Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss.

I was fortunate enough to catch "The Art of the Memoir," a panel of memoirists moderated by Leonard Lopate, at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan on February 15th. Of the four panelists, David Carr (The Night of the Gun), Kathryn Harrison (The Kiss), Phillip Lopate (The Art of the Personal Essay), and David Henry Sterry (Master of Ceremonies), I was most taken by Kathryn Harrison's comments on memoir writing. (The event would have greatly benefitted from fewer panelists and a tighter moderator's reign. Carr and Harrison would have been enough to carry the event.) It took me a while, but this week, I finally sat down to read The Kiss.

And this is the thing with Harrison's book. It's called The Kiss. And it's about an incestuous relationship she had with her father. This huge ick factor kept me from running at the book with enthusiasm. And yet, now that I have read it, I am haunted by the dream-like way in which Harrison tells the story. She moves through time and emotion, through the difficult and heartbreaking relations with her parents, through her horror of separating from familial damage, on the sheer power of her writing skills. Not everyone has the stomach to read a memoir about incest. I can't recommend you make the attempt to read The Kiss strongly enough. After reading this book, I have faith that any story, no matter how emotionally complicated, can be told with the requisite skill.

Harrison's three other books are Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. I've added them all to my reading list.


The Blue Tattoo by Margot Mifflin

I met Margot Mifflin some months ago at a dinner following a reading by a friend from NYU and was immediately taken by her bright wit and ringing curiosity. We talked about tattoos and I was excited to learn that she was working on a book about a young pioneer woman named Olive Oatman, whom I had never heard of, captured by Indians in 1851 and willingly tattood on the chin.

Mifflin's book is now out in hard cover and I was able to catch her reading here in Brooklyn last Tuesday. Mifflin retells Oatman's story, quite popular throughout the late 1800s, with exhaustive research and masterful storytelling. She works to correct the record about Oatman's tenure with the Mohave, releasing the story from the "savage Indian" rhetoric so prolific at the time, and by calling into question the facts of the story, hitherto unexamined, as well as the implications of Oatman's "marked" status as a woman returned to the white world.

At 14, during a trek West with her Mormon (Brewsterite) family, Oatman and her sister were captured by Yavapai Indians along the Gila River. The rest of the Oatman family were killed except for a brother, Lorenzo, who was left for dead. Olive and Mary Ann spent one year with the Yavapai, serving as slaves, and were then purchased by the Mohave Indians. Mary Ann died during their five year stay with the Mohaves but Olive was ransomed and returned. There is much evidence that Olive did not wish to return to the whites, that she was fully integrated in the soon-to-decline Mohave culture and that she had found there the family that she desired after her own was slaughtered by the Yavapai.

Oatman went on to be a popular subject of a book, ghost written by a controlling preacher with an agenda named Stratton, and a sought-after speaker on both her captivity and on Indian culture. At a time when feminine modesty was culturally dictated, she displayed her chin tattoo to audiences across the United States.

For a host of unfortunate reasons, I have stayed away from Indian and pioneer history and stories - with the necessary exception of Willa Cather. Mifflin's book helped me to see a need for correcting this omission.