Festival Days, by Jo Ann Beard
It’s a lofty goal, to imagine translating one’s own personal experiences in a way that instructs and illuminates, moves and inspires, another human being.
Jo Ann Beard is long known for her essay collection The Boys of My Youth, frequently cited as groundbreaking amongst literary personal essays. After a 23-year wait, her next nonfiction collection, Festival Days, is finally here.
In the author’s note, Beard writes about her relationship to genres of fiction, essay, and poetry, and why these can be difficult to separate thematically. I agree, but it does read like a warning instead of observation about the intermingling of fact and fiction. She labels two pieces as actually being stories, despite of course the natural overlap between genres. This is definitely creative nonfiction that takes the most liberties with “creative”; in one piece not designated as being mostly fictional, she notes the color of carpet and make of a table only to say in the next line that she made it up.
Honestly, this frustrates me. We could debate all day about truth in memoir or “creative” nonfiction in general, but I ask one thing of nonfiction writers: tell me the truth. I have no problem with a collection that mixes essay and short story, but I’m suspicious of too much line-blurring. So you have to just accept that’s what you’re getting here.
In “Werner,” about a New York artist who escaped a building fire by diving through the window of a building opposite, that blurring is heavily felt, the same in “Cheri,” about a woman choosing assisted suicide with Dr. Kevorkian. Neither of these two “essays” are those identified earlier as fiction, but much of them clearly is fictional, especially “Cheri”. I only skimmed the stories because I’m not good at reading fiction anymore (dialogue and certain kinds of description trip me up).
I don’t think every detail in the Boys essays was necessarily the god’s-honest-truth either, but it didn’t feel invented like here. Recalling her own life and what she felt and saw and imagined is less jarring than attributing feelings, memories, motivations and the like to others.
Although as a whole this collection didn’t give me that warm glow of reading something world-altering that Boys did, it had some meaningful gems that make it wholly recommendable.
Interestingly, she writes a lot about writing itself, including how hard it apparently can be for her. That’s the kind of honesty and transparency I love, and her careful work on a sentence level is astounding. That seems to be a trademark of hers, that not a single word is wasted. She’s a master.
The most important question to be asked is “What is this piece about below the surface?” The writer doesn’t necessarily need to have an answer to that question — the route to creating art is meandering and brambly, and most artists can’t tell you exactly how it’s done — but in any case, the reader as to be able to answer the question.
The title essay is the lengthiest, and it’s a feat, a perfect example of what she describes above. It’s nominally about several subjects, including a trip to India with two friends, one of whom is terminally ill. But it’s also about being left by someone you love, and how the people we love don’t ever really leave us, how every moment in life can hearken back to another, and memories can fortify us for everything ahead. And that’s tip of the iceberg, there’s a lot going on and it’s all a beautiful illustration of what Beard is capable of, stylistically and emotionally. A simple favorite: “Him a man, and me just me.”
Otherwise these feel uneven; some are soul-stirring and others painfully sad, albeit in a recognizable, often relatable way (the time coming to put down a beloved pet). Beard’s talent is undeniable, and it’s worthwhile just to witness what she does with form – bending time, imbuing quiet moments past with breathing life, and putting so much into words about love and pain that’s both beautiful and heartbreaking. published March 16, 2021 by Little, Brown
Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, by Lauren Hough
Well, speaking of a story that’s about one thing on the surface and another underneath: here’s a subtle master of it. Lauren Hough grew up in the notorious(ly horrific) Children of God cult, “The Family”. Her description of awful, evil leader David Berg: “He looked like a taxidermied oppossum in one of those tourist trap junk stores off Route 66, pointy and beady-eyed.” I still maintain he looks like old man Jafar at the beginning of Aladdin, but she’s not wrong.
She writes with stripped-down emotion and sometimes breath-catching honesty about her unusual life and subsequent coping mechanisms: moving around the world within the cult, from Germany to Texas, her stint in the Air Force, work as a cable guy, discrimination for being gay, and years of drugs, depression, and bad relationships born from having no model of better ones. Lest this sound depressing, her sense of humor and ability to extract meaning and clarity from her experiences make this feel more a celebration of growing into oneself despite the circumstances than reliving sad stories and dark experiences.
Her writing about The Family is powerful, and seems cathartic. It’s something most probably couldn’t begin to imagine: a group where children were sexualized, among other abuses. Hough manages to find humor in what was presented to her as normal, recalling her fondness for the group’s coming-apocalypse survival manuals: “Maybe I liked them for the same reason people fantasize about a zombie apocalypse or fighting for the resistance in a dystopian fascist dictatorship — that is, my real life was fucking miserable, and I was surrounded by people who were mean to me. Most of the people around me were supposed to die? Good riddance.”
Always under the surface in every story is where she came from and how it stacked the decks against her from the start, leaving her without healthy models for relationships and coping, with only the assurance that the end of the world was at hand. Hough makes the excellent point that “it’s a little fucking unnerving that a common response to someone whose childhood memories aren’t an exact replica of your own is “What, did you grow up in a cult or something?” Hard to imagine what moving through society with only the fucked-up Family as your foundation must’ve been like, although the glimpses are vivid and telling.
Her stories around long-term depression are powerful, and her perception of it somehow both grim and buoyant: “Do I want to die today? I guess I can take one more day.”
Maybe depression’s the natural reaction to a world full of cruelty and pain. But the thing I know about depression is if you want to survive it, you have to train yourself to hold on; when you can see no reason to keep going, you cannot imagine a future worth seeing, you keep moving anyway. That’s not delusion. That’s hope. It’s a muscle you exercise so it’s strong when you need it.
She writes about her experience being white in the court system and jail, and I’m not sure I’ve read a white writer who gives perspective into this insane system while sensitively understanding and contextualizing their place and privilege within structures that are inherently stacked against people of color.
Not to mention her stark retelling of living for so long in near-poverty while working constantly, usually as a bartender or bouncer, and the unique — often horrifying and discriminatory — challenges she faced doing cable work as a woman. It’s an insight into the life of the working poor that manages to be humorous while not shying from details or truth. At times certain stories felt repetitive or like they ran into each other with similar subjects — namely the sex- and drug-related ones — but it’s a minor qualm for a book that’s going to help a lot of people through understanding, acceptance, validation, and humor: those with stubbornly lingering depression or substance issues, or who’ve experienced discrimination for sexuality, “othering” factors, or in the broken American systems of poverty and imprisonment.
“I was already quickly realizing that no one has the first fucking clue, that all those people you thought had their shit together were simply hoping they hadn’t just made that one choice that ruins everything. Fingers crossed.”
“And my inner voice, defective though it may be, still tells me happiness and peace, belonging and love, all lie just around the next corner, the next city, the next country. Just keep moving and hope the next place will be better. It has to be. Just around the next bend, everything is beautiful. And it breaks my heart.”
“But something happened here. We all have those places where something happened to make us, or change us. I’m here because of this place, and all the places that came after. But this place was the beginning of me.”
published April 13, 2021 by Vintage. I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
Entering this for the Essay category in the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.