CNF: Many Parts

by Rebecca Altman


Microsoft Word - Altman.Many Parts.doc

Rebecca Altman is a sociologist fascinated by the connections between health and the environment. Her research and writing explore the concept of legacy—environmental problems that transcend place and time, and are passed from one generation to the next. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org) and sometimes teaches seminars in the Community Health Department at Tufts University. She splits her time between mothering and finishing a book that chronicles her journey following persistent pollutants from the factory towns where they are made to the communities where they concentrate in the circumpolar North. Her writing has appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Environmental Health News, and the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

What fascinating, surprising things can you tell us about the origin, writing, revision of this piece?

    Here are three bits of back-story:

    In 2013, my Dad and I returned to the New Jersey factory where he once made plastics. He hadn’t been back since quitting in 1972. We drove from Boston only to find it demolished, save for a couple of buildings still to come down. A facilities engineer took pity on us –a father and daughter who would have otherwise stood in the rain and peered through chain-link—and gave us a tour of the old, now overgrown grounds and a photograph of the plant during the era when it employed thousands.

    This piece draws from a larger work of combined memoir-sociology that reflects on returning to my father’s former plant, on plastics and family, and the nature of legacy—what we pass from one generation to the next.

    The material in the triptych distills the introduction to this hybrid project. I had written it linearly, and tried to weave three strands of narrative—a memoir about childhood in a blended family; the story of polymer-manufacturing and its environmental legacy; and my father’s experience making polystyrene at a factory whose illegally-dumped waste was later implicated in a Superfund site and possibly (though not conclusively) a spike in childhood cancers elsewhere in New Jersey. But it wasn’t working. It lacked dimension. I wished the text could run side-by-side. I wanted actual and not just metaphorical juxtaposition.

    Enter: the triptych, an accidental discovery made after reading a friend’s piece recently published here (see Mary Heather Nobel). Slipping snippets of that longer piece into a triptych began as an exercise to re-enter a stalled project. I never intended to submit it.

    Enter: the triptych, an accidental discovery made after reading a friend’s piece recently published here (see Mary Heather Nobel). Slipping snippets of that longer piece into a triptych began as an exercise to re-enter the project after progress had stalled.

    I am fascinated when writers describe the complexities of human relationships by invoking chemistry metaphors. And I was trying to do the same. But it dawned on me, once I began reworking the material in parallel, that I also was writing about chemistry and plastics using family metaphors. Fitting each element into its own column made that more obvious to me and enabled me to be more intentional with how I described the twisted strands of family and chemistry. I now can carry that into the rest of the work that lies ahead and am thankful.

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