Monday, May 3, 2010

Bonnie J. Rough

Bonnie J. Rough is an American writer living in Amsterdam. Her memoir, Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA, is now out from Counterpoint.

Late last month I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
A year ago, I moved overseas from the U.S. to Amsterdam. Since then, travel, home, and the limbo between belonging and foreignness are the tensions I’ve felt. I explore them from every angle on my blog, The Blue Suitcase, and through the lenses of the books I read. As an expatriate airline family, travel is a lifestyle for us. Whenever we leave the places we visit—a warm winter’s weekend in Portugal, a late-summer laze in Croatia, five disquieting days along the Nile—it feels like putting down a book I hope to open again.

With its lacy, square cover, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler’s Journal of Staying Put (Bloomsbury 2008) is not a memoir I would have picked up if I hadn’t heard about it first. I’m so glad to be reading it. Each night I get lost in Vivian Swift’s reminiscence of her years traveling the globe, alongside her meticulous and thought-provoking observations (and tender drawings and paintings) of the backyard world she discovered when she decided to hang up her luggage. Through her beautiful memoirs “in miniscule chapters” and her close readings of raindrops and mud, her journey speaks to me. I know my time for staying put will come, and I am often caught between dreading and yearning for it.

Sometimes I worry that by the time I decide to settle down, staying put will be so old-fashioned that I will be rendered totally obsolete. Writing from my own native landscape in The Far Corner: Northwestern Views on Land, Life, and Literature (Counterpoint 2009), John Daniel helps me think it out, especially in the essay “A Word in Favor of Rootlessness.”

I’m reminded to live where I am. Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City (Vintage 2001) by Geert Mak and translated from the Dutch by Philipp Blom, keeps showing me the riches — historical, cultural, social — of my new city. Listen to this, my first favorite passage of the book:
It must look like a battlefield under the surface of Amsterdam: beams, floor tiles, nails, grindstones, fishing hooks, riding spurs, pots, weights, bullets, scythes, compasses, scraps of wool and linen, coins, spindles, buckles, buttons, necklaces, shoes, keys, knives, spoons made from wood, pewter or bone, oil lamps, pilgrims’ insignia, devotional pictures, dice, and, last but by no means least, purses. Little by little, enough objects have been found in the ground to keep a medieval town going, yet at the same time every single shoe in the mud holds its own little secret.
I live in a 400-year-old canal house that was once a barrel warehouse in the midst of a tanning district. To leave the house each day, I descend three flights of spiral stairs then pass through the cellar before coming up into the light. Thanks to Mak’s book, I have begun to wonder what relics live inside those half-buried walls, what artifacts are preserved in the loam beneath the floor. To be tugged by the history of my own walls tells me I am finally feeling a sense of home here. Then I hear the tolling of the bells in the Westerkerk tower—the same steeple Anne Frank saw from the attic window of her hideaway—and I am reminded that history is more than curiosa; it is sometimes so blindingly recent and real that it is too enormous to hold. But I try, with these two books close at hand: The Diary of a Young Girl and The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank.
Visit Bonnie J. Rough's website and blog, The Blue Suitcase.

--Marshal Zeringue