Kate Carroll de Gutes Finds the Right Words

Kate Carroll de Gutes

written by Monica Drake featured photo by Donna F. Aceto

Kate Carroll de Gutes said that her debut essay collection, Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, came out just two months before her mother died. She was able to put it into her hands, along with its accolades from the 2016 Oregon Book Award for creative nonfiction and a Lambda Literary Award for memoir and biography. De Gutes, an Oregonian, had written a book about her life, and people were listening.

“Oregon has such a great writing community, and I’m grateful to be part of it,” she said. She credits local authors David Biespiel, Brian Doyle, Kate Gray, Jenny Forrester and Mel Wells with inspiring her. It’s clear that her fan list could go on forever, ranging from famous authors to open mic nights. De Gutes added that Oregon authors have “rocked my world with their work and their generosity.”

Growing up and making her way into adulthood as a lesbian, de Gutes found herself distanced from—or perhaps by—ordinary language. Specific words gave her reason to pause: words like “spouse” or “wife” or “husband.” Words like “roommate” when used to hide the depths of great love. In Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear de Gutes writes, “… [N]ot being able to tell the story of my life and love left me with a sense of ontological insecurity, the feeling that I was not a wholly integrated person … In plain English, it meant I felt edgy and isolated from all but those who knew the real details of my relationship. In 1984, it did not even occur to me to appropriate existing words—‘straight’ language—to describe myself, my love.”

With this collection, she finds the words. A heightened awareness of language fuels the series of linked essays as the author looks at social conventions and identity. De Gutes turns to spare, wry, cool and even-handed prose. Her work is rich and full of heartbreak.

The collection covers times when the author identified entirely as married, though before same-sex marriage was legally recognized. This raised the question of how to find words to talk to straight colleagues without deception or shame, if common terms don’t fit or seem loaded and evasive. Other essays reach toward the question of divorce, but more specifically when a marriage wasn’t acknowledged by the court. Is divorce any less real or painful when it isn’t dragged through family court but still involves financial, legal and emotional untangling?

A wife becomes an ex-wife.

“Partner,” “significant other,” “long-term companion.” These are all inadequate options. De Gutes offers an awkward and comically clinical phrase as one more option of the times­—“spousal equivalent.” Behind all of these words are the deeper questions of identity and society. In a parallel list, de Gutes itemizes the objects of everyday life as a mirror of the self. When asked about her relationship to objects and identity, she said, “We’re conditioned to consume and trying to break free of this, to become our authentic selves, is the real work that I believe we must do.”

Through a lighthearted handling of everyday choices from IKEA to clothes and community, de Gutes asks what it means to be human, to be queer, to be straight, to build a life on integrity. The writing is charming, funny and thoughtful, taking a light approach to heavy content, and shouldn’t be missed.

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