Cornelia Nixon

Remarks at the San Francisco Public Library, January 24th, 2004

 

I sincerely hope Amanda Davis is the youngest writer we're honoring today, since she was far too young to die. For those of us who were her friends, her death remains unbelievable, and at some point every day we all think, What? Amanda dead? How can that be true? And what does it mean? Where is she now, and why is no word coming back from her? As her boyfriend lately said to me, how can one believe that "the year after this and the year after that will run themselves without her?"

Those are things I don't know—let me tell you what I do. These are the facts. Last Februaary 28, Amanda Davis turned 32, and 14 days later she was killed along with her mother and father in the crash of a light plane near Asheville, North Carolina. She was a talented young writer on tour for her first novel, Wonder When You'll Miss Me, published by HarperCollins, following the success of her book of stories, Circling the Drain. She had begun a successful career by being chosen for both the Best New American Voices series and a fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and she moved on to teach at Yale and then Mills College, where she had just been put on tenure-track about a week before her death.

All this is fact, yet none of it begins to tell you how vibrant she was. You can get an idea from the volume and intensity of public grief for her. When she was killed, there were four major memorial events in three states, and and Mills students filled the hall outside her office door with fresh flowers for months. Three fellowships have been established in her name, along with at least one baby named for her, and one park bench, gift of the Mills senior class.

And then there are the host of articles about her by other writers, enough to fill a volume, including one in Real Simple and another lately in The New York Times Magazine. The McSweeney's website has posted tributes to her, and when I printed them out last, they reached 81 pages, packed with stories of droll things she said or did and times when she had dropped whatever she was doing to give help to anyone who needed it.

Because she was like that she won you over instantly, with her quick mind, her sweetly forked tongue, her vulnerable toughness and her fierce insistance that you pay attention to her now. She steam-rollered her way into your heart, and then she'd look for ways to shepherd you or reform you or bring you napkins when you spilled water all over yourself in front of a crowd like this, as I once did. Little things, and big. I don't know how she did it, while writing and teaching and baking bread and making dinner for her book group and reading other people's manuscripts, but she also kept up intimate banter with a circle of close friends, and some of us heard from her every day, by cell phone and email and instant messaging and letters with splashy illustrations that she drew herself.

I first got to know her through her writing, when I read Circling the Drain, and reading anything by her remains the best way to hear her voice—because she had one, and it's unmistakable. Her subject so far was very young women, but in situations that put it in a class with Memoirs of a Geisha rather than American Girl. Davis's spunky heroines survive extraordinary traumas, like gang rape or suicide attempts, the disappearance of a sister who is never found, or the discovery of an older male lover in bed with a boy. She looked at these young women like no one else, in writing that was always fresh and vivid, full of wit and gritty vision and explosive images. Her new novel Wonder When You14ll Miss Me was a Bay Area best-seller, and in it one of these young women makes a new life by joining a circus and achieving a kind of literal and figurative transcendence in free fall from a high trapeze platform. Davis herself once travelled with a circus, and her work has the feel of hard-earned truth. She had an marvellous ear for language, and her stories help you see better, in sentences like these, from the title story of her collection:

— "He was still in bed, lying all cuddled up with a hand in the boy's silvery hair, and her eyes floated out the window, past the sugar plant to the East River and the bridges standing with their legs apart."

Or, when this same character steps casually off the Williamsburg Bridge:

— "Later it is the air she will remember. The sharpness of it as she inhaled: crisp like paper. She could have been breathing paper. There was a rush of sound, like a train passing, or maybe like she was the train... She swung back at the bridge and touched iron, steel, before she began to tumble, before her legs flew back over her head and her body arced slowly in the air. As [she] fell, the air sparkled all around her and she understood suddenly, forcefully, that she had made a huge, serious mistake. But then her body dropped like a speeding stone and [she] wished for land beneath her feet or wings to fly."

Well, she was a wonderful writer, and she has written all she will. This, too, is a fact. But, to borrow a line from Marilynne Robinson: "All this is fact. Fact explains nothing."