Diary of a detour (2020) tells the story of Lesley Stern’s (1950-2021) journey living with a form of leukemia known as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). As the title suggests, detours abound as the author crosses literal and disciplinary boundaries. Stern retired from the Visual Arts Department at the University of California San Diego in 2013 where she was a scholar of film and media studies. Her book starts with her diagnosis with CLL and how she came to keep chickens, who she says “saved” her life.
In opening the book, Stern wrote: “A life is merely a conglomeration, a concatenation of effects and affects, often unpredictable, though even when predicted, things seldom turn out as expected” (p. 1). The book meditates on living with impending death, the transitions we face as the environment and our bodies change, and how we adapt to loss of our human and non-human loved ones. In the book Stern introduces readers to her life – in all it’s unpredictability. We learn about her love for friends, gardens, travel, food, film, books, chickens and cats. Stern’s narratives dip into multiple disciplines — art, biology, film criticism and feminism through sensuous descriptions of daily activities, including traveling, reading, gardening, cooking, and meditating. Readers travel with her to the places she has lived: from her youth in Zimbabwe, to her life in Scotland, Australia, and southern California. Yet the stories probe deeper than tales told by tourists.
One of my favorite narratives is entitled Blue/Shimmer. Here, Stern begins with descriptions of the blue sky and blue sea in Sydney, Australia. She follows blue into the art work of Australian artists Brett Whiteley and Margaret Preston. But then Stern detours literally into an exhibit of Yirrkala drawings during a visit to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. And through this detour, Stern teaches us about Indigenous Australians, settler colonization, borders, migration, and contemporary policies toward asylum seekers. Later, Stern talks about her travels to Arnhem Land to see the source of these artworks. And the chickens: Stern talks about her beautiful chickens, and we see gorgeous illustrations by Amy Adler floating across the pages. Readers hear chickens clucking excitedly as they chase one another throughout Stern’s yard and through the book. Stern’s book exhibits an insatiable curiosity for life in all its wonder. Readers learn about making cheese, the process of fermentation and Stern’s experiments with sourdough bread. And of course, there are interruptions when Stern is unexpectedly admitted to hospital or questions physicians about her treatments.
Another of my favorite stories was that of her travels to the Anza Borrego desert in southern California. It’s 30 years since I visited this fabulous state park. But Stern does not simply describe what she observed during her visit. Her narrative includes the history of the area, and detours into Alfred Hitchock’s film Psycho and other art works that reference the film as well as the consequences of human activities on native animals.
I also enjoyed the narrative entitled Boomerang. Stern wrote:
Every writer knows this: the sense that your book is never really finished, it will keep coming back. There will be more revisions, and more and more. And now that all the versions are electronic, the old versions, full of typos and one or two crucial mistakes, threaten to reappear in the proofs (p. 22).
Writers among you may recognize this experience as I did.
Some characterize the writing style that Stern uses as “fictocriticism,” which blends fact and fiction, ethnographic observation, archival research, memoir, theory and literary criticism. One characteristic of Stern’s writing is its evocation of sensory experience – the visual beauty of the landscape, the tastes accompanying a delicious dish, or the silkiness of a cat’s fur or chicken’s wing.
A remote celebration of the book’s publication held in October 2020 can be viewed on YouTube:
In her introduction to the celebration, feminist scholar Donna Haraway discussed how Stern is a both a traveler and a resident of places across the world (Zimbabwe, Scotland, Japan, Australia, U.S.). And through these experiences, she examined questions that impact life on earth for human and non-human inhabitants, matter and the non-material.
For those who would like to learn more about Stern’s life and work, see:
An interview with Lesley Stern by Tracy Cox-Stanton may be found at: http://www.thecine-files.com/interview-lesley-stern/
Lesley Stern’s blog may be viewed at: http://www.lesleystern.net/
A tribute to Lesley Stern by Tracy Cox-Stanton is posted at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies
Stern’s book gives us much to think about not only in relation to cancer and cancer treatment, but how we live, and our relationships with the environment and others across this small planet we share.
Stern, L. (2020). Diary of a detour. Duke University Press.