Guidebook to Relative Strangers

In Camille T. Dungy’s summer 2017 memoir, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, the author—a poet of color, professor-lecturer, essayist, editor, wife and mother of young daughter, Callie—explores her various identities through the first few years of Callie’s life. In “Bounds,” an essay which centers around her two-year-old’s progress in singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” Dungy writes of her inability to slow down Callie’s growing, her desire to capture every moment with observation and critical thought. She extends the content of the song—“like a diamond in the sky”—into metaphor, for stars shine brightly even after their death.

“Time is nonlinear within the orbit of the child,” she writes. “At once, and not necessarily in chronological order, [Callie] is a mewling newborn, an eye-locker, a crawler, a bruiser, a babbler, a talker, a proto-adolescent, a power player, a mortal body—and all this time, she holds inside her the eggs that could make her a mother someday…She cannot change, though she is change.” In this passage, Dungy, a new mother, expresses gratitude for, and simultaneously finds frustration in, the passage of time—a concept that every human can relate to despite gender or ethnic background. It is through this theme, a subject as old as time itself, that she finds much kinship with readers of literary and historical nonfiction, ecocriticism, poetry, humor and parenting books alike.

Time asserts itself in all of the 12 essays that make up Guidebook to Relative Strangers. For example, in “Manifest,” Dungy explores how names change with time. Using Callie as her focal point, she writes of impermanence: “I call you Butter Bean because, when you were a newborn package of squirm and gas smiles…you, like three of your great-grandmothers before you, were the color of a butter bean…I call you Argentina because I do not want you to cry…The act of naming you may never end.” Just as Callie grows and adapts, Dungy does as well, weaving in the story of the Brooklyn, an early LDS voyage from New York to San Francisco, for historical perspective. In some ways, this essay is a travel log through time.

Other essays take on another, perhaps darker, approach. “Tales of a Black Girl on Fire: Or Why I Hate to Walk Outside and See Things Burning” excavates how time can often erase history, particularly that of African American history, leaving ghosts and “absorbing all peripheral moonlight.” As Dungy drives into rural land on the outskirts of Appomattox, Virginia for a bonfire “party at a friend’s ancestral farm,” the southern California native, who “from a young age…heard warnings about open fires,” explains that she also “grew up aware of the historical dangers of being black and discovered outside” and as a result “knew to fear fire.” In this short piece—far shorter than many essays in the collection—Dungy juxtaposes the otherworldly “gnarled and night-blackened trees” against the very real lynching parties she knows took place in the Southern woods, perhaps even “on the ground I stood.” Here, Dungy probes regional differences, in regard to culture surrounding fire, as well as “being conditioned to fear…the hand that extended towards me, whiter than ever silhouetted by the fire.”

As Dungy’s book unites all readers with its universal theme of time, it also points out ways we are different with vivid scenes that evoke emotions like compassion instead of shame or guilt. While Dungy and I share a few identities—we are both writers, wives and women in higher education, for example—she reveals many experiences I cannot relate to, such as being black and visiting places like Maine or Alaska, as she discusses in “A Shade North of Ordinary” and “Differentiation.” I have also never been asked to speak for my entire race, an experience she shares in the first essay, “The Conscientious Outsider,” which takes place at a writer’s retreat in northern California. At the core of Guidebook to Relative Strangers, Dungy explores becoming a mother in her late thirties, traveling to speaking engagements all over the globe with Callie on her lap and navigating the world as a “big boned,” eco-conscious African American woman, where space is not always created for her, as seen in the parable-esque short essay “A Good Hike.” Her book makes readers want to carry compassion and become aware of the space they take up in the world as well as the invisibility of others.

In this memoir, Dungy vows to use her eyes and her experiences as a creative writer and educator to show all readers, as well as her daughter, remaining traces of histories erased long ago—all the way from Cape Coast Castle, Ghana to Lynchburg, Va., from Minneapolis to Barrow, Ala. And Dungy does not give up one identity for the other in these pages; she fights against erasing parts of herself to make way for motherhood, the ultimate creator force. She writes, again in “Bounds,” that “To cleave means to separate and to draw together. Language helps me to cleave.” In reading her words, we learn to cleave as well—seeing things as they truly are. 

Emily Hoover is a widely published journalist, poet and fiction writer living in the Southwest. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University in 2015. Her book reviews have been most recently featured in Southern Literary Review, Fiction Writers Review and Ploughshares.

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