Illustration by Katie Turner

SALLIE TISDALE'S Violation: Collected Essays is not the sort of book you find yourself urgently pressing on others, saying, "You have to read this next." It's not zeitgeist-y or cool. There is a frank, artless quality to Tisdale's work, an antidote to the clickbait-y, flashy, sexy, knowing, voyeuristic, position-taking trend of much popular nonfiction. Rather than forwarding one of Tisdale's essays, you find yourself on the verge of telling others, "You should meet this friend of mine who writes."

Tisdale might be one of the most prolific writers you've never heard of. Violation assembles nearly 30 of her essays, previously published in places like Harper's, The New Yorker, Antioch Review, and Salon. The author of seven other books including Talk Dirty to Me, Tisdale's subjects are so wide-ranging it's almost a surprise that they could ever feel cohesive. But in this collection, an engrossing conversation emerges among the disparate subjects that preoccupy Tisdale's inquisitive mind: family, loss, human bodies, sex, elephants, dentistry, writing, aspiration, mediocrity, and Buddhism—to name a few. "Why should this ever surprise us?" asks Tisdale. "Life is just following a trail around a mountain."

In these essays, intimacy is not born of illicit disclosure or life-altering epiphanies. Tisdale hews closely to her subjects, even if her resulting essays aren't structurally familiar or flagrantly elegant. Instead, she is philosophical, her style self-effacing, her primary rhetorical tools limited to observation and description. Her oft-anthologized essay about working in an abortion clinic, "Fetus Dreams" (previously published as "We Do Abortions Here"), is strikingly relevant almost 30 years after its initial publication. Like many of her essays, it offers an unflinching view of a small corner of human experience with precision and an honest, generous heart.

In essays on the elephant-breeding program at Portland's zoo, on flies, and on moray eels, she avoids anthropomorphizing or overwrought calls to environmental conservation. Her persuasive methods are more subtle and affecting. In "Here Be Monsters," she describes a night dive in which a fellow scuba diver bashes an eel on the head in an effort to get it to perform for his video camera. Afterward, she writes, the sky is "close and thick with stars; there was sheet lightning all across the horizon, silent, huge. In that moment I wanted never to speak to a person again." The juxtaposition of the vastness of the sky and weather against the smallness—even childishness—of her anger seems to get at something more important than any indulgence of righteous indignation.

In the title essay, "Violation," Tisdale wrestles with the anguish her sister feels at being represented in Tisdale's writing. "I don't have the right to tell these stories," Tisdale says. The reader is surprised, having read the essay in question several pages back, and remembering little that could so deeply offend. But writing is a choice; nothing is neutral. "How can I tell my sister that I'm not writing about her at all?" asks Tisdale. "I'm writing about me—who she is in my life and work is not who she is in hers." The writer always violates the subject. That isn't fair, Tisdale concedes. But she won't stop. Ambivalence is familiar territory for her.

Elsewhere, only one essay takes the subject of Buddhism head-on: "The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies," which Tisdale says was inspired by a Japanese Soto Zen teacher's suggestion that life "flashes out of emptiness" and "returns to it." Throughout the collection, an ethos of self-effacement and clear-eyed commitment to her subjects seems to embody this tenet, even though Tisdale knows that writing and self-effacement are mutually exclusive. Nothing is objective, no matter how hard she labors to make it seem so. She is haunted by her failures of truth and objectivity. "Only I know how carefully I've held the light so that the shadows fall just so," she says. "Artlessness is one of the most difficult effects of all."


Violation: Collected Essays
by Sallie Tisdale (Hawthorne Books) Reading at Powell's City of Books,1005 W Burnside, Tues April 12, 7:30 pm, free


More Spring Arts Articles:

Spring is Coming

A Remarkable Journey Rewrites the Classical Music Canon

Sallie Tisdale's Antidote to Clickbait

Walidah Imarisha’s North Star

Vision Quest's Adult Funnies

Samantha Wall Makes the Invisible Visible

The Improbable Ascension of Noel Fielding

From Conduit to White Bird, Portland Dance Goes Back on Pointe

The Narrow Door, Left Open