When I began soliciting creative nonfiction for this issue of Connotation Press, I had no specific theme in mind. I was simply going to write to every nonfiction writer I could think of and see what came in. We find ourselves in an unsure time politically and economically, and perhaps this is why the pieces I received, while focusing on a wide range of subjects, all presented an individual confronting an overwhelming nemesis. I’m proud to present the work of four writers who have dramatized compelling allegories for our jittery common consciousness.
In “Frankenbird,” the overwhelming nemesis that Dave Damianakes battles is marinating—or perhaps failing to marinate—in his own kitchen. Neither his richly comic tone nor his increasingly over-structured denial can obscure how complicit he is in creating the monstrosity that is threatening to destroy his family’s Thanksgiving. In the crisis that arises from trying to talk turkey to a definite non-turkey, the collision between reality and illusion reveals that even a humorous existential jolt can be metaphorical for all of our anxieties.
The overwhelming nemesis that Stephan Clark confronts in “Touching Down” is no less engrossing for being far more grave: the betrayal of his own body. I don’t need to tell you that this is the most riveting health-scare story you’ll ever read, because you’ll know that after the first paragraph. And perhaps I don’t need to point out that the number of themes that Clark manages to interrelate and explode in a mere 3400 words is impressive: The social terrorism that constitutes the American healthcare system, the often absurd crises of masculinity, the disorienting realities of being an essentially stateless person who must make vital decisions thirty thousand feet in the air, and the redemptive beauty of Ukrainian women. This is one of those virtuoso writing performances that we can’t turn away from, even as the author accomplishes his every narrative wish, bending his story left to right and stripping down his humanity top to bottom.
In “Geese,” Andrew Tonkovich confronts a nemesis so overwhelming that it’s turned millions of people into refugees, cripples, or corpses. Mass opposition to the colossal indecency known as the Iraq War is not only an important topic that continues to be underreported, but Tonkovich’s memoir of his protest activities—on which he took his small son—is driven by a gentle strength that counterpoints the brutalities of mass killing, mass acquiescence, and massive war profiteering. The monsters behind the murder-for-hire “defense” industries on whose behalf the Iraq War continues to be fought will never be brought to justice by Tonkovich’s essay. But those of us who marched against the war in 2003 were of course right, as future events proved. Even so, we will never receive our due apologies from the right wing, and the American rape of Iraq will never be undone. Ultimately, Tonkovich can offer his son only the most valuable of moral commodities: a luminous example of what it means to be a decent human being.
The realities of personal violence are often more digestible than the abstract politics of war. Michael Leone’s overwhelming nemesis is his own conviction that he is being hunted by another man—a burly and violent man—whose greatest desire is possibly to break open Leone’s skull. No, this work of high-tension reportage doesn’t come to us from the worlds of crime, prison, or gang warfare, and yet few readers, perhaps, will be shocked to learn that these events took place in a social milieu that is too often barbaric, confrontational, and even pugilistic—yes, I’m referring to the raised-pinky world of cigarette-biters, booze junkies, flinching neurotics, and teatime litterateurs that—most of humanity will be relieved—is merely the world of writers. “The Aggrieved Novelist: Is He Going to Kill Me?” explores the notion that writing one of the few “honest” book reviews ever to appear in the United States might just get you murdered.
Finally, since I’ve selected four male writers, it’s necessary to conjecture why no female writers responded to my solicitations for work. I asked ten women writers, many of them well-known, to send me unpublished essays on any topic of their choice. Six never wrote me back at all. Of the rest, one said that she did not write nonfiction; another said that she was busy finishing a novel, that she had no original nonfiction to send, and suggested that I repost an entry from her blog; another discussed a promising topic with me, but reported three weeks later that it was only three sentences long; another told me that she didn’t think she had anything appropriate, but that her husband was also a writer, and perhaps I should ask him for a piece. I was particularly stunned that one of the women who completely ignored my solicitation had been one of the loudest voices of complaint when, in 2009, Publisher’s Weekly put together a list of the “ten best” books of the year that included no female authors.
My female friends have a number of theories for why no women sent me work, none of which I have any particular evidence to support. But here we go:
Women, being more practical than men, like to take more time considering things, and my March 15 deadline was too soon. Women assume more domestic responsibilities than men do, and therefore have less time to write or submit on demand. Women write more fiction and poetry than men do, while men write more nonfiction. The women I solicited were better published than the men, and therefore had fewer unpublished pieces lying around. The women I know are only pretending to like me, and don’t want to send me their work.
Many women writers consider their gender to be an overwhelming nemesis when it comes to placing their writing. At the least, I now have an extended anecdote that should stimulate a good amount of interesting conversation with them and between them.
I’ve had to console myself with the fact that I’m publishing four men who are unashamedly in touch with their feminine sides: a man who wants to cook the best dinner possible for his family, a man who is against war, a man who is willing to consider life without a testicle, a man who lives in fear of male violence. Aside from the issue of a particular writer’s gender, I think these four pieces ably demonstrate why creative nonfiction is one of the most vibrant storytelling genres of our time.
Follow THIS LINK for a complete listing of all the artists in the April guest editor column.