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Pittsburgh memoirist Lori Jakiela explores living through cancer

Lori Jakiela
Courtesy of the author
Lori Jakiela's fourth memoir is titled "They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice."

Lori Jakiela’s new memoir is titled “They Write Your Name on a Grain of Rice: On Cancer, Love, and Living Even So” (Atticus Books). But readers shouldn’t expect too much detail in it about her breast cancer per se.

While her funny, tender book necessarily references diagnoses, treatments and the like, the Pittsburgh-based author is much more invested in the thoughts that accompanied the experience, and what they tell us about life — or at least her life. As Jakiela puts it, “What are you thinking about when you're thinking about your own mortality in a very direct way?”

For Jakiela, author of the acclaimed 2015 memoir “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe,” the answer was, in part, “other people.” The memoir recalls her experience with her parents during their final illnesses, and even her then-infant son’s scary bout with RSV.

In fact, though the book is written in Jakiela’s familiarly punchy style — her leading literary models include Hemingway, after all — chapter headings like “Lynryd Skynyrd and the Expanding Universe of Vowels” and “Andy Warhol Meet the Breatharians” suggest Jakiela was taking her writing in a more free-associative direction.

“I really had to just let go and let it happen,” she said. Someone she knew called the technique “assemblage,” she said. “It's like you're collaging, you know, trying to get sort of an insight into something that isn't going to hold still.”

Jakiela lives in Trafford and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg; her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other periodicals and journals. “They Write Your Name” is her third memoir.

She is also a poet, and “They Write Your Name” at times feels like a long prose poem, as she pulls together seemingly unrelated scenes and details with a sort of dream-logic.

In one passage, she recalls warning her daughter to stay safe while trick-or-treating, and refers to the girl’s habit of kissing her four times, for luck. Jakiela adds:

"Things that come in fours:
Suits in a deck of cards.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."

She also explores aging (at 59, she refers to herself as “from the 1900s”) and her worries that she will hurt the people she loves with irrational fears, like of shark attacks during family vacations on the Maryland shore.

The events recalled in the book, including Jakiela’s double mastectomy, take us right up to the present. That’s less time than she usually takes to put it all down in a memoir. But she said that, inspired by Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s 2005 memoir “Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life,” she was trying to create a sort of time capsule of tiny, precious moments.

“Holding on to the things we love most in this life holds us to this life. I believe this,” she writes. “It's why I'm telling you about everything I love. I want to live. I know that's fleeting. So maybe this time capsule will do. What do you want? What things do you love? What moments will you keep? Tell me, please. I'll hold them with my own.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: