Friday, July 15, 2011

Review: My Ruby Slippers by Tracy Seeley

My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas

Tracy Seeley

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Release: March 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8032-3010-1

208 pages

"I felt suspended above place, nowhere, a stranger whose memories had no place to settle."

How important it the place we were born in the grand scheme of things? Some of us leave home with nothing else on our minds but the ground we are about to cover, the worlds we are about to conquer, and refuse to look back at the damaged landscape of our younger lives. Sometimes we're running from the messes the adults in our lives have made of their own situations or from the backwards thinking of the locals whose approval we have never been able to gain. Sometimes all we are looking for is a fresh start, a chance to redefine ourselves that is in no way tied to our families or their history, or the awkward high school years we'd rather forget.

Seeley's own existence is running along in a smooth trajectory, an English professor living in a charming Victorian with her partner in San Francisco. Then two things happen: her partner leaves her for another woman and she is diagnosed with cancer.

As Seeley grapples with her circumstances--dealing with both chemo and having to start all over again, she thinks about her childhood. The mother that made sure her needs were taken care of, and the father who left to take care of his own. Armed with nothing more than the thirteen addresses her mother saved, addresses of all her different homes, Seeley resolves to learn more about herself and the family that no longer is. She is unable to learn anything through her mother and father,who are both deceased.

Seeley's exploration of the "geography of loss" is particularly difficult, as she has no one hometown. There are no definitive "roots" she can seek. Instead, she decides to get a feel for the landscape, a regional mood, per say.

As she stops at each address, she wonders more about the marriage between her parents. What motivated them to stay together? What eventually tore them apart? What prompted the sudden, haphazard moves?

Seely uncovers more about her early life, but she also discovers a lot about herself, a lot about Kansas and the box she put it into. How many of us don't? The constant refrain of "We're not in Kansas anymore" has become a cultural icon, glibly summing up an entire state's history and its people into a social, political, and cultural backwater.

My Ruby Slippers is a heart wrenching account of one woman's beginnings, her crisis of certainty, and a search to find who she is. But it's also a challenge to the rest of us, to question why we put ourselves and everything surrounding us into boxes. And how we lull ourselves from critically thinking about our environment and the people who helped make us who we are.

If you read one memoir a year, read this one. And get lost in the exquisite writing, the intriguing landscape, and the act of becoming.

One of my favorite excerpts:

Chris and Charla sometimes talk of leaving. They're tired of some Kansans saying, when they think something's a little too artsy or arcane "well, la-di-da." But I think that's just the defensiveness of the long -and often- laughed at, of folks who know they register in the coastal consciousness as hicks and hayseeds. But are Kansans any more provincial than my friend who lives on the Upper West Side and says she could never live anywhere else? Never? Anywhere? Or the New York painter who guffawed when I mentioned artists in Kansas? Or the man I met in Santa Monica who doesn't see the point of going anywhere else--not Paris or Morocco or even Los Angeles, which is ten minutes away? Or the San Francisco hipster who'll converse with you over a glass of Sonoma merlot, unless you vote Republican?

Tracy Seeley is a nonfiction writer, professor at the University of San Francisco, and organic gardener. She grew up in Kansas and escaped at seventeen, only to be drawn back decades later to write about it. Her book MY RUBY SLIPPERS: THE ROAD BACK TO KANSAS tells the tale of her falling in love with the state she thought she'd left behind. A lyric exploration of place and displacement, geographical and otherwise.

Tracy lives in Oakland, California with her husband Frederick Marx, a filmmaker, and with three formerly feral--and not very cuddly--cats."

You can find Tracy on 

Twitter @tracy_seeley

Interested in writing your own memoir? Curious as to how to approach the delicate topic of family?Tracy offers some practical advice as to how to go about this. Read on...
Pleasures and Dangers: Writing About Family
By Tracy Seeley

Writing a memoir?  Suddenly finding you’re not in this world alone?  Of course, memoir lets us tell our story, but other characters sure show up, and some of them are family.   Can you really tell that story about Aunt Josie getting drunk at the family reunion and throwing herself in the pond?  What will happen if you reveal your father’s affair, which only you knew about before?  Do you have the right to expose your family to strangers?  Will your sisters’ feelings be hurt?  Will your parents sue?  (It really happened to one writer I know).

When I wrote My Ruby Slippers, I got off easy.  My parents had already died.  But I worried about sisters and still-living cousins, uncles and aunts.  Would they be angry about my truthful but unflattering portrait of my father?  Would my mother’s brother resent my depictions of my grandmother, his mother?  And what about my sisters, who had played supporting roles in my life?  What if they felt hurt?

The fear of hurting feelings or making family members angry isn’t silly.  Neither is the fear of being sued.  But they’re silly reasons not to write your memoir.  Letting them weigh too heavily while you’re writing can bring the whole thing to a halt.

So what to do?  After picking my way across my own family minefield, here’s what I’ve learned:

1.       Keep your motives clean.  Writing a memoir isn’t your chance to get even, avenge a wrong, blame or shame anyone else. 

2.       Stay focused on your responses to events and on how they shaped your inner world.  Even if you’re writing about Aunt Josie’s hijinks, keep your eyes on what it has to do with the main character, you.

3.       Be truthful, even in dangerous terrain.   If keeping the secret of your father’s affair explains the dynamic of your family, or if Aunt Josie’s pond swim explains your fear of water, then by all means, tell.  Just do it for the right reasons (see #1).

4.       Tell your family that you’re writing a memoir, especially if they play significant roles.  Though some writers have their subjects sign waivers, you don’t usually need their permission to write.  Advance notice lets them sit with the fact for awhile.

5.       Let them read the manuscript.  Sounds scary, but it goes a long way to earn people’s trust.  It also helps you .  If someone strongly objects to a passage about them, you can decide whether to negotiate a compromise, omit the passage, or neither.  And you may be surprised.  My sisters both read the manuscript for My Ruby Slippers and loved it.  They’ve become the book’s biggest supporters.

6.       Get legal advice.  Libel lawsuits rarely prevail if the writer has told the truth.  Still, others also have reasonable legal rights to privacy.  So if you feel unsure about your depiction of Great Uncle George, ask a lawyer.* 

Writing about my own family put the spotlight on people who never asked to be on stage.  But telling my story and including them in it has brought us all closer together.  I hope the same happens to you.

* For more information on privacy and legal issues, I’ve written about them here: