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Lyric of the Unseen

Originally published in dislocate (2010), at the University of Minnesota.

The image of Chicago presented on most conference programs, tourist pamphlets and promotional posters is a photograph of the famous skyline, shot from somewhere out over the deeps of Lake Michigan. In these wide angle portraits, the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Buildings are fraternal twins, each a third of the way in from the outer edge of the lit-up cluster, seemingly holding up the glassy herd of the Loop. I grew up loving this view as much as any Chicagoan, and for a while, the summer I was nineteen, I rode the bus or the train into that center herd five or six days a week, to work at the Exchange National Bank— but I would be lying if I said that glossy skyline was my home.

I lived instead in the shadow city, the industrial suburban region that stretches south and east from the ports to the mills of Gary, Indiana, a region not likely to show up on any conference brochure. The streets and houses where my family resided were nice enough, first a brown brick bungalow, then a red brick ranch, but we were never far from some smoke stack or slag pile or waste dump.

I share this behind-the-scene scenery because I believe, as a nonfiction writer, my job is to describe both the shadows and the scintillation. I don’t intend—this time—to make a point about the frenzied, lit-up stage set of the center that would fall down without the invisible gray scaffolding behind, nor do I intend—this time—to take note of the damage done to this swath of land, once the tallgrass prairie but now scorched and soldered down to its bones, memories of the prairie springing up wild between the ties of 34 the railroad tracks or in the names of area businesses—Prairie Cleaners, Prairie Bank and Trust, Prairie Tire and Auto. Nor do I mean to write up another scene featuring my father and me, sharing statistics, projections, memories and fears about toxins that may have leached from this landscape into our bodies.

Rather, I want to describe to you the business of carrying the un-seeable essence of the shadows onto a nonfictional page with a breadth no less than that skyline view—one tower with a footprint deeply embedded into the ground of this city of lit-up exteriors and gravel-gray soul, another tower set into the imaginative and resonant intelligence of lyric language—that which will not just describe the confidential and promotional aspects of this city, but will also attempt to puncture notions of the Midwest as a landscape of absence, rupture the bright skyline posters with the smoke-spewing semi-truck of the industrial Midwestern urban real.

If one of the functions of creative nonfiction literature is similar to that of any of the documentary arts—to invite readers to look at what they might otherwise turn away from, or never encounter, then one of the strategies of invitation is the lyric mode, or that compression of language and container which evokes the poem-like jolt of awareness. The way into the lyric of the commonly unseen is through the tiny lingering details of beingness expressed through the breath of some particular human life inhabiting some fissure of location. The way into the urban unseen, or at least the urban unseen of my experience, is the evocation of the corporeal meeting the industrial. What is the quality of air? What is the taste in the mouth? What is the sound, the song of this moment?

For instance: when I was girl we lived across from a tangle of tracks and truck routes, under a sky made silver-gray from the smoke of the steel mills and paint factories 35 of the far southeast side of Chicago. I didn’t always notice the wincing stench in those years before the Chicago mills shut down, except when it got worse, on the way up to 103rd and Torrence, Mom’s old neighborhood where her mother still lived, just a block from their old Projects, around the corner from Wisconsin Steel.

“Rotten eggs” my mother muttered, when I was six or eleven or fifteen, as we drove past the slag heaps and landfills along what was then still called the Calumet Expressway, her powdered nose crinkling. She’d told us many times—sulfur from the mills smelled just like rotten eggs.

I could see Mom’s profile from the back seat of our blue station wagon, her downturned lips, wrinkled nose, the tower of brown beauty parlor hair, re-poofed every Friday afternoon. All the women we knew in the lower-middle-class steel mill suburbs of Riverdale, Dolton, Harvey, in those days before shag haircuts and handheld hairdryers, attended, devoutly, the weekly communion of the beauty parlor, where Sandy the hairdresser ratted an extra six inches onto their height, then consecrated them with hairspray, as their daughters waited in padded, bronze hair dryer chairs, paging through Photoplay and Modern Screen, deciding who to be when we left.

Mom complained about the stench as if she hadn’t smelled those eggs her whole life. Yet she repeated the words “rotten eggs” with the authority of the devoted, muttering a prayer cycle, the hypnosis of repetition, the American sacrament of knowing, yet refusing to know, her blessed devotion to familiarity.

Dad drove. Headlights swept the leveled prairies and fouled wetlands of the southeast side, lighting up Mom’s muttering. My brothers shoved each other. Holy. 36 Rotten. Holy. We knew, but could not see, the lights of the Loop, twittering. This night we would not ride that far north.

Moments like this one matter to me as a writer not just because the car ride into and out of the industrial plain is an actual and continuous memory of many of our Midwestern urban childhoods—as is the sweet sticky smell of the hairspray from a pink can, and the Photoplay pictorials of Liz Taylor with a scarf in her hair, and the twilight glow of the mills and that stink that did smell like either bad eggs or the devil—but also because that moment links me to the history of cities, of mills, of class and ethnic identities, of human migration, of industrial pollution, as well as the subsequent attempts of the post-steel city to re-green itself, and my own attempts, and the attempts of so many like me, another generation of American re-inventors, to re-green ourselves.

The purpose of writing from the shadow of the middle American city is the same as the purpose of writing from the shadow location of a literary genre linked to actuality. The creative nonfiction writer writes to elucidate the unseen, in order to better see, interrogate, interpret, and represent some aspect or version of what really does, or once did, or will exist in factual time and space. The nonfiction word is not itself the nonfiction thing, but language leads us into the vicinity. Seeing is part of knowing, but we can’t see the whole until we see the middle

What Is Creative Nonfiction?

 

AN INTRODUCTION

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There are many ways to define the literary genre we call Creative Nonfiction. It is a genre that answers to many different names, depending on how it is packaged and who is doing the defining. Some of these names are: Literary Nonfiction; Narrative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism; Imaginative Nonfiction; Lyric Essay; Personal Essay; Personal Narrative; and Literary Memoir. Creative Nonfiction is even, sometimes, thought of as another way of writing fiction, because of the way writing changes the way we know a subject.

As a devotee of this form I like to define the genre in as broad a way as possible. I describe it as memory-or-fact-based writing that makes use of the styles and elements of fiction, poetry, memoir, and essay. It is writing about and from a world that includes the author’s life and/or the author’s eye on the lives of others.

Under the umbrella called Creative Nonfiction we might find a long list of sub-genres such as: memoir, personal essay, meditations on ideas, literary journalism, nature writing, city writing, travel writing, journals or letters, cultural commentary, hybrid forms, and even, sometimes, autobiographical fiction.

Creative nonfiction writing can embody both personal and public history. It is a form that utilizes memory, experience, observation, opinion, and all kinds of research. Sometimes the form can do all of the above at the same time. Other times it is more selective.

What links all these forms is that the “I,” the literary version of the author, is either explicitly or implicitly present—the author is in the work. This is work that includes the particular sensibility of the author while it is also some sort of report from the world. Be it a public or a personal world. Be the style straightforward like a newspaper feature, narrative like a novel, or metaphorical like a poem.

One of my favorite words to attach to the art of creative nonfiction writing is the word “actual.” I prefer the word actual to the word truth. Fiction writers insist that they too write the truth, and that they must invent in order to tell this truth. I prefer the word actual to the word fact. Facts alone are too dry, and too absent of association.  I prefer the word actual to the word real. What is and is not real is continually up for grabs. Do we know, for instance, what is a real woman? A real man? The word real is too laden with assumption. I prefer the word actual because it refers to simple actuality. We begin a work of creative nonfiction not with the imaginary but with the actual, with what actually is or actually was, or what actually happened. From this point we might move in any direction, but the actual is our touchstone.

Different writers have said very different things about why they write in this form. Lee Gutkind, the editor of the magazine Creative Nonfiction, has described the form as a quest for understanding and information. The cultural critic bell hooks has said she wrote her memoir Bone Black in order to “recover the past.” Essayist, memoirist, and diva of nonfiction prose style Annie Dillard has said she writes to “fashion a text.” Dorothy Allison has used the stories of her life in both fiction and nonfiction in order, she’s written, “to save my life.”

The various roots of this form are quite widespread. The practice of narrative and social witness reportage can be traced all the way back to Daniel Defoe’s (fictional) Journal of a Plague Year as well as to 18th century “disaster journalism.” In the 1960’s the New Journalists revolutionized modern journalistic form by insisting on inserting the first person into their reportage. These writers, such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, were interested in bringing the presence of an individual awareness to the work, acknowledging that the writer is incapable of complete subjectivity and is constantly interpreting what he or she observes. From this tradition we inherit countless models of the ways to translate interviews and research into a style that resembles the storytelling and dramatic movement of fiction and the language and rhythms of poetry.

The personal essay form is much older. It dates back, according to some, to 16th century French writer Montaigne and to the French root of the word “essay,” which means to “attempt” or “try.” Others suggest we might date the essay form back even further, and include such works as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan, the eloquent musings of a 10th century Japanese lady of the court. The personal essay reflects the mind at odds with itself, and some of the most beautiful personal essays ask questions they cannot hope to answer. It’s the meander through ideas and stories that make the work wonderful to read.

We can look, also, to St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the 5th century, as a model for writing out of our own life and experience. Sometimes referred to as “the first memoir” St. Augustine’s story is one of conversion and rebirth, not unlike today’s familiar recovery-from-addiction narrative. Personal memoir is a form that has slowly evolved into the sort of the book commonly found on the contemporary bookstore new release table. At one time the actual memoirist was considered insignificant to the memoir. When a soldier described the battle, for instance, it was the battle that mattered, not the soldier. Public events were considered historical, while private life was seen as inappropriate to the written word, unless you were a person considered of singular historical importance—Winston Churchill, or a Kennedy, for instance.

All this has changed in our postmodern day-to-day. Feminism has privileged the personal, changing the paradigms of what is worthy of cultural notice and recovering the stories of lives previously absent from history. Identity and cultural politics redirected attention to people of color, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and anyone else who was up to that point missing from the public record. The mainstreaming of psychoanalysis and related disciplines suggested that our conscious and unconscious motivations and feelings are no longer considered strictly private matters.

A negative interpretation of these cultural changes suggests we are interested in the private story and the personal vantage point only because we are held hostage by talk show and “reality TV” culture. While it is true that it’s often difficult to fully comprehend how commercial culture has influenced our tastes and cravings, I believe that these phenomena are coupled with what has become a healthy intellectual and emotional curiosity about the world as it actually exists. We want to know what really happened. What distinguishes quality literary endeavor from media manipulation has as much to do with intention and artistry as it does public confession.

Beyond the hype and exploitation of the worst of the commercial personal forms, what I continue to value is one person’s story—the world as seen through the scrim of each of our personal experiences. For better or worse, we are more aware than we once were of the role the personal plays in everything we do. These changes in literary nonfiction grow out of parallel changes in our world.

The report, the critique, the rumination, the lyric impression and the hard fact are all found in contemporary creative nonfiction writing. It is the mix of all these elements that make creative nonfiction an illuminating and moving form of historical documentary, as well as lovely literature.

Finally, I’m with Annie Dillard when I say creative nonfiction writing is first about the formation of a text, the creation of piece of art, just like any painting or musical composition. Your life and the life of the world is your raw material, as much a part of the mix as is the paint, the chords, the words. Your subjects might be any part of this world.

Accounting for the fluid lines of tradition streaming into the creative nonfiction of today can be overwhelming, but also freeing. We creative nonfiction writers can make form out of whatever containers we are capable of imagining, and still be working within the wide parameters of the actual.

I end with my favorite words on the subject of creating creative nonfiction literature. This is a quote from Annie Dillard, from her famous essay “To Fashion a Text.”

When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted 15 years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.

2001/ updated 2013    Barrie Jean Borich

REVIEWS of RESTORING THE COLOR OF ROSES

from City Pages, Mary 12, 1993
I remember when Borich blew everyone away in a writing class with a piece that ended in a fabulously intense sexy encounter. Four years later, that story has grown into her first book, Restoring the Color of Roses. It’s a journey through lovers and flings, straightness and queerness, through alcoholism and recovery through the edge of industrial Chicago where she grew up in a Catholic-Croatian-German-Polish neighborhood. What brings the “creative” out of Borich’s creative nonfiction is her tendency to descend into dream and imagination merging characters and events into composites.
—Julie Caniglia

from Gay Chicago Magazine, August 19-29, 1993
Nothing I could say in this review is more important than, “you must read this book.” Barrie Jean Borich has written the most compelling book of essays since Joan Didion’s The White Album. And, like Didion, Borich spares the reader no detail. Illness and recovery, dysfunctional family follies, addictions to alcohol and sex, twisted religion, and the uncertain meshing of past and present all combine on the page to become a feast of beautifully written prose. Restoring the Color of Roses won’t restore your faith in mankind, but it will introduce you to an important and valuable new force in the creative nonfiction genre. —Gregg Shapiro

from The Lesbian Review of Books, Summer 1995
Restoring the Color of Roses by Barrie Jean Borich is part storytelling, part dream collecting, and part memory. It feels like the familiar search for identity made along the road of family history in counterpoint to one’s own personal recollection.….This is a book about coming out. It is not the simple coming-out story in which the discovery is made and all is well. Rather it is the more common story in which coming out is ancillary to a host of other realizations. Borich shows how it is that when sexuality becomes genuine, not something we watch ourselves do from a distance, the patchwork of feelings and experiences is overwhelming. And she doesn’t take the easy way out of the dilemma; she doesn’t fall into the temptation of believing coming out makes that patchwork any less confusing, any less dismaying…This is a book for those who want to know how someone else has begun to figure out the melee of postmodern identity: how it is possible to survive the conflicts of sexuality, family, alcoholism, racism, and ethnic identity and still resist the impulse to jump in front of moving trains or take the next drink to numb away the confusion.

from Women Library Workers, Fall 1993
The author of this non-fiction work blends her unusual ethnic background (Polish, Croatian, Catholic) with her lesbianism, alcoholism and perceptions to create a strong, compelling book. Her descriptions of tensions between her Polish mother and Croatian father leads one to think of the long-simmering ethnic feuds now erupting in Bosnia. She looks at child abuse, suicide, and physical beauty with a magnifying glass and never flinches….The book clearly belongs in women’s studies and lesbian collections…—Pauline Klein

from Lambda Book Report, September/October 1993
The cities of the upper middle-west have not been a prime literary destination since the political novels of the 1930’s. But every book published by Firebrand Books is an adventure, and often it is an adventure into infrequently traveled places. Certainly this unsettling, well-written view of a seriously unhappy Croatian-Polish woman growing up on Chicago’s raw and beautiful south side is unusual stuff for literary memoir…Growing up in those middle years between the women’s movement and today, part of the generation that “solved” its problems with casual sex and casual drugs, in swift descent from the reality of her lesbianism, she strives to find a handle for survival. Weaving back and forth from the 1980’s to today, Barrie finally finds her way into the arms of a woman who works to restore her confidence….Oblique and painful, this book is not easy to read. However, if you care about the literature of your world, do read Restoring the Color of Roses. Read it if for no other reason than for the romantic and poetic view of the gritty, enthralling cities of the upper middle-west.—Barbara Grier

 

REVIEWS of MY LESBIAN HUSBAND

from Ruminator Review, Fall 1999
Borich is deeply worried about words; it is crucial to her, as one who lives by language, to know whether her relationship constitutes a “marriage.” She understands that this isn’t a matter of semantics—doesn’t what you call a bond between people have lasting power to shape just what that relation is? She and her partner are deeply committed, have struggled through the challenges of years together. They own a house, have a dog and a history. They are involved with one another’s families. They are ” acknowledged, at least among our friends, as together, as linguistically joined, barrieandlinnea, one long roll of soft consonants and vowels.”

Is the sanction of the state truly required to marry them? What is its relationship to that “vein of common happiness?” With these questions Borich speaks, of course, for a vast number of gay and lesbian citizens who find themselves in a linguistic and legal conundrum about what our relationships are to be called, and what they mean…..

At her best, Borich delineates moments and their emotional implications so sharply as to make something full of the texture of life, and wonderfully lacking in certainty about anything but what Keats called the truth of the heart’s affections. She writes beautifully about sex, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to do; she is an attentive chronicler of the body’s currents and releases, responses and cries. She and her lover are, “two full-grown people afloat in an image of themselves, two burning pieces of star, two shocks of an unearthly shimmer.” Because we have so few chronicles of the complex affections, the shifting emotional weathers of same-sex couples together over decades, this book is especially crucial: it offers a clear and rare view into the lives of two women and their worldBut Borich’s descriptive powers and her skill with metaphor, as well as her rigorous self-scrutiny, make My Lesbian Husband of far more than documentary value. This lively memoir helps us to come that much closer to a mystery: the inexplicable fact of long-held affection, long-held desire, which can bind two people far more deeply than state or church ever could. —Mark Doty

from OUT Magazine, November 1999
As she walks her dog Patsy amid the battered Victorian houses (and the offbeat couples who inhabit them) of her slowly gentrifying Minneapolis neighborhood, poet and memoirist Barrie Jean Borich reflects on her 12-year (and counting) relationship with her beloved, Linnea and the circle of friends and the family tensions that hold it in place. Threaded together with recurring themes such as holiday celebrations, kitsch, and other trappings of domesticity, these entries amount to an extended meditation on the meaning of lesbian marriage. It’s a book to be savored—lying with your head in your girlfriend’s lap. —Charlotte Abbott

from MS, October/November 1999
Throughout her 12-year relationship with her lover, Barrie Jean Borich’s overriding question has been, “Who are we, the two of us, together?” Her quest: to find out “what it looks like to be lesbians in long-time love.” …Borich is an empathetic writer who can do justice to simple happiness and complicated love; her nuanced description of her brother’s wedding is a particular success. Throughout, she navigates between the seductive pull of established traditions and rituals and the need to come up with her own. She finds a balance in a decision made in the twelfth year of their relationship that surprises both her and her partner. —Amy Hempel

from In the Family, Spring 2000
Yoo-hoo. Oh yoo-hoo. Dame Edna. Attention pul-leeze. And maybe Elvis and Madonna and of course our Divine Miss M., and maybe the statuesque Madame Liberty! The time has come for you to add a fabulous new diva to your illustrious brigade. The new recruit is Barrie Jean Borich, flaming femme and author of a stunning new memoir, My Lesbian Husband. Barrie Jean will probably demur, will probably insist that she does not really belong in your exalted ranks. She’ll say that she is just a Polish girl who grew up on the “steel mill and freeway plain” of Chicago, just a hapless soul fumbling her way through life and secondhand stores, merely the wannabe wife of her beloved butch girlfriend. Madonna, Bette, and the rest of you don’t listen to her. Remind her of that long ago session with the psychic who told her she was a star person, destined to be set apart. Remind her, too, that she has written a splendid book, one that has changed forever the landscape of lesbian love.

Despite it’s emphatic title, My Lesbian Husband is no more about Barrie Jean’s long term partner Linnea than the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook is about recipes. Borich’s book is about Herself, a free spirit overly fond of steamy break-the-rules sex, drugs and booze; a bad girl eventually redeemed by daily life with her unflappable, loving partner. It is about an outsider/insider who keeps changing her stripes (but never her faux leopard spots). It is about a state of brilliant befuddlement—a fate that probably befalls anyone brazen enough to crawl inside a koan and take-up residence there. “Why should I treat the world as I do, like a continuous crossword puzzle full of witty clues and the wrong answers?” Borich asks no one in particular. Such unanswerable questions are her authorial signature.

But lest you think My Lesbian Husband is a long-winded and wooly-minded cosmic quest, let me assure you that Borich can be as precise as a Polaroid, as gritty as a home movie. We can almost feel the tangled sheets, smell the sweaty sex, as Barrie Jean comes out and careens through the non-monogamous, substance-abusing 70’s. Rendered with the same cinema verite rawness is her free-fall into permanent partnership (the 80’s) and her morphing into a married lesbo lady (the 90’s)…. Fortunately for all of us, this brilliant, zany Queen of Conspicuous Subjectivity won’t be able to resist coming back for an encore. Just to make sure I’m going to keep clapping.—Marny Hall

from The Gay & Lesbian Review, Winter 2000
“Are we married?” asks Barrie Jean Borich of her lover of twelve years, Linnea, in the first chapter of My Lesbian Husband. It’s a question she returns to, in one form or another, throughout the book, and although the answer is obviously “yes” from the start, the author uses her uncertainty to look more closely at the significance of all the words that imply intimacy and commitment—wife, long-term lovers, house co-owners, husband, couple, union, family, marriage—significance not only to herself but to other lesbians and to heterosexual couples, as well.

These terms for committed relationships are important to Borich, not only because lesbians have no true language of our own with which to describe our modes of bonding, but also because the author wants her relationship to be acknowledged in the same ways that straight marriages are. Consequently, she’s reluctant to reinvent the wheel, as many lesbians are forced to do. And she doesn’t believe she needs to. Although she and Linnea have a large coterie of gay and “bohemian” friends, neither woman lives in a ghettoized world. Borich wants to find ways to appropriate and integrate the best of what already exists. So while her writing moves back and forth in time, focusing on moments during her years with Linnea that reveal the texture of their life together, she returns as well to her youngest brother’s engagement and wedding, to her and Linnea’s relationship with their immediate families, and to the perceptions of strangers in their Minneapolis neighborhood and elsewhere….

…Borich characterizes herself as a worrier and a dreamer, someone who has trouble staying in the present moment because she’s so busy fantasizing about the fabulous future. She is at heart a romantic. Still, she’s confused by her attraction to spectacle, dressing up, and the seductive images of princes and princesses on the silver screen. Her head knows these preoccupations are frivolous, but her heart values them nonetheless….These kinds of contradictions are baffling to the reader as well. But they are also accurate renderings of an identity in search of itself, like a woman trying on and discarding dresses until she finds the one that suits her best. —Martha K. Davis

from Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1999
A passionate, intricately composed memoir of the author’s long-term love relationship, set against the backdrop of their Minneapolis neighborhood and complicated family ties. With colorful, witty, richly woven prose, Borich (Restoring the Color of Roses) invites the reader into a life that is at once ordinary and wholly unique. Alternating between different years in her relationship, and leading up to her actual wedding, Borich’s narrative unfolds like a patchwork quilt. She offers sketches of her family, daily dog walks, city noises and urban dramas, her collection of kitschy Madonna art, and her lover’s obsession with motorcycles and bird watching. Though clearly a romantic, Borich is no fool. She acknowledges the precariousness of permanence even as her prose swirls around her and her lover’s entwined feet…. If she errs on the side of bliss, she does so by staying rooted in everyday experience. She is similarly egalitarian in her portrayal of family members and the ways in which heterosexual bonding is awarded more legitimacy by her parents, aunts, and cousins. One of the moving aspects of the book is how some of these family members shift over the years toward more acceptance of Borich and her lesbian husband. Much broader than a lesbian interest title, this book will resonate with many readers, regardless of sexual orientation, bringing a nod of recognition to some, a twinge of longing to others.

from Feminist Bookstore News, Fall 1999
My Lesbian Husband: Landscapes of a Marriage by Barrie Jean Borich is an exploration of the society within which an intimate lesbian relationship takes place. It is also an exploration of language: how language can define intimacy and the ways that lovers claim language, making their own meanings. Borich’s writing is lovely as she speaks about falling in love, women, and “marriage.” From the book: “‘I don’t like wife. It’s true, it doesn’t fit her. But who does the word wife fit? Fishwife. Housewife. I don’t like it either. But when Linnea calls me her wife it is a word filled with all the attention she gives me, plump with kisses on the neck as my thighs part to her hands. We can only use this word if we steal it. Hidden in our laps it’s better.” A gorgeous contemplation of language and love.

from Library Journal, Sept 1, 1999
In her new memoir (following Restoring the Color of Roses), Borich discusses the life and love she shares with her long-term partner, Linnea. She writes movingly and with great wit about her experiences as a lesbian wife in a world that still doesn’t quite know what to make of her relationship. In a group of well-crafted essays, she describes the milestones of their 12 years together and explores the effect that tradition and the limitation of language has had on their union. She writes of her ambivalence toward marriage, her abiding fear of losing autonomy to her spouse, and the insufficiency of the English language for accurately describing her bond with her beloved. She also considers how she and Linnea have reconfigured traditions and how they make do with existing words—such as wife, husband, and soulmate to express their love. A lovely book; highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. —Kimberly L. Clarke

from The San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 1999
Barrie Jean Borich and her lover, Linnea Stenson, have been together for more than a decade. They love each other, they live together, they plan to keep on living together. “I wonder,” writes Borich, “are we married?”

It’s a question that brings up other questions in Borich’s memoir, My Lesbian Husband, a linked series of essays, all looking, from different angles, at questions about marriage and intimate relationships. What does it mean for two women to be “married” to each other? Do she and Stenson want to be married? Are they married, whether or not they have a legal ceremony? What is the difference between their “marriage” and a marriage between a woman and a man? Borich came of age in the late’70s and early’80s, a time when young lesbians, freed by the women’s and gay rights movements of a decade or so earlier, gloried in their alternative lifestyle. “I am not of the generation of women who wrote the radical feminist manifestos,” she says. “I am from the first new generation to read them, and I did, unceasingly, barely taking a breath between each heady essay… It was the article that explained the political error in the concept of the couple that stirred me like no other.”

She vowed never to subside into the “state of partial dissolve” that afflicted individuals who became part of a couple.…And yet some time later, after a confusing period of many affairs and much alcohol, she found herself seriously in love, and this love led to a relationship that has lasted, so far, for 12 years. My Lesbian Husband chronicles those years, and some of the years that preceded them, and along the way looks at the pleasures of the bohemian life, the pressures of political correctness and the paradoxical yearning for the comforts of convention in those who don’t really want to be conventional at all….this is a book that asks some timely questions and answers them thoughtfully and with a lot of personality.—Jeanne DuPrau

from Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1999
Thoughtfully mapping the landscape of love and commitment outside the legal and societal comfort zone of state-sanctioned marriage, Borich repeatedly asks Linnea, her lover of “twelve years and counting”: “Are we married?” It’s not an accusation, a manipulative device or a pointed query so much as an attempt to probe what it means to be in love and to share a life for many years without the social benefits and familial recognition granted to Borich’s two married younger brothers. Not merely another queer commentary (or diatribe) on marriage, this memoir is foremost a graceful and compelling rumination on love. In the course of her paean to Linnea, and using their life together on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis as a kind of metaphor, Borich ponders how she got to this place in her life. A recovered substance abuser who once spiraled perilously downward, devoid of any focus beyond hanging out, Borich is truly in recovery, a partner in a love that literally reconfigures her existence. Elucidating a host of lesbian issues from the butch-femme dynamic to “serial non-monogamy” to changing sexual politics, Borich also addresses more global concerns, such as neighborhood confraternity, racism and violence….this tale of heart and home and what it means to find both in a tough and alienating world offers many pleasures.

from Booklist, Sept 1, 2000
Borich’s essays probe the nature of her lengthy “marriage” with her lover Linnea as well as the more traditional, heterosexual marriages entered into by those around her, such as her brother Paulie. She ponders the power of language—is Linnea her “wife” or her “husband”?—to exert subtle force on interpersonal interactions. She recalls her past and mingles it with her present as she considers the charms of battered old Victorian houses, the trials and pleasures of walking her and Linnea’s dog, Patsy, and many more homely details, domestic and otherwise. She writes with humor and compassion and overall humanity about what are, finally, perfectly ordinary—and extraordinary—lives. —Whitney Scott

from Lambda Book Report, Feb 2000
In these meticulously observed essays, Borich examines her relationship with her lover Linnea and their daily life. Her explorations include lesbian gender, and we quickly are made to understand that Linnea is the husband while the author is the wife. Yet gender, like every other topic in the book, coalesces around the incessant refrain of Borich’s query, “are we married?” She asks this of Linnea and of the readers, often making comparisons of her own relationship with the marriages among her family of origin and the relationships among her lesbian friends, gay male friends, and her neighbors. Marriage is the thread that keeps these essays strung together as they weave non-chronologically through time. And it is the marriage ceremony and celebration that supports the book’s conclusion. The individual essays are often absorbing. We are treated to details, wonderful turns of phrase, and astute political commentary. —Ruthann Robson

from Re-Imagining, February 2000
…Because I live very near the Minneapolis area Barrie Borich describes, I know the neighborhood she wanders with her dog, Patsy Cline. I believe that her probing of the relationships with her beloved Linnea Stenson, her mother, her neighbors, and past lovers is as accurate and careful as her delineation of Portland Avenue and Powderhorn Park. A reader must find the voice of a memoirist trustworthy and I trust Barrie’s portrayals. I understand her yearning to name her relationship, and I even accept her need to create a playfully bizarre wedding ritual…. Barrie describes precisely the reason why my husband and I—in our 50’s—entered a legal marriage last summer, though friends and relatives agreed we didn’t have to do it. Barrie and Linnea still can’t occupy that legal landscape I share with my husband. They could barely dare to dance, unacknowledged, around the edges of Barrie’s brother’s “real” wedding. After nearly three hundred pages of sharing the intensity and familiar routine of Barrie and Linnea’s life, I close the book feeling sadly complicit in our marginalization of their love. —Lucia Wilkes Smith

from Amazon.com
Barrie Jean Borich’s memoir of her 14-year marriage is a subtle exploration of gender and the intricacies of butch-femme desire. In dense, lyrical paragraphs, My Lesbian Husband describes Borich’s first attraction to her partner, Linnea, and the slow building of their life together in a decaying neighborhood in Minneapolis. Borich traces both the pleasures and the wrenching difficulties of trying to construct a long-term union in the absence not only of legal and social support but of everything that our aunts and uncles and parents take for granted: “names for their union in every language, the weddings of a square-chested prince and a big-busted, cinch-waisted princess at the end of every Disney movie, every Shakespeare comedy, not to mention Mary and Joseph, Hera and Zeus, and those little bride and groom figurines they have saved from their wedding cakes.” This is as sharply observed and well-written a memoir as Jan Clausen’s Apples and Oranges, but a valentine rather than a valediction. —Regina Marler

from The Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 29 1999
While bussing tables at a freeway truck stop, the teenage Barrie Jean Borich learned that “to marry ketchup” meant balancing one bottle on top of another so that one was emptied as it filled the other. The term would serve as a metaphor for the threats posed by marriage to one’s independence, she writes in her memoir. My Lesbian Husband. “Two become one. The empty bottle is thrown away. Lose yourself. Become someone different, a compound person, joined and lost.” She moved to Minneapolis, vowed never to get married, and “banged and shattered” her way through an early adulthood that resembled “a corridor of mirrors, a hallway of opposites” where the lesbian culture of the day viewed relationships as the dysfunctional vestiges of straight culture, an exercise in futility and self-denial. Those theories crashed down around Borich when she met Linnea, the woman who would turn out to be her lover of 12 years. “Do you think we’re married?” Borich asks Linnea at the book’s beginning, which sets her off on an exploration of couples and their impact on one’s identity. —Eric Hanson from Lavender Magazine, September 24, 1999

from Lavender Magazine, September 24, 1999
My Lesbian Husband is a labor of love, and it is magnificent….Borich’s prose has a rhythm that can only be tapped by a writer who’s willing to get down to the original iambic backbeat: the heart. In a passage from a chapter called “What Kind of King,” her meditation on kings has the quality of a spoken-word piece, a jazz poem. If you listen while you read, you can hear scatting overtones of Ella Fitzgerald….. There are drug kingpins and kings of the road, the King of Kings, the King’s English. There’s Linnea’s and my king-size King Koil mattress.” She pauses to wonder “what, if anything, this catalogue of kings has in common with Linnea in her two-toned wing tips and creased trousers,” and the reader knows the answer: Everything, of course, and nothing at all. —Ellen Lansky

 

 

REVIEWS of BODY GEOGRAPHIC

from The Rumpus
Borich has composed Body Geographic to mimic the cartographic process, the text a two-dimensional albeit lay- ered and evolving representation of the multitudinous self and the shifting landscapes we inhabit. The book is inserted with an array of maps and even has its own textual topography in that braided stories are sub-headed as “overlays” and “insets” (i.e., “Inset of Body Improvisation,” “Overlay of Open Space,” or “Panorama View, with Crossroads”). In its form, the book is a representation of a representation, but the effect isn’t so theo- retical as it is constructed out of its parts… In all, Body Geographic navigates fluidly between recovery narrative, travelogue, family leg- end (in both the literary and cartographic senses of the word), and coming-of-(middle)age story, and in so doing posits a new telling (or re-mapping) of the American story. “All Americans, even the most put-upon among us, might have a little bit of empire building in our makeup, some desire to refind the lost parts of ourselves through locating and owning, land- ing somewhere and inscribing our names,” Borich writes. By “somewhere,” she infers not merely latitude and longitude, but place and flesh and gender, self and other, past and present. She reveals how we lay claim to our physical and historical geography, to our lovers and to our own bodies—all of it real and imagined—and mark it ours, even as it makes us who we are.

from Publishers Weekly
From the first evocative, disturbing scene of receiving an unexpectedly painful lower-back tattoo of a “dual city skyline” of her childhood home Chicago and her adopted home Minneapolis, Borich (My Lesbian Husband) enlists the reader in a gritty, poetic tour of her personal geography. Layers of memory, history, and conjecture create a palimpsest of cultural and family lore and personal recollection, accompanied by a collection of maps and images, both physical and metaphysical, that track human imagination across time and boundaries—the 1668 map of Bohemia as a rose by Christopher Vetter; the “big blond body of Miss Manifest Destiny” floating over westward-bound settlers in John Gast’s 1872 painting American Progress; the “city in the middle of Linnea’s brain”—an x-ray of the tumor in Borich’s lesbian husband’s frontal lobe. The book itself is chaptered as a series of “maps” and “insets” navigating Borich through the “memory and dissonance” of her Croatian immigrant family of mine and mill workers, her own northward migration, the politics and experience of gender ambiguity, and the spirit of place. “Words are maps,” she writes, “and maps say more about where we think we’ve been than where we actually reside.” 25 illus. (Mar.)

from Kirkus (starred review)
A stunningly original memoir that explores a woman’s connection to the real and imagined Midwestern landscapes that have defined her life. Borich (Creative Writing/DePaul Univ.; My Lesbian Husband, 1999) takes on the formidable challenge of “countermapping [her] American body against ‘the true and accurate atlas’ any woman of [her] place and generation was supposed to follow.” The author was born and grew up on Chicago’s industrial South Side, which her Croatian grandfather helped to build. It was a place she “carr[ied] under [her] skin” in the same way she carried a tattoo of Chicago and her adopted city of Minneapolis on her back. Borich’s path to Minnesota was anything but clear-cut. As a young woman, she traveled to a “prairie college town” in Illinois to attend college, but she gave herself over to alcohol and eventually dropped out. When a much older male lover in Minneapolis invited her to live with him, she joined him. But privately, she agonized over whether she was gay, straight or “something else.” Borich’s sexual quest(ion)ing led her to the lesbian community, where she began to map out her desires through the bodies of female lovers. In this riotously gender-bent world, she met Linnea, her future “husband.” They shared a journey of partnership that would include excursions into the inevitable bodily reshapings brought about by time, desire and illness. Fragments of history—her own, her family’s and those of the cities that have marked her life-coordinates—intermingle with images and actual maps of Borich’s “Middle West.” Together, they create an elegant literary map that celebrates shifting topographies as well as human bodies in motion—not only across water and land, but also through life. Poetic, complex and innovative.

from BookList
Borich’s memoir creates a Midwest where her body and the landscape intersect—a unique literary cartography that traces the lives of her immigrant great-grandparents and more recent relatives while exploring her own personal journey. “Maps are less actualities than acts of discernment . . . Mapping [is] the art of making out some new and more accurate self that I hadn’t made out before.” The “alabaster city” of her hometown, Chicago, and Minneapolis, a port of entry into a new life, are her defining geographic coordinates. Her immigrant roots, her youthful longings, her coming-out, and her present life as a lesbian are the subjects of powerful essays in which glimpses of the past generate an evocative physical and psychic synthesis. Illustrated by vintage maps, Borich’s literary voyage embraces “those monsters on the old maps” that “suggest the ways wonder and injury might inhabit the same seas,” and one life.

from Minneapolis Star Tribune
It’s time for a true confession: I have a plastic magnet on my refrigerator that is a riff on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” My mother gave it to me as a not-so- subtle reminder that our time here isn’t a straight line with a definitive end point, and that it’s impossible to predict all of the twists and turns on life’s path Barrie Jean Borich’s multilayered memoir takes this sentiment to its outermost borders as she visually and literally interlaces cartographic terms with her own personal history. Borich uses “insets” within the maps, or chapters, to talk about her family, her lesbian husband, her friends and her childhood. She includes illustrations of a unique variety of vintage and antique maps to represent her geographical wanderings across the Midwest and other parts of the world….Thanks to Borich’s unconventional approach, Body Geographic is as much a thoughtful meditation on the world at large as it is a telling account of Borich’s own voyage through life. “In a fully conscious geography,” she writes, “the landscapes of memory loop in and out of the body … a constant circle of departure and return.”

from Lambda Literary Review
In her third creative non-fiction book Body Geographic, creative writing professor Barrie Jean Borich traces the development of her identity as an American, a Midwesterner, a woman, a lesbian, and a writer. She connects these identities to the routes of her immigrant ancestors who traveled to Chicago, the historical evolution of Chicago itself, her own movement through the city as a child, a teenager, and an adult, followed by her “emigration” to Minneapolis. Borich also re-travels her roads through adolescence and substance abuse as she takes Amtrak and other forms of public transportation. These stories take place simultaneously, through musical narrative, historical research, and maps. Body Geographic was selected for inclusion in the American Lives Series (edited by Tobias Wolff). The series embodies this theme: The singular American life is a source of endless diversity, and the methods of telling the life are as important as the details themselves. Borich’s story could easily fill in the blanks of many American memoirs, if those Americans had the time and inclination to write them.

from Watermark
In these days of shrinking attention spans and dwindling memories, saying that something was “worth the wait” can be a tricky statement. The fickle entertainment-seeking public is in- creasingly impatient, finding it easier to move on than to wait for the next movie from their favorite filmmaker, the latest song or album from a favorite musical act they enjoy, the new book by a writer they regularly read. But “worth the wait” has rarely been truer than it is in the case of Body Geographic (University of Nebraska, 2013), the third memoir by lesbian writer Barrie Jean Borich. A queer travelogue incorporating personal and historical details that is seamlessly woven into a one-of-a-kind atlas quilt, Body Geographic contains of echoes of Borich’s first two books Restoring The Color of Roses (1993) and My Lesbian Husband (2000). But Body Geographic unfolds differently, spins on its own unique axis and is veined with roads traveled and landscapes claimed and reclaimed.

 

 

 

Body Geographic Maps

Below is a gallery of maps and other images from Body Geographic.

 

FIGURE 1
FIGURE 23
FIGURE 2
FIGURE 22
FIGURE 11
FIGURE 14
FIGURE 22
FIGURE 21
FIGURE 21
FIGURE 18
FIGURE 20
FIGURE 19
FIGURE 9
FIGURE 10
FIGURE 12
FIGURE 13
FIGURE 15
FIGURE 16
FIGURE 17
FIGURE 7
FIGURE 5
FIGURE 4

FIGURE 1— Americam utramque: aliis correctiorem by G. van Keulen. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Maps Division.

FIGURE 2—Map of Europe as Queen by Sebastian Munster. Courtesy of www.RareMaps.com—Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps.

FIGURE 4—The Man of Commerce by A.F. McKay. Used with permission from the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

FIGURE 5—Thornton Quarry, Thornton, Cook County. Courtesy of Terry Evans.

FIGURE 7—Chicago in Silhouette by Howard Lyon. Courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times.

FIGURE 8—Bohemiae Rosa, by Christoph Vetter. Use courtesy of the University of Minnesota Libraries.

FIGURE 9—Nineteenth Precinct, First Ward Chicago, by William Stead. Photo courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago. Call# CaseF548.5 S8 1894.

FIGURE 10—Map of California Shown as an Island, by Dutch cartographer Johannes Vinckeboons. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

FIGURE 11—Ebenezer Howard’s Group of Slumless, Smokeless Cities. ©British Library Board. Reprinted with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

FIGURE 12—Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the Trumbull Park Homes. Reprinted/ used with permission from The Sanborn Library, LLC.

FIGURE 13—Hales & Hunter Feed Mill, Riverdale IL. Photo by Christopher Allen; image used with permission from the photographer.

FIGURE 14—My Father Wanders. Photo from the author’s personal collection.

FIGURE 15—Islandia by Abraham Ortelius. Image used with permission, ©British Library Board.

FIGURE 16—Mississippi River Meander Belt by Harold Fisk. Courtesy of the Army Corp of Engineers Engineering Geology and Geophysics Branch.

FIGURE 17—A time table indicating the difference in time between the principal cities of the World. Image courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com.

FIGURE 18—MRI photograph used with permission from Linnea Stenson.

FIGURE 19—Chicago of to-day. Used with permission from the Chicago History Museum/Archive Photos/Getty Images.

FIGURE 20—Aerial views of Sears Roebuck, Lake Street and Elliott Avenue, Minneapolis. Used with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society.

FIGURE 21—Rand, McNally & Co.’s Minnesota. (with) Minneapolis, St. Paul and Vicinity. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com.

FIGURE 22—County & township map of the state of Illinois. (with) Chicago and vicinity by Wm. M. Bradley & Bro. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com.

FIGURE 23—Map of Cook County, Illinois with inset of map of Chicago, 1861, by Walter L. Flower. Used with permission of the Chicago History Museum.

“What Is Creative Nonfiction?”

 

 

Click any of the the titles below to read one of my craft
essays on the art of literary nonfiction writing.

WHAT IS CREATIVE NONFICTION?
An Introduction

LYRIC OF THE UNSEEN: NAVIGATING
SHADOWS IN NONFICTION

ON BRIDGING THE DISTANCE
BETWEEN THERAPIST AND THEORIST

THE ANKLE BONE’S CONNECTED TO THE MEMORY BONE

• DEEP PORTRAIT: ON THE ATMOSPHERE OF NONFICTION CHARACTER

•LET’S SAY THIS NAKED RINGING: ON NONFICTION  VOICE

• NONFICTION & CONSEQUENCE: ON THE TRUTHINESS DEBATES

WHERE WE BUMP AND GRIND IT: ON RESISTING REDEMPTION IN WOMEN’S MEMOIR

THE CRAFT OF WRITING QUEER