Selling the Farm, by Debra Di Blasi. C&R Press, September 2020. 148 pages. $18.00, paper.
Selling the Farm, winner of C&R Press Nonfiction Award, defies traditional notions of genre. This lyrical memoir is a biography of a family farm veiling the autobiography of a writer using craft to locate her family in a place lost to time. The author is hidden in the landscape of her childhood. In the setting of the past, the “I” of the narrator becomes a “we” of a family, including those lost to time and death.
Occasionally, the author enters the present through a confessional voice which resonates strongest when confessing the limits of craft confronting the limits of memory and the written word. To locate her lost family in language, the writer recalls those who lived on the farm: “We’re lost. Though I try so damn hard to find us. I try: Afternoons now on another continent, at the edge of sleep, floating downstream beyond language.” The sense of loss resonates throughout the memoir: the loss of the landscape, the loss of a way of life, the loss of family, the loss of childhood, and the loss of the traditional notion of a memoir’s author protagonist.
The experiment of Selling the Farm defies the push for author platforms in big-press publishing. This quiet experiment is emboldened by context because as a long-standing member of the small-press world, Di Blasi, an award-winning author of eight books, is like many successful small-press literary figures, especially women: celebrated yet largely unknown. Her choice to make the landscape the protagonist of her memoir is ironic, courageous, and bittersweet because it allows the artist to recede into her art.
As the landscape takes center stage, only by understanding the exquisite nature of the understory of writing the story do we understand the autobiography camouflaged in brutal details of growing up on a farm. There’s something almost biblical about the experiment, a subtle subversive coming-of-age in pastoral tapestry. As nonfiction, the language attempts to resurrect the dead through fragmented poetic prose that captures the grit of life through images of dead cows chained and dragged by tractors to be burned in old tires doused in gasoline in a landscape of saving and killing where winter calves are carried into the kitchen for warmth.
Intricate details bear witness, proving the family farm is real and alive, though in the past. In contemporary times, when family farms are endangered creatures relegated to Americana and the mythology of rural lore, there’s something deeply political in attempting to resurrect a family farm that has been sold. Di Blasi’s lyric detail reveals a deeper theme of wisdom gained through adult judgement on a childhood world passed away. The exploratory nature of hindsight allows memory to reclaim what has been lost to capitalism, to hardship, to death, to time:
We pulled the wings off flying grasshoppers to make miniature geisha fans. We crushed the abdomens of lightning bugs to make jewelry that glowed in the dark. We popped ticks swollen with dog’s blood, or impaled them on needles and held a match under them until they launched sputtering like tiny rockets aimed toward a farther world. A world where children grew to understand that every hapless thing needn’t cede its right to live to a child’s boredom.
In a setting of fields, cattle, outhouses, and coyotes, landscape is primary to the cultural concerns of the book, but time is even more present as a force: “Seasons tangled between famine and feast, sex and birth. Dying, last on the list, checked off in a pencil of ash.” Place and time come together in a rural setting to reveal a culture so far away that it that now seems quaint, when the narrator’s childhood friend was “from town,” when families lived and worked on their own farms. Recreating a place lost to time, the narrator says, “I cannot tell you how often I dream I’m trying to get back home. I cannot tell you because I cannot remember.” Despite the dangers of sentimentality, Selling the Farm dares to render great sentiment without ever making the mistake of becoming sentimental because “thinking back on who I was then [and who I’ve remained] I recall my superb talent for finding a silver lining in every shale clod or cloud of dust.”
Ever turning on itself, the memoir questions moments of grace, asking what good it is to save a pig when that pig is sold to slaughter a year later? Allowing insight through introspection while resisting the sentimental lessons in hardship, Di Blasi’s craft and control as a writer accomplish a rare feat, given the author’s close connection to the subject, the self that changes with time. Sorrow is inseparable from joy, and moments of the cruelty lead to grace through present insight as Di Blasi reveals “I cannot take back the killing of a creature or who I believed myself to be then, in ways I no longer believe … just as for the time being I was being myself. And then wasn’t.”
Di Blasi’s elegant prose is full of precision and complexity, weaving an implied narrative of personal experience through concrete details rather than standard devices of plot and scene. With a poet’s eye and a memoirist’s dedication to the finest details, Selling the Farm is an elegy to the lost—a way of life, a father, a sister, a childhood, a culture, a farm. As farm animals like birds and cows and coyotes and pigs take on meanings of mortality and morality, conflicting desires take flight, the desire to return home and the desire to be free from the confines of the past as the narrator calls to the power of language and memory: “Let me feel the coarseness under my skin right before something out there—spangled and tantalizing—catches a high bird’s eye, and I take flight.”
A Midwestern farm contains an entire world disappeared through time and recaptured through the language. Showing a glimpse behind the curtain of a memoirist’s artistic vision and craft, Selling the Farm reveals memory is revision. To write about the past is to recreate it. To remember is to edit. The memoirist writes and rewrites until the past is narrative shaped by a writerly gaze. “How we edit our lives. Nothing wrong with that” Di Blasi reveals, showing edited lives are a vital part of memory’s echo.
Aimee Parkison is the author five books of fiction, including Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, which won the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. Parkison has been published in numerous literary journals. She is full Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University. Find out more at aimeeparkison.com.