Review: Harbors, by Donald Quist

I’d read a few of the essays found in Donald Quist’s new essay collection, Harbors, when they were published over the last year or so, but nothing prepared me for the impact of the complete collection. It’s a beautiful book, for one thing, something that deserves to be noted in a time when publishers save as much as they can wherever they can. The print, while small, is elegant; the paper is thick and of high quality. And the cover is just gorgeous. I read ebooks, but I want to hold this one in my hand. But it’s what’s inside this collection that really makes it remarkable.


One of my favorites recalled the author’s relationship with his grandmother — who was, what we’d call in the South, a “real character”. She watches Jerry Springer and television preachers, her door was always open to drunks and addicts who would stumble by to share their stories (and she’d share her vodka). His granduncle who shares the house was a church-goer who enjoyed the respect of the community. But the essay shows how our lives are much more complex than any easy summary might make it seem.

In addition to tender and honest portraits of his family members, Quist writes about his time spent working for the mayor’s office of a small South Carolina town at a time of racial tension, and the ambiguity he feels in his role. He writes of growing up, working at the mall’s Spencer’s (which will ring a bell for anyone who came of age in the 80s) and how it was to be a geeky bookish adolescent (the detail of his favorite authors of that time—RL Stine and Camus—had me howling in recognition), are shared with a big-hearted sympathy to the boy he was.

Other pieces recount the feelings of isolation Quist experienced as a black male living in America. The way black bodies are attacked here, not newly since the time of social media but throughout his lifetime and beyond. Reading these essays gave me—someone who may be about his age, who was raised white and female about an hour’s drive from the South Carolina locations he describes—a very physical sense of the way the bodies we inhabit shape the lives we have in a very real and impersonal way. These feelings become more articulate once Quist and his wife decided to move to her home country of Thailand, where they live today. Like James Baldwin (or, it must be said, Ta-Nehisi Coates) living and writing in Paris, Quist’s view of these United States is sharp. At times angry, and at times revelatory, this is a brilliant collection.

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