The featured Writer: Christy Bailey
The featured writing: “El Pañuelo,” published at Hunger Mountain
Today, May 1, is Christy Bailey’s birthday. She was born in Houston in 1967 to Margaret and David Bailey, elder sister to Melanie, and aunt to Lindsey and Grace. Christy would have been 49 years old today if her life hadn’t been cut short nearly a year ago by inflammatory breast cancer on June 12, 2015.
Christy earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 2002, Christy chose service and adventure over the financial stability of her corporate job by joining the Peace Corps and accepting a post in Honduras, a place that profoundly affected her and influenced her future writing life. After returning from Honduras to her home in Denver, Colorado, Christy earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July of 2011.
After graduation, in addition to continuing her own writing and participating as a member of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Christy taught creative nonfiction at both University of Denver and Regis University, taught writing to homeless kids through the nonprofit program Art from Ashes, and was a writer in residence at Children’s Hospital in Denver. Christy also founded, with her friend Robyn Richey Piz, Salon Denver, a monthly writing group that celebrates writing and the writing life and supports risk taking and the development of new work.
I met Christy at VCFA, where we both were pursuing creative nonfiction and were in four out of the five required workshops together. Christy was a semester ahead of me. At VCFA, a low-residency program, new students join at the beginning of every semester (either in winter or summer), which is kick-started by a 10-day residency; thus a group of students also graduates at every residency, and as such, Christy graduated a semester ahead of me.
My first evening on campus, I went to the opening reception in the gallery, a sort of meet and greet to help integrate new students. I can get quite shy in these situations, and I basically entered the gallery (late) and found nearly everyone already in conversation with each other, so I made a quick dash around the room, lingered alone in spare gaps here and there for a couple of seconds—Awkward—and then made my way out and back to my dorm room. On this spin round the room, one person intercepted me: Christy Bailey. She seemed to have radar for a fellow creative nonfiction writer scheduled for her workshop, and in that brief moment of conversation, I felt like she already knew me. It wasn’t until I went back to my room (I can be kind of dense sometimes) that I realized the headscarf-covered woman I had just met was the writer of the engaging memoir chapter in my workshop packet about a woman who suffers from alopecia areata (hair loss from an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack hair as though it is a virus).
Christy’s in-progress memoir, titled Pañuelo Girl for the colorful pañuelos (headscarves) she wore on her head, detailed her struggle to come to terms with her hair loss and her path to self-acceptance both while serving in the Peace Corps in Honduras and after. When I read Christy’s chapter for workshop, I knew instantly that I was in the hands of a capable writer, one who had a distinct knack for scene development, description, dialogue, and entertaining storytelling. Her narration was at times concise and spare, always charming, downright funny at moments, and tender and soul searching at others.
It was an absolute pleasure to be in so many workshops with Christy and have the privilege of reading her work and sharing in the critique process. As a writer, Christy was very open to suggestions and worked diligently at revision. She wanted her manuscript to be perfect, so she would listen carefully to and consider thoroughly the input of others. During this time at VCFA, Christy wrote a 350+ page memoir that she continued to work on up until her death.
Last June, Hunger Mountain published an excerpt from Pañuelo Girl in the LOVE issue, which was dedicated to Christy Bailey. The excerpt, “El Pañuelo,” is one of the scenes I had read in that chapter Christy submitted to my first workshop at VCFA. Here is an excerpt from “El Pañuelo“:
Finally the photographer breaks the silence, hurls harsh, mysterious syllables at me. “Quítese el pañuelo,” he says. He talks so fast, not like my patient host mother, who enunciated every word while guiding me through her hillside home yesterday afternoon.
“Repita?” My eyes squint into the blinding light of a high-powered, fluorescent bulb.
“El pañuelo,” he says, louder this time, and slower. “Quíteselo.”
My mouth gapes, I’m sure I can piece this together. Pan as in bread? Quita as in quit? Quit the bread, fatty? I stifle a laugh. Gorda I do know, and he did not say gorda. Though from what I’ve read, a stocky woman like me can expect to hear her share of gordas in this country, where the blackest gal in town is called La Negra, the guy with the squintiest eyes is called El Chino, and the most undernourished sticklet is called La Flaca.
“No comprendo,” I concede. I have no idea what you’re saying, Big Guy.
The photographer taps his head in beat with the words. “El pa-ñue-lo. Quí-te-se-lo.”
We lock eyes, my soft baby blues and his black stones. I halt all movement to concentrate. There’s a woodpecker gnawing on his skull. No, wait. On my skull. I’ve got wood for a brain. Or a stain. On my bandanna. Crap. Not bird shit? My hand flits to the knotted scarf.
One of Christy’s last forays into the writing world was to the AWP conference in Minneapolis in April of last year. Christy was very ill at that point, but she was determined to make it to the conference, knowing that it offered her the best opportunity to see many of her dear writing friends from all over the country in one location and for the last time. Here, Christy is at the podium, giving a reading at VCFA’s student and alumni reading. I hadn’t arrived in Minneapolis yet, so I missed it unfortunately, but I hear she rocked the house—or I should say the church, for that’s where it was held.
Christy not only left behind her memoir manuscript, Pañuelo Girl, but she chronicled her journey through cancer in a private Facebook group called “The Christy Bailey Fan Club” that had more than three hundred members. Christy’s posts were brutally honest and real. She took no pains to spare her fans from the challenging reality she faced on a day to day basis. But she also spread beauty, grace, determination, wisdom, hope, and gratitude when she had it. Her chronicle of life with cancer offered those who loved her from afar the opportunity to see into her experience, participate in the process alongside her, and offer words of love and support. Those posts have been compiled into a manuscript and, with some luck, will be published as a book along with Christy’s memoir. Be sure that once there is news of such an event (possibly in 2017), I’ll be singing the praises of her publications with announcements here on my blog.
Normally, my Sunday Spotlight features an interview, but since that is not possible, I have included some thoughts on Christy’s writing and her identity as a writer from some of the people most familiar with her work.
On Christy Bailey’s writing:
“Christy’s writing reflected how she lived—honestly direct, fully engaged, deeply sensual, and wittingly funny. I always closed my eyes when she read her work so I could be transferred to her world of experience, taste new and exotic fruits from Honduras, sway to the rhythm of her words describing the waves hitting the shore or her feet upon the pavement, smile at her stubborn and funny perspective, nod my head to the truths she revealed about herself and the world.”
~ Lia Woodall, friend and writing colleague
“Christy’s memoir about her struggle to come to self-acceptance despite the ravages of alopecia was a model of honesty, courage, and sensitivity. I hope that writing it was some help in preparing her for the greater struggle she waged to maintain her dignity and joy in the face of the cancer that eventually took her life and took from us a writer of talent and heart. “
~ Laurie Alberts, MFA advisor, author of A Well Made Bed and Fault Line
“Christy Bailey’s writing couldn’t be more honest. She never feared sharing her deepest secrets with her readers. She didn’t hide behind her pen—she stood in front of us naked on the page with all her amazing blemishes and pitfalls. This world flung so much at her—divorce, debt (ex-husband induced), self-doubt, weight gain, job loss, alopecia, and stage four cancer. I defy anyone who reads her memoir not to admire her. When I first read her work in an MFA workshop, I wanted to be her friend because of her strength in life and her prose. For about a year, we shared our work in an online writing group. Each time her chapters arrived in my Outlook box, I opened them immediately, eagerly devouring her stories, her life, her intensity, and her insight.
To borrow a few clichés—something Christy would never do—she was the real deal, the brightest star. Unfortunately, she also got away too soon, and that makes me sad.”
~ Sheila Stuewe, friend and VCFA colleague
“Rare is the writer who can translate their innate voice and turn fear and flaws into humor on the page—all the while molding unique crisis into universal message. Rarer still, are those who bare their souls while writing in a stream-of-consciousness … a sort of musing that draws you in with its candor. Christy Bailey was all of these things and much more. I’ve read her stories, been in every [school] writer’s workshop with her, and read the first draft of her memoir. Her everyday self was always present—demonstrating what it means to write your genuine self in memoir. I smiled and cried and hurt right along with her in between commas, blank spaces and question marks. We writers should always aim so high.”
~ Corinne Lincoln-Pinheiro, friend and VCFA colleague
“Christy brought layers of craft, and memoir, and original thought to her writing. She was direct. She took pain and found humor and so delivered poignancy. She diminished the magnitude of struggle to find truths to share. Her writing brings you into her private world. Treating her hair like a scorned lover, I feel her grief, mourn the loss, and begin to grapple with a new sense of self. She always brought the work back to the intention. Her details deliver meaning and are absent of judgment. She used humor delicately, kindly. She gave power to her struggles in a way to involve us, to feel closely her loss. Christy wrote of the universal truths of our vulnerabilities and losses with humor, creating a language to immerse us in her world, a world we very clearly understand.”
~ Annie Penfield, friend and VCFA colleague
“Christy, in her riveting and urgent memoir, Pañuelo Girl, emotionally and metaphorically unwraps the scarf from her head, seemingly layer by layer, as she brings us deep inside the experience of alopecia, a hair-loss disease first noticed by her mother when Christy was a child. But, like any fully realized memoir, it is more than a surface story—in this case, a story of hair loss. At its core, it’s an exploration about self-definition, identity, and self-image. What does the hair loss really mean, metaphorically? How does Christy come to terms with it?
When I worked with Christy her last semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I myself arrived at a revelation: we, as writers, and particularly as writers of creative nonfiction, all wear pañuelos of one form or another. Which is to say: We all have secrets we hide from friends, family—ironically, or not, feeling more brave on the page—sharing our secrets first with ourselves, with words written on paper—until later, once our words, once our lives are artistically rendered, we share them with others.
Christy, in the finest tradition of memoir, has done just that. With great courage and intensity, Christy, in this memoir, yes, wears her pañuelo, but also shows us how she ultimately reaches the place to wear it proudly. At the same time, chapter by chapter, she delves beneath the surface of scarves, no scarves, hair, no hair, to arrive at her own deepest and most revelatory emotional truths.”
~ Sue William Silverman, MFA advisor, author of The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life As a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir
Christy was a talented writer, but she was also a fierce and loyal friend. Besides the work she left behind in the form of written words, Christy left a legacy of deep friendships. Christy was a bridge between people, and she will never be forgotten.
*Special thanks to Margaret Rivera Bailey for permission to use photos from Christy’s Facebook page.