Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal
Wendy S. Walters
Sarabande Books, 2015
Reviewed by Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Not long ago, I went to a literary reading by an author who is credited as being one of the most important voices in nonfiction. Toward the end of the event, he read a short piece confessing that he was preoccupied by a fantasy inspired by films of old, in which a woman—perhaps, he said, an “Oriental”—saves the life of the man she loves by throwing her body between him and a gun-wielding attacker. The author was white. At one point, he joked about the ethics of using this hypothetical woman’s body as a shield even after she had died, and the room erupted into the kind of cozy laughter that might make you think he was still riffing on his curmudgeonly experience of shushing people at a movie theater. The women around me were uniformly unamused. We clasped our hands and looked at the floor, waiting for him to finish.
When I taught a course in African American literature, we listened to Claudia Rankine read Tony Hoagland’s poem The Change, in which the narrator admits to wanting a white tennis player to win a match against “the big black girl from Alabama” because the former “was one of my kind, my tribe.” When confronted by Rankine, Hoagland explained that the poem was “for white people,” by which Rankine hoped he meant that some white people ought to consider themselves and their thinking. But Hoagland did not concede to this point. As for my class, this was the moment in the semester when the room began to shift. We could no longer act as a unified whole.
Lately, from what I can tell from social media, white authors have been explaining that their id is their own to reveal; that if we could all just sit tight, it might illuminate something for us. But for those of us rendered “big and black,” or bullet ridden in these imaginings, these observations can seem smugly cheeky. There is laughter in the back of the room. We get where we stand in this kind of fantasy, and it feels like a violation to have to suffer through it. Rankine concludes, “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present.”
So what to do? Some days, it doesn’t feel right to risk, as Rankine describes it, “falling right into some white folk’s notion of black insanity.” What Wendy S. Walters demonstrates in Multiply/Divide is that we need not turn away from that notion, merely. We can plumb down deep beyond insanity by one-upping this kind of white id. A game of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” that acts as a kind of tutorial for what an id actually looks like. As if to say, “Oh no, honey, that’s not it, that’s your belly button.”
In The Grey Album, Kevin Young says of African American culture that, “storying is both a tradition and a form; it is what links artfulness as diverse as a solo by Louis Armstrong—which, as any jazzhead will tell you, brilliantly tells a story—with any of the number of stories (or tall tales or “lies” or literature) black folks tell among and about themselves.” He goes on, remarking upon the recent upheavals in the world of nonfiction (aka James Frey): “where these faux journalists and worse seem to exhibit imagination, they in fact mark the failure of it. They bend the truth, instead of taking it apart to explore or expand it.”
In Multiply/Divide, the way truth is stretched and set on fire seems rooted in a desire to undergird what we normally take for granted as the capital t truth of nonfiction— footnotes, citations, references—with a whispering cluster of smaller truths that reveal the aspects of self that nonfiction writers rarely reveal. In one essay, Walters tells the story of the way a university has been slowly altering the dynamic of her Manhattanville neighborhood. In the next, she responds to the crude gesture of a boy she passes in the car by parking: “Facing the passenger-side rearview. I move my pelvis as if scooping ice cream. I tell him This is how you wear it down—and really put my ass into it.”
The book begins by categorizing the varieties of essay we will encounter: 1) “works of reportage and/or memoir,” 2) “fictional scenarios that, in some cases, are based on characters and events from history and/or the present,” and 3) “lyric essays—a form that blends poetry and prose, memoir and reportage, actual and imagined events—with the goal of making an argument.” The resulting structure is not unlike a city—traditional, researched essays stand like buildings while lyrical, fictionalized riffs flow in between like water. This feels intentional given that the first and second-to-last essays traverse, respectively, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (Lonely in America) and the anticipation of New York City being entirely engulfed by future floods (When the Water Comes for Us). These apocalyptic leanings look backward more than forward, tracing all the ways “it” has already happened, is happening. “Somebody’s lied to us,” a detective explains.
In many ways, the whole book feels like a series of airplane rides. You arrive at a real city, but in between each fixed space, you are sleeping on the plane; periodically, you wake long enough to make eye contact with the person sitting beside you. “We tried not to think of a single one of us as unfinished,” Walters writes in the book’s title essay, an ephemeral journey. “We studied other fictions to understand what had made us so angry. We looked through books for evidence of our arrival. All the stories about when we fell in love or died. So many endings.”
One of my first encounters with Wendy S. Walters’ work was a poem from the book Longer I Wait, More You Love Me called The Story of my Life. A woman is dragged into town by a brown horse. She has an unmemorable face. When the sheriff is called, he shoots her. He keeps shooting her. And she keeps getting back up. “Her name is unremarkable.” She keeps asking for a drink. What we come to find, amid talking horses, is that “secretly the sheriff is a lousy lover.” He “feels lonely.” He shoots the fruit from the orange trees and cries “Minneapolis” over and over again. I was thrilled to realize that the same jokiness of this poem, the same visceral examination of our weird loneliness infuses her works of nonfiction, pulling at the scab of historic truth, projecting into the future talk of aliens and of a black American migration to Norway.
I first encountered Wendy S. Walters in person when she came to visit a literature program where I was teaching in a small New Hampshire town called Wolfeboro. You might recognize the name, because just before Walters came to visit, the police commissioner had become instantly famous for calling President Obama the n-word in public. I was one of the few black people residing in the area, but one afternoon, I found myself reading in a creperie with two other African Americans. When the song I Shot the Sheriff came on, one of us said, “Let’s hope the police commissioner doesn’t walk in right now.” He didn’t. But the man who spoke of an Oriental woman throwing herself in front of his body did write a blurb for Wendy’s book. So, good. He read it. Is that a point for the big black girl from Alabama, or are we even playing tennis anymore?
Aisha is a nonfiction writer based in Tucson. Her book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. Her work has been or will be featured in Ninth Letter, Identity Theory, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Guernica, The Offing and Ecotone. A contributing editor for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics, she has taught creative writing and literature at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Carleton College and the University of Michigan’s New England Literature Program.