Visiting Writer Hillary Plum Brings Fragmented Narratives to the Chapel

The author of memoir Watchfires read a new essay

Hilary Plum could’ve ended her memoir Watchfires — an exploration of the wake of the Boston Marathon Bombings in the greater context of the War on Terror and its mutation of American public life,  approaches it through the lens of her personal experience with autoimmune disease and her husband’s cancer treatment with its first section, which is narrated entirely in the third person. Following a process of writing that lets her watch the patterns being formed by her topics, tracking the points of contact — between what is intimate and private and what is cultural and shared — the book-length section arrived at a ‘neat shape.’ It was a shape that she found too tidy. She wanted it to spiral back out. The questions that had inspired the work remained unanswered; the uncertainty and ambiguity and not-knowing around which it had been structured was still there. She wanted to make clear that the work wasn’t about finishing or about giving a definitive account of her topics’ meanings. So, in her second section — written in the first person — the work’s central questions are revisited, and they fall over each other.

In Eliot Chapel on the night of November 7, a little after 6:30 p.m., Plum read part of a new essay entitled Work or The Sweatshop Boys about her professional history. Her elocution is fragmented, controlled, and punctuated frequently with haltings. These pauses interspersed with small intakes of breath impart the continual impression that her written words are being held delicately. The essay, like Watchfires, refrains from providing names to any of its characters. They are all referred to with reference to the connections they hold with her, by the terms of each of their relationships. The people appearing in Work include her ‘CD-loaning officemate’ and ‘landlords’ (when coming across motorcycle accidents on the side of the road she imagines the victims as ‘their grandchildren’). As the essay’s focus expands to include her “one working class job” at Dairy Queen, the white male homogeneity of prestigious literary publications where “significant arguments have to fall into the tradition of significant arguments,” and the inequities that adjunct professors (increasingly relied upon by colleges and universities) are made to acquiesce to amidst the larger degradation of academic labor, Plum keeps herself foregrounded as the one carrying out the essay’s considerations. She continues calling attention to her subjects’ inseparability from how she is viewing and positioning them. She insists on keeping herself inside the frame of her writing, making it so that engaging with her work necessarily involves engaging with her.

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