I gifted myself two hours of reading time today, over lunch. At hand was
, a new essay from Alex Johnson, one of my mentors at Lesley University, and a writer I deeply admire. Approaching her new work, I looked forward to hearing Alex's voice again--that effortless intelligence and poetry, manifested in a shrewd eye for detail, and a light-handed delivery.
is the story of Alex's return to southern Italy after years away to visit the family of Giorgio, an old flame. As much as Giorgio and his current desires to leave his homeland figure into the narrative, the heart of the piece lies in Alex's relationship with Anna, the woman who, had things worked out differently at that long ago crossroads, would have been Alex's mother-in-law.
Perhaps it is fitting that I began reading over lunch: one hand clicking through the pages on my Kindle, the other collecting spilled sesame seeds with my fingertips and bringing them to my tongue. Food is everything in
. It fuels the narrative from the opening glimpse of Anna's garden, "planted with nightshades--eggplant, tomatoes, firecracker red
hot peppers whose oil is drizzled over warm waxy potatoes." And everything we see and learn of Anna revolves around her garden and her kitchen. Alex's return to this kitchen triggers every kind of sensory memory, both for her and for the reader.
We all have those moments, coming into contact with the scent or taste of a place and time so distinct in our past that our minds drop everything else and leave the present behind entirely--the olfactory gland being the secret to time travel. Then, often, once we have found that rain-on-the-blacktop middle school quad or that milk-sour corner of Grandma's kitchen in the back of our minds, we wish either that things could have turned out differently or, sometimes, that they could have remained exactly the same. Regret and nostalgia spring from the same soil.
Alex's return to Viggiano, a village "deep in the Mezzogiorno, the instep of Italy named for the blinding mid-day sun," recalls her earlier visits to the same place, on the arm of young Giorgio. A time of almosts. Of younger motivations. Of instant gratification and ecstasy and a reproving potential-mother-in-law. Alex makes her reader feel the danger and beauty of Viggiano. It is a hot, dry place. The hillsides are barren, remote, hard, deceptive. It is not ground I expect much from, but when locals scour the same hillsides, they come up with honey. It is in this sun-baked village that she might have made another choice, turned a down a different road.
Crossroads are the main concern of the narrative, and
does what solid, powerful essays are supposed to do: present something in common with the reader in an uncommon realm, then slice open the moments and places and interactions for observation, and set them out to dry in the sun under crystals of salt. Such common ground in this case includes the beauty of being chosen and accepted by another family, the impact of myriad superstitions on everyday life, and, even in the contented present, finding your gaze trailing backward toward the what-ifs of doors long closed.
Read it. Revel in the way Alex deftly drops out of chronology for quixotic asides about history, geology, religion, and drama. Wander the streets of this village in southern Italy, where Alex was warned not to travel alone since the waves of Tunisian refugees began to wash up on the coast. Realize the weight of life and slowness of time in a region which has experienced Fascism, leprosy, and the wiping out of Pompeii. And then want to go there, with every fiber of your being, with every taste bud of your tongue. Always, somewhere in the room, you'll find a platter of "tissue-thin salami flecked with fennel or shot with Senise pepper."
Alex Johnson is the author of The Hidden Writer, which won the PEN/Jerard Award for nonfiction. She is also the author of Leaving a Trace. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including I Always Meant to Tell You and To Mend the World. Her essays, reviews and travel pieces have appeared in numerous national publications, among them: The New York Times, O, (the Oprah Magazine), The Nation, Ms. Magazine, AGNI. Her work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio, including on "Talk of the Nation" and the "Diane Rehm Show." She has taught memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard, Wellesley, and in Lesley University's MFA Program.
is adapted from The Saint's Laundry, a memoir in progress.
is a digital-only series of stories, essays, and novellas published by Ploughshares Literary Magazine in Boston. Previously, I hadn't heard of Ploughshares Solos, but it will heretofore be something I seek out, perhaps with a bit of an insatiable reader's desperation. Three cheers for excellent writing in the short form!