In the sixth grade, two of my friends and I were in a special reading program with our teacher, Mrs. Gardner. Mrs. Gardner had skin tags on her neck, short salt-and-pepper hair, and a loud yell she used so frequently that we came to ignore it. She had us read that year George Orwell’s 1984 and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. This was 1984 Salt Lake City, Utah. How she got away with this I do not know. Maybe she yelled at the principal and the mayor and the governor loudly enough that they let her do whatever she wanted. Unlike us, they hadn’t become inured to the yelling.
She spurred me on to read Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Leon Uris’s Exodus. I also read stupid books like, I’ll Always Remember You, Maybe and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, but perhaps one of the reasons I write nonfiction is because of how deftly the political texts used metaphor. It’s also the reason I love poetry and also the reason when I do write fiction, it reads a bit like allegory. Maybe I’m lazy and I love metaphor’s capacity for two bangs for one buck but when I think of Marx, I remember “workers, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Figurative chains became literal in my mind. When I think of Orwell, I think of “double-speak” and also the great inversion of the 4 and the 8, the date the book was published, as the reason he chose “84” as his year of dystopia. I wove, nearly bodily, Uris’s biblical allegory and Primo Levi’s animal comparisons and Walker’s use of the color purple, into my brain.
I spend a lot of time writing about tiny things and making big metaphors out of them. I ask my students, when they become despondent about writing or about politics, what is the point? I say the point is a cumulative one. Write it all down. Add to the layers of resistance by paying attention to everything and connecting it to something else. An ecology of metaphors becomes a tightly woven web. When you lift it up, this web of connection withstands all kinds of onslaughts and assaults. The architecture of metaphor stands strong against the dangerous winds.
So, with that in mind, I give you my list of most metaphorically rich nonfiction readings: Lying by Lauren Slater, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli, About a Mountain by John D’Agata, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, The Reenactments by Nick Flynn, A Bestiary by Lily Hoang, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanac by Mary Cappello, and Things That Are by Amy Leach.
Read Nicole Walkers’s essays “Dear Rain” and “Micro-Conversion,” her Thoughts on the Apocalypse, and her Letter to America, appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of mural in Flagstaff, Arizona, by Simmons B. Buntin.