“I have not sought release forms to record or publish my grandmother’s stories. They resist the restrictions of copyright law. Her story is part of my story, but it is not my story.”—Stephanie Sauer
“For nearly a year after he died, his final voice message remained in my inbox: it’s me. I kept it there and sometimes listened to it, the sound of his voice come back from the dead—it’s me—and then the blank space when it ended… Sometimes I find myself listening to this blankness” —Katherine Haake
In moments of division and uncertainty it may serve us well to remember that every human moment is certain only of its own division and divided, primarily, by its own uncertainties.
Creative nonfiction is likely the only genre that is defined by undefined borders. It is the thing which is not, non-fiction, but it is not its opposite either—reality, truth, the white-coated undeniable-quantifiable-verifiable of methods and beaker-measured ounces. It is not a list, not a log, not an unedited stream of the chronological events of existence.
Not, at least, if it is to aspire to literature.
A problem which is quickly complicated further by the fact that while fiction is described as successful, primarily, when it “touches upon some definite human truth,” just as frequently nonfiction is dubbed as a success when it “sounds like fiction.”
Which may seem to set the essayist, the nonfiction writer, before an impossible task. Before an audience ready to feel betrayed by inaccuracy, and bored by fact. But, for me, it is within this paradox that the genre justifies the need for such an oblique category. It is here that it begins to offer something no other genre does, not as directly, and rarely ever so blatantly. The promise to expose the inaccuracy of facts and the facts of inaccuracy.
With the exception of literary translation, there is may not be any genre more self-aware than this. It is written from flawed perspective about flaw perspective, not shying away from the reader propensity to feel betrayed, but rather plunging into it and making theater of the dissection of betrayal.
We are all betrayed by our senses, by memory, by hoped-for endings, happy and catastrophic. And by our own continuously shifting truths.
Creative nonfiction, when successful, does not sound like any other genre, but rather it reacts to the poison of narrative comfort, to our own proclivity for simplification and categorization.
The lie about truth is that it is simple and clear. The truth about it, however, has nothing to do with it and everything to do with us. That we long for a moral at the end of every fable, and a narrative that exculpates us and excoriates the black-eyed barbarians beating their fists to bone-splinters forever at our gates.
“I left America for a few weeks because I thought I could.” Writes Kisha Schlegel, “I walked alone into a Muslim neighborhood. As the sun set on the buildings, the Adhān filtered through a loud speaker. Just beyond the windows, inside each home, people touched their foreheads to sacred rugs. No one was in the street. I was alone when I heard the call, which I had never heard before, and so I heard it through the amplification of American fear that equates Islam with terror.”
What can be quantified and verified of this experience touches on no great truth. The author was there, the speakers, the prayer. But along them, of course, was no less true but harder to verify tonnage of assimilated fear bearing down on essayist’s shoulders. The sharp and fragile edge of the divisive narrative cutting into her. The truth about the terror of a few, the truth about the fear of many, and all the splintered truths about all the rest of us caught in between while we hope for a narrative and a moral to lull us to sleep at night and whip us into furious frenzies in the morning after.
Amidst all this, nonfiction—at its best—can stand as a regulator. Uncomfortable and disconsolate, wiling to devour and unravel itself for our sakes. To confront the fact that the truth of it all is we are, every one of us, implicated in division, fear, rage and the beating heart of hate. It is written in our biology and none of us is free.
Creative nonfiction, when it steps into the territories of literature, is a reminder that the Object D’Art does not emerge spontaneously from primordial swamps or holy gardens; that it is a continuous witnessing and interpreting, and that because of this both divine particles and sleeping gods sometimes lie and often forget. That human truth is not the truth of stones and stars, that it is covered in mud and stirring in the dark. And that we stitch it together the best we can, sometimes making blankets and sometimes hoods.
Nonfiction, when it becomes not merely literature but art, does not merely witness, but it witnesses its witnessing and challenges readers to confront their expectations, biases and own fictional selves in a world stars, stones and imposed human narratives.
All of the essays chosen for the DB24 encounter themselves in this very way. Janelle DolRayne paints a tender portrait of sibling love and all the quiet catastrophes that this entails. Jason Spears visits a town built atop a trash heap and confronts privilege, voyeurism and responsibilities of art. Katherine Haake stands in a wild field of grazing javelinas while the silence of death and the foreignness of furless human bodies amidst herds, and grass, and vast sand hills slowly reveler itself to her. Rajiv Mohabir carefully unravels the expectations of romance and identity constructed by Bollywood films just as his own romance seems to unravel before the expectations of religious and national identities. Stephanie Sauer takes on war, trauma, dictatorships and unspoken victory of hard but beautiful embroidered truths. And Kisha Schlegel sings a heartbreaking ballad to Dick Chaney’s broken heart.
When so much of the public dialog seems defined and confined by the accusation, “they started it!” These essay hold steady, and still, and they try, honestly, to start something worth starting.
Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas