Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit: Essays

Portside Date:
Author: Yelizaveta P. Renfro
Date of source:
Washington Independent Review of Books

Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit: Essays
Aisha Sabatini Sloan
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1-64445-271-4

To say that “A Clear Presence,” the opening essay in Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s collection Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, is about swimming pools would be both accurate and far off the mark. In her keen, mercurial style, making associative leaps while circling purposefully around a central topic or theme, Sloan moves among Rodney King, the work of the artist David Hockney, the restrictions that prevented Black and brown people from using public pools, the practice of lucid dreaming, and her own experiences growing up in Los Angeles and attending a school where she was one of the only people of color.

Making use of juxtaposition and white space — in which readers are invited to make their own connections — Sloan builds a complex, probing essay that examines, among other things, the abyss that exists between the lives of the affluent and the lives of people like King, who once explained, “All the big houses of Beverly Hills may only be about ten miles to the north, and the beautiful beach houses on the ocean in Malibu only about ten miles to the west, but those places may as well be a million miles away.”

Hockney, an English painter who has spent considerable time in California, has portrayed this other, extraordinarily privileged Los Angeles “by painting its wealthiest citizens and their swimming pools” and “presenting California as an idle playground for the rich.” It is these two competing views — the world of police brutality and riots placed beside the world of unimaginable wealth — that Sloan presents in her portrait of the city of her birth. And there are more connections than are first apparent: King, we learn, was swimming when, as a child, he first heard the N-word. Years later, he would drown in a swimming pool.

Toward the end of the essay, Sloan directly addresses the difficulty she’s had in putting all the pieces together:

“I tried to write an essay about David Hockney and Rodney King once before, before King passed away. While doing research, I became obsessed by a particular painting that Hockney had created of a Beverly Hills housewife. Painted one year after the Watts riots, Hockney’s housewife gazes idly outside the range of the portrait. She is miles away but I want badly to imagine that she can hear the sound of sirens. I wish that she could at least smell the smoke.”

In another essay, “D Is for the Dance of the Hours,” Sloan conjures a multifaceted and contradictory portrait of Detroit, the city her parents are from and where they returned to after spending most of their lives in L.A. “I grew up in California hearing stories about a city more laced with wonder than desolation,” she writes. And yet, that desolation most certainly exists, which is why she is loath to write about the city at all. As part of her research, Sloan rode along with her cousin, a Detroit police officer, in 2012, but was unable to complete her piece at the time:

“Though I began to write this essay then, I have hesitated to share it because there is an implicit understanding among people who love Detroit that you shouldn’t talk shit. And I love Detroit more than I do most places in the world. A sense of possibility and kindness emanates from all the chaos in a way that is hard to explain. But censoring trouble doesn’t make it go away.”

Sloan proceeds to create her portrait of Detroit by interweaving her experiences on the police patrol with an unlikely topic: opera. “The east side of Detroit is complemented by music that comes from worlds away,” she writes. “Burned wood and the entrance of a conductor. Overgrown grass and the sweep of a violin bow. A baby carriage tipped over in an abandoned lot and the hush that comes between a song’s end and the applause.” Delving into her father’s 1972 copy of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Sloan moves back and forth between the world of opera and the world of her cousin’s beat on the city’s streets.

When she reaches the letter D in the Oxford guide, Sloan finds “Dance of the Hours,” which is “a short ballet in La giocanda (and later, Fantasia) ‘in which the eternal struggle between darkness and light is symbolized.’” This offers her the title for her essay — and a way of thinking about the city.

At times, the worlds of opera and the streets of Detroit intersect in painful ways. “In Jenufa, an opera in three acts, the body of a child is found underneath the ice.” This one-sentence paragraph is immediately followed by: “When this plot played out on my cousin’s watch, counselors were called to talk with the officers involved. My cousin was the only one to speak at the baby’s funeral.” As Sloan watches her cousin interact with a range of people, she realizes the work requires “the capacity to listen and observe more than to bully and corral.” Sloan creates a sensitive and thoughtful portrait of Detroit, a “lament” that shows her deep love for the place and that refuses easy generalizations.

Other essays in the book similarly take on disparate topics, building associative meditations through the careful, gradual accrual of details. In “Ocean Park #6,” Sloan writes of the death of her mother’s best friend’s son and of the work of painter Richard Diebenkorn and writer Joan Didion. And “Gray’s Anatomy” juxtaposes Sloan’s experiences seeing chiropractors with the work of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The 13 essays in Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit deftly approach an array of topics, each building in collage-like fashion a revelatory, often startling reflection around a central subject or theme that pulls personal experience, research, and sharp observation into a vortex that ultimately holds together and gives us a way of seeing — if but for an instant — the shimmering complexity and interconnectedness of the world.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a book of nonfiction, Xylotheque: Essays, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska

Source URL: https://portside.org/2024-04-10/dreaming-ramadi-detroit-essays