W A T C H F I R E S
“Hilary Plum’s memoir Watchfires is a tender, twisted, darkly vibrant meditation on the war on terror as autoimmune disease. A quiet work of genius, as hopeful in its punishing honesty as it is rueful in its dire beauty, Watchfires warns, remembers, regrets, recovers. Plum can taste our febrile paranoia and writes it inside out.” Roy Scranton
“Hilary Plum’s Watchfires derives its title from the military practice of lighting a large fire after a battle, to help those lost to locate the group. How apt, given how lost we are. Composed of paragraph pyres, Watchfires illuminates the illness of our bodies and our body politic. In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and of the private illnesses that the author and her family have endured, Watchfires poses poignant and essential questions about our age: where does the self begin and end? Who is the other if not my own (other-abled) body? Is terrorism a political act or a cancer? In the tradition of Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Simone Weil, and William Stafford, Plum shores these half-fictive, all-true fragments against the ruins of our humanity, lost islands in the age of terrorism and autoimmunity.” Philip Metres
“Hilary Plum is a remarkably natural essayist and Watchfires is teeming with wisdom, depth, and ache. Flitting among a half-dozen topics with organic ease and wonder, Plum’s work is oblique but always precise, personal and utterly controlled—imagine what Virginia Woolf might have written if she’d been intimately familiar with the Boston Marathon bombing, having a partner suffering from cancer, and the forever wars. If there’s any justice in the reading world, this book will be read broadly and passed between admirers for decades to come.” Daniel Torday
Hilary Plum’s Watchfires is an intimate account of public and private life during the long years of the “war on terror.” This remarkable essay begins in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing and illuminates the relationships among cancer, autoimmune disease, the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, Occupy, veteran suicide, the American epidemic of gun violence, and Plum’s family history. The result is an urgent inquiry—philosophical, political, and personal—into the maladies of our age.
November 1, 2016
available from Rescue Press and SPD
Interview with Caren Beilin at Full Stop
“Plum takes seemingly disparate narrative threads of caretaking, illness, and terrorism, and weaves them into a work that calls the reader into the emotional landscape of her memories in order to pose the uncomfortable question of one woman’s—and by proxy the reader’s—complicity in a greater system of conflict and violence. ... By drawing the focus inward to the body, Plum forces the reader to see terrorism not as a threat from without, but as a complex moral struggle from within. ... Indeed, her ongoing battle with presumed autoimmune disease—long misdiagnosed—seems to call into question the simplistic good versus evil Manichean framing of the War on Terror. ...
The veterans and victims of the War on Terror still struggle to reconcile with a country that only pays lip service to its service members and holds the consequences of its wars at arms length. Watchfires represents more than a handshake in an airport, or moments of silence at public gatherings, because Plum offers to shoulder the emotional burden with the veterans, the civilians, the victims. The slippage between self and other reaches past borders and battle lines, bringing the malady of global conflict into the heart. If the reader too shoulders that burden—sorrow, rage, and helplessness—then there might be hope for some remission to the violence, some cure to our war."
—Drew Pham, Consequence
“‘Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life,’ wrote Thoreau, and though Plum’s account is not simple, she seems to have accomplished... what every thinking person might try, according to Thoreau: define honestly and precisely how one’s private life and thoughts relate to the violent spirit of the times.”
—Peter Molin, Time Now
“[Watchfires] blends public and personal trauma and tragedy to create an unusual and hypnotic essay. Centered on the Boston Marathon bombing, her husband’s cancer, and her own struggles with anorexia and a seemingly undiagnosable illness, Plum investigates despair and destruction. ... [A] book that questions who we are as individuals and how we are connected—or disconnected—from one another.”
—Rob Cline, The Gazette (Iowa)