Trespass: Ecotone Essayists Beyond the Boundaries of Place, Identity, and Feminism
Foreward by May-Lee Chai
Lookout Books, April 30, 2019
Trade paper with French flaps: 296 pages, $18.95
There is something transgressive in the act of reading a collection comprised solely of writing by women. More so when the women therein aren’t all the same; aren’t all white, aren’t all able-bodied, aren’t all straight. It feels like you’re breaking the rules. Like you’re waiting, breath held, for the moment you’re caught.
That’s what Trespass is: a transgression. A breaking in. An intrusion. An infringement.
The trespass doesn’t just refer to the spaces these women are moving in to. The collection as a whole trespasses against the reader’s preconceived notions: that a collection of essays by women has to be about a certain thing, be written a certain way. That’s not the case here. These essays go beyond the boundaries of place, identity, and feminism.
It’s hard to talk about a collection of essays about place without thinking about the place we all call home. And it’s hard to think about home without admitting to the crisis we’re currently living through. In today’s landscape, we’re faced with the worst ecological disaster we’ve ever known.
“Originally published in the pages of Ecotone, the award-winning literary magazine that reimagines place, these [twenty essays with a foreward by May-Lee Chai] recount how women uniquely shape and are shaped by their environments,” the book flap tells us. These essays were written between 2007 and 2018, before we had our Thunbergs and well-documented international protests. But I still wonder if these twenty-one women were thinking about the world as a whole while they penned their essays about their places. If any of us who speak on place can escape the underlying knowledge of the degradation of the places we call home.
Is it enough to be beautiful? When we’re on the brink of ecological destruction, is this collection enough?
It is. The language, the vibrant descriptions of place, pristine and ravaged, put us in the bodies of these women, ask us to look through their eyes at the beauty of environments we’ve perhaps never considered before. It’s a collection about the way we navigate our world, our places, our bodies. The way we navigate the places we belong, the places we want to belong, the places we should belong, and the places we don’t.
Tantalizingly, the collection is a suspended mixture, not a solution. There are themes, but every component is visible to the naked eye. Nothing about Trespass reads as a homogenous text. Within the collection, we’re given insight into the past as well as the present through stories of racism, immigration, health and bodies, gun control, ecological destruction, familial trauma, generational trauma, sexuality, crime, death. The known and the unknown.
We’re asked to investigate our own biases. What do we think about ourselves and our places, and how is that then presented to the rest of the world? In her forward, May-Lee Chai says, “…[I]n essay after essay, women here trespass boldly, asserting their right to tell their stories, to critique, to explore, to assert their place in the world.” Every essay is an assertion, an exploration, a story we must navigate, as these women have navigated in their own telling.
We start out with Belle Boggs’ essay, “Imaginary Children”, about a body that doesn’t perform its “duties” the way it should, about Boggs’ inability to have the children she desires. She talks about the literary characters who are most maligned: the women who don’t use their bodies the way society says they should, and how that makes them “wrong”. And about how women who choose not to perform their “duty” can live in a world not made for them. Her essay made me intimately aware of the struggles I’ve faced when it comes to the choices I’ve made about my own body, about my desire not to bear children.
The next essay is no easier. Camille T. Dungy is in Alaska in “Differentiation”, in a place on the boundaries, and yet feels the stark absence of acceptance because of her blackness. It’s only the indigenous population, the Iñupiat, who treat her and her associate as honored guests instead of intruders.
We’re asked to put ourselves in the campuses where Politicians passing open carry laws are increasingly telling us that the right to own guns matters more than the rights of humans in Toni Jensen’s “Carry”. We’re also asked to come to terms with the knowledge of the displacement and destruction of the First Nations peoples who were the original inhabitants of these campuses, that were themselves killed and threatened and removed with firearms. This essay hit me the hardest as I read it, and I had to go back to it multiple times. I learn and teach on a college campus, and there’s not a day that goes by that the fear of another active shooter situation doesn’t grip at my heart. “Carry” tastes like the bitter taste of terror in the back of your throat.
Arisa White’s “Fake IDs” tells us about being black and queer in a time when both identities still existed beyond the margins. She shows us how to find the hidden places that we belong to, and how that acceptance, that finding, lets us truly be. All I could think as I read White’s words was my own battle to find a place to accept me, to fit in and feel whole. In fact, after every essay, it’s impossible not to reflect on our perspectives and lives, to challenge ourselves to think more deeply, feel more deeply.
Both “A Disturbance of Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams and “Going Downhill from Here” by Laurie Clements Lambeth ask us to consider what happens when our most intimate place, our body, betrays us. How we have to learn to control it again, or choose to give in to the uncontrollable.
Carolyn Ferrell’s “Summer, 1959” and “A House in Karachi” by Rafia Zakaria each look at intergenerational and family trauma, and how past violence affects the present. Both authors ask us what we’re willing to sacrifice to return to a place we’ve been exiled from. Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s “Monsoon and Peacock” shows us a place that wanted to change her identity and makes us understand that allowing it to do so was the only choice she could make to survive; while “Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City” by Jane Wong shows a place that should have been the American Dream but instead betrayed everything she stood for.
The collection ends with an essay by Eva Saulitis penned shortly before her death, “Becoming Earth”. Saulitis writes knowing she is dying, will soon be dead. She contemplates how she will one day no longer be herself and instead will be part of the whole, back to the Earth. It’s beautiful and heart-wrenching, knowing—as she knows—that these are some of her last moments of reflection. It makes us contemplate our own endings; whether they’re imminent, far away, or sudden, we all die. We all become the Earth once more. I think Saulitis wanted to give us a gift before she was gone, a soft sort of comfort to ease us through the rest of our own lives. The knowledge that we would one day be together again in the Earth.
Though I haven’t spoken to every essay in the collection here, each of them shared a story I’d never considered, made me aware of the perspectives rarely reflected in place writing. Ecotone has gathered together these twenty-one essays to showcase the intersection of our worlds, our selves, our places. It’s a collection many more people need to read, to take into themselves. It’s a collection I think might lead to more stories, more navigations. It’s one that you have to sit with in order to even begin to understand, that I had to sit with for weeks before I could formulate an understanding of my own feelings and thoughts.
In her essay, “To See the Whole: A Future of Environmental Writing”, Lauret E. Savoy ends by saying: “Perhaps a future of environmental writing is in those who haven’t yet spoken, and in those who haven’t yet been heard. So many, like stars in the sky.”
Perhaps the environmental essays of the future will be saturated in fear, in confusion, and anger. Perhaps they will ruminate on the mistakes of the past, how we could have changed things. Perhaps we’ll have made the necessary changes, and those essays will talk about new beginnings, about hope and growth.
There are so many voices, waiting to be heard. We just need to stop and listen.