RECLAMATION: ESSAYS, the new chapbook from Portland author Justin Hocking, looks under the surface—into caves and mines, geological formations, buried memories, and secrets. Released last week, the chapbook mixes the personal with the historical, the lyrical with the journalistic, and spans centuries in an attempt to unearth what’s been hidden underground.
Part of a larger memoir-in-progress, the six short essays in Reclamation form what Hocking calls “an encapsulated excerpt”—a distilled selection from a larger whole that hints at the book’s trajectory and presents all the memoir’s different threads. It’s a technique he used while writing his first memoir, the Oregon Book Award-winning The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. He published a short chapbook called Beach 90th while the book was still in the works to “get a piece of it out into the world.”
In Reclamation, Hocking works in a manner similar to writers like Maggie Nelson, John D’Agata, and Eliot Weinberger, assembling a variety of seemingly disparate histories and connecting them to a larger theme or narrative. During Hocking’s navigation of the subterranean, he brings together his experiences caving as a teenager, a mine disaster that occurred near his home town in Colorado, the etymology of the word exploit, the TV show Hogan’s Heroes, the Gnostic Gospels, the secret life of John James Audubon, and his personal history as a victim of sexual abuse.
“I’ve been trying to find a way into writing about issues around abuse and trauma from my childhood,” Hocking says. “And this is the way I found; braiding the geology and the mining history together with these subterranean, traumatic events that were happening in secret in my home life.”
But he says he “wanted to do it in a way that felt respectful to the reader.” So rather than giving a detailed history of the abuse, he instead focuses on secrecy—keeping it hidden, the shame that builds around it, and what that does to a victim’s emotional world.
While written long before the presidential election, elements of the book—exploitation, environmental degradation, abuse—feel especially relevant in our post-election world. For Hocking, the political horrors of this past month have given Reclamation a different kind of weight and added more layers of meaning to the memoir-in-progress. “There feels like there’s a new sense of exigency, or urgency around it,” Hocking says. “Even though there’s not a direct correlation between what I’m writing about and our political situation right now, there’s a resonance. And to me, that’s important.”