Ellis Avery’s collection of essays, The Family Tooth, is, as she puts it “a cancer story sandwiched inside a grief-and-food memoir.” The food is entrancing; the grief overwhelming. The book explores her struggle with her mother’s death in conjunction with a life-changing diagnosis. Now in precarious remission, Lambda Award Winner Avery is embarking on her first journey as a self-published writer, having published her previous books with Riverhead. “If I’m going to do all the work…I might as well have it be exactly the way I want,” she says. The Family Tooth, which received a starred review in the Dec. 15, 2015, issue, gave Avery the freedom to create her own timeline; it allowed her to give herself realistic goals.
Through her use of the fragment form, Avery has succeeded in making everyday objects climb the ranks of lyricism. The objects she writes about, be it the household items that elicit fights with relatives, her mother’s jewels, or quintessentially Japanese candy, are all so specific to Avery’s experience and yet never exclude the reader. They allow themselves to be appropriated by the beholder. “Have you ever heard a tooth smash?” Avery writes. “There’s a pop like ice cubes wrenched from the tray, like wet chalk crushed underfoot. It’s a tiny sound, and a terrifying one.” The fragment ends and the reader thinks. In fact, the reader must insert herself in the spaces between the fragments, to receive the information Avery shares, and to consume the history of each detail. “One quality of fragmentariness is perhaps that it’s more edge than inside, so as a reader you sort of bring your jagged edges up to it and match them….My attention to detail is born of writing haiku and it’s also born of historical fiction where I will use an object as a window into another time or place,” she says. “I’m used to making objects do double and triple duty for me.” And Avery gives her readers many opportunities to flirt with the edges of her fragments.
But these objects are not always vectors of happy memories. Some represent the loss she suffered after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune condition, Reiter’s Syndrome. This affected her diet, mobility, and daily rituals. Her condition started to consume her life, until Avery gained the strength to find alternative treatments and to look into the products that were available to her. “I began researching connections between cancer, arthritis and food, logging every substance I ingested from food to medication to vitamins,” she writes. She found herself doing “crazy stuff that I’ve never thought I’d spend my time doing,” she says. “We have all of these choices but very few options. This careful investigation is part of the bigger story.”
The Family Tooth is not just a memoir about a woman whose life was changed because of her body and the death of her mother; it’s also a guide and resource for those who may struggle with similar issues, and a beautiful rendition of her supportive partnership with Sharon Marcus. “I’m hearing from people that I don’t know…I’m getting orders from names I don’t recognize.” What started as a rather therapeutic practice ended up being a wakeup call.
Avery is a master at making us aware of small actions that allow us to take care of ourselves, to cope with death (your own, not just that of others), and how we can make a difference through the products we choose to incorporate in our daily lives. By writing about routine objects, Avery makes us cherish our partners, our lust for life, and our human knack to create rituals, even though, as she says, “the will to make rituals is more powerful than the objects themselves.”
Michael Valinsky is the editorial assistant.