Pittsburgh writers have taken the literary world by storm in the past two years since Deesha Philyaw’s hit The Secret Life of the Ladies of the Church to Brian Broome who won the Kirkus Prize. But the year is not yet over, which means more can still make waves. Now NPR has recognized another local writer.
Certain and impossible events, the first book by Candace Jane Opper, was added to NPR’s 2021 Books We Love list. It was highlighted by literary critic Ilana Masad, who called it a “beautiful and tender memory” that spanned Opper’s years of obsession with a boy she knew who committed suicide at the age of. 13 years.
The book was published in January by the Kore Press Institute, an organization that describes its mission as “publishing contemporary literature written by transgender women and writers for 27 years, with a focus on minority and marginalized voices.”
Kore is calling Certain and impossible events a “kaleidoscopic lens of the cultural history of suicide in America”.
“By merging personal narrative with history and science, Opper unearths the invisible web between all suicides – well known or barely documented,” a statement provided. “By inviting us into her decades-long obsession with the suicide of a boy she barely knew, Opper creates space for herself and her readers to embrace a radical form of oblivion.”
Opper says she started writing this book about 10 years ago, but it really started in 1994 in her hometown of Connecticut, when the boy she knew in college committed suicide.
“I had had a crush on him and naturally felt a lot of grief – but I was also very disappointed with the way my school and my community handled his death – basically not at all,” says Opper. “There has always been a lot of stigma and shame around suicide, and this was especially true where I grew up. My small town had no idea how to react, so they were basically like, “He wanted us to move on” and continued on like nothing had happened. I thought it was disrespectful and honestly some kind of bullshit. His actions were so extreme, violent and final; it didn’t sound like an event that could or should be simply ignored. ”
The fact that the death occurred just a week after Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain also died by suicide, made it all the more resonant.
Opper says she used writing as a way to deal with tragedy and as a way to reflect on the kind of obsession that can arise after suicide – what she describes as “the perpetual act of scrutinizing details, in the hope of making sense of what led a person to their own end. She sums it up as being about the boy’s final months, his obsession with his death, and “all the ways we try (and fail) for the most part) to make sense of suicide – personally and culturally.
The early drafts of the book became her master’s thesis, and she continued to research, write, and edit the manuscript until 2018, when it was selected as the winner of the Kore Press Memoir Award.
“So overall it took about 25 years,” says Opper.
She says the reception of the book has been “really encouraging” so far.
“I had to overcome a lot of shame in posting this to the world, especially the shame of feeling like I don’t have a ‘right’ to grieve,” Opper said. “Grieving can be so hierarchical, and I felt like I really needed to earn the right to tell this story. But the response made me feel incredibly seen.”
She adds that many readers have reached out to her to similarly share their own experiences of being touched by the suicide death of someone they were not very close to and that they have found solace in his book.
“Honestly, that’s all I wanted, to be some kind of spokesperson for people who have a story to share but no place to put it,” Opper said. “Grieving can take so many different forms, I’m just trying to make more space for that diversity.”
She says being shortlisted for NPR’s 2021 list of books we love is “fucking amazing,” especially given the way the book was published.
“It’s a very difficult year to publish a book, obviously. Also, I work with a small press that has supported me so much but doesn’t have the same advertising and marketing resources available to the big presses, ”says Opper. “Small newspaper writers and, frankly, most writers have to scramble to get books into people’s hands these days, so that kind of recognition is huge.”
Certain and impossible events is now available for purchase from the Kore Press Institute website.