I remember the first time I read Jill Christman’s essay “The Sloth” in Brevity Issue 26, and the way it arrested me. But, back then, I didn’t quite know how to describe why. For years, I taught this essay in creative nonfiction classes as a model for students. I usually used it in the first few weeks of class along with other flash essays: it was a way to acquaint students with narrative nonfiction through a pile of lovely samples. “The Sloth” is a concise treasure that not only deftly makes use of the metaphor of grief but, for a writer, is a wonderful piece for examining pacing, the movement of language, and visceral descriptions of place.
I was thrilled, then, to note that “The Sloth” opens Christman’s most recent book, If This Were Fiction: A Love Story in Essays. It had been a long while since I had read the essay, but I remembered it vividly. And, after the last few years of grief—individual, local, and global—I absorbed this essay more deeply than ever before. In it, I felt the slow spin of our pandemic and all of the deaths, the demise of many things in my life and the subsequent, surprising punches that continue to emerge, and the gravity of knowing shades of grief with my fellow mothers, friends, family, and community. I felt how precisely Christman captures these trajectories of life.
As I made my way through these essays, I got more intimately (re)acquainted with the power of Christman’s prose, particularly her deft and nuanced narrative style. She often finds insight while concentrating on the everyday. Watching a sloth, Christman realizes that its movements and her grief are “numb to the speed of the world.” She cuts into an avocado and considers its “complicated” color, “the perimeter where flesh meets frame: On one hemisphere, the clinging brown pit glowed gold, a cross-sectioned woman, heavy with child. On the other side, a hollow, a vacancy, a curvature where something vital had been but was now gone. I ate that shadowed side first.” Her attention to tangible details leads to compelling moments, such as when she licks a bit of her fiancé’s ashes from her palm. Throughout this collection, Christman revels in the metaphor of the material, creating a beautiful through line across objects and places.
This memoir in essays is organized into three parts, each titled after lines from an E. E. Cummings poem, which serves as a prologue of sorts. The essays are organized around a traumatic event: the sudden death of Christman’s fiancé at a young age. Her fiancé’s death reverberates as Christman comes to terms with her fear of loss and the recursive trajectory of grief. This takes her to an examination of persistent sexual assault when she was a child and the ways that this has influenced not only her intimate relationships but her parenting. In a poignant scene where her children eat Swedish Fish in their own unique ways, she writes, “I want them to lay down shame. . . . I want them to be willing to go back when they know there is something they need to see or set free or reclaim—and then I want them to remember that the way is forward.” Above all, readers will see in this book how love is investigated, embraced, and exuded through Christman’s grief, trauma, marriage, and parenting.
Now that I have had some weeks to step away from my reading and reflect, it strikes me that the last time I felt this drawn to the feminist sparks in a memoir in essays was many years ago, while reading Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. With a similar kind of nuance and sharpness, Christman focuses on death, assault, and love. Over the course of the book, as with any stellar collection, Christman circles these themes, each essay an examination with distinctive glints of understanding and movement. One theme that holds throughout is how Christman works to take ownership of her body in connection with love and relationships. With mixed feelings, she also takes up the concept of art as a therapeutic activity and comes to powerful realizations about how narrative nonfiction—through its organization, even—can be healing and offer “an order in the senselessness we can live with.” At the same time, the writing is often astutely hilarious, such as when Christman’s two-year-old daughter announces that she has stuck a googly eye in her nose and maternal panic ensues. Even in these more comedic moments, Christman offers wisdom as she observes that her daughter knew instinctively not to tell about the googly eye up her nose (at least not at first). The googly eye initiates a reflection about the body and the secrets we not only keep but can or cannot perceive. But Christman also reminds us that our children house their own dynamic relationship with their bodies, dreams, and selves. This reverence for the ways we all inhabit our bodies and our interconnections is one reason that If This Were Fiction is such a rich work of art.