Writer to discuss work at St. Peter Arts Center

Submitted photoFrank Bures paid his own way to Nigeria for a bizarre story he knew was worth digging into. Harper's Magazine later bought the story, and now the topics raised by it will be turned into a book.

Forgive Frank Bures if the inspiration for his latest book is a little, well ... giggle-inducing.

Bures, a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, has written for some of the world's biggest magazines, including Esquire, Mother Jones, Runner's World and Wired. But it was a piece he wrote for Harper's that would spur him on to tackle the subject at book length.

His piece was titled, "A Mind Dismembered: In Search of the Magical Penis Thieves," and as you can imagine, it was bizarre.

"There’s this thing that happens in west Africa and in China where people feel like their genitals are disappearing into their body," he said. So he paid his own way to Nigeria where he investigated the issue (the fruits of which were later purchased in Harper's.) What he found was a topic ripe for exploration. From "stolen" penises came the idea to delve into cultural narratives.

He will talk about that article, and the book he's writing that was inspired by it, at 7 p.m. Sunday at The Arts Center of St. Peter. The talk is free and open to the public.

In a piece he wrote for Poets and Writers (where he serves as a contributing editor) he said this about the topic:

"Why do we misremember things in certain ways? It’s a fascinating question. Looking back, we do not recall a steady, seamless flow of events in time. Instead our mind breaks the flow of time into related chunks and stores them as scenes and anecdotes and episodes. These episodes are the currency of our past and the storyboards we arrange to make sense of the things that have happened to us. We line them up like dominoes that lead to where we stand now. That we do this imperfectly has been written about many times. But I am more interested in the invisible threads running from one episode to the next, the forces that hold our stories together. Some have names, like love, or courage, or fear. Others are harder to pin down.”

To summarize that whole genitalia thing, Bures' trip to Nigeria led him to doctors, experts, men who claim to have had their penises stolen, and a run-in with a quasi-governmental militia mob that seemed like it wanted a piece of him. (No, not that piece.)

What he discovered is that the people of Nigeria grow up learning that penis theft is a real thing — it is a part of their culture, and as such it carries social weight and is, therefore, legitimate. The phenomenon has even made it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV, the encyclopedia of all that can go wrong in the mind. (Although, it thus far has only managed to enter the manual's appendix.)

To better understand the idea, it helps to point the lens at our own culture.

"Basically, all mental conditions have a certain amount of cultural influence,"  Bures said in an interview this week. 

There are a lot of disorders, such as premenstrual syndrome, anorexia or pet hoarding that don't occur a lot in other cultures but are fairly common in this one. Bures said there's even research suggesting such basic forms of mental illness, such as depression are affected by the culture in which we live.

"The question then is: What does that mean?" he said.

His book will attempt to answer that question.

Bures is also focusing on personal narratives as well as cultural. His book, he says, will establish that both where we live and who we engage with makes up our reality, and that reality itself may look very different depending on those variables.

"What I’m ultimately going to argue is that your ego is the result of the stories you’re a part of," he said.

Bures, who has been a full-time freelance writer for 10 years, says his book on the subject will be out next spring.

If you go

What: Writer Frank Bures discusses his upcoming book

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Arts Center of St. Peter

Cost: Free

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