Some essay collections challenge your intellect, others break open your heart, a few grant a new way of seeing, and occasionally one sings a song you feel in your bones. It’s rare that a collection hits all four notes, yet Camille T. Dungy’s first collection of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W.W. Norton, 2017) does so with impressive range, ambition, and timeliness.
By turns formidable, furious, tender, terrified, and full of wonder, Dungy’s essays explore identity, motherhood, a demanding career, and the stories of marginalized people. But it is race that drives Dungy’s thinking, for as her opening essay observes,
When you belong, you can overlook the totality of otherness, the way that being other pervades every aspect of a person’s life.
Dungy, as a black woman, does not belong, and in all her interactions she cannot forget her otherness. Her book allows readers entry to this experience while exploring the way history permeates conscious and unconscious reactions. For Dungy, this means bonfires and dark forests induce anxiety; a speeding ticket becomes terror; home-buying is laced with apprehension about the reactions of white neighbors. The stakes here are already high, but they intensify because Dungy, an accomplished poet and editor, becomes mother to a daughter, Callie.
Readers familiar with Dungy’s poetry will recognize her sensuous language, gorgeous rhythms, and careful naming of creatures, places, and plants—particularly in selections that channel moments with her daughter or locate Dungy outdoors. More often, though, Dungy’s prose is bold and unflinching. With a nod to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, Dungy doesn’t hold back as she bears witness that to be black in America is to never forget that your body and the body of your child are always on display, always at the mercy of other people’s gazes and hands.
For Dungy, this is particularly acute when she travels, and travel is something Dungy and Callie do from the time Callie is an infant. (Before she turns three, Callie takes over forty flights.) Airplane life isn’t something Dungy does for fun; she’s trying to make a living on the poetry lecture circuit while adding to her tenure portfolio. The exhausting teaching/traveling/art-making/nursing mother schedule would be a challenge for anyone. Add race to the equation, and forces are aligned such that interpersonal conflict on an airplane or in a strange town seems just around the corner.
But Dungy’s encounters with other travelers turn out to be filled with generosity, despite the obliviousness of well-intentioned white folks who single out Dungy and her daughter based on appearance. (During a trip to northernmost Maine, for example, a college student who drives Dungy and Camille from their hotel to campus mentions, “My cell phone battery died, and I wasn’t sure how we’d make contact when I got [to the hotel]… But I shouldn’t have worried… I spotted you two right away.”)
The thrum beneath these pages asks, When is it that we learn to love, or at least open ourselves to, strangers? The turning point, for Dungy, was becoming a mother. In a voice that moves easily from reportage to self-reflection to humor, she writes:
…[T]he size of a mother’s brain changes during pregnancy and the early stages of motherhood… Because of my changing brain, I understand things differently… I am, I believe now, more prepared to be accepting of the humanity in all of us. The biggest difference between the smiting God of the Old Testament and the forgiving God of the New, I’d argue, is that the New Testament God went and had a baby.
It turns out, though, that compassion is perhaps the easier part of Dungy’s new motherhood. Becoming a mother creates a new, vulnerable world to be navigated with amazement and caution, and Dungy renders the quandary in brief, tender, aching sentences:
Since you came to live inside me, much of my sense of propriety is gone. It is as if there were many doors to our apartment. Every door is open, and anyone can walk inside.
I don’t know if I can define myself anymore, now that I’m your mother. You’ve consumed me. Being your mother has cooked me right down to the bone.
Luckily for us, Dungy’s increase in empathy and experience coincides with her embrace of the braided essay: her thinking crashes people, places, and ideas against each other in unexpected and adventurous ways. “Manifest” is particularly masterful: here collide the early days of Callie’s life, the importance of naming, the insatiable desire of a mother for her child, and the story of The Brooklyn, a ship that carried Mormons to an island off the coast of San Francisco. It is also an essay in which Dungy allows perplexity to stand: “I don’t know what I know now that I can name these losses.”
Time in this collection is as fluid as the mingling of topics and ideas. As any parent knows, chronology can’t capture a child’s life, let alone their personality. It’s therefore incredibly satisfying that the book’s progression circles back and forth in time. The result is that Dungy’s most fully realized self emerges in the final three essays, all of which beg to be read multiple times. In “A Good Hike,” a fairly traditional narrative, Dungy snaps her ankle a mile into the woods and has to rely on her companions, fellow writers but not close friends, to carry her out. This event takes places before Callie’s birth, but placed toward the end of the book, the essay reminds us that we can know a thing (the kindness of strangers; our need to let go of our pride and accept help; the ability to see from another’s perspective) but may have to relearn it throughout our lives in order to understand and take action.
In the end, Guidebook to Relative Strangers isn’t the kind of guidebook that helps a person find their way comfortably while navigating unfamiliar territory. On the contrary, comfort is decidedly not what Dungy is after. These essays often made me squirm, examine my assumptions, confront my prejudice and privilege. Dungy doesn’t let herself off the hook, either, as she seeks to discover how much empathy anyone—including herself—can or should have.
Perhaps the closest thing she gives to an answer is her reflection on a “petty, judgmental, self-involved, short-sighted, and cruel” letter she wrote to an airline, a year before her pregnancy, about a woman who traveled with a large and unruly lap child:
What I deserve for my lack of mercy is a merciless seatmate on every flight I take with my lap child. This is a world in which some children—particularly children born to certain bodies—are written off as hopeless before they’ve even learned to speak for themselves. My child could easily become the focus of such derision. What I deserve for the times I’ve dismissed other people’s children is blind reciprocity for my disdain.
May all of us be as fearless and honest in our self-examination as Dungy is here, and may more essays challenge us to become compassionate, wide-awake humans—for ourselves, our children, and the strangers we encounter.
Photograph of Camille Dungy © Rachel Eliza Griffiths.