“The World To Me Was A Secret, Which I Desired To Discover” A Tribute to Frankenstein On Its Bicentennial
Let’s start with the text itself. How would you define your relationship/history to Mary Shelley’s canonical text, with regards to your work, be it creative, academic, and so on?
ADDIE TSAI: This answer, for me, is complicated. I first was introduced to the text when I took a Romantics Literature course in college. I was young, and I had just moved out of my father’s house. I had never, up to this point, ever read a novel that felt addressed so many parts of my identity—my biraciality as both White and Chinese, my splitting and joining around my identity as a mirror twin, and my experience with being raised by a narcissistic father and an abandoning mother. But, after the course, I let the novel go, and went about my business. Roughly ten years later, I began to explore it creatively as a text—the epistolary framework, but also the ways in which Shelley interwove into the text her personal life, her political views, and ideas around creation that were occupying the public imaginary at the time. Around that time, I co-created a dance theater adaptation of Frankenstein and its connections to Shelley’s life with a contemporary ballet company, Dominic Walsh Dance Theater, Victor Frankenstein, and I also began writing poems and hybrid nonfiction with regards to my own relationship to the text and to her life. I have also taught courses on the popular impact of Frankenstein.
EMILY AUGUST: I first began to engage in depth with Frankenstein during my Ph.D., when I was reading my comprehensive lists and taking my exams. My subspecialty is in medical humanities, and I was specifically looking at how surgery is represented in 19th-century literature, and how its discourse is used as a lens to grapple with ideologies about the human body. I was drawn to the way Shelley’s text registers contemporary anxieties about the body and its anatomical parts. The sewn-together, reanimated body of Frankenstein’s monster is an analogue for the social body that sits at the heart of my current academic book project.
DOUGLAS RAY:Frankenstein became one of those texts I often turned to when I started teaching in boarding schools. As I started to re-read the text in order to prepare to teach, I kept seeing moments of queerness, as the story questions fundamental or normative boundaries. I’ve also thought that the novel inspires great conversations about teaching and learning, the process of education.
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: Frankenstein was a book that I first read as an obligation, before I really knew how to read. I read it as an engaged but sheltered high school student in an English course where many of my peers struggled with literacy. There were texts that engaged me at this age; I was obsessed with Antigone. Frankenstein actually wasn’t one of them.
I returned to the book in and after college and found an entirely different world. I returned to the book again after I started writing seriously, and I found a book that taught me about narrative structure, about craft. It’s a text that, like human bodies, grows and changes and shifts over times. It depends on how we look at it, on our structures for seeing, which, of course, are made out of bodies and culture, both.
For those of you who bring Frankenstein into the classroom, please speak to the ways in which you do so, and to your pedagogical experiences when teaching this text. What interventions do you attempt when teaching this text in new ways? Do you teach this text alongside other texts, be they historical or contemporary? What texts, and how are those intersections received by your students?
ADDIE TSAI: I have taught Frankenstein in two literature courses – one that aims to think of the cultural and popular impact of Frankenstein and a Western World Literature survey course that uses a particular annotated edition of Frankenstein, titled Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (MIT Press, 2017) as the central text and aims to look at the many texts that informed some of the ideas in Frankenstein, or texts that Frankenstein inspired. Some of the academic intersections for that course vary from Aristotle and Plato to Freud’s case study of hysteria and psychological works on narcissism. The conversation that seems to resonate the most with students is that which centers around hysteria—not only the problematic hysteric studies that were performed on women at the time, but also the ways in which Shelley casts both Frankenstein and the Creature as male hysterics themselves. One of the voices useful for this conversation is Juliet Mitchell, who rather defines hysteria as the external pathological that occurs when the subject is caught between love and hate towards their object of attention. This is a state of mind you can see in both Frankenstein and the Creature, albeit from different energies and contexts.
EMILY AUGUST: I teach a British literature survey that covers the literary movements of Romanticism, Victorianism, and Modernism, and I use Frankenstein as the keystone Romantic text. It’s so useful because it encapsulates almost everything the Romantics were obsessed with: brooding, tortured geniuses; forbidding natural landscapes that produce states of sublime emotion; the ways in which science and technology were reshaping what it meant to be human; &c. In ways both explicit and nuanced, the text is also rife with Orientalism, so it provides a rich conduit into discussions about race and empire in the Romantic period. My students learn to identify the ways that whiteness structures the Romantic encounter with bodies; etched into their memories of the text are our discussions of the pale, aristocratic Elizabeth, with her blond halo-like hair, who possesses a natural superiority over her darker-skinned playmates. We also critique the character Safie and her refusal of her Turkish identity on feminist grounds. Safie waxes poetic about how much more liberated western women are than eastern women: she “aspire[s] to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet,” and she “sicken[s] at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem.” I ask students to draw parallels to the ways in which 21st-century feminist discourse has inherited these Islamophobic tropes about the perceived liberation of western women, and how certain performances of white feminism talk over or at Muslim women rather than listening to them and learning from them. I love this text, and I deeply admire its author. But to think about an English woman occupying the subject position of an “Arabian” who praises the superiority of western society? It’s troubling, and it’s an excellent opportunity for guiding students to more nuanced levels of cultural criticism.
DOUGLAS RAY: I have taught the novel several times at different independent boarding schools. I typically teach it to sophomores early in the year. Through the study of the novel, I want the students to ask several essential questions: What are the limits of human exploration and creativity? How do we use science and technology (and knowledge) ethically? What qualities make something / someone monstrous? Who gets to decide what’s monstrous and what’s civilized or ‘normal’? What is the best way to learn? I want the students to interrogate themselves–applying these questions to their own lives and opinions as well as to the novel.
To start the conversation, I usually show my students Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog (1818) to introduce students to ideas of Romanticism, exploration, and reckoning with the unknown. As we conclude our study of the novel, I always remind them that this particular text is one to revisit at different points in their lives.
How can the themes of Frankenstein (and Shelley’s engagement with those themes) give insight to the current political climate?
ADDIE TSAI: Certainly, I think that Frankenstein is one of those timeless texts because the issues that the text gives birth to continue in our culture—the ethics of creation, the dangers of narcissism, how the ego is reflected onto the child from a parent. Another important issue that the text addresses is that of alienation towards the strange or the unfamiliar. When I first read the text as a young woman, I remember how strongly I related to the Creature’s plight. What I found most striking was what Shelley does with the Creature’s name (even as nameless he remains) once the family he tries to care for and the outer world turn on him. From that point on, the Creature begins to be referred to by names that reflect how the world sees him—the Wretch, the Fiend, the Ogre, the Daemon, etc. I think it is a brilliant and beautifully-made point of how one can become a product of the world’s rejection. It is an interesting dynamic to think of in these times when immigrants, people of color, queer and trans people, and so many others find their lives and what they need to thrive threatened in this new divisive world. Or, perhaps it is not new, but only that the exposure to what this word is, in fact, is clearer than it has been before.
EMILY AUGUST: Most of the highly politicized questions with which Frankenstein engages are still very much a part of our current cultural conversations. Thus, the novel provides such a great opportunity for readers to think of these questions as perennial rather than fixed, and it enables us to historicize our own political moment.
Related to its rehearsal of Orientalist tropes, which I mentioned above, I think the novel also stages some really interesting questions around immigration and “the foreign”. I think about the different groups of people who engage in movement and travel throughout the novel, and how each group experiences travel so differently. I think of the Frankenstein family, whose members traverse Europe, from Scotland to Italy and several countries in between. I think of Safie and her father as fugitives or refugees. And the De Laceys, forcibly exiled from one home and then another. Which of the text’s characters can travel freely through Europe, and which characters’ movements are policed?
I think there’s also a lot to be said for Victor’s immense privilege, and its similarities to how privilege works in today’s society. Victor is, essentially, a very bright guy who’s doted on, petted, and placated. He persistently abdicates responsibility for his crimes and suffers virtually no consequences. When he does manage to briefly get tangled up with the law, the judicial system is shockingly easy on him—students get a lot of mileage out of discussing the differences between the two criminal trials in the text, and how Victor’s position as a white, upper-class male works in favor of his exoneration.
Finally, the novel is very invested in thinking about the dangers of science and technology; it is, in some ways, a parable of how science and technology become weaponized. And it’s a dirge that mourns the fallout from that weaponization: the human cost, and the abdication of responsibility on the part of those who manufacture, distribute, and preserve access to those weapons. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a topic more relevant to today’s political climate than that!
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: I absolutely agree that the work hasn’t become less pertinent to politics and culture, both. The questions it asks are central ones, not just to a time and place, but to our shared condition. What makes a body? Does a body make a spirit? What are the consequences for experimentation? Can one and should one create, or alter, life? Where are the boundaries between human and non-human? Conscious and non-conscious? When does a hybrid cease becoming a hybrid at all? What characteristics define being inside (being alive, being human, being sentient), and who, in the end, gets to decide?
As a working scientist, I see this playing out more and more. New technologies are creating – for the first time – the very real possibility of human hybrids. The CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technologies allow us to literally cut and paste DNA inside an egg or embryo. We can use this technology to humanize pig organs for potential transplant. CRIPSR has been shown to be (somewhat) effective in human embryos that are pre-programmed to die, although this technology remains outlawed in most countries and won’t be published by leading scientific journals.
So, the central questions of Frankenstein are being (re)considered now, here, in 2018, and the text still can guide us to and away from possibilities.
How does/has Frankenstein inform/ed your creative work? Has that influence changed over time? If so, what would you attribute that change to? In other words, does your impression of the text change over time and in what way does it?
ADDIE TSAI: There a number of ways that Frankenstein continues to inform my creative work. In the beginning, it was the content that stuck with me and the themes I saw that connected with my own feelings about my hybridized identity. From there, I also began to be struck with the power of the epistolary, of the address to the second person. At some point, however, the way the hybrid body of the Creature (as well as the text) speaks to the way in which I choose to form my work. I am a cross-genre artist—I work in hybrid forms and I also work with both image and text. In that regard, Frankenstein continues to be an influence on the way collage, just as Frankenstein collaged his Creature, just as Shelley collaged her text, informs everything I make.
JOSEPH OSMUNDSON: For me, I can address this in one word: hybridity. I still look to Shelley’s work when I think not about what type of story I want to tell, but how I want to tell it. The monster in the story is pieced together, and the narrative is too; it’s told from different points of view and through different media. As a writer, this has long guided how I think about craft, how the story I want to tell can be reflected in how the essay or book or poem is built.
Addie Tsai teaches courses literature, writing, and humanities at Houston Community College. She has collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. Addie received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she is currently pursuing a doctoral candidate in Dance at Texas Woman’s University. Her queer Asian young adult novel, Dear Twin, will be published by NineStar Press in 2018. Her writing has been published in BanangoStreet, The Offing, The Collagist, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere. She is the Nonfiction Editor at The Grief Diaries, and Senior Associate Editor in Poetry at The Flexible Persona.
Emily August is an Assistant Professor of Literature at Stockton University, where she teaches courses in British literature, medical humanities, and creative writing. Her academic research focuses on depictions of surgery and theories of embodiment in 19th-century literature and art. Her poetry has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, and has appeared in Callaloo, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Southern Humanities Review, Quarterly West, and elsewhere.
Douglas Ray is author of He Will Laugh, a collection of poems, and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He is currently editing Supporting Transgender Students: A Guide for Schools and Teachers. A graduate of the MFA program at The University of Mississippi, he teaches at Western Reserve Academy, an independent boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
Joe Osmundson is a scientist and writer based in New York City. He has a PhD from The Rockefeller University in Molecular Biophysics. His research has been supported by the American Cancer Society, published in leading biological journals, including Cell and PNAS, and he’s currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Biology at NYU. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Gawker, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The Lambda Literary Review, and The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere, too. His book, Capsid: A Love Song won the POZ Award for best HIV writing (fiction/poetry) and was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. His second book, INSIDE/OUT is now out from Sibling Rivalry Press (January, 2018). He is represented by Katie Kotchman at Don Congdon Associates. With three other queer writers, he co-hosts a podcast, Food 4 Thot.
Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Stieg Larsson, Charles Dickens, Edna Buchanan, and Mark Twain (among many others) created memorable fiction largely as a result of the skills they honed as reporters. Journalists churn out hundreds of words every day (without the luxury of waiting for inspiration), write to a word count, write to deadline, learn to work with editors, and develop an eye for extraneous words, authentic dialogue, and telling details. They also tend to have pretty solid grammatical skills and a keen sense of story. Is it any wonder they often make brilliant novelists?
A reporter’s toolkit can help novelists and storytellers of all kinds write gripping first lines, create memorable characters, and imagine authentic worlds in their fiction. There are stories in the world far more important—and far more interesting—than those drawn merely from our own experience. With global tensions intensifying, it feels urgent to tell stories that reach beyond our own borders and engage us with both the broader world and other humans.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Why don’t we each start off by talking about how the skills we acquired as a journalist are reflected in our own fiction writing?
Jo Piazza: Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. I started out as a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily News right before the Internet completely changed newspapers forever. But even when I was on a daily deadline instead of an hourly deadline I was still crunched to churn out clean, well-crafted copy on tight deadlines.
The Internet has only made those deadlines faster. What that means is that I have never had the luxury of fretting over my words. I just had to write. I do the same thing with my fiction writing. I can get a first draft on paper fast as hell. Then, once the whole thing is written, I take the time to go back and massage it and make it beautiful. I credit my work as a reporter for never getting writer’s block. I laugh when people talk about writer’s block. Who has the time for it?
My work as a journalist has also taught me to take meticulous notes. I used to carry three or four reporters’ notebooks with me all the time to write down my interviews. Now I carry much smaller notebooks that can slip into my back pocket. I am constantly writing down descriptions of things or bits of dialogue and then stashing them away as inspiration for my fiction.
Tom Zoellner: I believe the top trait demanded of a reporter is the ability to listen. You must ask probing questions and not accept superficial explanations. You must develop the ability to understand inference – to understand what is left unsaid. The art of writing fiction is about “listening” to your characters as though they were interview subjects.
Michael Downs: What Tom said is really important – for journalists, novelists, everyone. There’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – another journalist/novelist – that I often mention to students in which Marquez chides interviewers for relying too much on technology and recording devices and paying attention only to a person’s words. But those things, he says, don’t “hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.” He’s talking about empathy, and I think journalism teaches that. Journalism helped me become a person who knows how to pay attention to another person. It’s empathy, it’s listening, it’s openness to the world and experience. That was a great gift.
But as for skills, I’d say the ability to research and report have primarily helped my fiction writing. I’ve set a lot of my work in other decades – my forthcoming novel is set in the 1840s, and it’s about the early days of anesthesia. It took a lot more than Google to understand the world and the science and my characters’ lives. I had to know where to search, how to search, and why to search. Journalism taught me a lot of that.
Sophfronia Scott: At both Time and People magazines I frequently had to write short articles, like 500 words and less. Those short articles still had to be packed with information and the prose had to pop. Writing like that taught me to respect words. Every word has to pull its weight when you write short, every verb has to be on target. I’ve carried that respect into my fiction writing. My novel may be over 100,000 words but none of those words are throwaway words.
Jennifer Steil: You’ve all made really important points. Like Jo, I don’t have time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I’m very good at writing to deadline. I also carry a notebook everywhere because if I don’t write down a thought the minute I have it, it floats up into the ether. My experience scribbling interviews in my reporters’ notebooks, making sure to record the exact words, was terrific preparation for writing convincing dialogue. Reporting also brought me in contact with people I would never otherwise encounter or get to know. They made me aware of very different lives, different stories. Perhaps among the most important things I learned as a reporter was how to ask questions of the world and how to listen closely to the answers.
My journalism background is also entirely responsible for my career as a novelist. Before 2006, I had written many stories and one entire novel, but none of them felt urgent. When I moved to Yemen in the summer of 2006, I finally found a story worth telling. I became the editor-in-chief of a Yemeni newspaper, which was the hardest and most fascinating thing I had ever done. It felt urgent to tell the world the stories of my reporters, to tell the world that Yemenis are nothing like their portrayal in the media. Thus my first book ended up, to my surprise, being a memoir. After publishing a work of nonfiction, it was much easier to sell a novel. I already had an agent, an editor, and a publishing track record.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): If you were teaching a masterclass in using journalism tools for fiction writing, what one journalism tool would you teach, and how would you do it? What have students or colleagues really responded to?
Michael Downs: I’ll return to what Tom and I alluded to above: the interview. Becoming a good interviewer requires that you as a writer learn how to move from an answer to a question, to discover in an answer a new question –and isn’t that the direction literature takes? Also, interviewing skills help at parties and receptions and the like. Strangers, it turns out, are more interesting when you ask them interesting questions.
Sophfronia Scott: I would teach the power of detail. We tend to think of description as telling what something or someone looks like—his hair was gray, the sky was blue. But I would teach to choose detail that does more, detail that tells you someone’s situation or state of mind or provides a stunning contrast. I once reported a story about a middle school age student who took a knife to school in her backpack with the intention of harming her teacher. My editor wanted me to try to find out what else was in her backpack: pink lip gloss? Math homework that had been left undone? A crumpled bus pass? She wanted to play off that contrast of a violent instrument placed among a pre-teen’s school things. Detail is so important. I would want students to open their eyes to see more than what they may be taking in now.
Jennifer Steil: Absolutely. That’s a terrific example of evocative detail, Sophfronia.
One exercise my students consistently find useful is a lede-writing exercise. While there is a lot more to writing a good book than crafting a riveting first sentence, a riveting first sentence never hurts. I talk about 13 different types of journalistic ledes, giving several examples of each type. (Many of my favorites come from Pulitzer Prize-winning Edna Buchanan, who wrote memorable ledes such as, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin” and, “His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him,” but I also include examples from novels, such as, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) After we read dozens of brilliant first sentences and learn something about what makes them work, I ask my students to interview each other and write a profile of their partner, starting with one of the lede types we discussed. They do not need to stick to the facts (fiction writing!) but can freely spin off from the material. The interview is just a starting point. Students always come up with some great stuff. Even seasoned authors have let me know they went home and rewrote the first sentence of their book after this particular lecture.
Jo Piazza: Writing on deadline. I guess it’s something I can’t emphasize enough because I keep mentioning it. Right now I’m working on a very quickie project for my publisher. It’s a 75k word novel, and I need to bang it out in about three weeks. Yeah, an entire novel in three weeks. The exercise is daunting every day. I go through the complex emotions one usually experiences writing a novel over the course of a year or two in a single 24-hour span. While you’d think this would dull my writing skills, it has actually done the opposite. It’s forcing my brain to work in different ways. I’m doing a constant sprint now instead of a marathon, and I think the exercise will serve me well on my next big book project. I think reminding people that time is a luxury is really important.
Tom Zoellner: This one is hard to pull off in the classroom except by exhortation, but what helps journalism immeasurably is the simple act of “showing up” – traveling out to see the coal mine, the hospital, the city council chamber, the family home. You are exposed to ten thousand sensory elements and organic connections – the grist of life – that you would never get from reading about it or a phone conversation. Establishing a physical presence first in the places where we seek to create literature is a journalistic habit that fiction writers would do well to imitate.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): How do you encourage other writers to think beyond their own lives and experiences?
Jo Piazza: I tell everyone who wants to be a writer to set a writing goal every day and make sure to meet it every day for the next month. Mine is between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on what I am working on. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to me and say they didn’t make it even three days. That’s when I remind them that writing is hard. It’s a craft. It’s a habit. It takes real work. I think from the outside writing looks really easy. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. But when it comes to putting pen to paper on a regular basis (I still say that because I write almost everything long-hand before I type it out) the reality is very different.
I tell people to talk to as many people as possible in a day, but to make sure they’re really listening. Writers are essentially thieves, stealing bits and pieces of other people’s stories and dialogue. I’ve gotten some of my best dialogue from Uber drivers around the world. It’s the listening that is key…and the writing things down. You will tell yourself you will remember something and 99 percent of the time you won’t.
Tom Zoellner: I have never bought into the idea that writers of an assigned gender, race, religion, geography, class, etc. should be confined to only writing about their “identity” (however and by whomever that is defined). Journalism is an excellent way to break those boundaries and establish some empathetic projection – paradoxically enough, through dispassionate observation – with people who live in far different circumstances. And another paradox: getting out of your neighborhood is at once an act of hubris and an act of humility.
Jennifer Steil: I’ve always told young writers that the best thing they could do for their writing is to move somewhere that makes them profoundly uncomfortable and that challenges all of their assumptions. Such a situation is bound to force people to think outside of their own small worlds, from a less nationalistic and more global point of view. It also leads to interesting adventures and relationships, all splendidly rich writing material. One exercise I like to do with students is to have them write a travel story about their home town. Where’s the best pizza place? Where is the best place to throw a birthday party? Which bars would you recommend? What is the town known for? It gives them new perspective to have to describe it to a stranger.
Sophfronia Scott: I tell my students that creativity playdates are just as important as the time they schedule for writing. In fact, their writing time could be difficult and fruitless without them. If they find they are spending much of their writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, they’re in need of a creativity playdate. I say if you’re looking for a story idea, ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. Really the best way to get outside of yourself is to open your eyes and start looking around.
Michael Downs: Creative playdates. I love that. I hope you don’t mind, Sophfronia, if I borrow that one.
This question of moving beyond personal experience is so important, especially for younger writers. Too often they don’t have enough narrative distance from the particulars of their own experiences to be cold about them. A newspaper columnist from California once wrote in Best American Newspaper Writing how he always wrote hot and edited cold. I tell that to my students, but they still often can’t find their way to that cold phase regarding their own experiences.
So I encourage several strategies: change the setting or change the genders of the characters. Change their ages. One thing that often works is to get them to see their particular experience in terms of its abstractions (their experience involved betrayal, or failed hope, or the strange comedy of grief). Then, they imagine a situation different from their own particular experience, but one that allows them to write about those same abstractions. So rather than the profound betrayal they felt in a love affair, they write instead about a betrayal in a workplace having nothing to do with love. That way they still write about their life experience, but the particulars belong to someone else’s life.
Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Do you still work as a journalist? How does that affect and fit in with your fiction writing on a day-to-day basis?
Sophfronia Scott: I write essays and opinion pieces for publication, but I don’t work as a reporter-type journalist anymore. I focus on my own writing now but the lessons I learned from journalism are still within me and at use every day. How could they not be? I wrote many stories, under deadline, for years and years. It’s imprinted in me at this point.
Jennifer Steil: Sometimes. I like to do freelance work when I can, it brightens up my brain. Working to a tight deadline and word count focuses me. I no longer work full-time as a journalist, largely because I find that if I am writing all day long for a paper or magazine, I don’t have the energy for my own fiction work at the end of the day. I’m better off bartending.
Michael Downs: Like you, Jennifer, I find it difficult to balance the two. It’s an analogy that dates me, but I find it’s like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders trying to toggle between baseball and football. They’re both sports, but they require such different skills and world views. In my case, journalism is about the rush, the deadline, the ability to learn enough that I can simplify what’s complicated. Fiction, though, is more like method acting. It demands that I be quiet and go deep and concentrate, to take what might seem simple and complicate it. But I love and honor both disciplines and their crafts.
Jo Piazza: I do. Up until I had my baby six months ago I was still working full-time as a journalist and writing books on the side. Now I am focusing mainly on books and baby with some freelance assignments. I typically reserve a couple of hours every day to do the fiction writing regardless of what my full-time job looks like, be it editor of a website or a magazine or being a mom like it is right now. But I follow the quota more than I follow the time limit unless I am editing, then I can edit for about eight hours straight. But when I am in creation mode once I am done with that word count I let myself be done for the day. Sometimes I am finished in a half hour and sometimes it takes five hours. My husband is very used to me saying “I have one hundred more words…I can’t do anything until I get one hundred more words.”
Tom Zoellner: I am far more a journalist – by habit, training, and a liking for paychecks – than I am a fiction writer. But I find I am drawn to write fictional characters that embody a certain reserve and clinical distance resembling that of the journalist’s prose. A refusal to participate in the depths of life in favor of observation, much like the existential ambivalence of the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. This is a dilemma that we don’t much like to talk about, and one whose best expression is through fiction.
Michael Downs’s debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Acre Books. His other books include The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), a collection of linked stories, and House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. His recent nonfiction has appeared in AARP: The Magazine, Baltimore Style, and River Teeth. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and teaches at Towson University.
Jo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and best selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes became an instant international bestseller and has been translated into more than seven languages. Jo received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. Her latest novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, will be published by Simon & Shuster in July 2018. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, son and their giant dog.
Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collection, Love’s Long Line, from Ohio State University Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novel, All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, www.Sophfronia.com.
Jennifer Steil is an award-winning author and journalist. Her novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was praised by The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.
Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac Review, World Policy Journal, The Week, The Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die Welt, New York Post, The Rumpus, Time, Readers’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radio, and GRN Global Reporter Network Service.
Tom Zoellner is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and the author of four nonfiction books, including the recently published Train as well as A Safeway in Arizona, Uranium, and The Heartless Stone. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Time, Harper’s, Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and many other places.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, or the end of World War I; and 90 years since the first publication of the most famous novel from that war, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Alternately praised by pacifists and condemned by patriots, Remarque’s work was eventually banned by the Nazis as they revved up their war machine for what would become World War II. But did they have reason to fear Remarque’s words? Has any one book—not to mention poems dating back from Sappho–or the thousands that have since been published during a century of armed conflict, stopped any war? Or have they had the opposite effect by celebrating the triumphs of soldiers along with the cost of those triumphs?
As if in response to these questions, the field of war literature has expanded mightily since Remarque to include graphic novels (It Was the War of the Trenches by Jacques Tardi), books by and about women at war (Girl at War by Sara Novic); both realistic and magical investigations into the lives of refugees (Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; Loom by Therese Soukar Chehade); stories told from the point of view of America’s enemies (The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen); and the resurrection of Greek myths (The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya) to recast the narrative of the ever unfolding and potentially endless War on Terror. This discussion focuses on why and how we write about war, and whether we have been meeting our responsibility as writers and human beings to somehow put an end to this recurrence of the “decisive human failure.”
Jane Rosenberg LaForge (JRL): Why do you write about war the way that you do? Each of you has carved out a particular approach, locus, or specific time period, in your books. I’m asking this question in light of innovations to the genre, such as those mentioned above, and any others you can think of.
Helen Benedict(HB): I first approached my cycle of writings about women in the Iraq War – my recent novels, Wolf Season, its predecessor Sand Queen, the nonfiction book, The Lonely Soldier, and the play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues – with the mission of finding out from soldiers and civilians themselves what they were experiencing in this war, and what they thought about it. I knew what politicians were saying, and what pundits, journalists and my friends were saying, but in 2003-5, we were hearing precious little from those actually in the midst of the violence.
I also knew that more American women were serving in the Iraq War than in any other war since World War II, and yet were receiving precious little attention for it. I wanted to know why they, as women, had joined, how they felt about the war, and what was it like to be a woman in ground combat, even as it was still officially banned. Thus, I set out to travel the United States for roughly three years, from 2006-9, interviewing women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Some I spoke to for an hour or two by phone, others I talked with for many months, visiting their homes, touring their towns, seeing their high schools, and meeting their families. In the end, I interviewed some 40 women from the Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.
These women opened their hearts to me in ways I found extraordinarily courageous and moving. Some were proud of their service, others loved the military but opposed the war, and yet others had turned against both the military and the war – but they all wanted to be heard. I wrote The Lonely Soldier based on those interviews, and later the play, which was all in the words of the soldiers themselves.
Yet, I was not satisfied.
All these women had endured war, and most had suffered trauma, not only as a result of being in battle but because some 90 percent had been relentlessly sexually harassed, and some 30 percent raped or sexually assaulted by the very men who were supposed to watch their backs in battle – their so-called brothers-in-arms. Sometimes, during our interviews, the women would fall silent, their hands shaking, their eyes filling with tears; at other times they would deflect my questions with humor. Those moments haunted me until I came to see that, as open as these women were with me, another story lay in those silences and jokes – the private, internal story of war hidden deep inside every soldier’s heart; the real story of war.
I wanted to tell that hidden story, but I knew much of it lay beyond what these women were willing or even able to say aloud. Some couldn’t speak because they didn’t have the words, some were too afraid, others too proud, yet others too ashamed. Military culture is fiercely secretive and self-protective, and soldiers who criticize it are usually treated as traitors. Even whistleblowers tend to internalize that accusation, and eventually retreat into self-loathing, shame, suspicion, and silence.
So I turned to fiction, where I could combine my interviews, research and imagination to fill in those silences and get to the uncensored story of war — to how it really feels to be in a war day in and day out, from the long stretches of boredom to the worst moments of violence, and all that happens in the minutes, hours and months in between.
But soldiers’ experiences are, of course, only one side of what is going on in Iraq. I wanted to tell the other side, too — that of civilian Iraqis – a side that has been missing from American public discourse for 15 years by now. Thus I found some Iraqi refugees and talked to them for hours, just as I had the soldiers. They, also, were generous, courageous, and eager to help me. They, also, wanted to be heard. And once I explained that I was writing a novel with an Iraqi character in it, their eyes brightened, their enthusiasm kindled, and they offered all the stories and advice I needed.
This is how I came up with my novels about women on both sides of the Iraq war, novels that reflect what I found in the silences, tears and jokes of soldiers, and in the lonely eyes of Iraqi refugees; those secret places in the human soul that have always been the territory of novelists.
D.H. Lawrence once said, “…war is dreadful. It is the business of the artist to follow it home to the heart of the individual fighters.”
I wrote about war the way I did because I, too, wanted to follow the war home.
JRL: I’m wondering if the #MeToo movement is going to change anything in the military, and if this will eventually translate into literature. Do you care to make any predictions about it?
HB: In a sense, military women have been having a #MeToo movement for many years now. And military sexual assault and harassment as a subject has already entered some literature — for example in both my novels, Sand Queen and Wolf Season, as well as in memoirs, such as Caged Eyes by Lynn Hall. Several closed Facebook groups for survivors of military sexual assault exist as well; forums for just this kind of discussion. Women have also spoken out to journalists, as they did in my book, The Lonely Soldier, and the documentary that came out of that work, The Invisible War. But this is not to say that it isn’t incredibly difficult to speak out about sexual persecution in the military, which is an intensely victim-blaming and shaming culture.
Only two years ago, Human Rights Watch released a study showing that a woman who reports a sexual assault in the military is TWELVE times more likely to be punished than a man who commits one. Retaliation, cover-ups, and victim blaming are still far too rife in the military. Investigation and prosecution must be taken out of military hands and the chain of command, and moved to neutral, non-military courts, as they are in Canada and Britain, if true change is to be made. I do hope the #MeToo movement will make that happen.
JRL: Returning to the original question of why each author has approached a particular time period, or aspect of war:
Jesse Goolsby (JG): I’m most interested in the nuance and uniqueness of human desire in all of us. The reason I write about war and its infiltration beyond combat areas and into the side streets and livings rooms everywhere is because war, for veterans and civilians in war zones, is only one experience in a life, but such an impactful one that it very well may tinge all that occurs after. But, of course, that may not be true at all. I know many combat veterans that do not showcase the expected physical and moral wounds of war, and abhor the assumption that they must be haunted or hurt. My novel and many of my short stories work imaginatively to privilege the sanctity of the individual experience and the vast responses to conflict one might image. While that’s my goal, I must acknowledge that as an active-duty Air Force officer, the proximity of war, or the threat of war, is never far from my day-to-day consciousness. How that affects my writing, I’m not sure, except to say, when I write about war or the consequences of war, it feels urgent and close. And at the same time, I find it a great joy to explore human courage, loyalty, and fortitude well beyond the battlefield. Of the 13 chapters in I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, two take place in Afghanistan. My “war” novel is more at home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Chester, California than in the Middle East.
Samuel Snoek-Brown (SSB): I’m an absolutist in my pacifism. This isn’t just about war; it’s about violence of any sort. I’m that guy who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly—I have a little bug vacuum that I use to suck up insects and carry them outside. I’m that guy. So, nationally speaking, I’m against any war for any reason. But I’m also what one might call a pragmatic idealist; I know how unlikely it is that we’ll ever eradicate warfare altogether. So how do we live with it? Not the warriors but the civilians, the people who have no interest in fighting someone else’s war—how do these people cope when war sucks them in unwillingly? That’s what I was trying to wrestle with in Hagridden. Which seems strange, considering how easily the women in my book fall into murder during the Civil War, but that is their coping mechanism. Historically, culturally, regionally, this all rings true. We tend to think of the South as a monolith, racist Confederate rebels the lot of them, but in truth, poor whites in the South—even the racist ones—had little at stake in the war. They knew it was a political and economic fight, and a lot of folks, especially outside the heart of the slave economy, knew they were just being used as fodder in a war for rich white people. This was especially the case in Louisiana, and the bayou there became notorious as a place where people could avoid conscription or hide out from home front soldiers hunting deserters.
Seth Brady Tucker (SBT): This is an interesting manipulation of a very common question: “why do you write about war,” which I’ve been basically answering at every reading or guest lecture I’ve done since 1996. It is a tiresome question; so tiresome, that I actually misread your question to begin with (I don’t bring this up to criticize, but it made me think about why the first version is so annoying and the second version, yours, is so compelling). Of course, if one is a veteran, it is likely they will write about what they know, as many fiction writers do, as many poets do, as certainly most nonfiction writers do. Personally, I feel strongly that I don’t choose what I write, but listen for the next piece by paying attention to the world. The way I write is significantly more complicated; I write the way I do (fiction, poetry, and currently a novel) because of all those veteran writers who came before—I write short fiction because Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried challenged me to write a “true war story.” I write poetry the way I do because I early on fell in love with those poets who could communicate a life and an idea in just a few simple images. I write the way I do because I literally found poetry (William Carlos Williams and Mary Oliver) in a foxhole in the Persian Gulf. In my mind, we are all paying our respects to Heller and Sassoon and Remarque and and and… And then it is our turn to speak a “truth the stomach believes,” as O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story.”
My poetry is what I would consider imagistic lyrical narrative (yuck, what a mouthful), so much of what I write takes small moments and endeavors to expand it in such a way that the reader is given a stake in the subject, right there along with the humans who are speaking or experiencing it. Almost all of my poems tell tiny stories, which is why my short fiction will sometimes lapse back into flash fiction or prose poems. And no. I don’t believe we have been matching our duty when it comes to “our decisive human failure.”
JRL: In 2015, Roy Scranton, the author of War Porn (Soho Press), wrote an essay in which he criticized “the myth of the trauma hero.” He traced the origins of this myth—mild-mannered men go to war and are forever changed by the monstrosities they witness but cannot articulate—to demonstrate how most war literature fails, particularly in terms of illustrating the social forces that propel nations into war. (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/trauma-hero-wilfred-owen-redeployment-american-sniper/ ) He indicts Wilfred Owen into this category, along with Hemingway and Phil Klay. What do you think of his criticism of war literature and in particular, his idea of the “trauma hero?” I think this myth is necessary, if only so we can believe in the exceptional or fragile nature of our own humanity, and as war as an inhumane, worst-case scenario. Does this myth preclude explaining the causes of war in the midst of combat?
HB: Yes, American soldiers are too sorry for themselves. And yes, it is tiresome. And yes, we selfishly pay more attention to our own problems – those of the occupier – than those of the occupied, the civilians whose lives we have destroyed. And finally, yes, too much of American war literature, and too many American war movies, glamorize and lie about war without addressing the deep corruption of its politics and the horror of its results.
But the study and discussion of moral injury is essential, for the deeper it goes, the more it reveals that, in fact, most humans are not comfortable with killing and torturing, and that most killers suffer for their actions. I refer readers to a forthcoming anthology called War and Moral Injury, edited by Robert Emmet Meagher and Douglas A. Pryer (Cascade Books), in which the findings about how deeply killing and torturing destroys the killer and the torturer are beautifully explained. I consider this a ray of hope for humankind. We just might not be quite as savage as we think. The traumatized soldier is not a myth; it is merely overdone.
The root of Roy Scranton’s critique, I believe, lies in the difference between a war that relies on a draft, and one that relies upon voluntary enlistment. It is much easer to muster sympathy for the trauma and moral revulsions of young people sent to war against their wills than it is for those who voluntarily joined up, only to express bewilderment and horror once they are sent to war.
This is an argument that Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has also made. But both he and Scranton have lost sight of a few facts that challenge their point.
First, many young service members who deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in fact, bamboozled into war. This was certainly the case for those who joined the National Guard, which hadn’t been sent to war since Korea, just so they could serve the country, get their paychecks and escape their hometowns without going to war. As one soldier said to me, “National. That means inside the country, right?” Wrong, it turned out.
Second, many recruits were conned into enlisting by lies. Under President Bush and the pressure to fill the ranks for the post-9/11 wars, recruiters were lying in droves. I document this in The Lonely Soldier, so will only say here that the prevalence of lies told to high school kids to get them to enlist was widespread, well-covered, and shocking. They were told they wouldn’t go to war, that the chances of dying in war if they did go were lower than being killed by a car, that the war was almost over, and that it wasn’t really a war but a liberation of the people, especially the women, of Iraq. (In fact, we took away the rights women had held under Saddam Hussein and joined with fundamentalist Imams to drive women back under Sharia law.) Under the “No Child Left Behind Act,” public schools were mandated to give the names, addresses and phone numbers of students to the military in exchange for Federal funding, so that the military could reach into students’ homes, visit them, court and hound them.
Then, of course, there’s the argument that poverty is a back door draft. And, I would add, half the recruits in the Marines and Army came from violent, dysfunctional families and had suffered abuse as children, according to two seminal studies, also cited in my book. This means that some 50 percent of those enlistees could well have joined up to escape, to feel strong, and to turn themselves into warriors instead of victims.
In short, many of the soldiers I interviewed over the years were young, ignorant and naïve, yes, but they were also idealistic, good people who truly thought they were going to do something noble. Most had enlisted at 17 or 18. They were children, and in my view, they have as much claim to trauma and moral injury as any draftee in Vietnam.
JG: I pray no author genuinely interested in the imaginative arts ever considers what Scranton or any other critic has to say about the potential failings of his or her art. Hemingway, Owen, Klay, and many others have tapped into fictive consciousnesses that experience trauma in war. The vast majority of their work is very well written. There are blank pages in front of all of us. If one wants a different war story then go write it, and I wish you well.
SSB: A few decades ago, when I had a job cooking meals in a senior center and eating a daily lunch with members of the Greatest Generation, I confessed to a woman that I once thought about joining the military but had decided against it because I didn’t want to go to war.
“You wouldn’t be willing to die for your country?” the woman asked, incredulous.
“I would absolutely die for my country,” I said, “but that’s not what they send you to war to do. They want you to kill for your country. And I’m not willing to kill anyone.”
I think Scranton makes some good points about the mythology of the “wounded warrior,” but the truth is, the trauma isn’t just in the violence a veteran soldier witnesses—the greater trauma is often in the violence the veteran soldier has been party to. That’s one of the things I was trying to address in my novel. My characters are all more or less willing participants in the often horrific and intimate violence they commit, but most of the characters also feel forced into committing that violence, and some of those characters are more damaged by what they’ve done than by anything they’ve been witness to. All of my killers are victims, but none of my killers thinks they are heroes.
If anything, I think that’s the new mythology that good war literature is trying to portray these days. We still have “patriotic,” jingoistic stories like those Scranton indicts, but I would suggest that since at least Vietnam, we’ve been far more willing to also tell the stories of the violence that we do ourselves in war. That in some respects, every wartime soldier is their own enemy, brutalizing themselves on behalf of someone else. That is especially more prevalent in the midst of America’s longest war, which we’ve been fighting on at least a few different fronts for going on sixteen years now. Soon, children who were born just before we went into Afghanistan will be able to enlist and ship out to a war that has been smoldering their entire lives. When they get there, what will we ask them to do? How much violence will we ask them to commit?
I wrote my novel about the U.S. Civil War, arguably the world’s first “modern” war and one of the most intimate and intimately brutal. But it was about this question of what wartime—not just warfare but a national period of war—does to the psyche of everyone living through it. Because these days, even civilians are “veterans” of the wars we’ve been fighting, and maybe that’s always been the case. In one of my current novels, I’m writing about the Reconstruction, and the characters in that novel are all veterans of the Civil War, returned to a home and a peace they don’t know how to inhabit, not because they are victims of the trauma of war but because they were perpetrators of war—they engaged in vicious, brutal violence, and they don’t know how to stop. That novel is rooted in several true stories from the period, but as I’ve been writing it, I’ve also been thinking about a student of mine a decade ago who gave a classroom presentation on video game violence. His older brother had deployed to Iraq and when he came home, all he wanted to do was play the wartime first-person shooter “Call of Duty.” My student and his brother would spend hours at the game, engaging in mission after mission. My student explained that his brother needed to play the game because that was the only way his brain worked anymore. He had to engage the enemy, accomplish the mission, juice his adrenaline. The only place he felt comfortable was on the battlefield, even if it was a virtual one. But then one day, as my student and his brother played a desert-battle scenario, the game stopped and my student heard a crack—his brother had broken the game controller in his hand. He was standing in the living room, his fists mottled red and white as he crushed the controller, as he struggled to breathe.
“Are you okay?” my student asked his brother.
“I can’t play this anymore,” his brother said. “I need some air.”
“Are you okay, though?” my student repeated.
“It’s too real,” his brother said.
The soldier, returned home, couldn’t handle the video game anymore not because it reminded him of what he’d witnessed, but because he’d gotten too wrapped up in the digital violence, and he was worried it would carry over into the real world. He was worried he would carry into civilian life the violence he had committed in war.
That’s not a myth. That’s not fiction; it’s not a film or a video game. That’s our current reality.
I think that’s what war literature today has to be about.
SBT: I think the myth is necessary and inevitable and will always exist—it is our job as artists to render that trope into obscurity with our own approaches to the forms we take on in our writing—to create a new vision of the trauma hero that is basically unrecognizable—it is true that we create archetypes and always will, but it is also true that great literature obscures and masks them. To criticize the “trauma hero” is akin to criticize the “broken husband” or the “bitter wife” or any archetype in modern and contemporary literature. What Scranton was really pushing back against, in my opinion, is the wild and irresponsible chase for war writers by publishing houses.
It just happens that there is a push for war literature that wasn’t there when I began writing, or, I should say “war porn” for those legions of Hoo-wah pulp novels that treat war in the same way romance novels treat sex. I like to think that the great writing being done by our contemporary war writers (Andrea Williams, Brian Turner, David Abrams, Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien, etc.) are actually working against this archetype, and doing it well, just as contemporary domestic writers like Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon, and new writers like Anne Valentine and Kirsten Valdez-Quade, are morphing the archetype of the embittered homemaker.
JRL: Are there certain features war literature must have—and is this part of the problem we’re discussing? I’ve read every war novel I could get my hands on in the past year, and most pay attention to terrain or physical conditions, the before-and-after of leaving civilian life for military service (or of leaving one’s homeland as a refugee, or the difference between war time and peace time), and the whiplash between boredom and intense, even cataclysmic peril that frames life on the battlefield. Is this not enough to de-glamorize war? Are there other ingredients that war literature does have, or should have?
HB: The ingredient glaringly missing from most war literature is the voice of the victims: The occupied. The civilians. The women and children and non-combatant men whose deaths the military so chillingly describes as “collateral damage.” In today’s wars, more women and children die than men, according to the UN. So to tell war stories only from the point of view of the invader is a distortion so grotesque it would be laughable were it not so prevalent.
There is another ingredient missing too: diversity. Almost all the stories of American wars, past and present, have been told by white men. Even contemporary veteran writers have, for the most part, been former officers with MFAs and all white and male. Where are the female veteran writers? A couple of memoirs, a few poems and short stories – but so far, no novels. And where are the writers of color? Where are the novels by African American, Latino, Native American or Muslim veterans? Even among civilian war writers like myself, there are only four or so women who have written literary novels about war, and all of us are white. (The two exceptions to this that I know of are playwrights: Maurice Decaul, a veteran; and Cassandra Medley, a civilian.)
And finally, we need more literature by Iraqis and Afghans themselves. There are a few out in translation, mostly published by tiny presses her or by presses in other countries. But in the U.S., the dearth of translated literature by those who have suffered our wars is shameful. I have written about these books here: https://lithub.com/the-best-contemporary-iraqi-writing-about-war/
In short, if we are to deglamorize war through literature, which we are duty bound to do if we wish to be honest, we must stop looking at war through the very narrow lens of the white man, and look at it instead from the view of those we hurt the most. I have written more about this: https://readherlikeanopenbook.com/2017/10/11/why-i-write-about-iraqis/
JG: I’d never prescribe required elements in war literature, or any type of literature, but something we often encounter in art that deals with war is an explicit human yearning for connection. But isn’t that true of most or all literature? What I love about literature, and even murky genre distinctions including war literature, is that I feel artists are always pushing the borders outward, in a more inclusive direction. Consider the work of—just to name a few—Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone), Kim Garcia (Drone), Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars), Brian Castner (All the Ways We Kill and Die), Elyse Fenton (Sweet Insurgent). All of these writers have taken contemporary war literature in new, and often unexpected, directions. Notably, many of these works possess very few commonalities or traditional, battle-focused war literature markers, and yet conflict always hovers somewhere: in memory, on a drive through the Nevada desert, in a pressed uniform hanging in a dark closet, on a quiet sidewalk outside a 7-11.
SSB: I think the most honest—and the most necessary—ingredient of war literature is violence. Brutal, soul-rending violence. Whether it’s committed amid screams and blood spurts at the end of a saber or bayonet, or from a dark arcade where children fly robots to bomb wedding parties, war is about violence. Most of it horrifying.
I was talking to a creative writing class once and they asked why so many people in my novel get their throats slit. It’s not something I was conscious of at the time, the fixation on blades against throats, but the part that was intentional was the cold intimacy of those deaths. Violence committed up close, face-to-face. Blood literally on my characters’ hands. In my current project, one of the characters is a sharpshooter, what we’d call a sniper today, and he serves in that position not because he’s a crack shot but because he prefers to keep his distance from the killing he does. Except the distance is just an illusion, and he knows it. He feels it.
You mention terrain, and a lot of people point to my attention to landscape in my novel. Some readers have described my novel as post-apocalyptic even though it’s set 150 years ago, because the terrain is so desolate, my characters’ subsistence so tenuous. That’s on purpose. I had this idea that warfare, even distant warfare (my novel is set in the Louisiana bayou, where only a few battles occurred over the whole Civil War) traumatizes the land as much as it traumatizes the people. Or, at least, the landscape reflects the trauma of the psyche.
I have a pretty grim, unglamorous view of war, so yeah, I think those elements are crucial to any honest portrayal of war in literature.
SBT: I like to think that war literature should humanize war, rather than glamorize (in the case of “war porn”) or perhaps even deglamorize it, the way Brian Turner has done with his poetry and his creative nonfiction. Personally, the war literature that sticks with me, that fascinates me, that changes me, is the writing that presents the soldier and even the “trauma hero” in ways the show us their individual humanity, their value; maybe even teach the reader to quit sending them out to break up any squabble our Idiots in Office start … Yes, the pulp fiction out there, masquerading as literature (American Sniper, etc.; just Google “War Fiction” and there is a list of some truly atrocious and ethically bankrupt books out there that do glamorize it for us), is probably winning right now, but I have to believe that great literature wins out. Otherwise, what the fuck am I doing? Perhaps that is my own confirmation bias at work, but here’s the thing: I think we are only scratching the surface of what a war novel or memoir or book of war poetry can do—satire, humor, speculation, political theory or philosophy, etc., and even war literature that just teaches us it is time to see one another as human, no matter our background or genetic makeup. The lessons are out there, waiting for us to apply to our work. Why haven’t we seen more? Perhaps the almighty dollar? Publishers unwilling to put out another Slaughterhouse Five or Catch-22? That, I cannot answer, I don’t think, without assuming the worst about too many people
JRL: I’ve noticed that you have twice chosen the word “intimate” to describe the violence that takes place during a war. I’m very struck by your use of that word; of course we don’t usually use it in conjunction with “violence.” War is such a vast undertaking and therefore we might not think of it as that personal. Could you tell us why you’re using it and what that word means to you?
SSB: I do think about this a lot, especially as I’ve been wrestling with my current historical/war novel project. I think we too easily dismiss the violence of war when we think of it in global, political terms, and the novel — or, at least, the kinds of novels I know how to write — are deeply personal. And when I listen to my veteran friends describe their experiences of war, or when I read accounts of combatants and civilians who’ve lived through a war, I’m always struck by how . . . well, “personal” isn’t quite the right term, because the inhumanity of war demands that we strip it of the personal. But it’s certainly close-in. It affects each person individually, in a visceral way. The war that human beings experience directly — the soldiers, not the politicians — they don’t experience it in an impersonal way.
It crawls inside them. They carry the violence with them, in their nightmares and in their hearts and in their muscles. Experiencing violence in that way—and this isn’t confined to geopolitical warfare; people engaged in socioeconomic warfare right here in America experience much of this, too—it’s one of the most intimate things I can imagine. It’s certainly the thing I’m most interested in. I’m curious about the geopolitics of war, too, which is why I enjoy reading history. But fiction is about the human, about the internal, about the intimate, so that’s where I go when I write fiction about war.
JRL: Finally, the responsibility question. As writers—whether as historical novelists, veterans who now write, journalists who have covered war and related issues, for instance—do we have any particular responsibility beyond that of other writers, or artists? Must we be resolutely married to any particular ideology or goal in our work? Must we always think of de-glamorizing war when writing? What would that look like? Is depicting the truth of war as it is experienced by soldiers and their spouses, civilians, refugees, and even politicians, enough? Or will it never be enough?
HB: Any work of art that depicts war as glamorous is a lie. And any artist worthy of the name must be honest. The conclusion is obvious. And yet, throughout the history of war literature, from the ballad to the movie, the warrior has been revered, war glorified, patriotism sanctified. Even today, to write about war—or paint or film or photograph it—in its true horror is an act of rebellion. Look at the Bush era censorship against pictures of soldiers coming home in coffins. Look at films such as Hurt Locker and American Sniper, which so glamorize violence and American machismo that any anti-war message is undermined. Look at all the novels about the Iraq and Afghanistan War that either fail to offer Iraqi or Afghan characters at all, or depict them as only background blurs, villains or clowns. And look at the hysterical trolling of writers who dare criticize our invasion of Iraq. I myself have been called a traitor because of what I write.
So yes, when we write about war, or any atrocity committed in our name, we do have an extra responsibility not to join in the lies and propaganda that always surround it. We pay taxes for the killing. We cannot hide from that. Every citizen is responsible for our wars, no matter how remote those wars may seem, so the artist who brings war into people’s homes and heads does, indeed, bear a special responsibility to be honest, unpleasant though that may be.
As for the question of whether writing critically about war is enough, of course it isn’t. Nothing one person can do is ever enough. But we can only do what we can, and as guilty as we might feel most of the time, perhaps the most valuable thing we can do is do what we do best – write.
JG: We will each choose our own path and our own brand of responsibility. Hopefully for our art, our individual artistic sensibilities will lead us in ways we find valuable and worth our precious time and energy. We should never censor our imaginations when our characters act, speak, think, and look different than -. This goes for our feelings about war as well. I’m not interested in obtuse polemics or simple “lessons learned” in my art. But personally? My God, I hope we all agree that war is a horrific thing, and we should do everything in our power to live peacefully.
SSB: I think if we have any driving ethos in our work, it has to be to convey the truth. As we see it. In that sense, I would say we aren’t de-glamourizing war but more re-de-glamourizing a long-glamourized portrayal war—we’re un-varishing a reality that others have varnished.
I think we have to be honest about our ideologies, too. I didn’t write my novel as an overt anti-war novel, but I am anti-war. A former professor of mine remarked that while my novel expresses a wide range of attitudes toward war, in the voices of my various characters, and while I neither shy away from nor linger too glaringly on the violence of war, the overall impression was that my novel feels “anti-war” in the sense that it’s not something anyone would want to live through. Who was it that said every war novel is an anti-war novel? That’s pretty much my view, and while I try to avoid pressing the issue in any didactic way, I also think it would be dishonest to pretend that I don’t hold the views I hold as I’m writing.
But personally, I also want to remember that I’ve never been to war, and while America has never known a generation where we weren’t at war somewhere, I’ve never lived in or even near a warzone. That’s a particular perspective I lack. So I try to remember that there are other truths about war, too.
SBT: I don’t know if I would say we have a responsibility—flatly—anymore than someone who goes through a car accident is responsible to write about auto fatalities. We need more women writing about war. We need more writers and poets of color writing about war. My first two poetry books were not necessarily books I consider “war writing” until I started to put them together; Mormon Boy was my attempt to investigate my own heritage and struggle, and then the strict nature of Mormonism started to speak a bit to the strict nature of the military, and what happens when those tight routines are lost. We Deserve the Gods We Ask For was originally going to be about cartoon heroes once the “cameras” were turned off, but then it began to morph into a book that investigated what we do to our heroes once we stop thinking about them. What happens when Superman/Wonder Woman are no longer called to save the world? What happens to that sense of responsibility? Perhaps that was really my way of looking at the early part of the century, when I began to feel the public’s renewed zeal for war after getting a big bad mouthful of it in the nineties with nothing to show for it. My current project is a novel that follows a troubled youth, who loses his twin brother, into drug and alcohol addiction, then the military as a way to escape it. My hope is that it will show the reader a different type of soldier; one who has no patriotism or love of country driving their military experiences, but who uses the military to simply escape poverty and the great nothing vortex that can often spiral in the middle of rotten little religious towns. That has long been one of my deepest concerns when it comes to our military and the military industrial complex—we ask nothing of our wealthy—and we send our poor and destitute out to do our bidding under a patriotism that is really nothing more than nationalism. It is an ugly habit we have, here in the States; this need to ship out soldiers at every provocation. I keep thinking the poor will rise up, say no to our plutocrats, but the current situation in the White House seems to be showing me that I might be wrong out that. I am an optimist, but even my optimism has limits.
Helen Benedict, a professor at Columbia University, is the author of seven novels, including the just published Wolf Season, which Elissa Schappell wrote should be “required reading” and which received a starred review in the Library Journal; and Sand Queen, named a “Best Contemporary War Novel” by Publishers Weekly and reviewed by The Boston Globe as “The Things They Carried for women.’” A recipient of both the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for her exposure of sexual predation in the military, Benedict is also the author of five works of nonfiction, such as the award-winning, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women at War Serving in Iraq, and a widely-performed play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues. Her writings inspired a class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of those sexually assaulted in the military and the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Invisible War. She lives in New York. More information is available at www.helenbenedict.com.
Jesse Goolsby is an U.S. Air Force officer and the author of the novel I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), winner of the Florida Book Award for Fiction and listed for the Flaherty-Duncan First Novel Prize. His fiction and essays have appeared widely, including The Literary Review, Epoch, The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Salon, and Pleiades. He is the recipient of the Richard Bausch Short Story Prize, the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He serves as Acquisitions Editor for the literary journal War, Literature & the Arts. Goolsby holds an English degree from the United States Air Force Academy, a Masters degree in English from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in English from Florida State University. He was raised in Chester, California, and now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. More information is available at http://www.jessegoolsby.com.
Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches and writes in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the author of the Civil War novel Hagridden, the flash-fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin, and the forthcoming collection of stories There Is No Other Way to Worship Them. He also works as a production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He’s the recipient of a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship, has been shortlisted twice in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition, and was a finalist in the 2013 storySouth Million Writers Award. More information is available at snoekbrown.com.
Seth Brady Tucker (S. Brady Tucker) is a poet and fiction writer originally from Lander, Wyoming. His second book won the Gival Press Poetry Award (We Deserve the Gods We Ask For 2014) and went on to win the Eric Hoffer Book Award in 2015. His first book of poetry won the Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize (Mormon Boy 2012), and was a finalist for the 2013 Colorado Book Award. He is currently a teaching Assistant Professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and is the founder and co-director of the annual Longleaf Writers’ Conference in Florida. Recently, his fiction won the Bevel Summers Fiction Prize from Shenandoah; was a finalist for the Jeff Sharlet Award from The Iowa Review; and won the Flash Fiction Award from Literal Latte. His work has recently appeared in the Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, December, and Epiphany. Tucker served as a paratrooper the Army 82nd Airborne in the Persian Gulf. More information is available at https://sethbradytucker.wordpress.com/.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge (moderator) is a poet and writer living in New York. Her novel, The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War, will be published by Amberjack Publishing in June 2018. Her most recent full-length poetry collection is Daphne and Her Discontents from Ravenna Press; and her experimental memoir is An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, from Jaded Ibis Press. She has been nominated for a storySouth Million Writers Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best of the Net collection. More information is available at http://jane-rosenberg-laforge.com/.
Sundress Publications is excited to continue the tradition of celebrating non-featured AWP panels on our blog in 2018. We know that there are dozens of worthy and important panel proposals that weren’t accepted for AWP in Florida next spring, so let us be your platform instead!
Do you have an excellent AWP panel that didn’t make the final cut for 2018? Please send your proposal to us for consideration at email@example.com. Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis. Multiple submissions and simultaneous submissions are acceptable. Please include the names of all of your contributors within your submission.
We want to host your panel as an online roundtable in order to present them to an expansive audience and create an archive for your necessary voices. We’re looking for topics that are driven by passion, inclusivity, forward-thinking, collaboration, and hybridity. (In fact, you tell us what we’re looking for; bring us something completely fresh and unexpected!) We look forward to hearing from you and your colleagues.
Feel free to check out our wonderful 2017 AWP roundtables here.
“It is my history raiding me”: Exploring Representations of Public and Private Violence
Welcome to our Sundress Roundtables, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2017.
How is violence produced in a twenty-second exchange, perpetuated in a centuries-long system? This panel explores how writing can engage with the intersections of institutional and interpersonal violence. Through poems and essays, we share strategies, messy attempts, more questions. One common thread we trace is violence’s relation to intimacy. If we allow it in private, do we then more readily allow it in public? Is desire inherently violent? Or should we distinguish a more metaphorical violence from abusive dynamics, historical atrocities, present crises?
In your view, what is the relationship (overlaps as well as key distinctions) between institutional violence and interpersonal violence?
Muriel Leung: The public imagination of violence has always largely veered towards the interpersonal, I think, because it’s a bit more easy to detect and articulate since we are each experts in how our own bodies relate to the world. A solely interpersonal outlook on violence, though, is dangerously limiting. It obscures the larger forces at play that dictate how we relate to each other socially: how we are all influenced by a certain type of education, upbringing, privileged positioning, and opportunities we are afforded and not afforded. And these relations sometimes change or stay the same when we travel to a different state, region, or country.
The U.S. in particular is guilty of such failings in recognizing institutional violence as a legitimate source of inquiry and rage. The recent election of Donald Trump and the widespread approval of him by those who identity as poor or middle class white is pretty emblematic of that rift in understanding between institutional and interpersonal violence. Largely, poor or middle class white people have been expressing feelings of being shafted by progressive political actions that appear to provide opportunities in favor of those who are immigrant, non-citizen, and/or nonwhite. In other words, provisions of social or political rights to these communities means they lose out. The issue here seems to be that even the understanding of interpersonal violence is incredibly short-sighted. It’s the strangest correlation – the more privileges you possess in this country, the greater the level of threat of its loss such that one feels the need to hoard opportunities, to forbid others who may be further marginalized from access to them. I think this is what a limited scope of institutional violence can do – it turns social and political life into a never-ending blame game in which vulnerable communities are under attack rather than the systems that perpetuate the original source of the misery.
Jessica Smith: I think this relationship has to do with sustainability – what an individual is willing or has been taught, in private, to sustain. If one is subjected to gaslighting, violence, and subjugation in their home, the space that is supposed to be the most safe and sacred, then how can they hope to interrogate these same offenses at an institutional level?
One of the most difficult parts of fighting violence, or rerouting mindsets that lead to violence, is having to identify it when you are so consistently working to “recover” from it. How do we name what harms us when that harm originates from a place we trust – a parent, a partner, a university, a government? How can we explain what cruelty is to those who are in the position of teaching us right from wrong?
Trying to illuminate structures of oppression to the oppressor is not only painful and unfair, but nearly impossible, particularly when their behaviors are reinforced by an oppressive societal framework. I’ve found this space un-navigable – the space wherein the victim must be the one who is measured and thoughtful, where even the most basic explanation of decency feels like begging. We’ve seen this during the campaign and election of Donald Trump – calls for harmony and decency in the face of a man who ran his campaign on cruelty and harassment.
It is vital to interrogate this public-private connection because it is interdependent. Institutional violence relies on breeding acceptance in private. It needs people to expect it, or at minimum be afraid to fight it.
Sarah Viren: Sometime after the election I found myself rereading Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize lecture from 1982. I used to teach the lecture, but it had been a while. And also it was different reading the speech at this moment in time, when it feels like all forms of violence are under attack by those who would insist that they do not exist.
Though I love every part of that speech, there is one part that is particularly powerful. After listing innumerable instances of interpersonal, institutional, and state-sponsored violence in Latin America, García Márquez demands that this reality be what we recognize when we recognize his fiction:
A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude.
(Read the original version of the speech in Spanish here.)
Interpersonal violence tends to be what we recognize as real violence. It is what we see on TV and in many movies and in so many of our fictions and nonfictions. And often in its representations and repetitions, in its sexy allure and sell-ability, interpersonal violence can appear more hyper-real than real. I cannot tell you how many bloody and dead women I have seen on a screen, their violated and abused bodies made into the mystery around with a male narrative will unspool.
Institutional violence is our refusal to also see the repetition of that dead female body as a form of violence. It is our refusal to read One Hundred Years of Solitude outside of any other context than the “magically real” hoisted on it by U.S. and European critics and academics. It is what García Márquez is talking about when he says solitude. Institutional violence is all those forms of violence—health care inequities, sweatshop conditions, historical revisionism, voter suppression—that are so often denied a reality in large part because they are so pervasive and engrained that we struggle to see at all.
Chen Chen: I’ve been thinking about the post-election rallying cry shouted or tweeted out by many liberals: “Love trumps hate.” But what do we mean by love? Do we mean feeling some vague but pleasurable harmony? Do we mean saying hi to strangers and holding the door open for them? Or do we mean something that actually requires policy change and systemic change? I return, always, to this James Baldwin passage from The Fire Next Time:
Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
These days, I am also returning to an article by Jo Blaise, published recently in Kinfolk Kollective (and entitled “Your Love Won’t Trump Hate”):
Toni Morrison taught me early on that love is never any better than the lover. She warned us in the pages of The Bluest Eye that “wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly…” So when I see exasperated faces and secret Facebook groups lamenting that love failed to trump hate, I must ask: Whose? Whose love failed us?
It’s important here to say that James Baldwin and Jo Blaise are both writing out of a history of Black struggle movements, some of which have been deeply transnational in practice (for instance, both Baldwin and Blaise make connections to Palestine). As a non-Black POC, I think that love also, on some basic level, means insisting on the fact that certain frameworks and strategies for resistance come specifically from Black resistance.
How can the genre(s) you write in get at the relationship between different yet interlocking forms of violence? What is it about a particular genre or way of writing that opens up the investigation into violence(s) for you?
Muriel Leung: I’m interested in how recent turns to hybrid genres or less clearly defined genres of writing seem symptomatic of a world whose set of complex relations seem to growing exponentially as the years progress. If genre and form is historically, politically, and socially influential to aesthetic development, then I think the growing tenuousness of containers for these genres and forms means that things are happening far faster than we can write them. In particular, writing violence and trauma demands a far greater set of responsibilities and ethical aesthetic practices now that I think ruptured forms and genres seem to address.
I’m especially interested in the essay now, the etymology of the word drawing from the French “essayer” (trial or attempt). Moving into the essay from poetry, I adapt a lot of poetic elements, particularly the lyric when it comes to phrasing, but how I think essays differ from poetry is the impetus “to try” to achieve a point of hyper-clarity, to arrive at some answer in the end. Poetry has always been, for me, about creating language landscapes of webbed responses. This abstraction is useful too, but experimenting with the essay as a form that responds to violence and trauma in a way that poetry alone cannot do is a necessary project for me. It forces a necessary toggling between poetry’s propensity towards abstraction and the essay’s need to establish a personal rhetoric. It is as if poetry offers sites of feelings for rage, anxiety, and depression, and the essay provides a set of guidelines for how to navigate them. When you put the two together, they do joint work to convey a perspective that may not possible if each genre were solely confined to their own rules.
Jessica Smith: Most of my work and research centers on intimate partner violence. One of the most illuminating things a counselor once shared with me is that society is structured to misunderstand victimhood – that the victim of sustained abuse (in any form) usually appears more scattered, damaged, and volatile to the outside world than the perpetrator. Victims are more likely to miss work, invent transparent lies to their loved ones, and be generally unslept, unkempt, and unhappy. The perpetrator of the violence is, conversely, accustomed to the dynamic and in control of it, thus appearing more “together” to observers. The victim’s reality is distorted on all levels.
This gulf between the realities of abuse and the understanding of it, I think, is best traversed by poetry. Ricardo Gullon said that poetry is the transfer of intuition – it privileges insight over information. If we are hoping to gain insight into sustained, systemic violence (institutional, interpersonal, both), then we have to close the space between representation and reality. As Rachel Louise Snyder put it in her New Yorker article on domestic violence, “A Raised Hand”:
“Between 2000 and 2006, thirty-two hundred American soldiers were killed; during that period, domestic homicide in the United States claimed ten thousand six hundred lives. This figure is likely an underestimate, as it was pulled from the F.B.I.’s Supplementary Homicide Reports, which gather data from local police departments, where homicide reporting is voluntary.
Dunne attributes the prevalence of domestic violence, in part, to a deep cultural misunderstanding of how violence operates. We assume that victims incite abuse, or that if the situation at home was truly threatening they would leave.”
Because I think that victim-blaming and gendered assumptions about who commits intimate partner violence are both erroneous, I want my work to focus on the collective societal issues that support a culture where intimate partner violence happens with such frequency, and in such secret. Poetry weds the private and the public – it distills the moment of crisis into a universal one. Poetry gives us the pinhole camera so that we can look directly at the eclipse. It is “…the language of intensity,” wrote C.D. Wright. “Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.”
Sarah Viren: I write in all genres and often I think that the way we separate our genres, especially when the deciding factor is whether the text is “true” or not, is itself a form of violence. So I’m not sure that the genres get at violence differently, but that readers’ understanding of genre distinctions can both open up and/or confine how violence is understood within a particular work.
I’m often struck, for instance, by how much more people will react to a description of violence if it is read within the context of a “true” genre, like memoir or literary journalism, as opposed to violence that’s been framed as fictional (but might still be representative of a real situation or injustice). Whenever I’ve taught Carolyn Forché’s poem “The Colonel,” I can see a change in the room—and in the reading of that poem—as soon as I mention that Forché has said that it documents actual events. Students suddenly take the poem more seriously and are also more interested in hearing about context. I wonder about that change. Because even if the Colonel or the sack of ears were invented, the violence they represent would still be symbolically true. More than 75,000 people were killed during the Salvadoran Civil War, a war that the United States helped prolong.
So rather than saying I prefer this or that genre when writing about violence, I think it’s more accurate to say that I tend to use the essayistic mode. For me, essaying is the form of writing that best replicates the mind on the page. It is not chronological or narrative in nature. It is not interested in replicating reality but rather commenting on it and trying to understand it, often by making connections, many of them non-intuitive. For all those reasons, it is the best way for me of getting at issues of institutional violence.
I once wrote an essay, for instance, about singing murder ballads to my newborn daughter to stop her from crying. All I knew when I started writing that essay was that there was something not right, or at least more complicated than I wanted to admit, about me singing her those songs, most of which are about murdered women. What I ended up working through in that essay were a series of connections, between those ballads and other stories of violence against women, between my desire to soothe my daughter and my own culpability in a system in which stories of violence against women—not to mention actual violence against women—are so common we don’t notice them at all.
Chen Chen: Most of the time, I am a poet. Lately, though, I’ve been working on essays. Lyric essays. Somewhat experimental, perhaps. The possibilities of creative nonfiction have opened up for me some new ways into difficult subjects. One essay I just revised is a meditation on the shooting at Pulse and on living as an openly gay person in a very conservative town in West Texas. Guns are a big part of the culture here, as are rather normalized (often coded) forms of sexism and homophobia—so before Pulse, I was already on guard all the time. I felt like I was back in the closet in certain contexts. After Pulse, a part of me wants to stay home 24-7; at times I feel deeply uneasy going, with my boyfriend, to the movie theater or to the local Barnes & Noble. Obviously, these places are not nightclubs, but the fact that a safe or sacred space specifically for queer people was attacked makes every space seem dangerous. The essay traces the social roots of anti-queer erasure and violence, including how internalized homophobia manifests.
At the same time, I have no direct connection to Pulse. I’ve struggled with how to represent the specific and enormous violence that occurred there. It feels necessary to document the violence because it seems like the violence has left the national consciousness so quickly. Part of the essay’s task is slowing down, making space for a longer memory to take hold. But I worry about reproducing violence. I worry about the reiteration of a certain form of tragic queer suffering. I worry about aestheticizing or narrativizing such immense loss. I worry about what it means for me—someone who is a queer person of color but who is not Latinx or part of an Orlando community—to write about this in the first place. In the essay, I try to acknowledge these worries and to critique my own tendencies/approaches. I try to keep distinct and particular the experience at Pulse and the experiences in West Texas. And I try to excavate why, exactly, I feel so much grief; why it is that this mourning feels already familiar. The piece is called “It Seems I Have Been Mourning for a Long Time.”
Writing in a lyric essay form has allowed me to bring together multiple threads without (I hope) conflating them. The form has also allowed me to ask questions about what it means to “research” an event so horrific and personally triggering—the fact that it became unbearable to read account after account from friends and relatives and beloveds of the people killed at Pulse. I couldn’t read more than two or three accounts in a single sitting. I couldn’t keep looking at the pictures: the smiling selfies, the couples in love, the people who were just going about their lives in their particular, beautiful, complicated ways. So, I had to slow down. I had to cry. I had to read more slowly and return to my essay, taking greater care with my language. It just seems so impossible that they are gone.
What are some examples of work that you feel interrogate, complicate, reshape our understanding of violence(s)?
Muriel Leung: There are so many writers and artists out there who challenge our understanding of violence in such a way that folds critique into our daily imagination of it. The first names that come to mind are always women of color: Claudia Rankine, Cathy Park Hong, and Bhanu Kapil. Each writer is invested in pushing or challenging presumed genre and formal boundaries in their discussion of race and national (anti)belonging. There’s also Douglas Kearney, Craig Santos Perez, Solmaz Sharif, and Robin Coste Lewis, whose works critique structures and forms of power from black history archives to Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. I think it’s powerful to consider one’s poetic practice as a part of history and history-making, to think about how reviewing the past can be a way of conceiving a certain type of future. Not necessarily optimism — I think these writers would agree that one should always be skeptical about overly idealistic renditions of future possibilities — but a complicated and weighted hope for some form of change.
Other writers I think who have been on my mind recently: Will Giles beautifully utilizes heartbreaking comedy and extended metaphors in his performances about substance abuse, history, and community revival. Vanessa Villarreal, whose book, Beast Meridian is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2017, is especially gifted in recognizing how the textures of the page can be a means of exploring how violence can be enacted through language. Kay Ulanday Barrett, whose first poetry collection, When the Chant Comes (Topside Press 2016) just came out and I think is one of the best texts on intersectional politics and what good allyship is out there. Jamie Berrout too, who largely self-publishes, has not only put out some amazing nonfiction, fiction, and poetry about being a trans Latina woman — her work gorgeously weaves in and out of time, place, space, and memory.
Jessica Smith: I was moved and devastated by Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir The Other Side, which explores not only the horrific crime her ex-lover committed against her, but the murky systemic issues around academic and sexual power structures that allowed her to sustain a relationship with him – despite his escalating violence – for so many years prior to this final attack. She complicates notions of how a victim should act or “heal” in the aftermath. The memoir is both lyrical and unflinchingly direct, which I think mirrors the ice-clear fever dream of working through “recovery.”
I am endlessly in awe of Vievee Francis’s ability, in her poetry, to be confrontational and still deeply vulnerable. She engages violence as a scope, not an isolated incident, and demands that her reader do the same. Though she is clear about the intensity and consistency of the violence in her work, she avoids the kind of “begging” explanations these narratives often devolve into. Her poems key into the strange familiarity of violence, and the way it parades, so often, as intimacy. I go back over and over again to the end of her poem “Taking It,” where she writes:
“…Is this too dramatic?
Find another story. Find a lie. In love, body after body
fell beneath my own, though my own was broken,
and I made love like a sea creature, fluid as if boneless,
though my bones would rattle if not for the fat I cherish.
Wouldn’t you? How I grew to love the heavyweights,
myself with one in the ring. How I imagined him punching
me, and punching me again, saying I’m sorry, so sorry,
to have to love you this way.”
Any writer who can open their throat this way – who puts the words cherish and fluid and love in the same breath as punching and broken and heavyweights reveals that violence is not something that punctuates life but rather is woven into it.
Sarah Viren: Well, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a really good example of how fiction can address violence. The novel is allegorical, and so the stories of violence it tells are meant to be read both as specific examples of interpersonal violence and as representative of systemic forms of violence that happened and continue to happen (i.e. how poor people and poor countries are exploited by multi-national companies and how dysfunction within a family can be passed down through generations and, thus, perpetuated).
While we’re thinking about Colombia, I’d also mention Don’t Come Back by my friend Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, which will be published by The Ohio State University Press this January. Lina’s descriptions of violence can be both beautiful and horrifying, but she never glorifies or sensationalizes violence, which is a danger, I think, in any attempt to write about violent acts. What her book does that’s particularly effective for me is that she uses descriptions of violence to unnerve the reader, make us uncomfortable and, then, force us to think about the world that engendered that violence.
Besides those two examples, I happen to be reading two books right now that also speak to violence in new and interesting ways: Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexiavich and 100 Chinese Silences by Timothy Yu. The first, “a novel in voices,” as Alexievich calls her oral histories, is collection of testimonies from people who came of age in the Soviet Union but are now adjusting to its replacement (i.e. a capitalistic society), and their stories show how the forms of violence that unfettered capitalism supports can sometimes be as devastating as the state-run violence suffered under leaders like Stalin.
Yu’s book talks about another form of violence: that of representation. His poems are a response to a whole body of American poetry that uses references to Asia or Asian people as symbolic stand-ins for stereotypical ideals/ideas. These are poems commit violence by silencing people, and Yu attempts to speak into that silence through parody. What I love about his book is that each poem mentions a specific U.S. poet and poem so that there is, in effect, a very real calling out, or confrontation, but also a conversation created between the original moment of silencing and Yu’s often funny but also fierce response.
Chen Chen: I’ll just recommend two amazing books that came out recently.
Aracelis Girmay’s poetry collection the black maria. A shattering and necessary book engaging the loss of “over 20,000 people [who] have died at sea making the journey from North Africa to Europe in the past two decades.” Specifically, the core cycle of the book speaks to the history of those of Eritrean descent (Girmay is part of the Eritrean diaspora). The second part of the book engages police violence against Black lives in the United States. From the acknowledgments on p. 112:
I have struggled with this particular project, so steeped in violence, mourning, and grief. How do I work inside of such histories of violence without further brutalizing the black body in the work? How do I, especially here, make critical space for joy and tenderness in the remembering, so that my own imagination (gesture by gesture, line by line) isn’t rendered by the values of white supremacy or violence as I resist it? And how do I express, with tenderness, who and what this work/I love(s)? It is my hope that while these poems mourn the dead and the bleak circumstances of our present, violent day, they are also a tribute to black joy, black art, black making, black life.
Garrard Conley’s memoir Boy Erased. A deeply moving account of undergoing church-sponsored gay “conversion” therapy in the early 2000s. There is such heartbreaking tenderness and ache in Conley’s writing. From p. 148:
I had been wondering what it felt like to be in a straight mind my whole life, or at least ever since I discovered I was gay, when, in third grade, I’d first realized that my interest in our teacher, Mr. Smith, was much greater than that of my other male peers’. Though over the years I’d done my best to pretend otherwise, I’d had a string of male crushes that wouldn’t go away, a constant guilty ache that ran through my body for so long that I came to believe the feeling was just a part of what it meant to be alive. The only moments when the ache became a sharp pain were when I allowed myself to imagine a happy life with these crushes, a rarity to be sure.
How do you practice resistance to violence(s) in your work—as a writer, an activist, a teacher, an editor, a community member, etc.?
Muriel Leung: I think of my work as resistance and survival. I write about violence and trauma in my own work, especially in my recent poetry collection, Bone Confetti, which takes place in an especially violent landscape that forces its ghostly figures to find a way to reconfigure their notions of intimacy and desire in a time of loss. I also believe in exercising this resistance in editorial work with Apogee Journal as Co-Poetry Editor. I get fatigued with literary politics quite often so I think it’s important to take part in community building work that tries to work beyond representational politics — to offer a space to publish marginalized voices who may feel that their works are undervalued or dismissed by other literary spaces. I hope that we get to be a space where writers feel safe knowing that the editors are legible in race, gender, sexual, and dis/ability politics. This work, I think, is important to create alternative possibilities out there for publishing and engagement in literary spaces.
In addition to literary activism, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in intersecting struggles from community organizing to direct service work. I’ve volunteered as a crisis counselor for an LGBTQ anti-violence hotline and just started as an abortion clinic escort. I think there’s such value to doing work that teaches you to confront emergency and to recognize that trauma surrounds us. We have a responsibility to know how to call it by name and support each other in our struggles. I think this work is just as important as supporting marginalized communities organizing for rights for undocumented workers, queer and trans youth, and anti-police brutality causes.
My hope for the future is that people can feel moved to support causes that are not necessarily pre-vetted by mainstream media as issues that matter. I hope that #BlackLivesMatter becomes more than just a hashtag and that we can work to undo anti-black racism in our communities on the institutional and interpersonal level.
Jessica Smith: As a teacher at a university that allows students to carry concealed weapons, in an isolated college town that is deeply pro-Trump (and was before Trump was a political metonymy), I have always worked to engage my students on what it means to be a citizen. What is your role in society, I ask them, and what is actually important to you? I try to bring conversations about politics back to the body – the bodies of their friends, their mothers, strangers, themselves – and ask what bodies matter to them. Politics is a question of where those bodies go, I say, and who gets to put them there.
I think this election has revealed to many (particularly white liberals) that activism is not a lifestyle choice but an imperative. Organize in your community. Talk to your family members. Educate yourself about the nature of systemic violence and suppression. There’s always more to know, and more to change. No one has ever regretted actions they take if those actions are rooted in advocacy and empathy.
Sarah Viren: I write a lot about crime and I just taught a literary true crime class and in both of those areas what I try to do is complicate our understanding of criminality and of the criminal act. I think one way we can do this is to consider the multiple forms of violence that cocoon any one crime. There is the violence of the crime committed, but there are also always violences that gave rise to that crime and that come out of it.
So, when I was teaching that class, I worked with students a lot to consider context when we discuss criminality and violence, but also perspective. We read a found essay about violence against transgender people, for instance, in which the author makes clear that these are crimes that will never be solved, in large part because they are continually minimized and erased by our culture. We also read an essay by Jose Antonio Vargas about being undocumented, which then allowed us to talk about what it means for a person to become a crime. If something that absurd is allowed to happen, where, then, is the violence occurring? My students were really smart about analyzing crime in these different ways and that class was one of the most rewarding I’ve taught so far in large part because I think we were really able to make some headway in our understanding of the interlocking forms of violence.
Beyond that, I also write a lot about my personal experiences as a queer woman and now a queer mother living in the far reaches of the south. And what I’m often hoping to do in that work is to break apart stereotypes that exist in both the larger culture, but also within queer culture, about what it means to parent. I’m very resistant to the idea that choosing to parent is inherently a conservative act and, in fact, I think the perpetuation of that stereotype is a form of violence that has a real silencing effect on families like mine. So my work in that area is also advocacy in that I want to speak to that silence and open up within it new understandings of what it means to parent or to start a family.
Chen Chen: I try to be constantly asking what people actually need—what is the support they need? Do they want support? I try to be constantly learning. Listening. Reading. Studying. Showing up but not taking up space that isn’t mine. Building and contributing to existing spaces for queer people of color. Improving my pedagogy. Speaking out on the corporate structures of the university, my university. Researching ways to create funding opportunities for queer people of color that are not reliant on university or governmental structures or on the nonprofit industrial complex. Celebrating the lives and resistances of queer people of color. Insisting on the differences between different communities and positionalities. Donating to Kundiman. Making English super gay.
Muriel Leung is the author of Bone Confetti (Noemi Press 2016). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction can be found or is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, The Collagist, Fairy Tale Review, Ghost Proposal, Jellyfish Magazine, inter/rupture, and others. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship and is a regular contributor to the Blood-Jet Writing Hour poetry podcast. She is also a Poetry Co-Editor of Apogee Journal. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.
Jessica Smith’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waxwing, cream city Review, Sixth Finch, Phantom Books, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School and is currently pursuing at PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University, where she was the 2016 recipient of the Warren S. Walker Prize and is a co-founder of the LHUCA Literary Series.
Sarah Viren is a writer, translator, and former newspaper reporter. Her essay collection MINE won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize and will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in the spring of 2018 and her translation of the novella Córdoba Skies by the Argentine novelist Federico Falco was published by Ploughshares Solos in 2016. Other essays, poems, and stories have appeared in the Oxford American, the Iowa Review, AGNI, The Normal School, and Hobart. Read more about her at sarahviren.wordpress.com.
Chen Chen (moderator) is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and forthcoming spring 2017 from BOA Editions, Ltd. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in publications such as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is a Kundiman Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow. He holds an MFA from Syracuse University and is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. Visit him at chenchenwrites.com.
“Baby Steps: How to Nurture a Great Writing Career after Having a Child”
“Motherhood is a great gift to a writer,” Amy Bloom has said. Parenthood provides rich experiences, but can impact writing practice, subject matter, and publication. How can a parent find time to write, let alone publish? Will serious journals publish work about parenting? What are parent-centric publications interested in? Is it possible to manage readings or a book tour? The panel, leaders of organizations that support parent writers, discusses strategies for creative and professional growth.
What are some stereotypes of parents as writers, external and internalized, and how can writers counter them?
J.P. Howard: Stereotypes about parents as writers often come from those who may not be parents themselves. People may assume we are not as dedicated to our writing, since we are busy raising our children. Folks may view us primarily in our caretaking roles, more so than in our role as writers. It may even affect opportunities depending on our schedules. Of course, the truth is parent writers are simultaneously dedicated to both our children and our writing. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
An internalized issue that writer parents sometimes experience is guilt; here, I’m definitely speaking from my own experience. We may struggle to find a “balance” in our lives, as parents and as writers. The constant struggle between being dedicated parents and dedicated writers can leave us questioning ourselves. Am I a good enough writer? Shouldn’t I be spending more time on my writing and art? We may compare ourselves to writers who don’t have families and can be too hard on ourselves when we do that. Of course, the flipside can occur when we put in extra time on our craft. Doubt can creep in and we may ask ourselves, am I spending enough time with my family? I find that collaborating with parent/writer friends and colleagues is incredibly helpful. Many times that extra support is crucial and can help us realize we are not alone in our struggles. Writing circles, literary salons, online writing groups, and writing residencies are all ways we can move beyond those stereotypes (internalized and externalized) and ensure we are part of a larger writing community.
M.M. DeVoe: It seems to me that it is less the stereotype of a writing parent than the stereotype of a “great artist” that is dangerous. If there is a common negative stereotype of parent-writers, I would say it’s that of the “mommy blogger” writing exclusively about the ups and downs of parenting and considering their blog the equal of someone else’s novel. At Pen Parentis, we don’t judge the writing produced by a writing parent, we celebrate that anyone can write anything, frankly! It’s terribly hard to balance the demands of children with the demands of a creative career.But to get back to the question at hand: the stereotype of the writer who is a “great artist” is always portrayed as a solitary creature typing late into the night, surrounded by cigarette butts and whiskey bottles—never by permission slips for field trips, toys, or pacifiers. Pen Parentis tries to change that stereotype by telling the world which writers have kids. It’s heartening to know that many recent award-winners have kids instead of drug addictions! Honestly, the dedication it takes to maintain a creative career while also parenting is a dedication that should be celebrated and admired.
Julianne Palumbo: Perhaps one of the most common stereotypes about parents as writers is that parenting writing is often sappy. Some readers might think that there will be nothing interesting to read when someone is simply writing about their own child. Another expectation is that this type of writing can be judgmental and preachy. Because parenting produces experience, the impulse is to pass on that experience through parenting advice in order to save new parents the trouble of figuring things out for themselves. The prevalence of these ideas can have the effect of making parenting writing self-conscious.
Writers can counter these stereotypes by not focusing so much on teaching from their experiences or providing judgment through them as on just relaying their stories in a way that speaks to their audience. Strong writers of parenting material tell us their personal story but then take the important step of universalizing that story so that all of their readers can relate. The stories should show us how parenting simply is, not tell us how anyone might think it should be. Told well, readers will relate to the experience itself and will pull from the writing whatever message might speak to them.
Marjorie Tesser: In an ideal world, the profound, diverse experience of mothering would be believed to be of the highest importance for literary consideration. Unfortunately, it seems some publications are happy to have women write about sex but less so about childbirth and other gritty realities, and there are those that give work about war, politics, etc., precedence over the domestic. Some employ a double standard—writing by a man about parenthood is praiseworthy, but by a woman, clichéd. But there are many publications, both general and mother or women-centric, that are interested in your fine work about aspects of motherhood. When submitting for publication, seek out venues where you find work that harmonizes with your own writing esthetics and style. And do keep sending those mother poems to less friendly venues—the literary landscape is evolving, and changes are occurring in even the most hidebound journals.
In a recent VIDA blog, writer Rachel Richardson relates the experience of an academic colleague cautioning her against being pigeonholed as “one of those mommy poets” (Report from the Field: To Go To Sea: Making a Place in a Male Literary Landscape). I believe no one can dictate what you should be writing, nor what your concerns as an artist should be. As for being pigeonholed, you are the curator of your own bio; you might decide to tweak a particular bio to list prior publications that are in the same “club” as the place you’re submitting. Others feel that the only way we’ll change things is to let our mother flag fly. Any decision you make is fine—mothers who have chosen either path enjoy healthy writing careers.
M.M. DeVoe: Here’s a thought: instead of dropping the kids off the bio as soon as the first major literary prize is attained, we wish that writers would acknowledge their families. One of the things we have discovered is how rare it is for writers to be able to talk about their families, because they think it somehow makes them seem like a less “serious” writer. Why would a writer seem less serious if they are fighting the urge to go play ball with their kid rather than fighting the urge to give it all up, burn their manuscript, and hide under a blanket for the rest of the day? Unknown. But somehow depression is entwined with our stereotype of a working artist, and that, I think, more than anything is damaging to the expectation that we can continue to be great writers if we are also parents.
What actions can parents take to support their own writing? What are some practices to sustain vibrant creative work while actively parenting?
M.M. DeVoe: Obviously, keep writing. That goes without saying. It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you’re battling the guilt of needing to be away from the kids in order to do your best work—though many parent-writers learn to work, even with their kids nearby.
Other, more specific suggestions? Find a community. Even if it’s just three or four other writers, and only one of them has kids, you need someone who understands what you’re going through. Writers who are part of a community are more successful than those who try to go it alone. Make your own workshop, go to a colony for two weeks if you can, treat your writing as you would any day job that earned money. Put it first, make it a priority—for as much time as you are able to devote to it. Then put it away and enjoy your family. Learn to schedule, learn to multitask, and learn to use time wisely. Love the time you’re able to write. Cherish it. Use it.
Julianne Palumbo: One of the most important actions a parent writer can take is to make time to write daily. Often, when the children are young, writing time and sleep come out of the same pile. But writing is learned only by writing, and spending time on writing is integral to improving one’s craft. Write every day, even if it’s just a sentence.
Another important practice is to keep a notebook or journal handy to write down the fabulous things that children do and say. We parents think we will remember them, but in the craziness that can be parenting, they are soon forgotten. As a young mother, I kept a notebook beside my bed and before I went to sleep each night I would write the fantastic happenings of the day. Now, with my children in their teens and twenties, the notebook is full of gems I would never have remembered. Some of these gems have turned themselves into poems and stories.
J.P. Howard: Parents can make attempts to carve out time for our own writing; often this is successfully done when we partner with other parent-writer friends who understand our time constraints and limitations without judgment. This can play out in multiple ways. I find it most helpful being proactive and seeking out other writing communities, made up of both parents and non-parents. I think we each have something valuable to offer the other. Parents can be great at prioritizing, because we know that raising our children and tight time management is something that is automatically built into our schedules. Writer friends without children can learn from our own successful structures and time management. Collaborating in writing salons and virtual online communities makes sure our work stays vibrant and relevant, while keeping us connected to writers and artists beyond our own immediate circles. Parents have to make sure to practice self-love and self-care. This is sometimes our biggest challenge, but I think it is truly life saving when we make those efforts. We can select specific times during the week, month or year to just do something for ourselves (no children included)! This includes attending local writing workshops, writing retreats and residencies away from our “home-base.” When I go away to these spaces, usually without my children, it’s invigorating and often allows me to come back home more focused. Parents, especially women, have to give ourselves permission to put our needs as writers, women, and vibrant beings first. This kind of self-love/self-care also helps us ultimately become a better parent.
Marjorie Tesser: If you want to write and you’re not, or if you’re not writing or publishing as much as you wish you were, you basically have three choices.
Feel frustrated and guilty—Not the best choice!
Write! The best advice is making a habit of it (novelist Lore Segal defines a habit as something it’s easier to do than to not do). Segal wrote mornings. Poet Marie Ponsot wrote without fail for ten minutes each night after putting her seven children to bed; no matter how exhausted she was, she made herself write for those ten minutes, and it often ended up stretching to more. Use the time not only to write seriously but also to play—write personal stuff, make lists, play with ideas.
Relax! As with motherhood, you’ll get disparate advice from random sources about writing. But ultimately, you’re the judge of your own situation; your own mothering – work seesaw finds its own balance on the fulcrum. Each family has its own challenges and requirements; each muse has her own strength, conviction, urgency, and vision. Whatever balance you work out now is not permanent, nor is it binding on the future. I only wrote in fits and starts, privately, when my kids were small, but developed a more steady writing and publishing practice later in life. Do what works for you.
How do our organizations support women’s and parents’ creative work and validate their experiences? Which other publications, presses, retreats, and organizations support and develop the skills and creativity of parent writers?
M.M. DeVoe: At Pen Parentis, our mission is to provide resources to writers to keep them on creative track after they start a family. We offer free monthly literary salons that celebrate the creative diversity of writers that are also parents by bringing three or more such authors into a room and hearing their new works, then discussing the many ways they balance an active family life with a creative career. We offer an annual merit-based fellowship to a writer parenting a child ten or younger. We offer occasional classes to develop particular skills in NYC and we are working hard to develop online communities of writers who are also parents that we hope can turn into in-person communities as we reach a critical mass of participants. We value inclusiveness, professionalism, community—we strive in every way to inspire writers who are parents to dedicate themselves to their writing careers.
Other than those represented here on this panel, we hope all writing parents know about the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Based in San Francisco, they give generous individual grants to writers and visual artists that are also parents. They also keep a list of writing colonies and residencies that they fund to make them more accessible for writing parents, in researching what is available, that’s a great place to begin. Magazines that are excellent for creative, thinking parents are Brain, Child and Mutha Magazine, as well as Brain, Teen. Also, Marble House Project has a writing residency that you can bring spouse and kids to (this is what writing-parent communities are best at: sharing vital information like this!)
J.P. Howard: Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) supports women’s and parents’ creative work by bringing primarily women of color and LGBTQ communities together each month for a free potluck poetry workshop, featured author reading, Q & A session with our feature and a multi-genre open mic. Our salons meet once monthly over the weekend, often in someone’s home or donated community space. People bring delicious home-made dishes and the wine flows freely. These literary salons last between 4 ½ to 5 hours minimum. We write, we collaborate, we laugh, and often we cry as we use writing to explore so many personal and political issues. Our Salons literally and figuratively nurture us. A number of us are parents and having time to share our experiences as writers is empowering and helps to validate our experiences in the world.
Mom Egg Review is a huge supporter of parent writers, creating a space for us both in print and online. I have been a part of writing communities and retreats at Cave Canem, Lambda Literary and VONA. Each of these spaces includes many writers who happen to be parents, though that is not what brought us to the retreats. These safe and supportive spaces allow us to speak freely about missing our children when we are in residency, while simultaneously celebrating our roles as writers in collaborative and supportive environments. Ultimately these organizations help us develop our skills and remain creative by creating and providing these welcoming spaces.
Julianne Palumbo: Mothers Always Write supports the mission of motherhood by offering poetry, essays, book reviews, and columns intended to speak to parents and parent writers. We support our writers in a number of ways. We created and maintain a contributor’s FB group where writers can expand the readership of their pieces, find writing partners and friendships as well as read other great writing and learn of publication opportunities. We promote our writers by sharing their pieces written both for MAW and for other publications on our social media. We afford our writers the opportunity to participate in critique groups, pairing our writers with others with similar writing interests. We also provide an opportunity for our writers to publicize their relevant works on our site through book reviews and column writing. Finally, our editorial staff often selects at least one new writer for each issue who is then given the opportunity to work with us to bring an often very rough piece of writing to publication quality.
Marjorie Tesser:Mom Egg Review is a literary journal about motherhood. We support mother writers and foster motherhood literature through publication and through live and online community engagement.
We publish an annual print journal of fine, sharp literary work centered on motherhood (in its 15th year) and we recently started a quarterly web-based journal that additionally focuses on general women’s issues. Our website, http://www.momeggreview.com, contains literature and art, craft tips, interviews with established mother writers, reviews of books by mother writers, and relevant news. We sponsor our own readings and workshops, and participate in festivals and panels to help connect in person to mother writers.
In addition to the Mom Egg Review Group, in which contributors and readers can share their own news and concerns, we sponsor genre-based Facebook groups #takepoetry and #febflash. We actively collaborate with other groups interested in mothers’ and women’s experiences, including the Museum of Motherhood, ProCreate Project (a UK-based artists collective that recently sponsored Mother House, an art residency for mothers with children), and others, and we do our best to disseminate information about publications and opportunities friendly to mother artists. We celebrate and value the work of our co-panelists, Pen Parentis, Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, and Mothers Always Write in nurturing mother writers, and the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, in supporting writers and mother-friendly small presses and litmags.
M.M. DeVoe is the founding director of Pen Parentis, a 501c3 nonprofit that provides resources to writers to help them stay on creative track after starting a family. She has an MFA from Columbia and is an award-winning writer of short fiction (with two kids). M.M. co-hosts a series of monthly literary salons in lower Manhattan featuring small groups of diverse writers who are also parents. Pen Parentis also runs a fellowship for parent writers.
J.P. Howard is the author of SAY/MIRROR (The Operating System), which was a 2016 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She is the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, VONA and Lambda Literary. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories, and essays have been published many literary journals. She is the author of Into Your Light and Announcing the Thaw, poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She is the Founder/Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood.
Marjorie Tesser is the author of poetry chapbooks THEIMPORTANT THING IS (Firewheel Chapbook Award Winner) and The Magic Feather. She co-edited the anthologies Bowery Women and Estamos Aquí (Bowery Books) and Travellin’ Mama: Mothers, Motherhood and Travel (forthcoming from Demeter Press). She is the editor in chief of the literary journal Mom Egg Review.
Self-Authorship in the Writing Classroom: Helping Our Students Find Themselves
The world after college graduation—jobs, relationships, citizenship—demands a lot more from graduates than just knowledge and skills. Our students, if they’re going to thrive, are going to need some real self-awareness and the ability to make their own decisions. In order to get there, they’ll have to engage in a process of what psychologist Robert Kagan calls “self-authorship.” This means developing (in the words of education scholar Marcia Baxter Magolda) “the internal capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations.” In other words, our students need to let go of the way that they’ve been defined by others and decide for themselves who they’re going to be in the world. Luckily, writing classes can be the perfect place for people to work toward becoming the authors of their lives, and teachers are in a great position to help.
When you were a student, did you have any academic experiences that were significant in your own process of self-authorship, by either hindering or spurring your efforts to define yourself?
David Ebenbach: In high school I took a creative writing class taught by a wonderful woman named Carole Nehez, and she did one of the most important things you can do for a person: she helped me find my voice. She helped her students in a number of different ways. First of all, she didn’t line us up in rows facing her at the front of the room; she put the chairs in a circle and we all sat in the circle together, which told us we all had important things to say, that we all could teach. Then, class conversations were free-wheeling and open and spontaneous, and she followed our lead when it was productive. One day, for example, it was raining outside and I asked her at the beginning of class if some of us could run around in the rain for a few minutes before settling into our chairs, and she let us do it. About half the class went, and we came back soaked and energized. But the most important thing was the writing, and particularly the journal writing. Mrs. Nehez required us to keep a journal, and encouraged us to write about anything and everything. She mandated a space for self-exploration. She said we had to do it, so we did.
Kathy Flann: The first experience I remember vividly related to writing and self-awareness is when I wrote a paper in high school about Julius Caesar, and the teacher accused me of plagiarizing it because it was so good. I was both insulted and flattered. I’d been going to Shakespeare plays with my parents since I was a child, and I’d had a lot of time to develop my own thoughts about them. I knew, from that accusation of being beyond my years, that I had come up with my own ideas. They weren’t canned. Even though it was a terrible experience, it was also an important moment. I often think of it when I teach. I remember how much one comment can affect someone.
West Moss: In one of my college lit classes, we were told to keep a journal of our thoughts about what we were reading. I met with my professor one day and he sat and read through my journal, quietly turning the pages. He hesitated and read something out loud to me that I had written. He said, “Is this YOUR idea?” I was confused and said that yes, it was. He got a tear in his eye and a big smile on his face. He sat forward and said, “West, what a brilliant insight.” I was eighteen and I burst into tears. It was as though someone had finally seen what I had suspected but had been unable to confirm until then: namely, that I had ideas that were worthwhile. This was a turning point in my sense of myself as a student and thinker, with ideas of my own to contribute to the larger discussion.
Joselyn Lewis: During the last semester of my senior year in college, I was writing a thesis as part of the graduation requirements in my major. The professor leading the thesis capstone seminar was a very established and respected faculty member in the department, someone I admired greatly and found to be an engaged and supportive educator, but also someone who intimidated me. I disagreed with his opinions at times, but struggled with confidence as to whether or not I had something of value to say and how to express my perspective to him. One day during a whole class discussion, while we were workshopping my classmate’s paper, I suggested that the main premise of her thesis was based on some mistaken cultural assumptions. When my professor supported my classmate’s position, the discussion turned into a direct debate with him and I realized I was very passionate about my take on the issues. I stood my ground and while he did not come around to my perspective, I left class shaking from having tried, but still convinced that I was right.
That afternoon, I had a scheduled check-in with my advisor where I relayed the events from class earlier in the day. He could hear the emotion in my voice and the importance of this argument to me. He did not tell me that he agreed with me or that he thought I was right, but for me, he did something even better. After he heard me out, the first thing he said was “Have you ever considered going to graduate school? I think you should.” Graduate school was actually not on my radar prior to that exchange, but my advisor’s reaction to me at that moment changed everything. I started seeing myself as someone who was capable of that level of academic work and as someone who had something to contribute. It was very significant.
How can writing—and particularly creative writing—help people on their journey toward self-authorship?
Kathy Flann: I think a creative writing workshop is the one place where students really do make their own decisions about the work they produce. Typically, faculty are most sincere in those classes about the carte blanche to make the work what they want it to be, and students sense that sincerity. They know the work is “real” in the sense that it could potentially be read by people just like them—fans of fiction. So they take the work of craft very seriously. They think of themselves as “real” writers in ways they may not in other disciplines.
Joselyn Lewis: I think writing can be supportive of our process of identity development and self-authorship in a number of ways. Writing can create space to slow down. That change in pace between writing and other ways we might communicate about ourselves and interact with others allows for a space that is more conducive to self-reflection and self-analysis. Also, writing, and perhaps creative writing in particular, requires an attention to voice in a way that often encourages the writer to work on finding their voice, recognizing and owning what kind of voice one has and how one wants to use it.
David Ebenbach: Some writing is direct self-authorship. For example, memoir and poetry can be places where you try to get a grip on your own story and make sense of it, and come to conclusions about it. It’s almost the same case with fiction and playwriting if it’s thinly veiled autobiography. But that’s just the obvious stuff. Even fiction that has no direct correspondence to your own life can spur the process of self-authorship. Maybe you drop a character into a moral conundrum and work them through it and, in so doing, discover how you feel about that situation; maybe you just can’t stop writing about loss (or connection, or faith, or struggle, or whatever it is); maybe you let characters do things you would never dare to do (or think you would never dare to do). In each case you learn something about what matters to you. Writing allows you to talk about the world, or a world, anyway, and then you learn—by comparison, by contrast—about your own world.
West Moss: I think I answer this below.
How can a teacher support the process of self-authorship?
Joselyn Lewis: From my experience, educators who are able to create intentional ways for students to connect academic material to their own lived experiences provide students with both powerful opportunities to further develop their own self-authorship and powerful learning experiences. Some faculty I work with do this by assigning writing assignments that explicitly ask students to bring themselves into conversation with course material—a faith autobiography for a religion class, or a weekly reflection journal, for example. The writing process is a supportive element as well as the sharing between student and teacher and what that sharing sets up in terms of the student feeling “seen” by the teacher. Another way to support the process of students’ self-authorship is to model or share experiences from our own trajectory toward self-authorship. It’s particularly helpful if teachers are willing to share some of the obstacles or difficulties in the process, so students can see the complexity, potential messiness, and non-linear nature of identity development and movement toward self-authorship.
Kathy Flann: What I do is spend the first 3-6 weeks, depending on the level of the student, assigning ungraded work. Every time the student says, “Did you like it? Did I do well on it?” I say “Do YOU like it?” I explain as many times as it takes that they’re not writing for me. I say, “If you don’t like your work, probably no one else will like it, either.” I use my own writing experiences as examples in class, so that they will understand that we are all writers. We are just at different points on our journeys. I love it the most when I sit side-by-side with students who’ve come to my office and I ask them questions, “What does this guy want? Does he have a job? What does he do? Who is his family? What did he do yesterday? Why?” etc. It’s fun to see the student grasp that the answers are there in the mind. I think they also see that they, the students, are the only ones with the answers to these questions. I can guide, but I can’t provide the answers.
David Ebenbach: I think teachers can help students grow into themselves in two ways: by making space for the process and by challenging them to engage. Like Carole Nehez, my high school creative writing teacher, you can set up the classroom and in-class time to bring out voices—sitting in a circle, using first names, letting students do a lot of the talking—and you can use exercises that invite exploration: discussions based around student perspectives and experiences, journal-writing, reflection papers, writing assignments that ask them to tell childhood stories. In terms of writing exercises, I like to start with emotionally easy stuff (e.g., write a detailed physical description of a place you associate with your childhood) and then move to more fraught prompts (e.g., write a scene in which someone you really don’t like does something unexpectedly nice).
In some classes, I build up to an assignment called “Write the story you’re not allowed to write,” which I first encountered as a sentence in a Janet Burroway textbook and which I’ve elaborated on quite a bit. Some of the options for the assignment: “Write a fictionalized version of some true events that you are not supposed to reveal to the world….Write about something that is taboo for you….Don’t pick what’s taboo for others—go for what makes you squirm….Write sympathetically from the point of view of a protagonist who makes you genuinely uncomfortable. This would be the kind of person that secretly on some level you can relate to or might even wish to be, even though officially you completely disapprove of this kind of person.” Nobody is required to do this assignment—I give them an alternative—but almost everybody chooses to do it, and usually they find that they’re discovering important things, surviving those discoveries, growing from those discoveries, and, on top of that, writing the most promising thing they’ve written all semester long.
West Moss: There are ways to make the classroom feel safe for students to share their ideas, and to discover what they think about the world. Certainly listening carefully and giving genuine supportive responses is key, but also pushing them to write about their own worlds is often fruitful. In creative writing classes, I often begin class with brief (2-3 minute) in-class writing exercises, where I ask them to write about things they’ve noticed that morning, or interactions from years ago that they still think about. When shared, these things help build a community within the classroom, but they can also show beginning CW students that their own lives provide rich material for writing.
I have an assignment called “The Lies Our Characters Tell.” We read a short story together, something very short like John Cheever’s “Reunion,” for example, and look at how a particular character is lying (often to themselves) about themselves. For instance, the father in that story says that he cares about his son, but his actions show that he doesn’t. These small moments of dishonesty in characters can be revelatory for students, and demonstrate the kinds of inner conflicts we want our characters to display.
Next, students make a list of the stories they told about themselves when they last met someone new. What clothes did they wear and what “story” were they trying to tell with those clothes? Were they trying to look sexy, athletic, wealthy? Did they want to look like they didn’t care in some way, while actually caring very deeply about what people thought of them? Could they see the inner-conflict inherent in some of their own choices? Then I ask them to write down some of the actual stories they tell about themselves. Do they lead with their summer in France, or do they lead with their most recent awful break-up? Do they find stories to tell that make it clear they come from money, or do they prefer to immediately disclose that they were adopted, and why?
Then they’re asked to reflect on what these clashes between who they really are and who they portray themselves to be tell them about themselves. Does it reveal that they want something they don’t feel they can have? Does it reveal their senses of inadequacy or mastery in some way? One’s sense of identity, and one’s own understanding of small, potent conflicts in their own world, are essential underpinnings of compelling writing, but perhaps also of being a full human being.
These kinds of insights lead to several good outcomes. First, beginning CW students often feel they have to rely on large conflicts (explosions, wars, the death of a protagonist) in order to build tension in their stories. These exercises show them the kinds of small tensions that are real and universal, and that will help them to build characters that their readers will care about. More importantly, though, they help students in their own awareness of “self,” which is a critical sense for writers to develop. These are the kinds of tools, too, that I like to think I am giving them to use in life in general…the skill of reflection, of “noticing,” and a sense that their lives, and ideas, are thrilling and complex and moving enough to be at the center of their writing, and of their consciousness.
David Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved and the story collection Into the Wilderness. He is a Professor of the Practice in Creative Writing at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization and the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.
Kathy Flann‘s short story collection, Get a Grip, won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Maryland.
Joselyn Lewis is an Associate Director for Inclusive Teaching and Learning Initiatives at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. She leads the Engelhard Project and the Doyle Faculty Fellowship Program, which promote curricular and pedagogical innovation on issues of well-being, diversity, and inclusive pedagogy.
West Moss teaches creative writing at William Paterson University and at Gotham in New York City. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon.com, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her collection of short stories, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, was published by Leapfrog Press.
Sundress Publications is pleased to present three readings celebrating the launch of our Political Punch anthology, the tenth anniversary of Best of the Net, and Sundress’s Sweet Sixteen.
This event will take place on Thursday, March 31, at 7pm and will be held at The Lexington Bar located at 129 E 3rd St, Los Angeles, California 90013.
From 7PM-8PM, we will launch our new poetry anthology, Political Punch: The Politics of Identity, with readings by Timothy Liu, Cam Awkward-Rich, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Lee Ann Roripaugh, and Chen Chen.
At 8PM, we will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Best of the Net Anthology with readings by previous contributors and judges, including Traci Brimhall, Matt Hart, Nicole Walker, Alix Olin, Emily Jungmin Yoon, Sarah Einstein, and more!
In our final hour, we will honor Sundress’s Sweet 16 with readings by our authors, including Fox Frazier-Foley, Amorak Huey, Letitia Trent, Jill Khoury, Saba Syed Razvi, Jessica Rae Bergamino, and M. Mack.
Sundress Publications is a (mostly) woman-run, woman-friendly non-profit publication group founded in 2000 that hosts a variety of online journals and publishes chapbooks and full-length collections in both print and digital formats. We also publish the annual Best of the Net Anthology, celebrating the best work published online.
Roundtable #5: Writing the Tragedy of Others with Ellen Sussman, Patrick Hicks, Liz Prato, Ellen Sussman, and Andria Williams.
What drew you to the topic of your fiction? Did you begin with the idea of the tragedy first, or the character(s)?
Ellen Sussman (author of The Paradise Guest House; Event: The Bali nightclub bombings of 2002): My husband and I traveled to Bali for a vacation three weeks after the terrorist attacks there. The country was in deep mourning. I was very moved by the spirit of the Balinese people and by the strength of their community. I was also struck by the remarkable beauty of the island. How can you make sense of terrorism in paradise? How could these very peace-loving, compassionate people move forward? By the time I left Bali, I had the first glimmers of the novel I would write.
Patrick Hicks (author of The Commandant of Lubizec; Event: The Holocaust): I was exposed to the Holocaust at a very young age and the knowledge of it completely overwhelmed me. It was, I think, the first time I realized what we are capable of doing to each other, and I had such a hard time wrapping my imagination around the idea of industrialized genocide. As I studied the Holocaust more and more, and as I gave talks about it, the more it occurred to me that many people don’t understand the fundamental difference between a concentration camp, like Dachau or Bergen-Belsen, and the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. I have strong feelings that a writer’s primary job is to shed light and offer illumination, so I began to wonder how I might write about the death camps. In the three camps I just mentioned, trains would pull into them and within one hour nearly everyone would have been killed. There was no selection process like there was in Auschwitz, and I wanted to write about this, so I began to think of creating a fictitious camp—which I call Lubizec—and it’s an amalgamation of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. To answer your question, I began by looking at the tragedy first and then I started to see the souls who perished. This meant I had to imagine the men who ran the camp. And from there, images of The Commandant of Lubizec came to me.
Andria Williams (author The Longest Night; Event: Fatal nuclear reactor accident in Idaho Falls, 1961): I’ve always had a slightly strange interest in nuclear power and stories about the early atomic age. It’s probably rather incongruous with my chipper, Navy-wife persona. I was relieved recently to discover what I think is the genesis of that interest: every summer of my young life, from birth to age twenty, I visited my nanna and uncle in the small beach town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. Seabrook is not only known for being “the tattoo capital of the USA” (at least, according to an episode of ‘Oprah’ on extreme tattooing my mom once saw) but also for its nuclear power plant. The town is small enough that anywhere you drive, you see the round gray dome of the plant off in the mist, reflected in the otherwise-pretty marsh that borders the town. Many times a day—to go for fried clams or lobster rolls, to get groceries, to go play Skee-Ball at the boardwalk—we’d drive past that plant. I’d be sitting in the back of my nanna’s boatlike Monte Carlo at night, slurping down a Dairy Queen, my feet swinging against the leather seats, and there would be the blinking lights of the dome off on the horizon, shimmering on the tide, silent, ever-present. I was never scared of the place (even though my nanna lived within what’s considered the ten-mile “danger zone”), but, other than the big wooden whale in front of Lena’s Seafood, it was certainly the most notable and irregular part of the local landscape.
So power plants must have ingrained themselves in my budding consciousness. When, a few years ago, I heard the story of a nuclear meltdown that had occurred in rural Idaho in 1961, my curiosity was piqued. I realized I’d had some misconceptions about our nuclear history: I’d thought that Three Mile Island was the “major” nuclear accident of our country’s history, and I’d sort of assumed that it had caused some casualties, just because it had been such a big deal at the time. But, thankfully, there were no lives lost at Three Mile Island. Instead, the nation’s first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident had occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho in January of 1961. I dug into the story, discovering it had been painted for decades as a murder-suicide (with the claim that one of the operators intentionally yanked the main rod out of the core, “knowing” that this would cause it to blow up). This has been almost entirely disproven, though the legend remains. I grew almost righteously indignant on behalf of the three men who died there, three men who were very young, enlisted soldiers with no higher-level supervision as they attempted, in the middle of one of the coldest nights of the year, to re-start a temporarily deactivated reactor which had been giving off warning signs as to its instability for a long time. They were following orders; they were stuck in a situation that, most likely, no one could have come out of alive.
Liz Prato (author of A Proportional Response; Event: The Bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, 1988): My friend, Annie Laureau, lost many close friends in the bombing. She was a Syracuse University student in the London abroad program. She had planned to fly home with her friends on Flight 103, but ended up postponing her flight for the next day. 35 Syracuse students—eight of whom were her close friends—died in the bombing. I ran into Annie at a Chili’s the week after the bombing. She was so numb, barely a shell of a person. We lost contact not long after that, but I was haunted by what it would be like to suffer such a tremendous loss at all, much less as a 20 year old. What does that do to your ability to love? To trust? To feel joy? Finally, in 2008 it occurred to me to google her, to find out where she was and just ask her these questions. So, it was a combination of the particularly magnitude of this tragedy, and my connection to a specific person which informed my story.
Why did you choose to write fiction, instead of nonfiction about the event?
Ellen Sussman: I am primarily a fiction writer. I use fiction to get under the surface of who we are and how we feel. At first I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of the bombings in Bali – how could I possibly write deeply about that horrific event? But then I found my story – a young woman who was caught in the terrorist attack returns to Bali a year later to find the man who saved her. I realized that if I told her story well then I might also tell the bigger story.
Patrick Hicks: It quickly occurred to me that if I wrote nonfiction I’d have to set everything in either Treblinka or one of the other death camps. If I did this, I’d be writing history. I’m not an historian though; I’m a fiction writer who happens to care deeply about history. There’s a difference, at least for me. By writing fiction, I was able to explore the emotional landscape of the Holocaust in ways that historical accounts generally don’t allow for. In this way, I was able to get in the minds of the victims and it allowed me the freedom to use the tools of fiction to tell the story in new ways. The narrator’s voice in The Commandant of Lubizec tends to stick with readers long after they’ve closed the book, and the story works, I think, because it reads like history even though it’s fiction. It’s important to add that everything that happens in my fictitious camp either actually did happen in the real camps or could have actually happened in the camps. Through fiction, I was able to make the reader see and care about the victims in ways that historical accounts frequently cannot.
Andria Williams: That part was easy: I only write fiction!
Liz Prato: During the period of time when Annie and I lost touch, fiction was all I had. Often times people respond to someone else’s bad news by saying, “I can only imagine.” That was what I had—my imagination about how one survives that tragedy. I researched the bombing extensively, and attempted several fictional stories about it, but they all fell short on some basic level of storytelling. After I finally reconnected with and interviewed Annie, I wrote an essay about her story that was published by Salon after the convicted bomber was released from prison. But that didn’t exorcise the haunting. To help not just me, but my reader, understand the trauma and the healing, I knew I needed to remove it from the events of the news cycle, and focus on the heart. I originally thought it was going to be an entire novel, but the story “A Proportional Response” came of it, instead.
Why did you choose your particular characters and their perspective for telling the story?
Ellen Sussman: I wanted to begin with an American so that I could bring my own innocence about Bali to the story. But I wanted her to be touched deeply by what happened – not as a bystander, but as a survivor. And then I chose an American ex-pat, a Balinese man who lost his wife in the bombing, and a young Indonesian boy who didn’t fit in. Each character opened a different door for me, one that would get me closer to telling the whole story.
Patrick Hicks: There’s a chapter in Lubizec called “Numbers” and it allows the reader to see these fully formed lives that are about to get shoved into the gas chambers. I spent a long time creating histories for these minor characters and the reader gets to know them as they are pushed towards the abyss. In this way, even those characters that appear for only a few pages have rich and varied backgrounds. That was my plan because I wanted the reader to feel wounded that they’d been taken from us. The protagonist, Commandant Hans-Peter Guth, is an amalgam of Rudolf Höss, who ran Auschwitz, and Franz Stangl, who ran Treblinka. Two of the prisoners in the novel are also given strong voices and they have the final word in the narrative. I wanted the reader to finish my novel and hear what they had to say from their perspective as survivors. That was very important to me. I also made a conscious decision that the reader would never have direct access to what Commandant Guth was thinking. I wanted to keep him at arm’s length from the reader.
Andria Williams: While I was careful to change details so that no characters in my book have any one-to-one correspondence with anybody involved in the accident, I did take the inspiration for one of my main characters, Paul, from the third man at the reactor, a 27-year-old who had who had only been working on the reactor a few weeks, and who seems to have just been a good guy stuck in a bad situation. The two more “senior” (very relatively speaking) men working the shift with him that night were troublemakers, they didn’t get along; they had a history of fighting and partying and all sorts of things that very young people sometimes get into and generally, given the chance, mature out of. Their rivalry may have been causing them to focus more, that night, on their dislike of one another, and not as much on the reactor as they should have. But this poor third guy was a family man with two very young children, and he was scrambling to do his job, and he was probably looking forward to getting home after his grueling night shift and getting into bed and being woken up by his kids bouncing all over him the following afternoon.
I changed many details, conflating this character with a completely imagined one to come to the character of Paul, whose role in the accident ends up being somewhat different. But I was moved by the idea of someone unintentionally caught up in a mess like this, trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation.
Later, partly because I am a military spouse and because their perspective interested me, I drew the women into the story: two military wives who are at odds, both trying to look out for their husbands’ interests in a way that would pit them against one another. But I wanted them to have a certain understanding, too. I love a good rivalry in fiction, a good ol’ honor code/Western type loyalty war with a smattering of respect between the two parties. This was a small-scale version of that.
Liz Prato: Annie’s story was the one that haunted me. I had no choice but to tell the story of someone with circumstances similar to hers. But I added the character of Randy, the career Navy man, after a friend’s husband who had been in the Strait of Hormuz told me his perspective on what led to the Pan Am plane being bombed. I wished I could put him and Annie in the same room together. That didn’t seem possible in real life, so I based two characters on their experiences, and then put them in a room together.
How did you decide when and where to draw lines about when to render facts, and when to fictionalize – both in the telling of events, and in the depiction of character’s lives?
Ellen Sussman: I didn’t do much research before I wrote the first draft. I wanted to create my own characters – not to base them on real people. After I finished that draft, I spent five weeks in Bali. I read many reports on the bombing and I studied the Balinese culture and Balinese Hinduism. My subsequent drafts relied on that research – but my characters were born in my imagination.
Patrick Hicks: It was very important for me to get the history of the Holocaust correct, especially as it related to the Operation Reinhard camps. Some of the micro-stories that appear in my novel were based on real life events, like the murder of a rabbi in Treblinka when he held up a fist of sand and let the grains trickle to the ground. According to one eyewitness, he said something along the lines of, “Do you see what I am doing here, German? You are like dust, but my people will outlive you.” He was then shot in the back of the head. That story of defiance has a lot of power for me. Also, the story of Janusz Korczak—he was an orphanage director who stepped into the gas chambers with some 200 boys in order to care for them until the very last possible moment—that too demanded a retelling. We have no idea what Korczak said or did at Treblinka, and I wanted to give him a voice, so I used fiction to create a character based on him. I’ve also got a number of footnotes in The Commandant of Lubizec. Almost all of them refer to real sources but a few are fictitious. In this way, I nudge the reader to wonder what is real and unreal. A simple internet search will tell them the truth and—who knows?—maybe a few readers will turn to these real life accounts in order to learn more about the death camps. The memoirs and historical accounts of these places are vastly more important than my little book.
Andria Williams: Because the family members of the three men who died at the SL-1 are still alive, and because there is so much murky accusation surrounding what took place that night, I wanted to be careful to present an overview of the event without actually pinning blame on any one character. I also wanted to sketch out the whole fantastical, surreal world of early atomic history for the reader: a time when optimism about nuclear power was off the charts, when scientists were indulged with a limitless budget and an open frontier for their imaginations. You had scientists dreaming up these lofty (sometimes terrific, sometimes totally batty) things and then, on the flip side, the young military technicians who actually had to work those things. I loved that tension. I wanted to give an impression of that.
In an effort to do so, I was liberal with my time frame: I sent Paul to work at Camp Century, the nuclear base built below the polar ice cap in Greenland, four months before it actually would have been completed. But I thought the reader would forgive me, because this allowed me to give an overview of some of the more fantastical elements of the nuclear age: our obsession, for the one thing, with some kind of polar ice cap war-to-end-all-wars. Of course, as history went on to show, every single battle of the Cold War was fought in a nearly tropical climate.
Liz Prato: Even though the root tragedies were based on well-researched events, the lives and characteristics of Libby and Randy are totally imagined. It’s important to make that distinction: Libby and Annie are not the same person, and Annie hasn’t engaged in the same behaviors as Libby. I tried to base her emotional truth on Annie’s and, frankly, some on my own, since by 2011 my entire immediate family (and all my aunts and uncles and grandparents) had died. I could relate to how profound loss changes you on a deep, primal level. But there are some small details Annie told me that I kept—like Annie’s best friend really was wearing an earring of Annie’s when the plane exploded.
What did you feel your responsibilities were as a writer, and not as an actual survivor, of the trauma? Who did you feel most responsible to?
Ellen Sussman: I felt a strong responsibility to the survivors of the terrorist attacks and to the family of the victims. Mine is a personal story – I was less interested in the political story.
Patrick Hicks: I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to the victims, as well as the survivors. I had to get the history right. I just had to. And as I wrote, I kept asking myself how I might shed light on the death camps. Did you know that nearly two million people died in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec alone? Fewer than 200 people survived these camps to bear witness and, because of this, we don’t have enough stories to make these camps feel real. There are very few pictures of these places—hardly any photos, to be honest. I wanted to use history and fiction to bring these places into sharper focus and help the reader see these death camps with better clarity. I also wanted to explore the long after-burn of emotional pain that these places caused. What does it mean to carry these images in your head? How do you start a new life after experiencing such overwhelming trauma?
Andria Williams: I felt responsible to the three men who worked the SL-1 the night of the accident, because within hours of their deaths news outlets everywhere reported, like I said, that the accident was a murder-suicide. People even speculated that there was a love triangle going on between two of the men and one of their wives, although that wife was a young Mormon woman eight months pregnant at the time and there is no evidence that she and the other man in question ever even met. Yet this interpretation of the story just will not die. It is too compelling, too sordid. And perhaps in a way it’s comforting, this notion that the magical machine didn’t fail us but one crazy person did.
I also felt a responsibility to tell an uncommon military story. I don’t think the average civilian really realizes how much variety there is to the American military experience. The Longest Night is a novel about soldiers wherein no one fires a single shot. American soldiers are carrying out so many duties, all the time, all over the globe. Some are dangerous. Some are boring as all hell. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how many things people in the military actually do.
And, lastly, though this may be muted in the novel, I felt a responsibility to the idea of the West. There’s no landscape, no place on earth more interesting to me. My main characters, Paul and his wife Nat, arrive in Idaho thinking they’re beginning new lives in a new place, a place blank enough to allow for any sort of imagination. Paul’s starting a career as a nuclear operator, and this, too, seems bold and limitless; headlines of the time, referring to atomic energy and riffing on Ecclesiastes, crowed, “There is something new under the sun!” But Paul and Nat are as much a part of the messy march of humanity as anybody. When they arrive at the Idaho testing station, it’s already been Blackfoot Indian land; a Mormon settlement; the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII; a military proving ground; and as of their arrival is the development site for all the major nuclear projects in the United States. If that doesn’t encapsulate the layered strata of history in the West—the land grabs, the power struggles, the manifest destiny and xenophobia and loss and ambition—I don’t know what does.
The 1950s is much-maligned for its supposed conformity, its cheezy optimism that you can erase any personal history you don’t like, that anything can be made sparkling and new. (Certainly, this was a theme in Mad Men.) I loved bumping that up against a place like the West, which people expect to accommodate all of their fantasies—as a place to start over, as a playground for the rich, as the handily absorbent dumping ground for both human disappointment and man-made garbage. But everything comes back around. There is nothing new under the sun.
Liz Prato: I not only feel responsible to every single person who was murdered, but to all their families and friends. And, of course, I feel responsible to Annie. Every time I talk about or write about this story, I feel guilty that I’ve co-opted her tragedy for the purpose of art. I’ve checked in with her about it a few times just to make sure it’s okay. Most of the time, I just have to remind myself that she already told me it was okay.
How did you approach that sense of responsibility?
Ellen Sussman: I interviewed many survivors and family members of victims. Their stories informed every decision I made in telling my story.
Patrick Hicks: I did three separate research trips to Poland where I spent considerable time at Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek. I also spent over thirty hours in Auschwitz. Of course I read many many books and memoirs, but I also interviewed a survivor of Auschwitz for three hours. What he had to say about living with memories of the camp was incredibly powerful for me. In fact, it directly influenced the last thirty pages of The Commandant of Lubizec. Readers and scholars of the Holocaust have since told me that my portrayal of the psychological turmoil is one of the things that makes the novel so memorable. What does it mean to carry the hard weight of these camps in your head? How do you start over after the Holocaust? Some wounds can never heal and, for the survivors, the past is forever dragged into the future. That sense of the past living in the present moment—of the past not being over and done with—was something that I wanted to represent in the narrative. I felt a responsibility to get that right.
Andria Williams: Research, research, and more research.
Liz Prato: I spent about eight hours interviewing Annie, for one thing, and did a ton of research. And I remained clear that I was only telling one person’s story. I know that the parents of Annie’s best friend have a different perspective. They’re still angry and permanently ravaged by grief, and even though they lost the same person as Annie, their story is entirely singular. That was one great thing about finding Patrick – he’d written a fictionalized version of the Lockerbie bombing from the standpoint of the coroner on the ground who had to identify all the bodies and body parts scattered throughout his town. Same tragedy, totally different story. I also realized that once I decided to fictionalize it, the story became something else. It wasn’t Annie’s or mine anymore. It belonged to anyone willing to take it into their hearts. Being true to the human heart is always, first and foremost, my greatest responsibility.
Writing about other people’s traumas can, in its own way, cause emotional turmoil. How did it affect you to become so intimate with acts of violence?
Ellen Sussman: I was a victim of a violent rape when I was 18 years old. I didn’t realize when I chose to write about the terrorist attacks in Bali that I would be forced to take myself on a very emotional journey back to that experience. But perhaps that’s one of the reasons I chose the material – on a subconscious level I needed to go there. I know what it’s like to suffer acts of violence – I know what it’s like to make a life for oneself after that moment in time.
Patrick Hicks: I always feel weird talking about this because my own little problems are so tiny in comparison. I wouldn’t have believed that trauma could be contagious, but I’ve come to realize that if you study something for long enough, it nests in your imagination and changes you. When I was writing The Commandant of Lubizec, I had these incredibly vivid nightmares of my family in Auschwitz. I could see greasy black smoke rising up from the crematorium and they were pulled away from me. I’d wake up panting in a cold sweat. This happened throughout the writing of the entire first draft and it got to the point where I was actually nervous about going to bed. Also, whenever I see the Yankees playing baseball now, I think to myself, “Oh look, their uniforms are like the ones in Auschwitz.” Once, when I was in Dublin, I was standing at a train station when a long line of school kids walked past me. They each had a yellow flower pinned to their chest for cancer awareness week, but to me it looked like a yellow star. As they boarded their train and pulled away, my heart turned to water. It’s hard to explain. I guess you could say that I see the Holocaust in color now. I’m reminded of it every day. It’s everywhere.
Andria Williams: The violence in The Longest Night is the diffuse, insidious kind. I did not have the crushing responsibility of writing about the Holocaust, as Patrick Hicks does so well and carefully and beautifully in The Commandant of Lubizec.
I see The Longest Night as being about the violence of the power differential. Every act of violence, to my mind, is a jockeying for power, and in the novel there are power struggles between institutions and workers, bosses and employees, men and women, husbands and wives, white newcomers and ‘Indians,’ people and the land. Sometimes these are manifested as violence. I wasn’t haunted by what I had to write, so much as attuned further to these themes as I was writing. I wrote the novel because I saw them everywhere and I saw them even more as I was writing the novel. It never stops.
Liz Prato: During the years when I interviewed Annie, and wrote the article for Salon, and wrote a draft of the novel that brought me to “A Proportional Response,” my dad and brother were spiraling into fatal mental and physical illness. It was such a raw and stressful time for me, I can’t separate out whatever secondary PTSD emerged from my obsession with the bombing. I did have nightmares about it, and couldn’t listen to or transcribe the interview tapes for six months. Even after I transcribed the tapes, the notes just sat in my computer for another six months. Then, in August 2009, I heard the news that Al Megrahi (the only person convicted of the bombing) was being given an early release from prison on “compassionate” grounds. It was said he had end-stage cancer with only three months to live (he lived another 2 years and nine months). My shock and outrage that he’d only spent 8 years in prison for the murder of 270 people—10 days in prison for each person’s life he took—propelled me beyond whatever emotional turmoil immersing myself in the original events might cause. Besides, if Annie could survive what she went through, then I could survive writing about her pain and loss. That’s what so much of my writing is about—surviving pain and loss.
Writing about these tragedies surely made you more compassionate to the survivors and victims. Did it, in any way, change your feelings about or understanding of the perpetrators?
Ellen Sussman: No. At one point I tried to include a character that was involved with the terrorist group that planned and executed the attacks. I just couldn’t get under his skin. I decided that I couldn’t write about him without any compassion. And so his story is not a part of the novel.
Patrick Hicks: That’s a really tough question. I don’t have sympathy for the perpetrators but I do see the larger issues of history at work. That is to say, I better understand how World War I influenced the growth of Nazism. If anything, writing Lubizec has complicated things for me because I now recognize that these agents of death had the capacity to love. They loved their wives and sons and daughters. They loved their pets. They loved their horses. And yet when it came to offering clemency and mercy to the Jews, they made a fist of their hearts. How? How could they do this? And as the years passed, did they have even one iota of regret? The answer to this question, at least for many of them, was “no.” That chills my soul.
Andria Williams: The “perps,” to use a word I enjoy, are the most fictionalized people in the novel, so my feelings about them didn’t really change. But I did start to understand how someone like Mitch Richards, basically a peon within the system but still overseeing several people, could put aside the glaring truth of a reactor going bad out of sheer desire for self-preservation. Everyone’s options are limited.
Still, that said, I enjoyed making Mitch an unlikable villain, and slightly stupid. Unfortunately, a lot of people in positions of power are just mind-blowingly stupid. It’s a truth of life, and may be far more dangerous than any nuclear reactor alone could be.
Liz Prato: Not really, because we still have such a lack of understanding about who really did it—much less why they did it. The only why I’ve ever been able to come up with is politics and war games, and I can’t be compassionate to that. I can only be compassionate to the people who’s souls are mangled by them. I’ve been watching the Frontline documentary “My Brother’s Bomber,” which follows a man’s multi-year journey to track down the men responsible for murdering his brother and the other people killed in Lockerbie by the bombing. When he showed close up pictures of the primary suspects, deep in the pockets of Kaddafi, I didn’t see human beings looking back at me. I saw cold eyes, cold souls.
How did writing about these events change you?
Ellen Sussman: My journey since my rape has been a long one. I thought most of the hard work was done. But writing this novel made me look at the aftermath of violence in a new way. I was so touched by the grace of the Balinese people and the way in which their belief system helped them to cope with tragedy. I don’t have that belief system. But understanding it and learning about their lives has given me a much greater sense of faith and a stronger belief in the power of community.
Patrick Hicks: I often get this question, and it’s a good one. After all, you can’t swim around in the dark waters of the Holocaust without it changing you in some way. I appreciate the beauty and temporality of life in a renewed way, and I’d like to think I’m more gentle with people than I used to be. Rather than worrying about the small things, I try to focus on the big things that make life worth living: family, community, peace. These were things the victims of the Holocaust once enjoyed and they probably took them for granted—it’s easy to do—and then something came along and smashed their lives apart. I’m more vigilant about the forces that would cause us pain and I’m aware that hatred can grow just as fast as love.
Andria Williams: I would say that writing about the SL-1 made me feel both that nuclear power is safer than I thought, and that it has more potential for damage than I imagined. The Fukushima accident happened as I was writing the novel, and what was notable about that (for me) was that the Fukushima reactor was the same kind as the SL-1: a boiling-water type reactor. It’s a design that goes back to the late 1950s. (This shows how much scientific innovation occurred during this time, that we are still using basically the same technology those early scientists developed in Idaho seventy years ago.) It was painful, while writing about the SL-1, to see people scrambling to control the reactor at Fukushima. Nuclear power is so clean and safe, you know, until it isn’t.
Writing the novel did not make me opposed to nuclear power. After all, my husband works on aircraft carriers, and the aircraft carrier is one of the most impressive and successful models of nuclear usage I can think of. But learning more about the SL-1, and trying to convey its importance to the public, made me reach a point where I think we should apply the Hippocratic “Do No Harm” ethos to our scientific innovations, as well. Should we ban nuclear power outright? No, I don’t think so. Coal, I believe, is far worse for our environment, and for its own workers, than nuclear power has ever been. But should we exhaust every possible alternative first, before nuclear or coal, in an ascending level of risk? Yes, I think so. We have other options. We are smart, even though we try to crush this intelligence at every turn in favor of whatever’s easier. We’ve had some good ideas since 1959. Let’s use them.
Liz Prato: Every time I learn about any kind of loss –whether it’s my own, or someone else’s—I’m completely awestruck that we survive. I’m also amazed by how mangled the popular narrative about grief and survival is. In reality, it doesn’t happen easily, quickly, or even completely. The reality is not so much about getting over or moving on from a loss, but about how it changes who we are, fundamentally. The real narrative is how we must make the decision to be that changed person in a changed world. That’s surviving.
Ellen Sussman is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This. She is the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. EllenSussman.com
Patrick Hicks is the author of nearly ten books, including The Collector of Names, Adoptable, This London, and the critically acclaimed, The Commandant of Lubizec. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, New Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, and many others. A winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Award, he is also the recipient grants from the Bush Artist Foundation, the South Dakota Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A dual-citizen of Ireland and America, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University as well as a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Liz Prato is the author of the new short story collection, Baby’s on Fire. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, Subtropics, and others. In 2012 she was a Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She teaches and presents at literary festivals across the country. LizPrato.com
Andria Williams attended UC-Berkeley (B.A. English) and the University of Minnesota (M.F.A. – Creative Writing). Her first novel, The Longest Night, is forthcoming in January 2016 (Random House). It’s received a starred review in Booklist and was listed as a “January Title to Watch” by Library Journal. The Longest Night is a fictionalized take on the US’s first and only nuclear reactor accident, which occurred Jan. 3rd, 1961 in Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Three practitioners of the brief lyric narrative share insights about keeping their work short AND fully realized. A lively discussion moderated by Ilyse Kusnetz will take place about how the panelist authors identify primarily with a single genre (fiction or poetry), yet also choose to write and edit short work that straddles forms. Panelists will explore how current publishing embraces not-so-easily-categorized pieces. The session concludes with attendees writing postcard stories.
Alright, fellow poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers (or combo of all three!), we’re going to treat this panel as if we’re sitting around a table, sharing our lively thoughts and reading our work to each other in short snippets.
Can you please tell me what you think constitutes “a brief lyric narrative” as we called it in our panel proposal? Some writers use the term “short-short” or state their work is prose poetry. Nowadays, the term “flash” is pretty flashy.
Sarah Freligh: I recently reviewed the new anthology Flash Fiction International for Brevity and found it interesting that aside from a few mentions of “fiction” in their Introduction, the editors refer to the selected pieces as “flash,” a reluctance on their part perhaps to corral these works into the small pen of a specific genre. The suggestion then is that “flash” transcends genre, that the best works are hybrids combining craft aspects of both prose and poetry, i.e. the narrative urge of prose with the lyric economy of poetry.
A prose poem, however, is not tied to conflict, time, and consequence the way a story is; the prose poem instead owes its allegiance to aspects of poetic craft, most especially sonic devices. While some prose poems ARE stories (I’m thinking here of Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”), most are not bound by the cause/effect of narrative and its insistence on conflict as both ignition and fuel.
Cate McGowan: A brief lyric narrative tells me a story with such lovely imagery and compressed metric language that I can divide it into lines and sell it as a poem. That’s when I know I have something.
Yes, Sarah! Note my short answer above versus your lovely explanation? I think both are relevant, but which answer do I prefer? Well, of course, yours. But note that many times I can’t take a poem and make it into a story. The way you describe poetry versus flash fiction captures the struggle I am currently having. Last week, I sent in two stories to a flash fiction journal. One was a poem on which I’d removed the line breaks. The other began its life as a story. Which one do you think was accepted? The story. Of course, I promptly changed the converted poem back to a “real” poem with line breaks and stanzas. The darn thing had no conflict, but aurally it has substance and the cause and effect to which you refer.
Sarah Freligh: Yes, an ear for the cadence and sound of language, definitely. Perhaps the shorter the piece, the more important language becomes?
Karen Craigo: I absolutely agree—with brevity, every morpheme or phoneme becomes essential. There is no room to mess around.
Please share a very short piece of your own. This might be a few paragraphs or a stanza (or a complete story or poem) that you think exemplifies a fully realized world or concept. It might be a work-in-progress or a published piece, whatever speaks to our theme of crossing genres in fewer words.
Karen Craigo:“Working the Retriever”
This machine we called the Retriever operated on belts. It was always moving, brought metal bins from the sub-basement, a giant room, though I never once saw it, but sent maintenance there ten times a night: a bin offline or upended, gumming up the works, patient charts scattered among the gears. I was a clerk then, six bucks an hour, good money for a summer gig that was mainly easy, if dull. When all went well, I stuck lab reports or X-rays in the record, one folder, one bin at a time. I was alone at my machine, plenty of downtime to view platelet counts or photos of kidney stones, or to note the penned-in tumor on the diagram of a breast. But sometimes, a crisis: a patient in the ER, unresponsive on the table, unspecified cause of morbidity. I had to act fast, find the chart with the allergy, the condition, the med that contradicts, and haste meant everything. Once or twice a doctor shadowed my chair, both of us rigid and listening to the old motor strain. But the Retriever kept its own time, and somewhere deep below it made a grab, haphazard, and lurched the data skyward. Finally, there on the conveyor, the bin, its fifty records, among them the one with the answer or with none, filed, one hoped, correctly, all the info laid out with care, anchored in place by a little piece of tape.
Sarah Freligh: “We Smoke” was the winner of the 2015 Sycamore Review Flash Contest, but it’s also included in my book of poetry. Like any story should, it introduces a conflict up front: the mysterious “we” (and we read on to learn their identities) are smoking in defiance of the nuns’ edict that they not do so. The act of smoking, too—I hope—becomes more significant when we learn that “we” are pregnant, unmarried young women and are carrying children that they will give up for adoption at birth. Smoking, then, is both defiant AND a denial as well as a way to cement their community. They smoke as a way to ignore Ruby the Waitress who in effect sides with the nuns that giving up their children is a good thing. They smoke in the bathroom at night at the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers, the only place where they take ownership of—however temporarily—the children they’re carrying. In the end, they smoke as a way to avoid the inevitable. So the repetend of “We smoke” provides unity in the manner of a prose poem, but also moves the narrative forward in a (I hope) story-like way, an arc if you will. “We Smoke”:
We smoke because the nuns say we shouldn’t—he-man Marlboros or Salems, slender and meadow fresh, over cups of thin coffee at the Bridge Diner. We fill an ashtray in an hour easy while Ruby the waitress marries ketchups and tells us horror stories about how her first labor went on for fifty-two hours until her boy was yanked out of her butt first and now she has this theory that kids who come out like that got their brains in their asses from Day One. She says we’re smart to give our babies away to some Barbie and Ken couple with a house and a yard with real grass and a swing set, and we nod like we agree with her and smoke some more.
Nights we huddle up under the bathroom window in the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers and blow smoke at the stained sky while we swap stories about our babies doing handstands on our bladders, playing volleyball with our hearts, how our sons will be presidents or astronauts, and our daughters will be beautiful and chaste, and because we know our babies are not ours at all, we talk about everything and nothing while we watch a moth bang up against the light and smoke some more.
Cate McGowan: Here’s a recent short piece: “Waiting for the Northbound Trolley”
Wearing silt-stained slacks and smelling like a Saturday of swabbing decks, I stand on the sidewalk sipping my Colt. I roll up my sleeves, hair on my arms prickling in the ocean breeze, and gaze at the asphalt pinkened by a neon marquee. Venus, blue and fecund, winks and flirts high on the horizon.
At 11:42, the trolley hisses to a stop, late as always, and Miss Emmie Travis hops off, carrying a knapsack bulging with sodas and romance novels; she shuffles by me, head down, slow to begin her weekend cleaning. She staggers toward the hotel, then disappears into the parking lot. And like a lonely bugle reveille, her arrival sends me bumbling back to the ABC to buy another 40 just so I can hear the cashier girl say, “Wait. Don’t you want your change?”
Does your piece include little lies or little truths? A combination? (Remember, that was our panel title!)
Karen Craigo: Mine is very truthful, actually, or tries to be. Maybe I’m overstating the heroism of the medical records clerk a little—my job was seldom truly vital, almost never life-or-death, and my dealings with doctors were infrequent, to say the least. Looking it over, though, I’m struck by the almost journalistic accuracy of the thing. This was a weird, hard-to-describe piece of equipment, but by damn, I did my best.
Sarah Freligh: I like how “The Retriever” becomes a realized character through action and description.
Both little lies and little truths. I’m not saying what’s what and where!
Cate McGowan: There is no truth here, except forbidden love has driven me to drink! Really, though, in my own life, I would reckon that longing is the most painful experience a person can have. It comes in many guises: longing for lost love; longing for dead or dying relatives, spouses; longing and regret for lost opportunities. The possibility that I could have been different, could have chosen a different path at every junction haunts me. So I guess that piece is indeed a little truth, a little lie. The speaker feels such love for Miss Emmie, and yet… yet… he/she is invisible to all but the cashier. I have been in that place, for sure.
Wow. I don’t care if Karen’s or Sarah’s pieces are truth or lies. They are beautiful. One thing I note was their repetends and phrases (and Sarah points hers out, too—thanks!). And I think someone who wants to write flash needs to know those are mighty weapons in the arsenal. Karen and Sarah do that and more.
And Karen, I don’t think you are overstating the heroism of the clerk. This heroism takes the guise of patience. More than anything you are showing us that everything matters, even the (note the proper noun) Retriever, whose godlike mechanized slow-motion reminds us of how life and the world continues to move one second at a time, no faster, no slower, no matter how much we want it to operate differently. And life ends in death. I felt like I was watching a methodical angel of death.
Sarah, what can I say? That first-person plural narrator is indeed rebellious in revealing its truths. But also, the anaphora is brilliant, relying on aural effects just as poetry does. But the repetition does something else, too. By repeating over and over that they smoke, they are just pregnant girls who are trying to justify their actions and loss, make sense of how they are stuck in this awful place. The more they tell me the reasons they smoke, the less I am inclined to believe their brazen flippancy.
Sarah Freligh: Yeah, that’s the arc I was hoping for, that with each repetition “We smoke” and the revelations that follow, the reader is closer to the “truth” of these girls, closer to understanding their motivation. So maybe that’s another aspect of flash fiction, that because these pieces are just that – pieces of a longer narrative — the narrative is filled in by the reader who, by seeing the larger picture, understands more than the character can. Or will.
Karen Craigo: Geesh, I’m with the right people! Love these pieces and your explanations of them. My own understanding of flash is expanding as we write this!
Can you explain how or why when you wrote this work that you felt the need to compress it?
Karen Craigo: This is actually part of a series of poems on the topic of work and money, and just as “The Retriever” refused to do its job faithfully in real life, it also refused to fall in place as a poem. In a practical sense, a prose piece breaks up the lineated poems nicely—but I don’t consider this a poem at all. I think it feels very much like a short essay. I will say that avoiding line breaks seemed like a concrete poetry move to me—this was a conveyor belt that was constantly moving (until it broke), and thus one line or one sentence dissolves into the next without any indication—just like that belt went by me for so many summer midnight shifts, the only thing in the room for me to look at.
Sarah Freligh: Work and money, so topical. And yet few poets seem to address this anymore, the gigantic elephant in the room that unites all of us, regardless to color, ethnicity, age or gender.
Would enjambed lines create a similar forward motion, conveyor belt sensation?
“We Smoke” started as a poem. There was a stanzaic arrangement and lineation that felt as if it was working against the voice of the speaker/narrator. The form essentially was throttling possibility. Once I freed it from the imposition of form, the voice began to move into the driver’s seat and a multitude of voices emerged. There’s the nuns who appear as hearsay, “say we shouldn’t” smoke. There’s Ruby the waitress with her own two-cents worth of indirect dialogue and there is the “we” and what they’re telling each other in the bathroom at night when they smoke. In the end, what they don’t say is loudest of all, lingering in the air like the smoke must have. That voice thing, I don’t think that would have happened if I’d been occupied with line breaks and sound rather than voice.
Cate McGowan: Well honestly, the more I write, the shorter and more dense my work has become. I find my published work, including most of the stories in my recently published collection, bloated. My instinct is to cut it all down to the bare minimum, to the essence of emotion. As Chekhov once wrote to Gorky, “[S]hun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.”
Mine started out as poem, and it’s been in my discard pile for years, but it has conflict or a complication, something a story needs, something we have all said here. “Waiting” is not nearly as finished as Sarah’s and Karen’s pieces, so who knows what will happen to it? I may expand it. Or I might revert it back to a poem.
Karen’s piece does feel concrete. Her use of phrase after phrase, those long sentences that make me breathless by the time I get to the end, the slow, methodical trail of words, really all mimic the Retriever. Wow, yes, I get that!
Sarah, it’s the voices that get me every time. They usually control my own work. My narrators and characters speak to me and keep me up at night.
Do you have any tips for those who are interested in trying this concentrating and combining in their work?
Karen Craigo: I don’t think you can choose just any topic for the brief lyric narrative form. So many topics call for details and development. A short piece needs to be contained, pretty much, in a small space, and thus the form invites one to present an image, more or less, instead of a conventional story. I do best when something in the story is mimicked by brief prose, like this one which is an unbroken chunk of text. It is suggestive of the ever-rolling conveyor belt, and of the dense information found in a charge.
Sarah Freligh: Start with a first line that contains a conflict and a bit of mystery. There’s your flame. Now throw some dry wood on your small fire, i.e., complications. Compress time (a year in five sentences, say) or expand time (a minute’s worth of “real time” told in 250 words).
Once you’ve got your structure, what seems to you like a story, go back and examine each word. Your nouns should be vivid and specific, rather than vague and general, while your verbs should convey to the reader both the “what” of the action as well as the “how.” Why say “Sarah walked slowly into work” when you could say “Sarah trudged into work.” We get the slow walk, but we also understand Sarah’s attitude toward work. “Trudge” sounds exactly like what it is. I trudged into work too many days to count.
Finally, read it out loud for the sound of individual words as well as your syntax. Does it speed up where it should slow down, punch where it should soothe? Words do that. Phrases and sentences do that. Listen.
Cate McGowan: Yes, I cut unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, endings, and beginnings—these are all methods I learned from my buddy, Chekhov. I really obsess over each word, making sure it needs to be in a piece. As a way to improve or manipulate meaning, I creatively employ stanza or paragraph breaks, interesting punctuation, and half-scenes.
Sarah Freligh: Yes, Chekhov—one of Raymond Carver’s “instructors” and Carver was, like Hemingway, a master at omission. I recently re-read “The Lady and the Dog” and was amazed at the ending, the protagonist’s epiphany and how redemptive it was, in only 18 pages of text. Yet not a fall note in the story. That’s concision.
Cate McGowan: What Sarah and Karen say! Wow, you ladies are amazing. I also love using in medias res—starting in the middle and ending there. I avoid too much exposition. Ambiguity is necessary for any work to intrigue a reader, but it shouldn’t obfuscate meaning; it should expand it.
Have you ever felt limited by your primary genre? Does writing a shorter piece free you to explore other forms? Is there value in this? Can you explain?
Karen Craigo: My primary genre is poetry, although I’m very invested in nonfiction, too. For me, poetry is a rather honest genre, but it includes more artifice than prose does, at least when I wield it. The essay lets me get personal—lets me get honest. When you see “me” in a poem, it’s poem-me. The “I” that inhabits my essays, though—well, that’s I—me. Karen. K-Dawg, as my students call me. I go to the prose form when I’m at my most raw and honest. I almost can’t believe the personal details I’ve revealed in my prose—things that would be suggested by symbol or metaphor within the bounds of a poem, but that are full-on confessions in prose. This is not a function of length for me (although I seem to be incapable of writing long essays—far too taxing, I think).
I was a journalist for about a decade in one of my earlier incarnations. Maybe I’m constitutionally unable to be less than truthful in prose.
Sarah Freligh: I think writing short-short fiction has made me a better poet. Writing poetry has made me a better writer of fiction, short and long. I think War and Peace could be 1,000-plus pages, but also three paragraphs (Try it. I dare you).
Cate McGowan: Yes, yes, yes! I am now considering eschewing fiction and pursuing poetry. In fact, I’ve applied to a few programs. I started in poetry and always thought I stunk. Now that I have had my adventure in fiction, I am brave. I can finally pursue my heart’s desire. Writing poetry to me is more difficult than fiction. It may not be as time consuming, as I revise, revise, revise everything. And revising two stanzas is a little more freeing than revising a twenty-page story. However, the problem with poetry is that the poet has to turn the combination lock just the right way. A few turns to the right, then hit the spot, a few turns to the left, then the sweet spot again. If a poet misses the mark, the lock will not open. I have to get it right from the start. That’s terrifying. But also, yes, rewarding if I do find the right formula.
In your experience, is the publishing industry open to this type of hybridization or the spanning of forms? Do you think it’s relevant to classify work as a specific type of genre or sub-genre? Or is it limiting? Can you provide examples of any experiences you’ve had publishing a short-short, crossover, or not-so-easily categorized work? Are there any publishing outlets you like that are taking chances with more experimental forms?
Karen Craigo: The publishing industry seems to like hybrid forms when it comes to short work. It can be a little trickier to publish a book of short prose, I think—no one is really asking to see those manuscripts, which may be even less marketable than poetry, if that’s possible.
If I can speak candidly beyond the publishing sphere, I could tell you about a major grant I won from a state arts council several years back. I was pushing up to the deadline, nothing was coming together, and then I remembered a friend who won a larger grant by submitting her fiction as nonfiction. (The state offered a major and a minor grant, $10,000 or $5,000, and she won the major grant.) Well, guess what? I took a bunch of poems, knocked out the line breaks in about ten minutes on Microsoft Word, put one to a page, and submitted the whole mess as creative nonfiction. Bang! Major award. Ten-thousand dollars for referring to de-lineated poems as essays. Very innovative, the judges said. It was nothing I hadn’t been doing for years, though, and consistently not winning anything with those pesky line breaks in place.
Sarah Freligh: I’ll pass on this one. I think those who are more published can answer this more succinctly.
Cate McGowan: No, the publishing industry wants what it wants. I have no clue what is acceptable any more. Readers should drive the market, but unfortunately, like everything else, the corporate heads make the decisions. The public is dumbed down as a result. Heck, change a setting and some names, and you have every mainstream novel out there. I tried to read Beckett the other day and could not believe how amazing it was. And I realized that few people would read him. Why use a fork and chew when someone spoon feeds you? There are indie publishers out there trying to get the public’s attention. Flash fiction has potential because, as everyone says, in this information age with the glut of images, ideas, and stories out there, we have to catch a reader’s attention quickly AND hold that attention. A 150-word story is better at capturing the average person’s gaze than maybe a Beckett novel. Though, I do love my Beckett!
I like the online flash fiction publishers and those that take chances. I’m thinking of the New Flash Fiction Review (disclaimer, I was just asked to edit for them). University publishers, such as mine, Moon City Press (Missouri State University), are looking for innovation. Thank goodness Moon City took a chance on me!
Sarah Freligh: The short prose form is immensely challenging for the reader, but if the writer is not experimenting for the sake of experimenting—“no tricks,” as Raymond Carver once said—then the short-short can contain the world of a novel with the gut punch of a poem. But so much is left to the silence and the white space, and that can be daunting for many readers who don’t pay close attention to the text. The short form commands attention, and sadly, reading attention has become fragmented and shortened.
For our grand finale, let’s do three things. First, provide a short prompt to help a writer produce a postcard story or poem. The final product should be no more than 75 words, let’s say. Then, and this is a dare, write your own responds to your prompt in thirty minutes or less. If you’re willing to get a little naked, include your rough draft here—try not to tweak it too much. Let’s keep these as close to first drafts as we can so that readers might see our own messy beginnings. Last, please comment a little about your process as you wrote and produced your postcard piece. (Please note that I am not the best at explaining my processes, and I’m not expecting a how-to). I think readers will be thrilled to read about our creation steps!
OPTION A: Sarah Freligh’s Prompt
I have a bunch of picture postcards featuring people doing people things. Postcards of Edward Hopper paintings (the people ones, not the landscapes) are good for this exercise as there’s a sense of mystery to them; we write to find out what that woman, wearing only her brown shoes, is doing sitting on a chair in front of an open window.
So the prompt is, draw a postcard from the pile, study it for a minute and then write a story in its entirety on the back of the card.
OPTION B: Generate your own prompt and write to it! Sky’s the limit!
Karen Craigo: I chose Option B, just because I don’t have a handy stack of postcards (although I love that prompt!). My thinking is this: short is good for the hard-to-say, like confessions or apologies or things you don’t dare to wish. Lyrical is good for hiding in plain sight—for obfuscating the life-truth while telling the absolute lyrical gospel. So here’s my prompt: Confess the worst thing in you, but restrict yourself to metaphor for the telling. (As an aside, I’d like to note that seventy-five words is only slightly more than no words.) “A Week Before Jack”
The toddler wants in the pumpkin, which he carries from room to room. Sometimes he’ll sit on the carpet, pull the stem, bite it, then turn to me and say, Open, Mom, open. But it’s not time to open the pumpkin. Give us eyes and we lose something—reason, will. We empty through the eyes, the mouth, the top of the head. It’s better this way, I tell him, but still he cries and pulls.
I have a habit of jumping the gun, not biding my time, and maybe I’ve passed it down in my genes. The pumpkin is my confession. This poem is dedicated to every soggy-centered cake I’ve ever eaten.
Sarah Freligh: I have a bunch of picture postcards featuring people doing people things. Postcards of Edward Hopper paintings (the people ones, not the landscapes) are good for this exercise as there’s a sense of mystery to them; we write to find out what that woman, wearing only her brown shoes, is doing sitting on a chair in front of an open window.
So the prompt is, draw a postcard from the pile, study it for a minute and then write a story in its entirety on the back of the card.
Here’s my attempt in 100 words, prompted by the picture postcard of a woman happily eating an ice cream cone: “Hot Out”
Aunt Fran sounded happier in Tucson than when she lived upstate. The sun was out often. AND NO SNOW! she wrote in loopy letters that cartwheeled across the page. The temperature was 98, but that was dry heat, no humidity.
Months went by and we didn’t hear anything. Then she wrote to say she was suffocating. God must be punishing her.
My father flew out and took care of it. All the burials and the questions: Had she been troubled? What kind of mother would drown her three kids?
The water was cold, my father said. It was hot out.
Cate McGowan: I went with Option A, Sarah Freligh’s prompt. I was inspired by the Edward Hopper painting, Automat. It took me about 15 minutes, not sure if it works, but here goes (funny, our titles are similar): “Look Out”
Pedestrians purled by in clumps. Over the snowy thoroughfare, the streetlights perched like long-necked shorebirds.
She worried. Yes, she’d given him the best blowjob he’d ever received. He’d said that. They sat in his car outside the mini-mart, and then she pushed him inside her.
“Need anything else?” The waitress dropped the check on the table and didn’t wait for an answer. Evie reached into her pocket, picked at the corner of his letter nestled in there; she knew what it said—no need to read it.
She slurped her tea, studied homeward bound commuters maelstromming outside on the sidewalk. She watched them the same way one might peer into a wildlife-filled aquarium.
I like this piece better now than the one I included in question 2, “Waiting on the Northbound Trolley.” As I said earlier, I like writing to a female/male tension and conflict (thank you, Anton!). OK, I went over a little, darn it. But isn’t writing flash about breaking some rules? Imagery is important to me, as is the richness of language, so I looked at the painting, and it is like the subject’s in a fishbowl, so I tried to use water descriptions or allusions. And Evie is the perfect name for a female, after all, Eve was the first female. In a later draft, I want to include that the woman is only wearing ONE glove, but that’s for a subsequent effort. I might play with the order of things here, too. It’s non-linear, but I like it!
Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.
Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Poetry Prize, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky, Her poems and short stories have appeared in many literary journals, including Sun Magazine, Sycamore Review, Rattle, Brevity, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a poetry grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006, and a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts in 1997.
Poet and journalist Ilyse Kusnetz (panel moderator) is the author of Small Hours (2014), winner of the T.S. Eliot prize from Truman State University Press and The Gravity of Falling (2006). She earned her MA in creative writing from Syracuse University and her PhD in contemporary feminist and post-colonial British literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Stone Canoe, Rattle, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Valencia College and is married to the poet Brian Turner.
Cate McGowan is the author of the story collection, True Places Never Are (Moon City Press, 2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. A Georgia native whose flash been anthologized in W. W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, she’s contributed fiction and poetry to many literary publications, including Glimmer Train, Crab Orchard Review, and the English fashion magazine, Tank. Cate’s been an editor for the Louisville Review and SFWP and an arts writer and essayist for national outlets. She’s currently the Senior Editor for New Flash Fiction Review. Named a top college professor on Rate My Professors.com, McGowan teaches writing in Florida.