Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: Guidebook to Relative Strangers

Camille T. Dungy is a poet and professor and her work often takes her to lectures or book signings across the country. After her daughter was born, she realized that it would be easier to take her baby along with her instead of finding care for her when she was gone and her husband was working. As she traveled, she found that people paid attention to a black woman with a baby who stood out in a sea of white people. These essays are her observations about motherhood, writing, nature, travel, and being a black woman and raising her child in a white world.

Essay collections like this one can be amazing reading experiences or fall flat. After all, anyone can write about the moments of their lives, but the thing that makes it unforgettable is the author's insight into those moments and the beauty with which they express them. Camille T. Dungy has both of those things, as well as a careful understanding of American history.

She opens the book by reflecting on her stay at a writer's colony shortly after she returned home from Ghana and went from being one black woman in a crowd of them to being the only person of color at the retreat, with the expectation that she can and should speak for all black people. She is able to connect seemingly unrelated moments in her own life and in American history in a beautiful and profound way. In one essay, she weaves her memories of growing up and her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis with the implications of Ronald Reagan's election on their community and a visit to a memorial for victims of a lynching. She notes that "When I am writing, it is always about history. What else could I be writing about? History is the synthesis of our lives."

One of my favorite pieces is the one where she reveals the reasons behind her daughter's name and nicknames and realizes the impressive gift she has to been given to teach her about words and the world around her. Not content to reflect on her own motherhood, Dungy contrasts it with a group of women who traveled to California and the children they carried and lost along the way. "I don't know if there is a name for this in any language, this hope and hurt and hunger I hold when I hold you."

Guidebook to Relative Strangers is a thoughtful, moving, and beautiful book and I'm so glad that I read it.


Guidebook to Relative Strangers
Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History
By Camille T. Dungy
W.W. Norton Company June 2017
256 pages
From the library

3 comments:

  1. I hadn't heard of this one at all, but it sounds phenomenal. Thank you for sharing it!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I always enjoy seeing reviews of books I've not heard of and this one certainly is that. Essays aren't usually my thing, but your thoughtful review has me reconsidering on this one. I wonder if it's available on audio/ I'm off to check!

    ReplyDelete