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Sunday, April 20, 2014

How to (and How Not to) Write About Spirituality

Posted by on Sun, Apr 20, 2014 at 1:56 PM

(Barbara Ehrenreich reads at Town Hall on Monday April 21 at 7:30 pm. It's $5.)

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Not even 20 pages into Krista Bremer's new book, My Accidental Jihad (Algonquin Books, $24.95), she falls in love with a Libyan immigrant named Ismail. It's a new kind of love for Bremer, the kind that results, apparently, in the slow torture and murder of metaphors: "He was like a deep pool into which I dove without a second thought, not realizing how thirsty I had been," Bremer writes, apparently unsure if she's in the pool to drink or swim or drown.

This is an inauspicious beginning to a memoir about a relationship, and the writing doesn't improve. Bremer loves to accentuate differences, pointing out that Ismail's "foreignness clung to him as persistently as the pungent spices that lingered in his clothes." She notes that the writing in his Arabic books "looked so much to me like a child's pretend game of writing." Even giving her the benefit of the doubt, these observations are painfully obvious and condescending.

At its best, Jihad is a straightforward account of a white American woman's culture clashes with a Muslim man from Libya. Bremer relates some heartbreaking stories, as with Ismail's mother's refrain, "If only I had the tiniest bit of education... I would have been unstoppable." The many observations that aren't overwritten are raw and real. But Bremer falls down when writing about spirituality in the latter half of the book. "My god was a flamboyant and fickle friend with a biting wit who liked a good party," she writes. Maybe she's an adherent of Truman Capoteism? It doesn't get much deeper than that, and finally her struggle is summed up as a bad patch of gardening:

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Hacking away at the faded aftermath of a bygone season, I thought, This is my life, a tangle of half-dead relationships and routines, diminishing pleasures, faded habits, and brittle assumptions. I felt myself fading, felt the enervation of sustaining half-dead branches of myself. And yet I'd been afraid to cut it away, to confront the emptiness...

That emptiness largely remains unchallenged.

Bremer could learn a thing or two on the topic of spiritual writing from Barbara Ehrenreich, whose new Living with a Wild God (Twelve, $26) is partly a memoir and partly a meditation on spirituality.

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