ANMLY #28 :: Nonfiction


Alien Life Forms

In 1917, the Russian literary theorist Victor Shklovsky wrote the essay Art As Technique. In it, he writes, “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony… to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known… to make objects unfamiliar.

In the years since I first read that essay, I’ve found myself returning to it and to the idea of art as defamiliarization with regularity. I’d first thought of that idea as a mostly nice trick to keep in mind when trying to find new ways to approach and describe the overly familiar in my writing, and later, as a possibly inspiring take on how to live with intentionality. It was a reminder, I thought, to pay attention, to see the weirdness in the ordinary, the dangerous in the seemingly stupid, and a prompt to notice what was before me in newer, more interesting ways so that I might not drown inside the daily tasks that distracted me from art and my art making.

But now, years later, and years into trying to find a stronger footing in working and writing for social justice in my small and mostly pitiful ways, I read the essay as a directive to do what’s necessary to observe the world in its entirety and not as a thing shrouded in some soft and hazy mist of an artistic mindfulness that’s more interested in self-protection than reality.

Shklovsky wrote his essay inside the horrors of World War I, and the act of making the stone stony reflects a desire to not hide from that horror but to choose to engage with it bodily through sensory experience, to step away from knowledge rooted in the accumulated learning that distances the viewer, and to instead move into understanding through perception.

This, from Shklovsky’s memoir, Sentimental Journey:  

After the explosion our soldiers, surrounded by enemies, were waiting for a train to come for them; while waiting, they busied themselves by picking and putting together the shattered pieces of their comrades’ bodies.

They picked up pieces for a very long time.

Naturally, some of the pieces got mixed up.

One officer went up to a long row of corpses.

The last body had been put together out of the leftover pieces.

It had the torso of a large man. Someone had added a small head; on the chest were small arms of different sizes, both left.

The officer looked for a rather long time; then he sat on the ground and burst out laughing….laughing….laughing….

Shklovsky’s deep dive into art as defamiliarization sounds to me like a reclamation of a mind shaped by the trauma of war – as if having witnessed the unimaginable made real before him and the taste of the cruelty humanity is capable of left lingering in the body, Shklovsky took what trauma taught him – the oddity of distance from the self, a rejection of the known as a way of seeing, a response as experienced primarily through the body- and made something good of it.  

Making something good and transformative out of pain or trouble or uncertainty is what the essayist is all about, and this issue of Anomaly is packed with it.

In The Seahorse Difference J.L. Peters writes directly into defamiliarization as she masterfully interweaves the betrayal of her partner alongside the nearly magical procreating habits of seahorses until the reader hardly knows which is the writer’s world and which the seahorses. “There is a whole strange world underneath us where things are done differently. That startling moment where, once the goggles are properly adjusted, you can really see what’s going on. Where all who swim become clear. The ones who exist in that constant state of float, that hug of wet air, that slow moonwalking dream.”

Ashely Adams defamiliarizes the entire molecular structure of the universe in Our Dark Ecologies, wondering what other possibilities exist, what those versions of our world would look like, and what that means to the self who asks those questions. “Maybe, in this reverse world, you’ll see your mirror self, so like yourself. But for all the similarities, life on Earth can never utilize reverse-chiral molecules. So look, but never ever touch that shadow self—the closest, but most unnerving alien.”

Dearest Virginia (Woolf) by Jody Kennedy is a tender, vulnerable open letter to the drowned Virginia Woolf that drifts between dreamlike moments, memories and Woolf’s writings, revisiting their shared pain of mental illness and self-harm, imagining like Dark Ecologies, alternate realities where things might have gone differently for them both. “Do you remember when we were fish (in place of our limbs grew four fins and our lips, ears, and eyes went real small)? How this was all we ever wished—to be known as beautiful ones who swim and breathe under blue wave. Remember when we were fish and the cool soaked our skin?”  

In Indian Princess, writer Gwendolyn Paradice is required to prove the percentage of Native American blood within her for a scholarship, and so begins the shifting and moving, floating and sinking as she attempts to contain and explain herself to a white-centric world and in so doing defamiliarizes her own sense of identity and kind of knowing until even her third person point of view is chosen for its remove, for its ability to make her words more palatable for those who don’t understand. “She is unsure of her exposure, making herself visible during the process of becoming, of unbecoming. She is worried about the many gazes through which she will be viewed, half-formed, on a cliff of understanding herself but not necessarily understanding her culture.

   Am I ashamed? She asks, more to herself than her friend.”

Viktor Shklovsky writes at the end of his war-time memoir that, “if, instead of trying to make history, we had simply tried to consider ourselves responsible for the separate events that make up history, then perhaps this wouldn’t have turned out so ludicrously.” To consider yourself responsible is, in an odd way, to consider yourself simultaneously a part of this world and an alien to it – to notice the ways we bend under the weight of history, the weight of our loves and failures and lives played out, our strengths and weaknesses, those of our oppressors, our champions, and to see our way through to trying, to trying and trying to make something new of it once again.

Angela Pelster-Wiebe, Nonfiction Editor
April 2019

Anomaly #28 Nonfiction Team

Savannah Brooks, Nonfiction Reader
Jessica Lind Peterson, Nonfiction Reader
Cami Stenquist, Nonfiction Reader
Sonya Bilocerkowycz, Associate Nonfiction Editor
Angela Pelster-Wiebe, Nonfiction Editor