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Not everyone has an immediate connection with effortless communication. Communication relies heavily on the connections we have. Some of us thrive with a friend or partner that is the antithesis of our own personality and style, others need someone with tastes similar to their own.
Inside the curious case of Dawn Dorland v. Sonya Larson.
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Photo illustration by Pablo Delcan. By Robert Kolker. There is a sunny earnestness to Dawn Dorland, an un-self-conscious openness that endears her to some people and that others have found to be a little extra. On June 24,a year after completing her M. She donated one of her kidneys, and elected to do it in a slightly unusual and particularly altruistic way.
As a so-called nondirected donation, her kidney was not meant for anyone in particular but instead was part of a donation chain, coordinated by surgeons to provide a kidney to a recipient who may otherwise have no other living donor.
There was some risk with the procedure, of course, and a recovery to think about, and a one-kidney life to lead from that point forward. But in truth, Dorland, in her 30s at the time, had been wanting to do it for years. Several weeks before the surgery, Dorland decided to share her truth with others.
She started a private Facebook group, inviting family and friends, including some fellow writers from GrubStreet, the Boston writing center where Dorland had spent many years learning her craft. A positive outcome of my early life is empathy, that it opened a well of possibility between me and strangers. While perhaps many more people would be motivated to donate an organ to a friend or family member in need, to me, the suffering of strangers is just as real.
The procedure went well. By a stroke of luck, Dorland would even get to meet the recipient, an Orthodox Jewish man, and take photos with him and his family. On July 20, she wrote an to one of them: a writer named Sonya Larson. Larson and Dorland had met eight years earlier in Boston. They were just a few years apart in age, and for several years they ran in the same circles, hitting the same events, readings and workshops at the GrubStreet writing center. But in the years since Dorland left town, Larson had leveled up. She also ed a group of published writers that calls itself the Chunky Monkeys a whimsical name, referring to breaking off little chunks of big projects to share with the other members.
When it comes to literary success, the stakes can be pretty low — a fellowship or residency here, a short story published there.
But it seemed as if Larson was having the sort of writing life that Dorland once dreamed of having. After many years, Dorland, still teaching, had yet to be published. But to an extent that she once had a writing community, GrubStreet was it. And Larson was, she believed, a close friend.
What a tremendous thing! Afterward, Dorland would wonder: If she really thought it was that great, why did she need reminding that it happened? Which kind of confused me, because I thought I was in a community of service-oriented people. Sonya read a cool story about giving out a kidney. You came to my mind and I wondered if you were the source of inspiration? Still impressed you did this. Dorland was confused. A year earlier, Larson could hardly be bothered to talk about it. Meek had tagged Larson in his comment, so Dorland thought that Larson must have seen it. Why would Sonya write about it, she wondered, and not tell her?
Six days later, she decided to ask her.
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Can I read it? Dorland wrote back within hours. But Dorland pressed on. But if you had already kicked off your fictional project at this time, well, I think your behavior is a little deceptive. At least, weird.
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Which, though it was shrouded in politesse, was a different point altogether. WhoLarson seemed to be saying, said we were such good friends? Bumbling on the highway, bulky and off-kilter, a junebug in the wind. Dorland is not shy about explaining how her past has afforded her a degree of moral clarity that others might not come by so easily.
She was raised in near poverty in rural Iowa. Her parents moved around a lot, she told me, and the whole family lived under a stigma. One small consolation was the way her mother modeled a certain perverse self-reliance, rejecting the judgments of others.
Another is how her turbulent youth has served as a wellspring for much of her writing. She made her way out of Iowa with a scholarship to Scripps College in California, followed by divinity school at Harvard. Unsure of what to do next, she worked day jobs in advertising in Boston while dabbling in workshops at the GrubStreet writing center.
After inhaling its story of an eccentric small-town upbringing told with sensitive, all-seeing narration, she knew she wanted to become a writer. But in hindsight, much of her GrubStreet experience is tied up with her memories of Sonya Larson. Everybody at GrubStreet knew Larson — she was one of the popular, ever-present people who worked there.
On nights out with other Grubbies, Dorland remembers Larson getting personal, confiding about an engagement, the death of someone she knew and plans to apply to M. When a job at GrubStreet opened up, Larson encouraged her to apply. Now, as she read these strained s from Larson — about this story of a kidney donation; her kidney donation? At least, the conclusion I can draw from your responses is that I was mistaken to consider us the friends that I did.
Not hearing from you sends that message. Larson answered this time. But she also changed gears a little.
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But I maintain that they have a right to write about what they want — as do I, and as do you. Hurt feelings or not, Larson was articulating an ideal — a principle she felt she and all writers ought to live up to. Like Dawn Dorland, Sonya Larson understands life as an outsider. The daughter of a Chinese American mother and white father, she was brought up in a predominantly white, middle-class enclave in Minnesota, where being mixed-race sometimes confused her.
She started earlier, after her first creative-writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she graduated, inshe moved to Boston and walked into GrubStreet to volunteer the next day.
Right away, she became one of a handful of people who kept the place running. In her fiction, Larson began exploring the sensitive subject matter that had always fascinated her: racial dynamics, and people caught between cultures. Here, Chuntao is married, with an alcohol problem. A car crash precipitates the need for a new organ, and her whole family is hoping the donation will serve as a wake-up call, a chance for Chuntao to redeem herself. White, wealthy and entitled, the woman who gave Chuntao her kidney is not exactly an uncomplicated altruist: She is a stranger to her own impulses, unaware of how what she considers a selfless act also contains elements of intense, unbridled narcissism.
In later drafts, Larson ended up changing the name to Rose. While Dorland no doubt was an inspiration, Larson argues that in its finished form, her story moved far beyond anything Dorland herself had ever said or done. The study of the hidden motives of privileged white people comes naturally to Larson. What they say, often about race, can be at odds with how they really feel. By the end, we may no longer feel a need to change Chuntao. This, of course, was entirely intentional.
Nothing interests Larson more than a thing that can be seen differently by two people, and she saw now how no subject demonstrates that better than race. And I think that small acts of refusal like that are things that people of color — and writers of color — in this country have to bravely do all the time. Larson and Dorland have each taken and taught enough writing workshops to know that artists, almost by definition, borrow from life. They transform real people and events into something invented, because what is the great subject of art — the only subject, really — if not life itself?