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.
“All I Want to Do is Live”
By Trace Ramsey
Pioneers Press, 2017, pgs. 214
By David Sedaris
Little Brown and Co., 1997, pgs. 291
Former Wilmington activist, photographer and writer Trace Ramsey has released a collection of his nonfiction writing, titled “All I Want to Do Is Live.” It is a surprising and powerful collection of nonfiction writing that will challenge something deep within the reader’s perception.
I have to admit: I orbited Trace for years while he lived here. I always had him pegged for a hipster activist, with a graduate degree or two, who chose to live his values working with farmers and at the co-op. The first time the idea of eating local food as an intentional political statement came across my radar was through he and his partner, Kristin.
“Wait, that’s like a good thing? Like desirable?” I remember asking.
Slowly, over the years, layers of the onion would peel back as Trace shared parts of himself with the world: his photography, writing for his zines, utopia of farming with like-minded others. But we were never close; I am too loud and have too explosive a personality for the quiet, thoughtful man that is Trace Ramsey to ever fully relax around. Perhaps that is why the written word was the place we could connect. He could, in his private space, take the time to select and shape what to share. Later I, as a reader and audience member, could absorb it and take time to reflect and internalize—to slow down and be quiet with the work.
Reading his work also shocked me out of any idea I had that Trace came from luxury, and was slumming it in search of a way of living his values. It’s far from it, in fact. When Trace starts describing the first time he field-dressed roadkill, he had my undivided attention. He also makes it clear whatever assumptions we have need to get checked at the door.
I can’t help but think of David Sedaris when looking at the explosion of creative nonfiction that has hit the market over the last 20 years. It seems everyone wants to Sedaris-mine their lives for trivial but funny details to share, frequently at the expense of their loved ones. Many aspirants share Sedaris’ middle-class, privileged background, and like Sedaris wander the planet for many years in search of a purpose, still calling on the bank of Mom and Dad when the funds get totally strapped. For all of Sedaris’ essentially light-hearted look at his own self-realization, there isn’t really a moment of fear he will be so consumed by that will keep him lost forever. Social self-destruction? Yes. Embarrassment? Of course. But genuine, serious concern for his physical and mental well-being? No.
Trace, on the other hand, really takes his reader through the labyrinth of his terrified and frustrated inner self. Do not mistake; it is not a finger-pointing memoir of abuse. Though, with candor and confusion, Trace does recount the baffling and painful world of life with a stepfather whose primary language was violence. It is not self-pitying or whining—rather looking at his own children and his own father, and trying to piece together confusing jagged edges that don’t match. How will he answer the questions for his own children? What will their questions be? If he doesn’t understand the questions himself, how can he find answers for himself, for them … for anyone?
With searing honesty Trace paints a kaleidoscope of his life that is almost reminiscent of Salinger’s “The Glass Family Chronology.” Except where Salinger’s structure was intentional, Trace layers work for different eras and perspectives to create an innovative way to address the question. Where Salinger’s Franny and Zooey dwell (gods do dwell) on Seymour’s suicide and what makes their family fall apart, Trace looks, asks, and his candor terrifies. But he does not dwell. He discusses birds, guns, baseball, plants, farming, and falling in love with such simple and straightforward description, all thoughts I once had about a stereotypical hipster activist vanished. I found myself asking how I connected this descriptor in the first place, especially to a writer who keeps a job he hates merely because of access to a copy machine to make his zine. Art for art’s sake. Or art for sanity’s sake.
His struggle with sanity and the real weight of it is something Trace describes in a palpable way—which I never understood before. I get down, I get sad, I get frustrated. But unable to get out of bed? Even if I want to? Trace describes it all and his horrific contemplation of suicide—not on his terms, mind you, but through the lens of watching people who love him come to understand its weight.
Perhaps that’s the key: He makes empathy of others the gateway to understanding himself. As a writing technique, it is brilliant. As a human struggling to understand himself in a world gone mad, it is essential.