Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, March 23, 2023

Thursday, March 23, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Pulling the Chariot of the Sun

Scribner Book Company: Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae

Scribner Book Company: Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae

Scribner Book Company: Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae

Scribner Book Company: Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae

Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping

by Shane McCrae

Poet Shane McCrae's moving memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun, recounts and transcends the distressing facts of being kidnapped from his Black father and raised by abusive, white supremacist grandparents. In a piercing interrogation of memory, he compares his recollections with the historical record to reveal how trauma can cause partial amnesia.

At his birth, McCrae was pronounced "dead." On his birth certificate, his grandmother "indicated I was white." He didn't learn his father's first name until he was nine years old; even then, confusion remained as to whether his name was Stanley or Stan Lee. "But I am not the story I was told," McCrae writes. This is an account of how he reclaimed his life and found his identity as a mixed-race man.

McCrae's father was African American, while his mother's family was white; she was 18 and had broken up with his father by the time he was born. When McCrae was three, his maternal grandparents convinced his mother that he'd be better off with them, then they convinced his father to let him go on a weekend trip with them. When his father went to their house on Monday morning to pick up Shane, they had skipped town for Texas. They threatened their daughter: if she told Shane's father where he was, they would disappear to Mexico and she would never see her son again.

The author grew up calling his grandparents "Mom" and "Dad" and rarely saw his mother. Only later in life did he realize that what happened to him could be called a kidnapping. Well before he realized a crime had been committed against him, he knew his grandparents' motivation was racial: "[T]hey kidnapped me to get me away from blackness." He was taught to associate his father--and, by extension, Blackness--with badness and abandonment. It was a toxic living situation as he was forced to endure his grandfather's beatings and his grandparents' overt approval of Nazi ideology.

The family moved often, leading up to and also after his grandparents' divorce when he was 14. McCrae had to adjust to new schools frequently and struggled academically. As a teenager, he veered between popularity and ostracism, developing interests in skateboarding and "shoegaze" music. He sums up his teenage attitude with this heartbreaking phrase: "I didn't aspire to be more than the harm done to me." Poetry was his way of coping with traumatic memories. After hearing a Sylvia Plath poem at school, he wrote his own first poems when he was 15. Teachers encouraged him, relieved to see him "putting effort into something."

McCrae is the author of eight poetry collections. Even in his prose, poetic techniques are still on clear display: run-on sentences and looping phrases create captivating rhythms; the repeated use of "except" refrains mimics his doubt in an artful way:

"Nonetheless, when I try to recall what I felt like as a child, in a general sense, what I felt like as a child on an ordinary day, though ordinary days are the most difficult days to remember, except, for me, those days upon which I was beaten, the beatings themselves for me so far almost impossible to remember, easy to say I was hit so hard I was knocked out of my own mind, my own memory, but the truth is I don't know how hard I was hit, except I know at least once, when I was thirteen or fourteen, my grandfather hit me so hard and with such anger my grandmother thought he would kill me."

Although there is a chronological through line to the book, there are also diversions along the way as McCrae skips between meaningful places and times. Amid the impressionistic memories of childhood are hints of his grandmother's later hoarding and Alzheimer's disease. The scenes he zooms in on can feel arbitrary, until readers see how they are chosen in a way that is true to how the mind selectively retains images from childhood: a mound of quartz near a creek where he found dead fish relates to his associations with whiteness; spray-painting the neighbors' black Labrador retrievers green relates to his associations with Blackness.

As much as McCrae is reconstructing his memory of events, he is also deconstructing it. He presents a scene he remembers only to undermine his own confidence--an uncertainty he attributes to trauma. Sometimes a photograph corrects a false memory, or fills in what he calls "tangible lacunae." He has a gift for apt metaphors, another mark of the poet: "Living with blocked memories... [is] like being a plant with roots that don't touch anything."

The title comes from the Greek myth of Phaethon, who borrows a chariot to find his father, the Sun god Helios. He sometimes drives too close to the Sun, and sometimes too far away, causing the seasonal patterns of summer and winter. McCrae uses this allusion to evoke loneliness, determination and presumption and to presage his own search for his father. "A father is more a wish than a man," he writes of his childhood perspective, but before the book's end he will strive to turn this wish into a reality. Pulling the Chariot of the Sun is a heartrending memoir for readers of Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama and Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey. --Rebecca Foster

Scribner, $27, hardcover, 272p., 9781668021743, August 1, 2023

Scribner Book Company: Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping by Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae: The Music of the Recurring

Shane McCrae is the author of several books of poetry, including In the Language of My Captor, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award; Sometimes I Never Suffered, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize; and his most recent collection, Cain Named the Animal. McCrae is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City. His book Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping will be published August 1, 2023, by Scribner.

You have previously published eight volumes of poetry, in which autobiographical themes also arise. What were the major differences you found, in terms of composition and approach, when switching to prose for writing a memoir?

Writing prose makes me feel more anxious than writing poetry does. For one thing, by committing to writing prose, one is usually committing--unless one is, say, Homer--to writing more words than one would be likely to write were one to write poetry, and so one is taking responsibility for more words, and giving oneself more opportunities to use the wrong words. That said, because I write traditionally metrical poetry, when I am writing prose I am not writing according to my usual restrictions, and besides taking responsibility for more words, I also find myself terrifyingly free.

Is "Stockholm syndrome" a term that you would find useful to describe your relationship with your grandparents? If not, what other names or metaphors would you be more likely to employ?

No, I would not find the term "Stockholm syndrome" useful to describe my relationship with my grandparents because, although they brainwashed me in other ways, they didn't have to brainwash me into wanting to live with them, since they were my grandparents and I was a toddler. But I'm not sure what words, other than the various forms of the word "kidnap," I would be likely to employ. As for metaphors, well, this isn't really a metaphor, but: in a way, my childhood with my grandparents was similar, I suspect, to most childhoods in which a child lives with their parents. Because they were all I knew, I loved them--or desperately, even suffocatingly, wanted to love them--the way most children love their parents. But I never felt like I was completely theirs.

In the childhood and teenage years that the memoir covers, you had a fairly peripatetic existence. To what extent did the search for a home run in parallel with the search for a stable family?

I don't think I was searching for a stable family--I was just, eventually, looking for my father. Neither was I searching for a home--because I was a minor in their care, I went where my grandparents (at first, and afterwards my grandmother) took me. Even though I knew my grandparents weren't my parents, I didn't think I had the option to live with anybody else, even though I did temporarily--just for a few months--live with my mother when I was a teenager, so I didn't think to search for a different, stable family.

Certain images recur in the book--not always momentous ones, but seemingly everyday ones, like walking out of a fabric store with your grandmother into the rain. How do you account for such particular moments staying at the forefront of your imagination?

I think those images recur largely because I like the music of the recurring; probably, by repeating myself, I'm trying to compensate for the loss of the formal structures I utilize when writing poetry. When I was writing the memoir, I found the most pleasure in trying to compose sentences that were musical, and repetition helped me do so as best I could.

You draw on facts and photographs to support, but more often to contradict, your memory of what happened. Thinking of that online shorthand "IIRC" [if i recall correctly], do you feel it's common to be uncertain when recounting the past? How much does trauma contribute to that ambiguity?

I assume it's common for folks to feel uncertain when they recount the past, though perhaps it's somewhat less common for folks to admit to their uncertainty (which is not at all to suggest that I'm heroic or special for doing so). I suspect trauma contributes significantly to that uncertainty--if one attempts to remember one's life clearly, one risks remembering traumatic events clearly. As every poet knows, a lack of clarity works as a good buffer.

What do you hope that the Greek myth referenced in the title will evoke or call into question for readers?

Well, as stupid as this probably sounds, I chose the phrase "Pulling the Chariot of the Sun" as the title mostly because I thought it sounded nice, but also because it made me think of the Black Sun symbol which is sometimes used by neo-Nazis. So I wasn't actually trying to evoke the Greek myth, though I knew the phrase would evoke the myth for some readers, and that isn't a problem for me. Being a kidnapped child is much more like being the horse that pulls the god's chariot than it is like being the god--one is both responsible for, and hidden from, the light. --Rebecca Foster

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