The Universal Tether of Identity: Caca Dolce by Chelsea Martin

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As I was reading Chelsea Martin’s new collection of essays, Caca Dolce: Essays from a Lowbrow Life, I was in Vermont living in a dorm, so while in residence, I grabbed a few sanitary napkin bags from the bathroom stall, and wrote notes, words, images, and fragments down the back of the pouch—angst, desire, punk, youth, my AOL boyfriend from 1994. I realize taking notes and writing my own memoirs on a nap sack (for your needs away from home) feels all too appropriate and suitable to this book’s essence. At its core, the collection is a sort of coming-of-age story recollected through a loose chronology of memoir essays, all of which will appeal to readers’ younger selves: who were we when we were teenagers and who are we now? These questions provoke us to consider our own lost histories of perfect miseries and glorious ecstasies, like The Wonder Years, but from the point-of-view of an unflinchingly self-aware and humorous writer, with a little more insurgence and underbelly than Fred Savage.

Caca Dolce, published by Soft Skull Press, navigates diverse subjects through the personal essay: class, dreams, art, drugs, loss, sex, family. The table of contents is an essay in itself with titles such as “Punk’s Not Dead,” “A Scrap of Hello Kitty Notepaper,” and “How to Bullshit.” Caca Dolce is Martin’s fifth book and her debut nonfiction collection. Martin’s other books include the collection of stories and flash fiction, Everything Was Fine Until Whatever, from Future Tense Books and most recently, Mickey from Curbside Splendor, which is a collection of fictional vignettes. In addition, Martin is a graphic artist (with some of her work appearing at The Rumpus). She is also the Creative Director at Universal Error.

As a narrator, Chelsea Martin is unflinchingly honest as we follow her through various uncomfortable and painful experiences from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. I admire her honesty as well as her disarmingly clever and humorous writing, which is a strength of the book, a characteristic I appreciate in writers. From the beginning, Martin establishes her voice as something of a curiosity, as ironically comedic, and subversive in a way that doesn’t make you roll your eyes. Even her wordplay with the title of the book, “Caca Dolce” (sweet poop, in essence), is shrewd—early on, there is a story in which, at age six, Martin thinks she’s had sex with her cousin—an experience in which the cousin lays on top of her, both of them fully clothed. Her grandmother says that sex is “caca,” which elicits Martin to explore the depth of shame and regret, as if she had done something wrong, which is a feeling Martin then carries with her into adulthood, even after finding out that this act, indeed, was not sex at all. Martin won my affection as a narrator over the course of the book. Sometimes I’d wake in the morning and wonder: how is Martin doing today and what bullshit is she going to get mixed up in next? I wondered how might she go about saving herself from further torment and shame.

In “Punk’s Not Dead,” Martin recounts a troubled relationship with her stepfather Devon, who she hilariously portrays as a weed-smoking unemployed shit who faked disability for unemployment benefits and spent his time on get-rich-quick schemes on the Internet, particularly website banner ads. He failed at this miserably and Martin happily criticizes him for it. She juxtaposes this relationship with the one she has with her mother. In the opening, Martin thoughtfully writes about her experience driving through a beautiful canyon listening to old punk cassettes on the way to her mother’s job cleaning offices at the hospital. She writes, “My mom sang along to the gravelly voice on the Clash cassette. She had a way of singing in harmony with the music, but just a little ahead or a little behind the actual song. I believed she was a musical genius.” This gives a sense of Martin’s wry humor and perfect rhythmic juxtaposition of sentences that align with the narrator’s various truths. This then leads us to the heart of the essay, which ultimately explores the violence of the relationship between her mother and Devon, and how Martin traverses that difficult topography. She writes, “I pretty much knew that Devon wouldn’t kill my mom, but I started wishing for there to be a close call, something that would prove to my mom how heartless and pathetic and mean he was, something that would force her to leave him for good. I hated him, and he hated me, too.” The reader then discovers that Devon was neglected as a child which prompts Martin to ruminate on the cycles of abuse . “I wondered how I fit into the larger picture of Devon’s life,” she writes. “Was I the next victim in the generations of neglect and abuse? Or was I inadvertently turning into yet another bully whose senseless torture Devon had to overcome?” This is a signature style of Martin’s essays: poignant inquiry by the narrator of self, of greater truths, of the elusiveness of identity and the complexity of life’s heartbreaks and pleasures.

In “How to Bullshit,” Martin is in art school when she grapples with issues of class. She begins,

Because only a very small part of me wanted to move away from my friends and family, I applied to just one very expensive art college, figuring I would likely not be accepted, and, if I were, I would not be able to pay for it and therefore couldn’t attend. Then it wouldn’t be entirely my fault when I inevitably got pregnant my first year out of high school and lived in blissful, blameless poverty and squalor for the rest of my life.

But Martin does get into art school and is “easily one of the poorest kids on campus.” Martin guides the reader with her own humorous sensibility once again, but she addresses the issue as a fear of being found out and as resentment for having to scramble through art school working long hours at a dull job, leaving her with little time to make art. She examines the hypocrisies of herself and others, takes apart her own biases, and questions where she belongs on the economic scale of art school. She writes, “I was in an economic no-man’s-land, rich in education and opportunity, poor in money and time, with no one to complain to.” She compares herself to others who lack access to education and she investigates the purpose of an art education at all. She tries not to complain. I love this essay, and Martin writes deeply into the issues of class, posing important questions about privilege, art, and economics.

There were times when I had to pull myself back to the book—I wanted some differentiation between the essays, either in form or content, but I persisted and was rewarded for that perseverance because as a whole, these essays provide a portrait of one narrator’s search for identity through a complexity of stories that offer a door into adolescent confusion, pain, amusement, and awkwardness. The book prompted me to recount my own crushes and sexual encounters over the years, which contributes to a meaningful reading experience.

If anything, Caca Dolce provides a journey into Martin’s personal experience, allowing empathy toward the years we all take to find ourselves while navigating through awkward terrain. There is a dark underlay to each of the essays: here is a bruised soul searching for belonging, and ultimately, love. Martin writes, “I’ve come to think of all my past selves as if they are my daughters. I want to stand up for them, to make sure that even when they were being very bad they were still loved and understood, even if only by their future self.” And I suppose that’s what this book does best: it acts as an honoring of the self, or the many selves we inhabit over time, and as recognition of the universal tether of identity.

Melissa Matthewson is the author of a memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line (Split/Lip Press, 2019), a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Guernica, Longreads, Oregon Humanities, Literary Hub, The Common, DIAGRAM, and American Literary Review, among other publications. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at Eastern Oregon University and in the Communication program at Southern Oregon University. Find her on Twitter at @melmatthewson and Instagram at @mazzymaple. More from this author →