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I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence Paperback – June 22, 2010
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Kupperman describes her taut, startling, and evocative essays as missives, and they are, indeed, like letters from and to her past selves. But her measured and mesmerizing true stories about her painfully fractured childhood feel as though they were ripped from the pages of pulp fiction. As Kupperman revisits her mother’s suicide, her drug-addicted half-brother’s death, and the overwhelming yet ultimately obfuscating stack of court papers documenting her divorced parents’ marathon custody battles, Kupperman is left with more mysteries than answers. Her impressionistic accounts of her sojourn in France and her journey in pursuit of her roots in Russia are laced with haunting musings on Chernobyl, the openings and obstacles of language, and the discovery that the past she sought never existed. Kupperman’s legacy of lies, secrets, delusions, and suffering affected her relationships, led her to work in a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and inspired her to channel her complex experiences and interpretations into dispatches of awe, tenacity, and compassion. Winner of the Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction, Kupperman’s piercing first book is beyond category. --Donna Seaman
“[These essays] return readers to the fundamental nonfiction experience, an immersion in real life, exquisitely rendered. Here is a world--her world--so finely observed that it becomes our world, too. Here is a voice, both smoldering and meditative, that inhabits every page like an attentive host, inviting us in and offering no choice but to step over the threshold.” ―Sue Halpern, Bakeless Nonfiction Judge
“'Go fish, Kimche, go fish,' says her grandmother Fanya. And fish Kim Dana Kupperman does, down into the deep uncertain pool of suicide, death by AIDS, religious identity, bodies altered by the radiation poured forth at Chernobyl. These linked stories add up to a life--her life--in ways that are both harrowing and affirming, and that command our readerly respect.” ―Albert Goldbarth, Author of The Kitchen Sink and To Be Read in 500 Years
“Kim Dana Kupperman is many things in this collection of essays--a daughter of tumultuous parents, granddaughter in search of her Ukrainian grandmother, sister of variously troubled half-brothers, a woman trying to sort through the vagaries of her own heart. We note the many things she is and has been, but what is even more exciting in this brilliant debut is that we feel in the presence of a writer. With sensuous, precise, and superbly crafted language, Kupperman gives us what literature at its best does: compelling stories artfully told.” ―Barbara Hurd, author of Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains
“In prose that is by turns lyrical and precise, Kim Kupperman examines the mystery and depth of the human heart. Generous, forceful, and compassionate, I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a stunning debut by an essayist of the first rank.” ―Michael Steinberg, Founding Editor, Fourth Genre
“A remarkably talented writer, Kim Dana Kupperman understands the essay first and foremost as a literary form. Yet she never ventures into craft or creativity for its own sake. I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a high-voltage book grounded in the passionate and often messy business of living. And best of all with these essays, something vital is always at issue.” ―Robert Atwan, Series Editor, The Best American Essays
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stories of her life with other stories of other people’s lives, meticulously recording the details
into lovely lines of prose. Subtitled “Missives from the Other Side of Silence,” this collection of
meditations on everything from AIDS and suicide, familial relationships and friendships gone
sour, and appearing, again and again, death—the meaning of formerly innocent words such as
remains and arrangements, and the sensory experiences of ashes that were once a person.
Kupperman wastes no time in getting to these topics. The first sentence describes a rainy
morning—on the day she had to go identify her mother’s body at the morgue.
Kupperman’s eye for details draws her essays out of pencil stubs and the unnamable
color of institutional walls, fingerprints on refrigerator doors. She writes in the first essay that
when she wants to remember something, she chooses the strangest part and catalogues its
fragments—like the color of the walls in the morgue where she identified her mother once again,
or, in the moment when she catalogues the strangest part of the trip to the Normand beaches to
scatter the ashes of her brother (a woman who needed a light, unaware of the solemn purpose of
her family’s visit). She turns these catalogues into very lovely prose, poetic in its sharp honesty
and lyrical descriptions; realistic as she is elusive, Kupperman leaps in and out of lyrical
descriptive dream-like images and the reality of real life—the poetic existentialism of scattering
the ashes of her family, and the reality of not being able to get the lid off the can to do so.
In one essay, she talks about the 'arrangements' that must be made after a death-the practical aspects that are attended to in a haze of grief. Specifically, what do you do with all that stuff? Do you keep it? What makes something an heirloom? What defines a memory? In all the loss she endured, she realizes:
"Later you touch and sort, discard or keep for another time all the artifacts that testify to a life that has passed...Eventually all these objects are not only handled more than once, they are packed into containers, some resurfacing on shelves or in drawers years later, others given to friends...So many things we once thought were useful and beautiful dissipate or are buried, as if there was no point in having them in the first place. But in the act of letting go of them, there is a relief that they no longer have to be carried, cared for, or worried about."
How many people are willing to admit that carrying the momentos of life can be a burden? It's this unflinching honesty that draws you in, and makes her writing more touching than if she simply summarized her losses. Her unique voice is apparent early on, as she describes being the trophy in a bitter custody battle between her controlling but hypocritical father and her drug-addicted mother. She tried to please both sides, eventually creating a sense of isolation in herself. Regarding childhood, she states, "The miniature versions of who we become as adults are always available, if we pay attention. As soon as I could write, I made lists and stories. And before understanding the power of words, I drew messages." What she drew were subtle indications of her frightened isolation, and yet only one person realized her plight.
One of the most moving essays was of her life in France when the Chernobyl disaster occurred. Her first reaction was to notice the wind blowing outside the window, and the implications of the poison heading her way was horrifying. The thought of it consumes much of her concentration, yet five years later she travelled to Kiev, in search of the history of her grandmother. There, she gathered stories of people who were there when the implications of the catastrophe were realized:
"I visited with a journalist who told me that in May of 1986, Ukrainian radio broadcasts recommended taking showers after outdoor excursions. He walked his Afghan hound in the park, wiped off his shoes with a wet rag by the door when he came home, and showered in his clothes with the dog. He never let on if he cried through any of this. Or what he did with the towels after those showers. Or if the dog lived."
It's in the course of her interviews that she realizes that while much is said, something is missing from their narratives: "Perhaps we participate in acts of omission to shape memory into something manageable and safe. Who has the room inside their psyche to remember everything, carry the weight of how things felt, and still get out of bed each morning?"
In all, this is a collection that begs for discussion. Her matter-of-fact tone in dealing with dividing the ashes of a loved one, identifying a body, or reading old letters from her parents, is one that makes it easier to grasp just what sadness is faces all of us. It'd be an ideal and unusual selection for a book group because the difficulties are universal. Most meaningful, she ends this on a reflective note, a word of advice for others: "My mother reminded me to care for memory as if it were my child."
The essays, which are grouped in three parts (Letters Home and Abroad; Return to Sender; Billets-Doux), move from the darkness of her parents' deaths and her childhood isolation to the light of resurrecting love and kindness. The first essay in the collection, "Relief," (selected for the Best American Essays 2006) is a powerful account of her mother's suicide and its aftermath, including having to identify her mother's body in the morgue: "I thought of all the years she had spent meticulously `putting on her face,' only to wear a final version that disturbed the structure of her cheekbone and eroded the curve of her lip."
The essay, "Intersection," appears appropriately enough at the beginning of the third section, serving as a bridge between the past and the present. In it, Kupperman sees herself as a young girl crossing the intersection of Lexington Avenue and Eighty-seventh Street in New York while standing at a pay phone there, and describes how the child walking by will become the woman she is--a bittersweet reflection made with few regrets.
I have known Kupperman for years, since we met at UC-Santa Cruz while working for the student newspaper, and have enjoyed watching her writing evolve over the years. With I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, Kupperman proves that she has found her own wings, and is soaring.