Nonfiction: Brooklyn in Time and Memory
Chris Knutsen & Valerie Steiker, editors, Brooklyn Was Mine (Riverhead Books, 2008)
The collection begins, appropriately, with an immigrant. Lara Vapnyar has just arrived from Moscow, only to find that her new neighborhood, Brighton Beach, is "far more Russian than in real Russia." This is what happens all over Brooklyn, she says –"immigrants go to ridiculous extremes to recreate their homelands, only to end up with a vulgar pastiche." It is a notion that Dinaw Mengestu responds to in "Home at Last," the final essay of the anthology. He writes: "If there was one thing I admired most about [Brooklyn immigrants], it was that they had succeeded, at least partly, in recreating in Brooklyn some of what they had lost when they left their countries of origin."
While some writers focus on the landscape (Susan Choi tracks the geothermal shifts that carved out the hills and edges of Brooklyn), there are those who understand Brooklyn as existing in time and memory. Jennifer Egan shows us World War II Brooklyn through the letters of Lucy, a shipfitter for the Navy Yard. Lucy wrote religiously to her husband, who was serving in the navy. The daily correspondence spanned five months, a mere snapshot of domestic life in the midst of war. The scope of the letters, touching on a vast experience—is remarkable: "the glorious blossoms on the tree facing our window –that is the tree in Brooklyn. The last thing I say good morning to before sleeping." One can only wonder if that tree still exists.
There is heartbreak, there is redemption, there is refuge in Brooklyn. Alexandra Styron talks of "escaping Manhattan," Robert Sullivan finds calm in the vortex of a windstorm on Montague street, and Katie Roiphe finds young love in the Coney Island Cyclone. But it is in the absurd that Brooklyn can best be explained. Jonathan Lethem's portrait of downtown Brooklyn is maniacal, comical and eerily true. His descriptions are brash, abrupt, confusing, and exact, yet he stops flat and proceeds, self consciously, to question this obsession to 'reclaim Brooklyn.' His essay, he says, is a "memo to those who think they can control or define a place like this."
Not just love letters to Brooklyn, the essays are honest depictions, portraits under an unforgiving fluorescent light – each of them expressing a frank acceptance of a borough not always known for its positive aspects. To put it simply, these writers see Brooklyn as home, in all its flaws and complications. Earlier generations saw it as a transitory place, a place to get out of as soon as you could. When John Burnham Schwartz decides he's moving to Brooklyn, where his dad grew up, the father says, "Over my dead body."
Brooklyn's different now, these writers seem to say. None of them is blind to the rapid gentrification and increasing globalization of the borough, but they see Brooklyn as something beyond bulldozed buildings and disappearing landmarks. Brooklyn Was Mine is an eloquent response to a changing place, an effort to capture something continually in flux. "Whatever happens to Brooklyn," writes Phillip Lopate, "its literary soul is sound and robust, and its writers fiercely loyal."
Janine Yu is a freelance writer living in New York City.