. I have ten more magazines lined up for September. I expect success, but many failures first.

SS: Okay, but you’re still reading, too. What’s the draw? Why burrow into lit mags?

RG: Same as you, I care about writing. I want to write better. I just read Terence Byrnes…

SS: Montreal writer-photographer, featured in TNQ 106 (Spring 2008).

Ron’s maternal grandparents

RG: “South of Buck Creek” in Geist is a fabulous photo essay, so I wrote him. I’m busy trading stories and essays with him too. I rarely communicate with authors, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But you ask why. This essay could die on the vine, or, if published, the shit could hit the fan. Either way, I want company. I love being a student. I’m hungry to learn from writers who struggle with the same issues. I want to learn how to honour but also to question the ancestors—well, my ancestors. By dragging the skeletons out of the closet, then talking publicly, I want to learn how live more justly—on stolen land, and benefitting from slave labour.

SS: On that we are united. So, you’re not about to quit my sandbox, are you?

RG: Why quit? I’m just getting started.

 

Bios: Ron Grimes is co-editor of the Oxford Ritual Studies Series and the author of several books, including Fictive Ritual: Reading, Writing, & Ritualizing. Susan Scott is TNQ’s lead nonfiction editor and the editor of Body & Soul: Creative Nonfiction for Skeptics and Seekers.