“The Italian word for gypsy, zingaro, is perhaps a better word. [The word] “heart” is merely a convenience, a sort of shorthand for what’s contained within the cautious body–the spark that thrives on wonder, that which is flung wide or ratcheted shut until it seems all but sealed but remains open, if only just a touch; the thing that moves and changes even as we seek to know it, that which stalks and stalks but cannot be satisfied. Not fully. Not permanently. The part of us that continues to yearn, to try, and to dream, despite the fact that there’s a certain space within us incapable of being filled, and that learning to live with this is a part of our humanity. But what does the heart know? Zingaro cuore. So great are some hungers, so unrelenting, that whatever even halfway fills them must be tried–miniature orange trees and birdhouses and homemade ukuleles. What can we do but feed, then feed again, the tender shoots within us? Sonja Livingston, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses (University of Nebraska Press)
If you want to read something different and magical, try Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses by Sonja Livingston.
This collection of linked essays, the 2016 choice for If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book sponsored by Writers & Books, is a wonderful example of how powerful and poetic the essay can be and how inventive the form.
(Despite the subtitle, this is a collection of essays–memoir-ish, rather than a true memoir.)
Sonja writes about how the term “essay” conjures visions of tedious school assignments. But the essay is actually an elastic form of literary exploration that can be novel and beautiful. If done well, an essay tantalizes, catching the reader up in an unfolding.
The author has dedicated Queen of the Fall to the memory of Judith Kitchen, a teacher and mentor who passed away in 2014. I wrote last week about how Sonja, who grew up in the Rochester area, took Judith Kitchen’s essay writing class at SUNY Brockport twice. (I took Judith’s class also, several years ago.) While she was enrolled in Judith’s classes, Sonja was inspired to give up her career as a school counselor and become a writer.
Her essays share the themes of womanhood, fertility, and poverty, which have been central to her own life–hence the term “memoir” in the book’s subtitle. Each essay stands on its own, but I found myself so captured by their momentum that I read several in one sitting, as though I were reading a novel or memoir.
When I was in graduate school at Syracuse University many years ago, two classmates and I made a documentary about rural poverty in New York State. I’d just moved here from New York City, and I loved the landscape of glacier-made Finger Lakes, deep gorges, and waterfalls. I had no idea that, hidden in all this rural beauty, many families lived in poverty.
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Sonja Livingston, her mother, and her six siblings were among them. Though there were five fathers among the seven children, no father was present in their lives. They moved from place to place: a rural town, a Native American reservation, an urban slum in inner city Rochester.
In Queen of the Fall, (which refers to the apples Sonja and her siblings picked during a stint as farm workers), Livingston explores the lives of various women and girls, including the great suffragette Susan B. Anthony who lived in Rochester (“The Lady With the Alligator Purse”), the troubled young girls (and a boy) Sonja met as a school counselor (“One for Sorrow”), and the television character Ally McBeal (“The Lonely Hunters.”) They are some of my favorite essays, as well as “World Without End,” “What the Body Wants,” and “The Last American Virgin.”
Livingston casts the lives of women, especially disadvantaged and/or obscure women, in a new and dignifying light. Throughout, Sonja weaves in moments from her life as a teen taking risks yet hoping to avoid pregnancy, as a woman confronting infertility, and as the aunt of a young, unmarried niece who finds herself pregnant.
If you’d like the full story of Sonja’s remarkable life as a backdrop to her essays in Queen of the Fall, you could read her remarkable 2009 memoir, Ghostbread, first. After devouring her essays, I found a copy of the memoir at my local library.
Sonja will have a newly published collection of essays this month that has been described as a hidden history of women’s lives: Ladies’ Night at the Dreamland. (I believe the Dreamland refers to Seabreeze, a Rochester amusement park.)
I’m looking forward to reading about little-known and obscure women from the area where I live–among them, a woman who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope, and the Fox sisters, who became well-known Spiritualists and mediums. Western and upstate New York has always been known for its progressive spirit and energetic spirituality, a hotbed of abolitionism, women’s rights, religiosity, spiritualism, and utopianism.
Here, for example, is a link to the Women’s Declaration of Sentiments, written and signed in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. It is inscribed on a wall there, and I remember being very moved on my visit several years ago.
From Livington’s upcoming book:
“Women understand how to overlook or wait until next time, can spend years holding their tongues in the face of the thing that most wants letting. No, I need no convincing of the strength of women, but it’s too often a matter of restraint. I do not often see us standing bold or brazen before a crowd. I do not mean to belittle cheerleaders and fashion models and television weather women—though theirs seems a case of the body going through a series of prescribed and pleasant motions. Where are our wild women? Those with open mouths and muscled legs, who flare and flame, whose actions shock, and whose bodies defy gravity, whose every step rivets the eye so that we can’t look away?”