A Conversation with Elizabeth Mosier
Author of EXCAVATING MEMORY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND HOME
from New Rivers Press, 96 Pages
Interview by Nathaniel Popkin
Elizabeth Mosier logged one thousand volunteer hours processing colonial-era artifacts at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory to write EXCAVATING MEMORY: ARCHAEOLOGY AND HOME, which uses archaeology as a framework to explore personal material, including her mother’s memory loss, the layering of shared experience in creating family or community narratives, and the role that artifacts play in historical memory. The essay titled “Believers”, a 2015 Best American Essays Notable pick, first appeared in Cleaver.
Novelist and essayist Elizabeth Mosier has twice been named a discipline winner/fellowship finalist by the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, and has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Millay Colony for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Her nonfiction has been selected as notable in Best American Essays, and appears most recently in Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She writes the “Intersections” column on alumnae lives for the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin. More information at www.ElizabethMosier.com.
Nathaniel Popkin: You write, early in the collection, in regard to your work processing objects from an archeological dig near Independence Hall in Philadelphia, that “digging and processing of primary sources creates a record of life that is both detailed and fragmented, much like memory.” Excavating Memory is a stirring exploration of this idea. Would you say then the book is less a search for truth (about your life) and more a complication, perhaps of what you had perceived to be real?
Elizabeth Mosier: I’m fascinated by how artifacts that form the archaeological record constitute and, in some cases, correct the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how we live. Like archaeologists, writers are always looking for artifacts that support or subvert what we think is true.
As a volunteer technician at the Independence National Historical Park Archeology Laboratory, I got to practice looking closely at small things, and looking beneath the surface of the city I knew mostly by its buildings, monuments, and celebrated citizens. Washing, labeling, mending, and cataloguing a colonial neighborhood’s glass fragments and ceramic sherds trained me to see broken, discarded things as material evidence—of social class, consumer patterns, cultural practices, politics, and relationships. I became more conscious of how we construct reality, create history, from pieces we’ve saved by choice or accident.
The most important thing I learned from the archaeologists is that the real treasure isn’t the artifact, but the information gleaned from it. And after 1,000 hours in the lab, I viewed my own material through this new lens. I realized that writing is like repairing a broken bottle from the base up, then taking it apart again to fashion a story from what you’ve found.
NP: This book ought to have an analog map or maps—you’re tracing paths as you go. These are maps that extend from Philadelphia to Phoenix to Indiana. And there are maps within maps and some that only exist in your head or others’ (I’m thinking of your mother’s floor plan map of her farmhouse growing up and E.B. White’s, too). Maps, whether in our heads or on paper or computer, are objects. “I don’t question objects,” your mother says in the essay “Once More to the Barn.” What do you think of this—is there a way in which all the maps are right, even when they obscure, or get details wrong, or leave key things out?
EM: Maps that obscure, obliterate, distort, or falsify details aren’t accurate but, in their inaccuracies, they can reveal what the cartographer values or wants to hide or doesn’t (want to) acknowledge. Despite my mother’s protest, which she made not from a lack of curiosity but from midwestern pragmatism, drawing a floorplan of her childhood home in “Once More to the Barn,” mentally walking through that physical space, prompted a traumatic memory. In “From Scratch,” my father’s hand-drawn map of Lynn, Indiana, circa 1950, accurately depicts the location of the railroad tracks that no longer run through his hometown. But I am able to find him in that landscape because he keyed the map with personal details like his mother’s flower garden and the “X” that marks the spot where he found and pocketed a bat on his way to school.
I agree with memoirist Patricia Hampl, who says we write not about what we know, but to find out what we know. Writing is a way of mapping reality. But if we want to write truthfully, we have to “question objects” and fact-check the maps we’ve plotted against other evidence.
NP: I once was enamored of the idea of the “poetry of history” and I wrote about it in Song of the City—“I walk the same streets as Franklin, Capone, Whitman, and Baldwin…” But reading your essays makes me think this is the opposite of what is really interesting about a street, or a corner, or a building, or a life. Those other people are ghosts, after all, and we are real. What seems to matter to you about a place is the personal, the material (like the bark of the Big Tree), the tracings of your own life. The rest is accidental. Why do these personal tracings matter to you?
EM: The “poetry of history” is what drew me to The President’s House dig, after I heard the head archaeologist, Jed Levin, speak about its stone foundation being “a tangible link to the people who lived in this house, and a link between the enslaved and the free.” I wanted to help memorialize the nine enslaved Africans: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe Richardson. But the dig became meaningful to me in other ways, too.
My time at the archaeology lab coincided with my mother’s mental decline, due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her memory loss haunted me, warning me to make something tangible to account for my life. And yet I was too distracted and distraught to write. This book began to take shape as I recorded details and observations about the lab in my journal and in short blog posts. Four years in, I put these brief pieces together in a narrative essay, “The Pit and the Page.”
But also, during that seven-year period, I had to empty four houses full of objects collected by my declining parents and deceased parents-in-law, and so I thought a lot about why we keep what we keep while we let other things go. This “grief cleaning,” as I call it, is an emotional process. For me, the decision is guided by a familiar visceral feeling that serves me in writing, too: this is something I can use.
NP: You began writing these essays about ten years ago, I think, and they piled onto each other like markings on the map. How different is this collection in its final form from what you might have intended? At what point did you realize you were searching for fragments of your own life—or rather trying to piece them together? Is the composition of the fragments—that is, both the essay collection and the memories redrawn on a map—a satisfying picture or are you still searching and tracing lines?
EM: I actually didn’t intend to write about my volunteer work at the lab, but I’m a curious person and a compulsive notetaker. My supervisor, Deborah Miller, generously shared her expertise, teaching me lab procedures and answering my many questions. And as I took notes, I began to find connections between the work archaeologists do and the work writers do: digging, processing, and repairing the artifacts of experience in order to find meaning. This insight suggested a methodology I could adopt, a lens I could apply to a collection of personal artifacts in order to process my personal loss.
As I went on, my literary interest in archaeology expanded to include contemporary objects and their owners, including the college diaries of classical archaeologist Dorothy Burr Thompson, to explore a larger question: What do salvaged or sacrificed objects reveal about how people form identity, or how a community creates its history? That’s a vein I’m still pursuing.
NP: The chapter “From Scratch,” with its repeated invocation, “let there be…” reads and feels different from the rest of the collection. It is prayerful rather than observational, a search for moral courage of some sort. How important was that invocation to you as you set out to excavate these personal, sometimes beautiful and sometimes painful memories? Did you have to say, please, “let there be words for all of this…”?
EM: Mourning, like writing, is labor—putting severed parts together, restoring order from chaos—but its process is internal and its product often invisible. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve coped with sadness by making things. And so I “processed” my grief over my father’s death by making his favorite rhubarb pie, using a recipe from my grandmother’s 1927 Farmer’s Guide Cook Book that I had already studied as an artifact. I was curious: how much of my ancestors’ knowledge had passed down to me? The pie-making was part ritual, part writing prompt.
I’d read all these scholarly articles by anthropologists on recipes as a form of rhetoric—social narratives that encourage and enact dialogue between the giver and the receiver. Intellectually, I was interested in the idea of a recipe as an “unauthorized” text—communal, reproduced, improvised, revised—that requires creative interpretation including modifications, deletions, substitutions, and experiments that enable the cook to reproduce the text in her own way and thereby claim her creative authority.
But really, I just wanted my father back. And so I ditched the narrative essay I’d drafted, and wrote this raw expression of scorched-earth despair. I wanted the invocation to echo its source in Genesis 1:3, and to sound like a daughter naming and grasping for concrete detail, imagining altered pasts and alternative futures to reorient herself as she writes her way out of the void.
In other words, I honored the emotional component in archaeology. This book of essays is an artifact, forming the record of my midlife reconstitution in the wake of loss.
Cleaver reviews editor Nathaniel Popkin is the author of five books, including the 2018 novel Everything is Borrowed, and co-editor (with Stephanie Feldman) of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, LitHub, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books. If you are an author or publicist seeking reviews or a writer hoping to write reviews for Cleaver, query Nathaniel.