Quest for Truth

Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir by Sharon Harrigan
Truman State University Press, 2017
Paperback and ebook, 239 pages, $16.95 and $9.99


Cover of Sharon Harrigan's Playing with Dynamite


It is a very democratic notion, I suppose, that everyone has a story to tell. The ascendancy of social media certainly capitalizes on the idea that anyone and everyone can have a soapbox, but, as tweets, blogs, and online posts proliferate, the difficulty is that much of what is said is not worth reading, even if it is valuable to the writer. The ongoing boom in memoir publishing also points to a kind of populism. Readers who go to memoir looking for stories of great accomplishment, intrigue, or proximity to world-historical events will not always find it in memoirs being published today: The genre is no longer reserved for lives of eminence. But if readers are lucky, they will find in a memoir, such as Sharon Harrigan’s Playing with Dynamite, a story that demonstrates that even an ordinary life proves interesting when assessed by an intelligent and skillful writer.


Harrigan’s book was inspired by her quest to discover the truth about her father, who died in a car accident when she was a young child. Following the accident, her family, sealed in the reticence of grief, was reluctant to speak of her father, creating an aura of mystery around him. The mystery was enhanced by the fact that her father had lost his right hand “playing with dynamite” years before his fatal accident. Vague rumblings about the FBI’s interest in her father added to the sense that there might be a dark family secret lurking. Harrigan was reluctant to break the seal of silence wrapped around her family, fearful of what she might discover or what feelings she might dislodge in others. Harrigan sees how curiosity is stifled by the dread of unsettling relationships as well as by the shame of ignorance. “[E]ven as a little girl,” she writes, “I sensed that others carried questions in their heads they wouldn’t dare ask, things they never said so no one would know they didn’t already know.”


In the eyes of a young child, the two prominent facts about her father (the two accidents) amplified the typical, childish notion that one’s father is a larger-than-life figure, a man whose significance must be plain to all. As an adult and a parent observing her son’s reckoning with his relationship with his own absentee father, Harrigan realized she must finally come to terms with the lifelong puzzle of her father—of who he was, how he died, and what he meant to the rest of the family. To undertake this emotional journey, she has to break the long-held silences of her mother, brother, sister, and uncle. She has to overcome her own queasy, anxious concern that she will not be quite the same person she thought she was once the family history is more clearly disclosed.


Although there are no startling revelations for the reader—if anything, the surprise for Harrigan is that the circumstances of her father’s two accidents turn out not to be especially important—Harrigan’s reflections on her past are rewarding because of the tenor with which they are told. Reading Dynamite is like listening to a good friend tell you about her life over a long coffee or a couple of drinks. Harrigan’s prose is inviting and familiar. And, though the ostensible focus of the book is on her father, the real story is to be found in the appropriately inconclusive self-searching Harrigan undertakes as she attempts to connect with her relations and to review her identity in light of her new understanding of her family.


Two features of Dynamite give added depth and interest to this memoir of life in urban Detroit and rural upstate Michigan (with layovers in Paris, New York, and Virginia). First, Harrigan is unusually sensitive to the ways in which stories of self are shaped by the stories of others. She understands that one’s sense of one’s place in the world is formed in relation to how others are positioned. At a very young age, we receive our parents’ stories of who they are and of who we are, and these ideas have powerful and lasting effects on our understanding of our lives. We are not usually aware of just how much these ideas have infiltrated our thinking. For example, Harrigan comes to realize that what she took to be her memories of her father may actually have been ideas of him that came from her uncle’s stories about him, not her own experience of him. Further, as she undertakes to interview her family members, she sees that there are many variations of the same central narrative. As she says, “Stories change, of course, when different people tell them.” Thus, Dynamite is presented as a kind of collage, with pieces taken from Harrigan’s memory as well as from the memories of others.


In fact, Harrigan may be too sensitive to the responsibility of creating a nonfiction narrative. She bends over backward to label the passages of her text according to their source: her imagination, her memory, the memory of a relative, a recorded conversation. The fear that loved ones will resent what one writes, claiming it is untrue, inaccurate, or radically incomplete, plagues many writers and would-be writers. Even in fiction writing, authors may be concerned lest their words be taken as transparently autobiographical, offending the real persons who have been turned into characters or caricatures. In a memoir that takes family history as its subject, this worry can, understandably, run deep. Yet, I can’t help but think that Harrigan’s concern with accurate representation has the paradoxical effect of making her narrative seem less reliable. The caveats about the precise source of each passage come to seem intrusive, like someone trustworthy whose repeated urging, “You can trust me,” functions to undercut rather than to bolster her listener’s confidence. At least for readers outside her family, the caveats may feel like unnecessary interruptions. After all, it is at the end of the day, her memoir, and she is entitled to tell it any way she likes.


Even so, Harrigan’s sensitivity to the ways in which her narrative is partial surely contributed to her ability to achieve interesting moments of personal growth, culminating in the claim that “[A]ll my life I had been telling myself the story of my father’s death all wrong.” A memoir writer who can admit that she’s gotten it all wrong is one whose writing has had a large transformative effect on her life. And it is the courage of this transformation that makes Harrigan’s book a friendly read—it is the kind of personal story we can learn from because we can translate Harrigan’s self-exploration into our own lives. I was all wrong is not the kind of thing you are likely to see on Facebook. But it is the kind of hard-won admission that can inspire readers to broach their own family secrets and unlock their own personal histories.


A second admirable feature of Harrigan’s book is the directness with which she thinks through the generational shift in attitudes about gender. Reflecting on her father’s sour moods, his cruel remarks, and the control he exerted over her mother, she wonders whether he was simply “a man of his time,” as her mother says with resignation, or whether his sexism was more grievous and culpable than that suggests. Harrigan works to put her family history into a larger social context, considering the prevalence of baldly sexist advertisements and other media in the 1970s. Her aim is not to pass judgment, not to decide ultimately whether he was or wasn’t a male chauvinist, or how to categorize his brutal and reckless personality, but simply to understand it better. She takes the lesson to heart, asking, “Will my children look back, decades from now, and try to forgive my anachronisms by telling themselves I came of age in another era? Will they explain away my insecurity and overeagerness to please by saying, ‘What do you expect? Hers was the first generation after women’s emancipation?’ There are always growing pains. Learning curves.” Such lines reveal Harrigan’s central strength: the ability to probe uncomfortable family issues, apply the scrutiny to herself, and treat all with compassion.


If social media’s popularity is partly a response to the need to be visible, to be remembered, memoirs are—as the name clearly indicates—dedicated to remembering and being remembered. Like social media posts, they are liable to the pitfalls of self-promotion, distortion, and an excess of self-concern or narcissism. However, simply in virtue of being longer and more complex, they offer their writers the potential for a more subtle and meaningful kind of self-representation. Such memoirs can provide something of an antidote to the present culture of click-bait headlines, mudslinging tweets, and drive-by Facebook posts that reduce public discourse too often to fear, anger, unearned righteousness, and rash judgment. The American appetite for memoir must reflect, then, a desire on the part of both writers and readers to engage in a deeper, more sustained form of self-reflection. Harrigan invites us to that kind of deeper reflection as we share in the experience of living with the complexity and uncertainty of family relationships. She invites us to risk finding the unspoken or hidden truths that have had a part in shaping who we are. In Harrigan’s hands, Dynamite may not be explosive, but it is a model for how everyday questions of identity, family, and the past may be addressed thoughtfully.


A Woman’s Journey

Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, by Ana Castillo
The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2016
350 pages, paper, $16.95



For years, Joseph Campbell’s monomyth has served as the definitive narrative archetype. The seventeen-step adventure from the known to the unknown and back again describes the challenges a character faces on the path to become a hero. From “The Call to Adventure” through trials like “Belly of the Whale” and “Woman as Temptress,” the character comes out on the other side forever changed into a more mature, more capable man. Toward the end of Ana Castillo’s memoir Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo, and Me, she draws attention to Campbell’s monomyth of the journey of a male hero. As an aside when discussing how she spent the two years her beloved son was incarcerated for robbery, Castillo tells the story of when she taught the monomyth in a feminist course at a university and had to adjust Campbell’s linear narrative for a woman’s journey. Castillo writes, “… female archetypes had three life stages: lovely maiden, fertile mother, and (sterile, hunchbacked, saggy, wild-haired, banished from-the-village-to-a-hut-where-she-concocted-poisons-to-harm-men-unworthy-of-love-although-wise-and-yet-despised-for-her-wisdom) crone. Me, in other words.”


Although the various chapters are not broken into separate sections, this three-stage female monomyth forms the base structure of Castillo’s memoir, placing Castillo on her own hero’s journey from daughter of a Mexican Indian immigrant family to well-established Chicana novelist and poet. Through this journey of becoming, Castillo reflects on multiple generations of her family (her parents’, her own, and her son’s and grandchild’s), weaving together these generations and the trials they faced once the family became citizens of the United States.


The backbone of Black Dove may be the female monomyth, but Castillo mostly avoids an obviously structured approach and instead strips down on the fictive elements often found in memoir, such as detailed scenes and dialogue, and opens up for an intimate chat with the reader. For the most part, chapters cover large periods of time, placing her own journey beside those of family members. She jumps from story to story, transitioning back and forth in time, moving as though a new story has just popped into her head. For example, at one point, Castillo relates a story about her aunt dropping a busted television out a second-story window and it narrowly missing her aunt’s husband. After this story, Castillo writes, “That wasn’t the story I wanted to share about my livewire tía Flora, although that one was a good one, too.”


This stream-of-consciousness approach allows the reader to get closer to Castillo, to feel as though there are no fictive elements masking the author. She exemplifies the need to share everything about her “becoming,” with no topic off limits (childhood, love, sex, immigration, gun violence, motherhood, writing, marriage, feminism), but she also backs away from naming other individuals, thereby protecting identities and showing her compassion and understanding.


Throughout Black Dove, Castillo seems uninterested in offering readers answers, suspense, or even new revelations on the immigrant experience. This sounds like a weakness, and it may be in other books, but Castillo’s honest and affable voice easily carries the memoir through to the end. Castillo remains so likable, the reader wants to continue reading only so as to not leave her presence. Sharing her experience, trying to connect to the reader, person to person, seems to motivate Castillo’s narrative. It is difficult, if perhaps impossible, to read Castillo’s memoir without thinking of the xenophobia, especially regarding Mexicans, that has intensified in the United States during Donald Trump’s presidential race and into his presidency. Castillo recognizes this and begins her introduction with:

Perhaps some of you may come away from this book feeling that my stories have nothing to do with your lives. You may find the interest I’ve had in my ancestors as they were shaped by the politics of their times, irrelevant to your own history. My story, as a brown, bisexual, strapped writer and mother, constantly scrambling to take care of my work and my child, might be similarly inconsequential. However, I beg your indulgence and a bit of faith to believe that maybe on the big Scrabble board of life we will eventually cross ways and make sense to each other.

Castillo, then, discusses the importance of knowledge and how, growing up, she never saw people like her in history books. She does not mention the current political landscape (where recent inclusion of Native and other minorities’ histories are once again being stripped out of schoolbooks), but the connections are clear. She wrote her memoir to show readers a life they may not have lived, to show how similar that life is to each reader’s own or at least to increase understanding of the forces that have shaped her own.


The memoir, however, mostly avoids political comments, with the exception of a digression here or there. Most of these exceptions come during chapters focused on her son, Mi’jo, as though in her role as a mother, Castillo recognizes how little control she has in protecting her child, how she must turn to larger forces for explanations and understanding. For example, while discussing her son’s incarceration, she writes, “in a country proud of its wealth and resources, healthcare and public education are not guaranteed to all citizens.” Castillo’s dialogue with the reader draws connections between political, cultural, and, most of all, personal history to show how multifaceted a person is and how linked together so many aspects of our lives are. She goes deeper than her own experience by including so much from other generations of her family. One whole chapter is given over to an essay co-written with her son Mi’jo, allowing his voice, for a moment, to be just as important as Castillo’s. In Black Dove, Castillo shows the hardships faced by immigrants, hardships that last generations, well beyond those who immigrated, and most importantly, she shows that one vital way to combat prejudice is try to connect person to person. In this, she succeeds with brilliance.


Please also see our interview with Ana Castillo here in Aquifer and an excerpt from Black Dove in 41.2 of the print Florida Review.


From Knowing to Unknowing

An Earlier Life, by Brenda Miller
Ovenbird Press, 2016
174 pages, paper, $14.95

Winner, 2017 Washington State Book Award in Memoir



In her most recent collection of essays, An Earlier Life, Brenda Miller examines the rich assortment of previous lives she has come through on her way to the life she currently inhabits. “In an earlier life,” she begins, “I was a baker in a bakery on a cobblestoned street. I woke early, in the dark, to do my work . . . In the quiet, I brought something to life.” The image of Miller kneading dough in the quiet hours of morning bringing something new into being is reminiscent of her work as a writer, and she delivers a breathing work of art between the pages of this book.


In “Who You Will Become,” Miller reflects on a sign which always hung in the front hallway of her childhood home, the Hebrew letters for Shalom with its multiple meanings—hello, goodbye, welcome, good and peace. She explains, “In Hebrew, the word for God means, “I am what I am becoming.” This presence is always imminent, always evolving. When we say Shalom, we are in the midst of this transition: hello, goodbye, turning to face the past and future at once.”


With that, she begins a candid examination of her life beginning in childhood and adolescence, through her early adult years and into a time of reconciliation and healing. The theme that one thing—a word, an object, an event—can carry more than one meaning, echoes throughout the book.


Miller’s close observations illuminate the remarkable contained within the commonplace, making the scenes dance on the page, and readers can’t help but pay closer attention to their own surroundings. “In Alaska, you understand how light is now a substance of its own making—tactile, with particles and waves and something else. You understand how light finds the least pinhole and expands.” With these opening lines of “Understand,” readers are suddenly more aware of the light that plays around them. Miller’s vivid account of her physical world brings the geography of the readers’ own into sharper contrast.


Later, in the essay “How to Get Ready for Bed,” she renders the mundane task of shopping for a new mattress into a work of art, a study of all the mattress represents: sleep partners past and future from boyfriends to pets, sanctuary and isolation, and the best description of insomnia I’ve read. “It’s as if you’re afraid of something, but you don’t know what. Maybe you’re afraid of that moment you slip from knowing to unknowing—the moment you’re with your unpartnered self alone.”


Yet not afraid to be vulnerable, Miller allows us to enter the places she stalled, consider decisions that led to trouble or heartache, and experience the consequences of missteps. Even so, she doesn’t neglect to shine a light on the beauty contained in even the darkest places. In “Beloved,” an essay tense with the possibility of violence, Miller describes a day boating on a desert lake with her boyfriend. He’s drinking and flaunting the fact that he could do her harm, that she’s defenseless. The stakes rise when he steers the boat into a secluded cove, “A place,” she writes, “that in any other time, with any other person would be a romantic picnic spot.” Juxtaposed against the visceral sense of mounting danger is this description of her surroundings: “This cool air in the desert, over the water. It’s a land of contradiction, the light bright and subdued at once. You can motor along the wide expanse of the lake, find a small canyon to enter and look for the hanging gardens: plants growing high above the waterline, gaining foothold and flourishing on bare rock, while beneath you—far beneath—a ghost garden mirrors the one above.”


By age eighteen Miller writes in “L’Chaim,” she no longer attends synagogue, but there is a thread running through these essays that suggests a search for spiritual meaning—a desire to understand how each of her ‘earlier lives’ contributed to the full spectrum of her life as a whole. Miller carefully considers each remembrance as if she’s turning them over and over in her hands to consider every plane, seeking the places where light shines through.


As co-author of the craft book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, it’s no surprise that Brenda Miller’s writing is exceptional. Many of her essays are written in second person. Speaking directly to readers in this manner, she calls them to walk alongside her, to share in each choice that moves her to the next experience. A life unfolds full of music and grit and danger. The beauty, and the pain, and the wonder on her journey toward wholeness becomes their own, a life shared.


In the epilogue, “We Regret to Inform You,” readers are treated with an outstanding example of a hermit crab essay—a term coined by Miller and co-author Susan Paola in Tell It Slant. In the form of rejection letters, she highlights a string of her ‘failures’ at various roles and relationships—with her elementary art teacher to the babies she lost in miscarriages to her grad school boyfriend, and finally, an acceptance letter from a pet adoption organization. The letters are bittersweet, sometimes funny, and always insightful.


Miller’s ability to turn angst into art, to interpret the ordinary with extraordinary clarity is unmatched. Her work wakes up the senses—external and internal—and will resonate with readers of poetry, as well as prose. An Earlier Life sings to readers, and they can’t help but hum its tune while going about their own tasks. Like bite-sized treats, readers can consume these essays one taste at a time, or in a decadent cover-to-cover feast—the perfect balance of savory and sweet.