I don’t remember exactly how or when it happened, but at some point last year, I became aware that Wendy C. Ortiz was out there, killing it with her writing. My friend and former co-editor Zoë Ruiz had worked with her on a few interviews, and then subsequently forwarded me some pitches, all of which mentioned that Wendy had directed them towards The Rumpus. Who is this writer sending us all these great people? I began to wonder. And then, like anyone in the digital age, I googled her. A few clicks later, and I was on her personal website, and a few clicks after that and I had read a portion of her work (which is, quite thankfully, available online).
Here’s the thing about Wendy: she doesn’t hold back. She puts everything out there, makes everything vulnerable. Whether charting the disintegration of a marriage or naming the reasons why having one child is enough, she gives herself permission to be honest and doesn’t shy away from accountability or exposure. Which is precisely what makes her new book, Excavation: A Memoir, incredible.
Excavation is an unflinching, uncompromising experience. It’s an investigation of the sexual relationship Wendy had with her eighth grade teacher over the course of five years, but it’s also an unapologetic exploration of what it means to be a teenage girl — of what happens when our desires become our focal point, and how we harness sex and allow it to harness us. The book is at once harrowing and beautiful, and Wendy’s language is crisp and shakes you to your core. She writes sentences you wish you could write.
Sometimes I like to use the term “literary powerhouse,” and for me, Wendy C. Ortiz is the embodiment of this. I’m so glad Future Tense Books (which, let it be said, is a powerhouse of its own) gave Excavation a home, and I’m absolutely thrilled to bring you this excerpt from one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years.
— Rebecca Rubenstein, Editor-in-Chief
I worked at perfecting the art of sighing: long, loud and heavy; eyes rolled to emphasize a look of non-commitment. A careful pursing of lips and the tap of one black boot on the floor: I punctuated English class often until the day Mr. Ivers assigned us to write one creative paragraph.
One creative paragraph, he said. “Surely you all have papers, pens? Okay, go to it. Five minutes. Yeah, you can shoot hoops, Brian, but can you write? Yeah, a creative paragraph. Don’t give me summer vacation, or what you’d do with a million bucks. Give me one creative paragraph, on anything your little hearts desire. Yep. Here, paper, pen, do you need a desk? How about a brain? Sorry, can’t help you with that. Okay, then, go. Start it up, start me up…” His voice dissolved into an obnoxious rendition of a song I recognized as the Rolling Stones.
I sighed in exasperation.
I crossed my legs. My black leggings rubbed against each other. I tugged a little on the long-sleeved white collared shirt wrapped around my waist, its arms embracing my hips, the buttons just touching my thighs. I stared at my notebook page, and tentatively let the pen touch it.
Then the image formed. Fire, hillsides, disaster.
I ground my pen into the blank paper, curving, sloping, across its face, across and back, across and back, until the paragraph appeared on the page.
Five minutes passed.
“Alright, hand ‘em up,” Mr. Ivers said. Abigail turned from her seat in front of me to take my paper and shot me a look of Huh? That’s it? A small sea of papers moved to the front of the class, their surfaces whispering softly against one another. Mr. Ivers collected the papers from the students in the front row, walked back to his desk, and leaned against the edge to read each paper to himself.
There was a titter, then a hush, as we watched him relax into his lean, reading, flipping to the subsequent pages rather swiftly. He grunted, occasionally glancing up to say, “Yeah, right!” looking a bashful student in the eye, or “What the…?” directed at another. There was a strange, bouncy feeling in the air, as if we were forgiven for writing poorly, as if he was amused by our adolescent boredom and our confusion and our young, silly way of life.
When he got to my paper, my throat clenched. I knew it was mine, because I’d starting using recycled paper, a telltale soft brown.
He read my paper and paused, re-reading, until I had to take a breath.
Mr. Ivers looked up at me (He knows my name? I think), and asked in a low voice, as if we were the only ones in the room, “Wendy, can I read this out loud?”
My head tilted, nodded softly. Yes, I thought to myself, too scared to say it aloud. Just get it over with.
The class was quiet. They listened as he read each word slowly, words that formed an image of a fire that charged violently down a hillside to ravage the basin below.
When he finished, he looked up and shook his head. “Excellent,” he said. “This is great work. This is what I asked for. Thank you.”
My legs untwisted under my desk. I slouched in my seat, hid a smile, looked down at the haggard little etchings on my desk. I tried not to meet his eyes again that day.
Mr. Ivers placed the papers in a corner of his desk, and turned to begin scrawling notes on the blackboard.
The class pressed on.
My palms were wet and I felt unmoored. I wiped my palms on the shirt that encircled my waist with its flimsy, translucent hug.