In the remarkable collection of short stories, Hello. This is Jane.,Judith Arcana paints the struggle for reproductive justice for women from long before the historic Roe v. Wade ruling that protected a woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion. These stories are simultaneously memory and hope, and bring together experience and fiction to, in Leni Zumas’s words, “spark action in our terrifying present.”
Judith Arcana has been writing about reproductive justice and motherhood quite fiercely since the late 1990s, and has been a popular figure in this space for decades–both as a Jane in the pre-Roe v. Wade time, and also as a writer and a longtime teacher of literature, writing and women’s studies.
Judith’s poems, stories, and essays have been published widely on paper and online in literary journals; political, cultural, and medical magazines; newspapers; academic journals; anthologies; and textbooks. She’s also a skilled performer/presenter who has worked with audiences in the US, Britain, and Canada, often visiting campus and community groups to talk about reproductive justice and perform her powerful writing. She is in some documentary films, including the 1995 Jane: An Abortion Service (dir. Kate Kirtz/Nell Lundy), 2014’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (dir. Mary Dore), and 2019’s OUR BODIES OUR DOCTORS (dir. Jan Haaken).
This book oscillates between the past and the present almost alternatively through each of the stories. They are directly informed by Judith Arcana’s experience as a Jane in the ‘70s. The Janes were a group of people running an underground abortion service in Chicago before the procedure was legalised in 1973. However, these stories are more than just a lesson in history–the fiction dives deep into the atmosphere of dialogues on reproductive justice over the years from when it was denied to the present when it is still looked down upon.
It carefully explores not just the Janes’ lives, but also peeks into the lives of women who wanted/underwent abortions. In thorough detail, it articulates the emotions and dilemmas of women as they fought to gain the right to their bodies and the decision of becoming mothers, which was then legally denied to them. It also steps into the future, and looks back at the memory, and tries to understand what has changed.
The form of these stories are interesting: “Men of God in the 21st Century,” “Denah & the Strawberry, Talking”, “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture” and “Keesha and Joanie and JANE” are written in the form of dialogue; “Betsy Is Interviewed for Tattoo Queen’s Website Biography Series” is in the first person; and “Answering the Question,” “Hello. This Is Jane.,” “Knocking” and “Monumental” follow a close third-person narrator with hints of dialogue in between.
These varied forms come together to narrate a story of struggle, which is what makes this political. What Arcana does, through Hello. This is Jane., is that she takes the liberty to narrate stories of her own body, a liberty that was denied to her in the 70’s. Using a form that follows the various women in her stories closely and allows the reader to interact with them and understand them, is doing exactly the opposite of what the Janes were doing running secret abortion clinics. Through this, she is making the story of a revolution-—one that many, even today, disapprove of—accessible to those who silently struggle. Her text, therefore, becomes a voice not just to the history of a landmark movement, but also to those who still don’t have a voice and are denied reproductive justice.
Hello. This is Jane., however, does more than just the formulaic feminist text. It serves a dual purpose: one, it is a reminder and (to use a millennial term) a throwback to ideas of feminism when women’s rights were largely still restrictive; two, it also offers a lesson to the feminism of today that is increasingly becoming exclusionary and elitist. Arcana’s anthology is a stunning overview into the work done by the Janes made sure how reproductive rights were available to those who couldn’t afford it, irrespective of class and sexuality. The text shows how some of the Janes themselves were from the middle class, which helped them create an inclusive space for women from all spaces. This becomes a major learning for ‘feminists’ who are selective about their ideas of equality and definitions of what constitutes a woman, and for instance, conveniently exclude trans-women from their spaces.
This text is also an inspiration for those who feel restricted by the advent of the pandemic. Like I pointed out before, there is immense detail in some of the stories. This is particularly true of the title story “Hello. This is Jane.” that takes us through the day of a Jane’s life, and “Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture,” narrated by Denah, that describe the events that happened after the Janes were arrested on multiple felony charges. These stories display the sheer determination that the women had to run something for years until they were arrested, and stayed strong even after the arrest. For those feeling restricted by the pandemic, this book could perhaps be the motivation to do something despite the shackles on their feet. It could also perhaps be an escape into a world that one can access only through such archives. Hello. This is Jane. is, therefore, a must-read, especially those who are looking for stories that both teach and inspire.
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.
This week we are welcoming one of our newest additions to Sundress Publication’s editorial board– Sherrel McLafferty! We reached out to Sherrel to learn more about her interests, experiences, and what she is looking forward to here at Sundress.
Mary Sims: What attracted you to Sundress Publications?
Sherrel McLafferty: Well, Sundress has always been the cool kid on the block. I’ve excitedly watched Best of the Net noms roll in every year, and who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? When I saw the call to join the editorial board, of course I did some more research. When looking through past publications, I saw collections like Lessons in Breathing Underwater, and I was sold.
MS: What are some things you hope to gain from your new role with us?
SM: Experience. Experience. Experience. I’ve learned from past first reading and editor positions, that every press, journal, and magazine have a slightly different organization behind the scenes. I’ve never worked on full manuscripts, so I’m very curious to learn how we guide writers through their doc/pdf into a published and bound thing in the world. The lit world, especially poetry, is growing and shifting, I want to be a part of whose voices are invited and celebrated.
MS: Your accomplishments in both academia and the literary community are very impressive. How do you intend to incorporate some of these prior experiences in your time at Sundress?
SM: Truly, I have a sick work ethic. I’m like Leslie Knope with less attention to aesthetics of my organizational tools. I use google docs, I use Outlook calendar, (I learned about something called Toggl that might enter the mix) and plan out my work in intervals. This attention to how I spend my time keeps me from getting overwhelmed by tasks. I’m then able to volunteer when needed. I love being the dependable person. If my work with other journals is any indication of the greater community, no one thing is done by one person. I love the feeling of togetherness that goes along with it.
MS: I see that you have many notable publications! Would you mind sharing some thoughts on your favorite pieces?
SM: I’ll share about two. In the latest issue of Notre Dame Review, you will find a very personal poem called “My Mulatto Complex” which is a poem about identity and love. The white space of the poem is extreme, and it can be experienced in more than one direction which was a feat in the revision process. That’s one I’m super proud of. The second I’ll speak about is a recent acceptance in Juked, so I’m unsure when it will drop called “Telemachus.” The poem is a longing about the son of Odysseus. I love writing this poem because I got to embody one of my favorite things to witness: tender masculinity. I love knowing, or creating, men who are fierce but have a softness underneath, and I think that is captured in this poem. Gosh, is it weird to write for yourself?
MS: There is always more depth below the surface, so how would you best describe yourself to the readers of Sundress?
SM: I’m a self-dubbed culture vulture. I read everything, listen to everything, and watch everything. If you ever want to connect with me and have long, drawn-out discussions, jump into my DMs and tell me what you are watching/reading/listening or ask for recommendations.
MS: I see that you are a poetry reader for multiple journals! Could you share with us some of your favorite experiences within the literary community that have led you to where you are now?
SM: As I’ve said in a different question, I love how united every journal/magazine/press feels. I’ve learned so much about working as a team and being open to trying new things. I also love how giving every managing editor has been. If I ever wanted to copyedit, or read for a contest, all I’ve ever had to do is ask. It makes me ask myself, what can I offer to others? All-in-all my experiences from the punk rock FLAPPERHOUSE to the more traditional Mid-American Review, have really made me aware of how symbiotic the community is. We have a small world, y’all. I literally attended a workshop hosted by Barrelhouse and excitedly heard Tyrese Coleman read from her amazing “How to Sit.” Fast-forward a year or two and I am reading for Split Lip Magazine alongside her (though different genres). Anyway, this aside was just to say that there is room for everyone, and everyone can make room.
MS: One of our series “Sundress Reads” focuses on sharing some of our favorite books and collections. Can you share a few of your favorite books with us?
SM: I used to think my favorite collection is whatever I am currently reading– which right now I am still thumbing my way through Pet Sounds by Stephanie Young, would recommend, so good—but, I have changed my mind and am now considering the books I shove down people’s throats. The first book: Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, which explores identity, trauma, the south, and long talks with the great Nina Simone. Every poem is a gun. It’s great. The complete opposite in tone: Xi Xi’s not written words. Xi is a Hong Kong poet who just gets joy. She captures the rhythm of childhood songs, the fun of tongue twisters, and so much more. It is so rare for me to smile when reading, and this book gave me toothful.
MS: Which experiences have you had that make you feel prepared and excited for your new role at Sundress?
SM: I have a long history with working with lit mags that makes me feel eager and prepared to jump into the larger world of fellowships, manuscripts, and more with Sundress. Not to be the MFA person, but getting my Masters, going to more conferences, especially AWP, pushes me to want to continuously live in the writing world. I love reading work and discussing work; there is nothing that makes me happier.
Sherrel McLafferty is a first-year doctoral student with Rhetoric and Writing Studies at Bowling Green State University, where she also received her BFA and MFA in Poetry. Her poems have been, or will be, featured in Requited Journal, Merrimack Review, ArLiJo, Notre Dame Review, and Juked. She is currently a poetry editor for Pidgeonholes, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, and Split Lip Magazine.
Mary Sims is an undergraduate senior working towards her BA in English. She is an editor at Waymark Literary Magazine and has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, The Poetry Annals, Peach Mag, Kingdoms of the Wild, and more. Currently, she splits her time between working as a student editor and laughing over raspberry cappuccinos with friends.
From January to May, 2021, the Sundress Reading Series will continue online via Zoom. Applications to participate as a reader are open and the deadline to apply is October 25th.
The Sundress Reading Series is an award-winning literary reading series usually hosted on-ground in Knoxville, TN, just miles from the Great Smoky Mountains. An extension of Sundress Publications and the Sundress Academy for the Arts, the Sundress Reading Series features nationally-recognized writers in all genres from around the US while also supporting local and regional nonprofits.
Our readings take place the last Wednesday of every month from 7-8PM EST. The spring series will be streamed on January 27th, February 24th, March 31st, April 28th, and May 26th.
We are currently seeking readers with books recently released—or to be released in 2021—with an emphasis on marginalized voices especially BIPOC writers, trans and nonbinary writers, and writers with disabilities. To apply to read for the spring, send 6-8 pages of poetry or 8-15 pages of prose, a 100-word bio, CV (optional), and a ranking of reading dates to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please make sure the subject line reads “Reading Series Application.”
Those selected will be notified by December 1, 2020. Readers will receive publicity across Sundress Publications’ social media channels in the lead up to their event, and, thanks to a grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, Sundress is now able to compensate readers $50 for their services.
I remember when a friend of a friend asked me if I was embarrassed because I wanted to go into the arts rather than study something “practical.” I looked down at the shirt I was wearing—which said, “I’m silently correcting your grammar”—and the pendant around my neck—which said, “The book was better.” While that moment says nothing for my fashion choices that day, it does capture my unapologetic fever for reading and writing. To me, passion is more important than practicality.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been gobbling up books and scribbling down stories. My mom likes to say that I practically knew how to read before she even taught me, like my heart was just waiting for someone to give me the letters to unlock the words and stories I had longed for before I even knew. I was the kid in elementary school English class who had to have the full-size pages rather than half pages they offered for the stories we would write for the end of the year—the ones with thick cardstock covers and fruit scented marker pictures on the opposite pages from the writing. I was the one who got scolded for staying up late reading or getting new ideas down and walking slowly behind everyone because I couldn’t lift my head from my book. I remember many late-night car rides, reading books one line at a time as we passed under streetlights. Some of my senior pictures were taken with towers of my books surrounding me. Most of my life has been feeding and being fed on stories. Being part of Sundress—something that feels like a big story buffet for everyone—is an absolutely magical experience to me.
Bayleigh Kasper is a senior creative writing major at the University of Evansville. She dreams of owning a tiny home in Colorado where she can adopt cats, make music, write, and eat very judge-worth amounts of chocolate without actually being judged.
When your twin is your roommate, you share most things, including your bookshelf. Ours was too small, so we each had separate stacks of books in our bedrooms, leaving space for our cat, Basil, to hide on its shelves. My twin sister and I earned our MFAs at OSU at the same time, so our little bookshelf was home to the essay collections that Kelsey, a creative nonfiction writer, had studied and loved, as well as the poetry volumes I’d read ten times over. The top shelf housed stacks of readings that we shared with our creative writing students. Our mom had instilled frugality in us early on, so we did not buy books often, but slowly accrued a tiny, well-loved library.
After earning our MFAs, Kelsey moved to Chicago and I stayed in Columbus. We promised to visit often. We split up our books, and I kept the small bookshelf. When she visited, we traded books, and in-between visits, I set a few aside on the shelf that I thought she would like.
When I celebrated New Year’s Eve this year in Chicago with my sister, we did not know a pandemic would arrive in her city later that month, that we would not see each other for six months after my visit. I’ll move to the present, though, because summer has arrived full-force in Ohio, and Kelsey was finally able to safely visit a few weeks ago. One of the first things she did was unpack the stack of books in her bag that she had been waiting to share, and she told me about each one, and we tried to make up for lost time.
Emmalee Hagarman earned her MFA in poetry at The Ohio State University, where she served as poetry editor of The Journal. Recently her work was selected by Kenyatta Rogers to receive the Academy of American Poets Award/The Arthur Rense Prize, and also selected by Ruth Awad to receive the Helen Earnhart Harley Fellowship in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Laurel Review, among others.
My parents grew up poor. Dad’s situation was such that, on some nights, the only dinner option was a can of pineapples. Mom’s seven-member family lived in a two-bedroom house where she shared a cramped room with her four sisters. When these are your stories, money is everything.
Dad quit high school to support himself. My parents married before they were 20, and Dad worked day and night in the residential building industry to change the course of what would otherwise have been a poverty-stricken future. Mom made sure the money he brought home would get us through the industry’s busy warm months as well as the slower cold ones.
They made an exceptional team, providing a comfortable middle-class life for my three siblings and I. They also instilled in us a strong work ethic, ensured we were college-educated, and impressed upon us the importance of obtaining jobs we could be proud of. And of course, they wanted us to be paid well.
In 1998, when Hearst Publishing offered me an unpaid internship in New York City upon graduation from Penn State, my parents were perplexed. I remember the anger twisting Dad’s clenched jaw. He viewed a college degree as a golden ticket. People with college degrees didn’t work for free.
I turned down the internship. Ultimately, I became a lawyer.
For a long time, I thought that my parent’s unwillingness to support me financially so I could take an unpaid internship prevented me from pursuing a career I would have thrived in and loved. But I’ve come to understand that what I needed wasn’t so much money as it was validation. I needed someone to tell me that the fact that Hearst wasn’t going to pay me didn’t mean that I wouldn’t be doing something of value, or that I wouldn’t be valued. When money is woven into your being from birth as the only legitimate measure of professional success, it’s hard to see how value can be measured in other ways.
It took me more than twenty years to decide that, for me, financial compensation isn’t a reliable measurement for the significance of my experience or contribution. I think I have motherhood to thank for helping me finally come to that realization. I don’t get paid a penny for being a mother, but I see the results of the time and dedication I put into my job, and I’m pretty happy with my compensation package.
Six months ago, I walked off the partnership path at a highly regarded Big Law firm to find the road I stumbled off of in 1998. I look back to the moment when I turned from that road and realize that I didn’t need money, I needed bravery and ingenuity. Now I’m pursuing a new version of a career I envisioned for myself when I was 20, glad for the opportunity to be an unpaid Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications. At 43, I finally feel brave enough and clever enough to be here.
Natalie Metropulos holds a BA in English from the Pennsylvania State University and a JD from Duquesne University. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. Although it has been a long time since Metropulos’ writing has appeared outside of a legal document, she has been published (nee Natalie Rieland) in Kalliope, Research/Penn State Magazine, and Pitt Magazine. Metropulos writes fiction and narrative non-fiction for children and adults.
I dream of one day having a wall in my home dedicated to shelves of books, books that have journeyed with me across my lifetime and tailored my thinking as a reader and writer. But even with this lovely thought in mind, I know that my ideal storage is impossible when my hands constantly reach out to any book I can get into my grasp. In every corner I settle down to write, there are stacks of books ready to buoy my poetry to safety. I can’t possibly think of placing my collection into one spot when I need it every time I fiddle with my work to get the outcome of a “perfect” line.
Writer’s block is an illness for me. I almost always sit in my “lucky” chair while the sun starts to warm the room and… just stare at a blank page. I don’t know where to start. I don’t know if what I want to write is good enough to take up the white space taunting me.
The books I’ve read have been open windows to the dust filled room my mind becomes when unwilling to write. They have been the affirmation that yes, voices representing diverse communities do and can exist in literature. Rajiv Mohabir’s The Cowherd’s Son showed me that poetry could successfully be multilingual and be translatable across different communities. Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers gave me permission to extend my poetry across numerous pages. Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas taught me how to write against a narrative and play with page space. Max Porter’s Grief is The Thing With Feathers teased me into leaning towards strangeness in writing. Eduardo Corral’s Slow Lightening pushed me beyond my dialectic comfort zone, to go word searching and not get stuck in language.
My futuristic “one day” may or may not come to fruition, but I find supporting marginalized voices in the literary world to be more important. My stacks of inspiration will continue to be from these voices so that I can understand their struggles and join in their conversations for justice and recognition. Topics like Islamophobia, mental illness, domestic violence, queerness, discrimination, and immigration are no longer stigmatized like they used to be. They are taking their rightful spotlight and attention in the reading community.
It is heartwarming to see how cultures inspire a difference in writing and also a similarity in a need for being heard. These amazing writers give me the inspiration to find what is invisible but on the tips of my fingers. They encourage me to believe that what I have to put into words are important and worth reading. They are opening many pathways for more writers with silenced backgrounds to come forward and reveal unique perspectives from their experiences that have been ignored (read: buried).
I may not have an actual shelf in my home for books, but the bookshelf I created in my poetry to accumulate all I’ve learned from these narratives (from writing style to content) feels more rewarding.
Ashley Somwaru is an Indo-Caribbean woman who was born and raised in Queens, New York. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Queens College to immerse herself in pride for her mixed tongue, religious upbringings, superstitions, and cultural traditions that have made her into the red hibiscus she is. As a storyteller and poet, her work seeks to magnify the voices of women in her community, who have been silenced and abused, and to rewrite the history of her ancestors, those who were forgotten. She hopes to find them. Somwaru’s work has been published in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Spring 2020 issue of A Gathering Together, and will be in the forthcoming FEED issue of No, Dear.
Prime Meridian by Connie Post (Glass Lyre Press, 2020) unfolds how traumatic events can transform us down to the bone, how trauma can live in the body for years after it occurs. The narrative is told from the perspective of an adult woman grappling with the childhood abuse she endured at the hands of her father, about which she was made to be silent. We catch her at a moment of reckoning: “You haven’t spoken to your family / in fifteen years / you wonder how much longer / a fault line / can maintain its own silence.” As I read this line, I feel the pressure of all that is unsaid. I feel the pressure that caused the surface to split. These are the closing lines of the first poem in the collection, and this line becomes the axis around which these poems turn, the question that pulses behind each page. What are the costs of staying silent?
The narrator’s father is introduced as a disruption. The narrator is playing with her cherished pink hula hoop, and the moment becomes marred when he appears, gazing at her body. She describes the scene: “My father walked towards me watching intently, the motion of my hips,” and when she “started practicing in the side yard,” “he found [her] anyway.” It doesn’t seem as if this were the first time he has gazed at her like this, nor will it be the last. When she passes him in the hallways of their home, she hopes he “would not / spill [his] Jack Daniels / down [her] legs,” that his “shirt buttons / were fastened.” There is a sense that she is always watched by him, and always watching him for signs of danger. In their home, there is no escape, and no one to turn to. She describes the hallway outside her bedroom as “motherless.” If her mother knows about the abuse, she can’t or won’t protect her daughter from it. In “Iron Will,” the narrator watches her mother “smooth the history / out of each rumpled seam” of clothing, which becomes a metaphor for how she denies the abuse. She may rather project the image of a perfect family than admit to any “wrinkles.” Or, perhaps it is not safe for her to intervene. Either way, she cannot protect her daughter from it.
In the same poem, Post writes, “the days bled into years / of beatings / followed by the imperative seance of silence.” This line speaks to the imperative of silence within her own family but also the broader imperative of silence within a society that refuses to believe the word of survivors over the word of men, the patriarchs we have been taught to trust. When the narrator does try to tell family friends what happened, she is not believed. And so she is forced into silence. In “Four Miles from the Center of Town,” the narrator imagines finding her own body buried on the outskirts of town: “You will find… the barely thirteen-year-old / girl lying lifeless / pretending no one will find her / learning to live / in the shallow grave of silence.” As a child, the only way to survive the abuse was to leave her own body, to separate herself from what was happening to her. This is where she finds the body she fled: still hiding, buried in the dirt. In the grave silence made for her.
Later, she describes her “whole body” as “a fugue.” She has cleaved herself from the self that experienced the abuse, or she has tried to. She is still running, still trying to escape, but trapped within the confines of flesh. This is the challenge for survivors of abuse. To find a way to live in the same body that you want to run from. To make the body your own when someone else has tried to claim it as theirs. Or as Post writes: “how to leave a body / and then / how to return.”
How long can a fault line maintain its own silence? Throughout the collection of poems, this tension rises, the fault lines deepen, the walls crack. “Mountains / civilizations / houses / each succumbs to a kind of gravity / a weight which / they can no longer bear,” Post writes in “Crumbling.” And later, in “Daily Worship,” she sees her mother, on the steps of a church, “the confessionals crumbling / behind her / the cathedral folding into itself.” The institutions that the mother clings to, that we are taught to look toward for guidance — the church, the family, the patriarch — can only protect us so much. Eventually, they will crumble, in a terrifying, liberating crash.
And in “For All of Us Who,” we see that crash. The poem is a collective of different voices coming forward about their experiences with abuse. “I knew him, I didn’t know him, he put something in my drink, I was wearing winter clothes, I wasn’t wearing any clothes,” Post writes, creating a chorus of survivors’ voices, each statement beginning with “I,” creating a powerful refrain. The collective of voices provides the narrator a space in which she can tell her story. The repetition in the poem creates a tension that is finally relieved by the final line, which breaks forth from the paragraph with need and urgency. “I / need / to / tell / the / truth.”
And so the truth roars. Telling the truth about her abuse doesn’t make the weight she carries any lighter, but it does provide her with a path to go forward. In the final poem in the collection, “Omen,” the narrator describes a black squirrel who visits her backyard. “It doesn’t look right,” she says, and encourages “the dogs / to run after him.” But one afternoon, when the squirrel is visiting the yard, their eyes meet, and she sees “his small heart pulsing / how a sorrow fills a cavern / and keeps beating.” This is how she will go forward, not by banishing her sorrow, or fleeing from its cavern, but learning to live in it, one heartbeat at a time.
What is, perhaps, the most salient aspect of this collection is the honesty with which the narrator speaks about the darkness that has defined her life since she was abused. The images are sometimes gruesome, and sometimes repetitive, but there is no sanitization of the ways the narrator continues to be haunted. And furthermore, the narrator does not strive to make peace with or forgive her father. When he dies, she skips his funeral. While, culturally, we do seem to be moving away from the insistence that survivors must forgive their abusers in order to move on, this insistence is firmly rooted in the way we often talk about abuse, and, to me, is a way of dismissing survivors’ pain and excusing abusers’ actions. Post writes: “everyone is gathering at the grave site / but me / after all / a black sheep / has her wool to groom in the hour of your death.” There is no forgiveness here, only earned bitterness, and a turn inward, to one’s own wool. Taking this moment to shift away from her father, and toward herself, to groom her own wool, perhaps, as an act of care, and furthermore, as an act of acquaintanceship with the body, the body from which she has wanted to flee, feels, in some ways, like defiance, and a quiet triumph.
Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle,Coachella Review, F Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Couri Johnson reached out to We Call Upon the Author to Explain when her first collection, I’ll Tell You a Love Story, came out a few months ago. Couri and I attended the same master’s program in northeast Ohio, and through this incredible fabulist collection of, as the title promises, eclectic love stories, there were themes of gritty realism mixed with magical realism and dark truths about life.
That is the kind of thing that I lose my shit for, frankly, the beauty of imagination along with the barroom candor and living that contrasts it so well. Couri’s first collection takes us through worlds with train stations at the very end of them, through the love story of The Queen of All Magic and her recently murdered soulmate, and through the end of the world more than once. Those looking for complicated narrative, multi-layered characters and stories, and a dose of the unbelievable along with emotions and thoughts they will recognize in themselves should pick this book up right now. I chatted with Couri about craft, Youngstown, OH, creating messy fabulism, and many more insights into her writing process. This interview and this book were both total delights.
Alex DiFrancesco: The first thing that struck me about this collection is how the mythology and fables it creates aren’t clean, aren’t watered-down. The lessons to be derived, when they’re there at all, are messy and often painful. Can you talk more about creating these sorts of myths as a writer?
Couri Johnson: I’ve always been heavily interested in fables, fairy tales, and myths and their relationship to one another, and those narratives relations to identity formation and folklore. When I was around maybe ten or eleven, my mother converted to Paganism after an emotional upheaval and a crisis of faith, or maybe, non-faith rather because beforehand we were only very performatively religious (Church on Easter, but not much else.) She became very interested in several pantheons, and as a result, I was exposed to a lot of myths at a young age that related to and complicated popular fairy tale types. Although I wasn’t thinking as actively about it as a child, I had some sense thanks to my mother that these tales were supposed to be symbols and explanations for how the world works, and there are key pieces and images that develop out of that that are shared and passed from tale to tale and form to form. In a way that makes the symbols themselves kind of flat, distant, and universal, but it also complicates and enriches them in a way that I think is appealing, and in a way that makes them ripe for subversion now, considering that the world that these tales were supposed to explain that had been unknowable at the time is now known. We’ve had science step in and tell us why the world gets cold for half the year, and why the earth shakes, and what the sparkling lights in the bog are. That’s not what we need myth and fairy tale and narrative for.
Now, I think the biggest mystery to us is often ourselves, who we are, and how we relate to one another, and how those other intimate relationships complicate our sense of selves. This complicates the language of fable, myth and fairytale because it often is so universal and distant. Characters do absurd things as if they are par-for-the-course, and are archetypes rather than individuals. Their challenges are often straight-forward, even in the complicated arena of love–get the apple of life, win the girl, ect. And, if I may say so, very passive when it comes to the female-coded characters, who are often acted upon rather than acting in their narratives. But I think that the distance, and the opaque absurdity of these forms, lends narratives of self and intimacy an interesting tension and, in a way, realism. When we examine ourselves, it often requires us to take a step back, to become a little distant, and the lens we use is often that of archetypes. We develop ourselves in relationship to others, our differences, and our similarities, and those often start as very 2-D representations. Often our own actions are absurd even to ourselves, in the moment or in hindsight. Often, we are looking at our lives in terms of how they stack up against the narratives we’ve been told of how things should be, and fairy tales and myths are still very much a part of that canon.
I think a good thesis for my collection on a whole is the first story “Tale Telling.” I felt kind of strange putting it up front, because when you really look at it, it’s actually realism–there’s nothing in it that may not occur in the real world. Elements of it are absurd, such as the Post Office for the Dead, and a roof lined with plastic dogs, but not necessarily unreal (I actually saw both of these things during my time in Japan and loved how strange they were and knew I had to use them in a story.) So, I felt like it was maybe misguiding reader’s expectations for what was to follow. But, at its heart, it is someone heavily influenced by narrative, specifically fairy tale and myth, trying to make sense of their relationships and self through that lens. As a result, the narrator acts out in ways that could read as absurd, but follows a kind of internal logic similar to that of fairytale, but our narrator’s story doesn’t end up with a happily-ever-after, because ultimately, their life isn’t a fairytale. That may be the lens they use to view the world, but ultimately it’s a story about how that kind of lens complicates our ability to function, our ability to know ourselves and others.
AD: Almost all the love stories here, too, have layers. There is almost never just the core love—it’s complicated by the stories told within it, by fantastical elements like the being at the center of the universe, or the train at the end of the world. Do you feel that this complexity helps drive these stories to another purpose? Could you tell a simple “boy meets girl” love story?
CJ: Honestly, I don’t know if I could tell a boy meets girl love story! One time I made an attempt to write a novel where that kind of story was happening as kind of the b-side to the major plot and I just absolutely did not find it interesting or engaging. Maybe that says something about me, and I don’t want to imply there isn’t a place or value to those stories. It’s just not what drives my interest in crafting a narrative. I think I tend to be more interested in endings, rather than beginnings. Of picking up after the Happily Ever After. I think that’s where you are most likely to see people’s sense of self crumbling or transforming in the most interesting way. For better or worse, I think intimacy, love, be it romantic, familial or platonic, affects our sense of self, and yet when you develop that sense of self based on your relationships, you’re essentially putting your being in someone else’s hands. You become dependent upon them to know who you are, and that can end disastrously in a way that is very unhealthy. This can happen to anyone, but I think that our cultural narratives lay a heavy emphasis of love-as-identity on female-socialized people, and I’m interested in exploring the effects of that in a big way. I don’t know if that manifests as much in I’ll Tell You a Love Story—perhaps a little in “Dancing Girls” and “Curlew” where the protagonists are very clearly female-identifying, and that identity has a direct impact on the narrative. In other stories, I wanted to leave the gender more off the page, to make it more universal, and also make queer-readings more accessible. But it’s become a fixation of mine in my current work and the collection I’m putting together—the mix of gender, intimacy, and identity. While I’ll Tell You a Love Story is thematically centered on love, I think that the real drive behind the narratives tends to be the effects love has on our sense of self, particularly, what loss of love looks like.
AD: We graduated from the same MFA program! The acknowledgements shout out Chris Barczak, a speculative writer, and Imad Rahman, an absurdist. Can you talk about any specifics you learned from these writers and professors?
CJ: NeoMFA represent, haha. I studied under Chris Barzak for a long time, from my undergraduate to my masters and beyond and learned a lot from him in terms of crafting a narrative, teaching, and living abroad in Japan. I’ve really depended upon him and bothered him so much over the years, I probably wouldn’t be close to what I am now had I not known him. He taught me a lot, but one of the things, I think, that stuck with me the most was identifying the emotional core of a story, and learning how to develop it. It doesn’t matter how strange you get, or how far you depart from the real, as long as your story has that emotional core that will essentially humanize the strange, and give readers a place to ground themselves. I think, overall, I learned from him that the primary and important function of a story is to illicit feeling and connection with your audience. Working under him, I also learned that sometimes the best way to illicit that feeling is through metaphor and atmosphere rather than directly—that the core should be there, but like our hearts, it’s never fully knowable, but you can hear the beat of it steadily working.
Imad helped reinforce that, and gave me one of my favorite bits of advice about formation of narrative and theme. He told the class once that a narrative should ride the same horse from beginning to end. The horse may be wearing different gear, so to speak, but throughout the narrative, the horse you came in on should be the horse you end the journey with. So this means thematically you want to set the reader’s expectations up, but you can do that in an in-direct way. Say killing a cockroach in the first line sets up a tale that’s about the death of a marriage. It’s the same horse you’re riding but the tack has changed in an unexpected way that makes the narrative’s journey a satisfying one overall. It impressed upon me the need, I think, to make every small thing work towards a greater thematic goal, and set me up to think about in-direct and surprising connections that could be made to establish that goal.
I still reference the emotional heart and the horse you’re riding all the time when reading my own work, or participating in workshops.
AD: There is a lot of grit here, too. Would you say growing up in Youngstown provided that perspective, despite the fabulism and fantasy found here?
CJ: Most definitely. In fact, I’d say that Youngstown is responsible for both the grit and the fabulism/fantasy. It’s a strange place, kind of a hybrid place, where you have a lot of remnants from a once-thriving city gone to ruin due to the steel-mill collapse, and then a beautiful, expansive park, the second biggest metro-park in the U.S., right alongside it. So you have closed down factories, abandoned buildings, and kind of a miasma of desperation right alongside verdant green forests, and running rivers, and fairy tale-esque bridges, and I grew up very exposed to both. My mother was a taxi-driver, and she worked afternoon to evening when I was out of school. To spend time together, a lot of the time she would take me along to work, and we spent hours driving around the city and picking this or that person—a lot of them down on their luck-up. During that time, my mom, who was a Youngstown native, filled me in on a lot of the history of the place. The very real—economic depression, the closing of the factories, the political corruption, the influx of the mob, ect.—and sometimes the more paranormal; the houses she lived in that were haunted, local legends, and so on. She also loved the park, so she would cut through it every chance she got. So one moment we would be in a neighborhood that was the victim of economic collapse, and she’d be telling me about how she lived in an old Victorian that was converted to studio apartments once the family fled the area, and how the whole place reeked of catshit, etc., then the next we would be in the forest, and she’d be pointing out the supposedly-haunted amusement park that burned down, telling me how fairies lived in the trees and messed with travelers, and that’s why your hair raises on the back of your arms in certain areas of the woods, or how a woman who was accused of witchcraft was thrown from this bridge and you can see her at night. Things like that. So living in Youngstown and riding through it with my mother I think directly connected grit and myth in my mind.
AD: I can’t think of a single love story told here that isn’t extremely painful. Is there any way to tell a love story without the inverse of love’s elation?
CJ: I think that goes back, a little, to the discussion on if writing the typical “boy meets girl” story is possible for me. There are stories, I think, that do it. Fairytales do, often enough, and so does Disney. But those stories feel like fluff. Not that fluff doesn’t serve a purpose in terms of entertainment, but for me it’s not a narrative point of interest when I sit down to write, and also doesn’t reflect our reality. There’s no relationship that goes untouched by conflict, no up without a down, and no beginning without an end. We all know this by the time we reach adolescence, if not earlier. I think, due to a friend of mine passing away when we were both at a very young age, I grew extremely fixated on the inevitable end of things pretty early in. So even in stories that kind of only focus on the beginning of, say, a romance, and the good of it, I’ve always kind of imagined that after the curtain comes down, there’s more to it—another end that’s a real end. I guess also in a broader sense, a love story without conflict of some sort kind of falls flat—there’s nothing at stake, nothing to change, and another thing that Imad taught me as a writer is that narrative is essentially the tracking of a change; it could be small and subtle, but that it’s centered on something shifting or metamorphizing. Maybe the change happened right before the narrative began and it’s dealing with the effects of that change, or maybe it happens during the course of the story. Two people falling in love, I guess, is a change, but I think that to be interesting it has to require some conflict or hurdle that hampers the transformation, be it an internal or external one.
AD: These stories continually undermine their own seriousness with humor. What’s the role of humor to you as a writer, in telling a sad/gritty story?
CJ: I often worry that sometimes I am too melodramatic for my own good in my writing and also as a person, haha. In a sense, I think that what we might call heavy emotions have the potential for more interesting stories, but at the same time, I think there’s a danger there of bogging the narrative down with clichés, with a tendency to be too self-important, or to take oneself or the narrative too seriously that will turn readers off, and ultimately stand in the way of the heart of the story. I think this worry is partially what also drives me to write Fabulism. I think a lot of my characters, if they were plucked out of the magical or paranormal conceit, would mostly dwell too much on their depressive states in such a way that it would become suffocating to read. There are a lot of people and a lot of narratives that do that already, and as a friend of mine says, once the mini-violins start playing, the audience starts to tune out. So adding a talking bear to a divorce narrative, in a sense, is my way of trying to give that narrative a breath of air. I try to use humor the same way. If the narrative is heavy the whole time, that heaviness is going to lose its impact unless you give the reader a moment to rest their arms. I also think it is extremely typical of my generation to undercut sorrow with humor, and to use humor as an indirect way of enunciating sorrow. Also, I just like to make myself laugh. A lot of moves I make in a narrative that are more humorous are the moments where I’m kind of allowing myself to cut loose and just trying to entertain myself. I think that an author should always form a narrative with an audience in mind because why else are we writing to publish, but I also think every now and then you have to let yourself play around a little.
AD: One of my favorite stories is “Wolf’s Wake,” where the Queen of All Magic throws a party to commemorate her cheating soulmate. How much of this story is about finding our joy, love, and happiness in imperfection?
CJ: When I think about this collection—especially when I was ordering the stories for publication, I went through several different logical stackings of the story, and at one point I was trying to do so by rating the “happy vs. unhappy” narratives, which became kind of difficult, because those concepts are kind of muddled throughout the stories. There was one, maybe two, where I was like “this is a happy story, more or less,” and that was “Wolf’s Wake” and “The Center of Everything.” I think “Wolf’s Wake” made the cut for a few reasons. First, between Wolf and Queen, we have an example of actual, unconditional love. It’s a relationship that maybe many on the outside wouldn’t understand, but that suits them, and they balance one another, and it’s one that many people will interpret differently based on their own expectations and experiences of relationships. For instance, I don’t know if I would call Wolf a cheater, at least in the sense of him and Queen’s relationship. There’s a kind of understanding there that they can move as they like without it impacting their love for one another. But he also does this in a way that’s not completely ethical, in terms of seducing or sleeping with someone who doesn’t have the same kind of arrangement.
Queen and Wolf’s relationship and this dynamic forms the thrust of the narrative, and I think a lot of attention is focused on how that love looks, and how it isn’t perfect from a societal point-of-view, but a source of consistency and magic for them. But my major point of interest in that story was actually the narrator, the little girl who is telling us this story, and how her love for Queen and her place in this neighborhood shapes the way she looks at the world. For me, when I was writing it, the coming-of-age story and the loss of an important maternal figure, and how that figure shaped the character’s world view was my primary concern. Not that that’s the only way to read it, of course. The author is long dead, and I love when people see things in my stories that I didn’t see, or focus on bits that were not my primary focus. But for me, the most important thrust was this girl’s loss, and how despite that loss, she continued the narrative of magic, of wonder, and in that way, kept a hold of her childhood and mentor despite the loss.
AD: There is often a semi-anonymous narrator telling us these stories. Do you envision these narrators as the same person? In these stories, there’s a “you,” as well. Are we to do the work to figure out who “you” is, can we use ourselves as a stand-in, or was the “you” character something you deeply developed but didn’t put on the page?
CJ: There are so many semi-anonymous narrators, yes! I love a good semi-anonymous narrator! I think that when it’s done right, it can add so much depth to a story. I am hugely interested, as I think I’ve mentioned a few times now, in identity, narrative and intimacy, and how these things play off one another. One of the ways I try to play with these three moving parts is to have someone telling a story to someone else, because at least for me, that always generates an extra layer of interest. You have to ask yourself who is telling this story, who are they telling it to, and why? Why this story? What are they trying to say?
I think the level I employ this varies from story to story.
Some stories, such as “The Center of Everything,” and “This is Where You Leave Me,” I employed it to make things feel more intimate and also to open it up to queer-readings. It allows gender to be kind of side-stepped in a lot of instances, and as someone who identifies as non-binary and whose relationship to gender is always kind of shifting, it felt freeing to sometimes not have to inhabit a gendered body within a narrative, and especially relevant for “The Center of Everything” where we have characters inhabiting a countless amount of bodies, or no body at all. The narratives themselves don’t confront queer or non-binary issues head on in the way that I sometimes confront gender-issues centered on having a female-body and the societal expectations surrounding that, but a lot of times it’s my intention to create a queer or genderless space of intimacy, and the narrator speaking to a “you” can help with that.
Other stories, I do it specifically for character driven reasons or to pose questions about narrative, identity, and intimacy to varying degrees. For instance, in “Wolf’s Wake” I feel that the narrator’s audience isn’t so important. That she is just giving kind of context to an important moment in her life and how that shaped her view of the world from her perspective. She might tell that story to anyone, the important thing is she is relating to the world an aspect of herself through narrative. You can ask yourself if her narrative is completely factual, or if it isn’t in some way tinged by the eyes of a child, and those questions could be valid to ask. But I think the narrative also kind of gestures that if you’re going to ask those questions, then you ask why it’s important she’s telling it that way.
In other’s the audience is very important. In “I’ll Tell You a Love Story,” and “Miloslav” those are stories being told to someone for a reason; the narratives have a function, and what’s being told, and how, and to who, creates an extra layer to them that (hopefully, haha) creates an extra layer of interest in the readers. You could ask, of course, if these narratives are true—if the narrator from “Miloslav” really knew a talking bear, just as you could ask if the Queen of All Magic is really the Queen of All Magic. A lot of times when people who are used to primarily realist stories are workshopping my stories that have fantastic elements being related by a first-person narrator, that’s ultimately where they think the tension could lay: “Did this really happen or is our narrator unreliable/ imagining things/ out of their mind?” They want to know what’s real or not real, if we can trust the narrator or not, ect. But I think there are more interesting questions that can be asked. All narrators are unreliable, frankly, because all of our narratives are formed by our perception of the world, our relationship to our audience, and our purpose in telling the tale. If this person really knew a talking bear or not is not the heart of the story, the heart of the story is who they are telling this to and why?
I think those stories are so fun to read and to write because it requires a balance of the background story—the who and why—and the fantastical foreground story. You have to give enough answers and relevance to the background as to justify its being there, but you don’t want to tip your hand and make it too obvious. It’s much more effective and satisfying to imply that someone is an asshole through an extended metaphor than to come right out and say it, at least to me. But in all seriousness, I think that a frame like that can open up more questions and depth to a narrative, specifically about the construction of narrative and the influence of identity and relationships on those constructions and vice-versa. It’s also an invitation for the audience to become a more active part of the narrative by asking and supplying the answers to those questions, or even being invited into the conversation by-direct address, such as the one at the end of “Dancing Girls.” It’s one of my favorite things to do, but it’s not always successful. “My Darling, Where Have You Gone?” was initially framed this way—with a narrator addressing a you—but I took that to a workshop with Chris Barzak and from the audience response figured out the frame was distracting from the story more than adding to it. Thinking about it, I think that was the first time I ever tried something like that, and at the time, it was more influenced by a stylistic endeavor to emulate the voice of fairy tales. During that session, Chris Barzak taught me that to really develop meaning behind that kind of direct address, it helped to have a reason behind why the person telling the story was telling it, and to who, and that kicked off these kind of questions in my writing in a big way, but ultimately that frame got cut from My Darling for the most part.
As to if the narrator is the same or not,, for the most part I imagine them as separate, but I could see in certain stories potential through lines where an argument could be made for one narrator recurring as the voice of another narrative. After all, in a sense, all of them spring from me and sometimes I get on thematic, obsessive kicks where patterns begin repeating that I may not even notice at the time.
AD: The title of this interview series comes from one of my favorite songs, which also contains the line, “Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix.” So the last question here is always, if you had to cut one thing from this book, from a word or phrase, up to a story or scene, what would it be?
CJ: What an interesting question. I think, since thematically the stories are largely linked by love and the impact of loss of love, it would be interesting to rewrite the stories without ever actually using that word. Instead of directly stating “love” in the narratives, I was forced to dance around it and elude to it, since most of the stories involve trying to pursue it.
Couri Johnson is a graduate of the North Eastern Ohio Master of Fine Arts currently attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for a PhD in Creative Writing. For more information about her work check www.courijohnson.com
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin House, The Washington Post, Pacific Standard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New Ohio Review, Brevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.
One evening when I was eight or nine, the Texas sky broke into a classic afternoon thunderstorm. It would be over before dinner. But the rain raged through the evening and the power in our house went out. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked my mom. Without TV, the computer. “Read a book,” she suggested. Read a book? I’d rather count my leg hairs one by one.
Months later, on a day spent home sick from school, I ended up reading a book. Then I read another, then another. I reread books until the covers fell off and the spines split. Although I didn’t realize this at the time, whenever I read, I looked for myself in the pages: a word or a phrase or a character that felt familiar. I felt less alone realizing a part of someone else’s brain overlapped with mine. That’s still why I read.
I came to writing in a roundabout way. There was an attempted novel about Neopets in the fifth grade and some very cringe-worthy poetry in high school. And then, in college, I joined a DIY punk band. We named ourselves Genovia Forever (like The Princess Diaries). I wrote lyrics about princess lessons but also abuse and healing. I could be as intimate and personal as I wanted because during our shows, I screamed the lyrics in an indecipherable sludge. No one could tell what I was saying, but they danced anyway.
Meanwhile, I was directing and acting, and moved to Chicago to pursue theatre, but quickly realized that playing characters and working with others’ words wasn’t for me anymore. I needed an art that was all my own. I started writing strange performance pieces and devised plays based on my own experiences. The performance aspect of my work fell away, and I was left with just the words, and finally, I felt at home in a mode of expression.
This led me to apply to graduate school, and I recently earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, I discovered a love of fiction and found my voice: one that balances humor and pain, lightness and darkness, and always veers toward weird. I’ve written stories about a lesbian couple who is forced to reckon with their relationship after watching a monster truck show, and a father and daughter who bond over hunting rattlesnakes in the desert. I’m currently working on a novel about a girl in Texas who is forced to take up the family business of dachshund racing when her mother gets wrapped up in a scandal and can no longer race.
Now, when I think back to the girl who combed pages of books looking for herself, I hope my own writing can inspire the same feeling in others by providing language for complicated feelings or experiences. While making them laugh, too.
My southern-ness and gayness are huge parts of my identity and my writing, and I am so happy to join Sundress Publications as an editorial intern, so I can take part in the work they do uplifting underrepresented voices and providing a platform for amazing writing and poetry.
Kathleen Gullion is a writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Esthetic Apostle,Coachella Review, F Newsmagazine, and others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.