Monday, January 15, 2018

my essay on Wendy S. Walters' Multiply/Divide in Entropy


Multiply/Divide by Wendy S. Walters
Sarabande Books, August 2015
152 pages / AmazonSarabande
Little Caesars arena recently opened in Detroit. And not without controversy. Critics of the project have argued for years that the arena was going to be built on the backs of Detroit taxpayers, while the owners of the project, the Ilitch family, profits millions. In fact, the city contributed over $300 million in tax funds and sold over 30 parcels of land for $1 each for the project. A recent story in the Metro Times, “How the Ilitches used ‘dereliction by design’ to get their new Detroit arena,” reminds readers how the family’s real estate arm spent 15 years buying up the properties in the area and let them sit neglected until they were ready to build. Proponents say nothing that has happened was illegal, and in fact the city has willingly supported the plan all along. But this is one point of impasse in the argument. As residents, visitors, citizens we are told to accept that this is how business works. Developers amass money and political power and the rest of us are supposed to be grateful to pay for their projects and profits. We are told it’s the only solution to the problems of urban decay, or given other limited explanations. But as the Metro Times article points out, neighborhoods surrounding the land bought to sit empty in anticipation of construction have revitalized as part of the recovery, particularly within the downtown and Wayne State University areas.
In Multiply/Divide: On the American Read and Surreal, Wendy S. Walters engages topics including urban development, public housing, multiracial identity, and personal history. Reading Multiply/Divide is a reality-check tour through the spatial layers of contemporary Black and multiracial American experience connected through history. Like some of Ta-Nehisi Coates essays, it continually reminds readers that we can’t separate history out and away from the present, but that knowledge and understanding fluctuate between immediate experience and historical perspective. Walters pushes against the form of the essay as genre, alternating fictional and nonfictional pieces to show how reflection on the contemporary can give us different perspectives on history than we might have had before. She offers a note at the beginning that some of the pieces are journalistic, some are fictional, and some are a combination. The stories and essays are often constructed of layered fragments, connected through theme and personal reflection, and present multiple messages simultaneously across a landscape of description and lingering. In some of the essays, Walters describes walking through her neighborhood in NYC and we get this feeling of a journey that sometimes meanders, in the structure of the writing itself. Even the more journalistic pieces detour through the personal, or expand and contract through historical and contextualizing detail to give us the sense of moving through comprehension. Readers are pulled into the intersections of narrative and reportage in ways that teach us how to exist in multiplicity, or to think more about what that means in every day terms. The title seems to reflect on the expansion and fragmentation of history over time and different ways of conceptualizing the contemporary. As individuals we are multiplied and divided by way of history, personal experience, and cultural narratives, and as we continuously turn our view to see from alternate perspectives the spaces between the real and what comes to feel surreal, blur. The interspersed fictional pieces in Multiply/Divideoffer other perspectives on the truths of our everyday lives, because sometimes fiction can better articulate these. Of course, the boundaries are always subject to shifting and exceeding definition, not unlike the contemporary reality of people trying to survive in the intersections.