Variety of Literary Treasures in Lit Mag's Sustenance Issue
A tattooed woman extending her arms and carrying a basket of carrots, radishes and greens hints at a full bounty and frames the mood of Ecotone’s 2014 Fall Issue. With over 200 pages of writing, a central question emerges and asks, where do we find the sustenance that nourishes us?
David Gessner’s editor-in-chief note in Out of Place pushes us to think about what it really means to embrace the “present” moment despite geography, circumstance or the transience of what we experience. He defines the seconds that create a rhythmic cadence in his life:
I am thinking of experiences that don’t just fill the mind but excite it - experiences like creating art, when so many disparate part of the world and self come together to make something new, like falling in love, when you break through the boundaries of self and emerge with another, or like hiking into a beautiful place, when the world outside excites your inner world in effable ways.
He continues to extrapolate this theme and adds that place can simultaneously cause a person to feel empty and fulfilled.
This opening sets the texture of what is in Ecotone. The contents are presented as a kaleidoscope of place, connection, assimilation, and strangeness, and it is up to the reader to blur the edges and determine where the lens will direct their gaze. The unifying theme that threads through the pieces center on filling some kind of hole, whether it is connecting with people, understanding self, deconstructing memory or reconciling loss. The pulse of nourishment often appears as a backstory or sometimes the main course.
In "Differentiation," the opening nonfiction piece, Camille T. Dungy’s quest into the Alaska for chicken and waffles leads her to unexpected places, both in literal and philosophical ways. She intersects with local customs, confronting her longing for her daughter and understanding the importance of non-judgment. One particular passage grips the reader as Dungy slides into the local culture and instead of enjoying familiar food staples, she feasts on whale. This moment is acknowledged, where she says, “I understand this is an experience I shouldn’t be having. Or, to borrow an overused word, I understand how unsustainable it would be if a bunch of outsiders, like me, had ready access to the meal I am enjoying.” The Alaskans eat whale to endure cold temperatures and to survive - this kind of sustenance elsewhere in the world, would mean eating for sport and destruction. The reader is gripped by the vastness of the terrain Dungy presents and how the idea of nourishment is defined in terms of geography.
The theme of what nourishes us continues its sojourn in Randall Kenan’s riveting piece, "Greens: A Mess of Memories about Taste," regarding his love for mustard greens. He recognizes the peppery taste of greens not only satisfies his appetite, but also nurtures him in a way that is undeniably precious. His memory of his mother feeding him this simple food provides the subterfuge of his underlying emotions. He attributes it to the “sharing, the maternal gesture, and the witness of taste.” Food can transcend the mere act of eating, but also give rise to experiences that conjure deep nostalgia and recognition that a specific moment may never occur again.
As much as food can provide a framework of solace, it disappoints in tangible ways. In "Enough," Sarah Pape describes her ambivalent relationship with food and how her grandfather’s ridicule about her weight reveals an epiphany as she parents her own daughter. This piece blends the elements of a strong fictional presence in the context of nonfiction. The reader wants the harsh moments in this account to appear as fiction since the repercussions of the author’s truth is painful to witness. The writer faces a long struggle with her weight and learns food is much more than mere sustenance to live, but to cope with her emotions. She confronts her lifelong weigh-in’s her grandfather made her endure when she becomes a caregiver to him. Although she is comfortable with her adult weight, she realizes that her grandfather is still consumed by it. It appears she adopts a quiet tolerance to her grandfather’s mean ways, but the author wonders ultimately what kind of example she is setting for her daughter.
Poetry is highlighted with intensity in this issue. Most center on free verse and tackle a variety of subjects from butchering a deer to cooking dinner and bombs made out of chocolate. I felt a kinship with "The Singing" by Patrick Phillips, which is a meditation of a man hearing the singing of a lullaby from a woman neighbor who tries to soothe her baby from crying. He recognizes the universal, in that he did the same with his own children. There is a comforting tilt to the poem and music is identified as sustenance.
This issue also contains four fiction pieces that confront the connection between food, people and conflict. It appears that what connect these stories together is that the main character realizes some kind of epiphany. The opening story, "Hello! I Am Saying Hello! Because That Is What I Do When I Say Hello!" by Lee Upton focuses on how certainty and familiarity can limit one’s experiences. The protagonist begins her story with how she is wedded to place and fails to move forward, while other important people in her life, not only leave, but also find a better place to land.
"Happiness," by Ron Carlson, tracks the journey of a father and his two sons and the role of nostalgia and see-sawing in-between time. The father learns that happiness comes in the form of letting go and allowing his sons to find their way.
In the final story, Catherine Meeks, in "Like I Told Nancy," illustrates how sometimes death is the ultimate nourishment. The sadness of the protagonist is palpable through each scene.
Sarah Becan’s strip, "Les Curds du Mal," offers a brief, but amusing look at the US regulatory history on the import of French cheeses. Infused with humor and insight, this piece offered a welcome refuge in an otherwise intense collection of work.
I also appreciated the breadth of work highlighted and how the editor included perspectives from many terrains. "Breaking the Jemima Code" by Toni Tipton-Martin helps to break down the notion that African-American cooks and chefs are naturally born rather than rigorously trained. She profiles and shares pages out of the first African-American cookbook authored by Malinda Russell to demonstrate that there is a presence of skill and artistry that represents a “culinary Emancipation Proclamation.”
This issue contains a blend of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, poem in landscape, a strip, as well as a map. The writers are acclaimed with various awards, fellowships and authors of novels, poetry collections or essays. Women writers seem to dominate the issue.
The variety of literary treasures contained in Ecotone serves as an apt metaphor.
We seek sustenance in different ways. For one, poetry may resonate in a way that only he or she understands, while for others fiction provides nourishment that is unparalleled. But regardless of preference, most readers will find a home among the pages of Ecotone.