March 13, 2013

Passing the Torch: Kevin Haworth on Eleanor Stanford

Famous Drownings in Literary History, by Kevin Haworth

It's Eleanor Stanford Week at CCLaP! And although we're thrilled by her new book Historia, Historia now being available to the general public, it unfortunately means that our previous newest book, the equally great essay collection Famous Drownings in Literary History by Kevin Haworth, is now being relegated to the dreaded archives. (By the way, keep your fingers crossed; the book's been nominated for the prestigious Grub Street Prize, and we find out a little later this year whether or not it's won.) Before the book leaves the front page of the website for good, I asked Kevin if he might write a little bit about Eleanor's book and what he thinks of it, a longstanding tradition here known as the "passing the torch" essay; and here's what he had to say.

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Not too long ago, in my capacity as a university press editor, I was presented with a manuscript by a woman who had spent a year in Indonesia in the 1960s. She spoke only English, and didn't meet many Indonesians. She didn't follow Indonesian politics, then or since. She had a number of personal problems with her then-husband but didn't want to write about that, to protect her now-quite-adult children. She was taken aback that I doubted readers would be drawn to her book. "But it was a year of my life," she said. "A lot of things happened to me."

What does it mean to be truly curious about a place? To be curious about yourself? How do you write about a place, foreign to most of your readers, without exoticizing the people (probably darker than you), without making yourself the only subject (though it's an important one)?

Historia, Historia is how.

In this memoir Eleanor Stanford writes with lovely insight and piercing sentences about her two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde, a place populated by the slave trade and which continues to export its people at a faster rate than any other economic product. (There are as many Cape Verdeans living around Boston and Providence we learn, as on the nine islands that make up the country.) The people that remain have the characteristic islander mix of need and self-reliance, recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a place surrounded by water, though Stanford identifies much of what makes the inhabitants individual and culturally distinctive. Like all worthwhile travel writing, it is also an exploration of the self. Stanford is frank about her shortcomings and revealing about her strengths. There is no great lesson imposed from above; rather a moving combination of observations and self-observations, carried by language, fueled by true curiosity with the progress of days.

In the Jewish tradition that Stanford and I share, it is said of Moses that he was so tzimtzum -- so modest -- that at times it was as if he was barely there. (He was a half-decent writer too.) In Historia, Historia, Stanford herself begins to recede, quite literally, due to an aversion to eating that develops over her time there. She observes this development with appropriate concern but also a kind of clinical detachment, as if her own fate deserves the same amount of interest -- no more, no less -- as the people she has been charged with teaching. Historia, Historia is a terrific read, and also a model for the self-involved writer: here's how to get out of your own way. I'm delighted CCLaP is publishing this book; I hope you all read it.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:46 PM, March 13, 2013. Filed under: CCLaP Publishing | CCLaP news | Literature |