Lori Jakiela reflects on cancer bout with a new memoir and outlook on life | Pittsburgh City Paper

Lori Jakiela reflects on cancer bout with a new memoir and outlook on life

click to enlarge Lori Jakiela reflects on cancer bout with a new memoir and outlook on life
Photo: Courtesy of Lori Jakiela/Atticus Books
Lori Jakiela
When Lori Jakiela published her first memoir, Miss New York Has Everything, in 2006, she was asked what was left to write about. Jakiela was then in her late 30s, and it seemed to one interviewer that she’d exhausted all the details and minutia from a life well-lived.

That wasn’t quite true – Jakiela recently published her fourth memoir, They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice (Atticus Books).

“They interlace,” says Jakiela of her memoirs during an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper. “It’s a way of figuring out what’s happening to you, what’s happening to the people around you. It’s a beautiful form. I’m hoping this might be my last [memoir], but I don’t know. I have no idea.”

They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice is arguably Jakiela’s most poignant and heartbreaking work. The Trafford resident, and professor of English and Creative/Professional Writing at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, goes into harrowing details about her recent bout with cancer. Inspired by Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, a memoir by the late columnist Amy Krause Rosenthal, Jakiela writes unflinchingly about her battle with the disease:

When faced with mortality, the questions are always why and how and when, as if figuring out the answers makes any difference.
A praying mantis is known for its patience. It can hold still and wait. And wait.
And wait.
Not unlike cancer, when you think about it.


“Everything seems to suddenly matter more,” Jakiela says of the diagnosis. “And it's probably just an issue of age, not necessarily cancer, but it’s letting that stuff out so that you have it down on the page and you can keep it forever, as long as forever might be for you.”

In They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice, Jakiela writes extensively about her parents – she was adopted – who both died from cancer. She writes about her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and her two children. She writes about listening to them breathe – her parents as their lives ebbed away, Newman next to her in bed at day's end, and her children as they fall asleep.

When her family exhaled, Jakiela wrote about what she heard and saw. In They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice Jakiela revisits relationships with her parents and Newman. But her children, Locklin and Phelan, both now in college, have more pages devoted to them than in previous memoirs.

“When you’re a writer and your kids are younger, they have their own stories,” Jakiela says. “You are constantly careful about what you say, whether it will embarrass them to take something that’s their stories. Now that they’re older, I feel I can at least ask permission and honor their right to say, 'No, I don’t want you to talk about that.' But they don’t do that, they say, 'It’s fine.'”

Jakiela admits the new memoir is more contemplative and, perhaps, more melancholic than her previous books. She mentions a former student and writer who also overcame cancer and became “aggressively nice, friendly, and open to the world."

“She said that she’s open to everyone and it feels really strange,” Jakiela says. “I guess when you’re going through any kind of disease or grief or loss, you close down for a minute. And then you come through the other side, you’re ready to embrace the world again. And I thought, yes, that’s how that feels.”

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