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Category Archives: Autobiography

Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wildness by Andrea Ross (CavanKerry Press)

Unnatural Selection: A Memoir of Adoption and Wildness by Andrea Ross (CavanKerry Press)

Andrea Ross’s Ploughshare’s article “A Feminist Look at Edward Abbey’s Conservationist Writings” details the way that Abbey sexualizes the landscape in his many writings of the American Southwest, taking a racist and misogynist approach to the wild world. Ross has a complex relationship with the natural world of the west as a former ranger and current English professor. She often works with writers of this area, people like Abbey, Jack Kerouac, and Kenneth Rexroth, so I was excited to see her take on the landscape, how she would use it in this memoir about finding her birth family while trying to find a home within the natural world. What she finds in her relationship to the land is exceptional. Ross, unlike these other writers, is able to see the natural world as a place of rest; in her long journey to find her birth parents and herself, she finds home in nature.

     While Unnatural Selection is in large part about her journey through the bureaucracy caused by laws that seal the records of adoptees and their birth parents even when everyone involved wants to connect, the center of it is Ross’s search for a place where she belongs, a home. She tries to find this through other people, and through various careers outdoors, but underneath the surface of all of this is an awareness that she is learning where she belongs in this wild world. An early boyfriend asks her to find it through adventures in the backcountry, most notably in mountain and rock climbing. She feels as though she should because the people she admires seem excited about it. Unfortunately, the danger of it just doesn’t thrill her, and she abandons this sport and with it, the boyfriend. She tries to share it with people in her life. When she is a ranger at the Grand Canyon, she tries to show her adopted mother the beauty of the canyon floor and the two of them explore the domestic ruins of the Native Americans who lived there. What she is doing as she proceeds in this journey is finding not only where she belongs but how she belongs in the wild, what her role is. She is not someone who seeks adventure or domination of it in the way that Abbey describes. She wants to be a part of it.

     Her journey toward a complete family that includes her adoptive parents and siblings and her birth parents and siblings is no less compelling than her discovery of nature. It is, however, a much more difficult journey and contrasts with her treks to the wild world because it is so unnatural. She has to deal with artificial laws that separate one of the most important relationships of a person’s life. While her mother certainly wants privacy in the beginning when she is an unwed teenage mother, that desire turns on itself, and she begins to feel a need for closeness to her missing child. Ross too benefits from the adoption, gaining a family that loves her, but that doesn’t mean that the rift between parents and child needs to be permanent. The search is long and unnecessarily difficult even though she has a genetic disease that she wants to understand more fully. 

     Ross’s journey and her pain are shared by many people who have gone through the adoptive process. Unnatural Selection is the kind of book that lets people who have been dismissed and not listened to about an emotion they are living with that they are not alone. Her book gives us a way forward in a world that often feels hostile.

John Brantingham 16th May 2021

Iain Sinclair’s 70 X 70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 films

Iain Sinclair’s 70 X 70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 films

(King Mob, 2014) http://king-mob.net/

Ian Sinclair’s selection of 70 films in celebration of his 70th birthday, based on films related to the locations and enthusiasms of his life, constitutes a kind of accidental novel in its autobiographical journey. Screened in unusual venues across London in the build up towards his birthday they include rare and less well known European art cinema and British films. There are films related to his time at Trinity College, Dublin 1960-1962, film school at Brixton, films that he has made, including those related to his books, and films connected to those parts of London, which have fuelled his obsessions. His sense of London’s geography was constructed through finding cinemas, and there are extracts from the most recent films shot outside London.

The book’s format consists of Sinclair’s introductory notes to each film, which contextualise its impact on and connections to his life and writing. Orson Welles, Hitchcock, Luis Buñuel, Jean-Luc Godard, Herzog, Fassbinder, Rosselini, Antonioni, Michael Reeves, Patrick Keiller, William Burroughs, the Beats, J.G. Ballard are well featured. There are substantial and illuminating interviews with his collaborators Chris Petit, Susan Stenger, Stanley Schtinter, Andrew Kötting, as well as critic Colin MacCabe, on Godard’s Le Mépris (1963) and the writer of The Long Good Friday (1980), Barrie Keeffe. The Whitechapel Gallery film curator, Gareth Evans, director John Smith and others provide introductory notes to specific films, which with the pages of still photographs enhance the impact of the whole.

The book’s strength lies in the stories behind the films, the quirky manner in which they came to be the way they are as well as the ways the selection adds to the contextualization and interaction with Sinclair’s writing. For example, Muriel Walker, who was part of the crew that made William Dieterle’s Vulcano (1950) and became actress Anna Magnani’s secretary, provides a fascinating insight into Rosselini’s lover and the film’s production. Her photographs and diary from the shoot were featured in Sinclair’s American Smoke.

Of John Brahm’s Hangover Square (1945), loosely based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel and subtitled a tale of Darkest Earl’s Court, he writes:

‘Brahm’s film is a minor classic, a shotgun wedding of
expressionism and surrealism: barrel organs, leering
pawnbrokers, cor-blimey-guv urchins. Linda Darnell
enthusiastically impersonates a knicker-flashing singer
with flea-comb eyelashes and hair in which you could lose a
nest of squirrels. There are two mind-blowing sequences:
the bonfire on which the faithless Netta is incinerated,
while a mob of Ensor devils howl and chant – and the
concerto, when a raving Bone hammers away at a blazing
grand piano.’

As ever, the reader wishes to see the film.

Sinclair refers to Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1979/80), based on Alfred Döblin’s novel, as the pivotal film in the curation, as it is ‘the physical object with the most mystery.’ He writes: ‘For me going to Berlin, quite late on, was an expedition made through the filter of, initially, Döblin’s book and then the film. When I wrote about the labyrinth of memory that is Berlin, in a book called Ghost Milk, it was a tribute to both those works and a way of seeing this city.’

Gareth Evans’ closes the book with an essay ‘On the Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes’ and notes that whilst the curated films map ‘the road taken with wit, idiosyncrasy, combative, collaborative flair and no end of passionate poetry’ they also offer ‘a way forward, posting a typology of possible futures – of multiple spaces, found or made, for the public gaze – for how and why film is seen’. He concludes with a line from Theodore Roethke ‘In a dark time the eye begins to see’.

There is much more to this wonderfully spirited book, not least a description of actor, Toby Jones, possessing the figure of John Clare, and I urge readers of Iain Sinclair and lovers of the possibilities of film to engage with this joyous celebration.

David Caddy 7th December 2014

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