Harbors by Donald Quist
AWST Press, 2016; 123 pp
Reviewed by Elizabeth Martin
In its original usage, the word harbor referred to a place of shelter or sojourn—a place for travelers to retire for food, rest, and perhaps even a bit of entertainment. As the word evolved into modern usage, it came to also represent the space where ships put in along the shore to tuck in for the night or wait out storms. These earliest natural harbors, and the port cities that sprung up to support them, have long functioned as international spaces where goods and people of many nationalities, races, classes, and ethnicities collided together. A harbor then acts both as a safe space to rest and recover and a place where one’s own worldview may be challenged and changed by the views of others. And it is this definition of harbor that best fits Donald Quist’s book of the same name, as his essays reveal the way our identity reflects our own navigation through relationships, class, race, and sense of self as a citizen in of world.
Quist’s personal essays steer us through his life as a young boy dealing with bullies to his intellectual ponderings when he moves to Thailand with his wife. The book is divided into two parts, or logs as Quist terms them. The first covers his life in the southern United States, the second his time in Thailand. In Harbors, Quist explores the multifaceted spaces of a man who lives between several cultures: a boy between socioeconomic classes, a black man living in a white supremacist society, and an American in Thailand, among others.
The varied styles of Quist’s essays are a key strength of the collection. Moving chronologically through time, we also get to see how Quist evolves as a writer. The essays in Log II move with a freedom his Log I essays do not. They engage with intellectuals like James Baldwin and Claudia Rankine to pull apart the problems of identity. His essay “I’ll Fly Away: Notes on Economy Class Citizenship” juxtaposes a trip back to the US against Baldwin’s essay “On Language, Race, and the Black Writer.” Here, Quist articulates fully his reason for wanting to leave the United States, “I am moving to Thailand because I want to focus on writing, yes, and I want to escape from the everyday oppression I feel as a person of color in America. I want to break from a continued and systematic white supremacy so pervasive it is entrenched in the vernacular I use to express myself” (104). Although this tension presents early on in the collection, Quist does not, is perhaps even not able to, articulate it fully until this point. His earlier essays explore race, but they feel restrained in certain ways as Quist lets these early essays find legs on their own. Like in “The Animals We Invent,” which explores the aftermath of a white female shop owner accusing a black man of burning down her shop in the small suburban town where Quist works as a public information manager for the mayor. Quist does not connect this event to the innumerable other incidents of African Americans being profiled and prosecuted around the nation. Instead he stays focused on his town, his moment in the mess of white anxiety about black people.
Early in “The Animals We Invent,” Quist relates what happened to him one night, “Walking around unaccompanied by a white person often subjected me to questioning. Returning to my car after a late movie showing, a pair of officers approached me. One officer asked if I owned the vehicle. I said yes. He asked for my name, and when I gave it to them the other cop smiled with recognition. He tapped his partner and said, “That’s the boy that writes for the mayor.” They let me leave without having to show identification, and a mix of resentment, gratitude, and guilt covered me like a heavy coat” (39–40). Quist sandwiches this incident in his own life between a telephone call with an upset African American man who has been harassed by the police over the fire. Quist offers him official platitudes, and then the man catches on, “Are you black?” he asks Quist. “ Aren't you angry?” (40). This essay differs from Quist’s Log II explorations of white supremacy and its effect on black people, him in particular, as he does not ruminate on it here as he will later. He instead ends with, “I have something to say about refusing to be victimized by fear. I want to share what I'm learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones” (48).
At first when I read this essay, and indeed several of the essays in Log I, I wanted Quist to have pushed back more in his writing, if not as a character in these stories. But as I read on, I came to realize here that Quist’s essays before his move to Thailand reflect a boy and later a man surviving in a white supremacist society without succumbing to contempt or despair. This isn't a cop-out on Quist’s part. His move to Thailand allows him to fully confront racism in his writing. Quist needed to reach the safe harbor of Thailand and Bangkok to come fully into his own voice and intellectual experience. I, for one, am excited to see what we will get from him next.