A Detour to Awkwardness


Mary Cappello took the road less traveled; the result is a book-length essay called Awkward: A Detour released last spring by Bellevue Literary Press. The book is a literary hybrid: part memoir, part cultural criticism, part philosophical meditation.

Cappello, who joined the English Department in 1991, didn’t set out to write about awkwardness. Instead, a set of serendipities led her to awkwardness, a singularly human condition, she says, one that is wholly pervasive but woefully ignored and unexamined.

“Awkwardness can be understood to be at the center of being alive insofar as ‘being’ depends upon a great many inconsistencies and gaps that we daily try to avoid acknowledging. The gap between being alive and not understanding what it means to be alive is a kind of fundamental awkwardness,” the author explains.

“FINALLY, there is a study of awkwardness in all its many forms: speech, touch, breathing in public, clumsiness… ”The Los Angeles Times proclaimed, propelling Cappello’s book onto the newspaper’s bestseller list.

Cappello’s 2001 and 2002 experiences in Russia as a Fulbright lecturer and in Italy served as a foundation for her pursuit of awkwardness, most especially because of her struggles to adjust to life in the United States upon her return—particularly in the year following the events of 9/11.

But it was her seminar in “Documentary Discourse and Immigrant Subjectivity” that convinced her awkwardness was indeed a subject for a book.

“I was teaching Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a beautiful and dark meditation on a relationship between a young Moroccan immigrant to Germany and a German working-class cleaning woman,” explains the award-winning essayist. “The film is structured around surveying gazes, and consequently, people—most especially the couple in question—as they move in their bodies in ‘unnatural’ ways, stiffly, even as they try to show affection to one another. My students laughed at these stilted-seeming displays, while I was moved by them.”

That led to a classroom conversation about all that is not revealed. For example, Hollywood films present the body as though its owner has a perfectly seamless relation to it. Imagine the artificiality required to make it appear so “natural.”

The class prompted Cappello to search for a passage in her Italian immigrant grandfather’s journals. She didn’t find the piece, but instead, found two letters that her grandfather had written to her when she was a child but had never sent. “The letters were intensely beautiful in their structure and sentiment, and I was struck by the writing and re-writing that was going on in them. As I turned one letter over, I saw, penciled on the reverse end, upside down atop a page, the words that my grandfather was teaching himself that day from the English dictionary accompanied not by their English definitions, but by their beguiling Italian counterparts. At the top of the page, the word awkward appeared.”

Cappello finds examples of awkwardness everywhere—in people of all ages, in speech and in silence, in our cultural, social, psychological, and spiritual lives. She also looks at the way awkwardness figures in the lives and works of artists like Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Fassbinder.

“My book, in a sense, is a celebration of awkwardness—it offers a revaluation of awkwardness, and maybe this is its political aspect: I think our inability to endure awkward states hasn’t served us well (I mean “we” Americans in a post-9/11 nation). The radical challenge of our current historical moment is twofold in this sense: we must give ourselves over to an awkward metamorphosis and release awkwardness itself from a definitional stranglehold that treats it as a state that is to be avoided at all costs.”

Cappello found a new relationship with awkwardness last spring and early summer when she discovered a lump in her breast. She was thrown, wearing only a johnny and without a name, into the harsh lights and diagnostic machines of the medical arena. The tumor was cancerous.

“I certainly never could have imagined what it might feel like to make eight public appearances in just over two weeks while carrying the fact of my diagnosis around with me and keeping it to one side while I gave readings to unfamiliar audiences,” the author says.

Her treatment included a heavy regime of chemotherapy and radiation that kept her out of the classroom this fall.

She continues writing—she has kept a notebook of impressions, lines, observations, and ideas ever since she was a child in Darby, Pa. It is something she also encourages her writing students to do.

Her writing is greatly influenced by her mother, a voracious reader and a poet, and her grandfather, a closeted writer who taught her to play the mandolin.

Awkward: A Detour is the English professor’s second book. Her first, Night Bloom, a 1998 memoir, combines oral history, folklore, her grandfather’s journals, and more. She is deep into writing a third book, this one on a pioneering laryngologist who collected more than 2,000 objects from people’s airways and stomachs. The objects are now on display in the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. n

By Jan Wenzel ‘87