“Is humankind so intrinsically ugly that we seek deliverance by not only yearning after, but also actually imitating other creatures, such that the aping of swans by skilled dancers has become a paragon of beauty and artistic ambition? … Is there some reason, some human need, to imagine swans as majestic?” – Shauna Laurel Jones, “Of Birds and Barley,” Summer 2020.
The best piece of writing advice I ever received was from a teacher whose nose wrinkled at my dumb, preacherly notions of what I thought literature is “meant” to do. The books I cared for during graduate school were painstakingly curated; you could almost hear the authors sitting next to you as you flipped the pages, telling you which words to pay attention to. I loved those books, for whatever reason—let’s not get into why right now—so it’s no surprise that my most terrifying sight back then was a blank sheet of paper on my desk. I would sit before that open white space, imagining the intricate machinery of the books on my shelves, and wonder how I might ever start. My teacher, seeing the smoke come out of my ears, would casually suggest that I try a different approach. “What if you thought about all the things you like in the world,” she asked, “and just put it all on the page?”
I love Shauna Laurel Jones’s story from our Summer 2020 issue, “Of Birds and Barley,” because it feels in many ways like a grab bag selection of everything that captured one person’s interest at a certain moment in her life history. There’s the eye, trained on the sight of swans—Icelandic swans whose plumage disappears in the blank white landscape. There’s the author’s insistent sympathy with the situation in which the swans find themselves, driven by endless hunger for the taste of barley. And then there’s this deep humanism that urges her, over and over again, to hear from the farmers experiencing the fallout of that hunger, even as they want her to do things like watch them click on their own Facebook photos. (She watches, and so lovingly.) There’s a helplessness to the allure of the swan’s elegant stature and an equal-sized anxiety over the wreckage they leave in their wheat binges. There’s art criticism, somehow, and debates over carnivorism, and the poetry of one’s own youth.
I think this is what people mean when they talk about something being a snapshot of the world through someone else’s eyes. You read a story like this, and not only do you get to see everything to which Shauna is drawn, but you actually become drawn in yourself, brought into a bright and unknowable world filled with birds who swim, the intricate machinery of their bodies, and the mystified people seeing them up close for the first time.