I subscribe to a fair number of literary magazines, far more than I can read, to be honest. Mostly I cycle around, subscribing to different ones, but there are a couple of standards that I'm not willing to give up, even for a year. One of these is The Sun.
Proudly ad-free, The Sun always repays my attention with excellent writing and strong insights. It starts with an interview, which I'm sometimes tempted to skip over it, but I've learned that there are always at least a few nuggets that will make me sit up and pay attention. The rest of the magazine is full of strong, personal stories. Most are nonfiction, but one or two are fiction. There are a couple of poems, lots of striking black and white photos, and a section called Reader's Write, where readers send in short pieces on a particular topic.
I'm choosing one recent issue to discuss—November 2011—because it seemed particularly outstanding to me. The cover is a gorgeous photo by Gary Harwood taken at a dance competition. Shot from above, one woman in perfect focus appears to be standing still,looking up, her skirt a mandala around her, while other dancers are a spinning blur. Her expression outdoes the Mona Lisa as she stares into your eyes with an inscrutable expression.
The interview with Michael Meade centers on the need for stories. He says that “We have a seeded self that begins to germinate at birth. Our true goal in life is to become that self.” He talks about working with a group of young people, telling them stories about initiations and young people “finding their souls.” A dance was to follow his talk and he told them, “‘understand who you are in the midst of the dance. No one else is dancing the same way you are. So be in the big dance of life, but also be yourself in the big dance.'” Then when the music started, the young people started dancing up to him saying “‘I'm showing you who I am.'” Gave me chills.
I liked the poem “Loving a Woman” by Ellen Bass. In just a few lines, she recreates a day and places me right in it. She uses unexpected words and strong verbs: “The day was warm, / a thrum of insects, budding of cells, / the fat leaves opening their pores . . .” I felt the water of the stream washing over me and felt the sun “pouring into the mouths / of the leaves as they stirred . . .”
My favorite piece is by Brian Doyle, someone who turns up regularly in these pages. “Elson Habib, Playing White, Ponders His First Move” starts with Elson considering the queen's pawn and remembering his grandfather's advice. And from there, the middle of the first sentence until the end, we are plunged into the voice of the grandfather, talking to the child Elson as they play. The grandfather talks about pawns and sly bishops, describing people he has played such as a man from Alexandria who “would sacrifice pawns on purpose sometimes to set himself an imbroglio.” He is a romantic, saying “Imagination is the great secret of chess, not experience.” Doyle stays in character beautifully as the old man imparts life-lessons slant-wise, talking about slurping tea from a saucer and light that falls like golden dust. Doyle also uses repetition effectively, repeating a phrase just often enough to add depth to the character.
Another piece, excerpted from Nietzsche's Untimely Meditations reminds me that people have a tendency to laziness and timidity. “In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that no imaginable chance will for a second time gather together into a unity so strangely variegated an assortment as he is: he knows it but he hides it like a bad conscience — why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conventionality . . . We are responsible to ourselves for our own existence . . we want to be the true helmsman of this existence.” But he adds that “it is a painful and dangerous undertaking thus to tunnel into oneself.”
The essays, being true, often plumb these dangerous depths, prompting some readers to complain in letters to the editor that the magazine is too dark. One in this issue hurt me to read, but I was glad I did. “Baby Lollipops” by Jaquira Diaz, is about a dead toddler in the local news when Diaz was a young girl just after her parents divorced. At first she and her little sister live with her father and his mother, but then they are stolen by their mother, a drug addict. Diaz can't stop thinking about the toddler, who had apparently been killed by his mother. “We are supposed to love our mothers. We are supposed to trust them and need them and miss them when they're gone. But what if that same person,the one who's supposed to love you more than anyone else in the world, the one who's supposed to protect you, is also the one who hurts you the most?” I thought of the lovely essay my friend Fernando Quijano wrote about his mother; it too is about how we find and create a way to go on and still see beauty and still be able to love.
That's why I keep reading this magazine. Try it. Just one issue and you'll be hooked.