Saturday, January 08, 2011

Review: The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You

[S. Bear Bergman. The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009.]

The personal essay is a form of writing that is underrated by many on the left, except perhaps in some feminist contexts. It is a form that starts very explicitly from where the author stands, and involves looking at some aspect of the path s/he has followed to get there, some feature of the social landscape that surrounds, or something similar -- peering out from a definite location and making a report of what can be seen and heard and felt that includes not just those observations but self and some account of the meaning of those observations for self.

I think maybe what keeps many from giving the personal essay form the respect it deserves is a need to believe that a piece of writing should have all the answers, or at least that it theoretically can -- that having all the answers is something worth aspiring to for a particular piece of writing or writer (or political tendency). Many also feel that the answers we strive for should be ones that make concrete locations of writers and readers irrelevant or anyway not very interesting. Instead, we could deliberately approach the world as something that must be understood by assembling a patchwork of different knowledge assembled in different places and in different ways, different accounts of how the lives of others are socially organized and different explanations for why and how that happens. The act of assembly would particularly require doing the work of connecting where we sit with where others sit, our analysis with the different analyses that they advance. (Note that this still involves evaluation and active work to determine what to take up, what to modify, what to discard, and is not the simplistic relativism some might accuse.) If this, rather than the sort of epistemological pugilism endemic in Marxist sects and graduate school, is taken as the basic mode of relating to other people, other knowledge, and the world, the personal essay suddenly becomes much more significant. It goes from being woefully inadequate to developing any 'serious' understanding of the world, whatever that means, to a source of raw materials that is not just useful and interesting but, depending on the skills of the writer, entertaining and fun and moving as well. At its best, the personal essay models a particular kind of socially engaged self-reflection. It provides analytical tools, and smoothly weaves in other kinds of knowledge with its insightfully deployed personal experience.

Thankfully, Bear Bergman is very skilled. In this slim collection of essays he packs a range of forms and tones, from the one-paragraph anecdote to longer essays both light and serious, reflecting on his experiences as a white Jewish transguy born and raised in the northeastern United States and now living in Canada. He covers all sorts of interesting ground. He reflects in several pieces on the intersection of Jewishness and both masculinity in general and transmasculinity (and queerness) specifically. Some pieces focus on very specific moments, like a reflection on stopping to offer roadside assistance to a couple having car trouble. Others focus on themes, particularly aspects of trans experience that have to do with classification, regulation, and authenticity. He writes, all starting from but not limited by experience, about the dangers to transfolk in having to engage with hostile medical professionals; about the joys and challenges of trans and queer family-making; about questions of bureaucracy, love, and trans visibility. Given my own recent interest in the topic, I was particularly excited to find an essay on shame. Even though the piece focused quite a bit on flavours of shame that aren't part of my experience, his smooth, story-telling style sparked a strong sense of connection in me.

So read this book for the political education. Read it to be entertained. Read it to be inspired into new ways of reflecting on your own experiences, and new ways of connecting your life to the lives around you.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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