Archive  2021

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Judith Kitchen, Ira Sukrungruang, Brian Trapp

November 27, 2020

from The Circus Train

by Judith Kitchen

 

“Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to.”—THE

 

I remember during a presentation at a writers conference in Portland decades ago that my friend Judith Kitchen asked whether I was bothered by the fact that Annie Dillard made up the famous story of her cat leaving bloodied footprints on her chest. I mumbled something about facts being a great teacher, but that Annie Dillard was a superb writer, and it didn’t matter that much to me. This was at the very beginning of the debate about truth in nonfiction, and the audience grumbled at my remarks. I was not sure where Judith stood on the issue at that time, but in the end I think she and I mulled over the problem and came to similar views on the subject. I offer this Paragraph of the Week and Commentary as evidence.

 

Judith died in November 2014, and each year around this time The Humble Essayist features a paragraph from her work. This time I chose one from The Circus Train which I consider her masterpiece and the finest book-length essay ever written.

 

This is our last feature for 2020. The Humble Essayist takes the month of December off, but we’ll be back on Friday, January 8. In the meantime we will leave the feature on truth an memory by Judith in place as a way to crown the year.

—THE

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Don't. Don't keep arguing with me, refuting what I've just said, resisting my interpretations. You always try to give others their due. You posit excuses for them. Or reasons. I don't care about the reasons. I only care that…that they are what I say they are. The product of my perceptions. So don't go on defending them against my stories. My stories are real. They carry themselves along the months, then years. They move slowly, horse and buggy time, and their colors do not fade. So, simply, don't. Open yourself to my version of my life—because it will eventually explain everything. Will lead to the cookie jar that holds my ashes. Open yourself to what it feels like to be burdened with memory, and insight. Or, if not insight, then critique. Commentary. So, quite simply, don't.

—Judith Kitchen

Commentary

 

Judith Kitchen was not only an elegant writer of lyric prose, she was also an astute literary critic. In The Circus Train she is often of these two minds, and when she slips into second person here it is the writer talking back to the critic. Her book begins with her earliest memory of playing in a strawberry patch and seeing a circus train in a valley, but the more her critical mind examines the memory the more contradictions she sees in it. When she pictures her house and the strawberry patch “there is no room in that scene for the little valley with its tiny chugging circus.” Perhaps the train was in a book, she wonders, but the critic in her suspects she has conflated two separate scenes to create a memory that didn't happen. “When you doubt your own version,” the critic asks sharply, “how can you not doubt the whole?” Exasperated, the writer responds. “Don’t. Don’t keep arguing with me.” It is not a debate about the facts that the writer needs, but stories that are, she contends, “the products of my perceptions.” They last a lifetime and “do not fade.” They are real and she can take them to “the cookie jar” that will one day hold her ashes. Contradictory or not, her memories are what she must be true to. And yet, she needs the critic too and asks, calm now by the end of the paragraph, that the two of them do this task together and share “what it feels like to be burdened with memory.” In addition to personal perception the writer knows she requires “insight,” “critique,” or “commentary”—whatever word best describes what the critic in her has to offer—though in the end memory, no matter how flawed, is the final arbiter.

—THE

 
 

January 8, 2021

 

from “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology”

by Ira Sukrungruang

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“...young Ira and his friends thought the scene was funny until they heard the boy’s manic cackle that scattered crows.—THE

 

An anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of Brevity magazine came out at the end of last year, so we thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from the new book. The founder of Brevity, Dinty Moore, admits in the introduction that the magazine dedicated to personal prose of 750 words or less began more as “an experiment than a commitment,” and he did not expect it to last long, but it set in motion a wave of interest in short nonfictional forms and has become one of the great online magazines in our time. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

We begin with the essay “The Cruelty We Delivered: An Apology” by Ira Sukrungruang. He is the author of the memoirs Southside Buddhist and Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy, the short story collection The Melting Season, and the poetry collection In Thailand It Is Night.

The Paragraph of the Week

We said cruel things, too. In our secret circle. In the temple library, where dust coated books about suffering, where furniture went to rot in the damp back room. Someone said, He smells like barf. Someone said, Thai white trash. I said, No wonder his parents dumped him. How could we know you hid behind a shelf of Buddhist books, patting a stray cat that made a nest in the hollow of a cabinet? How could we know what was to follow? If we did, would we have stopped our tongues?

—Ira Sukrungruang

Commentary

In many ways the boy ridiculed by the “secret circle” of Ira Sukrungruang’s friends was just another mischievous boy like them, but his pranks were fueled by a “rocket energy” that made everyone uncomfortable. So when he threw a rock through the Temple window and the monks chased him into the vegetable garden young Ira and his friends thought the scene was funny until they heard the boy’s manic “cackle that scattered crows.” They huddled and shared insults about him, not really understanding the boy and barely aware of the pain they were inflicting. They did not know that he kept a stray cat in the library because he thought it missed its mother, and they did not know that one day years later he would kill himself. When Sukrungruang learned the news he and his friends said they weren’t surprised, pushing aside their guilt, but thinking back on the time that the boy stole holy water and, smiling broadly, poured it over his head, the author knew better and accepted responsibility. “I remember,” he writes feeling ashamed, “wishing forgiveness in the form of rain.”

—THE

January 15, 2021

from “Shower Songs”

by Brian Trapp

in The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction

 

“It is the irreverence of the brothers that allows ‘Shower Songs’ to cut to the heart.”

—THE

 

An anthology of the best essays from the first twenty years of Brevity magazine came out at the end of last year, so we thought we would celebrate the beginning of 2021 by devoting the month of January to works from the new book. Writers can take on any subject as long as it is written in 750 words or less. The theme of the current issue is disability which is also the subject of our Paragraph of the Week. You can reach the website for Brevity here.

 

Last week we featured an essay by Ira Sukrungruang about bullying and its impact on boys which you can find in the archives here, but this week we look at the flipside, in a passage from “Shower Songs,” by Brian Trapp, a piece about brothers taunting each other in ways that may seem cruel to those outside the relationship, but, when matched with responsibility, tenderness, and empathy are the language of brotherly affection. Trapp’s essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Ninth Letter among other magazines. He is at work now on a novel and memoir both based on growing up with his twin brother, Danny.  You can read the complete version of "Shower Songs" here.

The Paragraph of the Week

 

Now it was time for our special song. For this, I used the loofah. His penis was matted with black pubic hair from being crushed inside his diaper. Bits of crystallized urine were caked to the hair. As I scrubbed, I started the bass line, a sort of march. I sang, “It’s not gay…It’s not gay…cause I’m wa-shing my bro-ther’s penis.”

 

—Brian Trapp

Commentary

 

It is the irreverence of the brothers that allows “Shower Songs” to cut to the heart. When Brian gave his disabled 23-year-old twin brother, Danny, a bath, Danny called him “momma” as a taunt and said “Ahhhhh” through chattering teeth in a “complicated heckle for You're such and idiot that doubled for It’s freaking cold.” Brian got back by saying Danny was “ugly,” and added “you smell and stink to boot” causing Danny to smile and say “Brian,” though it came out “I-an.” And Brian sang the loofah song with the refrain “It’s not gay…cause I’m wa-shing my bro-ther’s penis.” During this banter, Brian carried his brother into the shower, washed his “taut abdomen,” “hairy chicken legs,” “warped feet,” and “splayed hands,” and cleaned the crystalized urine away from his pubic area with care for the last time. Soon Brian would move three hours away and Danny would be taken to a group home where he would die five years later after a medical procedure. It is the give-and-take between the twins that tells most of the story of their brotherly affection removing sentimentality on the way to true sentiment, though the hug in the shower at the end of the piece, brothers “chest to chest,” gets me too.

—THE

 

© 2014 The Humble Essayist

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