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Book review: “Elemental,” essays that reflect “survival, transformation and grit” of Midwest lit

Wayne State University Press

Wayne State University Press has released a new compilation of 23 essays by award-winning Michigan authors titled Elemental: A Collection of Michigan Creative Nonfiction.

As writer Kelly Fordon writes in her review below, we are lucky to have this many extraordinary writers living in our state.

As the anthology editor, Anne-Marie Oomen notes in the introduction, Michigan is a complex place, and if any book could come close to harnessing that complexity, this one does. The range of subject matter is staggering and, according to Oomen, organizing the material was no easy task. In the end, she decided to present these essays in four sections, through the lens of the elements we are shaped by: earth, wind, fire and water, in order to better reflect some of the intrinsic themes in Michigan literature: survival, transformation, tenacity, grit, and a sometimes grueling independence.

In one chapter, the reader will learn about bending nails at a construction site in Glen Arbor. In the next, moving up north as an Arab American woman. One minute the reader will be transported to the Shaman Drum Bookstore with the poet Keith Taylor as he happens upon a long-lost ancestor in an obscure bargain book. And in yet another essay by Mardi Jo Link, the reader will follow a crime writer whose own family member is being victimized by a teenaged derelict.

The opening essay, “Earth” by Teresa Scollon, brought me to tears with its vivid descriptions about growing up in “The Thumb” and her beautiful ruminations about grief and aging, including this one:

“You remember the silence of your grandfather, whose silence was a field, a space around him. Nothing you see now is new; everything reminds you of something else, someone you knew who is now gone. Wendell Berry says that you become like a tree standing over a grave. Some days you wish for someone to hear and see and witness all the memories your carry. Some days you understand that speaking of it only goes so far, only blunts the sharp edges.” 

In Rhoda Janzen’s essay “Unforgettable Baby,” she writes about becoming a middle-aged, first-time step-parent with hilarious precision. Janzen explains that she had watched her graduate school cohort become parents for the first time “reading Saussure and conversing about sparkly ponies at the same time," while Janzen herself continued to “experience parenting as something to admire from afar, like Mount Rushmore.”

As a fellow transplant, I was struck by Michael Steinberg’s essay “From Manhattan to Leelanau,” about coming to terms with the fact that the “temporary job” he took forty years ago at Michigan State University turned out to be anything but. Steinberg’s essay also includes an unlikely comparison between New York and Michigan I found quite charming. He writes, "Situated right at the tip of Michigan’s little finger, Northport often reminds me of 129th Street in Rockaway Beach, and even of certain small neighborhoods in the Greenwich Village of my college days.”

The collection ends with moving essays by Airea D. Matthews and Ari L. Mokdad, about the burden of racism. Mokdad, an Arab-American doctoral student at Wayne State University writes straightforward, unadorned powerful prose about the impact of racism on her life: 

“I’m exhausted. I don’t want to explain my culture to someone who believes that all Arabs are terrorists. Or that I know how to stop ISIS; or that I am the one who caused 9/11; or that I knew where Osama was hiding… Seriously. These were all real questions.”

In the introduction, Oomen says she hopes these essays reflect the spiritual weather here in Michigan, the interconnection between all of our residents. I believe she has succeeded in that endeavor. And, I agree with the assessment of fiction writer Jack Driscoll, who said of Elemental:

“The magic of this collection is the way in which each of these distinct and individual voices coalesce, montage-like, into a single defining declaration of what it means to fully embrace and celebrate a place and its inhabitants in such a reckless and troubled time. The spirit of this book resonated days later, like pure song.” 

Kelly Fordon is a poet and fiction writer. Her collection of linked stories, Garden for the Blind, was a 2015 Michigan Notable Book. Her newest book of poetry "Goodbye Toothless House" is out now.

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