Originally published on Source. Story by Jill Salahub
CSU Professor of English Camille Dungy, an award-winning author of four full-length poetry collections and the editor of three poetry anthologies, released her first collection of literary essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, on June 13.
Publisher W.W. Norton & Company calls it “a stunningly graceful and honest exploration of race, motherhood, and history.”
“In this series of interlinked essays, Dungy chronicles the first few years of her daughter Callie’s life — a continual journey for both of them, since Dungy travels often to read and teach, and brings Callie along for the ride. In the process of flying to destinations far from her California home — Maine, Alaska, Virginia, Ghana — she narrates her external and internal voyages alike. As she surveys the United States, the history of slavery is ever-present; as she explores her own neighborhood, the stories of generations of Californians demand to be told. Money, land, politics, investments and rewards are superimposed on every map.”
Identity, history and place
The book is about the intersection of multiple identities, the convergence of various histories, and the rich diversity of place. Through her investigation into the complicated stories of humans and the places they inhabit, as well as the other beings and plants that make those places their homes, Dungy says she writes about “what is happening around me, and has always been happening around me.”
Guidebook to Relative Strangers has a haunting quality, as it considers the multiple layers of experience existing simultaneously in any given person, place, or moment. As Dungy says in one of the book’s essays, “The book you are currently reading dwells simultaneously, and nonchronologically, in different stages of my own development, and of Callie’s.” In another, she says, “When I am writing, it is always about history. What else could I be writing about? History is the synthesis of our lives.”
Dungy’s prose, elegant and lucid, takes on an almost magical quality at times, whether through her phrasing and word choice (she is an accomplished poet, after all), or the moments where she allows the reader to linger. She stitches together the beautiful and the brutal, allowing her audience to see something they may have otherwise missed while also cultivating a deeper understanding for herself in the process.
There’s also a wealth of insight into the writing life, writing instruction hidden in plain sight.
‘One person at a time’
“I live a writer’s life and hope to change the world one person at a time,” Dungy says in the book. “I write in the dark, groping and unsure, but heeding instincts I’ve been learning to guide. Something in me needs to believe no one is looking, so I can take the risks I need to take to make the writing come out right.”
In Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Dungy digs deep into her own experience as well as the history of the spaces she inhabits, the places where she travels, the communities she both belongs to and those she simply visits, the various places she has made her home (including Colorado), and does so through the lens of her many intersecting identities – scholar, teacher, writer, mother, wife, daughter, traveler, woman, person of color, etc.
The book has already made its way on to multiple reading lists, including 9 Books That Your Feminist Book Club Needs To Read This Summer, The 24 Best Books to Read This Summer, Five Must-Read Books You Need To Pick Up This Month, 10 Buzzworthy Books From Memoirists And Essayists, and 17 Books You Should Read In June. It was also recently reviewed by Julie Phillips, and a Kirkus Review says the book contains “forthright, entertaining, often potent essays that successfully intertwine personal history and historical context regarding black and white in America.”