Jami Attenberg and I both hail from the Northwest suburbs of Chicago. Early in her new collection of essays, she even mentions my hometown by name, and from this entry point, I anticipated kinship. Her musings on the writing life, on self-actualization, on finding home in a variety of places, these all felt wholly relatable in concept. What I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home presents instead is a life unlike most others, a love letter to travel in a time of isolation. The essays have little narrative throughline, thrusting us forward and back in time, touching on topics as disparate as couchsurfing to book reviews to the buildup and breakdown of relationships. The constant here is Attenberg herself, and the collection is all the stronger for it.
The collection begins with Attenberg relating the many jobs she’s worked, and in this depiction of the self she speaks to a broader audience with her potent sense of rhythm:
“…I counted pills. I sold lottery tickets, I squatted on the ground and counted boxes of enemas during monthly inventory. I shelved books in a college library. I waitressed. I wiped countertops. I took out the trash when my shift was over, and married the ketchup bottles, too, cleaning off the dried, red crust from the tops, which led to a loathing of ketchup, the scent of it, the taste, the texture, for the rest of my life.”
These rhythms return in her depictions of suburban life, one massive sentence filled with conjunctions that capture the banalities of those towns with pinpoint accuracy. Indeed, Attenberg is at her most evocative when she digs into details, and details abound in this collection.
Each essay is loosely structured around a single topic, but each tends to meander from anecdote to anecdote. In most of these, Attenberg’s casual yet incisive voice shines through, as if we’re sharing stories in a cozy room with glasses of wine in hand. However, this does not mean that the content itself is always breezy. Attenberg discusses couchsurfing, sure, and her life of travel feels unfathomable in this time of COVID-19. Beyond this, she also discusses gentrification and deterioration in her essay on New York, “The Wrong Side of the River”. In other essays she takes on debilitating anxiety, the loss of friendships and romantic relationships, and most harrowingly, her experiences of harassment and assault. She relates these incidents with what feels to be pinpoint recall, the accuracy of crafted fiction, the astonishment that all of this is real. And while there are blasé statements such as “That was the year I didn’t travel much. Australia and Italy, New Orleans and New York, that was it,” the collection balances craft and detail with raw feeling, and propels us from essay to essay until the end.
A drawback lies perhaps more in expectation than quality. For those expecting a collection more overtly about writing, this may read disappointing. After all, the work is subtitled “Writing Myself Home,” Yet here writing exists as an undercurrent rather than center stage, with essays that are more about touring and promoting books than putting them together. However, it is clear that writing underlies Attenberg’s very existence. She realizes that “books can be a reason to live” and this realization is the one constant in a haphazard, messy life. It is a craft book in that it leads by example, shows us a writing life and a devotion to craft that we can all aspire to, even if we never traverse the world. Even though my life is on a very different path from Attenberg’s despite our shared origins, this is something I can take with me in my own practice.
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home
By Jami Attenberg
Published January 11, 2022
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms