Review by Emily Webber
Donald Quist’s essay collection, Harbors, is a small book under 150 pages and I read it over the course of three days in the early mornings and late at night. It is a book best read in private, quiet moments and at a time when there is so much chaos in the news —violence, anger, our inability to understand each other, I found in Quist’s essays a safe place. In the first section of the book Quist, who is an African American, reflects on growing up under racial discrimination in the South and the place he calls home. The second half of the book relates his experiences after he has moved to Thailand with his wife and how that impacts his perspective of America. Interwoven throughout these essays, he also shows the complexities of our relationships with each other. Even though I read these essays quickly, they lingered in my mind for much longer. While Quist tackles tough topics like racial tensions, belonging, and our inability to honestly know those we love, he does so with poignancy, humor, and hope.
The book itself is beautiful and inviting. The cover, comprised of muted grays and blues with a single person rowing a boat towards a harbor dock, is at first glance a peaceful image. The sea is calm, and the person rows unhindered to his destination. But the shadows and high, looming rocks also indicate that the ride may not always be smooth especially once on land. The font is elegant, and the white space throughout the book allows the reader to pause and contemplate what Quist is telling us.
In this collection, Quist experiments with form and it is one of the greatest strengths of the book. “Tanglewood,” which relates the experience of Quist reading his fiction to a group of middle school students, is told entirely in the second-person point of view and it makes the reader feel immersed and in the moment with him. In the essay, “In Other Words,” Quist speaks as himself but also interjects with the first-person voice of his wife to try to describe the complicated decision to move to Thailand, and we get a distinct perspective on this life-changing decision.
“Lesson Plan” is told in the style of a syllabus, from Quist’s time teaching in Thailand, and in it, he interjects frequently asked questions from the students. Through this exchange, we see there are no easy answers:
Have you been to jail?
Were you in a gang?
Have you sold drugs?
–Yes, but that isn’t why I was arrested.
Why were you arrested?
–I did something I shouldn’t have done, and it’s a lot easier to get arrested in America when you look like me.
Why is it easier to get arrested?
–Because of racial bias, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn’t.
One of the most powerful essays in the collection called “The Animals We Invent” delves into the time a white woman, wife, and mother, who Quist knows from the small town they both live in, falsely accuses three black men of burning down her shop. When Quist finds out the truth, he tries to reconcile the woman he knows with her actions:
Like animals, humans can become especially vicious if they feel trapped or afraid. Does she remain a victim, guilty or innocent, if not a victim of the crime she says she has endured, then a victim of her own hopelessness? I began to understand that there exists a truth in what I see and what I do not see, and I had to acknowledge the limits of my perception. I began to accept that I might never understand how she felt in that moment, real or imagined.
At the time Quist was working as a public information officer for the mayor, and he explains why he speaks to a reporter about the arrest:
I want to share what I am learning about the capacity of grace, and the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting. Because if I wait for the pain I witness to be validated with an apology, resentment will tear into my body like sharp, dirty fangs to snap my bones.
His writing is consistently compelling and honest. There is a simple beauty with an underlying complexity to his words that match that of our lives and our relationships.
Aside from the essays that deal with race and discrimination, the ones about Quist’s family relationships, his attempts to understand his journey in life, and how to move forward, are equally powerful and relatable.
In the last essay of the first section, “Junk,” Quist describes cleaning up his mother’s house with his wife before moving to Thailand. His mom is a hoarder and has a medical condition that will eventually lead to blindness. Quist wrestles with the fact that leaving his mother and moving to another country is a way in which he can bring order to his own life.
“Junior” is the last essay in the book and is a letter to his father. He explores their complicated relationship and comes to terms with the fact that his father has many different facets – some he may never know and others he only learns over time and through distance. His father is from Ghana, and Quist recognizes their similarities in both being between two homes. He comes to accept that while his father may not have always been the father he wanted, he was a good man. He writes to his father:
I am chasing opportunities you afforded me, pursuing a chance to do more than just survive…I don’t know how long I’ll wander or how far I’ll stray. But I promise you, I will do my best to make the journey meaningful.
The word harbor has different meanings – it is a place to find home and shelter, but it also refers to the feelings we keep deep inside us. Quist’s essays give us insight into both aspects, and they provide us some guidance on how we can move forward in this imperfect but beautiful life.
Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer magazine, Five Points, Maudlin House, and Sick Pilgrim. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. To read more by her, visit https://emilyannwebber.wordpress.com/.