I read Sempre Susan in one sitting, enthralled. You can never fully anticipate a book having that sort of impact on you, but when it does, it’s hard to ignore. Sigrid Nunez is unsparingly honest about her experience with Susan Sontag, and this creates a queasy tension in the reader: I felt embarrassed for Sontag, a woman who, despite her fierce intellect, could be petty and odd. She could also be authoritarian, unforgiving and without sympathy. And sometimes I resented Nunez for portraying her this way.
It’s interesting to be made to feel like shit by the person you’ve wanted to impress most. That kind of relationship has a funny way of making us learn more about ourselves.
When I worked in book publishing I was more self-conscious than I’ve ever been in my entire adult life. I was the only black person in the editorial department. Never mind that most of the peers I was surrounded by all seemed to maintain an auspiciously comfortable lifestyle despite earning a salary so small it hurts me to even think about it. It didn’t matter. I had something to prove and I knew exactly how I would do it: I would work for the most hard-nosed, no-bullshit, “everyone hold your breath, omg she’s coming” editor in the book business. That’s how I would prove my mettle.
There was a moment in the office, my third year in the business. It was past 7pm and my boss was scheduled to fly to Frankfurt for the book fair the following morning. I was sitting at my desk, patiently waiting for her to leave so that I could go home. She called my name and asked me for her flight confirmation number. I told her I had to look it up and she went into a fit of rage: “How do you not know my confirmation number? You know what? Don’t bother. I’ll look it up. You should just go home.”
At that moment, she could have told me that I wasn’t fit to edit a Chinese take-out menu and I would have believed her. I was heartbroken and quit my job soon after. Of course, that wasn’t the only time we had that sort of exchange, and yet, when I look back, what’s most clear to me is that those horrific moments were a fraction of the whole. What I remember most is how much I learned from her.
I loved the way she sauntered into the office, looking like a mashup of Rita Hayworth and Flannery O’Connor. I loved that she rode her bike to work everyday. I loved the way she lit up a room as soon as she walked in, but she also wasn’t afraid to command that room with her presence. She was a mother, a confidante to her authors, and a woman of fearless intelligence. I loved it when she would recite lines from Frank O’Hara poems. Of course, she could also be a bit of a nut. (Go figure.) I still consider her one of the most influential people in my adult life because she helped me learn more about who I am and who want to be. I owe her a great deal for that. Like Sontag, she was a mentor by nature. Not always leading by example, but always offering a moment to learn something.
For me, the title of Sempre Susan alone encompasses all of this. It’s
about Susan. It’s
about remembering a confirmation number. It’s
about trying to please the people who seem impossible. On the other hand, the title suggests that the things we learn from our mentors have continuity; they have longevity, permanence.
looking back to Susan as a guide and as a measure. Learning from Susan,