Book Exploration: “Harbors” by Donald Quist

Originally published at gnathic.


If you’ve never pre-ordered a book on a whim after receiving an email promotion from a publisher, Harbors (2016, 1st Edition published by Awst Press, cover illustration by Maggie Chiang) by Donald Quist is proof that sometimes your whims can lead you in the right direction. Although I live pretty frugally by choice, I do spend money on books. The expense was certainly worth it this time.

When I opened Harbors, tucked inside the front cover was a postcard announcing the book’s publication. The card displayed the same contemplative cover art as appears on the book’s cover. A lone figure rows past a lighthouse and huge rocks toward a dock inside a snug harbor. The hues in Maggie Chiang’s illustration range softly from powder blue to aquamarine and charcoal. In the message portion of the postcard, a handwritten note from Donald Quist invited me to send my thoughts on the book to his personal email account. That was super nice! I did email him what I am publishing to the world here on my little blog.

Quist divided the book into two distinct yet complementary parts designated Log I and Log II. Each log contains chapters and each chapter contains sub-chapters or sections. Within each section Quist details nonfictional experiences from various periods of his life. The events in Log I take place in the United States, while the events in Log II occur mostly in Thailand as base camp or while Quist is ten thousand feet in the air between continents. Quist’s memories while in Thailand and while traveling take him back to his life in the U.S. Informing you of this structure has nothing to do with how I read the book. I’m not recommending any strategy for reading this other than diving in.

Quist writes in a tone that seems casual, but is acutely thoughtful. He brings the reader along with him from the opening sentence which contains a recollection that immediately takes us back in time to his awkward childhood. People like to pretend that they grow up and forget about the scuffles, slights, and embarrassments of their youth, but they don’t in reality. Many of us certainly do not forget about the comeuppances and hard lessons, the unfairnesses and disappointments. We keep those close by at all times. Quist shares his life in an honest tone that does not excuse him or anyone for their past actions. As the author ages, the reader witnesses his coping mechanisms and his moments of terror, confusion, or frustration. He leads the reader through his realizations about his family, the funerals, the church that always looms in the southern U.S., the Jerry Springer effect on society, and his difficult time as public information officer for the town of Hartsville, South Carolina. Racial tension in the southern United States is a topic that never goes away for too many reasons to go into here. You feel it in Log I in narrative that, at times, seems matter-of-fact, but Quist’s vigilance forces the reader to reevaluate what we think we already know. Quist juxtaposes his alternately blunt and eloquent anger with, in the next breath, anecdotes whereby he exhibits his forgiving nature as he grows up and takes care of his aging family members. He delivers these histories in a magnification by which the reader understands the smells and images that surround the author at each stage.

Another structural choice utilized by Quist and which I found unique and effective were the shifts in perspective as delivery methods. For example, the chapter of Log I entitled “Tanglewood” he switches to second person point of view to recount the experience of reading his work to a room full of middle school students. The disarming vulnerability he shares with the reader draws its potency in part from this skillful shift in point of view. In another section in Log I, “In Other Words”, he imagines his wife’s explanations to the customers of her restaurant as to why she and Quist are closing up and moving to Thailand. The imaginary conversations are italicized, but at some point Quist shifts (still using italics) to what reads like a true account of a discussion between him and his wife. He also appears to describe true accounts of incidents that happened at the restaurant when he was enraged by the infuriating presumptions of certain customers. In the shifting back and forth, he articulates his own frustrations and fears as well as his hopes for the strength of the relationship he and his wife have built. But like skilled writers do so well, he does not define his emotion in first-person personal pronoun-verb-adjective structures; he demonstrates it in the actions he recounts and in the conversations surrounding events that he describes. The structural choices in these chapters and in many other sections effect powerful emotional responses from the reader. We sense that familiar insecurity and excitement that comes before tectonic shifts in the foundation of the life to which we’ve become accustomed. Through his choice of methods, Quist gathers the paradise that contains humanity with all its foibles, falsities, and fascinations.

By the time I began Log II, I was in that satisfying place you reach in some books: you are fully embracing the journey, and then the author succeeds in making it even more intriguing. At this point, I tweeted at Quist: “3/4 of the way through “Harbors” by @DonaldEWQuist : a cartography of satisfying crispness like paper rustling in a quiet chamber”. “Cartography”, by the way, is the name of the first chapter within Log II. I was completely swept up and when I get swept up I like to express it. Hence, the tweet.

The shift between Log I and Log II is not stark, but it is palpable. The dramatic change in setting explains a substantial part of the difference. But Quist experiences in Thailand a re-run of racial consciousness, only without the historical scrim of American Slavery. The racial concerns are laid bare in Thailand. Many people in Thailand, according to Quist’s account of the comments made by his wife’s family, do not understand why someone would marry a person of a different race if that race is darker. Why, after spending over ten years in America, hadn’t she chosen a white man instead? This incredulity certainly isn’t better than the American brand of racism. It is only a slight difference and no comfort, though his wife claims that the reason people stare at them as a mixed-race couple in the streets of Bangkok is not based in hatred. In strange contrast, he notes a difference in the ease of getting a taxi now that the military has taken over the government in Thailand. Taxi drivers must pick up everyone in order from the taxi queue. Before the advent of this system, he had difficulty getting a taxi to pick him up and he assumes (most likely correctly) that it was because of his complexion. So, he benefits from an otherwise negative shift in Thailand. When military takes over a country’s government, Westerners cringe at the thought. Yet in this small way and perhaps in many other small ways, the African-American Quist benefits in Thailand where he otherwise suffered a similar racism. It’s a frustrating set of circumstances. He has found a harbor in a place an American would least expect it.

While flying to Bangkok in 2012, Quist thinks back to his time growing up in the southern U.S. as an African-American teenager when he and two friends, also minorities, are accosted in Quist’s own driveway by a police officer. The officer instructs them to lie facedown on wet asphalt, which they do until the officer understands that they are in front of Quist’s home. The officer tells them that they make people nervous by hanging around and says that phrase that echoes, You shouldn’t be here. That notion rings loudly in Quist’s ears. By contrast when flying back from Seattle to Asia in 2014, he recalls how many of his friends did not view him as black enough:  I remember friends of all colors teasing about how white I am, citing the way I speak, the shows I watch, the music I listen to, and what I read as evidence of my unbearable whiteness. Quist’s thoughts meander while he flies between continents and he realizes that despite the racism he senses from the Thai people, …I am profiled less in Bangkok. Fewer expectations and presumptions are based on my race.

As the book ends with a powerful address to his father’s memory, the reader is left to consider the meaning of the word harbor. In the unfolding narratives in this book, Quist’s character has been a harbor for people in his life who sought acceptance or experimentation. He has also sought harbor in people and places and, ultimately, in himself. I came away from this emotive and provocative work thinking about the analogy of docking ourselves in safe harbors versus drifting dangerously without a harbor. We think that new places will be different despite the fact that we bring ourselves with us wherever we go. We think people will be different, but they are the same everywhere we land once we’ve been there long enough to see past the mist of cultural mystique.

The facts that Quist tackles in this work are in many ways too big for a single book and in other ways necessarily addressed in his chosen medium. He faces head-on the complexity of how we think and talk about race. He comments in one section about how angry he felt after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I felt angry after reading Citizen, as well. I don’t know what kind of person would not feel angry after reading it. My response to anger is often sublimation. What does anger do for us? It can be a motivator. It can be a path towards change. It can be a path to eventual discouragement. Expressing anger in a controlled way is a skill that only the emotionally mature can accomplish. Talking about anger, aside from the psychological benefits of doing so, can spread and diffuse the anger contained in one vessel. It can energize a populous. It can be destructive as well as creative. When anger subsides, what is left of a person? The ability to reflect on what made one angry, the response, and its repercussions separates us from what we call our animal nature. But what are you supposed to do when no one listens to your reasons for being angry? In my life I’ve always worked from the premise that exposing negative motivations (what people call “bad” or “evil”) helps to destroy them or alter them to something more healthy/positive. Understanding can lead to redirection. But some people cannot be persuaded because they have no impetus for giving up their power. And in small minds, power, hatred and violence are too easily intertwined. We enter battles and come back wounded. While we heal, we seek the company of people we trust and we gain strength from the bonds we’ve allowed. Once we have recovered sufficiently, we go out again into the battle we choose or that is chosen for us. This is one of the cycles in which we live, in which Quist lives. As he flies back to Bangkok from the U.S. in 2015 he notes: I remember watching news coverage of rioters tearing through Ferguson and Baltimore. I recognized that fury. I understood the rage born from feeling ignored for so long, let down for so long, the feeling that I don’t really own anything but a life and body consistently threatened by a governing structure that promises to protect me. I recognized the desire to burn it all down in hopes of rising from the ashes.

Quist has the ability to use the stories of his past to teach without being didactic, without lecturing, without beating you over the head with a message. He expresses his conclusions in a confessional way and lets you consider your own options for approaching a conclusion. He does not suggest there is any right or wrong way to look at what he has decided to give you in this work. If you find a harbor in it, or if you don’t, it is yours to determine.