Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Eric Gansworth

Eric Gansworth is a Professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. An enrolled member of the Onondaga Nation, he was born and raised at the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County in upstate New York. His short stories, poetry, and nonfiction have been printed and reprinted in many literary magazines and anthologies, and his dramatic work has appeared at the Public Theater in New York City.

Gansworth's new YA novel is If I Ever Get Out of Here.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. His reply:
To be fair, it is the end of summer, so to some degree, I’m reading to prepare for the coming semester, but that is one of the nice things about teaching in a college. My pleasure reading and my professional preparation are often the same thing. It’s a great benefit of my work life. I get to talk about things I love with young people, and engage their curiosity, learn from their insights. I read eclectically, and visitors have sometimes jokingly wondered if others have just randomly abandoned books at my house, because there seems to be no discernible pattern.

I blew through Stephen King’s Joyland when it came out, because I loved the golden light of this coming of age story so much, I couldn’t stop reading. It’s also a novel in which a young man is forced, by circumstance, to rise to responsibility. I’ve been writing about that tension, myself, so I’m sure that was part of my attraction. It’s just such a fine novel that I wanted to appreciate its richness without the pressure of suspense. I’ve decided to teach it this fall, and so I’ve savoring the preparation.

I just finished Stephen Kuusisto’s memoir, Planet of the Blind, which maps the long arc of his embracing his life as a visually impaired person. He’s visiting my institution, Canisius College, this fall, and I’m excited to compare notes on constantly navigating a significantly foreign world. Our formative circumstances were decidedly different from one another, but the alienation and determination he documents--in making his own way in that unforgiving larger world--were narrative arcs that spoke to me. It’s a more honest account of those encounters than I think I’m capable of writing. Kuusisto is also a poet and beyond its honesty, the book’s craft, on the sentence level, made me more keenly aware of why I love prose and poetry equally.

Bill Konigsberg’s Openly Straight, a young adult novel also recently published by Arthur A. Levine, is set in a very different environment than anything I’d ever really gravitated to. It was an interesting lesson in social class for me. Having grown up, more or less, in third world conditions, I’ve never found “angst of the wealthy” narratives particularly compelling. That’s one of my limitations as a person. The characters here, though, transcended their “Richie-Rich” baggage. I cared about what happened to them and could even forget their privilege, as I felt for the nuances of their lives and the ramifications of their decisions. It concerns a young man who had chosen to be the visible “gay kid” at his school. Growing tired of always having the label, he enrolls in a private boarding school across the country to start over without others’ preconceptions. That premise, the wrestling match between a concrete group label and an individual identity, is certainly something with which I’m familiar. I don’t imagine I’ll ever have a desire not to be “American Indian writer Eric Gansworth,” because my community has given me enough stories and ideas to last me a pleasurable and rich lifetime as a writer. That said, I understand aspiring writers growing up in American Indian communities might not always wish to write from that point of view.

An end-of-summer ritual for me every year is to re-read Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons, one of the most fearless examinations of a considered life I’ve ever read. I usually start the summer with another book of hers, The Greatest of Marlys and though the stories of Marlys and her family are imbedded in my memory at this point, I still find myself laughing aloud and walking in a fog of heartache every time. Barry calls One Hundred Demons “autobifictionalography,” a hybrid form of graphic novel, memoir, and collage, all growing out of a Zen practice, in which people are invited to allow themselves the freedom to meet their demons by drawing them, examining them on the page. The demons she explores run from the mundane, like “Common Scents,” to the esoteric, a “complicated” eastern supernatural being called the “Aswang.” She colors each of these short narratives in ways that accentuate the long shadows they cast into our lives. One section includes a short passage about seeing the “Back to School Sale” signs and the strange emotional state they elicit. The sharpness of that particular baggage is an occupational hazard of being a college professor. People in other professions perhaps note those signs in passing, or have children, so become aware of the summer’s end in that way. But in many real ways, the Back to School sales do signal a gear-shifting process every year for academics, and for me, Barry’s book is like a decompression chamber, allowing me to be ready for the first class of the semester.

I’m also reading the really beautiful exhibition catalogue for David Bowie Is, documenting a massive retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum, in London, focusing on Bowie’s contributions as a design innovator. As I’m a reluctant air passenger, I’ll never get to see the show unless it travels to this continent. For that reason, I’m delighted the museum issued this lavish book. Apparently there was an edition signed by Bowie, but by the time a friend told me about the exhibit, those copies were sold out. Even having missed out on that opportunity, I love this book, because, well, let’s face it, because David Bowie is.
Visit Eric Gansworth's website.

My Book, The Movie: If I Ever Get Out of Here.

--Marshal Zeringue