Non-Fiction Introduction: The Body Silent

Heather Bryant / Suzanne Paola

We slept on the stone floor of an unoccupied house during our last days in Dar es Salaam, making a network of sleeping mats and sleeping bags.  Back in Marangu, white ants ate through our sleeping mats, but the city brought other visitors.  The man who owned the house lifted me up one day, claiming he would take me as his fifth wife.  I shook him away, but he pressed on, showing me how the bottoms of our feet were the same color: both soft and pinkish, smooth as seaglass.

On one of those last days in the dusty crowded city, somewhere between the bleached white sand castle houses, I ate something or gulped down some water untreated by the careful methods used back in Marangu.

After we left Dar es Salaam, and for four years after, I could only eat the blandest food without getting sick.  No doctor could find the cause or diagnosis.  Whatever it was came and went without a trace.  One suggested I stop talking to the friend I’d traveled with who had the same mysterious sickness.  That we encouraged each other.  That it was in our heads.

I still don’t know what it was that knocked my body off-balance for four years.  It left me aware that much of what we know about the body escapes the reach of science.  That what we think we know, we don’t know.

Each of the essays in this folio captures in one way or another the defiance of the body to explanation, logic, or science.

I borrowed the title for the folio, The Body Silent, from the powerful book by Robert Murphy that kept me company between frustrating trips to the doctor over a decade ago.  His book registers the bewilderment of a life turned upside down by a seismic change in his body.  Suzanne Paola came to mind when I chose the theme.  Her book, Body Toxic, published under her pen name, Susanne Antonetta, layers history, memory, and environmental studies in a beautiful examination that embeds our bodies as a part rather than discrete from our environments.

Paola’s generosity and dedication is reflected in the pages of this folio.  Her view was ever-expansive rather than exclusive as she shaped the collection of essays and nonfiction works.

May the readings here lead you to seek more work by each of these writers, and may the essays in this folio lift the lid of discourse on the body to reflect the complexities within.    

I’m proud to feature this folio as the culmination of two fabulous years working with Drunken Boat.  After this issue, I’ll be passing on the Nonfiction Editor’s hat.  I know the vibrant team of readers and editors will continue to thrive and draw great works, distinguishing DB as a leading new voice in contemporary Nonfiction. 

                    –Heather Bryant


I have a disability. What that consists of doesn't really matter, for our purposes. What does matter is the response I get when I tell this fact to someone; nine times out of ten it’s "Well, you seem fine." It is a somewhat curious, somewhat querulous, response. And I wonder, what is supposed to come next? Sometimes I feel an expectation of disclosure, the lurid detail. At the same time I sense the relationship teeter, poised on a line of what would happen if I showed qualities that didn’t fall under the category of fine-ness. I thought, the last time I had this exchange, of an old cartoon by quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan: a sign at the Los Angeles Airport that said something like, "Welcome to Los Angeles: Please Declare Your Physical Disabilities Here."

We who live with difference live with a dual expectation of performance and silence. Perhaps the forebears who enacted this most clearly were the Victorians, with their Sunday visits to the Bedlam asylum, which they made at set times in the way they would visit a zoo or a botanical garden, and with the same aura of spectacle. Hunger, chains and the lash caused the patients to behave in startling ways, often: amusing to see, but only in the proper controlled environment.

We are calling this grouping of nonfictions The Body Silent for a reason. Largely, the expectation is that we of the errant body will keep our ways of being to ourselves, as invisible as possible, unless our differences appear as metaphor or spectacle for the larger culture. The latter is a social use Jillian Wiese brilliantly grapples with, in her discussion of her cyborg-self and the poetic appropriations of the concept of the cripple. Of course we of the altered mind or body are likely to be part products of technology, whether that technology be modified limb or pharmaceutical input. Or, as Eric LeMay shows with his bold hypermedia piece on the so-called "Patient Zero" of the AIDS crisis, our metaphorical role is to provide fodder for maintaining the social order of disease and blame.

This is a rich collection. Chivas Sandage explores that bodily passage that may be our society’s ultimate taboo--death—rendering it tender and beautiful. Supriya Bhatnagar also probes the death of loved ones, creating a profound vision of Hindu philosophy while honestly facing the moments when philosophy fails us. Jessica Handler’s wonderfully poetic “Word Problem” borrows the language of mathematical word problems to meditate on a family, its coming to be, and its losses. Kisha Schlegel, in “Cannulated Screw,” also richly borrows the language of mathematics, bringing us into the operating room and into all of the equations that sum up our lives.

Ioanna Opidee explores the deadlier side of social expectations of women’s bodies, smartly interrogating the language of cure. Amy Bergen’s piece forms a bit of a bookend to Opidee’s: she shows us, with lyric ferocity, the way women turn on their bodies and the failures of therapy to address these larger forces. Barbara Ellen Sorenson, in the lyric and lovely “Ghost Flower and Wind,” takes us into the world of deep brain stimulation, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, and what medicine and theology can and cannot offer.

It has been my privilege to collate this collection and work with these authors. Here is a toast to breaking through our silences, to whatever we find on the other side of seems.

                    –Suzanne Paola

Heather Bryant / Suzanne Paola

Heather Bryant won the 2009 Southeast Review Narrative Nonfiction Contest.  She was Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Randolph College, Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome, and fellow at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts’ Moulin à Nef residence in France.  Her short fiction has appeared with The Southeast Review, Women Writers, and Seal Press.  She teaches writing at Pace University. 

Susanne Antonetta (Suzanne Paola)’s most recent book, Inventing Family, a memoir and study of adoption, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, a Pushcart prize, and others. She is also coauthor of Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, soon to be available in a second edition. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, Seneca Review, and many anthologies, including Short Takes and Lyric Postmodernisms. She is half-time professor at Western Washington University.