Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art, and Madness

by Robin Hemley

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"Nola is really the biography of a family, by a writer who understands the complex inter-relationships between people who love each other helplessly. Robin Hemley investigates the shifting space that so often separates spiritual quest from insanity, divides a healthy search for the light from a dangerous staring at the sun. And finally, this is a



"Nola is really the biography of a family, by a writer who understands the complex inter-relationships between people who love each other helplessly. Robin Hemley investigates the shifting space that so often separates spiritual quest from insanity, divides a healthy search for the light from a dangerous staring at the sun. And finally, this is a writer's story, painful, edgy, honest, and humble before mysteries even the best observer and family archivist will never understand."--Rosellen Brown

"Robin Hemley has given us a haunting, strange, and beautifully luminous work in Nola, a portrait of the artist's quest for fulfillment complete with all its attendant sorrows and joys. Powerful, moving, genuinely gut-wrenching without losing its own sense of humor and pathos, Nola is one of the best works of nonfiction I have read in years."--Bret Lott

"An eloquent elegy to his sister (possibly a suicide and almost certainly a saint), Robin Hemley's Nola is the extraordinarily moving story of a rational man's education into mystery and magic." --David Shields

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In this candid, revealing family scrapbook, Robin Hemley, a fiction writer and essayist, assiduously investigates the ways in which truth and fable shape identity. . . . Ultimately Nola becomes a chronicle of a literary period, a story about a gifted family and, most of all, an examination of Robin Hemley's evolution as son, brother, husband, father, and writer.”—Chicago Tribune 
Even though Hemley's memoir is non-fiction, the family portrayed in this book is as bizarre as one might find in a John Irving novel. At age 13, Hemley's older half-sister Nola had a life-transforming dream, leading her into the spiritual world and eventually to madness. Shortly before her 26th birthday, Nola died as a result of an accidental overdose of Thorazine, prescribed to control her schizophrenia.
Three years later, Hemley's curiosity was aroused when he discovered a legal document denying Nola's status as her father's legal heir. He gradually reconstructed his family's history after years of research including painstaking translations of Nola's journal (which was written in Sanskrit), letters from family members (written in Yiddish), and the spoken words of his mother, who used church Latin when telling Hemley about the family's early life.
Nola is filled with visions and voices; fairies and ghosts; lies and embellishments of the truth. However, Hemley suggests, this book should not be viewed as the story of his half-sister going mad, a story of death or a story of change. Instead, the author proffers this as a story of love. And although the pieces of this puzzling story are somewhat disjointed, Hemley relates an engaging tale of a family dealing with spiritual obsession and mental illness.
­Jill Hughes
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A diagnosed schizophrenic, Nola Hemley died in 1973 of a medication overdose at the age of 25. In this affecting, highly inventive memoir, Hemley's younger half-brother, a creative writing teacher and the author of Turning Life into Fiction, attempts to understand what led his gifted sister down the path toward mental illness, drawing on her journals and artwork as well as his own memories of her. There are, he discovers, no obvious answers, and his frustration in trying to comprehend the workings of Nola's mind is palpable: "Whatever I say condemns her, romanticizes her, lies about her, idolizes her, but never, never recreates her in all her complexity." Perhaps that's why the book keeps veering away from its ostensible subject to tell the story of the author's own childhood and to explore his parents' lives. In the end, Hemley's strikingly, often fascinatingly, postmodern narrative tells us more about the challenges and ramifications of writing a personal memoir than about its subject's life. Readers in search of an in-depth account of a family's struggle with mental illness may come away frustrated by Hemley's sometimes oblique treatment of this theme, but those interested in writing as a process will find his articulate musings amply rewarding.
Library Journal
In this jewel of a memoir, Hemley (creative writing, Western Washington Univ.) poignantly recounts the impact of mental illness on his family. Deftly unraveling his family's many trials and triumphs--his father, Cecil, was a poet, publisher, and, along with his wife, Elaine, translator of the early works of Isaac Bashevis Singer--he makes his half-sister Nola the nucleus of the book. A once-brilliant budding scholar, she fell into schizophrenia at 22 and died at 25. Her correspondence and personal writing enables the reader to see the illness engulf her, while Hemley's gripping narration relays how the family coped then and what her illness means now. Highly recommended for all libraries.--Ronald Ratliff, Chapman H.S. Lib., KS
Seattle Times
Buckle your seatbelts for this ride: the action caroms from kibbutzes and ashrams to mental hospitals and Mexican getaways. Hypnotists, literati, ghosts and gurus climb aboard and get off like hitchhikers on the interstate..Excruciatingly self- conscious, disturbingly meddlesome, unremittingly inventive--Nola, the book reflects Nola the person through the myriad glinting pieces of a crazed rear-view mirror.
Anne-Marie Oomen
Exceptional ... Hemley's book sits square in the center of the new and most successful nonfiction, exemplifying the trend of stretching the form. Nola is not just a life-and-death narrative of the author's brilliant and disturbed sister, but it's also a complex narrative of Hemley himself .... Couple the inventive format with a writing style that is deeply reflective, utterly honest, and sensitive of the issues of writing nonfiction in this way, and you have a colossal memoir.-- ForeWord
Kirkus Reviews
This profile of the author's sister succumbs to self-absorption, revealing the painful difficulties of trying to capture the life of a family member. Nola, the author's older half-sister, has been dead for 25 years, yet he remains enthralled by her imaginative stories and psychotic episodes. So too does their mother, a bohemian writer whose own story dominates much of this account. Hemley (Creative Writing/Western Washington Univ.) complains that their mother is choosy about revealing even the basic facts of her unconventional life, yet he also self-importantly claims that the facts are boring!

Product Details

University of Iowa Press
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Present
My mother is working on a novel, two novels really, a mystery about a trip we took to England when I was eighteen and another one whose subject I'm unsure of. She's been working on a novel for years, ever since I can remember her second novel. Her first was published in 1947, the year of my sister Nola's birth. Almost every time I speak to her she's working on a new novel, having abandoned each previous one after a couple of drafts or a few chapters. Every few years she rediscovers her old novels and realizes they were pretty good. She'll work feverishly on a rediscovered novel with renewed vigor until another loss of faith, and then she's off to a new project. In between she writes short stories. For many years they were published in some of the best literary journals and anthologies.

I find myself trying to make time to read her new stories between my busy teaching schedule, doing my own writing, spending time with my own family. Everything produces guilt. I look at my daughters and realize I'm not spending enough time with them. I try to give everyone encouragement. "Just keep sending them out, Mom." "Why don't you just finish this one before moving on. I like the idea of this one."

"I'll get back to it," she tells me.

But I know that after she dies, I'll find a dozen or so novels in various stages of completion, and I won't know what to do with them. Should I find the best ones and try to edit them? Should I send them out as is? Why am I worrying about this now? It's strange to think of your family leaving you documents, but that's what my family leaves behind: stories, novels, poems. Documents. Half-truths. Fiction. It's what my family wasbuilt on, what we've always believed in. We've always been suspicious of fact, frightened of it. My grandmother, on her deathbed, delirious, asking for the impossible to just go home and sit outside for a while on her porch, started ranting, according to my mother, about a supposed case of incest in a branch of our family that happened two hundred years ago, and begged that the family line be stopped. Facts, even two hundred years old, haunt our family.

"Fictionalize it," my mother says. "Why don't you fictionalize it?"

Meet the Author

Robin Hemley is the author of several works of nonfiction and fiction, including Turning Life into Fiction, The Last Studebaker, All You Can Eat, and The Big Ear. His work has also been published in Great Britain, Germany, and Japan, and has been heard on NPR's "Selected Shorts" and "The Sound of Writing." His awards include first prize in the Nelson Algren Award competition from The Chicago Tribune, two Pushcart Prizes, and The George Garrett Award. Hemley presently teaches creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

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