Andromeda: Betrayals in the Name of Art — Thoughts on Dani Shapiro's Upcoming Aug 31 Crosscurrents Event

When people have heard that Anchorage was lucky enough to get bestselling novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro to come to town (Aug. 31, 7 pm, Anchorage Museum), several friends volunteered that Shapiro’s Slow Motion was one of their all-time favorite memoirs. If that’s not a strong selling point for hearing Shapiro talk about the perils of the memoir, including writing about people you love, then I don’t know what is. Shapiro is known as well for the memoir Devotion, described by Publishers Weekly as “absorbing, intimate, direct and profound.”

But it was Shapiro’s novel, Black and White, that I put on my own reading list this summer. Though it’s fiction, it captures a lot of the same memoirist’s questions about how we turn life into art, and what effect that alchemy has on the people around us. In the 2007 novel, Claire Brodeur has been out of contact with her mother, a famous photographer named Ruth, for 14 years. When Ruth is near death, Claire is compelled to return to her Manhattan roots and the facts of their alienation: from the age of 3 to 14, Claire was the very recognizable subject of a disturbing series of celebrated nude portraits. Now living a reclusive life in Maine with her husband and young daughter, Claire travels to New York City to face her mother, as well as the memories of the past that will inevitably come to the surface.

Most of the novel is told in these flashbacks, which are both realistic and chilling, as they force us to confront questions difficult for any artist (writers included): when are we crossing the line in our use of others as material? Do we, in fact, know what we are doing, or are we so tempted by the promise of making something beautiful or meaningful that we become blinded to our subjects’ vulnerability? I’ve felt that question roil around my gut on many occasions, as a journalist, as an essayist, and as a novelist — and even on the rare occasions when I’ve posted photos of my children online, or let them be included in books or newspaper articles. Shapiro draws no clear lines here, despite the title’s apt allusion to both photography and ethics. Part of my pleasure in reading the novel came in recognizing that Shapiro was using a question that she has had to ask herself, not only as an inventor of fictional worlds, but closer to home, as a practitioner of that other genre, nonfiction.

I expect she’ll explore some of these thoughts, as they inform many of her works, next week. I can’t wait — and I’m grateful to the efforts of Deb, moderator Sherry Simpson, and many great 49 writers volunteers who are putting this event together. Please don’t miss it.

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