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Robin Hemley’s Nola: making lives with words

November 7, 2012

By Alice Robinson


Robin Hemley is the director of the Nonfiction program at The University of Iowa, home of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’m not sure what other literary accolades Iowa lays claim to, but on the basis of the University’s literary prestige alone it is easy to see why Iowa holds rank as the globe’s “other” city of literature. Hemley is also the initiator of NonfictioNow, and largely responsible for bringing the conference to Melbourne this November. Having written seven books of fiction and nonfiction, Hemley’s writing is diverse (when I saw him speak at the MWF it was remarked several times that he never writes the same kind of book twice). When taken together, this eclectic publication record seems to me to expose a pervasive interest in the difficulties and pleasures associated with each form, and in the ways they intersect, complicating, obscuring and illuminating each other.

Case in point, Hemley’s 1998 memoir Nola – in part the story of his sister Nola’s life, mental illness and eventual death – is also a book about the relationships that form between truth and memory and storytelling when one sits down to write out a life. These relationships exist to shape all memoir (perhaps all storytelling) whether overtly acknowledged by the writer or not. The boundaries and frameworks they impose on what gets written (and what gets left out) certainly trouble readers and reviewers, if not the writers themselves. Hemley has confronted these issues head-on in Nola, which is as much about how one tells a story (especially stories that involve and perhaps belong to other people) as it is about Hemley’s family life.

Hemley’s parents were both writers. His mother was known to have worked aspects of Hemley’s experience and character into her fiction. Hemley’s sister Nola also wrote prolifically, even while sick. These various accounts of their intertwined lives – Nola’s memoir and other writings, the mother’s short fiction based loosely on real life and Hemley’s narrative about all three of them – are combined in Nola to create an account of a family that is perhaps even more rich with contradictions and puzzles and gaps than a ‘straight’, single-authored text might (appear to) be. The work is rendered all the more fascinating for it. What Hemley sets out to do is to uncover some kind of truth about the reasons for his sister’s madness, her decline, what their lives together as a family were like for each member. Yet in consciously and constantly drawing attention to and addressing the inconsistencies and subjectivities in each account, and those that lie between each when they are lined up alongside one another, Hemley exposes not the reality of what occurred all those years ago, but what is essentially that time’s unknowability. Hemley demonstrates so beautifully and affectingly the ways in which, despite even the most cohesive and elaborate records, we can never really know one another, or the past. Or even, perhaps, ourselves.One of the most interesting aspects of the work – the aspect that also epitomises the struggle Hemley engages with in constructing the book as he does – are the sections of Nola’s memoir, edited by Hemley’s mother, by Nola, and later by Hemley himself. Some of the crossed out sections Hemley knows to be his mother’s edits, in respect to others he is unsure about who has made the changes; some he agrees with, others not. Nevertheless, he presents both the original text and the editors’ changes for his readers. Nola’s attempts to document – and therefore shape – her experience, particularly when read alongside the various edits, demonstrates beautifully the ways in which we as writers record and mould ourselves and each other as soon as we try to commit each to the page. Nola demonstrates this when she sets down events in her rather romantic, gradiose style; their mother demonstrates this when she modifies Nola’s prose so that the events and ideas expressed conform with her own notions of what happened, and what makes for good writing; and Hemley does it by getting in on the action when he edits Nola’s manuscript, ‘for brevity’, and by providing meta-comment on it all. He writes:

My edits are indicated with ellipses. I have also included, after much deliberation, my mother’s edits and Nola’s edits. I had originally thought I’d expunge the text of all edits and present the reader with a “clean” copy, but discovering such a copy is nearly impossible, and this story is as much about editing as it is uncovering the original.

For anyone interested in the ethical and practical questions facing any life writer or memoirist…indeed, most writers in any form, this is really a satisfying work. To my detriment, and by focusing this reflection on Nola around the way Hemley has crafted the book – and what that craft says about the issues he explores – I have perhaps made Nola sound overly self-reflexive, even a little bit wanky. It is neither of those things. Hemley’s tone is, if anything, charming and funny and irreverent. His early family life is intriguing and certainly eccentric enough to be worthy of such deep excavation. I came away from the reading not only profoundly touched by Nola’s and Hemley’s experiences, but by the clever exploration into writing about life that Hemley has mounted here. If a good book is meant to both move and provoke, then I declare Nola to be one hell of a worthwhile read.

I’ve seen a ghost. The sentence throws suspicion on my credibility immediately. One either believes or doesn’t believe. There seems to be little room for an in-between stance. “You think you saw a ghost,” someone says. “You’re making it up,” says another. “You believe you saw a ghost, and that’s the important thing,” another says in a patronising tone. Or, “I’ve seen one, too. I see them all the time.” And then I doubt your credibility, and wonder about your sanity. Or, “I wish I could see one.” But that’s not something to wish for. Don’t wish for that. Even though it was one of the defining moments of my childhood, it was not a pleasant defining moment, and has thrown the rest of my life into turmoil, made me doubt myself, my perceptions, my memories and beliefs.

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