With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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We recently received the letter below from Jeri Becker Nager, who has been published eight times in Readers Write and is a longtime friend and reader of the magazine. Jeri served twenty-four years of a life sentence for murder in California, though she never killed anyone. (She was present when her boyfriend killed a man in a drug deal.) She recovered from her addiction in prison, taught other inmates to read, became a published author, and was an all-around model prisoner until she was paroled in 2003. Due to a job-related injury, she is currently unable to work and is without income. Her address is P.O. Box 1575, Forestville, CA 95436.
These are the most difficult times I have ever experienced, bar none. After my release from prison, I lived very frugally, working two jobs. Then, in October 2009, I injured my right arm waiting tables at a restaurant. The surgery was scheduled for five months after the injury. Workmen’s compensation didn’t even cover my rent. So I dipped into my savings and paid for things on credit when necessary.
As it turned out, the surgery was unsuccessful. Within days I was in severe pain. I had a second surgery, but the pain was still bad enough to prevent me from going back to work. By that time my savings were exhausted, and my credit was shot.
A friend who works a physically taxing job for $8.50 an hour has been sending me her “extra” income each month to help me squeak by, but the wolves at the door are howling. I am getting food stamps, which is demoralizing to me. Absolutely broke, I am haunted day and night by debts I cannot pay, and I have been told that my injury will not get any better.
I am looking for work that does not require use of my right arm, but the options are few, the competition is fierce, and the competitors are much younger than I am. I have no family. I have no income at all. So, as hard as it is, I must ask for help.
The Sun has always felt like family to me, and I am hoping some of your readers will be kind enough to help me through this.
As a fierce young black woman in the sixties, I devoured James Baldwin’s work. Four decades later, coming across the excerpt from “Sonny’s Blues” in the Dog-Eared Page [March 2011] was like reading it for the first time: the power and beauty, the imagery and depth of his . . . musicwords. This piece alone makes my subscription worthwhile.
I subscribe to The Sun for its exploratory, unpretentious, and brave fiction and nonfiction. After yet another issue that features Alison Luterman’s poetry, however [“Love Shack,” March 2011], I can no longer justify keeping my subscription.
The Sun’s originality is undermined by its evident determination to publish the same authors repeatedly. Luterman relies heavily on the Aristotelian narrative: action, reaction, catharsis; poem over. The writing certainly doesn’t honor poetry’s implicit commitment to render visible obscure human emotion.
I’ve been reading The Sun for a decade now, and I rejoice when I see Alison Luterman’s name. There’s something about her writing that always makes me want to dance. Her poem “Love Shack” stunned me into a silent reverie of gratitude — for her, for words, for the man who’s been my husband now for five months, for all the glory and pain he and I have yet to share.
To Jessica Dur I say thank you, and to Elizabeth Sanger I say that I am sorry if my poems offend or annoy you. Please believe me: there is no “Aristotelian” ulterior motive; there is nothing but a woman trying to write as well as she can at this particular moment.
In the March 2011 Correspondence I was struck by Susan McKnight’s strong disapproval of Jane Ratcliffe’s short story “What Do You Need?” [December 2010]. I went back and reread the story to see if McKnight was right that it was neither “thoughtful” nor “uplifting.”
I have to disagree. The narrator’s loneliness after a divorce, her attraction to a younger man with a girlfriend and a baby, her shock that the man would have a tattoo of a woman in bondage — all are thoughtful and candid experiences. In the end Ratcliffe’s protagonist gets the attractive and willing young man as far as her bed but declines to have casual sex with him. I find the conclusion uplifting in the way that so many contributions to The Sun are.
When McKnight’s daughters begin reading the subscriptions to The Sun that she gave them, I think they may feel less appalled than she is at the gritty language and real-life situations in its pages. Yes, I sometimes wonder whether too much space is given each month to the seedy underbelly of modern life, but as Thomas Hardy said many years ago, “If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst.”
I just started my first job out of graduate school, and I’ve been looking for ways I can save money to pay off my loans. I thought about canceling all my magazine subscriptions, but Linda McCullough Moore’s short story “World Enough and Time” [March 2011] convinced me to keep my subscription to The Sun. The story was impossible to put down, even though I dislike reading, thinking, or talking about death. The conclusion, so unexpected and beautifully executed, left my face wet with tears I never saw coming.
I didn’t realize that Poe Ballantine’s “Under the Moonflower Tree” [November 2010] was an essay until I read the letters responding to it in the February issue. I had assumed it was a short story in which a flawed character struggles to assimilate his guilt and regret into his perception of himself. In a fictional character we expect flaws and struggle, and we hope for growth and positive change. But if the “character” is a real person, writing about real experiences, we judge. Reading the letters criticizing Ballantine helped me see how utterly unrealistic our expectations of one another are.
Brian Doyle’s short prose piece “The Hawk” [February 2011] is a tiny literary jewel that I will share with as many friends and acquaintances as possible. The story he tells gives me great comfort and validates my belief in the potential for good in the world.
It is clear in Robin Romm’s short story “Higher Learning” [February 2011] that we are meant to perceive the main character as a clueless jerk: His “usual dates” have “defensiveness flickering in their eyes.” He had affairs when married, then accused his wife of not trusting him. He imagines that he can wake up his idealistic daughter (or at least “muddy the waters a bit”) by informing her that “the soybeans in her tofu are genetically modified.” When his daughter informs him that she wants to join the Peace Corps, he conjures up a picture of her “digging trenches and hauling buckets in an arid country.”
What isn’t clear is why The Sun would want to publish this story, or why the author would choose such a flat, clichéd male stereotype as her protagonist.
I enjoyed reading Saint James Harris Wood’s essay “Saving Danny James” [February 2011]. I was moved by the author’s refusal to buy into the prison mentality that surrounded him and by his compassion for his fellow inmate.
After reading the letters in the February 2011 Correspondence about the Chip Berlet interview on the Tea Party [“Brewing Up Trouble,” by David Barsamian, November 2010], I realize why The Sun gives me such a rush when it arrives in my mailbox: your readers are not just from many different states but also from many different states of mind.
I just finished Brenda Miller’s beautifully crafted essay “The Burden of Bearing Fruit” [January 2011], and I’m surprised by the emotion her writing elicited in me. I too, have found comfort and companionship in plants, especially trees, which have an imposing presence that invites a personal relationship, particularly when they are near one’s house.
At the close of her piece, when she describes the feelings of watching the felling of her beloved Rainier cherry, I laid the magazine aside and cried, transported to a place and time when I, too, had lost a dear and cherished friend.
On a flight from Miami to Boston, I was catching up on back issues of The Sun when I happened upon David James Duncan’s “my heart went out” [December 2010]. I only barely managed to keep from bursting into tears on the plane. This is the danger, and the pleasure, and the reason for reading The Sun: you never know when you’re going to be blindsided by something so real and so human.