In her debut collection of autobiographical essays, Difficulty Swallowing, author Kym Cunningham takes on some of the world’s biggest and baddest systematic issues and finds a way to ground them in the personal, the concrete, and make them even more haunting as a result. Cunningham uses unflinchingly vulnerable and beautifully written anecdotes to provide a recognizable face to problems such as the struggling educational system, homelessness, eating disorders and sexism within San Jose’s tech valley and the boy’s club world of motorcycling. Cunningham weaves her own personal experiences in with musings and information about these overwhelming and universal issues, making them seem simultaneously more personable and approachable as you encounter them with her as a guide, and more vivid and immediate as she uses both her experience and her skillful language to breath them to life.
Within the collection, Cunningham manages to relate internet access to semi-divinity, compares the breech of our privacy to the sacrifice of Odin hanging from the world-tree, and through her artful logic, makes these seemingly disparate ideas work in perfect tandem. She relates her experiences handling students as a substitute teacher, feeling underprepared and too out-of-place to be an authority figure, to miniature apocalypses, and it rings true in a way that is both humorous and heartfelt. Cunningham has a unique ability to take the topic at hand, dissect it and reassemble it with her own personal experiences to make readers look at it in new ways. She integrates into these personal essays mythic motifs; Nature becomes a goddess ready to shake off the concrete dust of man, her motorcycle a wolf of Nordic myth ready to devour. The personal becomes the public, the mundane sparks with elements of magic, and the everyday stalks the street with just a vapor of fear trailing behind.
Though Cunningham is dealing with heavy topics, the collection manages to avoid ever becoming overly saccharine. Cunningham is skilled at keeping her language and observations controlled, witty and wry, sparking laughs one moment before coming in for a devastating blow when she subtly drops the humor and sinks her teeth into the language and imagery, pulling the reader along with her into a depth of emotion that is made all the more affecting due to Cunningham’s ability to balance data and experience, distance and intimacy. One of the biggest strengths of the essay collection is Cunningham’s ability to balance, and her skill in knowing when to deploy a heavy hitting line or image, or manipulate the form of a standard essay. In some of the most affecting pieces, she plays with the perspective, inviting readers in to be as equally culpable, to experience an equal share of the fear or uncertainty, by shifting away from first person singular to the first person plural in a way that exposes how deeply personal experiences such as being catcalled at night are also vast and universal. The combination of Cunningham’s humor, bits of her personal life, and moments of deep intimacy, and the creative interpretations she crafts of modern problems will leave readers with a deep sense of knowing the author and even more questions about the state of the world today. These essays, and the authors voice, are guaranteed to stick with the reader for a very long time, and they’ll likely find themselves picking bits of the prose out of their teeth for weeks to come.