Review: I Don’t Belong Here by Melissa Grunow

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cover of i don't belong here - collages of various black and white photos of feet standing in various placesMelissa Grunow’s book, I Don’t Belong Here: Essays (New Median Arts, September 2018), collects essays, some previously published, that document various events in the author’s life, including graduate school and teaching, failed relationships, and mental health. Grunow has used the titles and content of these essays to weave her collection together, all under the umbrella of the “otherness” she feels and how that has affected her at various points in her life. The final essay recounts when she was finally able to fully embrace her mental health struggles and begin to heal.


The collection is broken into four distinct sections: “Unspoken,” “Displaced,” “Suppressed,” and finally, “Misunderstood.” Subsequently, each essay within the section highlights those headers.  For instance, the first essay of the collection in Part 1: Unspoken is titled, “Silent, Stifled Love.”  The titles work to not only allude to the essay’s content, but also tie each essay together within the collected works.


Throughout the collection, Grunow plays with narrative voice. Several essays are told in second person, many in third person, and very rarely does she use first person as she addresses her own experiences head-on. In the second essay, “Kissing Ginger,” Grunow uses second person to address her ex-husband, whom she witnesses kissing “Ginger, the lesbian poetry student with a pierced lip.” The essay becomes an open letter of confession to her ex-husband, noting for the first time that she witnessed this act, but had said nothing about it. The rest of the essay repeats how she didn’t blame him for kissing Ginger, but she did blame him for not caring when she was throwing up in the bathroom, a sign of what was to come in their marriage.


Each essay jumps through time and space, often melding different time periods and events in the author’s life that fit within the category of the title. In one of the latter essays, “Good Person,” Grunow combines her time teaching a night class and being friendly with an Albanian cleaning woman and her relationship with a friend named Nick. The juxtaposition occurs when the cleaning woman, unnamed, tells Grunow she is a good person, but Grunow uses the alternative story to illustrate a time she didn’t feel like a good person, when Nick began to use cocaine (again) and she did nothing to stop him.


Later, Grunow’s essay “Dissonance” recounts her issues with food. The essay is heartbreaking as she talks about how she cooks and plates elaborate dishes that end up simply sliding into the garbage bin at the end of the preparation, untouched. Here, she recounts times of her childhood, where dinner was the only time the entire family was allowed to indulge in eating as much as they wanted, but all other times were off limits. To illustrate this, she tells of the only time a friend slept over and they ate an entire package of cookies. Her mother’s reaction was to forbid her daughter to have any more friends sleep over and refuse cookies from a freshly made batch.


Grunow’s prose is poetic in nature. She’s a beautiful storyteller as she weaves her stories together under a single theme for each piece. Her voice is honest and open, allowing the reader to not only understand the emotion behind each instance recounted, but to also feel what she felt as those events were happening. The feeling of freedom and acceptance culminates in the final essay, “We’re All Mad Here: A Field Guide to Feigning Sanity.” When it ends, the reader feels the same relief and acceptance as Grunow.


When she’s not writing, Ashley Supinski teaches English at Northampton County Community College (Pa.), Penn State Lehigh Valley, and Southern New Hampshire University. She also works as a part-time librarian, focusing on young adult services. She has an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University, where she studied with David Poyer and Lenore Hart.

Ashley lives in Pennsylvania with her family, where she graciously dog-and-chicken sits for her siblings. She writes book reviews for the blog, After the Last Page and is also the co-coordinator of YA Fest.

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