Jo Ann Beard is the author of a collection of autobiographical essays, The Boys of My Youth, and the novel, In Zanesville. Here, she talks with Sandra Gail Lambert about her new memoir, A Certain Loneliness, which includes funny and moving essays on Lambert’s lifelong struggle with polio, her experience with disability and queerness, and the intersections of these myriad identities. Lambert is the recipient of a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and the author of the novel, The River’s Memory. She lives with her wife in Gainesville, Florida.
JO ANN BEARD: I think A Certain Loneliness breaks very new ground and does so in an elegant but also visceral and physical and utterly illuminating way. Disability remains one of the final frontiers for most of us, until we experience it ourselves. For some reason, it is an area of life that many of us only pretend to understand, until it becomes very personal. And what you have done in your book is to make it very personal, and to allow us to experience it through the keen sensibility of an artist.
SANDRA GAIL LAMBERT: Jo Ann, you’ve alluded to one of the problems with succinctly describing the memoir. It is about disability, for sure. It is also about being a lesbian. And it’s about finding both solace when I’m alone the natural world as well as friendship when I’m not. And it’s the story of a feminist bookstore, becoming a writer later in life, sexual desire, and the wavering line between loneliness and self-sufficiency. And some of the essays are funny. Perhaps it’s better to think of all these aspects as the lens through which the story is told rather than the story itself.
This memoir sheds light on the daily life of a whole segment of the population. Not an invisible population, and in fact one that is very visible, but only if we look. Which mostly we don’t. For that reason, A Certain Loneliness feels like an important political work.
You know, Jo Ann, for years I’ve made the joke that when I and other people with disabilities are just being out in public having fun, it is a form of political work. But I don’t think it’s fully a joke. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of someone watching me as I kiss a lover on the street or sit at a restaurant table with a gaggle of friends, all of us screeching laughter, and I see the watcher’s brain having to twist away from some stereotype they’ve been holding on to. Although it’s a bit disconcerting to have my personal, quite intimate story be considered a political work, I can’t argue with you about it.
And I have to thank you for writing a book set in Florida that revels in the beauty of waterways and birds and animals and the almost-ethereal feeling of living in the dappled jungle even though the jungle has long been hacked away. I loved your descriptions of being in the back of the camper as night descends, of listening to the strange private sounds of the world when the humans have finally gone silent. Those scenes in which you free yourself from the bonds of land — car, crutches, wheelchair — and slide into the water just as dawn is breaking, the way the water becomes such a yielding medium, not just for the body to move effortlessly but for the mind to move too. For a writer, that’s what mobility is — the mind moving effortlessly, following the visual world as it flies by, or swims by, or arches overhead. So there’s a natural juxtaposing in this story of the interior mobility and fluidity of a writer’s mind with the exterior limits imposed by disability, and it’s set against the gorgeous and heartbreaking backdrop of a landscape that’s been ravaged. And yet, the birds still rise in bright fluorescent flocks, or stand elegant and solitary in low water; they are not constrained by what’s happened to their world. They manage to work around it.
Jo Ann, what you’ve described with such beauty and insight happens for me more as a series of grunts and urges. My head fills with too much. I mutter about needing to empty it, wanting to be in the middle of nowhere, and that every person on the planet annoys me. I go searching for the middle of nowhere and often it’s been found when I nestle my kayak into a blue-green, sunlit spring off the main river. But since my recent heart attack and breast cancer treatments, I’ve found that a stroll around the containment ponds of a water-reclamation wetland can work just as well no matter how many other people are spread out over the acreage. We’re all in a communion of humidity, alligators, and bird sounds. I return home, rest, and wake up with, to paraphrase you, the fluidity of my writer’s mind recovered — sometimes.
But for me, it is all about the body. Each time I wandered off track in an essay or lost momentum, it worked to return to my body. In a certain place and time, how was I moving through the world right in front of me? What hurt? Where did it feel sensuous? Body memories gave me ways to remember and then describe the past.
That’s the narrative thread that runs through the book — the different ways in which you have moved through the world, and (I insist) the ways you describe the world moving through you. And I’m glad you just used the word sensuous, because that feeling, of being inside someone’s physical experience, is sometimes overwhelming in this story. The good kind of overwhelming, where the reader experiences what the writer is describing, for better and for worse. This requires that the writer remember, or re-imagine, an experience so fully that it pulsates off the page. I’m thinking in particular of a passage in which you describe getting from the camper to the water, the agony of it, and then the delicious slide into the kayak.
Okay, just so you know, I’m stealing “delicious slide” for my next essay involving kayaks. And here’s a, sort of, downside to the type of writing that you’ve described. Yes, my style is to limit myself to description and the feelings of the moment and add no or very little “outside” commentary. But what I give up is the opportunity to influence (or outright tell) a reader what they should think and feel. Which means that the scene you commented on above was once described by a contest judge as nothing but a boring list of chores. And a reviewer thought my suffering was inspirational. (Here I was kayaking alone just before dawn in the Florida Bay Everglades. White pelicans flew by with their nine feet of wingspan snapping the air alongside me, and the reviewer thinks it’s my suffering that’s inspirational.) But the self-imposed constraints of this way of writing are worth it to me. I believe in the power to be found within limitations.
Another way you’ve “moved through the world” is among communities of lesbians, writers, dog people, naturalists, and fellow citizens of a town. This is where the themes of isolation v. independence come to the forefront in the memoir. What I loved most about your book, besides the plunge into Florida’s flora and fauna, was the incredible community of women, and the joy of going camping with them (me, vicariously, going on your camping trips) and watching how the food got packed, then unpacked, then cooked, then eaten, the various personalities dipping their toes in the water, dozing in a tent, just the general feeling of women having fun in nature.
During most of the ’80s, I helped manage Charis, the feminist bookstore in Atlanta. (It still exists.) Which meant I was centrally located in a vibrant, far-ranging lesbian-feminist community. We understood that our mutual support was all the support we had and essential for, well, survival. Because of this, among my community of friends today are some who’ve I’ve known more than 30 years and many of those live within five miles of my house. I mention this, because it means that there are women who’ve been witness to the changes in my body over the decades. But that doesn’t always make it easier. On the camping trip you just mentioned, I should have asked one of these old friends to help me put up my little tent in order to preserve energy for later. But I’d always done it on my own, and even with all the ease and love between us, I couldn’t bring myself to say I needed this new type of help. Asking would have been easier if I’d been with more recent friends or even strangers who didn’t know the history of what I could and couldn’t do physically.
But having “grown up” in lesbian feminist community served me well when in my forties, I began to write in a serious way. Every workshop, residency, or conference I went to, one of my goals was to gather up a new writing friend. And any writing success I’ve had can be traced back in part to the kindnesses of these friends. So Jo Ann, thank you for your generosity in being part of this conversation.
And Sandra, if you weren’t kayaking with alligators, I would love nothing more than to join you on a waterway expedition.