Creative Nonfiction Mag Shines With Diverse and Powerful Voices
One might already know about Brevity’s place in the literary world, the fact that they’ve been at it for nearly two decades and have published many luminaries in the course of sharing their vision of nonfiction with the world, but one would probably still be surprised (and excited) to see a nonfiction essay by Roxane Gay, “Black in Middle America” starting off the latest issue.
The essay is a revelation, at once measured and explosive, showing in detail what POC deal with by simply being alive in the Midwest, Gay’s existence either serving as amusement in largely-Finnish Upper Peninsula, Michigan or as an affront to decency in Central Indiana. She charts her incursions with overt and covert racism across four paragraphs, the first three related to whichever town she was living in at the time with the fourth serving as a way of bringing it all together. It deals with loneliness, intimacy, and the nature of home in such a confined space, and it does so with ease. The story is structurally sound without calling attention to itself, which should be all but expected from Gay at this point in her career. While a whole review could be devoted to Gay’s piece, it will have to remain a paragraph for our purposes.
Brevity shares a variety of voices and distinct styles with its pieces, as evidenced by Christina Tang-Bernas’ “\’in-glish\.” The writer charts her relationship with the English language from age two to adulthood, making a mental list of rules she needs to follow: “More rules to memorize. ‘Saaa-mon,’ I repeated to myself. ‘Not salmon.’ ‘I-earn,’ not ‘I-ron.’ ” She speaks to the universality of social anxiety through the lens of her Chinese culture, preferring drafting emails instead of making calls. The piece ends rapturously: “I wanted to disagree with her. But I couldn’t find the right words, and it would’ve looked silly writing it down, so instead I nodded. Much easier this way.”
There’s a strong air of social justice breathing through Brevity’s latest issue, as evidenced by pieces such as “A Pop Quiz for White Women Who Think Black Women Should Be Nicer to Them in Conversations about Race” by Deesha Philyaw. Ingeniously structured as a multiple choice/true or false quiz, this essay tackles intersectionality in a way that’s as humorous as it is infuriating:
I don’t know the historical origins of whiteness, but I am qualified to say what Black women need to do and am well informed about Black women’s lived experiences because:
1. I know about sexism.
2. I’m a good person.
3. I’m an anti-racist ally.
4. I have curly, hard-to-tame hair.
5. My BFF in undergrad was Black.
This theme of otherness recurs in an understated look at identity and cultural assimilation called “What You Are” by Katelyn Hemmeke. It takes a similar form as Philyaw’s piece, this one told in the format of a list. The piece quietly and beautifully tells the story of a young Korean woman who was adopted into an American family at birth. It hones in on small images and moments that tell a greater tale of cultural isolation: finding her original Korean name on the bracelet she wore at birth, said bracelet sitting in the junk drawer--”2. Things you cannot find in a junk drawer: A whole culture. An entire language. A face that looks like yours.” The image of white girls made up to appear Asian for a production of The King and I--”a. I asked the director if I had to do that. 'Well, no. You already have… authentic beauty,' he stammered.” It’s pieces like these that exemplify what Brevity does well (and what writers would do well to heed for submissions): the power of a single image, showing over telling, and taking unique, divergent avenues to tell universal stories.
There’s a visceral honesty to the pieces you’ll find at Brevity, taking you back to forgotten times and childhood haunts that bring up long submerged memories. I’m thinking specifically of Sean Thomas Dougherty’s “Toledo, Ohio 1977,” with lines like “Once Victor’s mother the nurse bandaged his hand while smacking him in the head repeatedly for being so stupid, burned by an M80 he didn’t toss fast enough. We were always daring things to explode in our hands,” followed up with, “And we were all the shards of shiny things, black pieces of coal pressed to diamonds in the pale Ohio light.”
Brevity focuses on the specific, the cutting details that drive a story home. If there were ever a place that subscribed to the “show don’t tell” camp, Brevity is it.
Featuring a variety of writers at varying points in their careers and evoking the specific voices that make for great stories, Brevity does nonfiction like few other places do. It’s a haven for writers who revere voice and craft above all else.