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Book Review: 'Excavation,' a memoir on unrequited love and heartache

“I was reeling,” says Wendy C. Ortiz regarding when she first found out that her junior high teacher had the hots for her. She was “over-fucking-whelmed” by encounters with Mr. Ivers, or as she later came to call him, Jeff. Ortiz’s work, Excavation: A Memoir, focuses on this scandalous, dangerous and at times alluring power-relation between her 13-year-old self and her English teacher at the time.

Ortiz begins the storyline where the illegal relationship first started, in the classroom within the city of Los Angeles, where the entire narrative takes place. Since the larger focus of the narrative lies on this relationship, a majority of the timeline which Ortiz recounts based off old journals and her memory, takes place in the 1980s (during her junior high and high school years). Yet, she skillfully manages to jump around, often jumping forward to the 2000s or even her present-day life, always managing to weave these separate periods of time together seamlessly. Themes of exploration of sexuality, writing as a form of escapism and unattainable love pervade the memoir that lets us into a young, daring girl’s mind as she pursues her first love, or who she thinks to be her first love at least.

Although the utterly secret – and illegal – relationship with her junior high English teacher Jeff Ivers was her utmost concern during her pre-teen and teen years, Wendy also dabbled with drugs, adventured with peers her own age and dealt with the consequences that come with having divorced parents. These are all elements of Ortiz’s expression as a novelist. In moments of rapture, lust and the like, what was there to turn to but writing? Wendy found herself emptying her mind and heart on paper relentlessly, even when she wasn’t suppose to, even her deepest secrets all had to be written down. This is an urge that many can certainly relate to, the urge Wendy feels to find a pen and paper in particular moments, when “the Sky is a rich hue of violet-blue-gorgeous and the pine needles wavered in the slight wind of the summer night.”

As Ortiz accurately depicts it, “One way to get out of my story was to get into another story.” To that end, this also captures the experience I had while reading this particular memoir. While there were several points I related to, I found myself having to set aside personal experiences that were inapplicable and empathize with the words on the page. An outpour of heartache is left to be deciphered throughout the memoir, such as when Ortiz expresses an instance in which she felt only one thing:

 My head throbbed with a mantra.

I hurt I hurt I hurt.

The descriptions of yearning for something unattainable, but at times seemingly attainable, will certainly resonate with romantics out there. The incessant longing for something that won’t let up; a feeling that won’t succumb to rational behavior or even reality at times. While Wendy is dragged along for years in what can only be a friendship, with sexual favors, she is unfairly offered a promissory note of a future filled with love, travel and potentially, marriage.

Wendy, and most all romantics, almost always recognize this tease of an idealization, a falsehood onto which they latch. Romantics inevitably continue to take on the exhausting task of having to “hold [oneself] upright with as much energy [as could be] mustered.” This memoir expresses such frustration and drainage of energy as portrayed by a young woman who is attempting to understand her emotions and true desires as a result of being in a power-relation that hinders her ability to move forward for most of her young life.

Ortiz comes away from the heartbreaking experience with valuable knowledge – especially valuable for any parent. Finding herself married and a mother of a child years later, she anticipates the need for this knowledge, rightly assuming early on that her own experiences will be helpful down the line with her own family.

Excavation: A Memoir can be purchased from the Portland-based literary press, Future Tense Books, from its website.

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Ghoncheh Azadeh

Ghoncheh Azadeh