The Paris of the West

Nonfiction / Cyan James

:: The Paris of the West ::

Over here,” David says, “you got­ta come see this!” Then he holds up a warn­ing hand. “Only if you have a strong stom­ach.”  

I crouch beside him and peer into a con­crete reser­voir. In the play of his flash­light beam, a large gin­ger-col­ored dog floats head-down­ward in a stew of mag­gots and old bits of wood. The dog’s inner organs have burst. The dog’s cen­ter is a piece of knit­ting assem­bled from wrig­gling white mag­got-worms.

I snap a cou­ple pho­tographs. “You’re not revolt­ed?” David asks.

No.”

I find deaths, includ­ing ani­mal deaths, things to be faced, and some­times have dif­fi­cul­ty look­ing away from them.

David, his girl­friend, ten oth­er peo­ple, and I are explor­ing the 40-acre grounds in Detroit, MI, where the Packard com­pa­ny once churned out 49,000 cars a week (and housed patients dur­ing the influen­za epi­dem­ic of 1918–1919). The place was closed in 1956 and has slow­ly rot­ted since. Plants sprout from the floor­boards. Squat­ters leave piles of blan­kets and shred­ded news­pa­per in not-so-drafty cor­ners. Some­times peo­ple fall or are killed and drown or are placed in places water has gath­ered and even­tu­al­ly freezes, leav­ing only these people’s feet stick­ing out of the ice.

 

The Packard Plant is now a Brown­field prop­er­ty (an aban­doned indus­tri­al site anoth­er com­pa­ny would like to acquire), and also a dump­ing site for stray mat­tress­es, bust­ed-out TVs, and, today, a smashed red Ford pick­up with a ted­dy bear left as a rel­ic in the driver’s seat. Tin hangs in shreds through gaps in the ceil­ings. Almost every win­dow­pane is cracked, punched out, or punc­tured with bul­let holes. Grav­el rat­tles under our feet, and those of us not smart enough to wear gloves soon get grit and oil rubbed into our palms. We need flash­lights in the ambi­ent dusk that fil­ters down the ele­va­tor shafts. We need paper masks against the asbestos and lead paint dust. It’s a clut­tered place: mir­ror frag­ments in the bath­rooms, old boots in the cor­ners, musti­ness every­where. Offices full of over­turned desks—I bend to the floor and retrieve a notice of pay­ment, the paper grimy, brit­tle, dat­ed 1946.

David finds me wedged into a bath­room stall, one leg propped on a bro­ken toi­let, the oth­er can­tilevered into a win­dowsill as I try to pho­to­graph blue paint flak­ing from the bath­room walls. 

I wish I had brought my cam­era,” David says. “I’m going to have to come back…”

We get each other’s num­bers before we leave.

 

***

 

A few weeks lat­er, David, Elise, and I meet again, this time to inves­ti­gate the ruins of the Fish­er plant. We climb over huge pipes and scale a water tow­er. The details—rampant graf­fi­ti, mounds of refuse and castoff, wind­blown build­ing material—remain the same. We walk through drip­ping cor­ri­dors and offices whose walls have been half ripped away. Iron hooks hang from run­ners in the ceil­ing. Tiny plants grow in damp wood­en tres­tles. When I look through any of the win­dows, I see park­ing lots and sim­i­lar­ly des­o­late build­ings splayed, evis­cer­at­ed, all around us.

We tra­verse bro­ken glass and peer into long-drop­ping ele­va­tor shafts. There are no safe­ty rails and no one to stop us. A gut­ted cafe­te­ria. A hot-tar roof. Walls of crum­pled mar­ble. Shards of Art-Deco carv­ings. I feel lone­some and strange in the derelict rooms but some­thing also feels home-like about them; some­thing res­onates.

I sit in the mid­dle of a yel­low-paint­ed room, close my eyes, and lis­ten to the wind toy with the build­ing. It’s so peace­ful I have a brief fan­ta­sy of camp­ing out here for a week in sum­mer when I won’t need much.

Every time David finds the edge of a sheared-off floor, he calls us over to stand next to it and get ver­ti­go star­ing down. Elise says she wish­es she had a scu­ba suit so she could explore all the shafts and under­ground tun­nels now filled with rain­wa­ter and unknown trash. Van­dals before us have stripped cop­per wiring and pip­ing for its resale val­ue, and have pulled much of the mar­ble from the walls. But much still remains. And for now it is ours.

The sav­agery of Detroit is not con­fined to its killing ice. A gang-mem­ber here shot anoth­er in the chest. The man wait­ed in the bush­es until his vic­tim was strapped onto a paramedic’s gur­ney before dash­ing out to deliv­er more rounds to his target’s tor­so right in front of the para­medics. The may­or fun­neled off city mon­ey for per­son­al Escalades and hook­ers. The police­men do not pause at stop signs for fear of attacks, and they will advise peo­ple to blow through red lights to escape par­tic­u­lar­ly dan­ger­ous stretch­es. White peo­ple do not walk on the West Side. Nobody walks on the West Side if possible—where West Chica­go runs into Liv­er­nois Avenue, for exam­ple, one’s chances of run­ning afoul of some­thing bad top 1 out of 7. 

 

***

 

I once went to a casi­no late and came out with a few white friends. Our park­ing atten­dant, a black man, was wait­ing for us, hid­ing behind a car. As we passed he leaped out and yelled, and then dou­bled over laugh­ing at us being star­tled. “I got you! I got all of you!” Actu­al­ly, we laughed, too. You have to, when everyone’s mutu­al dis­com­fort and bad assump­tions get pulled out in the open.

But Detroit is not the Wild West or some law­less frontier—Detroit is what’s left after a plague (pover­ty) and an apoc­a­lypse (neglect).

 

David and Elise and I go to Mephisto’s, a goth-themed bar and club on Detroit’s out­skirts. Black-clothed, chalked with the dust of the city’s decay, we sit in a smoky line. Vod­ka ton­ics and blue mar­ti­nis. One or pos­si­bly two too many for him, David says. He leans from his barstool to whis­per in my ear: “What’s your race?” Our wide-bust­ed wait­ress pours anoth­er drink as elec­tro-goth music rat­tles and whirs. “We think we can tell you now,” he says. He drapes an arm over my shoul­der. “We’re…supportive of white inter­ests.”

What do you mean?”

We’re not Nazis,” he insists. “We’re just real­ly pro-white.” The bar is so dark I can’t see him clear­ly. We three like hard-edged music, death pho­tog­ra­phy, aban­doned build­ing break-ins. Only two of us like racism, I think. I should probe and inter­ro­gate. I hold my tongue. I observe. I feel lit­tle wires crack­le inside.  

 

***

 

Type the words “Packard,” “plant,” and “Detroit” into Google and the first hit used to be a Storm­front page with a pho­to essay and accom­pa­ny­ing text claim­ing: “A huge non-White pop­u­la­tion, com­bined with annu­al arson attacks, bank­rupt­cy, crime and decay, have com­bined to make Detroit—once the USA’s lead­ing auto­mo­tive indus­tri­al center—into a ruin com­pa­ra­ble with those of the ancient civ­i­liza­tions, with the cause being iden­ti­cal: the replace­ment of the White pop­u­la­tion who built the city, with a new non-White pop­u­la­tion.” 

I ask Elise if she believes in white pow­er as well, and she says yes, she came to the con­clu­sion on her own that the Nordic races should remain as eth­ni­cal­ly pure as pos­si­ble.  

 

***

 

Less than 23 miles away stands Michigan’s Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Cen­ter. The vis­i­tor begins at plac­ards and plaques and all the usu­al mark­ers of muse­um-type knowl­edge. Then the pile of books burned. The cloth­ing mounds tak­en. A box­car in which you stand, sur­round­ed by the nois­es of the rails trapped inside it and with the nois­es peo­ple make when they are packed bare elbows to bare tor­sos, no food in those tor­sos, lungs full of awak­en­ing dis­eases, noses run­ning, blad­ders full, knees locked into stand­ing posi­tions while the box­car jerks over the rails through Europe in Decem­ber. Shad­ows of these peo­ple are cast against the box­car walls as though you stand among them.

You con­tin­ue the jour­ney they made. You see camp con­di­tions. At one point you must squeeze through a nar­row pas­sage­way to pro­ceed. Then a long met­al cat­walk over the bot­tom of an invert­ed glass tri­an­gle. The walls of the tri­an­gle and the pit below dis­play huge pho­tographs blown up black and white: naked bod­ies (dead). The stacks of peo­ple whit­tled down to piles of spines.

The bins hold­ing the breath of those allowed to live left as words. Sto­ries.

The bins of the teeth for those who did not live. Their breath trav­eled already far past den­ti­tion. 

 

I have been to that muse­um many times. After almost every time I go I after­ward vis­it a large dim-sum restau­rant and eat plates of small meat dumplings, all dif­fer­ent kinds. I like the dis­crep­an­cy: the rend­ing his­to­ry, the dim sum (lit­tle pieces of heart) salt­ed on my plate. Dim-sum is carts and carts of serv­ing dish­es steam­ing delight and peo­ple shar­ing dish­es and lazy Susans and “pass the soy sauce, please”; it’s shrimp and pork and beef and scal­lops and squid and chick­en doing com­pli­cat­ed dances togeth­er inside translu­cent won­ton wrap­pers. Dim-sum is a balm.

 

Years after­ward I look more into our mod­ern sys­tems of meat. It’s not good. It’s long box­car rides and the wrong kind of food and hours upon hours of ani­mals stand­ing in their own shit. It’s open sores and high stress lev­els, and for what—my tongue?  

 

***

 

I have even worked in a chick­en ren­der­ing plant. It was my first sum­mer back from col­lege, and I’d been laid off from the vet­eri­nary clin­ic because of the bad econ­o­my, and the only thing left in all that bad south­ern Wash­ing­ton econ­o­my to do was pick up shifts at the local Tyson plant, where they would give you a bun­dle includ­ing a blue plas­tic apron, blue plas­tic arm guards, a hair­net, yel­low and blue earplugs, and gloves. This was your uni­form. This is what you wore for eleven hours a day on shift, so that when you returned home the red lines cut into your wrists still hadn’t fad­ed, and your ears still rang from the earplugs, and you weren’t sure how you had spent the last eleven hours, exact­ly, only that there had been pink mush and a fine-jet­ted mist of water fre­quent­ly direct­ed over shin­ing machin­ery; there had been a march of chick­en parts, some of which were still strung and spat­tered on all your plas­tic gear, which you would need to clean off before rest­ing or eat­ing, so that the yel­low­ish, slight­ly ran­cid smell of chick­en grease could pur­sue you all night, and the morn­ing alarm clock would be aug­ment­ed by the bit­ter­ness of bleach up your nose from the pan you soaked the plas­tics in—despite your best efforts, the plas­tic, now bleach-damp­ened, would still shine with grease you donned six days a week. You worked next to Viet­namese, Mex­i­cans, Nige­ri­ans. You worked at chop­ping parts while wear­ing chain met­al mesh; you worked at pack­ing hearts and liv­ers onto yel­low trays; you applied stick­ers; you applied a dumb buzzing impa­tience as the clock swept around its slow rev­o­lu­tions. No talk­ing, no music. Big tubs of red­dish mush. The man who would steal smashed chick­en heads that acci­den­tal­ly came down the line every once in a while so he could make soup at home. The man who tried to cop feels from me. The man who had immi­grat­ed here and giv­en up his own future so his son could go attend col­lege to be a doc­tor. The night school­ers. The sin­gle moth­ers. The woman who died while work­ing the line. We were all there, repeat­ing our motions and our thoughts day after day to pull chick­ens apart and wrap them in plas­tic and put them on freez­er shelves for your din­ner.

Even then I still ate chick­en; I still ate meat. Because eat­ing meat was nor­mal in my envi­ron­ment. 

 

Some envi­ron­ments are now most­ly gone, or per­haps left alive only in imag­i­na­tions. Bergen-Belsen is one of these, we hope. Cher­nobyl is a chang­ing envi­ron­ment. Coral reefs are an envi­ron­ment being extin­guished. But you can now buy a sea burial—you inside your cof­fin becom­ing an arti­fi­cial coral reef so that you may now in turn nur­ture shrimp and oth­er crawl­ing things.

 

Crawl­ing is a pose enforced by slav­ery and by oth­er kinds of sub­ju­ga­tion.  

 

Crawl, because you lack the strength to stand. Crawl, because we have bound your feet into unrea­son­able shoes. Crawl, because you have only your ankles left; the wrists are tied and you can­not run. Crawl because we will not let you do oth­er­wise. Crawl, bitch.

 

Even sug­ar has a sor­did past. When Africans were shipped as slaves to Brazil to work the sug­ar plan­ta­tions, they were man­a­cled. As usu­al, for slaves. When you give enslaved peo­ple machetes to hack down sug­ar cane, you must exer­cise care and unmana­cle their hands, and per­haps William Clark con­sid­ered this when he brought his inher­it­ed slave, York, along with the rest of the expe­di­tion. Frank X. Walk­er con­sid­ers what may have been going through York’s mind in his poem “God’s House”: 


          Where else but God's house can a body servant
          big as me, carry a rifle, hatchet and a bone handle knife
          so sharp it can peel the black off a lump a coal
          and the white man
          still close his eyes and feel safe, at night?

Rather than crawl­ing, the sug­ar slaves start­ed a dance. A whirling one, one that turns a human body into a pin­wheel of jumps and swirls and kicks, kinet­ic as break­danc­ing and lyric enough to lure oppo­nents with­in range. Clever vio­lence hid­den in an ebul­lient ele­gance of move­ment: capoeira. An art meant to kill when nec­es­sary and to bind a com­mu­ni­ty when not. Some­thing you can do with your wrists man­a­cled, some­thing you can tell the slave­mas­ter is an inno­cent cul­tur­al prac­tice. Some­thing you can do to protest being a slave. A way you no longer have to crawl.

 

***

 

One hun­dred twen­ty-two miles from the Packard plant stands the san­i­tar­i­um in Bat­tle Creek, MI, where the founder, John Har­vey Kel­logg, had a series of fights with his accoun­tant, his broth­er William Kei­th, over sug­ar and some­times over slaves. John Har­vey was a doc­tor who adopt­ed sev­er­al African-Amer­i­can orphans, but wrote that the races should be kept sep­a­rate. He hat­ed sug­ar, impure things, sex, mixed races.

He loved sun­light, fresh veg­eta­bles, fresh air, and chasti­ty.

He advo­cat­ed nev­er mas­tur­bat­ing, nev­er eat­ing meat, tak­ing yogurt ene­mas, doing reg­u­lar exer­cise, and oth­er­wise estab­lish­ing what he con­sid­ered a healthy life. No corsets for the ladies. Elec­tric­i­ty and radi­um-laced water ther­a­py for those afflict­ed by nerves. Spe­cial veg­e­tar­i­an foods for those fat­tened on steaks and wines. Car­bol­ic acid applied to the gen­i­talia of the mas­tur­ba­tors.

It was a trendy place fre­quent­ed by Thomas Edi­son, Hen­ry Ford, and any­one else look­ing for an excuse to spend time among the most influ­en­tial minds of Amer­i­ca and Europe.

John Harvey’s broth­er, William Kei­th Kel­logg, thought it would be a good idea to add sug­ar to the corn flakes devel­oped as a veg­e­tar­i­an food at the San. John Har­vey thought sug­ar would addle everyone’s minds.

William Kei­th took the Kel­logg name, put it on the corn­flakes, and start­ed offi­cial­ly sell­ing it; and, even though they con­tin­ued to live in the same area into their ear­ly 90s, that was the end of the broth­ers speak­ing to one anoth­er.

The San, along with its var­i­ous advis­able and ques­tion­able prac­tices, lapsed into obscu­ri­ty. Kellogg’s Corn­flakes suc­ceed­ed. One of its most pop­u­lar cere­als, Frost­ed Flakes, sells wild­ly, eleven grams of sug­ar in each serv­ing. A tiger in your tank.

The San helped sup­port research con­tribut­ing to eugenic poli­cies in Amer­i­ca, and, even­tu­al­ly, in Nazi Ger­many. John Har­vey Kel­logg said breed­ing reg­istries should be kept, and those unfit to pro­duce America’s next gen­er­a­tions should be exclud­ed. One unruly child with three docile sib­lings looked to Kel­logg and oth­er eugeni­cists like evi­dence of the Mendelian (sim­ple) inher­i­tance of unfit char­ac­ter­is­tics. And this looked like a pat­tern of incom­pe­tence they could elim­i­nate by enforced ster­il­iza­tion.

More than 60,000 Amer­i­cans were ster­il­ized to pro­mote racial cleans­ing and more than 350,00 were ster­il­ized in Ger­many. The U.S. ster­il­iza­tions went from the ear­ly 1900s through 1970. I used to read dozens of these ster­il­iza­tion records dai­ly as I tran­scribed men­tal insti­tu­tion­al ster­il­iza­tion records into Excel data­bas­es while work­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Cen­ter for the His­to­ry of Med­i­cine.

 

A white female, 16: “Irra­tional, tears cloth­ing, bed­ding, com­plains of pains in head, tem­porar­i­ly insane dur­ing menses, noisy, rest­less.”

 

 A white male, 38: “Imag­ines Lord guides him in actions, accosts women on street, unable to care for self, dan­ger­ous at large, noisy, vio­lent, wants to fight world.”

A Lati­no, 20: “Irra­tional, strange, cut penis with knife while in coun­ty jail.”

 

The women had their uterus­es and ovaries removed, the men their testes.

 

More from Storm­front: “…decay fol­lowed the rapid demo­graph­ic trans­for­ma­tion of Detroit from a pros­per­ous major­i­ty Euro­pean Amer­i­can city into a crime-rid­den and pover­ty-strick­en major­i­ty African Amer­i­can city propped up by gov­ern­ment hand­outs, band-aids and feel good char­i­ta­ble dona­tions from cor­po­ra­tions.”

 

***

 

They don’t want to harm blacks or Jews, David insists, they just believe whites should strive for racial puri­ty. I press them hard­er: how did they get these beliefs? David says he usu­al­ly hides them; he doesn’t direct­ly answer my ques­tion. He says he grew up in Flint, MI., an area even more bleak and down­trod­den than Detroit, but with a small­er per­cent­age of black res­i­dents.

Michael Moore: “Sad­ly, a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans have writ­ten off Detroit, and for those of us who grew up in Michi­gan and still live here ‘heart­break­ing’ doesn’t real­ly describe it.”

 

At a Thanks­giv­ing I held for a large, beard­ed, black-clad friend who became a mor­ti­cian and for my Japan­ese lan­guage part­ner with her three-year old daugh­ter (who forced the soon-to-be mor­ti­cian to do many cute, embar­rass­ing things like play­ing house), I told Elise I want­ed to some­day vis­it Chi­na.

Why would you want to go there?” she asks, eye­brows raised as though I am slight­ly deranged. “It’s dirty, and it’s full of Chi­na­men!”  

 

My moth­er almost mar­ried a Chi­na­man. Her love for the cul­ture is why I eat dim-sum, her roman­tic and cul­tur­al pref­er­ences trans­mit­ted to my taste buds. After the racism cat­a­loged by the Holo­caust Muse­um, dim-sum com­forts me.   

 

Pork is one of the main ingre­di­ents in dim-sum, and the pig is also a use­ful ani­mal for grow­ing the organs we need for cer­tain trans­plants. Your liv­er trans­plant may have start­ed in a pig. You can put a piece of pig in your mouth, or you can sew a dif­fer­ent piece of it into your body.

Racist pigs.

 

I attend an exhib­it in Detroit at the African Amer­i­can Muse­um. This muse­um also forces you into uncom­fort­able places—you even­tu­al­ly walk down a plank into the hold of a ship recre­at­ing the con­di­tions in which slaves were shipped to Brazil, to Jamaica, to Geor­gia. You see the nar­row bench­es stacked high and the rings for the chains, and you read how if a ship went down, the chains would not be loosed, and you read how if a slave gave birth or died while giv­ing birth while chained, she might not even then be unchained.

The ship tum­bles you out onto the recre­at­ed streets of a cob­ble­stoned Amer­i­can town. Then come the noos­es and fires and the pho­tographs of the lynch­ings Amer­i­cans did while laugh­ing. If you have a vivid imag­i­na­tion, you imag­ine how it must have smelled. Bod­ies still look like bod­ies even when they have become char­coal. Peo­ple were lynched for look­ing at the wrong woman. For hav­ing the dis­ease, drapeto­ma­nia they called it, of want­i­ng to run away. For try­ing to run away. For protest­ing. For not want­i­ng to crawl any longer.

They used to sell post­card pic­tures of hang­ings you could send to rel­a­tives.

This is where they lynched a negro the oth­er day. They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. Shit, do you?”

It’s like this: the hor­ror put togeth­er with the mun­dan­i­ty. Capped with a smi­ley face.

Black peo­ple shouldn’t go,” an African Amer­i­can pro­fes­sor at an Ann Arbor com­mu­ni­ty col­lege told me. “But white peo­ple should see what real­ly hap­pened.”

I buy a book of these lynch­ing pho­tographs. Because they mat­ter, and to look away or not want to look, to me, means you want to deny what we did. Sick at the stom­ach, nau­se­at­ed, about to vomit—is this not exact­ly how you should feel look­ing at these pho­tographs?

No one wants to look at these pho­tographs. My friends want to look away. The same way they try to change the top­ic, espe­cial­ly if they are men, espe­cial­ly if I bring up sex­ism, sex traf­fick­ing, sex­u­al slav­ery, the slave trade of both white girls and non-white girls in our own back­yards and across our states and at our fuck­ing Super Bowls and Olympics and any­where else crowds may gath­er for plea­sure.

I think less of them for it.

 

***

 

Elise and David leave town: he to New York where he makes black friends and slow­ly emerges not so racist after all. Elise migrates to Denver’s steam punk under­ground. Few­er black peo­ple there.

Fuck­ing miss you,” David texts me one night.

I vis­it Elise a year lat­er on a sum­mer road trip across the nation. She had shaved her head.  

 

The Packard plant has since been bought by a Peru­vian real estate mogul who expects to pour some $350 mil­lion into it. Maybe it’ll host var­i­ous relat­ed busi­ness­es, despite its now-ten­u­ous con­nec­tions to the rest of Detroit. Maybe it’ll host a go-kart track. Maybe it might even thrive.

It’s easy to knock Detroit. But it’s also easy to lose your heart among the tiny black holes of knocked-out win­dows and knocked-over civil­i­ties.  It’s not all back-lot shoot­ings and cor­rupt drugs and armored Escalades. It’s got a clenched-teeth grit and vibran­cy that makes me com­plete­ly under­stand why some­one like 23-year-old Drew Philp buys a house there for $500 and re-does the whole thing, despite hav­ing to wire his own elec­tric­i­ty, despite some­one try­ing to kick down his door in the night, despite the fact that the house next door, an arm’s length away, is one of the wrecks some­one like­ly wants to burn for fun. “It would be only one house out of thou­sands, but I want­ed to prove it could be done, prove that this Amer­i­can vision of tor­ment could be built back into a home,” Philp wrote on Buz­zfeed.

Philp’s neigh­bors let him know he’s wel­come even though he’s white. Some of them let him show­er at their house before his own plumb­ing works. Some invite him to twice-a-sum­mer hay bal­ings. Some of them help him under­stand Detroit is a place where the hair on your nape nev­er com­plete­ly lies down, and yet you can feel warmer than you ever knew pos­si­ble.  

 

Rich Wieske is one of Detroit’s qui­et builders—he builds, in all things, with bees. A for­mer com­mer­cial api­arist, he now rais­es bees on his own, and reg­u­lar­ly loads white bee box­es into the back of his truck to dis­trib­ute around Detroit to who­ev­er wish­es to host them. You can stand in a hum­ming cloud of them and not feel par­tic­u­lar­ly about to be stung…they want flow­ers instead; they make much more hon­ey than they will use; they will seal their unclean spaces off with propo­lis, a resinous gum that can numb your mouth and serve as a preser­v­a­tive in embalm­ing.

Detroit used to hold an esti­mat­ed 2,000 hives in the city, each hive packed with 30,000 bees; Wieske says there are now some­where between 500 and 600 hives.

I asked him, wouldn’t peo­ple van­dal­ize the bee box­es?

He used to think so. But instead, peo­ple appoint them­selves guardians of the bees. They man neigh­bor­hood watch­es to keep the box­es secure; they cheer when flow­ers arrive and the bees get busy; they cry when a hud­dle of bees fails to sur­vive a Detroit win­ter. The bees, they say, are lit­tle sparks of hap­pi­ness.  

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Biol­o­gists, hip­pies, and econ­o­mists will all let you in on it: we are not alone. We are inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed through history—both as shared time and as shared genes—and through the ways we cur­rent­ly live and die, no mat­ter what we think of each oth­er. In this essay, I try to track many of the mem­o­ries and men­tal threads Detroit, a city I deeply love yet strug­gle to com­pre­hend, brings to mind.

A non-fic­tion piece feels like an oppor­tu­ni­ty to play with facts in a way usu­al­ly reserved for fic­tion, and this piece in par­tic­u­lar pushed me to hint at the rich­ness Detroit encom­pass­es with­out becom­ing too dis­con­nect­ed. Free asso­ci­a­tion is at play here, though many of the sub­jects men­tioned are geo­graph­i­cal­ly inter­twined or chrono­log­i­cal­ly over­lap­ping.

It’s these con­nec­tions I attempt to track while using per­son­al mem­o­ries that spanned a sum­mer as a rough map. In these pas­tiche-style essays, I enjoy the chance to use white space as an unmarked place read­ers may inhab­it with their own mem­o­ries and asso­ci­a­tions. Maps lose their fun if every lit­tle thing is not­ed, and I find that writ­ing los­es its tang as well if too much is expli­cat­ed. I’m not sure of this style yet—it’s like scenes flick­er­ing by seen through train windows—yet I find the form true to how our minds work, true to how one image leads us to stum­ble upon the next, and, final­ly, true to how the tex­ture and sense of our mem­o­ries are held togeth­er with the tacks of fact.

 

Cyan James earned her MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, where she taught com­po­si­tion and cre­ative writ­ing. Her lat­est pub­li­ca­tions include The Har­vard Review, Black­bird Review, The Michi­gan Quar­ter­ly Review, The Ole­an­der Review, and The Arkansas Review. She has attend­ed sev­er­al res­i­den­cies and been award­ed a num­ber of lit­er­ary recog­ni­tions, includ­ing three Hop­wood awards. Cur­rent­ly she is com­plet­ing a PhD in pub­lic health genet­ics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton and is fin­ish­ing drafts of an essay col­lec­tion about death and a nov­el on B-52 bom­bardiers.