Prose as a Naked Language
Wave Books, 126 pages, $18
Wave Books, 144 pages, $50
I began reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities on an early morning Southwest flight from Chicago to Washington D.C. in February 2017. It was for an assignment, of course, and I was on my way to a writers’ conference, hoping to get the minimum of work done before being thrust into the fray of writers, books, and alcohol. Immediately, I was underlining sentences, not because I fully understood them, but because I was fascinated with the work they were doing on a syntactic level, the way Gladman’s sentences ebbed and flowed forever, the way a paragraph could continue along for a page without exhausting itself. Calamities is an exploration of the intersections of humanity and language through essaying in its rawest form. Throughout the 126 pages of short essays, Gladman pulls readers into her thinking, forcing them to contemplate the same questions she asks of herself, and confiding in them with moments of insecurity, creative process, personal relationships, and teaching.
The essays in Calamities begin with “I began the day . . .” And while readers cannot know if Gladman is writing in the present-moment or later, each essay captivates with an introspective look at the ways language relates to every miniscule facet of her like. “I began the day looking into the infinity of the revision of my novel in progress,” Gladman begins. Another time, “I began the day in an embrace.” Later, “I began the day wanting these essays to do more than they were currently doing and even had a book alongside that I thought would help me, but it turned out I wanted more from this book as well.” Gladman’s introductions create a structure for her book, becoming the way of knowing when one essay ends and another begins.
The book is complicated in its language, but casual in its tone. Gladman doesn’t bolster her thoughts, instead remaining vulnerable and complicated on the page, never truly answering her own questions. At one point, Gladman asks why “the person in the world” (presumed to be one of her eleven shy female students) would study English: “What was she doing in a field that really left a person nowhere to go but further into herself?” While Gladman asks this of someone else, it’s interesting because she is an author, so one might assume that she’s also asking the same question of herself. Even so, Calamities may be Gladman’s answer to her own buried question, investigating language through language and contemplating what it means to be a contemporary black woman writer (among other facets of her identity). In this way, part of the calamity is intersectionality. I read along as Gladman balances being a middle-aged black woman, a lesbian, a fiction writer, an essayist, a professor, and a citizen simultaneously. The book is very human, being that it asks of the reader the same things Gladman asks of herself, but neither one has to act upon the answers. Throughout Calamities, Gladman is doing exactly what she asks of “the person in the world,” exploring further into herself not only in the existing prose, but also in the writing on the walls, walks through the city, her fiction series Houses of Ravicka, relationships, lesson plans, drawings, and more.
I was the only black person in my class, and one of the few—if not the only—students who enjoyed reading Calamities. It was in my top three books that we read in the class, but no one else was awed and inspired by Gladman’s longwinded sentences like I was, they had not sat in an airport for four hours waiting to get on a plane with only Calamities in my backpack. But I had, with pen in hand, reading and rereading complicated sentences and paragraphs. I was determined to finish Gladman before I returned to Chicago; I was determined to learn what exactly was the calamity.