A futon, a house, a lover, a dog, a child, a country. These are all things Sarah Viren has, or has had, and lost. It is the exploration of that possession and subsequent absence that she explores in her essay collection Mine, winner of the 2016 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. Each essay is titled with the possessive my—”My Catch,” “My Choice,” “My Ballad for You”—but ultimately, Viren is exploring and working to accept the inevitability of loss. “Everything I owned,” she writes on the final page, “has since been lost. Even my memories are not the same.”
An essay collection is a unique way to trace a human life temporally. We piece together bits of adventures attempted, lovers had. In Mine, we follow Viren through various jobs, cities, and stints at universities. As opposed to a linear memoir, a collection of autobiographical essays can be experienced more like a photo album. Viren’s history as a newspaper reporter makes threading her life all the more interesting because the “pictures” are so often not of the narrator, her temperament and longings revealed to us via her treatment of the subject. In the opening essay, Viren tells of living in Galveston, Texas, just down the street from where Robert Durst is being held while he awaits trial for the murder of his neighbor Morris Black. Because she shares a landlord with Durst, she has ended up with some of his furniture (including the aforementioned futon) and, rather than feeling afraid or repulsed, becomes fascinated by his bizarre life. It is Durst’s status as outsider that compels Viren. Of an encounter with a police officer who laughs at Durst’s history of cross-dressing, she writes, “I found myself taking Durst’s side, in small ways, in brief moments like this one where someone like the chief asked me to call Durst a freak.” Because so many have been sure that Viren herself is an outsider, whether due to her status as a woman or as a queer person, she refuses to level anything but a wary and tender eye at others. In her assessment of Durst, Viren offers not so much a story about there but for the grace of God go I, as simply a bent toward grace. At times it feels that Viren is offering her readers the empirical results of an experiment in human curiosity that resists all exploitation and relies wholly on generosity.
Throughout the collection, Viren is deeply suspicious of certainty in any form—legal, interpersonal, spiritual. Anytime someone (herself included) seems too convinced or assured, Viren challenges that lack of doubt. In one essay, a once-thrilling lover becomes all-consuming. In another, she tests Isaac Newton’s assertion that “absent other proof, thumbs alone should be enough to convince us of the existence of God” by exploring the evolution of the thumb itself. Perhaps due to her history of reporting, Viren is a deft and mesmerizing researcher, with the majority of the essays braiding hard fact with more amorphous sentiment. As soon as the narrative bends toward melancholy, though, Viren is quick to snap the framework of information over the turmoil of feeling. This is not uncommon in the braided essay, but Viren’s ability to explore feeling so deeply without evincing upset is one of the things that makes the collection so unique. There is no polemic, even against an interview subject who professes the virtues of gay conversion therapy, or against the state of Texas where her Iowa marriage to her wife was “outright banned.” There is no panic in the prose, no recoil, and yet the reader instinctively feels both.
With the escalation of loss, though, Viren’s descriptions turn more lyric and wild. The writing becomes less journalistic and more fantastic as time, and the collection, advance. The birth of her first child brings a tonal reverie that is mournful and celebratory simultaneously. “How can I describe what it’s like to listen to you cry?” she asks in the later essay, “My Ballad for You.” I won’t ruin the intensity of Viren’s response to her own question, but suffice to say her narrative voice is lush and rampant in a way only hinted at in earlier pieces. We hear in it not only the cry of a mother, but of a mother confronting the alarming fact of raising daughters in the United States.
Viren’s voice is most lyric and searching in her final piece, a coda written in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. She is shaken but urgent, disconnected and defenseless. Her writing is no less precise, but her psychological movement across the page is pained, clipped, and heartrending. E.M. Forster said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Didion famously said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” But one does not get the sense that Viren is pursuing some revelatory explanation of her own thoughts here. She’s writing about reality—how we know it, how we share it. Mine is the work of a comprehensive and cautious mind, one that has worked to thread its conflicting thoughts together before bringing them to the page, and one that isn’t seeking a discovery so much as a conversation. Viren shows us that trying to own a thing, even a story, even an entire book you’ve written, is often only a way to lose it faster.