FREEMAN’S: FAMILY (ISSUE TWO)
Mine is the only body I’ll ever experience. I am limited by my perceptions, my history. Reading is one way to transcend these boundaries, somewhat, to enter the psyches of others, through their words. Reading can result in an understanding of experiences that can’t or won’t be shared by two people.
But the full experience of personhood remains something singular. Even if a very industrious and tireless person were to decide to read every page of every diary I’ve ever kept — there have been twenty-five, of various sizes, starting with the very young, flowery, and heavily illustrated, and becoming ever more monochromatic and wordy — they still would not be me, or even know me.
Another way to gain a still incomplete understanding of a person is to know them in the context of their family.
I am the middle child in a family of eleven. My parents homeschooled the nine of us, didn’t expose us to TV unless it had originally aired pre-1960, dressed us as though wanting us to be comfortable on the set of Little House on the Prairie, and thought it was more important that we knew the ten commandments by heart than the names of the seven continents.
Knowing these things about me contextualizes my patches of ignorance (of modern TV culture, of sartorial matters, of geography) and endows me with a very particular kind of knowledge. I can quote The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Love Lucy better than most people who lived through that era. I know how hard it is, as a child, to keep the decorative glass buttons on your hand-sewn, formless jumper intact. I know what it feels like to have parents whose sole expectation for their daughters is that they remain virgins until marriage, and then produce many offspring once united in holy matrimony.
This is my background, context.
The most important points for most of us, though, are those where we diverged from these, our original narratives, and made our own stories.
It’s important to me that people know from whence I came, but also that I moved out at eighteen to go to college, that I moved to Europe, alone, as a twenty-year-old. It’s important to me that I know the capitals of Iceland and Norway, that I can tell you, offhand, the most populous city in California. That I put myself through school and graduated with very little debt; that I’ve been in an equal and committed (but unmarried and childless) relationship for years; that I am hustling to become the writer I want to be — these are my salient facts.
It’s appropriate that John Freeman, editor of the new literary journal-meets-anthology, Freeman’s, chose “arrival” as his inaugural theme, and “family” for that of his second issue. We all get here the same way, and all of us are born into or acquire families — though that word takes on very different shapes and represents many more groups than the nuclear model would suggest.
Publishing both well-known and up-and-coming authors, Freeman seeks writers whose necessity — he believes each writer has their own — speaks to the topic under consideration.
Freeman’s: Family begins with seven short, untitled pieces: Sunjeev Sahota talks about the elasticity of time and language within a culture of strict boundaries with humor and depth. Angela Flournoy writes about the mystery of belongings left behind by loved ones who have died, conveying pain and beauty, the jostling of age and youth. Adania Shibli’s story is about living within the reality of constant possible loss. From the barber’s chair, Colin Robinson observes the complex interactions of people constantly around one another. Heather O’Neill’s descriptions of life with her father press like a thumb on the heart: close, tactile, an impression that fades away leaving only a memory. Édouard Louis details abuse, escape, movement. Nadifa Mohammed tells the story of Uncle Kettle, of death and travel, with tenderness.
In thinking about family, the thirty creatives whose work is collected here also thought about race, about the significance of a name, about aging and pregnancy, about life after giving birth, and about life after death.
Aminatta Forna, in her story, “Crossroads,” realizes as she’s boarding a flight to D.C. that the descendants of the enslaved and those of slaveholders are scattered around the plane, sitting together congenially. By examining the history of movement — voluntary and forced — Forna talks with her readers about how stories are formed: what it means to have your story decided for you by someone else, or stolen from you. This question is evoked for Forna through the history of Sierra Leone. For another contributor, Aleksandar Hemon, it’s Bosnia, and his uncle’s stories of the war and gulags, that cause him to ask the same question.
For Garnette Cadogan, in his piece, “A Family Name,” closeness becomes something discerned by the name used, by who is allowed to use it.
In a story translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt, Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan satirizes parenthood under the repressive one-child policy. Marlon James writes of his mother, and what how coming out affected his relationship with her. Working as an interpreter for New York City immigration courts, Valeria Luiselli wrestles with the discrepancies in U.S. immigration policy and its effects on child migrants. “How do you explain,” she asks, “that it is never inspiration that drives you to tell a story, but rather, a combination of anger and clarity?”
Athena Farrokhzad, in “Letter to a Warrior,” speaks to her unborn child about the incongruities of things passed on when a family is forced to leave its homeland: “I will sing you lullabies I barely master. / If you do not understand your grandmother’s chants she will have fought for nothing. / If you do not know your aunts’ songs their struggle will end with you.”
Claire Vaye Watkins answers the “10-Item Edinburgh Postpartum Depression Scale.” Joanna Kavenna reckons with grief and loss in her crisp and conversational story, “If There Was No Moon.”
If I were to define family based on these stories, I would come up with something like, “n. a group that bestows shared meaning, context, and story upon its members.”
Two parents plus children doesn’t equal family, for most of us. Even if that’s what we started out with, it’s likely we’ll adopt members as we move through life — pets, progeny, partners — and our families will become less symmetrical, more spread out. Like our lives in time, our families will have a past, a future. Children are time capsules for their parents; grandparents are record bearers, historians.
At the beginning of next month, I’ll get married. I’m lucky to not have been coerced, to be marrying someone I love and respect simply because I want to. My family is my partner, the children for whom I’ve nannied, the friends who know me better than those with whom I share blood. Family is shared history and story passed down. The truth is borne out by the narratives being collected in our time, and by those surfacing, from other times: “Family” is elastic — a concept more than a tangible reality. It is the various points at which we’re joined — in name, in preference, by contract. In telling the stories of our family, chosen and not, we create our selves.