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Nod if You Can Hear Me

By
March 15, 2010

Guest nonfiction editor Brenda Wineapple brings to Guernica three essays that speak loudly and luminously to one another across generations.

wineapple300.jpgI am not an editor by gift or by temperament. I learned this about myself after happily—even jauntily—accepting the position of Guernica’s guest nonfiction editor, a position I happily—even jauntily—embraced since I’m a Guernica reader and fan. And I thought the gig a great opportunity to open another door to us writers, who sometimes feel, as Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, as if we are speaking to ourselves in the dark.

What I discovered in addition to the little bit of above-mentioned insight is that the three fine pieces you’re about to read actually speak to one another and not in the dark but luminously about the writing life.

All three essays are written by women, each woman of a different age. Consider “Lucky Girl” by Bridget Potter, formerly my student in the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where she will receive her MFA after a career as a television producer. In it, the Bridget Potter of yesteryear was, in 1962, headed to Puerto Rico for an abortion then illegal and depositing girls far less lucky than she in the hospital with horrific complications; sixteen hundred women showed up in just one New York City hospital—and these were women luckier than the ones who went untreated and/or died. And at this frightening time in our history, one we must never allow to return, the youthful Bridget Potter, naïve and scared, went to Puerto Rico with Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King tucked under her arm. Henderson is not a story about a young, frightened woman but about a middle-aged man who craves something ineffable that his surfeited middle-class life does not provide—and which is definitely not an illegal abortion. Not surprisingly, the book is rain-soaked before Bridget finishes her journey, a journey that happily ends with her as a writer in this magazine.

Sara Faye Lieber, also a former student of mine at Columbia, began her career by editing online reference books at Oxford University Press just as books were being sidelined, and co-workers were whispering “Wikipedia” in hushed tones. In “Bohemian Rhapsody,” when Sara is assailed by bedbugs, she calls the exterminator, who immediately asks if she worked in the publishing industry: “apparently a lot of people in publishing get bedbugs, partly because they hoard books and paper, and partly because they make less money than people in other professions that they consider to be of their same status, so editors and writers are frequently the people renting bug-infested apartments in newly gentrified neighborhoods with prices that are ‘too good to be true.’” Bedbugs inhabit books? We’ve come a long way from Henderson the Rain King but, on the other hand, when Sara must trash her beloved library and drag it in black garbage bags marked “insectos malos” out to the curb, the neighborhood boys and girls rip open the sacks and run away with the books no matter how loud she yells at them to beware. Books, we believe, will outlast bedbugs after all.

Rochelle Gurstein, the author of The Repeal of Reticence: A History of America’s Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (1996) and currently a contributor to The New Republic Online, is not afraid to take a moral stand, as she does here when she asks us to consider the nature of work. What kinds of work can we expect ourselves to be doing in the future, she wonders, if we continue to live without any historic sense in our shoddy Styrofoam present? Like “Lucky Girl” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rochelle’s “Labor Pains” argues for a world where our selves—which is also to say our books—are no longer infested by mindless work, inhumane law, and forced labor (in all senses of the word). That world will be one of pleasure and true craft not unlike what the writer herself experiences, even in the dark, alone, unheralded, for it is a world of human dignity. All three pieces imagine this world of daily creative skill—and, one hopes, of much writing and reading, which is what we’re here to do.

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Brenda Wineapple’s books include White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times “Notable Book,” as well as Genêt: A Biography of Janet Flanner; Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein; and Hawthorne: A Life. A Guggenheim fellow, she received a Pushcart Prize in 2009, and her new anthology, Nineteenth-Century American Writers on Writing, will be published next fall. She is currently writing a book about America, 1848-1877.

Photo by “Chion Wolf”: http://www.ChionWolf.com

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