Chloe Firetto-Toomey | biography of orange
an excerpt & interview
Suppose I was to begin by saying I’d never given orange much thought. Unless walking the boardwalk at dawn or in diverted traffic. Then, color begins to feel like a universal language, akin to heartbeats, like how the ocean beats and drags the shore. Suppose I were to say this is a biography but also perhaps, a catalogue of the origins of orange; suppose I smoked too much and you noticed the little orange moon—a tobacco stain on the inside of my left index finger—as we spoke. At first, it seemed natural, for colors to bleed into one another. Then, one day, it didn’t. Then, reading the morning paper and drinking coffee from a cracked mug with two street-cats at my side, it became abnormal, hyperbolic, a call to action.
The truth is relevant to every outcome.
And so, orange became more than the faces of wildflowers I saw along English roadsides. Became more than orchid-tongues with their geometrics resembling labia, which sparked Darwin’s theory of botanical evolution. More than navel citrus, traffic cones, or lionfish. Now, Orange Theory is a workout—a high, unsustainable level of intensity; a hue of human, a war code. As if a spell had been cast, I woke up one morning with a sense of urgency to document and track orange as though it were wildfire.
Like a detective at a crime scene looking for clues to catch an arsonist, I finger the ashes.
I admit orange presents a striking state of affairs. I have coupled the word, color, and concept, and put them under the looking glass. Which sounds odd. But orange presents itself to the world radically, and I want to know the source. Perhaps, you say, I should have titled this essay The Origins of Orange?
Mary Macleod Trump was a girl of seventeen when she migrated from Scotland to America. Born the same year the Titanic sunk, I wonder if adrenaline quivered her body as she boarded the gigantic wooden ship from Glasgow. I wonder if she anticipated the average mortality rate per voyage was ten percent, or if her fear of icebergs loomed larger, or if she cared not to think of any of it. It was November 1930, and gale-force winds swept the Outer Hebrides, kicked up her red hair. Tiny needles of rain numbed her face. I’ve never been to the Hebrides, the cracked and fragmented shards of islands jutting beyond the shadows of the Scottish coast. How did she cross the rookeries and channels to Glasgow? Perhaps it was not raining, but a bright cold day. She said goodbye to her parents, left them waving, waving until the wagon or train disappeared into the hills, before turning away. Or, she left in the black of morning, her family still sleeping. I know she never returned. Never sent money home. She was alone on the S.S. Transylvania as it creaked across the Atlantic Sound, bound for Ellis Island. She would have seen Miss Liberty growing larger as they closed the distance.
Why tell the truth when a lie will do just as well? says Mum, quoting her father, Pappy Giuseppe.
I’m standing on the bridge overlooking the Tatum Waterway in Miami, talking to Mum about truth and morality, and how they waver with necessity. We’re reminded of Pappy, how he emigrated from Sicily to England in 1952. He made his money with honest intent, to provide for family in Sicily— a factory worker, French teacher, casino manager, restaurateur. The truth was, the idea of Alternative Facts enabled him to send money home, presenting the possibility of all things.
When orange first began to hue the minds of the world, it was simply a fruit that resembled the low-lying sun. A word from the Dravidian family of languages. From old French, Peruvian, Spanish, and Arabic origin. It evolved from gold and citrus trees, from meaningful phonetics, the grunts and sounds of our ancestors at the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution. I wonder who first muttered orange. If it was spoken by firelight or after the first harvest, the first mouthful of juice.
There’s an ambling curiosity present in the speaker’s voice, one that lacks pretense yet calls on readers to engage their own what-if’s. What questions do you want readers to be asking about truth?
I want readers question all facets of truth: emotional, factual, logical, even irrational; to evaluate the origins of personal and collective opinions so as to differentiate the two. We might all believe we are right, just, moral. Yet the gap in America’s discourse widens. How can we unite political divisions without interrogating the origins of belief systems? Truth is a lofty concept but questions move us forward, initiate dialogue, force us to grapple with how we formulate what we believe to be true. I want readers to ask: What can I do to better understand myself, who we are as a nation, and what can be done to incite positive change, both locally and globally?
The allegory of orange is deftly interwoven with a philosophical wondering about Donald Trump. How did you manage this balance without slipping into the easier or more common critiques about Trump? Where do you let your feelings reign and have voice?
I must admit: This essay was once a classic example of revenge prose. It took a year to write, and almost another to gain the authorial distance needed to craft a successful artifact. I’m also privileged to have had Julie Marie Wade as my Mentor, Professor, and Thesis Director. She taught me the art of small doors. The larger the concept or critique, the more specific the detail, the entryway into the text. Nobody wants to read another political book about Trump. (Or maybe they do?) But how are we reckoning with his Presidency? That’s what I find interesting. (We all know the Titanic sinks yet we are still interested in how the characters in the movie navigate survival.) I let feelings reign in the description of images, the tone set with verbs and concrete nouns. The classic: show don’t tell rule. Practicing this rule is a meditation in itself, a daily discipline of observing (internal and external shifts) and note-taking. The closer you look at the things of the world the more metaphors appear, connections are made: Why am I noticing this, how am I noticing it, and how does it correlate with the world at large?
There’s an incredible range to the conversations happening in this project, and much of that permission is given through how the essay is structured. What are some of the benefits, as you see them, to organizing this essay into vignettes?
Vignettes enable this essay to explore various slants or viewpoints: observations and the expansive possibilities regarding the narratives of orange. Each vignette explores new connotations, associations, perspectives through the lens of orange. Almost like scenes in fiction, or stanzas in a poem, the vignettes are beads on a necklace, beads strung together on an orange thread. I also feel the structure supports the overarching theme of the essay, commenting on a Nation in fragments, longing to be pieced back together.
In this project we have access to the biographies of Donald Trump’s parents and grandfather, as well as some brief biography about yourself and your father. What can a consideration of biography–both individual and collective–offer us about the power of truth?
Self-interrogation and reckoning, investigating personal truths, leads to larger insights. The personal narrative threads (hopefully) serve to establish a trustworthy pact with the reader. Here I am, naked on the page, grappling with what I know to be true, inviting the reader to join me in various excavations of the concept. This is what it means to me, what does it mean to you? I want to show how stories, history, culture, family, friends; collectives inform personal belief systems just as personal beliefs systems inform collectives. Truth becomes tangible when the right questions are asked, become personal, relatable. My hope is that in juxtaposing individual and collective biographies, even the most robust Trump supporter (should they be interested in reading) might sympathize with the speaker, might consider a new thought trajectory. This essays strives to do what all successful art achieves: craft new ways of seeing the world. Juxtaposing personal and collective biographies was my ‘crafty’ way of trying to spotlight the humanity that belies our political divide.
Reflecting on your artist statement, there is a curiosity of what lies beneath the “veil of civility.” How can the trouble of ancestry and history oblige one to pursue truth? What must one betray in order to pursue truth?
An inquisitive mind, wonderment, introspection. Who am I, who have I been, who am I becoming? We all have something to hide, but why? From whom? Ourselves? What makes us human if not our lineage of love and war? We are all creatures of chaos grappling truth, navigating an unstable world. Growth, or might I say moral or spiritual development, is painful, but what’s the alternative?
Chloe Firetto-Toomey is an English-American MFA candidate in Nonfiction at Florida International University, where she served as a teaching assistant, and poetry editor for Gulf Stream Magazine. She has taught creative writing in elementary schools and the college classroom, and is currently training to teach in South Dade Correctional Facilities, while working as an adjunct and completing her thesis. She is published in all three genres and two of her lyric essays were awarded finalists in Tupelo Quarterly Open Prose Contest, and Diagram 2018 Chapbook Competition; she is also the recipient of the 2017 Christopher F. Kelly Award for Poetry, Academy of American Poets Graduate Competition. She lives in Miami Beach with her fiancé and two street cats that became house cats.