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Utah Lit: Writing along the Wasatch Front isn’t all about climbing or fishing

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(Courtesy Ben Steiner) The Spiral Jetty on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 23 2014 01:01AM
Updated Aug 25, 2014 12:57PM

The guy’s name was José. Or at least that’s the name the young Mexican man went by when he dropped by to pick up handyman jobs, says Salt Lake City writer Sylvia Torti.

At the time, Torti was working on a novel about the Zapatista Rebellion, a conflict she stumbled into in 1994 while on biology expedition in southeastern Mexico. In making small talk with the handyman during her bathroom remodel, Torti learned of an amazing coincidence: José, a member of the Mexican army, had been sent to fight in Chiapas, just shortly after she had left.

Over the months when José worked on house projects for Torti, the writer collected bits and pieces about his life. Over time, she writes in her essay "Evaporation," she eventually wove some of José’s stories into the character of Mario, whom she invented for her 2005 novel about the uprising, "The Scorpion’s Tale."

"It is entirely possible to live in Salt Lake City and only speak Spanish," Torti writes in an essay that weaves together the story of José and the water evaporation patterns of the Great Basin. "There are Josés in every restaurant, grocery store and hotel. Josés are roofing our houses, weeding our gardens, cleaning our kitchens. They move in for a while. They work. They send money home. They play soccer and volleyball in the parks on Sunday. In the bright light, we barely see them, never know them. And then they are gone."

Gone, that is, like the water molecules that become vapor in Utah’s dry air. Torti’s emotionally rich, sparely told essay is included in the recently published "Utah Reflections: Stories from the Wasatch Front."

Salt Lake residents often say the city isn’t very diverse, but we’re just not seeing the range of human life here, Torti says in an interview about her writing, which is grounded in her training as a biologist. "It’s the lens through which I see the world," she says. "I find a lot of metaphoric potential in the natural world, as well as in what scientists do."

The "Utah Reflections" collection — with 16 short works from writers including Terry Tempest Williams, Pam Houston, Phyllis Barber, Katharine Coles, Jana Richman and state poet laureate Lance Larsen — is perfect for the short-attention-span reading inspired by the dog days of summer. Jennifer Napier-Pearce will host an online discussion of the Utah Lit selection on Friday, Aug. 29, at 12:15 p.m. at sltrib.com. (Contribute to the book club by texting 801-609-8059 or posting comments on the Utah Lit Facebook page; see box for more details.)

Of course, the collection of Wasatch Front stories spins tales of fly-fishing and mountain climbing, as well as Houston’s nod to bluebird powder skiing days in Park City, a lovely essay about growing up that rhymes beautifully with Joan Didion’s classic ode to New York City," "Goodbye to All That." Also notable is Larsen’s spiral-shaped essay about the Spiral Jetty.

"We tried hard to not define the book before we felt it was complete," co-editor Kase Johnstun writes in an email about the book, published in June as part of a series by The History Press. "We didn’t want to narrow the scope to just nature or just landscape but to anything that would help define what it means to live along the Wasatch Front."

Over the past months, most of the books discussed in the newspaper’s Utah Lit book club have focused on the rural West of ranches and ranges. Along with "Evaporation," another "Utah Reflections" essay that focuses on the urban side of the Wasatch Front is Lynn Kilpatrick’s sharp, humorous meditation on disaster, "Some Lines on Faults: An Insomniac’s Diary."

In the essay, Kilpatrick imagines what would happen to her brick house if — or when — the Big One shakes the East Bench Fault. Just as pressing, however, are her worries about dying of dehydration.

"These thoughts keep me awake at night," writes Kilpatrick, the author of a collection of stories, "In the House," published in 2010. "I feel like I’m living out a slight variation of the Robert Frost poem ‘Fire and Ice.’ He believed those were our only two options for human extinction: fire or ice. Now, of course, we know that there are endless varieties of ways we might wipe ourselves out: viral epidemic, buried alive under our own garbage, meteor (just like the dinosaurs)."

Most Salt Lake residents don’t live that far from the fault line, says Kilpatrick in an interview, which is why she feels comforted knowing the clear-headed engineer who lives across the street. At a recent block party, she recalls, her neighbor quickly outlined a simple neighborhood emergency plan.

"I love the mountains and the outdoors, and I do all that stuff, but most of us are not hiking or fly-fishing every day," she says of her urban literary influences. "We are living in this kind of environment that is beautiful and lovely, but it is also problematic."

ellenf@sltrib.com

facebook.com/ellen.weist

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