Getting off the Fence and Building Passageways: A Conversation with Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay

Though Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay are authors who defy genre, there is a social consciousness that resonates in their respective works. Chadburn is both an activist and a writer; recently, American Public Media’s Marketplace featured an excerpt of her piece “i heart taxes,” originally published on The Rumpus, which explains what it means to value one’s community. Gay, co-editor of PANK Magazine, has a widely-followed blog (roxanegay.com) in which she candidly discusses her experiences as a writer and a witness to the world-at-large (her recent piece on The Rumpus, “A Place Where We are Everything” concerns Trayvon Martin). HER KIND talks to both authors about the various influences that have not only shaped them, but those they’ve resisted: change, control and the comma.

HER KIND: Ladies, welcome to the Conversation. Let’s begin with a quote to get the ball rolling. George Eliot once said, “Life is measured by the rapidity of change, the succession of influences that modify the being.” Has this proved true for you as a writer?

 

MELISSA CHADBURN: I think this proves truer for my characters than for me as a writer. As a writer I crave no outward change. I crave a room plugged into a pile of snow somewhere. I crave being chained to my desk. I heard or read that Aimee Bender actually ties her legs to her desk when she writes. Anyhow I crave captivity to get the words on the page. But with my characters I demand change. A surprise. A change of events. An inner change. Something to keep us all entertained.

But then again when we talk about influence this has held true for me. If I’m stuck. If I’m not writing and I’m in that place of stagnancy we all fear – which can happen a couple times throughout the week or even throughout the day. Then the solution usually lies in another novel. Another writer. A need for influence. It doesn’t have to be writers; it can be Ted talks or podcasts of the Moth or some other form of storytelling. Just the other day I got full of motivation from Notorious B.I.G. I mean a man that can rhyme “birthday” with “thirsty—” you gotta admire that.

Lastly a fear of craving change and being unable to set forth that change either because of a lack of power or influence or economic means or physical limitations is by far my greatest motivation. More specifically I had two jobs in Berkley in the late nineties. In the morning I was an attendant to a quadriplegic and in the afternoons I was a barista at a café. The quadriplegic was a woman named Toy. I got her ready for her day. I washed her body. I shaved her legs. Sometimes the clippers would bump up against her catheter and the small sensation she got caused her legs to spasm. She told me not to stop them. She liked it. It was the only movements she had. I emptied the bag that held her urine. I cleaned out her rectum. I parted her hair. I dressed her. I picked her up and put her in her wheelchair. We gossiped. I served her breakfast. And then I would leave. Or attempt to leave. But she always thought of something else. One more thing. She wanted me to stay. Eventually I left to my next job. I ran. If anyone asked me why I ran I said, “Because I can.” So this is what I mean when I say I write for my ancestors or the illiterate or the censored. This is what I mean when I say an incapacity to change inspires me.

ROXANE GAY: In looking at my writing, you can definitely see the shape and trajectory of my influences. There’s definitely a degree of measure there because as my influences have become more sophisticated, so has my writing (I hope). I am well beyond where I started as a writer, and I am better for it. I also see how broad my influences are.

I’d say my influences are more aptly described as sources of inspiration. I tend to find inspiration everywhere which may account for my omnivorous approach to writing. There are few things I am unwilling to try when it comes to the written word and that comes, in large part, because I am open to all kinds of influences. What I crave is no outward control. I don’t want to be labeled as this kind of writer or that kind of writer. I don’t want to be limited to only one genre. I want to write what I feel like writing, and I want to do the best I can.

I am quite different from Melissa in that I love changing (where I consider change growth) as a writer. I love the ways my writing moves forward because no matter how my work evolves, there’s always a core voice that remains steady regardless of what inspires me in a given place and time.

What changes in my writing is how I present my voice or how I reflect how I’ve been influenced.

MC: Oh yeah I agree. I mean I agree with me too but I think I was talking about exterior change, I dig interior change. I am in a constant state of revision. If I look back at my earlier writing I can definitely see growth since then. I have a very dicey competitive edge but it’s with myself in the past that I’m competing with.

Yet still I have had many teachers and friends tell me that if they were walking down Olympic and Hauser Blvd. and came across a piece of paper with my writing on it they would know it was mine. I think I have a distinct voice, (one that apparently lacks commas). My colleagues jokes that I suffer from comma blindness, like some folks are color blind— I’m comma blind. This is a change that I look forward to absorbing. Another change is structure. I’m geeking out on structure lately in a way that I think is indicative of positive growth and maturity in my writing. I am more aware of the skeleton of my stories and novels than I was even two short years ago.

I also am influenced most by whomever I read last and experienced a little writer’s growth spurt when I learned how to read like a writer as opposed to just casually reading for kicks. Reading became much more sniperish. I would get in take what I needed and get out. I have blocked out chunks of time to read with an agenda. Is that gross? Is it gross to have an agenda?

I think it’s kind of kismet that this discussion is taking place between Roxane and I because actually I’m very much still on the emerging side of my career. Roxane’s PANK Magazine was the first place where someone I didn’t know published me and I was over the moon. I was ecstatic. I printed out the letter of acceptance and thumb tacked it to my wall of hope and greatness and joy. In addition to this little secret delight that I think will always color my perception of you, Roxane, is that you’re witty and opinionated and write commentary with a breadth that actually has the capacity to shift people’s consciousness. When you do this do you write with an agenda– is it intentional?

RG: It brings me such pleasure (and pride) to know PANK was one of your first publications because I love your writing so much. It feels like such a fine confluence of events to have found your work in the submission queue and now here we are talking about influences.

I too tend to think of myself as having an emerging career. I’ve been writing for a long time, and also publishing for a fair amount of time, but my work being taken seriously is a recent phenomenon. I still very much see myself as being located closer to the beginning of my career than closer to a more established place. I think that’s why I approach things so relentlessly.

The older I get, the more I try to be intentional. My twenties were a wasteland for me, and nothing I did had very much intention behind it. There were plenty of reasons for this, most of them perfectly reasonable, but when I turned thirty, I started to change and hopefully become a better person and one of the ways I’ve tried to become better is through intent. Whether I am living my life, teaching, reading, editing, or writing, I do it from a place of giving a damn. Yes, I do give a damn and I am increasingly comfortable admitting that. This notion that having an agenda or having intention is a bad thing drives me crazy. Is having an agenda gross? Absolutely not, unless of course, the agenda sucks.

When I write, most of the time, I am experiencing some kind of intense emotion about something. If I have an agenda, whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, it is to move people, to make people feel and react. In the past two years or so that I’ve taken up essay writing more seriously, I’d also say I am writing to make people open their eyes more carefully to some of the important issues facing our culture. I never used to be the kind of person who wanted to take a stand on anything but the way the world has shifted as of late has compelled me to finally get off the fence. I may not always be right, but I am always coming from a passionate, honest, human, and admittedly flawed place. Ultimately that’s how I would characterize my agenda–trying to create change and emotional reaction in deeply felt, relatable ways. I hope that sometimes I succeed at this.

How would you characterize your voice? When you write, do you have an agenda? What is that agenda? How do you read with an agenda?

MC: I hope that my voice is gritty and soul punching in some way. I like musical voices like that, grimy, dusty, whisky drenched, tobacco-induced voices. Voices that are affected yet loving. Yes I have an agenda when I write. I’m very deliberate when I write. I try to consider the unintended consequences. I’m mostly aware of this when I write essays. I consider the audience. I consider the frame. Overall my intention is often as wild as shifting public consciousness. I also just want to make sure that no one gets hurt.

I got so many amazing emails and comments in response to an essay I wrote, but my favorites were emails that reflected that people looked at taxes differently. That was important to me. Because words really are the most powerful tool and it’s so fucking beautiful and amazing to see them at work in favor of justice.
I read with an agenda when I turn on my critical mind. I read with an agenda when I purchase a book of essays or poems or stories or a novel by artists that contribute to their communities with this shared interest.

Recently Brad Listi at The Nervous Breakdown interviewed Lauren Groff on his Other People Podcast. When she spoke about Ayn Rand she mentioned that her issue with her was that she said “the novel is the most powerful instrument that we have to be able peer into other people’s heart what she does is she takes this powerful tool and she uses it as weapon it would be as if I were to hand you a pencil for a purpose not to draw or to write but to poke someone else’s eye out. She closes down the human heart.” So when I read with an agenda I look for words that are heart opening and shut down those works that are heart closing. I also hope that in my own writing. I’m not a builder of barriers but of passageways.

I have a saying: Go to where the love is. I hope I continue to build a place where the love is. I hope that when I’m in pain I reach for places where there is love. It used to be a practice to be in pain and reach to where there was more pain. That’s a yucky bad old habit that I want to stop. It’s a present I wish I could have given my 8-year-old self or my 10-year-old self or my teen-year-old self or my twenty-year-old self.

HER KIND: Has a particular place or space been a lasting influence in either of your work? Do you think the idea or physical reality of space is different for women rather than men?

MC: Los Angeles, more particularly Palms, more particularly Westminster Blvd. off of Sawtelle and Palms. Los Angeles is all over my work because it’s where I live and I love reading about apartment living on the West Coast. Also since I grew up in foster care I think I’ll be obsessed with writing about this group home experience until I’m done. I mean I think my first book will be a Los Angeles group home novel and then I’ll have gotten it out of my system and I’ll be happy to move on to other things. I get more obsessed with a theme than a space. But I think everyone has a moment in their life that separates everything that occurred before that moment and everything that occurred after that moment. Personally I have several of those moments, but currently the most defining occurrence in my life was when I was placed into foster care.

Well, [space as different for women and me] is an overgeneralization but I am geographically fucked. I have a very poor sense of space and distance. I’m clumsy. I have no motor skills. I didn’t learn how to drive until I was 26. If I go out with others I am almost always the passenger never the driver. Video games are not my thing. For this reason my relationship to space is very slow but astute. I can describe a room the people in it with a high level of patience and acuity. But is this gender based? I don’t think so. My girlfriend drives anything with wheels. We have a Harley Sportser and Ducati in the garage. She grew up around a lot of wide-open spaces with dirt. She likes everything that goes vroom. I’m tense. I don’t like anything that goes fast or is too high off the ground. I think that I run primarily on fear and worry. I always have ready-access to imagining my demise. This makes my internal life rich and dense but my external life pretty bland. So typically I think men’s physical reality of space is more akin to that of the hunter while women’s experience is more of that of the hunted, but there are exceptions all around.

For some strange reason this question brings to mind an image of a woman walking at night in heels. Unfortunately this is the lens in which I view the world, What if I’m being hunted right now? What would I do?

RG: I have moved a lot in my lifetime, by virtue of my father’s job as a child and by virtue of a number of different things as an adult. Every place I’ve ever been has been an influence of some kind in my work. Because I was rarely in one place for long I always knew I’d have to keep some piece of every place with me. I am also fascinated by how place shapes people, and how everywhere I’ve lived people are as different as they are the same. I am also influenced by Haiti, the country of my parents because it is such an intriguing place. I’m always struck by the contradictions: the beauty and the brutality and how both of those things have shaped the Haitian people. Place and how it shapes people is increasingly one of my writerly obsessions

I would suspect that the realities of everything are different for women and men though certainly not as different as various rhetorics about gender difference would have us believe. How people experience space seems to differ based on the individual more than on one’s gender. I know that when I am in a given space, I am generally considering how I can be least conspicuous in that space, how I can hide, because I am, despite popular belief, still very shy. I don’t like to draw attention to myself though I can fake sociability very well at this point in my life. I like to know that there’s some kind of safe hiding place in a given room. I also look for exits. I need to know how to escape from a room or space at all times. I never want to be trapped in a place, ever. This interests me because Melissa notes that the lens through which she views the world is: “What if I am being hunted right now? What would I do?” I cannot say I disagree.

Melissa, I love what you say about building a place where the love is. I hope that’s one of the things I am doing in my writing, or at the very least I hope I am building a place where compassion can thrive. We don’t have enough of that in the world.

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Melissa Chadburn is a lover and a fighter, a union rep, a social arsonist, a writer, a lesbian, of color, smart, edgy and fun. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Guernica, PANK Magazine, WordRiot, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, SLAKE, Northville Review, The Rumpus, and she is a regular contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. She interns at dzanc books and runs social media for SLAKE: Los Angeles. Reach her at fictiongrrrl(at) gmail.com or follow her on twitter http://twitter.com/#!/melissachadburn She loves your whole outfit right now.

Roxane Gay lives and writes in the Midwest.

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Getting off the Fence and Building Passageways: A Conversation with Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay