Imaginary Dinner Party, Part One

By Lynn Crawford

It starts at home, an open space at the top of a tall, sturdy ladder. Books fill the floor-to-ceiling shelves that stand between my sink and loft bed. The volumes are alphabetized, dust-free, dog-eared, and filled with notes written in margins and on inserted slips of paper.  

I need more shelves, so invite my builder to make them.

He (tall, sunburned, beautiful) climbs the ladder, takes measurements, and listens to ideas about new construction. Before leaving he says, “It sounds like books are your friends.”

They are.
He noticed.
I love him.

We don’t speak during his time crafting and erecting shelves and repairing ladder rungs.
Yet, his presence helps me think.
Books are my friends. But does that blind me to what else they can be?
My treatment of them (the reading, dusting, and organizing) feels like love.

But is it?

To find out, I arrange various settings of medicinal hospitality and invite specific volumes.
I call them dinner parties, but please don’t worry.

They are not fantasy gatherings with outfits, meals, time travel and guests fluidly joining in, exiting and entering their book volumes.

My term respects word origins.

Dinner, from an Old English term that means, breaking a fast.

Party, from a Latin word meaning share.

The concepts, together, identify a strategy and goal: To question my book engagement communally.

One more thing. A solid investigation relies on transparency. Easier said, most times, than done—we all bury things for reasons. I must make clear from the start: I believe books are touch. I believe books are bodies.

It will take several sessions to unpack what these two volumes have to offer. How to do them justice, separately and together? Best would be conversation. With a mix of friends and strangers. Bursts of truncated sentences and unformed thoughts—this is how discovery happens, through long, exhilarating/irritating/memorable evenings when everyone feels comfortable experimenting. Say things they don’t mean or are unsure of. Argue, agree, refine. Make mistakes. Check facts and dates and quotes. Eat, drink, fall in and out of love. Arrange separate private meetings and new group gathering dates.

This IDP is not that. It is personal, solemn, strictly between the book volumes and me. Its process and results are documented. Including mistakes. Which, clearly, will all be mine.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
By Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013
Botanist, professor, mother, scientist, activist, and enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is “to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge in support of our shared goals of environmental sustainability.”
Things: A Story of the Sixties
By Georges Perec
Grove Press, 1967
Translated from the French by Helen Lane
[Les choses, 1965, Éditions Julliard]
French novelist, filmmaker, documentarian, and essayist Georges Perec was known for his formally complex works that focus on ordinary, everyday minutiae that often go unnoticed. He was affiliated with the mainly French group of writers known as Oulipo, a “workshop of potential literature.”

Under Stories

I write from a sense of reciprocity with the Anishinaabe teachings that had been shared with me by people and plants.
Robin Wall Kimmerer

Question your teaspoons.
Georges Perec

Both authors examine ways humans navigate landscapes (Kimmerer, our planet; Perec, modern urbanity). Both acknowledge the political and economic formations that structure those environments and life. Both offer accounts of loss and possibility.

Kimmerer writes “ response to longing in Indigenous communities that our philosophy and practices be recognized as guidance to set us back on the path of life.”

The bodies of knowledge she refers to are composed of interlocking, non-hierarchical components. “Our stories from the oldest days talk about the time when all beings shared a common language—thrushes, trees, mosses and humans.”

Earth elements are not segmented because everything needs—and is linked to—everything.

Perec’s novel, Things: A Story of the Sixties, is packed with specifically-segmented (lonely?) objects, systems, and people. Set in Paris and Sfax, Tunisia, it is an account of the vacancies that seep into modern life.

His characters Jerome and Sylvie, a married Parisan couple, have university educations, jobs, apartments, and social networks. Their lives are foggy. “They did not like their work; could they have liked it? But they did not dislike it a great deal either.”  

Their landscapes are rooms, furniture, streets, offices, cafes, and shops. Life should be rewarding (it’s what they worked toward!) but it’s not. Specific unremarkable elements of the everyday (Perec himself was well-informed from his years as a market research analyst) are described with the kind of detail and momentum that invites suspicion—not unlike the slow yet unrelenting pace of stories set in a haunted town or house. Something is off, but what?

“They lived in a strange and shimmering world, the bedazzling universe of a market culture, in prisons of plenty, in the bewitching traps of comfort and happiness.”

Choices are seemingly everywhere, but not.

“They thought it was happiness they were inventing in their dreams…But what they were, when they came down to it, was alone, stationary and a bit hollow.”

Jerome and Sylvie face malaise, not bodily assault, incarceration, or poverty. They are not torn from their land nor home or subjected to mass slaughter. They do not need to learn a new language. They marry, work, socialize, consume, and carry on. But they are dis-eased.

“They had free time; but time was also working against them. There were bills for gas, electricity and the telephone that had to be paid. Every day they had to eat. They had to have clothes, they had to redecorate, change the sheets, take the washing to the laundry, get shirts ironed, buy shoes, catch the train, buy furniture.”

Their murky condition illustrates precisely what Kimmerer cautions against when she says: “We make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole …”

Despite the cruelty and loss her people’s land and bodies were and are subjected to, their teachings offer something Perec’s characters don’t have: connection.

Contrast Kimmerer listening to corn leaves—“papery conversation with each other and the breeze”—with Perec having Jerome and Sylvie “leap ecstatically into fashionable English clothes.”

Both books make the case for interdependence. Perec illustrates how bleak things are without it, while Kimmerer asks us to consider the elegance and integrity of sweetgrass itself:

“Rarely do they dominate a meadow; rather they come gently, persistently to stand beside the other bigger plants. They delight me with their subversive infiltration of the status quo.”

These two books make a third, progressive structure together. Earth is beautiful. People and language can be too. There’s strength in joined forces.

Imaginary Dinner Party is a literary series by Lynn Crawford that explores “what happens when books join forces.” Read the archive:
Part One, Under Stories (spring 2021)
Part Two, Heal the People (summer 2021)
Part Three, Think Like a Detective (fall 2021)
Part Four, Possession (winter 2022)
Part Five, Forms of Engagement (spring 2022)
Part Six, Conversations (summer 2022)
Part Seven (fall 2022)
Part Eight (winter 2023)
Part Nine (spring 2023)
Part Ten (summer 2023)
Part Eleven (winter 2023)

Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016), and Paula Regossy (2020). She is currently working on her next novel, Closely Touched Things. An excerpt from that book, Take Away From the Total, was published in issue no. one of Three Fold.

Read next: Issue no. two poetry section

Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Three Fold recognizes, supports, and advocates for the sovereignty of Michigan's twelve federally-recognized Indian nations, for historic Indigenous communities in Michigan, for Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and for those who were forcibly removed from their Homelands. We operate on occupied territories called Waawiiyaataanong, named by the Anishinaabeg and including the Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Bodewatomi (Potawatomi) peoples. We hold to commit to Indigenous communities in Waawiiyaataanong, their elders, both past and present, and future generations.