In her memoir I'm Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog, Diana Joseph comes across a little bit flaky, a little bit anti-feminist and a little bit neurotic. She knows she's not a saint. And so do her readers.
"I guess there's some people who think I'm a pretty awful person," says Joseph.
I'm Sorry You Feel That Way unabashedly confronts Joseph's weakest, least admirable moments. PTA moms turn her off. Motherhood irks her. She rarely calls her father. She hooks up with bad boys and older men. She resents her blue-collar upbringing in New Castle, Pa.
What's more, Joseph structures the 2009 memoir around her relationships with men. From her son, to her ex-husband, to the dogs that have graced her home, each of the 15 stories is an homage to a man who helped define her past -- men by whom Joseph defined herself.
"It was never a deliberate act on my part," Joseph says of her theme. "I had written an essay about my son when he was 11." For awhile, the essay made it only as far as her drawer. On a whim, Joseph submitted it to a writing contest. She won not only the contest, but the attention of an agent who wanted more.
"I wasn't writing non-fiction, but I said 'Sure!,'" says Joseph, whose short-fiction collection, Happy or Otherwise, was published in 2003. "When you get an opportunity like that, you lie. You tell opportunity what it wants to hear."
So Joseph wrote a story about her father. About a brother. About a boyfriend.
"I thought about not demonizing and not valorizing," she says. Joseph, now an associate writing professor at Minnesota State Mankato, didn't want to write another man-centric Sex and the City. Nor did she want to male-bash.
"I like men. I enjoy their company. And they do some pretty quirky and hilarious things," she says.
Joseph uses her relationships not as crutches but as jumping-off points, exploring herself through her relationships. I'm Sorry You Feel That Way offers a fearlessly honest portrait of a woman maturing through the passionate throes of early adulthood.
What women sweep under the rug -- recklessness, the frustration of motherhood, irresponsible love, dissatisfaction -- Joseph confronts with empathy, understanding and humor. Devoid of embarrassment or shame, she creates a space to come to terms with her flaws. And, from this vulnerable space, she consistently emerges with maturity and dignity.
Admittedly, Josephs has incurred a few scolding reader reviews. But as the L.A. Times put it, "I'm Sorry You Feel That Way is sure to offend the faint of heart, but it's hard to recall another collection of essays, or a memoir, with more natural charm."
Joseph returns to Western Pennsylvania Feb. 17 for this month's installment of The New Yinzer Presents reading series.
Joseph hopes to offer her audience something both relatable and comforting.
"I have big feelings," Joseph says. "My relationships with the people I love aren't easy. I hope women who are mothers -- any women -- find it's something to relate to. I think we have this cultural understanding of women and mothers. Some of us think Candyland is kind of boring, you know? I hope I'm not alone in that. I don't think I'm alone in that."
Diana Joseph reads at New Yinzer Presents. Also reading: Adriana Ramirez, Che Elias and Angele Ellis, with music from Weird Paul. 8 p.m. Wed., Feb. 17. Modern Formations, 4919 Penn Ave, Garfield. $5 (or free with pot-luck contribution). 412-362-0274 or www.modernformations.com.