Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland
by Sarah Moss • Counterpoint Press, 2013 pg. 358
by David Sedaris • Little, Brown and Co., 1997, pgs. 291
Perhaps in the age of Facebook and Instagram, the memoir has become passe. Everybody posts constant updates about their lives for others to follow, so how could a book-length work about another person’s life possibly sustain the public’s interest? In theory a memoir should look at experiences that have shaped a life and present them in a meaningful way that offers some sort of enlightenment about the human experience: either celebration or cautionary tale, for example. Yet memoirs have become one of the stronger market segments for adult readers in recent years.
What causes people to pick up a memoir?
In my case, I honestly picked up Moss’ because I am curious about daily life in Iceland and how to navigate it as a stranger. In 2009 Moss accepted a teaching position that took her family, including two very small children, to live in Iceland for a year. It was just after the financial collapse and during the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull—the volcano that shut down European air traffic for much of the spring and summer. With a population just over 320,000, on a very small island (at 40,000 square miles, Iceland is about the size of Ohio)—most of which is concentrated in Reykjavik—Moss discovered she wasn’t just entering a new culture; she was relocating to a deeply insular society with little room for change. Desperate to fit in, Moss and her husband Anthony navigate the world of trying to find school and nurse arrangements for their children, discovering their sensitive efforts can blow up their faces from not understanding the subtle cues of Icelandic society.
“We are so careful to be good foreigners, to suspend judgement, to believe that our views are culturally specific and therefore irrelevant, that we betray ourselves,” she writes.
Part of the struggle is also on an island so small that huge family networks are what most people can draw upon—which, as a unit of four arriving from abroad, are closed to them. Instead of starting housekeeping with family support, to put together furniture, appliances, linens, first cars, etc., Moss discovers there is virtually no resale economy in Iceland like one would find in the UK or US. With two small boys outgrowing clothes constantly, she longs for Oxfam shops, for example, but is baffled by her colleagues’ abhorrence of the idea of charity shops—especially for their children’s clothing. In the wake of the financial crisis, she is doubly confused by the attitude.
Oddly, of all books for Moss’ adventure as an outsider, David Sedaris’ “Naked” kept coming to mind. Published in 1997 by Little, Brown, presumably as part of the two-book deal that came after his essay “Santaland Diaries” hit big on public radio, “Naked” features a collection of essays, mostly about the Sedaris’ family life (“Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out!,” “True Detective,” “The Women’s Open”) and his early forays into the world, as read in “C.O.G.,” about time making clocks in Oregon, and “The Incomplete Quad,” following his early college life in a handicapped dorm. To some extent those first attempts at living beyond a family’s protected bubble are very much stranger in a strange land: now that synthetic boundaries of curfews and family rules are gone, the writer contemplates where the real borders are and at the idea of how he pushes them. But it is the title essay in “Naked,” about Sedaris’ time at a nudist colony, which centers on real adventure into an unknown land.
Moss actually moved to another country for a year and tried to navigate with children (her confession that her 3-year-old spoke better Icelandic than her and had to translate at the grocery store echoed the cries of immigrant parents through the ages). But Sedaris in theory still is in the US—though at a nudist colony, he has ventured into a different world, a subculture, than he ever imagined possible. He learns about etiquette (towels especially are a sensitive topic), family life, grooming, and food preparation. Much to his surprise, it is a whole different world beyond the gates of the nudist colony.
With Moss’ book I want to learn about Iceland in hopes of understanding better when I encounter it; with Sedaris, I already experienced a nudist colony first hand, (though not life with multiple siblings—a confusing world!). Yet Sedaris offers an opportunity for a deeper meditation on the experience—a chance to stop, pause and reflect on what the larger human implications could be.
Most of us begin life in a family, which already makes us belong to a group. The real struggles come with being completely outside mores and norms, and having to learn them through questions and mistakes, all of which we have taken for granted much of our lives. In Sedaris’ case it was no longer an obvious relationship with public furniture, and for Moss it started with how to buy food to make dinner and not being able to find the classroom she was supposed to teach in; it’s all very humbling. Hopefully, these reflections allow us empathy with others struggling to understand our oh-so-obvious modern society, be the newcomers to our shores or the aged who are baffled by smartphones.