Pittsburgh authors have been taking the literary world by storm over the past two years, from Deesha Philyaw's hit The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
to Brian Broome winning the Kirkus Prize
. But the year is not over yet, which means that others can still make waves. Now, NPR has recognized another local writer.
Certain and Impossible Events
Photo: Nathan J Shaulis/Porter Loves
Candace Jane Opper
, the debut work by Candace Jane Opper, was added to NPR’s 2021 Books We Love list
. It was highlighted by book critic Ilana Masad, who called it a “beautiful and tender memoir” that spans the years of Opper’s obsession with a boy she knew who committed suicide when she was 13.
The book was published in January by Kore Press Institute
, an organization that describes its mission as “publishing contemporary literature by women and transgender writers for 27 years, with a focus on minority and marginalized voices.”
Kore calls Certain and Impossible Events
a “kaleidoscopic lens to the cultural history of suicide in America.”
“Fusing personal narrative with history and science, Opper unearths the invisible network between all suicides — well-known or hardly documented,” reads a provided statement. “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 kind of unforgetting.”
Opper says she started writing this book about 10 years ago, but that it really started back in 1994 in her Connecticut hometown, when the boy she knew in middle school died by suicide.
“I'd had a big crush on him and was naturally feeling a lot of heartbreak — but was also really disappointed with the way my school and community dealt with his death — essentially not at all,” says Opper. “There's 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 respond, so they were basically like, ‘He would have wanted us to move on,’ and continued on with business as usual. I thought that was disrespectful and honestly kind of bullshit. His actions were so extreme and violent and final; it did not feel like an event that could or should be just ignored."
That the death happened 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 process the tragedy, and as a way of reflecting on the kind of obsession that can happen after a suicide — what she describes as “the perpetual act of scrutinizing details, hoping to make sense of what led a person to their own end.” She sums it up as being about the boy's final months, her obsession with his death, and “all the ways we try (and mostly fail) 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 revise the manuscript until 2018 when it was selected as the winner of the Kore Press Memoir Award.
“So, all in all, it took about 25 years,” says Opper.
She says that reception for the book has been "really encouraging" so far.
"I had to get over a lot of shame putting this out into the world —particularly the shame of feeling like I didn't have a 'right' to grieve," says Opper. "Grief can be so hierarchical, and I felt like I really needed to earn the right to tell this story. But the response has made me feel incredibly seen."
She adds that many readers have reached out to her to share similar their own experiences of being impacted by the suicide-related death of someone with whom they were not very close and that they found solace in her book.
"That's honestly all I've wanted, to be a kind of spokesperson for people who have a story to share but no place to put it," says Opper. "Grief can take so many different shapes; I'm just trying to make more space for that diversity."
She says being selected for NPR’s 2021 Books We Love list feels "fucking incredible," especially given how the book was released.
"This is a really hard year to put out a book, obviously. Plus, I'm with a small press that has been so supportive but doesn't have the same publicity and marketing resources available to larger presses," says Opper. "Small press authors and, honestly, most authors have to hustle so hard to get books into people's hands these days, so this kind of recognition is huge."
Certain and Impossible Events
is now available to purchase
at the Kore Press Institute website.