Below is an excerpt from the introduction to my forthcoming book The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick & Jani in which I discuss the structure of the book, and how I have approached the archive. This section is intended to allow for other long-form reflections on the same theme. If you have such an essay, please contact me, if you would like it considered for inclusion here.
Of Archeology & Grandmothers: an invitation
[an excerpt from book]
by Julia Lee Barclay-Morton
There are infinitely more things ‘unadapted’ to each other in this world than there are things ‘adapted’; infinitely more things with irregular relations than with regular relations between them. But we look for the regular kind of thing exclusively, and ingeniously discover and preserve it in our memory. It accumulates with other regular kinds, until the collection of them fills our encyclopaedias. Yet all the while between and around them lies an infinite anonymous chaos of objects that no one ever thought of together, of relations that never yet attracted our attention.
- William James
The Amazing True Imaginary Autobiography of Dick and Jani is neither pure fiction nor non-fiction, but instead an invitation to join me on an archeological dig in which I attempt to reveal -- through the lives of my grandmothers -- a perspective on the 20th Century that has yet to be heard, because –- to paraphrase James -- the reality of Dick and Jani’s lives are ‘unadapted’ to the ‘regular kind’ of history.
In archeology, one finds little shards of things –- or sometimes large structures -- through the painstaking work of sifting out objects layer by layer through the soil, going backwards in time. The work of the archeologist, when finding each object, is to create a coherent story around them, but of course the solidity of that story is always threatened by new discoveries and new interpretations. Therefore, there can be -- in archeology and life -- resistance to the ‘unadapted’ voice or possibility.
Dick and Jani are ‘unadapted’ in the first instance because they are women of modest backgrounds. Most of the grand narratives of the 20th Century are told from a male perspective with the only women we have heard from being wealthy, famous or infamous, in other words: exceptions. While the ‘regular’ male perspective from all classes has been heard from in fiction and non-fiction, little has been heard from this generation of American women, born during WWI, before women could vote. If such a woman appears at all, it as a footnote, an accessory, or a punch line.
Jani achieved local fame in Milwaukee for being a rabble-rousing, feminist school-teacher in the 1970s, and her journey from three violent marriages (during 1935-1970) to independent activist is extraordinary, but she was not a national figure. Dick’s life as a woman who swallowed her dreams of being an artist to survive the Depression, who married due to pregnancy and kept her small homes looking like an Ethan Allen showroom, is far more typical of her generation of women. Their stories intertwined create a study in contrast between the soul-crushing cost of conformity versus the price of flamboyant rebellion.
I attempt, however, to include the complexity of Dick and Jani’s experience, even if their lives as such interfere with this narrative. They speak through primary sources such as their letters, articles, writing and photos, and through my own speculative writing in their voices. My speculation is grounded in experience of them as women, as guardians and - at times - nemeses, conversations with their living relatives and friends, and historical research of the decades and places in which they lived, including records that corroborated or put into question ‘official’ family lore.
I include what Joan Didion beautifully describes as “[t]he objects for which there is no satisfactory solution.” Rather than attempt to fudge inconvenient facts or outright fabrications, they are included in all their awkwardness. I have also included my own struggles with this process. The pieces of Dick and Jani’s lives as a whole create a mosaic, one that may evoke “relations that never yet attracted our attention.”
This book is structured like an archeological dig in that it begins at the end of each of my grandmothers’ lives, and we see their stories revealed gradually, layer by layer. Because Dick lived longer than Jani, the first part of the book is hers (from 1992-1980). From 1980-1915, their stories interlace. In life they never met, but they do at times interrupt one another in this book. I have given them a relationship of sorts in the afterlife that is as prickly as it would have been in this life. Perhaps they have mellowed in death, but I am not so sure. In their own ways they were both fierce, and it’s hard to imagine that energy converted to hearts and flowers, but obviously when we get into metaphysics, I’ve entered the world of super-speculation.
Because I am their granddaughter, and therefore implicated in how I present their lives, I include -- as artifacts labeled 'Julie' (my childhood name) -- short journal entries of my own that parallel their lives, which offer glimpses into my own raw, present-tense experience as a child and young adult.
Whilst James and Didion are referring to objects or ideas, I am of course referring to human beings. This makes the task even trickier, because we are arguably even strangers to ourselves, never mind others. Memory itself, as James and Didion remind us (and as any good memoirist knows), tends towards fiction to bolster our current understanding of reality. We can attempt, however - by listening to the voices that have not yet been heard because they are ‘unadapted’ to the way we have been taught to view history – to open our minds to new ways of perceiving our histories and ourselves.
Many people with whom I have discussed this project over the years have told me about their own grandmothers or great-grandmothers. These conversations usually include speculation as to the untold reality of their lives, and the realization by my interlocutor of how little she (or he) knows about them. I hope Dick and Jani’s stories as presented here invite you to consider your own histories, especially the lives of those who have not been heard, so that instead of relying on the ‘encyclopedias’ of ‘regular’ memory to which James refers, we can begin to perceive traces at least of the “relations that never yet attracted our attention.”
[if you would like to know more about this book, you can contact me directly.]