A Failed Attempt at Escaping Reality by Cat Robinson

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Reading as a writer is an odd activity at times or at least in my personal experience. As a writer I find myself always looking for something in a text. I go in with the intention of analysis; to pick whatever I’m reading apart to discover the meaningful core of it all. I feel the need to always be on my toes. That might have a lot to do with the lack of a break in my educational journey though.

In recent months I have struggled with trying to keep books that place me in a headspace of critical thinking away from my leisurely reading. I've realized that this is something that is nearly impossible for me to do. The thing about my taste in literature is that I enjoy reflective pieces. If there is a sense of self or societal reflection, I am all for it! Whether it is fiction, essays, or poetry, contemplation of the self in relation to personal experiences or to the self’s surrounding environment has always fascinated me. There’s an interesting grey area that can emerge from those two focuses and it never fails to steal my attention. But sadly alongside that, is my use of books as a way to run away from stressful times. These two elements tend to not mesh well for me. Ever. In my wish to escape reality I find myself reading about it from someone else’s perspective.

Since February of this year I have been slowly making my way through Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard. I remember picking up this bright pink book and briefly flipping through it before making the decision to purchase it (the aesthetic of  the hardback book also helped). It felt like something I needed to read. This book is constructed of selected essays, meditations, and speeches that span the course forty years. Despite it being written over four decades, the social and political commentary are still relevant in our current society. That relevancy is one of the main reasons I’ve taken so much time to read it and have plans to reread it. The book is sectioned off by themes instead of chronologically. I viewed this as a tool to display that the discussions she’s prompting are not stagnant in time, but ever evolving. Morrison analyzes the othering of individuals and groups of people on a global scale, the importance of black life and the complications that come with that, and specific issues of American society (she covers a lot of ground, but it is four decades worth of reflection). In my free time, I don’t find myself gravitating towards nonfiction often, but Morrison’s diction and overall use of language pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

Speaking of Morrison’s use of language her novel Paradise is also on this list. For my Structure of Fiction class we were allowed to select one book for our own personal study. Since I already had the book and was not able to read it prior to this class, I selected it. I ended up far from disappointed upon finishing it! Paradise toes the line between realistic fiction and fantasy. It is not fantasy in the form of dragons, spells, and longwinded adventures, but it implies the supernatural and paranormal. The story navigates an implied fantastical space through Morrison’s own mythology building. This happens while tackling concepts like traditionalism in an all-black community, the act of finding a safe place to belong, and the positioning of women in a societal framework. The novel balances lyrical writing with more commonplace narrative structures. While reading I realized the book was making commentary on black traditionalism rejecting anything that did not fit its established stipulations. As someone that grew up in a strictly structured environment based on tradition this constantly held my attention.

I recently finished Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine. This book took me on a journey. Though like Paradise I read this for a class it was my personal option since I planned to read the book anyways. When I received my copy in the mail, I noticed two things, it was thicker than a previous book I read of hers and it texturally had very nice pages. Nice paper aside, the length of the book hinted that it was going to  dig deep into the topic at hand.

In this collection of poems and essays, Rankine investigates race, privilege, and active conversation about both. She produces questions and seeks answers out to those questions. She creates room for discomfort by creating uncomfortable but necessary dialogue in spaces that are usually neutral or framed for politeness. Rankine flips the discussion of acknowledging a racial divide on its head. She makes this happen through including the views and voices of white individuals in different circumstances: a man in first class that waited at the same gate with Rankine at the airport, a friend explaining her behavior at a play (behavior that vehemently upset Rankine), and a woman that presented her contentious political beliefs openly (at least controversial for the setting). Rankine works to recount her own process of personal recognition, bias, and calculated behavior. She conducts this book to seek out and speak of a truth of the world we frequent. This book is the embodiment of self and societal reflection, through a very intimate lens.

Upon writing this post I discovered that I have a multitude of poetry collections and almost all of them are grounded in introspection. helium by Rudy Francisco is no different. Though it is not rooted in reflection on race at the same capacity as the other texts I’ve mentioned, it still analyzes the self and muses the complexity of memory and identity. I have read this collection too many times to count and love it every time I read it. Francisco heavily uses metaphors, imagery, and narrative as a way to grapple with heartbreak, self-love, family, and some societal observations. The book is split into sections that display the gradual growth of the assumed speaker of the poems. As a poet he moves the narrative of each piece with constantly moving but interconnected metaphorical images. He manages to rope me in every time and keep my attention until I’m once again met with the back cover. helium always directs me to check in with myself as a person and writer. It makes me ask, “how are you feeling?” and “how is writing?”  Though it is difficult to describe as a whole, I can say that the collection is one of if not my actual favorite.

So these books are probably not the best for escaping a reality where I am always critically studying and evaluating a text or type of media. Despite that the encounters I’ve had with each book have been enjoyable. If I can’t avoid reflection, why not fully embrace and revel in it?

Cat Robinson is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Category: Creative Nonfiction, Essays, Students

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