In ‘Diary of a Misfit,’ Casey Parks Blends Reporting, Research and Memoir: NPR

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Diary of a Misfit, Casey Parks

The lines are complex. Some people can trace theirs back centuries; others can only go so far back before wars, genocides, the transatlantic slave trade and other horrors interrupted recorded history; still others do not know their origins at all.

But not all lines are family and not all ancestors are related by blood or marriage. Sometimes we find or seek out characters from the past because we seek to recognize a part of ourselves that we don’t see reflected in our families or communities.

For Casey Parks, journalist at Washington Post, Roy Hudgins was that person. And his first book, Diary of a Misfit: Memory and Mystery, follows her attempts to uncover her story while rediscovering hers along the way.

The book opens with the anecdote that launched a thousand questions. Parks, home for the summer in West Monroe, Louisiana after his freshman year of college, tries to comfort his inconsolable mother by promising to stop being gay. It does not work; after all, her mother feels like her daughter’s soul is with Satan, and just months before, the family’s preacher had prayed that God would “save her and take her life immediately that she might make heaven his home”. Finally, Parks’ grandmother enters. “Rhonda Jean,” she told Parks’ mother, “She likes women, and you have to give a fuck about that.”

Parks and her grandmother have never been particularly close – and she’s surprised by the forceful defense of her sexuality. But the surprises are not over. Later that day, her grandmother tells Parks that she “grew up opposite a woman who lived like a man.” Immediately, Parks’ mind begins to wonder: was he a trans man? Did anyone else know he wasn’t cisgender? How did people accept it, especially in the South? “Everyone loved Roy, because he was a good Christian,” his grandmother said. But how is this possible when Parks has just been condemned by her own preacher?

Years later, in 2009, when Parks returns to Louisiana for the first time since that one college visit, she has an agenda: to find out more about Roy. But it turns out to be difficult. While many people in Delhi (pronounced dell-high) knew and remember Roy, who has since died, they all have slightly different memories of his identity and history. Parks’ grandmother’s memory was that Roy was born into a family that abused him terribly until a neighbor, Jewel Ellis, kidnapped and raised him. Other people tell Parks that Roy was left in an orphanage as a baby and Jewel adopted him from there. Some people tell Parks that Jewel put Roy in pants to disguise him, others say it was because she couldn’t afford dresses, and another version says that John Ellis just wanted a boy and so the couple worked with what they had.

But the search for Roy’s story — which eventually becomes a film project that Parks is working on with the help of friends and family — is really only part of what’s going on. Trying to find out more about him, Parks has an excuse to keep coming back to his family in Louisiana, to the “funky stench of home,” as Rhonda Jean calls it, whom Parks more poetically describes as the smell of “honeysuckle and fish”. , like afternoon rain evaporating from hot pavement in a haze of cigarette smoke.”

At the same time, she also began to settle in Portland, where she worked for The Oregonian. While Portland feels safer in some ways due to its large queer population, Parks also feels immensely lonely there. As she strives to become a better journalist and continues to research information on Roy for over a decade, she also begins to confront her own past, from the grief of losing the church once she got out. to his tumultuous and complex relationship with his mother.

She does this with remarkable empathy for her family members, Roy’s acquaintances (even those who abandoned him in his later years), and younger herself. “Now that a decade has passed,” Parks writes, “now that I know how it all happens, I’m tempted to go back and tinker with the meaning of everything. I want to give myself a motive where it all happens. is possible. I didn’t feel any of it. […] but the truth is most of the time I didn’t know why I did anything.”

Not knowing – not being power understanding or accessing the full breadth of something like Roy’s story, his mother’s drug use, the truth about his grandmother’s stories – can be infuriating. But the beauty of Diary of a Misfit is that he is in that space, allowing Parks to slowly and methodically unravel her family history, her understanding of herself, and her obsession with Roy.

In the process, she also beautifully portrays her interview subjects in the South and what she loves and finds painful at home. This mix of reportage, research and memoir has blossomed recently, with books like The yellow house by Sarah M. Broom and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland illustrating the interconnectedness of the personal, political, historical and academic realms. Parks’ book is a wonderful addition to the genre.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book reviewer and novel author All my mother’s lovers.


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