After seeing Paisley Rekdal speak at the National Book Festival last year, I bought Intimate from the book sale area. I read it a few months ago, in two sittings. The book blends poetry, photographs, biography, imagined biography, memoir and essay. On one level, the book’s subject is the photographer Edward S. Curtis and his Apsaroke assistant and interpreter, Alexander Upshaw. Curtis famously photographed American Indians in the early 20th century, but only according to his ideas of authenticity: no contemporary clothes, no technology, no mixed-race children. At the Denver Art Museum, I saw a display which showed how Curtis erased an “errant” clock from one of his photographs.
Thematically, then, Intimate is largely about self-identity. Rekdal’s mother is Chinese and her father is of Norwegian descent, and Rekdal mulls her mixed-race heritage alongside of Curtis’ legacy and Upshaw’s life to great, cumulative effect. Her book embodies what Rekdal said at the Festival: that connectivity is the primary goal of non-fiction. Why does this idea go with that idea? Why is this relevant today?
Intimate is a contemplative but also incisive book. Passages echo phrases and thoughts from earlier in the book. Opinions are asserted, and then re-examined. Though describing the book as a blend of writing styles may make it sound like an academic exercise, I found Intimate to be an accessible read, and was excited to return to it after my first sitting.
A couple of excerpts:
What strikes me now about the Curtis photos is how their beauty makes the vanishing of the American Indians seem not only inevitable but impossible to protest. (This, Curtis writes, is one of the stages through which from the beginning the Indians were destined to pass.) Though his sitters may be starving outside the frame, they look so attractive inside it: To be moved by their beauty replaces having to be moved politically on their behalf.
But if I do not meet the requirements of Chinese authenticity, neither do I always meet the requirements of mixed-race authenticity, if appearance is that identity’s defining factor. Strange facts, which other mixed-race people may have noticed as well: the face changes shape, the hair changes color. Some start looking more dark, whereas I’ve become more white. Many people are surprised to hear about my mixed ethnicity, though many others aren’t. Either way, I cannot seem to think of myself without thinking of this slice of me that remains absent, persistent and obvious yet invisible. I cannot see myself without seeing first my audience, those who are seeing me.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Dao Strom on Goodreads – “I read this book in one day, captivated by its form, its daring, its reaching, its beautiful writing and images…”
Shin Yu on Goodreads – “I was not able to focus on any aspect of the multiple narratives at work and felt that the collage approach worked against her in this collection.”
Courtney McDermott on NewPages.com – “The beauty of the book’s form is that it so perfectly marries the content—fragments of writing about fragments of history.”