Credibility is one of the most important qualities of an effective memoir, yet sometimes the truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.
Tara Caimi, “Privileged Perspective in Memoir”
Among the many things I admire so much in Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Descanco for my Father is the deft handling of dreams and ghosts. More accurately, my admiration rests in Fletcher’s ability to make a case for haunting as a presence within his essays, not as imagined or delusional, but as significant moments of truth-telling. Now, I understand that many readers are likely predisposed to the quick discounting of dreams or ghosts, probably equating ghosts as dreams. Moreover, many are likely to question the credibility of a writer who lays claim to the truth of hauntings. Yet in Descanso, Fletcher makes artful and frequent use of hauntings, and partly because of the technique of his writing and partly because of the force of his reflections, the hauntings exist on the page as equivalent to the “actual” action of the characters.
The first haunting occurs on page 32, in “Among the Broken Angels,” an essay that reveals itself, ultimately, to be framed by the story of Fletcher and his mother traveling to visit graves. These present tense scenes are interspersed with past tense ones, which is where the hauntings happen:
“Sixty miles southeast, in the village of Corrales, Abenicio Perea, my great-grandfather, dozed off in his broad iron bed when a voice whistled into his room.
“Abenicio reached over to shake his wife.
“‘It’s Juan,’ he whispered. ‘Juan Mora'” (32)
In an essay pre-occupied with the nature of spirits, of the fear and desire of connecting with the dead, and with the general concept of hauntings, Fletcher presents this move into the past with the seeming insignificance of verb tense. Charting the opening of the essay, we see the first two sections appear in present tense, the narrative that includes Fletcher and his mother. The third and fourth move into the past, first in telling the story of Mora’s death then in the recounting of his presence after death; the scene above happens in the fourth section. What I find remarkable about this tense shifting is how Fletcher creates a clear and, at the same time, easy-to-miss separation between the experientially known and imaginative reconstruction. That which happens in the past is imagined.
I’ll pause there for a second, having just written that sentence and been struck by its ambiguity. After all, isn’t this the very stuff of memoir: the past is imagined, at least in some ways. Recollection, then, is always partly fabrication, much as we’ve seen in considering Patricia Hampl. The duality of my inadvertent sentence, then, is crucial. The past tense refers to imagined events from the past, which is not to say that imagined recollections are false. Indeed, the ease in which Fletcher slides between present and past tense suggests the closeness of those events. His reliable narration of memoir (the present tense) and reliable recounting of other’s stories (past tense) are read as a continuous line.
But he has chosen to make this differentiation, even as he has chosen to signal it without firm declarations along the lines of, my mother told me a story that goes like this. In fact, the subtlety of that differentiation does much of the work of trust building in the essay (and by trust, I refer to narrative trust: that we believe in the story Fletcher tells, which is the subject of the article by Caimi that I reference as epigraph). By creating an implication of the absolute in the recounting of these stories, Fletcher argues for their validity. But also, notably, by narrating hauntings only through the stories of others (throughout the book), Fletcher retains for himself a credibility most readers would not question. While this isn’t a sentiment I share, more readers are likely to discount a writer who claims to have experienced hauntings than one who recounts, even believes, the stories of others. Certainly, part of the power of this rhetorical move is also born of the facts of experience, since Fletcher has not experienced hauntings of the literal sort, only the desire for them.
Back to tense: consider the way verbs work in signaling the position of narrator in creative nonfiction, particularly in light of the then-now construct of the genre. Essays work because they let writers populate two moments of his or her own narrative experiences, to present “the reader with a view of the story from two perspectives at once” (Caimi 33). Present tense, however, offers only limited space for reflection, because the immediacy of the action prohibits the time necessary to make sense of it. Past tense, in contrast, allows a writer to both narrate and reflect: time has passed between the event and the writing, so narration and reflection can happen together.
Fletcher, then, presents a grounding story that is absent reflection. He is with his mother, experiencing. The stories are the space of reflection and, in fact, the mechanism that will allow him to make sense of his mother’s relationship to death. It is not the act of experience that allows him to reflect. Instead, it is the act of haunting that opens space for him to begin to reckon experience: “When I stand among those identical white markers laid as tight as false teeth, I’m numb to my emotions. But here, among the broken angels, I feel all the sorrow and love I’ve tried so hard to summon for him” (34). It is only through the combination of experience (present) and family story (the haunted past) that Fletcher can begin to access the emotional core that drives this journey.
As always, I am struck by essays that intersect formal structural decisions with emotional impact. And that’s precisely what Fletcher delivers in this essay and in the collection in general. On one hand, the move between tenses is a way for him to signal the two braids of an essay. But on the other, it opens up space to invite readers into the same position where he finds himself near the end of this essay: “I stand stock-still, straining to hear it, or feel it, a presence in the land, a current of spirit and memory from which we can draw to fill the spaces within” (43).
As readers and writers, that’s a position of openness to which we should all aspire.