Content Warning: discussions about and examples of eating disorder, war, terror, suicide, Boston Marathon Bombing, cancer, chronic pain, protesting by refusing food, mentions of torture in Guantanamo Bay prison, and examinations of individual radicalized Muslim terrorists.
That is a whole lot of content warning, but let me explain: I discovered Hilary Plum after I went to a joint reading that she and her husband, the poet Zach Savich, did at the University of Notre Dame on March 22, 2017. I note the date because it’s really common for me to buy a book at a reading, shelve it, and take years to get back to it. Thus, me reading Plum’s nonfiction book Watchfires only 5 months later emphasizes that I didn’t forget her story (and to some extent Savich’s). I remembered clearly that Ms. Plum discussed how she looked at her eating disorder and terror and combined the two in this gorgeous non-fiction narrative.
What I learned upon reading Watchfires is that the focus is more so on the Boston Marathon bombers, Savich having cancer at 30, and Plum’s chronic pain that went undiagnosed all through her 20s. Not quite a memoir, Watchfires is more of a meditation on the war on terror and autoimmune disease. The pages are broken into small sections, sometimes with just a fact or observation, and some longer moments in which Plum describes why detective novels are so suited to her time waiting — in a hospital room next to her husband’s bed or at home while pain consumes her and people doubt there’s anything wrong with her at all.
Watchfires juxtaposes anorexia and Guantanamo Bay, suicide and mass murder, American and unAmerican, terrorist and victim, autoimmune diseases and terror, the Boston Marathon bombing and cancer. It all makes a complete picture that is surprising and moving.
Since this nonfiction work isn’t simply Plum’s lived experience, but her ideas about what her personal and world experiences mean, I wanted to see if her speculations hold up. Plum argues that the war on terror is like an autoimmune disease. At first I didn’t see what she meant until I thought more about the Tsarnaev brothers. One moved to the United States at a young enough age that he “should” have assimilated easily. When he helped his brother kill people, he claimed it was because the U.S. had killed so many in the Middle East during the war in Afghanistan. An autoimmune disease is one that causes the human body to attack itself. If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was supposed to be “one of us,” then why did he attack us? Plum forces us to ask. Is the United States really fighting a war it didn’t start, or is the U.S. destroying itself by provoking other groups and nations? The metaphor breaks down a bit, in my opinion, because we don’t provoke or hold ourselves responsible for autoimmune diseases, but I see where she’s going with it.
The part I loved about Watchfires is that Plum lays down pieces and invites readers to make connections. Half the fun is asking myself whether I’m putting things together how Plum intended, or in my own way that she hadn’t thought of. For example, for years Plum can’t work or do much because she’s chronically fatigued and in pain. She’s confined to bed and watches detective shows. Plum writes, “The rhythm appeals: the show begins with a crime, proceeds to a resolution. Next episode.” Because Watchfires covered various examples of terror (Sandy Hook Shooting, Chechnya school shooting, gun violence, Boston Marathon bombing, etc.), I connected her TV example to terror — we get so used to hearing about it and know that the nation will be outraged, but we’ll quickly move on to the next act of terror (forgetting even more quickly terror in nonWestern countries), and the rhythm of it is like watching detective shows. There’s an arc, a rhythm.
On the very first page, someone asks, “Did he speak with an accent?” Readers learn this was a question everyone had after the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened the same day Plum’s husband had surgery for his cancer. 67 pages later, Plum notes that autoimmune diseases are complicated: “Here the enemy is hard to distinguish; the enemy melts back into the crowd.” Immediately, I thought of the question about accents. Because Dzhokhar Tasarnaev lived in the States most of his life, attended a public university, liked rap music, seemed “normal” to everyone, and looked white, he is able to hide in a crowd. Of course we must question what we think a terrorist looks and sounds like as a result.
To take it one step further, Plum cleverly puts two passages together in the middle that juxtapose autoimmune and the Tsarnaev brothers:
In the case of multiple sclerosis — also autoimmune — occurrence increases with distance from the equator. If one is born in a high-risk region and before reaching puberty moves to a low-risk region, one assumes the new, lower risk of occurrence. But if one moves after puberty, one’s risk remains high. For this phenomenon there is no firm explanation.
The boy [Dzhokhar] was eight when he came to the US. The man [Tamerlan] was sixteen.
Isn’t that just an incredible comparison? Plum doesn’t analyze it for the reader, thus there is more opportunity for us to chew on it and have a discussion.
I will say the end was rather confusing. Part II is only 23 pages of a 192-page book. For all of Part I, which takes up almost the entire book, Plum has been writing in 3rd person (“she”) to refer to herself. This method distances the writer from what can be painful times in his/her life, which I get. But in Part II, Plum switches to first person (“I”) and appears to be having an imaginary conversation with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The people and setting get fuzzy — at one point I think she imagines Dzhokhar at school? — and I fail to see the importance of this shift if it’s going to be done so unclearly. Overall, though, highly recommended nonfiction book that made me think, reconsider, and empathize with the author.
Watchfires was published November 2016 through a press she and her husband started called Rescue Press. I’m interested in reading Plum’s first book, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, a novel which is “a bold meditation on idealism, anger, and the American home front’s experience of today’s wars. This is an innovative work in the great tradition of war literature and a singular chronicle of one generation’s conflicts.”