To understand Donald Quist’s Harbors you must read it as a map.
A collection of essays describing a life spent between the suburbs of Washington DC to his father’s homeland in Kenya, a government job in South Carolina to his ultimate expatriation in Bangkok, Quist’s Harbors redraws locations halfway across the world into a single country. This act of mapping is, for Quist, an act of self-creation. A necessary act in the face of a “home” that refuses to grant him full inclusion. The writer Wendell Berry once said that every person is an ecosystem and Quist’s essays follow that line of thought, positing the self as a location. Quist’s essays describe his process of untangling himself from the racial and nationalistic archetypes drawing invisible lines over America. A palimpsestic geography that layers history over locations so that ethereal laws cordon the landscape. Creating places where he cannot go. Establishing oppressive rules of etiquette for speaking, eating and acting that he is required to oblige if he is to “belong”. Quist’s essays confront this; they ask why he must, in order to belong to his “home”, no longer belong to himself.
In response to this, Quist’s essays chart a cartographical bildungsroman that creates geographies of belonging that he has, by necessity, created in tandem with an ecosystem of self that supports them all. His maps are a counterpoint to the complacent mind, drawn after a careful study of a racialized American infrastructure. His book is a memoir in pieces. A map that is an idea of home that he pursues but never fully captures. A collection that reads as a performative utterance that is itself Quist’s continual process of arrival. His essays are as much a challenge to the current social model as a case study for how people of color must navigate a system that has never been intended to include them.
Quist often meticulously catalogs his writing with subtitles, numbers and letters. Rarely is there a single block of unqualified text. The organization is a larger gesture of building that one finds throughout the collection. To what end does America organize itself? To what purpose? Much of what Quist describes as the current mapping is a mold that very few people fit into. Those that don’t are cast off, ignored. But Quist talks about a different way of being that seeks out and cares for the discarded that he learned from his late-grandmother, Thelma. The essay “Till Next Time, Take Care Of Yourselves And Each Other” finds truth and social responsibility in Jerry Springer, Thelma’s favorite show. What everyone sees is not what is; the empty spots on a map invalidate its veracity. Thelma’s coarse, vulgar outward appearance hides a moral truth of deep care and awareness of others. At her funeral, he realizes that it is her strong sense of self that kept her from being vilified by the hypocrisy of those who denigrated her outward appearance and allowed her to remain focused on caring for the people whose criticized her; people who others would disregard or forget. “I had made a mistake believing,” Quist writes, “that some had earned a holy right to cast aspersions on others, wrong in supposing one could ascertain another person’s value through secondhand knowledge or brief glimpses into their lives.”
He expands this idea to the larger dismissal of black Americans, specifically how they have become a sacrificial people to resolve an unaddressed identity crisis for many white Americans. In “The Animals We Invent”, Quist, formerly a public information officer in a small town in South Carolina, describes deep-seated prejudices against the black community when a white business owner physically assaults herself and sets her debt-stricken business on fire, claiming two black men were to blame. In the town, the two suspects are referred to as “animals”, not people but animals. The police sketches of the two men haunt Quist, follow him to public places. Waiting for his coffee one morning, the barista warns him: “The boys they’re looking for look a lot like you.” Two police officers stop him as he leaves work one night. His title doesn’t prevent him from being stopped because he bears a striking resemblance to a phantom. Despite owning a restaurant with his wife and being a government official, he recognizes that no matter how much he attains, to many in the town, he will always be reducible to the grandson of a slave and he will always be in the wrong part of town.
When Quist decides to expatriate to Bangkok he hopes to move “beyond the classification of my race and nationality… move beyond the limits of myself.” His wife, a native Thai, reminds him that in Thailand there will be “different debts, new prejudices, and oppressive social constructs and hierarchies.” But, Quist responds, “over there he might also experience new freedom” (54). He means a new map, where the borders are not lined with minefields. The second half of the book opens with “Cartography”, a travel essay that leads the reader through Bangkok. Mostly directions and images, the essay feels cathartic. Quist knows deeply of his space in America, but Thailand? Bangkok? He knows nothing. What he knows of Thai culture and language quickly becomes flummoxed. His wife, so long out of the country, can’t really explain it to him. Her “home”, in many ways, is as foreign to her as it is to him. “She has her own questions,” writes Quist. “You’ll have to try to find your own answers. And you both may never find out why.” The most revealing direction comes last though as Quist approaches the shrine of an unknown god, an unknown country and instructs us (and himself) to “Press your palms together in respect for what you don’t know.” But lack of knowledge, for Quist, becomes a welcome boon.
In “Dogs In The Kingdom”, he describes being bit by a feral dog and seeking medical attention when his treatment is interrupted by the Thai king passing through the hospital. His medicine is on the other side of the building, which is blocked by lines of employees obediently prostrating before the king as he floats past with a “leather strap…fastened to the collar of the dog that bit me… Her nose and eyes have changed, but I know it is her.” In saying this, Quist returns to the prejudices underlying his earlier usage of the word “animals”. One that, he’d previously noted, was applied thoughtlessly and maliciously. The word, in this new cartography he creates, must be re-defined. Did the people who decided that black men were “animals” understand what they said when they used the word? Perhaps not. Perhaps, hints Quist, they had some base, simplistic understanding of what an animal is. Perhaps those who speak out of this same ignorance (deeply influenced by a socio-historical system that they have failed to even pierce the surface of) call a human being something that doesn’t even exist to explain a far more sordid fear of themselves.
While the first half of the book described his coming-of-age in America, the second half describes his expatriation to Thailand as a space where he can examine the systematic racism he experienced in his “home” country. In “I’ll Fly Away: Notes On Economy Class Citizenship”, he says that in Thailand he finally knows what it must feel like to be white, to be unbothered by silent structures of oppression. “I can’t imagine a Thai person calling me nigger or an Oreo,” he writes. “They see I am black, but the white gaze does not pock my skin. My blackness is not determined by what it is not.” Leaving America, notes Quist, leaves him “free to invent myself… I can build my own narrative.”
Quist doesn’t write of an emergence from hardship and oppression to a glorious apotheosis from his past. America provided and still provides no such thing for him. But from Thailand he has space and time to turn and study his origins. Reconciliation is not the purpose. Nor is self-fulfillment an option. However, self-fidelity is. When a word like “citizen” is applied to an American person of color who endures the negation of this citizenship in the very way in which their fellow citizens treat them, to paraphrase Claudia Rankine, there is no home. The self must emerge from something else. As it is given, the world has no logical sustenance or order. A life lived in such absurdity must be drawn in a very different way.
Quist led me into the minefield. He showed me how differently the world is shaped for an “economy class citizen” and how an ecosystem of the self is so essential for a person of color. He mixed humor and hubris, sympathy and rage until what came to the forefront was a human being terra incognita. He unfolded a map that I’d always thought I knew and taught me how to read it.
Harbors was published by Awst Press on September 22, 2016. Go to awst-press.com for more information.
About the reviewer:
Nick Hilbourn teaches special needs youth and lives in an intentional community of educators in Pennsylvania. His writing most recently appears in Apeiron Review, Modern Poetry Quarterly Review, Defenestration, Stoneboat Literary Review and Brain of Forgetting. He writes film and TV essays for HeadStuff.org. Contact him on Twitter, @nhilbourn
About the author:
Donald Quist is a writer and English lecturer living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is the author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich and the nonfiction collection Harbors (fall 2016). His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cleaver, Knee-Jerk, The Adroit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, Slag Glass City, Publishers Weekly and other print and online publications. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize and a winner of the E.L. Doctorow and Peter Matthiessen Authors Competition from the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. He is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast and serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He received a fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction and earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.