A few lines from Mount Eerie’s “Distortion” is the most concise way to explain Ames Hawkins’s pilgrimage in her book “These are Love(d) Letters.”
“… In the same way that my descendants will squint back through a fog / Trying to see some polluted version of all I meant to be in life / Their recollections pruned by the accidents of time / What got thrown away and what gets talked about at night …”
What doesn’t get thrown away are twenty short letters written in the mid ’60s. Hawkins’s father, a closeted gay man at the time, wrote these letters to her mother. After meeting at summer camp, the two kept a correspondence between New York and Michigan. Years later, after a divorce and her father’s fatal battle with AIDS, her mother would hand her these letters in an Ann Arbor coffee shop. She doesn’t know why she kept them.
The book annotates these letters with every relevant detail, even when her descriptions must cross massive gaps between genres and subjects. Different colored text, sometimes with no other transition, marks a change in the literary style. It sometimes reads like a literary magazine: True stories are blended with essays on Derrida and Cixous, phone transcripts and drawings.
Hawkins pinpoints subjects embedded in the letters that are as complicated and varied as real life should be. Sexuality is one such subject, simultaneously treated analytically and emotionally. In one paragraph, she counts the 49 times her father says he loves Hawkins’s mother in the letters. In the next, she laments it wasn’t 50.
Literature is another area of focus. The book is as interested in writing, as you can expect from such a skilled author. The closing chapter stops to reflect on how endings in general should be written. Hawkins attempts to expand the boundaries of what is considered literature to letters. In a list of reasons why, she notes the range of uses for letters. Letters can be sent for young love or for declarations of war. And Hawkins intends to include as many as possible.
The only whiplash from subject and style changes are from discussions that take some philosophical knowledge for granted. But the academic approach doesn’t filter out the emotion in the book’s hard truths, especially in regard to Hawkins’s father’s health.
The love letters ground the book in the mundane. Being reminded of the reality of death or trauma can feel like “waking up” to a world outside the one where you stand in line for the bus or check your email. But Hawkins ties them all together to one linear timeline. This ambitious experiment in literary forms and ideas might be jarring in many circumstances.
The book undertakes the impossible job of showing others how some seemingly small detail reverberates in all parts of life. Everything seems authentically connected. The complex overarching narratives Hawkins draws out are never forced. In the hands of a less skilled writer, such comparisons might have broken down like fever dreams that make sense until recounted to others. For instance, Hawkins finds a few lines in one letter regarding her father’s anxiety about teeth falling out that form a grim foreshadowing of the effects of AIDS on his oral health. This book gives the reader the impression that if they study anything with enough care, they’ll find a fractal — any small detail containing the whole.
Her father didn’t mind Hawkins’s previous writings about him. And still, she treats these letters like sacred text, but it’s hard to feel that way for long.
Moreover, some of the most delicate information comes from Hawkins herself. Through these letters, Hawkins maps the roots of herself and her happiest and worst memories. She delves into the hard truths of herself and her trauma’s origins. In this way, Hawkins paints these letters as equally relevant to her life’s context as her birth.
Yet, the book can be simultaneously nonchalant. One can almost see the shrug as the author admits she doesn’t know why, for instance, more love letter anthologies have been published recently. These shifts in style don’t hurt the flow. Like the best anthology records or essay collections, the fast transitions keep each page a surprise.
Moreover, these complexities reflect the complicated, grey, and conflicting experiences embedded in these letters. One passage, retold here without font changes, breaks the fourth wall to give reader instructors:
“And now, Dear Reader, use your breath … Notice where your mind goes as you follow my finger pointing out over the horizon. Recognize me, there: Ah, yes! And now your eyes really find focus: Ah-ha.
If you do, I am sure that you’ll see yourself there, too.”
In “These are Love(d) Letters,” Ames Hawkins doesn’t just squint back to see what her parents meant to be. In the mundane objects of the past’s fog, Hawkins finds a mirror reflecting herself. Many find their reflection in their favorite books or movies. But standing in a different place will bring a unique reflection, even in the same mirror. It takes a writer like Hawkins to make one see reflections of both themselves and the author.