I just finished Risa Nye’s memoir, There Was a Fire Here (She Writes Press, 2016). The Oakland hills fire of 1991 killed 25 people, burned 1500 acres, and destroyed over 3000 homes. One of those homes belonged to Risa, her husband, and her three children.
Risa and I met at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop many years ago. We’re still friends, even though we interacted in person for just one week. Still friends with others in our workshop as well. I know a part of that friendship is due to the fact that we CNF writers were forced to peel off a lot of layers in a short amount of time. But another part of our friendship is rooted in shared experience: fire. Risa’s was part of a historic fire that rocked a community; mine was a single-house fire in the aftermath of a hurricane that rocked a community. Risa also told our workshop back then about her daughter who, about to give birth, had herself been born into a medical maelstrom, needing immediate intervention. (She writes about that experience here.) A few years later, with the premature birth of my twins, I would share that experience too. I remember being riveted by Risa’s storytelling during workshop, both in person and in print. I was eager to read her book.
The most powerful parts of a powerful story are often the quietest ones. In the midst of the roar, it’s the single breath that echoes. At least, that’s the way I look at—and through— chaos, and that’s the way I work through enormity.
Risa begins her book with one of these breaths. Page one, as she explores what it was like to have nothing left after the fire, Risa thinks back to split-second decisions, and writes: “This and not that.” I sense the whole book falls along this dividing line. This item grabbed, that one left behind. This house burned, not that one. This side of the road, not that one. This person evacuated, that one stayed too long, died. This family stayed close to community, that family grew bitter. This, that. Risa tells a story of chance and how within incredible moments of powerlessness, the irrepressible human mind still attempts to make a choice.
I’m also moved by the fire stories shared by Risa’s friends, her flash pieces on artifacts lost, and, especially, her straightforward, heartbreaking list of those who died in the fire.
Risa, I loved reading your book, even as I hated the tragedy at its core. You gave me a breath to quiet some wonderings about my own family’s fire: “It is gone, beyond my concept of gone.”