MAY 2, 2016
WHAT IS IT LIKE to be a woman? Well — how much time have you got? In the time it takes to read Sonja Livingston’s latest collection, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, you can slip into 20 lifetimes and just as many facets of The Feminine: a slave, a murderer, a daredevil, a muse; a sideshow curiosity gawked at by millions, and a blue-skinned woman isolated in Appalachia; a poet, a singer; a member of the disappeared. Dredged up from history, or memory, or fiction, the women populating these pages are simultaneously too little known and eminently worth knowing.
But how to know them? Livingston chooses literary nonfiction as her point of entry, and takes the lead as our narrator and guide from the very first page, in a brief prologue of sorts. Conjuring the Dreamland — “Out on Ontario’s southern shore, a wood-floored pavilion built over a ravine […] [a] dance hall burned to the ground in 1923” — and a breeze coming off the lake, she parts the curtains of her imagination, and parades past us the shadowy figures haunting her:
Here, they take center stage, in essays as diverse as the women they highlight. Some pieces are largely personal, others are poetic renderings of the historical, and many are mash-ups of both.
A handful of subjects intersected directly with my life, while most showed themselves in slivers and bits. But whether they were channeled through half-remembered history lessons, the pages of a newspaper, or the scratch of an old record, each of these women and girls showed herself when I called — coming so close that, at times, I could nearly feel her beside me as I wrote.
It’s to Livingston’s credit that we feel them, too. Her prose — gorgeous, sensual, lyrical — makes entering these essays as easy as playing dress-up: dip your feet into those satin T-strap shoes, wrap yourself into that green turban, squint your eyes and try to peek through the cracks. The cracks, of course, are where Literature lives, where it pries its way in to examine and illuminate deep truths. But what kind of Literature does this, exactly? Fiction is known to be the vehicle for imagination, and historical fiction cleaves imagination to research. Either of these might have been another writer’s choice. But Livingston herself wants to play a part in these stories, which leaves only one option.
Are these essays, then? They might be defined as lyric essays. Some, however, read like entries in a dream journal, or prose poems. And at times, the author’s experience feels imposed, the connections between her story and the essay’s subject an authorial necessity rather than a narrative one: while the parallels and intersections Livingston portrays between her own life and the lives of these fierce, tragic, brave, fascinating women is clearly of great personal importance to her, they do not always create a deeper resonance for the reader. Yet in a few of the strongest selections, Livingston’s presence feels necessary; her voice, in fact, makes the piece. In one of my favorites, “The Second Morning,” she interrogates not a historical figure but a literary one, La Folle, a slave crippled by fear in Kate Chopin’s “Beyond the Bayou.” Livingston drops herself into the narrative, walking beside La Folle, all the while hectoring and lobbing questions like a dogged prosecutor. But to enter Chopin’s story is not enough for Livingston. She means to take possession and to pull it apart, to expand its boundaries. Not satisfied with the ending, she refuses to leave La Folle alone on the last page:
Kate Chopin leaves you waiting on the porch, presumably for the sight of Chéri and the security that will come when you see that all is right. She leaves you with the implied conclusion of health for Chéri and freedom for you, and I should do the same. Only I can’t turn away from the story that starts on the last page, on the second morning, freedom becoming its own question as you stretch into the sun like it’s the first sun ever come. What do you think as you sit beholding gardens …? Do you see it yet, the way your little cabin and the sound of Chéri’s voice will never be enough …?
So what if La Folle is Chopin’s invention, and Chopin has had her say? Livingston has substance to add, and therefore, in this case, we need her presence in the story.
But in several of the collection’s strongest pieces, their subjects are more than enough. With great intelligence and heart, Livingston wisely takes a back seat to give the long-silenced a voice. Here, she puts words into the (wonderfully mouthy) mouth of a collective ghost:
A ghost is a girl grown round, a pot of puttanesca, all tomato, fish parts and spice. We no longer consult with our daddies before making a move on the world. A ghost does not worry whether she piles too much on her plate, nor does she hesitate to run her hand over the sleeping plank of a man, saying out loud, now I’m gon’ get me some. We slop soup and slap hard against lovers, then disappear once we’ve had our fill, clomping on heels strapped to feet we don’t need as we parade across hardwood and cool marble tile. A ghost is a woman so tired of holding her tongue she becomes nothing but tongue, slick arc of pink, licking the world that once licked her flat.
All of us are coming through. Carrying with us words held under the tongue for so many years — a thousand flocks of starlings flapping free, grazing the heads of the living as we push past, turning over rivers and houses, swooping into cottonwoods until every branch is blackened. Nothing like losing the body to better see the woman. The truest thing on earth is fear. The one thing that doesn’t lie, a chill settling into the spine. Here we come, mouths open, hands wide. Can you feel it, the press of us just now against your flesh?
I can feel it, and it’s thrilling. However, the vitality and poetry of this voice gives way, in a few of the weaker essays, to a kind of voicelessness. In “A Thousand Mary Doyles,” the historical women of the title — a tide of Irish émigrés — are relegated, in a mere seven paragraphs, to a litany of height and hair color and hometowns. “Some Names and What They Mean” similarly reduces girls and women to definitions and images. Three double-initialed girls — victims of the notorious Alphabet Murders — are stalked twice, first by their perpetrator and again by Livingston, who brings them to life with ruminations and tidbits about their troubled homes and neighborhoods as well as their names. But she leaves them, each in turn, a bit too quickly in a ditch. And so their stories end in gruesome poses: “Carmen’s body was splayed along the roadside as if tossed from a moving car, like a spent cigarette or a half-eaten apple.” To be fair, the real subject of this particular essay seems to be the female body, and the ways in which a particular kind of girl — who grows up in a particular kind of place — shrinks from the sort of attention other kinds of girls aggressively court. Livingston herself is a character in this piece, and having come from the same neighborhood as the victims, she’s earned her place here. Not that she wants it, for even as a child she knew what had happened to those girls: “Kidnapped and killed. And something else. Something worse than death. Something I don’t yet understand but which settles heavy under my skin.”
Writing this good wants to expand, and here Livingston doesn’t shy away from fully inhabiting the piece with true purpose. She jumps ahead two decades, to a moment in graduate school. “Against the odds, I’ve made it out of the neighborhood, but my escape is so new I’m aware of myself primarily as an imposter.” A professor asks her gender-studies class how many of the students have been sexually harassed, and:
Hands fly up, all except those of the one or two men and my own, which remain folded on my lap, making my silence the loudest thing in the room. […] I cannot speak […] because the question asks about harassment as if it is a concrete thing, a one-time event — as if fear and being female in the world had a beginning and an end[. …] Should I mention my old neighborhood, where girls learned to wake early to avoid the feel of so many eyes? Even before our periods came, we were bodies. We had names, and those who knew us spoke them — prettily sometimes and other times like curses — but we were bodies, first and last.
But later in this same piece, after scooping up a collection of the fallen and other assorted girls, Livingston drives them on a road trip to nowhere:
Once we’ve decided and have rechristened ourselves with new names — the power of such a thing — all that’s left is the road and the question of where we’d most like to go. But not yet.
Why, for heaven’s sake, not? One wants to take Livingston by the hand, as gently as she takes the hands of those vulnerable girls, and say it’s okay, keep going. I promise to come with you.
Elsewhere, Livingston similarly stops short. While she often submerges us in a consciousness, she just as often neglects to fully probe its contours. As with La Folle, she speaks directly to Luna Fugate, one of the “Blue Fugates,” an isolated clan who, in the 19th century, suffered from a rare blood condition that colored their skin a denim hue. In “Blue Kentucky Girl,” she writes:
I am a hundred years and many miles removed from you, Luna, but that doesn’t stop me from trying to look into your face for what shows beyond the skin. To hear your voice. To understand the world as you saw it. What were the spaces like, Luna, those times between the digging of potatoes and the mending of shoes?
Readers, too, want to look beyond the skin; they may also feel a craving for fewer questions and more answers — even if imaginary ones. And creative nonfiction allows for such answers, does it not? But in their absence, I was driven again and again out of the book and over to Google, where I would fall down a rabbit hole, chasing the tail of one of Livingston’s subjects and gorging on Information. My hunger for more is a testament to Livingston’s choice of subject matter; she’s cast a fascinating array of characters. What this comes down to, really, is a question of genre and the presence of the author herself. Fiction would demand her absence. And so we must ask what purpose her participation serves. Does it enhance the reader’s interest and understanding of her subjects’ histories? Or is this rather the author’s way of probing various facets of herself? The line is gauzy here, a shimmering mirage much like the Dreamland itself.
In “The Other Magpie,” writing of the maybe-real, maybe-not Leona Moon-Heron, a blonde who dyes her hair black, whom Livingston calls “the fake Indian,” she finally asks,
Aren’t we all looking for something to connect us to others while locating the truth of who we are? If you want to be Sioux, perhaps you are. […] If we’re lucky or wealthy at middle age, those of us who tend toward personal growth might attempt to recover our “true” selves through hypnosis, pilgrimages in northern Spain, or retreats in the monasteries of Tibet, doing our best to find our way back to something buried under the rubble of storage units, five kinds of forks, and packets of artificial sweetener. So cluttered are our paths, who can be blamed for taking up a tradition that is not her own, a tradition tied to a past, that seems closer, truer, wilder somehow?
With these words, Livingston makes a case for her agenda throughout: this book — part memoir, part history, part invention — is her attempt to slip inside another life, or 20, in a search for connection, understanding, and emotional truth. And isn’t that the quest of all literature? Isn’t it, regardless of genre, an inquiry into the heart and mind of the Other? In Ladies Night at the Dreamland, the ladies in question (all those others) are apparitions — as is the author herself, fading in and out, haunting these pages. Here she is, mouth open and hands wide. Can you feel her?