I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
February 1, 2021: Toni Jensen
Years before Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land was written, Toni Jensen’s childhood best girlfriend commented on social media, “You know, I’m part Kiowa.” In the fourth essay of the book, “Give and Go,” Toni writes,
Of course, I objected to the language, the ‘part.’ Which part? The back of the left knee? The curve of the right ankle? The crook of an elbow? How many ways do we carve ourselves up and portion out our parts, our bodies for other people’s comfort… My childhood best girlfriend was Kiowa, and I am Métis, and we grew up together in a mostly white town…
Language matters. Toni was born to a Catholic mother and a Native father. She defines Métis by way of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as “the offspring of an American Indian and a person of European ancestry.” She adds her own definition. “From within, then, being Métis is about land and people and belonging.”
Toni’s references in essay after essay to Webster’s underscore the importance of language. And the dictionary also works as an anchor in this book that rises up out of the past into this moment in America that holds so much violence–gun violence, racial violence, violence to the land, violence to the body, domestic violence, domestic terrorism. Each of these essays is also grounded in place and could be titled as such–the Bakken in North Dakota; Audubon County, Iowa; Vermillion, South Dakota; Kingman, Arkansas; Valentine, Nebraska; Saint Paul, Minnesota… Toni has practiced this going her whole life. But to have used the names of places as titles would be to suggest that these violences are limited to these places.
[P]erhaps it doesn’t matter in the end what you call this sort of everyday American violence. But simplifying violence like this, demoting it down to the world of the domestic, is a lessening, a looking away.
In this memoir called Carry, Toni insists on the word and its meanings. To carry a gun. To carry a baby. To carry it all with me. When they came to carry her home.
To memorialize correctly, language matters.
Priyanka Kumar, in her New York Times review of Carry, writes
In “Carry,” Jensen scours language to find a new way of writing about how historical injustices seep into the present, and how the politics of racism and neglect poison bodies (Flint, Mich.) or choke them (police brutality)… Her statistics on the American contagion of domestic violence (which she lived through at home), gun violence (which she skirted in the neighborhoods she lived in) and mass shootings (which one of her students experienced) anchor an unsettling account that creeps into your bones.
Toni teaches in the MFA programs at the University of Arkansas and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a 2020 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the NEA. She is also the author of the short story collection From the Hilltop (Native Storiers: A Series of American Narratives). You can watch Toni read from Carry and in conversation with Pam Houston as part of Writing by Writers’ Readings by Writers series.
Stay well and…
Come back on FEBRUARY 1st to read how TONI JENSON spends her days.