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MFA Creative Writing Alumna Transitions from Poetry to Prose

By Abbey Becker

Photo of Sandra Beasley by Matthew Worden.

Photo of Sandra Beasley by Matthew Worden.

Sandra Beasley, MFA creative writing ’04, based her recently published memoir, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, on her experiences having had severe and multiple food allergies since birth. “I can’t have foods that people take for granted like dairy, egg, beef, shrimp, some tree nuts, mango, cucumber—it’s a long list,” she says.

Beasley has previously written two books of poetry, Theories of Falling and I Was the Jukebox, and credits her ability to transition into prose writing to American University’s MFA creative writing program. “If I hadn’t been allowed to workshop as a prose writer, I never would have been as prepared to become a full-time writer,” she says.

She raves about the skill and breadth of experience of the creative writing faculty she was able to work with while at AU. “One of the great things for me was seeing teachers who had approached their writing careers in different ways,” she says. “I was working with somebody who had won the Pulitzer, somebody who was very active on the writing colony and freelance writing circuit, and somebody who was dedicated to the altruistic things that writing can accomplish.”

While she’d briefly talked about her allergies in a poetry sequence called “Allergy Girl,” she wanted more space to expand upon her account. “In some ways, I really knew I hadn’t gotten enough of the backstory, enough of the science. I didn’t get everything on the page that I wanted to tell. Quite frankly, I didn’t think I could fit it in the space of a poem,” she says. “There was a part of me that knew that I needed to try writing in prose for the first time.”

Beasley knew there was a need outside of her personal reasons for this kind of book about food allergies. “I thought it was strange that so much of the conversation about food allergies taking place in culture today is between doctors and families of those with allergies, but not the people with allergies themselves,” she explains.

A recent study estimated that eight percent of children under the age of 18 have a food allergy, and Beasley recognized that she could serve as a voice for this younger generation. As a writer, she felt she could accurately describe in detail what an allergic reaction feels like, which could help parents better understand a child’s symptoms. One woman “said that for years, her son, who was very young, had been trying to explain the pain of allergic reactions in terms of the esophageal irritation,” Beasley says. “It wasn’t until she read in my book the concept of bubbles—these expanding bubbles rising up inside the chest—that she got it.”

In addition to her own story, she included research on food allergies and where the science is going, what is known about why allergies happen, and how allergies manifest themselves in the body. She interviewed young and old alike about their histories with food allergies. “One woman recalled growing up in an era when regular bread cost 16 cents a loaf, but her family paid a dollar for the 100 percent rye bread that she could eat. Her family was told they had to move if she wanted her food allergies to improve,” Beasley says incredulously.

Hearing about how others have dealt with food allergies is what she’s been most excited about since going on tour for the book. “One of the things that I’ve learned is my Q&A and the opportunities for book signings are really as much an opportunity for [the audience] to share their stories as for them to hear me yammer on about mine,” she jokes.

While primarily a poet, Beasley has noticed a positive overlap between her different audiences. She’s glad to reach more doctors and parents regarding this issue, but has found that these same people who come to see her talk about allergies often leave with a copy of one of her poetry collections. “That really excites me, because that says that people are just responding to my voice in general,” she enthuses.

Beasley’s primary goal for this book was to give others who live with food allergies the ability to focus on the rest of their lives. “ I don’t think that anybody needs to be defined by these allergies,” she says. “I don’t want it to be the title on anybody else’s book. I want food allergies to just be a footnote to their story.”