Like a murmuration of starlings, Toni Jensen’s new book Carry changes its shape constantly and effortlessly. Its subtitle is A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, but this book is more than a memoir. It is also a revealing lexicon, a sharp analysis, a well-sourced argument, and a damning indictment. Its form changes even from one paragraph to the next, but it is constant in its clear-eyed reflection on violence.
Carry does offer readers all the materials of a more traditional memoir. Jensen describes her childhood in Iowa, her education, her family, her relationships, her career, and her identity and experiences as a Métis woman. But instead of a traditional narrative, Jensen uses her life as a context to explore violence, particularly gun violence, in America.
The scope and structure of Carry is remarkable. Episodic and recursive, it addresses a dizzying range of topics in its examination of both the “everyday violence” and the “extraordinary violence” that Americans so frequently see in the headlines. In each of its chapters, Jensen infuses her experiences with historical, scientific, and statistical data to allow for a broader examination of everything from Standing Rock to the murder of George Floyd.
The fifth chapter, which shares the book’s title, centers the idea of the college campus. Jensen dismantles the romantic notion many Americans have about college campuses by revealing both the everyday and extraordinary violence that they harbor. To do this, she describes a memorial garden on her current campus dedicated to a faculty member who was shot by a student in a murder-suicide. She connects this to the campus carry laws that allow concealed weapons on campus in some states. She relates what it was like to hear the news of the Virginia Tech shooting, and how she is linked not only to that shooting through colleagues but also to another shooting at Umpqua Community College through a favorite student. She reveals that on her undergraduate campus, University of South Dakota, she experienced both racism and an attempted sexual assault.
As Jensen introduces these campuses, she reminds the reader that the land each of them occupies was once the home of an Indigenous people until they were forcibly and violently removed: the Osage from the University of Arkansas campus, the Umpqua from Umpqua Community College campus, and the Yankton Sioux and Dakota from the University of South Dakota campus.
She says: “It is hard to see this space as hallowed when it has been filled since the start with such ordinary, everyday violence. It is hard to see this space, this campus, as mine when it is so clearly not, when it so clearly never was.”
In this way, through layered and intertwining associations, Jensen traces the fault lines of American society — domestic violence, racism, misogyny, economic inequality, environmental degradation — and maps them on to her lived experience, and ours.
Carry’s rapid movement among the personal, the historical, the political, and the social can at times be overwhelming, but it’s never unclear because Jensen anchors the reader in language. One of the most prominent features of the book is Jensen’s sustained attention to language itself. She frequently includes a Webster’s dictionary definition of significant words. These definitions come abruptly, pulling you to the surface of the text in a way that is both disruptive and revealing, using the word’s multifaceted definition as a prism through which to explore the chapter’s topic and to link its parts together.
She also uses language to anchor the reader emotionally in the text. Her understated prose simmers, breaking into a full boil when she translates the fear and anxiety at the center of violent encounters to the page. Here, Jensen describes how her nephew and his half-brother are held at gunpoint by a white woman while they are fishing:
“While the neighbor sees them there, at the edge of her manicured lawn, waterside, she goes into her house and brings down her gun. She crosses the space of the lawn with it in front of her body, in the position we refer to as drawn — as in how is this scene drawn? Is the light just right? How is the timbre of her voice when she demands to know who they are and what they think they are doing, these boys? Who the fuck are they, who the fuck, who the fuck?”
The value of Carry lies in its unique structure, its sparse, powerful prose, and in the stinging perspective it provides on events that are numbingly common. Until we see it as clearly as Jensen does, the lens she offers on gun violence in America will be relevant again and again and again.
By Toni Jensen
Published September 8, 2020
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.