Do our memories tell the truth? Recently I wrote a creative non-fiction story. In the story, I remember my mother’s hands pushing an old red Kirby vacuum cleaner against the yellow carpet. I remember the boy who smelled of corn chips and old Iron Maiden posters. I remember the man who disappeared for days. I remember him coming home and showering with Dial soap—the soap leaving a smell—a smell something like guilt against sunburned skin. I remember the sound of his beat-up Toyota pickup truck. The noise said, “Toyota. Fear. Toyota.” I tasted the rust against the left door of the dark truck when I heard the sound. I remember. And interestingly, according to the rules of fiction, I shouldn’t remember these details in connection with brand names. During a discussion on how fiction works, my class and I came upon a portion of James Wood’s book, How Fiction Works, that indicates that the use of name brands in stories distracts the reader. So how do I navigate the memory and the name brand? Am I hanging on to some safety raft of memory branded by a name; am I too afraid to push away and swim? The brand remains as I evoke the memory; I see the word “Kirby” when I envision my mother’s hand pushing the vacuum. It tells me of my stepfather who purchased the vacuum from a door to door salesman. The stepfather who we (my siblings and I) thought, believed, and hoped for a time, might be a spy—someone strong and mysterious, someone different than the man who locked my brother out of the house at night, someone different than the man who hit my mother in the chin. My stepfather’s house became our home, and his Kirby vacuum cleaner sucked up pennies from the living room floor for years. His house had cool hiding places, little compartments to place small things in. We soon found out he was a jazz musician, not quite as thrilling as spy, but interesting. Interesting enough to remember the brand name of the hotel he worked in when we were children. The word “Kirby” reminds me over and over of him, my stepfather, and of my mother’s hands that kneaded dough, that wore sapphire rings, and that eventually turned to dust and bone in the oven of the funeral home in Kealakekua, Hawaii.
The rule for not peppering narrative with brand names comes from a fear of generalization. As a society, we have infused ourselves with the imprinted names of products, they are emblems of identity—social character. Using brand names is therefore dangerous, but should be taken on a case by case basis. And, I believe, might be different for creative non-fiction. However, I am still weighing and evaluating the weight of brand name words and deciding if my stories could have strength without them. A few months ago, I read Alison Bechdel’s, Fun Home. She uses the name brand of the truck that killed her father. It was a Sunbeam Bread truck. Somehow, for me, the name firmly set the story of her father’s death in my mind–a story mixed beautifully with a logo. I have looked for short fiction examples that use brand names effectively, so effectively that they might argue the case for brand name use. So far, I have failed. I wonder if all brand names have been eradicated from fiction? I will keep searching.