“Lonely in America,” the first essay in Wendy S. Walters’ MULTIPLY/DIVIDE, begins like this: “I have never been particularly interested in slavery, perhaps because it is such an obvious fact of my family’s history.” Whatever the reason, the idea of a woman with slavery in her bloodline having little interest in her history intrigues me—especially when compared to someone like my friend Rachel, whose distant relative’s involvement in the Nazi movement caused her to question her own identity. Who chooses what we care about, or how we assess our personal histories against larger world histories? In “Lonely in America,” variations of this question eventually lead Walters to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where “eight coffins and the remains of thirteen people were removed” from beneath the city streets. Walters reports that “at least four of the remains in questions were of African ancestry, most likely slaves buried there in the 1700s.”
“[Portsmouth] is a really lovely town,” Walters tells me over the phone, “but beneath the city streets, there’s this history that’s really not part of the public identity of the city,” meaning that New England’s history with segregation often gets buried—literally, in this case. She was fascinated by the idea of “people [living] their daily lives on top of this cemetery,” not knowing what lay just below the surface. In this essay, and throughout the book, Walters searches for ways to keep herself awake, alert, and present. “There’s…a lot of pain in history and present context of America,” she tells me. “[MULTIPLY/DIVIDE], for me, is an attempt to figure out where the pain is located in these historical moments and historical records that we are familiar with.”
The story you remember from history class is not, should not, cannot, be the only story.
The overarching question Walters spent years contemplating was: “How functional is our democracy?” And beneath that was yet another question: “What makes someone visible or un-visible?” By “un-visible,” Walters doesn’t mean “invisible”; rather, she refers to the people we have the ability to see, but whom we choose not to recognize. All of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE centers around this distinction. “How do I become visible or not visible to people in my day-to-day experience?” Walters asks herself throughout this book. “How [do I make myself] more open to seeing people that I may have dismissed, ignored, or written off as a character of a trope of something I thought I understood? How do I make it so I learn to see better?”
Keeping a sharp eye becomes even more vital when one considers the number of race-motivated murders in America, and the disturbing or absent coverage of the deaths of black men and women in the mainstream media. The onslaught of violence grew all the more visible to Walters when she became a mother while writing MULTIPLY/DIVIDE. “I don’t know if [my newfound motherhood] was any more remarkable than anyone else’s,” Walters says, “but it certainly was one of those moments [when my] thinking was reset.”
In her “attempt to bring to light some of the contradictions about American identities and aspiration,” Walters employs a mix of genres. In fact, the introduction outlines which essays in the collection are fiction, nonfiction, and lyric essays, “a form that blends poetry and prose, memoir and reporting, actual and imagined events.” Why the combination? Why not just all fiction or all nonfiction? Why not poetry, like her previous books TROY, MICHIGAN and LONGER I WAIT, MORE YOU LOVE ME? “I make [these] categorizations because I think they are important,” Walters writes. “But I also make them with a bit of pause, because the border between nonfiction and fiction—while seemingly clear as black and white—is often porous enough to render the distinction as irrelevant.” Since the same could be said about the real and the surreal, as Walters points out, she hopes to address “nuances as they unfold place by place, argument by argument, and story by story,” rather than limit herself or her subject to a single genre. “I’m of the mindset that I just try to write down what I’m obsessed about and worry about how it fits into the larger puzzle later,” Walters tells me.
Sarabande Books, Walters’ publisher, frequently releases works of formal complexity. When I ask Kristen Radtke, Sarabande’s managing editor, about the form of MULTIPLY/DIVIDE—whether people will understand once it’s a thing out in the world—she says, “It’s easier to market things if you can say, ‘This is exactly what this is about,’ [but] what’s interesting about [Walters’] book is that it’s associative in the way our minds are.” It’s not one of those books that’s easy to pitch, but the writing itself will make its difficult subject matter more digestible. “You never really feel like you’re being preached at, but you feel like you’re living her experiences with her,” Radtke says. “She’s really talking about a lot of issues that we’re all thinking about, the way Americans need change.”
Radtke says that giving a bold but largely unknown writer like Wendy S. Walters a home “makes her feel like she’s succeeding.” Plus, “most of our authors that move on to larger houses still remain friends to Sarabande.” It truly seems like a family, especially when Radtke tells me that “we are actually a staff entirely of women,” which is unicorn-rare for the industry. “It’s kind of an amazing gift to be part of a team of forward-thinking, progressive women,” Radtke says. “It’s something that I never thought would be possible.”
What both women—Walters and Radtke—seem to be advocating is that we should not keep our biases about what is or isn’t possible buried, but that we should dig them up and hold them to the light. The hope? That acknowledging and assessing the mistakes in our own thinking can help craft better futures.