I am in New Haven, having come off of what feels like an incredible 36-hour bender of creativity and community. I participated in a symposium on biography yesterday that was held at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. “A bunch of serious people---and me,” I wrote to my friend Nancy, who is the curator of poetry. I was a little intimidated but I quickly got into it when it became clear that I was among my people: readers, writers—storykeepers.
A story I kept returning to over the weekend was a story shared with me by my friend Melissa, the curator of prose and drama at Yale. It concerns the miraculous rescue of the effects of Zora Neale Hurston, whose papers were on fire when a local sheriff happened by and alerted everyone that the burning manuscripts, photos, and correspondence belonged to a famous writer. “You can see the singed manuscripts in the archive,” Melissa said, and traced an invisible outline of a piece of paper in the air with her fingers. I shuddered. I make the same gesture every time I tell the story, and every time, people shudder.
For the title of this blog post, I borrow the title from “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This in Fire,” an essay by Jamaican author Michelle Cliff. The essay, which appears in the book If I Could Write This in Fire, is about memory, how we know what we know, and why we tell stories. How do we find and keep the stories of those whose lives have, relatively speaking, gone unseen? What do these stories teach us about living in this world? These are the questions at the heart of my next book.