A chorus of voices sing the body—in its parts, its fullness, and all of its glorious imperfections—in the electric anthology Awakenings: Stories of Body and Consciousness (ELJ Editions, 2023). Curated by editor and author Diane Gottlieb, this collection of essays examines and celebrates our human body from many points of view. Jesse Lee Kercheval writes about her dreams of teeth. Jacqueline Doyle remembers a too-tight sweater over her budding nipples. Barb Mayes Boustead recalls the cold social behavior of her peers as she grew up with lupus. Sarita Sidhu bravely recounts childhood abuse and follows it up with the story of healing, of liberating her physical being in adulthood. Other essays speak about arms, hips, gallbladders, lungs, toes, hair, and hearts—broken, redeemed, and eventually strengthened by truth—every story genuine and brave. I was left stunned and grateful for the vehicle of the essay and for the body I have owned throughout my lifetime. I related to all of them as a survivor, one who has thrived once I accepted my own flawed physical form.
I met Diane Gottlieb in our MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. Now the Prose/CNF editor of Emerge Literary Journal, Gottlieb’s writing appears in 2023 Best Microfiction, River Teeth, HuffPost, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others.Her background as a therapist with a master of social work and master of education, combined with a passion for writing creative nonfiction, gives her a unique edge in selecting editing the essays that went into Awakenings.
“It’s not just about the body,” Gottlieb said during our Zoom interview in early October. “It really is about bravery and the power of the written word—the power we take back when we tell our stories.” She came ready to share about curating her first anthology, the way she collected the essays, and why there is power and hope in the telling.
The Rumpus: Awakenings: Stories of Body and Consciousness is a provocative title. How did you think of it?
Diane Gottlieb: I can’t take credit for it. Ariana [D. Den Bleyker, the founder and publisher of Emerge Literary Journal] came up with the title. She’s the backbone of ELJ Editions, an independent press for emerging writers and fresh voices. She said, “How about we call it Awakenings?” I loved it for this book.
Rumpus: The essays are about awakening to a new truth, a new identity. The body often remembers when the mind can’t, right? These essays are all so beautiful and honest. What was it like, starting to compile an anthology of these essays?
Gottlieb: I had never before put together an anthology, so it was all new to me, but I’m glad you said that about honesty because it’s the honesty that struck me, too. I appreciate every person who submitted. Choosing these essays from among so many terrific submissions was hard. The courage these writers have! It’s really difficult to write about your body so honestly and then realize the essay you’ve submitted is going to be published. I remember when my first “body” essay was published. The night before, I had a full-fledged anxiety attack!
Rumpus: Where does all this bravery come from?
Gottlieb: I think it has something to do with awakening. These are writers who didn’t want to hide anymore. Instead, they knew how important it was to share their stories. It’s like they’re saying, “I’m here! See me and see my body.”
Rumpus: The cover is a picture of a woman swimming. She’s suspended underwater, arcing her body. I wasn’t sure if she was in distress, suspended underwater, or peaceful, reconnecting with herself. Which is it?
Gottlieb: Well, I feel like it’s all of the above. She is suspended underwater along with the challenges and the struggle, but from that suspension comes an opening, an awakening.
Rumpus: The book begins with that great foreword by Gayle Brandeis, who talks about being weightless in water, first as a teen and then as an adult. She acknowledges how differently she felt about her body then and how much more she appreciates her body today.
Gottlieb: When I first learned that I was going to curate this anthology, I thought immediately of Gayle and asked her if she would write the foreword. She’s a trailblazer in the body-writing world. I was very honored she said yes, and I love her contribution to the collection.
Rumpus: Her foreword is followed by your introduction, which I loved because I’ve struggled with weight issues my whole life. Reading your introduction reminded me that others do as well.
Gottlieb: What’s interesting is that one of the pieces dealing with the issue of weight is written by Andrew Baise. It’s called “The Count,” and it’s in the “Taking up Space” section. While the burden of maintaining societal weight and shape standards has traditionally been placed more on women’s bodies, I think men have more recently been bombarded by toxic messages about their bodies’ size as well. I’m grateful to Andrew for the honesty in the essay.
Rumpus: One of the essays, “Hunger” by Whitney Vale, talks about the imbalance of thinking solely about losing weight: “I had not felt any independence. I couldn’t even drive . . . the only thing I could control was the carrot stick, broccoli flower, the half cup of cottage cheese, a dish of banana slices. . . .” It was devastating and wonderful to read this essay. Did it affect you emotionally, reading these?
Gottlieb: They all affected me emotionally. While I didn’t know what to expect when we put out the call for submissions, I was certain that one criterion for acceptance was that the essay would have to move me. Some made me laugh. Some made me cry. Others moved me to think deeply and in new ways. I wanted to learn and be changed by reading them—there had to be some kind of shift in me.
Some of these stories are hard—I can’t imagine putting an anthology together about the body without having some trauma and difficult pieces—but they all had to have some kind of hope. They had to have some kind of resolution, not the kind that ties everything up with a bow, but some kind of understanding that leads to the contributor’s personal growth. Even the harder pieces have that—maybe especially those.
Rumpus: Yes! I’m thinking about the essay by Sarita Sidhu called “Shattering the Dark Silence.” She talks about the abuse she suffers at the hands of her father, but she is bold and fearless as she writes: “We cannot change where we come from, but we can interrogate the constructs that maintain the status quo and identify the beneficiaries of these prisons.” This is an awakening in itself, isn’t it?
Gottlieb: It is! It’s all about, “I’m not gonna be silent anymore.” We need to shatter silence because silence is where abuse thrives. Abuse’s best friend is silence, right? Sarita’s is a hard piece, but it’s also one I find to be very hopeful and empowering.
Rumpus: Very empowering. Jesse Lee Kercheval wrote an essay simply called “Teeth,” which I loved. It’s a braided essay about teeth, but it’s really not all about teeth, right?
Gottlieb: Yes! She’s a brilliant poet, translator, and essayist. I actually interviewed her for The Rumpus last year. Her essay is so funny and quirky but also very moving. Jesse Lee has such a wonderful way of balancing all the emotions in that piece—and it’s about so much more than teeth. The essay is in the first section “Our Bodies Know,” and what was so much fun for me was that in the section, we cover the whole body, part by part.
Rumpus: I love how you’ve segmented the book into parts. Did you think of organizing it like this?
Gottlieb: It just happened. It’s like, “Okay, these essays have to be here, and these have to go there.” There is one section, “Illness as Metaphor,” that includes only two essays. In “The Gallbladder Monologues,” Kathryn Aldridge-Morris relays her experience of having gallbladder surgery after a lifetime of being told by men that she had a lot of gall. Then, Amy Champeau writes about having Valley Fever in an essay by the same name. Her essay illustrates the similarities between the illness and her experience of being in an abusive partner relationship. Our bodies often speak to us through metaphor, and these essays are two wonderful examples.
Rumpus: I could keep quoting all of these essays, because they made me feel like the authors of these essays were friends, or sisters, or cousins. The one called “Living Waters,” where Sandell Morse talks about the mikvah and how her life changes after. It’s a deeply spiritual address of the body. Ezekiel Cork’s essay, “Right as Rain,” is all about the journey to accepting his trans identity. There are so many meaningful essays here, aren’t there?
Gottlieb: There are. Zeke Cork’s essay is one of self-discovery. It’s about how he came to terms with his trans identity, his top surgery, and so much more. In “Upside to Gravity,” Kim Steutermann Rogers weaves research into her experience with her body, opening up a discussion of the larger issue of bullying. Maggie Pahos wrote “Perfect,” an homage to mothers and daughters. It’s a very sad and very gorgeous tribute to her mother and to the mother-daughter relationship. We can be perfect in our imperfections. My own mother taught me the beauty of imperfection. I love her fiercely, but she was, as we all are, very imperfect.
Rumpus: Why are we still chasing that unattainable concept of perfection?
Gottlieb: I do think we bear some individual responsibility for internalizing these toxic messages, but our culture adds pressure to fit into prescribed standards of physical ideals. This fuels the chase of the unattainable. The beauty of these essays, and their power, especially when they’re grouped together, is the power of resistance. The essays say, “No, you can’t do this to me, or to other people.” Lizz Schumer’s essay “Don’t Lie to Me” addresses the culture directly. As a person with physical disabilities, she has no qualms about pushing back and speaking her truth: “I’m not afraid of calling my body what it is, not after more than thirty-five years of trying to part the curtains that doctors, society, the limitations of language have repeatedly drawn around it. Because euphemisms aren’t just confusing; they’re a portal to fear. There’s a reason horror movies hide the monster in the basement, behind the shower curtain, in dark corners where it can jump out—gotcha! Scream, I dare you. We fear what we don’t understand.” Every time I read this, it gives me the chills. It’s so stunning. Even the title, “Don’t Lie to Me,” is a line drawn in the sand. Schumer grew up with doctors lying to her, or at least sugar-coating things, and now she says she’s not afraid to bring them all into the sunlight squinting. She can do it. She is doing it!
Rumpus: This is part of her awakening, where she sees herself clearly, and asks people to see her the way she is.
Gottlieb: Exactly. Even the essays that deal with trauma and abuse have hope and brilliance, because there’s the awakening time, where the author refused to hide what was going on anymore.
Rumpus: If someone came to you and said they were thinking about putting together an anthology, what advice would you give them?
Gottlieb: The first thing is critical: pick a topic that you’re passionate about, one you live and breathe, one that fascinates you, one you want to hear more about, learn about, or that is part of who you are. Then, as you assemble the project, let the pieces speak to each other. See which essays are in conversation with each other and let them tell you where they want to be. You have to guide them, but they will speak to you. They’ll tell you where they belong.
Rumpus: It reminds me of the last essay in the anthology: “The Question Body” by Maureen Aitken. It’s all questions!
Gottlieb: Oh, Maureen’s a gorgeous writer, and her piece asks questions significant for all of us, the first of which is, “What if your body is glorious now and you’re about to miss it for the ritual of beating yourself with the scale?”
I wanted to end with that essay because her questions really force the reader to think, right? She asks, “What if you put down the idea that replaying cruel phrases in your mind would make you stronger? What if you listen to the girl whispering in the corner of your being when she said, ‘All I ever wanted was for you to love me. Tell me, why is that so hard?’ What if you did that, loved the one part of you that truly belonged?” I mean, that’s just amazingly profound! It leaves the reader with a beautiful challenge, and says, “I see you.” The whole collection of essays challenges the reader to see the contributors, and ends with Maureen’s essay that seems to say, “I see you. Now, see yourself.”
Author photograph courtesy of Diane Gottlieb