June 20, 2015

Songs of the South: A Review of Beth Gilstrap’s I Am Barbarella by Angele Ellis

cover credit: Twelve Winters Press
I Am Barbarella by Beth Gilstrap
Twelve Winters Press (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Beth Gilstrap’s composite collection of short stories and flash fiction begins like a wild drum solo and ends like a sweet refrain—the kind in which the singers fade softly into silence.

From the title piece, “I Am Barbarella,” to the final story, “B-Sides,” Gilstrap’s tough lyricism, in a medley of first-person voices, wraps mystery and heartbreak around her characters’ grooved lives. No wonder Gilstrap has included a playlist for this debut collection, drawn from fifty years of popular music (the Spotify playlist is available at her website, bethgilstrap.com).

In “I Am Barbarella,” Gilstrap’s nameless narrator, egged on by a friend and her own conflicted desires, transforms herself from wife to bar-show sex queen and back again—in five hundred words. As the narrator of the following story, “Yard Sale,” says: “It ain’t garbage if you turn it into something.”

At the heart of this book are ten interconnected short stories that trace the lives of three generations of southerners—solid Sue and William; their dutiful son Hardy and his runaway wife, Loretta; and Hardy and Loretta’s pained yet loyal daughter, Janine. (Neighbors Lucille and Rachel—whom this reader imagines as a gritty alto and a shrill soprano—also add their voices to the mix.)

Gilstrap, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is editor-in-chief of Atticus Review, has a gift for describing place and nature as palpable as her love of music. In “Paper Fans,” Janine and her best friend Maddie hang at a local bar:
Janine tosses her and Maddie’s coats up in the corner like some black heap of animal carcass… The burned out letters BBQ hanging on the opposite wall look their age. Janine’s mind felt the same, like charred paint flakes on metal shells. This is the Diamond’s second life, but it’s been open in some fashion since the ’50s. It smells like burnt tomato sauce, fryer grease, and cigarettes. […] She orders fried pickles. Two junior blocks with chili. Pitcher of Pabst.
And in “Getting by with Sound,” Hardy ruminates on the rural pleasures of his late father, William:
Those were the things he liked to do. Listen to stories, walk, and admire the scent of his gardenias, the feel of their waxy leaves and petals. He used to pick them for my mother, and she always kept them on the windowsill in the kitchen. They were beautiful until the petals turned brown, but then the smell just grew sweeter.
In an interview with Twelve Winters Press, Gilstrap describes her use of place and her attachment to the South as follows:
For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s [Pittsburgh’s Chatham University, where Gilstrap earned an MFA in fiction writing] emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.
The ghosts in I Am Barbarella propel its living characters away from intimacy as much as they root them in the land—including a child lost in an accident, a father eaten away by cancer, a husband who completes suicide, and a lover who “smelled like bug spray and honeysuckle.” When Hardy and Loretta—who’s back in town after years on the road with a boyfriend’s band, but still restless—visit William’s grave, Loretta insists on bringing a bag of Red Man tobacco to place on William’s headstone. But when Loretta reaches out in compassion to the still grieving Hardy, the result is solitary tears, not renewal of long lost togetherness.

Giving away too much of the characters’ skipping lives seems like revealing the punch line of a joke—even one told many times, as a favorite song is played into infinity. But it is not cheating to say that in I Am Barbarella, Gilstrap creates a vital world in which friendship is as strong as betrayal; beauty endures not only in the landscape, but also in objects as small as a leftover Christmas package or a perfect chocolate pie; and there may be time for tentative second chances.

June 6, 2015

Creation Stories: A Review of Lori Jakiela’s, Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by R. A. Voss

cover credit: Atticus Books
Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela
Atticus Books (2015)

Reviewed by R. A. Voss

Belief. Beliefs are opinions unsupportable by proof. Truth. Truths are facts supported by proof. Indeed, a recent New York Times article decries this curriculum commonly taught to our nation’s youth because those simple definitions belie the reality that sometimes things are both. It’s those places—where belief and truth intersect—that Lori Jakiela probes in her latest memoir, Belief Is Its Own Kind Of Truth, Maybe.

Loss. For adoptees like this author, life begins with loss. Loss of a birth family and the genetic guidance that cues infants in regarding their place in the world, sets them on a quest for the truth surrounding their identity and how they came to be. Although all writers begin a story with an empty page, the task is even more daunting for people like Jakiela, as she notes:
“All first pages are blank, of course, but for adopted people more so.”
So as not to seem ungrateful to her adoptive parents, for most of her life, Jakiela sublimated her sense of something missing. This happened until, in middle-age, another seminal loss—her adoptive mother, who raised her and taught her how to love and nurture her own children—propels it back into her awareness. She acknowledges this in the book’s opening revelation:
“When my real mother dies, I go looking for another one.”
The author’s use of the phrase “real mother” to describe her adoptive mother clues readers that her search generates no Dr. Phil reunion. Her description of the Catholic Charities counselor and office sets the tone for her bare-roots tale:
“The Catholic Charities counselor’s word for this other mother I want after decades to find is biological. Illegitimate is another word for people who end up like me. It’s what I feel now, unlawful, unauthorized, unwarranted here in this office that smells like antiseptic and rubber gloves, hot teeth drilled down to the bone.”
Jakiela’s attempts at prying truth from an organization founded on secrecy and sealed records proves largely unyielding. Forced to settle for “non-identifying information,” she’s denied access even to the medical history she alleges is all she seeks. Yet, readers see through this self-deception to realize she wants more—she wants what all children ask of their moms: Please see me, acknowledge me, accept me, love me.

Throughout her life, the author has imagined and been told personal creation stories by her adoptive family, but the versions are incomplete—partial fabrications that leave her unprepared for encounters that come later. In the absence of facts, memoir crosses into fiction that attempts to restore “…certain lost and key moments that affected [her] life, but for which [she] was not present.” Those parts conjure a birth mother who is a more sympathetic character. But though they provide juxtaposition, Jakiela is at her most powerful in memoir mode when she narrates her experiences and thoughts with scalpel-precision that debrides primal wounds.

Jakiela examines her birth and upbringing through her consciousness of her own strong motherly love and marital ties. She sorts through myriad ambiguities in messages heard from her “real” parents, shifting notions about what is true and what is false, acknowledges what is real in all of it, and squares it with her beliefs. She recognizes one reason that some beliefs become necessary truths for people compelled by their situations to invent their own creation stories. She explains:
“There are so many versions of the truth. All of them would hurt someone, I think.”
But needing to believe in goodness in the face of facts that reveal otherwise, she writes:
“I need to believe in my mother’s buried softness the way I need to know I and my children haven’t inherited a terrible disease. If paranoia and cruelty run like cancer in my birth mother’s bloodline, I’m hoping something else will show up to provide balance.”
This is a book about the lies we are told, the lies we tell ourselves, and the things we just believe without proof. It searches out the authenticity in all of it and illuminates how beliefs sometimes persist because we need both the truth and the lies to make life livable—to keep loving ourselves and each other. Further, it’s about leaving behind the life one inherits in favor of the life one chooses in response to everything sensed since leaving the womb, and having it be better than enough. The story is at times doleful, but the author is always self-sentient and honest.

“I never had a voice in any of this,” Jakiela writes of her conception and adoption, but in this book her voice is strong and her emotion finds expression. Forty-five episodic chapters of varying lengths form a staccato rhythm that echoes Jakiela’s disjointedness as she grieves and strives for wholeness. Yet, by the close, the book becomes legato as all the parts smoothly bond like the city of Pittsburgh, where the author was raised near, “All those rivers and bridges, connecting everything to everything.” Similarly, Jakiela recognizes that the life she has created for herself, deeply connected to her husband and children, is the one that matters, while readers recognize those places in themselves where belief and truth mingle.