- The Life-Affirming Essay
athens: university of georgia press, 2016. 216pages, cloth, $24.95.
melbourne, australia: vine leaves press, 2016. 74pages, cloth, $9.99.
While Ladies Night at the Dreamland includes personal reflections about Sonja Livingston’s life, it primarily focuses on recreating, imagining, and giving voice to women who have been silenced by history. We speak of women’s history, but it is not so long ago when we felt the urgent need to affirm women’s voices. And we still need to do this—now particularly with regard to writers of color and other marginalized individuals. Nevertheless, both Livingston and I came of age during a time when we learned that we should be “seen but not heard.” Livingston has done a superb job unlearning that adage. Creative nonfiction offers an opportunity to claim women’s voices and histories as our own, and there’s a wonderful lineage that does this, stretching back through Virginia Woolf to feminists such as Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft. There is so much we can do to “overwrite assumptions of absence,” as medievalist Adrienne Boyarin has put it.
Ladies Night at the Dreamland consists of 20 essays bookended by two essays that are both personal and lyric: “The Dreamland” and “Return to the Dreamland.” The first functions to prioritize the dreamlike atmosphere [End Page 203] of the book: we are clearly entering a work of literary nonfiction in which imagination is welcome, as it should be. The inclusive nature of imagination is underutilized in creative nonfiction and is far different from the obfuscation of fact. Distortion of history does not make art; facts do not need to be changed to fit an artistic aesthetic. Livingston participates in none of this kind of sloppiness. Her use of imagination does not change the historical record but heightens its application to contemporary life.
Livingston begins, “In my imagination, it still stands.” The “it” here is both the actual dance hall “out on Ontario’s southern shore” and the more elusive “it” of the women who populate the book.
I conjure them—daredevil and poet, singer, slave and social reformer, misfits and models, and girls snatched away in broad daylight—making use of the old stage, shining a light on each as they saunter by, some in silks and chiffons, others in work clothes and old winter coats.
Livingston’s book becomes “a place of possibility, the Dreamland, where nothing is lost.” While the “Dreamland” was an actual theater, the writer of these essays has the ability “to call out names and listen for voices [she] might recognize.” The conjuring is such that we don’t realize we recognize these voices until Livingston brings forth narration for their long-lost souls. Combined with personal essay, her use of perception and interiority brings to life women of different eras. Some of these essays are story-driven, as for example, “Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie,” about unrequited lesbian love. Others are associative and anecdotal, as for example, “Big,” about “Big Maybelle,” whose “music’s not jazz so much as blues, not blues so much as soul.” Whatever her method, Livingston creates spare and intimate essays that also have great breadth.
One way to read Ladies Night at the Dreamland is with Wikipedia by your side, which is something I did with the essay “The Goddess of Ogdensburg: A Rise and Fall in Seventeen Poses.” With the help of online resources, I wanted to determine the intersection of imagination and history in Livingston’s essay about Audrey Munson:
Miss Manhattan, they call her, as she poses for the greatest sculptors of the day: Isidore Konti, Stirling Calder, Daniel Carter French, Karl Bitter, and [End Page 204] Adolph Alexander Weinman. Not an easy job, standing for hours in drafty rooms, holding poses until the muscles ache, but Audrey works nonstop.
It’s an old story: Audrey used her body to escape poverty. “How quickly a girl can rise and fall. . . . Those years in New York, a flash in the pan—a handful of...