When you think about essays written about the body, the possibilities are endless. There are so many body parts and countless experiences of them by women and men, straight people and gay, transgendered folk, people giving away a part, people gaining a part. Several of these possibilities are covered in the twenty essays of In the Flesh.
The collection begins with Julian Gunn's "Reading Faces." He's a transman which means he was born female and now identifies as male. A friend of Gunn's, a PHD student in forensic anthropology and also a transman, is curious about whether the facial bone structure of transmen is altered by the use of testosterone. Gunn becomes part of this non-medical research in Victoria, British Columbia. In his essay, Gunn reflects on aging faces, those of his fellow Masters' students and his grandmother's face with its delicate skin, veins and arteries showing "as a blue and pink iridescence that reminds me of abalone."
I was surprised to see "My Vagina" written by Andre Alexis, a man. This is a daring, provocative and sensual essay as he describes the vagina through his five senses.
Merilyn Simonds writes about the penis in "Twenty Questions: (Eight really. It's never as long as you think)." Hers is a more humorous recounting of her experience with boys and men.
Heather Kuttai, in "My Womb Works," writes of surviving a motor vehicle accident as a six-year-old that resulted in a spinal cord injury. She's now an adult and a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. Miraculously, Kuttai is the mother of two children. A doctor told Kuttai, "Don't worry. Your uterus knows what to do," when she was giving birth. She writes, "It [my womb] occupies the very centre of me. It helped to heal a broken girl who was desperately searching for her purpose and identity. It is true that my womb gave life to my children, but it also gave a new life to me, the chance to be reborn with a new sense of self."
Brian Brett, a poet, memoirist and farmer, has contributed "Cage of Bones," a fascinating exploration of the "remarkable instrument" of bone. He tells of his own painful journey with a rare disease called Kallmann syndrome and includes some remarkable history. We don't think of it often but "burnt bone, or bone ash, is used in the creation of the semi-luminous bone china now ubiquitous in our culture, though it was invented only a little more than two hundred years ago as a pseudo form of Chinese porcelain." Brett is a knowledgeable storyteller and as such tells a Chinese folk story about a potter, famous for his blue glazes, who by happenstance created the legendary oxblood glaze.
I thought Susan Olding was cheating as her essay is about her father, a pathologist, who developed a rare blood disorder called Waldenstrom's macroglobulinemia. Her essay is a poignant one as she describes their relationship as her father's health deteriorates and as they connect again after some silence. We inherit our blood type from our parents the writer notes. Also: "Curiosity, determination, pleasure in discovery, a knack for finding patterns—they're in the blood."
Stephen Gauer contributed a heart-wrenching essay, "The Frankenstein Syndrome or Giving Away the Body," on giving his left kidney to his granddaughter.
I found each essay as unique as the body is to each individual. All were candid, entertaining and immensely informative. What an amazing approach to memoir through the lens of the miracles of the body.
Kathy Page's seven novels include The Story of My Face, long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002; Alphabet, shortlisted for a Governor General's Award in 2005; and The Find, shortlisted for the 201l ReLit Novel Award. Visit her website.
Lynne Van Luven has edited four previous anthologies including Nobody's Mother: Life Without Kids. She is the Associate Dean of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) where she teaches journalism and creative non-fiction. Read more on the University's website.
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