Life, Death & Writing on the Edge
A conversation with Reyna Grande, Celeste Bedford Walker and Dick J. Reavis
Surveying The Wittliff’s rich literary archives, this new exhibition, I Pray You Stay Alive: Writing on the Edge, explores how our best writers have personally confronted life-or-death situations: war and murder, race riots and civil rights, perilous migrant journeys, sexual assault, domestic abuse, hate crimes, cancer, mass shootings and a pandemic.
“So many of these urgent issues are at the forefront of our society today,” says The Wittliff’s Literary Curator, Steve Davis. “Many of our leading writers have already grappled with these same matters in their own lives. It’s not only fascinating to see how they’ve dealt with these same issues, it can also be inspiring for the rest of us.”
The exhibition’s title, “I Pray You Stay Alive,” comes from a letter written by Maya Angelou on display, in which she praises Texas author Larry L. King for his courageous work exposing racism in Texas — while expressing concern that he could be targeted as a result.
“There is a range of compelling stories here,” says Davis. “Among them is Katherine Anne Porter’s ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ a story based on her own near-death experience during the 1918 influenza outbreak. Porter’s story is widely considered the classic account of that pandemic, which ended up killing more people than World War One.”
The exhibition also investigates the mystery of early feminist writer Gertrude Beasley, a Texan who published a controversial memoir in Paris in 1925 — and then disappeared from view. “At the time, Beasley’s book was declared obscene and all known copies were rounded up and destroyed,” Davis said. “For decades, no one knew what happened to her.”
In recent years, the literary detective Alice Specht helped uncover what happened. Beasley was deported from England and returned to the United States, where the writer was committed to a psychiatric institution and later died. In 2022, Specht donated her Beasley research archive to The Wittliff Collections. Davis says, “We are showing items from the Specht collection in the exhibit, including Beasley’s court appearance in England and one of her desperate letters asking for help.” Also on display is a rare surviving copy of the original 1925 edition of Beasley’s book, donated by Ben Guttery to The Wittliff.
Beyond the many gripping firsthand accounts, Davis emphasizes that I Pray You Stay Alive also explores grief and the power of healing. Poets Naomi Shihab Nye and ire’ne lara silva both responded to the Uvalde mass shooting in meaningful ways. Nye went to Uvalde to work directly with children at the public library, while lara silva’s moving lament, “For Uvalde,” was published in Texas Highways, where the poet noted, “my eyes are not large enough to weep this grief.”
Essential to the exhibition is a large broadside displaying Naomi Shihab Nye’s world-famous poem, “Kindness,” accompanied by an early handwritten draft of the poem. In it, Nye observes, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside / you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” Davis points out that Nye’s poem is beloved around the world: “One example of its reach is that the band U2 was scrolling the words to ‘Kindness’ on a recent concert tour.”
True crime and its consequences are examined through Beverly Lowry, who befriended death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker after losing her own teenaged son to a senseless killing. Tucker was eventually executed and Lowry wrote Crossed Over, an acclaimed book about their relationship and how it helped each of them come to terms with their lives.
Crime is also central to the story of Jan Reid – a Texas Monthly journalist who got shot during an armed robbery in Mexico City and barely survived to tell the tale. Another vital voice belongs to Jesse Sublett, a trailblazing punk rock singer in Austin who returned home from a gig to find his girlfriend murdered. Sublett’s extraordinary memoir, Never the Same Again, which probes that crime’s effect on his life, along a gripping account of him miraculously surviving State IV throat cancer, which carries a 99% mortality rate.
Sublett’s emergence on the other side of cancer is echoed by the experience of globetrotting author Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who recovered from ovarian cancer while noting, “The first thing you realize as a cancer patient is how many of your body parts are expendable.” Among the most treasured things she lost was her hair, which the fair-skinned Griest describes as “the most visibly Mexican thing about me…my hair is my identity. My ancestry. My inheritance.”
“Migrant journeys are also traced in this exhibition,” Davis says. “Most notably through bestselling author Reyna Grande.” Enduring an impoverished childhood in southern Mexico, Grande was only nine years old when she crossed a deadly desert to make it to the United States. By the time she turned twenty-three, she was a U.S. citizen and graduated from college with honors. “She is now one of the country’s major literary voices,” says Davis.
One of Grande’s early inspirations was the author Sandra Cisneros, whose major archive is at The Wittliff. Along with Grande’s own account, I Pray You Stay Alive examines the real-life events that sparked Cisneros’s famed short story, “Woman Hollering Creek,” in which the author came to the aid of a woman targeted by domestic abuse and helped spirit her to safety.
War and its aftermath are seen through the eyes of William Broyles, who served as a Lieutenant in Viet Nam during the war and in 1984 became the first combat veteran to return that country, which had no diplomatic relations with the US at the time. Broyles’ extraordinary journey from war to peace is chronicled in his celebrated book, Brothers in Arms.
Another writer, David Dorado Romo of El Paso, takes stock of the long-troubled history of the US Mexico border, along with the killing of his childhood friend during the racist-fueled Walmart massacre in El Paso in 2019. “Maybe there had always been a war here,” Romo ruminates, “and I just hadn’t seen it before.”
One of the most poignant aspects of the exhibition is the story of Camp Logan, Davis says. “During World War One members of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment were looking forward to fighting overseas, believing that proving themselves in war would help African Americans gain greater rights. Instead, they were kept stateside and sent to Camp Logan in Houston, where they endured extreme racism and police brutality.”
The soldiers ultimately rebelled and a battle was fought on the streets of Houston. Afterward, thirteen of the men were hanged for mutiny and another forty-one sentenced to life in prison. For years, the episode was hushed up and nearly forgotten. Then Celeste Bedford Walker, who grew up in the shadows of that riot, crafted her groundbreaking play, Camp Logan, that fully captures the tragic drama of those times — while also speaking to our own.
Finally, an entire exhibit case is dedicated to Dick J. Reavis, who Davis calls “one of the most interesting writers to ever come from Texas.” Reavis was a teenager when he volunteered for the Civil Rights movement in 1965. He was sent to Demopolis Alabama to help register African American voters. The young activist was harassed and arrested on a nearly daily basis. Reavis later became a fearless reporter in Texas, often going undercover to get his stories.
Davis hails Reavis’s “legendary journalism career,” pointing out that “he’s covered everything from revolutionary guerillas in southern Mexico to outlaw biker gangs to reporting from the inside of a state hospital for the criminally insane — where he got hired for the job with a fake ID and made-up job history.” Some of those false identification cards Reavis acquired are on display, along with a 300-page dossier the FBI compiled on him.
In 1977, Reavis was riding his motorcycle in Austin when he got hit head-on by a drunk driver in a pickup truck. “His story is astonishing,” Davis says. “He had no pulse when the ambulance arrived and he spent months in the hospital. When he finally got out, he had only one thing in mind. He went and tracked down the man who hit him – in order to get his side of the story and put it all together into one breathtaking account.” The leather motorcycle jacket Reavis was wearing at the time of the collision is among the items on display.
I Pray You Stay Alive: Writing on the Edge will be celebrated a major event on Thursday, September 21, 2023.
Writers Reyna Grande, Dick J. Reavis, and Celeste Bedford Walker will join Davis for a conversation at the Wittliff. The event is free and open to the public and the writers’ books will be available for purchase and signing. Check our events web page for further details