Blood Rites

by Meredith Doench

May 2008: There’s nothing like a near death experience to defibrillate the desire for life. I always imagined I’d take the news of my impending death with a brave, stoic grace.  Instead tsunamis of panic drowned me whole.

Diagnosis: A pebble-sized blood clot lodged deep inside the back of my left knee.

Prognosis:  Death within 24 hours without emergency surgery.

Cause: Factor V Leiden, an inherited disorder that makes my blood far too thick and overly prone to clot.

Treatment: Surgeons implanted a steel umbrella-like filter within my Vena Cava, the human’s largest vein—a wide river that flows life through the body’s core.  Life-long reliance on blood thinners, weekly testing, and further surgery probable.

Long-term implications: I’m hemmed inside a radius travelled by automobile and airplane, along with a medication regimen that tethers me to an oncologist as my new overseer.

Bedbound, I waited for my body to break up and clear away the remnants of the clot. I imagined chunks of hardened-black bullets launching through my veins— bullets that would’ve killed me only hours before if it weren’t for my new siphon of an umbrella.  And I thought an awful lot about Louise from Jeanette Winterson’s novel Written on the Body.

In graduate school I’d gotten drunk on Winterson’s sensuous language and pined over the unnamed narrator’s heartbreaking tragedy of love lost. However, I never considered the novel from Louise’s point of view, the narrator’s lover who’s diagnosed with leukemia. Elgin, a cancer specialist and Louise’s soon-to-be-ex, bargains with the narrator to save the woman whom they both love. The battle lines are drawn; negotiations falter. Elgin offers to provide exceptional medical care for Louise with one giant catch: the narrator must disappear from Louise’s life. For good.

Long-term illness strikes in much the same way as civil war; it annihilates the fulcrum rendering immobility before you realize what’s happened. I struggled with the strong sense that both Louise and I had been betrayed, that our own bodies had suddenly turned against us:

“The inside of [our] body is innocent, nothing has taught it fear.  [Our] artery canals trust their cargo, they don’t check the shipments in the blood.  [We] are full to overflowing but the keeper is asleep and there’s murder going on inside” (Winterson 115).

Blood: our very source of life had now turned the equivalent of death. By the time I exited emergency surgery and Louise received her diagnosis, someone else had developed our treatment plans: almighty specialists who’d refuse to consider alternative methods of healing. As a result, Louise and I catapulted head-first into the masculine West’s standards of medical treatment.

.

March 2010: Mindless morning television chatter eased the anxiety of illness heavy within the air.  Most everyone in the oncologist’s waiting room wore a ball cap, a sock hat, or a scarf to keep hairless heads warm.  I studied my puffy knees and rehearsed what I’d say: I’ve come for answers.  I cannot stand to be sick any longer.  My pocket bulged with a sandwich baggie full of lost hair. Guilt consumed me—how dare I complain when I had enough on my head to hide the loss?  Who was I to demand answers when nearly every chair held someone fighting a deadly cancer?

Before every weekly appointment I prayed that the head nurse had retired.  No such luck— the same dead-ringer for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched led me to an examination room where she pricked my finger for a blood count.

All those practiced words came out in a jumbled mess.  “It’s the meds.”  I handed Nurse Ratched my bag of knotted mouse-brown hair.  “My skin’s so red.  Bumpy.  The slightest touch hurts.”

She examined me over half-lenses, her line-thin lips pursed in irritation.  She reminded me of a prison warden who could drop the guillotine without a flinch.

“It’s not the meds,” she stated matter-of-factly.  “Blood thinners don’t cause hair to fall out.”

“Hair loss is listed as a side effect.”

She challenged me with her icy stare.  “Where did you see that?”

“On the manufacturer’s website.”

She tossed her head back with a hard HA!  It flew out at me like a launched pebble.  “The Internet’s full of rubbish.” She collected her measuring instruments and left with the crisp thud of the door.

I’d become The Problem Patient.  I imagined my chart read like a flared warning littered with exclamation marks:

Asks too many questions! 

Anxious over-thinker! 

Looks stuff up on the Internet and believes it!!!

The oncologist entered with a cautious smile on his face and a limp handshake. “You must take the medicine,” he declared with his hands on his hips. “You have a life-long condition that will be medicated the same way you’d treat a condition like diabetes.”

We’d been through this discussion so many times. I asked if there was any other way.  He insisted there wasn’t. I asked what will happen if I stopped the meds. He claimed I would get another clot and could die. On that day, though, I was armed with new information.

“I’ve done some research.” I ignored his slight groan. “Some blood thinners are derived from rat poison.”

The doctor shrugged my words away and closed my chart. “You know the risks. Continue with the meds.”

.

I stood at my bathroom sink. The mirror reflected someone I didn’t recognize. Bloated and egg-shell white. Dark circles of worry under my eyes.  I was in desperate need of a good night’s rest and the warmth of the summer sun on my winterized skin.

I shook the medicine bottle and let the pills tumble over each other inside the plastic. Quick, before I could change my mind, I dumped the tiny orange pills that look like flattened tic-tacs into the toilet. Bubbles floated up to the water’s surface. With each flush of that toilet, I resolved to take full responsibility for my illness. With that responsibility I shouldered the right to choose how to treat my condition.

Similarly, Louise declines her cancer-specialist’s help. Soon she goes on the lam—something I fantasized at length about from the confines of my bed. Grounded, I wondered what Paris must smell like in spring or how fresh February snow in the mountains around Boulder must taste. I craved the freedom to find out.

Winterson’s narrator returns for Louise after the realization that she/he carries “only the weight of wrong-doing. I had failed Louise and it was too late. What right had I to decide how she should live? What right had I to decide how she should die?” (157). Like Louise, I was determined to take life on my own terms even if that meant death due to lack of treatment.

.

May 2010: Maria was as alternative as I would allow myself. The compact woman nearly half my size and twice my age instructed me to lie down on her massage table fully clothed.

Her hands traveled over the quadrants of my body, hovering inches above me in a form of Reiki. Nervous, my stomach rolled over itself. If someone had told me then that Maria would become part of my blood-healing ritual, I would’ve found it absurd.

“Blood is our life force.” Maria leaned close to examine the look of my eyes. “Yours is thick and sticky.”

I’d stopped the blood thinners and replaced them with the natural remedies that Nurse Ratched had scoffed at. Then I fired the oncologist. Ever so slowly, I limped towards some resemblance of health.

I jumped when Maria’s hands wrapped around my left calf, the spot where the clot had been. Her hands slid over my leg, gentle and warm. She closed her eyes and held her hands on what I call My Surly Stranger. Since the clot, my lower left leg had lost much of its feeling and continued to swell with areas of discoloration. Remnants of thrombosis lingered with damage of the vein.

My gaze fell on Maria’s bindi, the bloodred dot over her third eye. In the quiet I heard both of our breaths and even though her lips weren’t moving, I detected a slight hum. Soon that hum became louder. With each vibration of the sound, I felt the weight of my left leg, the connection it had to my hips, and the oceanic sound of my breath that reached all the way from the crown of my head down to my toes.

What exactly I looked for from this woman, a stranger, I couldn’t name. Did I really believe that a person could heal another through mere touch? That the movement of energy could release the body from a serious illness?  The only answer I felt certain of was the way that Maria made me feel:  wholly and unequivocally loved.  Through Maria’s whispered prayers and hand movements, I experienced something profoundly feminine, a mysterious strength shrouded in softness.  Compassion, a necessary ingredient that my medical treatment had thus far lacked, flowed from her and transcended all boundaries of body.

Maria moved to my side and her fingertips kneaded around my right hip. She pushed against the hipbone with her open palms, rocking me gently side to side. Deep within, something shifted. Panic spiked at the strange sensation and I sat up.

“Strong mind,” Maria quieted me. “Shhhhh—feel your body. It knows exactly what it needs to heal.” With her guided breath, the soothing movement lulled me into a state of tranquility. Little by little a cavern opened up, a deep well I never knew existed within the bowl of my right hip. An overwhelming sadness spilled out of the newfound opening that bit my eyes with tears.

“Trust yourself,” Maria said. “Your intuition’s a mighty force.”

Silence surrounded us once again, an utter stillness that seeped deep into the core of me.

“Listen,” Maria whispered. “Do you hear it?”

I did. I heard the thrush of my own blood whistling through brachiated veins, shooting through arteries at break-neck speed. I heard its constant thrum, the life-rush of the river inside that carried little red donuts of oxygen to every millimeter of my body. Fresh blood washed away any remnants of a war, cleansing those battlefields so everything could begin to work once again in balance.

While Winterson never tells us the fate of Louise in Written on the Body, I like to believe she’s found this same sort of love and compassion within the novel’s narrator.  In the hands of her lover, I hope Louise feels the electric paddles jolt her desire for life.  And with her illness in remission, I bet Louise says exactly what I still do today:

My blood. My body. My choice.

.

Works Cited

Kesey, Ken.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  New York: Viking, 1962.  Print.

Winterson, Jeanette.  Written on the Body: a Novel.  New York: Knopf, 1993.  Print.

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Blood Rites

Lady in the House Questions: Kate Durbin

What has been your ultimate journey? 

Creativity is such a primal force; it is the force that powers all of life in the universe and beyond. It is not only the infinite force that lives inside a single cell in the human body, but also the force that causes civilizations.

As artists I believe we are always channeling this force to create— this idea is not new. Although channeling makes it sound as if the force comes through us, I actually think it’s our heartbeat. I think as a species, and as a culture, we are very cut off from our own hearts— that is, our own power source and potential. When I say we, I really do mean we— I include myself.

My ultimate journey is to fully access my own heartbeat in order to create in the most primal, powerful way possible. I am still very cut-off from myself, very fearful and insecure. It’s hard not to be, when you are a woman in this culture. And yet I am tired of blaming culture too— it’s starting to feel like a cop-out. I think we are interconnected in ways we cannot even possibly imagine right now. I think the more we are accountable to ourselves and to each other, the better, the more power.

Every time I start a new creative project, it is without a map, and my emphasis on things like innovation (Gaga Stigmata), changing mediums (my performance projects like Prices Upon Request or films such as Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay), exploring dark terrains (The Ravenous Audience), new technologies (Gaga Stigmata, my tumblr project Women as Objects, my iPad living text poetry book with Amaranth Borsuk, Abra), popular culture (Gaga Stigmata, E Entertainment, Women as Objects, Fashionwhore, Bad Disney Princesses), and collaboration all stem from my desire to excavate the layers of culture, to see down into the primal force within even the most supposedly shallow of things, a force that holds everyone and everything and all cultures, a force with the power to heal and make beyond my wildest dreams. And then to push forward, to make the world.

 

Where do you start? Where do you end?

I am infinite. You are infinite. Have you looked down into yourself lately?

 

Do you worry about the politics of classification? How do you classify yourself? 

I worry that our cultural desire to classify is what turns us into monsters that must defy classification. The art and culture work that has always seemed not only most interesting, but also most vital and necessary to me— the work that will save us as a species— is work that intentionally shifts categories. That’s why I was so drawn to Lady Gaga, her pop cultural performance art on that grand scale that no one could wrap their minds around, this self-and-culture critiquing and reforming, meta pop star.

It’s hard for work like this to gain traction if all we want is something familiar. By gaining traction I mean it’s hard for people to really “see” what is before them, just like Jesus said they have eyes but see not. We see what we want to see, what fits into our already-made-up minds, and then we complain about it. I now see this happening again with tumblr. My friend Ben Fama (editor of the press Wonder and the now defunct Supermachine) was telling me the other day that he met the people who run tumblr and that they have no idea what’s really going on, this incredible culture shift and lightning-quick techno-aesthetic movement— all spearheaded by teenagers— that is happening on tumblr. They’re just these corporate people running it. And these teenagers have taken it and make something so incredible and vulnerable and so culturally-shifting and honest and dangerous and violent and funny and beautiful. Stuff that’s shifting culture at large, fucking with branding and the previously untouchable annals of high fashion. And I worry that people are missing that, because they cannot categorize it. A lot of my art stems from nothing more than a sort of pop cultural, reverse-archeology, intended to draw attention to the uncategorizable. Not in order to categorize it, but in order to encourage more free play. That’s why I have to do it in a creative way, not with the distance of a critic–otherwise I’m just slotting it in its genre. Also, I want to play, too!

If I must categorize Kate Durbin, I will call her alien, mermaid, unicorn, bad princess.

 

When do you leave the wall intact, when do you knock it down? 

The greatest wall is always within.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Kate Durbin

On Creepy Girls, the New Gothic and Appropriated Feminist Fantasies: A Conversation with Aimee Parkison and Janet Mitchell

HER KIND: Ladies, Welcome to the Conversation. Poet and novelist May Sarton once said: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” Are you concerned with the ideas of the self, the soul and/or authenticity in your writing?

 

 

AIMEE PARKISON: The idea of the “soul” and “authenticity” in any kind of creative work gets to the heart of what an artist does. As a writer, sensitivity is so important – sensitivity to the self and others. For me, authenticity comes from sensitivity, but that’s what makes art and life dangerous – you have to feel everything so deeply to create something meaningful, powerful, authentic. And that’s where the danger comes in – a psychological and “psychic” danger in that higher level of sensitivity, which leads to vulnerability, and can sometimes be deeply painful, crushing the soul, therefore threatening authenticity as the soul will try to protect itself from harm once the sensitivity becomes too great. That’s where the creative risk comes in.  It’s the same risk as with extreme intimacy. To be an artist – a creative writer – one has to be open and to remain open so that the pleasure and pain of others influences the work. That’s what it means to “create” a character, a mood, a voice, or a story that sings lyrically and universally with pleasure, pain, joy, depression, sensuality or fear – any real and deeply felt emotion that moves from the page to the reader’s heart and mind.

 

JANET MITCHELL: Well said, Aimee. Authenticity comes down to telling the truth.  We may not like the truth of our hearts — the wounds, the passions, the hatreds, etc.  — but our hearts must be honored, must be put down. We as artists can do little else. Writing is an act of courage, of danger.

 

 

AP:  Absolutely, Janet! I couldn’t agree more. It takes courage to write the truth.  Sometimes the truth has to be mined, uncovered, searched, sought for— language can lead to a hidden truth, as in poetic or surrealist moments, when language uncovers a truth we didn’t know we knew. Sometimes, writing a realistic story about risky subject matter leads to telling the truth in a courageous manner because our characters can say things that we are not encouraged or allowed to say, at least publically. Or, when writing stories, sometimes our characters will tell us a truth we need to know, something we once knew and have somehow forgotten, a new necessary truth to unlock meaning in our lives. Sometimes “the truth” is something that society has convinced us to repress or abandon, as when the truth isn’t “politically correct.” Authenticity can cut through the lies of political correctness to uncover a truth that’s waiting to be spoken.

 

JM: All this talk about “truth” has made me think about how I am a natural born liar. Do you consider yourself one, Aimee? I always find it interesting when someone I know wants to know if a particular story in The Creepy Girl has actually happened.  Actually happened in what way? Yes, it actually happened as I was writing it. I experienced it happening, and the story cost me.  But no, it didn’t happen in my daily life. Have you been asked that as well?

 

AP: Have I been asked if something that happened in my stories happened to me in “real” life? Many times! It’s interesting the dichotomy that’s being established here — the “real” life verses the “fake” life of the writer, as if the reader doesn’t have that exact same boundary to negotiate in reading a good book, where the “real” life and the “fake” life become one in the mind. If more people understood that reading can be an act of total imaginary immersion in the story and its characters, then people wouldn’t be so consumed with understanding the role of the writer, which is similar to the role of the reader.

Readers do have a tendency to confuse the writer with the character when a story seems authentic. If a female writer writes well about rape, she knows readers will assume she was raped. If she writes authentically about abuse, readers will assume she was abused. If she writes about sex, readers will assume she is displaying private moments from her own sex life. It’s like stripping naked in public or having sex on stage or being raped in front of an audience to get into a victim’s character and point of view, especially at fiction readings when performing certain works. And, sadly, society judges women so much more harshly than men when it comes to sexual confessions and “damage” to the body, mind, and reputation. In some ways, to explore certain subject matter in writing is to know your reader will view you in a dangerous light, but only if the reader feels the work is authentic.

But am I a natural-born liar? I’m a natural-born something, but I don’t know the name for it. I wish I were a natural liar, but I’m a moody person, so tone of voice and facial expressions give me away in person. I betray myself in the flesh. Life would be much easier if I had more control over my emotions and less of a compunction to tell the truth in relationships, which gets me into trouble. I even feel I have to tell the truth in email, which is usually a huge mistake!

But in stories, screenplays, or poems— well, that’s another matter. Lying on paper, when constructing imaginary worlds and people, comes naturally. I think in images, and images are what make a scene come alive.  A well-chosen image is what makes the reader believe any lie, no matter how great, and that’s where the art comes into play, making a “lie” even more authentic than “the truth.” Is this a conundrum? Or, is it a fiction writer’s paradox? Or, does it mean that all writers are hypocrites somehow? How deeply ironic is it that we’re talking about authenticity when our job as a fiction writer is basically to lie and to lie all the time, and to lie as well as possible to make the reader suspend disbelief, to make even a lie seem authentic, and somehow “truer” than the truth? What does it say about humanity that our greatest narratives have to lie to express contemporary society’s truth as theme, message, or metaphor? And, when we lie well enough, why do readers want to believe the fictional lie is somehow the writer’s autobiographical truth—that metaphor is the new reality for the writer, the artist of authenticity?

So much of my fiction is about personal damage.  That’s why it scares me a little to know that when readers feel I’ve written about damage in an authentic way, those readers might assume that I’m a damaged person.  And, maybe in some ways I am a damaged person to be drawn to the stories I create and the characters I write about . . . I don’t know. I’ve had several readers approach me privately to ask about stories from my books, Woman with Dark Horses or The Innocent Party, and those readers want to know if what happened to the people in my stories really happened to me, or why I really wrote a particular story.  It’s flattering because the question suggests a level of authenticity, but also disturbing because many of my stories are about exploring the dark side of society, sex, love, and family— including rape, murder, suicide, or abuse.

Janet, you’ve explored some rather risky subject matter in The Creepy Girl— looking at the secret realties of growing up female, and identity’s link to sexuality in growing up, I can imagine it must be disturbing when a reader asks if a story is “true,” or if it “really” happened to you. How do you answer such a question when the story is about a family falling apart, or a young girl’s allowing herself to be objectified by men as a reaction against her father?  Your stories stand out to me as amazingly brave, vivid, stylish, and “risky” because of these very issues with the reader’s possible reaction to your own brand of feminist authenticity.

Do you see your fiction as feminist, Janet? Do you feel like readers see you as your characters as the result of the authenticity of the stories? And, are you all right with being confused with “the creepy girl” to those who know you best as a fiction writer? Isn’t that what makes writing about “risky” subject matter so brave, not just the dark places a writer has to visit in the mind in a mad, method-actor masochistic manner –but that in some ways you write knowing you’ll be forever thought of as your character, if the character resonates enough to dwell within the reader’s mind?

 

JM:  All this talk about “truth” has made me think about lying.  I consider myself a natural-born liar. I mean, this in regards to my being an artist.  (And when I’ve lied in my every day life, it usually has been to my mother and my father. Ah, the family romance.) I’ve told stories since I was very young. (I remember my mother being so delighted that she had a writer, and I still have much of what she kept from those years.) And when I read Ray Bradbury, I fell in love with his words and his worlds. He was so important to me because I have always been told that I have “a wild imagination.” I never quite understood how that was different from “an imagination,” because my imagination such as it is, is simply me.

I always find it interesting when someone I know wants to know if a particular story in The Creepy Girl has actually happened. Yes, it actually happened as I was writing it. I experienced it happening, and the story cost me. But no, it didn’t happen in my daily life. At least not in that way.  And this is funny: what I just told you is “actually true” and yet it feels less authentic, somehow less “true” than any fiction I have written. Why? Probably because it doesn’t come from some unearthed place inside of me, some passion, some wound, some joy, some…

It just is, and being just is has never been what makes me heart glow. (Well, other than for my son.)  I have always preferred my thoughts, my “wild imagination” – as my mother, my teachers called my imagination – my busted-up heart, to what was happening in the real world.  I never understood people’s fascination with news, televised or in print, even when I was working so hard at doing so.  And I never understood why my imagination was “wild” when to me it was just my imagination. A given thing. So I am not a hypocrite when I write my fiction since it comes from the most Janet parts of me, and those parts, as long as I am honoring them sentence by sentence, are true.  Even if they are lies.

However, I am a hypocrite when I write my television and movie scripts because I am stringing together lies to make an authentic truth.  I am thinking about making the viewer suspend disbelief.  I fret about it, and yet it is so much fun.

Now, as to what it says about our humanity that our greatest narratives have to lie to express contemporary society’s truth as theme, message, or metaphor, I do not know straightaway.

I can understand why someone would want to know if your stories have actually happened— how could a reader not? Your writing is as frank, honest, and non-flinching as it gets, and yet there is all that beauty as well – I would think that their asking has to do with what they have experienced while reading you rather than their thinking of you as damaged. I can see how a reader may simultaneously be blown away and yet wanting to make his or her messy feelings be less messy by being able to say “oh, but that happened to her.  I understand.” Or I can see how another reader might ask you because he has experienced some dark side of society, and he wants to know if you are a kindred soul. Have you ever asked the person why he or she thought the story is autobiographical? I never have because I am always so taken aback by the question that I say some quick answer and turn to get out of wherever I am as fast as I can. I find the question embarrassing.  I don’t know why.

I feel as though I am going to disappoint you here: I do not see my fiction as feminist.  I see my work as what I needed to write at the time it was written. We all have only so much time to get down our hearts, to carve them into the stone, and I do not to waste what time I have left.

I see myself as a writer.  An artist.  I think of when I read Sammy Davis Jr.’s Yes, I Can, and how he wrote about not being seen as a “black performer,” but just as a “performer.” I have to say that I look forward to when we can see artists that way, without gender, without color, without any label that makes them even more other than they already are.

I am not all right with being confused with “the creepy girl” because I am not that girl.  Well, I am to Holly Brickley, a wonderful writer that was in my thesis workshop at Columbia.  One afternoon, as she was talking about my stories, she was pulling up the skin on her foreman and saying how my stories just stayed underneath there.  “It’s creepy,” she said.  Then: “Hey, you’re the creepy girl.” She laughed. That’s how the collection got its title.  Thank you, Holly.

Now, Aimee, I’m going to ask you something very general.  I want to know why you write.  Have the reasons changed from when you wrote Women with Dark Horses to The Innocent Party?  What are you trying to get down on the page?  An authenticity?   Or something else?   Also, what have been your major influences?  Any particular place?  Any particular writers?  I also would like to know about anything else you would care to share regarding my favorite story from The Innocent Party: “Dummy.”  One favor: please discuss the sensitive and sensual relationship breathing at this story’s center.  Perhaps you could talk a bit about how you created this seemingly “real” relationship.

 

AP:  Janet, my story “Dummy” revolves around the sensitive and sensual relationship between two lesbian lovers – the narrator and her partner.  The narrator’s lesbian lover committed suicide in the apartment where the narrator still lives.  After her lover’s death, the narrator suffers as a survivor, enduring PTSD.  Her post-traumatic stress goes hand-in-hand with survivor guilt. Initially both women planned to commit suicide together by jumping out the window of their high apartment, but the narrator hesitated at the last minute and her lover died without her.

“Dummy” was a complex story, as it evolved and emerged slowly over the course of several years with many drafts.  In the beginning, I only had “the voice.” With each new revision, the voice led me to the “truth” of what happened in the relationship among the two women who lived together as partners enduring erotic connection, society’s judgment, depression, sensuality, love, and suicidal despair.  Of course, the story began “in the middle of the action” after one lover had already killed herself and the other was left behind.  That’s when the “love story” evolved as a “ghost story” – a narrative of “deathless love” – a love that transcends death to break the boundaries of dichotomies, so that the socially acceptable categories no longer count – male/female, dark/light, living/dead . . . all are one, the same.

In my writing and reading, I’m drawn to the “new gothic” – psychological tales of deathless love and doubling where the lover becomes the beloved, the self becomes the other.  That’s the nature of true sensuality and authentic erotica and romance for me – the idea that sex literally breaks down the boundaries between the self and the other, the possessed and the possessor, the male and the female, the dominate and the submissive, so that the two literally become one and gender and “terror” of “the other” no longer matter in what I like to think of as a sort of “sublime intimacy” that makes for a new kind of story about relationships, human connection, gender, sexuality, and identity.

That’s as real as I know how to get at this point – that kind of unflinching intimate transgression of the self and the other, which mirrors the authenticity of crossing the boundary between reader and writer, the character and person, the reality and fiction, the real life and the fake life becoming one in the act of reading an authentic narrative.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes that the “fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act.”

Perhaps this explains why I find inspiration behind my eyelids before falling asleep. I lose a lot of insight upon waking. My mind reveals strange and beautiful things before I lose consciousness.  Who knows what this means?  In that moment when the unconscious mind takes over to let the conscious mind rest, images like paintings of people and places appear in flashes. Some of the flashes linger and start to stick to each other, connecting to make stories, dreams. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget them upon waking.

I write from two minds: the unconscious mind that finds surrealist truth in illogical images in the midst of disconnection; and the conscious mind that longs for control and wants to make everything logical, creating meaning, even when there is none.

Years ago, I began imagining a lonely woman who has an affair with the ghost of her lesbian lover, who committed suicide. “Dummy” is the only “ghost story” I’ve written so far, yet it’s shaped by reality and the conventions of contemporary literary fiction.  In writing this “ghost story,” I learned something about life.  I was able to answer questions I had been asking for a long time – Why do people commit suicide, and what happens to those left behind? I’ve known people who have committed suicide – some of them in my own family – and these are the questions that remain.

This is what my stories are about – not the “damage” of living but what damage makes possible in the lives of survivors.  It changes our lives so that everything we see is suddenly altered. The more I learn from my characters, the more something odd starts to happen.  The guilty suddenly appear innocent, and the innocent appear somehow guilty.  This is probably why I became a fiction writer – to gain some sort of control over everything that’s raging out of control.  I’m a storyteller, attempting to communicate with the heart as well as with the mind.

So Janet . . . Speaking of sensuality, narrative, and literary “authenticity” – what do you think of Shades of Gray trilogy?  “Everyone” is still talking about the popular erotic series. I was blown away several months ago when at a grocery store checkout I saw a popular news magazine cover with the headline about the “secret feminist fantasy” that was revealed in Shades of Gray.  The article’s argument was that Shades of Gray somehow defines the secret, politically incorrect but very real contemporary “feminist/post-feminist” erotic fantasy of male dominance and female submission. I went right out afterwards and ordered the series on my Kindle, and was shocked by how un-erotic, unsexy, banal, unimaginative, and immature the contemporary “feminist fantasy” really was.

How could Shades of Gray be a “feminist” fantasy?  I was even further shocked to hear the current rhetoric defining the work as “Mommy Porn.” I find this new term quite sexist and dismissive of female sexuality – defining it as immature and outdated, as well as exceptionally conservative.  (On a personal note: I’m not a “mother,” but even I find this term “Mommy Porn” offensive for many, many reasons for what it suggests about the sexuality, desires, and fantasy life of mature women in general.  It’s even worse that the now outdated term “chick lit.”  It seems that we’re going backward instead of forward in defining literature for and about women.) Is Shades of Gray what mature women readers really want?  Is this what mothers secretly long for? If so, why?

Is this the “authentic” feminist fantasy: mature women 30-50+ years old secretly fantasize about being 21-year old virgins seduced by young, billionaire CEO’s who will literally bind them in ropes and chains and control them completely through the “art” of seduction with extreme wealth and a big cock, which apparently means a self-imposed sexual slavery for the “lucky” chosen woman? Is the popular heroine the one who must save her rich and powerful man by fucking him better than any other lover ever knew how – the female protagonist who will become the heroine of the story by receiving the big cock in any number of clichéd submissive ways?  She is the vessel of the big cock – the one chosen to receive it in all its masculine “glory.” (Gag.)  Is this the fantasy — the new contemporary fairytale for today’s woman? Really?

This is what scares me about the evidence of “authenticity” as marketability in the contemporary literary world defined by a capitalistic society’s idea of success.  How does one define it?  Is it in number of copies sold?  If so, Shades of Gray is truly an “authentic” contemporary female/feminist fantasy because so many people are reading and buying it, and it’s made so much money and waves by being “marketable” in our capitalist society. But is it art? If so, where does that leave you, me, and the other serious women artists, scholars, professionals, mothers, and writers I know – the ones who don’t secretly long to be oppressed and dominated by powerful men? We dream of completeness, equality, artistic freedom, and the freedom of ideas where sexuality is more subtle, complex, and “messy” than the way traditional gender roles are defined by a misogynistic society.  Where is our “popular” and “authentic story?

 

JM:  I find it interesting that “Dummy” haunted you for several years before you got it down.  Perhaps that is why the story seems to breathe on the page. The story is so sensual, so authentic that I would think readers would wonder if you are a lesbian.   Why do you think there is an assumption that a straight woman cannot write about loving another woman in a truthful way?  Why can’t a straight woman admire, even revel in another woman, her body, her beauty, her mind, her soul?  Well, I guess we can, but then we are considered “on the edge.” Why?  Why aren’t we just human?

I have only read Fifty Shades of Grey, but wasn’t sufficiently engaged to continue.  I wasn’t even sufficiently engaged to ask anyone who has read them all to tell me how the story ends.  (And will I see the movie? No, not even if Robert Redford was magically young again and cast as Grey.)

Why this book is being called “a feminist fantasy,” and worse yet, “Mommy Porn,” is beyond me. And I agree with your take on this new term. It’s deeply offensive for the reasons you have stated and for being dismissive of what women choose to read and to write. I’d like to know who coined that term.  (And on my personal note, I am a mother, but perhaps not their “target mommy.” Rather than being highly aroused when I read the sex scenes, I was deflated and bored.  Nothing was left to my imagination, and I’m sorry if this sounds smug, but my imagination is better than what was on the page. If a book has been marketed as the surefire way to get me off isn’t doing that, then there is a fundamental breakdown of the writer/reader relationship. I have spoken with other mothers and grandmothers—a small sampling, yes—and yet they had the same reaction: nope, not even a little.  If other women have been aroused, then I’m happy for them. Far be it to block another woman’s orgasm.

Fifty Shades of Grey is commerce.  How can it truly be considered anything else when the author has licensed rights for a clothing line? I am waiting for the store to open on Times Square. Right next to M&Ms World. But Literature? No. Unless I am throwing away the canon and those writers who I wish were in and are not yet. Art? No. I am not inspired.

Even before I read about the author’s connection to the Twilight Series, I was struck by how similar was to Fifty Shades of Grey. (I did read the Twilight series, and saw the first movie. I preferred the book; the film failed to bring anything new.)  But Twilight makes a better read.  Although I never fully entered the narrative and forget that I was reading, I could understand and believe the love story. It made emotional sense. Not so with Fifty Shades of Grey. It never made sense, emotional or otherwise, that our educated, intelligent heroine—who doesn’t know she’s beautiful because her best friend is more beautiful—I know that’s what makes Anastasia beautiful, right?  Her not knowing—thanks, One Direction—allows herself to be stalked, controlled, and sexually abused?  I know— she cannot help herself. Because she loves him. Because he has been scarred, literally and figuratively. Because she must save him. Because he is after all the most interesting character in the book. (What does that say?  That our heroine is dull, passive, afraid to speak to her family and friends.) Because all she wants is what all women really want: to be thrown onto the pool table—well, against the elevator wall here—and screwed.  Oh, and to be taken care of financially.  Yawn.  Are we really still here?

It seems we are, Aimee, and that saddens me. I do hate to rain on anyone’s parade.  The author has achieved financial freedom and worldwide fame. Good for her. I have never felt diminished by someone else’s success.

Yet Disney Pixar has given children new takes on what it means to be a princess in Tangled and Brave. So there is a chance that the next generation will actually move on. Still what does it say that movies aimed at children are more feminist than a New York Times bestseller? Maybe that the book-buying “mommies” want to read what is familiar, easy and thus comfortable, and yet wrapped in a brown paper bag so that they can feel they are being “risky” and “wild.”  Young again.  Perhaps it is their form of a mid-life crisis.

I must believe that there is a way for you and I to write a commercial book.  How will we find that way? Through the same means by which we write our short fiction. We will engage our hearts, our minds, our imagination, and strip away the most accessible layers to get at what must be said and what truly lasts.

 

AIMEE PARKISON, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has received a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship, a Writers at Work Fellowship, and a Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize.  Her story collection, The Innocent Party, was published by BOA Editions’ American Reader Series in 2012.  Parkison writes and publishes fiction and poetry.  She has an MFA from Cornell University.  Her story collection, Woman with Dark Horses, won the first annual Starcherone Fiction Prize.  Parkison’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in or is forthcoming from Hayden’s Ferry Review, So to Speak, Nimrod, The Literary Review, Feminist Studies, Mississippi Review, North American Review, Quarterly West, Cimarron Review, Santa Monica Review, Other Voices, Crab Orchard Review, Fiction International, Seattle Review, and Denver Quarterly.  She is currently working on a novel.

JANET MITCHELL received her BA from Dartmouth, where she was awarded many honors, including Highest Distinction in English for her creative writing thesis. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she was the Bingham Scholarship recipient.  Her work has appeared in such literary magazines as Gargoyle Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Quarterly and has been optioned by Lifetime Television as well as by independent producers. She earned her MFA in Film Production from the University of Southern California where she won the John Huston Award for Best Director and a Paramount Pictures Fellowship. Her award-winning short film How Does Anyone Get Old?, starring Mark Ruffalo and Mina Badie, was featured on IFC’s “Inside the Indies” and on NBC’s “Starwatch.” Her educational video “Behind Closed Doors” won a Cine Golden Eagle and is currently shown in over 250 schools and domestic violence centers nationwide. Photo Credit: Lisa Bevis.

 

On Creepy Girls, the New Gothic and Appropriated Feminist Fantasies: A Conversation with Aimee Parkison and Janet Mitchell

A Multigenerational Campaign for Women’s Rights: Nehal El-Hadi in Conversation with Farrah Khan

In December 2007, Toronto teenager Aqsa Parvez was murdered by her father and brother. The media coverage of the case was intense, throwing a harsh spotlight on the Muslim South Asian community in Canada. The voices missing belonged to young Muslim and South Asian women: the same groups whose rights and personhood were being defended publicly by organizations and institutions claiming to speak on these young women’s behalf.

In response, a group of Muslim women founded AQSAzine to create a space for their voices deliberately left out of mainstream conversations. One of the co-founders of AQSAzine was Farrah Khan, whom was named one of Toronto’s “People to Watch.” She works as a counselor/advocate at a violence against women agency in Toronto, supporting women who have experienced violence. As a grassroots activist, she has been involved with a number of community groups including the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the South Asian Legal Clinic.

Currently, Farrah is working on two publications that seem quite different, but have the same aim at their core: creating more avenues for girls and young women to express themselves and have their voices heard in the ongoing conversations about violence against women in racialized communities. The first publication, Heartbeats: The Izzat Project, is a series of short stories in comic book format; the second publication is an academic text focusing on “honor”/shame-related violence in South Asian communities.

I recently interviewed Farrah, and she explained the origins and ambitions of both projects, the processes in creating both, and her own position with regards to the narratives expressed in the mainstream.

 

Nehal El-Hadi: Can you describe how Heartbeats: the Izzat Project came about?

Farrah Khan: In Canada, there were high-profile murders of young women of color, specifically South Asian women. There was a lot of media attention and politicians interested in talking about these young women’s bodies and these murders in very specific ways. We formed a group called the Pomegranate Tree Group with a number of people – lawyers, community workers, researchers, professors, academics – who were interested in issues around racialised communities and gender-based violence.

In this project, young South Asian women explore the power of storytelling, illustration and theatre with counselors, expressive arts therapists and illustrator Somya Singh to create their own stories. I just wrote the second part to the project, which is about ways to support yourself and others when facing violence. It will be illustrated by Selena Wong.

Izzat means honor in many languages, and oftentimes it can feel like you’re told that the honor of your household is within your body. And that’s a large thing to carry as a young woman. So what impact does that have? How do we experience that as young women? As racialized women? One participant’s story is about holding an invisible water pot all the time on her head to carry that family honor – any time that she does something that steps outside family codes of conduct, then she tips it and hurts her whole family.

NE: How do you envision Heartbeats expanding?

FK: There are a couple of things that are happening. We’re creating a script from the stories that we hope to use when we do a book tour in the New Year, 2013.

Also, it’s been a really amazing journey to conceptualize this as a multigenerational project: I think if we’re going to talk about family violence, how do we talk about it in a way that engages the community? We have an open letter to our community in the book; it’s with the intention and hope of opening up that dialogue and having conversations that are difficult for both young people and for parents and grandparents and peers. This project is going to grow as it moves with us.

NEH: Along with Amina Jamal, an Associate Professor of Sociology, and Mandeep Kaur Mucina, a PhD candidate in Adult Education and Community Development, you recently put out a call for critical research on “honor/shame” related violence in Canada. The call for submissions asked for work that explored the following questions: “How can we begin discussing the complexities of violence in South Asian and other racialized communities? What are some ways to do this without reinscribing colonialist assumptions that violence lives in racialized cultures? Indeed how do we talk about violence within and with our communities outside of the parameters of dominant discourse? How do we demand accountability for gendered violence within our communities without serving the interests of institutional racism, economic exploitation, Islamophobia and hetero-national imperialism?” Can you describe the stimulus behind this project?

FK: That project came about after many conversations with people that I know that are working in the field of violence against women. Violence against women services don’t get a lot of money in Canada, yet when high-profile murders happen of these young women there’s a call for change. We really wanted to create an opportunity for people who are doing work on this, specifically academics, community members, and frontline workers.

When I look for literature that’s specifically on counseling or about prevention, a lot of it is saying the same thing. Or the literature is not recognizing the long histories of violence prevention work being done. Women have been fighting against violence globally in lots of different ways – how do we harness that and look at those interventions?

A lot of the interventions have been focused on a very binary system, where it’s the perpetrator that is the problem, and the victim needs to be separated from that, not recognizing that sometimes it can be multiple people involved in violence, and that’s not just within South Asian communities.

There isn’t a nuanced conversation happening around when young women are murdered, and what can be done. The conversation is very much focused on the specific racialized communities where these women are from. And [related to that, that the] immigration border should close down, that we should not be allowing “these people” to come into “this country.” A lot of the outcome of these murders has been really focused on vilifying a community and feeding into certain narratives around who belongs in Canada and who doesn’t and immigration policies and practices.

NEH: What happens after you receive the abstract submissions?

FK: What we’re hoping is by February or March, we’ll be able to get some funding so that we can bring together all the people that are chosen to be in the book, and actually people will present their draft papers and workshop them together as a group. It’s my first time editing a book, so that’s really exciting – I’ve done AQSAzine before, but this is a different piece.

I am really interested in participatory democracy, especially Ella Baker’s approach of rather than having one person as the leader of a movement, building people’s capacities so that we can all lead movements. I’m interested in how to share skills, knowledge and space. And this might be an opportunity to collaborate, too.

NEH: How do you see the relationship between this research-driven project and the visual storytelling approach used inHeartbeats: the Izzat Project?

FK: They’re both speaking to concepts of honor: I feel that the first book is speaking to young women’s experiences and stories, and I feel like that grounds the second book. I really believe that survivors’ voices have to be centered in any decisions made – there are lots of different ways of doing this work, but the survivor stories have to be central. I want to have those conversations, and I want to have them in an academic setting, but I know those conversations need to be in other places too.

As a survivor too – not only as a survivor, but someone who works in the field – I think it is important how these conversations happen. There’s more to it that’s happening right now and we need to re-frame it for our own selves.

NEH: And after these projects, what’s next for you?

FK: I’m working on a third short digital stop-motion film about reconciliation in the winter (Farrah’s two earlier films, Walying and Cab Ride have been screened in Toronto, New York and the United Kingdom), hopefully to be completed by February.

I’m also working towards my certificate in Expressive Arts therapy.  And I just found out that a theatre group I am a part of – the Beekeepers – received a grant from ArtReach Toronto to write and stage our short play about young Muslim women!

 

A Multigenerational Campaign for Women’s Rights: Nehal El-Hadi in Conversation with Farrah Khan

The Universe as Catchall: A Conversation with Jade Sylvan and Samantha Milowsky

HER KIND: Samantha and Jade, it’s great to have you have here on HER KIND. You both have curated salons for artistic communities, which brings to mind a quote from poet and novelist May Sarton: “We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” Do you worry about the ideas of the self, the soul and/or authenticity in your writing?

 

Jade Sylvan: Samantha and I were just talking about nichification in art. Because of the availability of information on the internet, the masses have seen through a lot of the smoke and mirrors of marketing culture, which is always trying to get you to want to be something you’re not, because that’s what makes you buy stuff. In reaction, semi-aware consumers have become obsessed with this notion of “authenticity.” But then marketing culture took that idea and turned it into nichification. Everything shouts at you, “You’re not you enough! We have personalized water bottles and baby pink iPhone skins and Dr. Who aprons to help you express your unique youness!” But the thing is, you can’t help but be you. Most of our anxiety and depression comes from this almost universal feeling of isolation and loneliness. We’re all so unique we feel like no one can understand us.

The problem with nichification lies when we start to confuse outward markers of uniqueness with authenticity. This sort of happened in the 2000s, when literature got so nichey that unless you were a deaf Ethiopian bisexual narcoleptic writing about your deaf Ethiopian bisexual narcolepticness, no one would take you seriously. Part of this trend was a reaction against the idea of the universal human voice, which for hundreds of years in Anglo lit was the domain of the suddenly unfashionable Straight White Male. However, by focusing on the facts of the particulars rather than the honesty of the human experience of relating to the particulars, the message then becomes, “Your experience is not as valid as the experience of this deaf Ethiopian bisexual narcoleptic.” If that’s the message that comes across, that’s ineffective art.

What we’re really doing when we present our particulars is modeling our relationship to our particulars, and that’s where the universal comes in. We all have the experience of being in a place, missing certain people, meeting other people, wanting something we can’t have, wanting something we can work for, feeling inadequate, and feeling alone.

When you really get down to it, any structure, be it a novel, a poem, a song, a screenplay, or an essay, is just a frame for the writer to present her worldview. If the author has a strong voice, a lot of people will relate to how she thinks and expresses herself, or simply to her situation or actions. At the core, though, what readers are really looking for is connection–a recognition of something elemental in the writer that they identify with. The most essential theme of any piece of writing–really any piece of art–is “you are not alone,” but we can’t just write that over and over because that’s not entertaining, and we tune out. Also our society is very visual. We don’t trust commands and can’t be told things; we have to see them for ourselves. That’s what they’re always trying to teach you in intro creative writing. As a writer, I can’t tell you you’re not alone, but I can show you how I’m like you, and you’ll see.

I recently saw Steve Almond speak on the topic of bad poetry. He said that the mistake a lot of writers make is confusing what’s factually true with honesty. The truth that’s beauty that Keats was talking about isn’t factual information, though getting your facts straight helps the strength of the piece. This truth is looking at situations the way they really are, and not writing from your ego. In this country especially, we think of our selves (or “souls”) as our egos, our personalities. That’s not who we are at all. Our experience includes having an ego, but it is not the ego. The best writing looks at the human experience, nichiness, personality, and ego included, from the widest lens possible, and presents it openly so we can all laugh together at our mutual exasperation.

 

Samantha Milowsky: I can relate to the loss of traditional culture more than loss of soul in regard to questioning one’s own authenticity and questioning authenticity in general. Though I can see how the emphasis would be placed on soul because religious and spiritual views of soul are part of the cultural loss. Culture was formerly shaped by the particular landscape, climate, resources, and communities making their own homes, clothes, and food. Religion and world view were primarily shaped by those. Now, the evolution of culture is largely a neat thievery and fusion of the remains of cultural fragments, under the constant homogenization of whatever corporations decide to produce and we decide to buy. We all have the same mono-culture corn, apples, pasteurized milk, and seasonal trends in fashion, language, technology, etc. We have a real challenge discovering authenticity in this environment, and, going back to Jade’s point on nichification and marketing to loneliness, most of it is constantly shifting around us to encourage the constant pursuit of being liked and relevant.

And, aren’t we so hard on each other at times? Armed with varying degrees of discernment and knowledge, calling out each others authenticity, implying we are the best judges and gatekeepers of it? Not black enough? Or, feminist enough? Or, too feminist? Or worse, accusations of exploitation and faking it. In generations past, you were a part of that society or another society. You wove baskets a certain way, and your music had a certain sound, like generations before. Now we are all individuals left to our own devices, discovering authenticity from the void within ourselves and whatever is going on around us at the time. It is a shakier, fickle affair, and it’s a huge transition. Some people do exploit what’s considered authentic at the moment, or they’re sincerely unaware of making a misstep in their growth (which is fine way to learn), but overall, I think a lot of the arguments and accusations seem to be projections of this undercurrent of loss and our own fumbling around, grasping in the dark.

In my experience, I grew up constantly moving, without knowledge of extended family and ancestors, living on Hamburger Helper and TV dinners, emotionally and mentally developed by TV and the staid sausage factory of school. I feel no strong sense of culture, so I’ve had to discover what authenticity means to me. That’s why I’m attracted to the arts and have largely adopted artists as my extended family. Here we are together in reaction to all this, placing the up-most importance on making things ourselves again, and the making becomes our reason for being together as mimics and seekers of authenticity, culture, and community.

I don’t know if we will become more aware and gentle towards each other in accepting that we are like lost children in all this. However, left to our own devices, we have greater freedom than ever create and innovate, and to discover our potential and happiness, so it’s also an exciting time in our history, even if what’s considered authentic is more subjective and uppity than ever. Again, circling back to one of Jade’s points, the best we can do is be true to ourselves in this environment. For me, the practice of meditation, and the natural course of getting older, have helped me be more aware of what’s important to me and helps me shake-off the opinions of others, at the same time appreciating when some part of an accusation has a kernel of truth.

 

JS: That’s a great point, Samantha, about how we challenge one another on our authenticity. What a ridiculous act. I can’t think of any reason someone would do this unless they felt somehow inauthentic themselves. Women, especially, are scrutinized over their authenticity. I think a lot of that has to do with the misogynistic stereotype that women are manipulative.

I don’t want to get too caught up on the word “soul.” There are a lot of emotions, preconceived ideas, and defensive reactions in the U.S. around anything considered religious or spiritual. The problem is, everyone has a different idea of what the word “soul” means. So at the same time that this word brings up all these emotions and anger, everyone’s actually arguing over a different word.

Authenticity is equally as personal. That’s the point, right? It’s something that’s different for everyone. Hell, it’s often different from day to day, or moment to moment, but we’re still supposed to be it all the time. How are we supposed to always know how to be something if it’s constantly changing? Awareness, I guess, but you’re still going to get it wrong a whole bunch. General forgiveness around the idea of being wrong would help, too.

The thing is, being wrong, realizing you’re wrong, and accepting you’re wrong is the only way to learn. In school, however, you’re taught the opposite–that being wrong means you’re stupid. No one wants to be stupid, so no one wants to be wrong. But when new scientific truths constantly disprove old scientific truths, politicians, priests, and doctors are exposed as corrupt, and lovers lie to us, how are we supposed to know, really know that we’re right about anything? All we can do is look inward to our self, our “soul,” for authenticity. But authenticity isn’t a thing like a gem that you can unearth, dust off, and keep on a chain around your neck. It’s fluid, amorphous, and relative to a myriad of situational factors.

I think of all those Tyler Durden sound bite lines from Fight Club: “You are not the car you drive. You are not your fucking khakis.” You can only define authenticity by defining what it’s not. You go searching and searching, and when you finally find it, it’s an empty space. Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to call out others as inauthentic? If we can figure out what it’s not, maybe we can figure out what it is.

 

SM: Given the range of choices we have and talents we harbor, another useful phenomena is the idea Joseph Campbell promoted of the Universe opening doors for us and helping us when we are doing what we’re meant to do. People can attribute this phenomena to a number of things they believe: other people, god, luck, the position of stars or furniture, our own innate awesomeness; the Universe is a catchall.

I used to play guitar and write songs. It was my creative focus for 8 years from the time I was 15. My practice never went beyond the living room, even though I tried out for a few bands. I developed tinnitus which bothered me enough that I began to search for another creative outlet. I found poetry, and in a relatively short time, I was published by 2River View in 1999, and received a Pushcart nomination. I look at how this has evolved today in starting the literary journal Amethyst Arsenic, and our venture in hosting salons together. If poets, artists, and musicians I respect didn’t think I was credible and doing good work, they wouldn’t contribute and participate. Because they have, I’ve been informed and encouraged by this community that I’m putting my energy into the right things. It’s an alignment between the inner and outer. What I’m doing right now feels satisfying and authentic, and like a perpetual explorer, I’m interested in where these efforts will evolve. It’s also a feedback loop because I have created things to express my support and encouragement of others.

Working with you, Jade, these past few months, I know you juggle a lot of interests, talents, and demands, and this dynamic creates a flux that you seem to navigate with outward calm, dedication, and focus. Where do you feel you are right now in your terms of your own authenticity and various pursuits? Also, how does your internal motivation and creative expression navigate current cultural trends, especially the much parodied and ridiculed hipster culture? Is there a sense of playing with that? And what about hipster culture in general? Is some part of it artistically sincere and authentic and some of it more trend following, regardless if it’s all lumped together? I appreciate the stylistic flare, DIY goods, and direct sales & bartering economy that have evolved alongside the current cultural trends. Do you speculate where we might go from here?

 

JS: I’ve felt more honest over the past year than I have since I was eighteen, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve never been happier with my work. A friend of mine who’s also a literary agent said something years ago that struck me. She said we’re the most who we are, belief-wise, when we’re about seventeen, but as we age, we trade that authenticity for grown-up concessions to security; we suddenly have to justify staying in a marriage or taking a job we hate or whatever. Last year I started revisiting some of the authors who first made me want to be a writer as a teenager. Kurt Vonnegut. Sylvia Plath. Allen Ginsberg. Sometime in my early twenties I’d started to dismiss these authors, saying, fashionably, that I’d “outgrown” them. But when I reread them as an adult I connected with them just as strongly as I had in high school, but on different levels. It also helped me re-clarify what I wanted to do with my art. The spirit I wanted to relate was the same, I just had a better toolbox to get it across at twenty-eight than I did at eighteen.

I think all modern American artists are secretly terrified that they’re Hipsters. We’re both hyper-media savvy and hyper-documented. We’re all trying to navigate the space between image and identity.

I joke that I’m a Professional Hipster partially because I’m self-conscious about all the schmoozey art events I’ve suddenly found myself involved with, but also because it catches people off-guard. You never hear anyone call himself or herself a Hipster. Hipsters always say they’re not Hipsters, and in fact usually claim to hate Hipsters. That’s because the word Hipster carries the connotation of inauthenticity. The line is, “I’m not a Hipster. I’ve had a fixed-gear bike since 1989.” When people call other people Hipsters, what they mean is “That person is a less authentic version of what I believe I authentically am.” Again, we point out others’ inauthenticities so we don’t have to think too hard about our own.

There is no way for an artist to create without taking inspiration and influence from other artists, but there’s a difference between emulation and imitation. Emulation is being inspired by the work or style of someone, and using their energy and/or ideas as a vehicle for self-expression. Imitation is mimicking someone you recognize as successful hoping the success (more than the art) will transfer to you. That’s what people mean when they use the word Hipster derogatorily. A Hipster is more concerned with appearing successful than creating anything of value. For this person, art becomes an excuse for ego and fashion, and fashion is the antithesis of authenticity.

 

Samantha Milowsky is the founder and managing editor of Amethyst Arsenic. She has led poetry groups, workshops, and the Small Press Fair for MassPoetry, as well as sponsored The National Poetry Slam, MassLEAP, and creative projects for musicians, poets, and artists. She is currently on the Advisory Board for the Cambridge Writers Workshop and works as a technology consultant.

Jade Sylvan comes from a family of vaudeville performers, scientists, professors, and drunks. She’s the author of The Spark Singer and has had work published or forthcoming in Bayou, Pank, basaltWord RiotDecompAmethyst Arsenic, and others. She’s also toured extensively throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe performing her work. This one time Kurt Vonnegut told her she was “a knockout.” She’s turning 30 this year, and feels pretty okay about it.

 

 

The Universe as Catchall: A Conversation with Jade Sylvan and Samantha Milowsky

A Guest of This Country: A Conversation With Writer Siobhan Fallon and Poet Shara Lessley

HER KIND: Thank you Shara and Siobhan for joining the Conversation—it’s great to have your voices here. In thinking about your experiences as Westerners in the Middle East, does this statement from Georgia O’Keeffe, “. . .there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore,” resonate with you as writers?

 

 

Shara Lessley: As far as I’m concerned, the imagination is a muscle the writer flexes regardless of his or her sex. While I recognize O’Keeffe’s impulse, it’s her inclination toward the absolute I resist; that is, the notion that there’s “something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.” That pesky qualification is problematic—as a poet, am I limited to certain subjects because I’m a woman? Are there experiences only male writers can investigate, study, or explore? I certainly hope not . . .

The tradition of writing across gender-related perspectives is long: thus, the many persona poems by Ai, including those in the voices of the Kennedy brothers, Elvis Presley, and a boy who’s murdered his family; thus, work by Emily Dickinson who so beautifully subverts gender roles, or blends and synthesizes them. Adrienne Rich and Patricia Smith both explore male perspectives in various poems. Once they’ve read it, who can forget the haunting testimony of Frank Bidart’s anorexic speaker “Ellen West”? In “Mushrooms,” Plath not only transcends boundaries of gender, but of humanity as well by eerily fleshing out the voices of fungi that “Overnight, very / Whitely, discreetly, / Very quietly … / Take hold on the loam, / Acquire the air.”

Almost every writer friend of mine relies on some degree of research. For example, I feel well-equipped to write a poem or essay about giving birth in the Middle East, since my son was born in Amman, Jordan, last September. However, part of exploring my own experience of labor and delivery in print would require the further investigation of details relating to Middle Eastern hospitals, practices, medical treatment of both ex-pat and Jordanian women throughout the Kingdom, etc. It seems to me that a male author of poetry or fiction with sufficient imaginative power could write the same subject from a woman’s point of view so long as he thoroughly sought out the particulars, conducted interviews, or studied testimonials. Fact-finding is one way to explore a subject. First-hand experience also helps.

What do you think, Siobhan? Could you have written the female characters that populate your short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone without having lived at Fort Hood? Or, to more pointedly echo O’Keeffe, do you think there is something essential about the identities or experiences of military wives that only a woman author can explore?

 

Siobhan Fallon: I think that it was perhaps easier for me to write from the point of view of a military spouse living at Fort Hood in the way it is easier for most writers to listen to the adage of “write what you know,” but easy certainly isn’t the best or only way to do things. I’ve found that readers tend to appreciate when the author’s biography intersects a bit with her fiction, and therefore the reader can assume there is a certain indisputable authenticity to that particular work. But I agree, Shara, a writer should be capable of tackling material outside of her comfort zone. Writers ought to be talented enough at our craft that the material seems “true” to the reader regardless of whether or not we are writing within the confines of our own gender or life experiences.

Gustave Flaubert was fairly reclusive when he brought to life the insatiable Madame Bovary; Tennessee Williams gave voice to a plethora of iconic, displaced, broken-hearted women; Flannery O’Connor evoked the dark and lonely minds of her male characters just as well as she illuminated the hard-scrabble thoughts of her women. I found the female narrator, Patty Berglund, the most successful character of Jonathan Franzen’s oft-lauded Freedom, and Jennifer Egan, in her Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, deftly shifts from male and female voices in her chapters.

However, I must admit I was a little tentative when I decided to take on the point of view of the young male soldiers in my collection, unsure if I could handle an experience so different from my own. But that first male character, Sergeant Moge, was clamoring inside of me. And perhaps it wasn’t such a leap after all. For years I had been listening to my husband’s and other soldiers’ stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. I felt like it was just as much of a stretch to write in the voice of my character Ellen Roddy, a cancer patient and mother of a teen-age daughter who goes missing, when I had never been diagnosed with breast cancer and my only child was an infant at the time of writing. As you said, imagination, and stretching that imagination, defines the scope of a writer’s work. To say you can only truly understand your own gender is to say that you can only write about your own experience, and I think that undermines the whole point of writing fiction.

Experience lends a certain credibility to your writing but truly great writing transcends personal experience, and I think that is what writers ought to strive for. Shara, I spent about nine months living in Jordan, and you are currently living in Amman. Both of us are writing works that take place in the Middle East. I am a writer who depends a great deal on the setting of my stories, and I usually use details about the places where I have lived or am living, so writing about Jordan is a natural choice for me as I work on a new novel. Do you share this tendency or is there something specific about the Middle East that inspires you?

 

SL: The short answer is that most things about the Middle East fascinate me—its combination of history and modernity, the complexity of its politics and languages, the contradictions of its varied terrains and ancient ruins. Thus far, the years I’ve spent in Amman have played out like a good poem—equal parts mystery and clarity. In high school, I had a Jordanian friend whose aunts, uncles, and cousins would arrive from Amman each summer. I remember the large backyard gatherings that lasted past midnight: strung-up lights, oversized serving platters and trays piled with meat and rice, tiny glass cups filled with coffee and tea, bubbling water pipes, many of the women wearing beautiful headscarves and gold-threaded abayas. When we first moved to Amman and began having meals in the homes of my husband’s Jordanian colleagues, fragments of my high school memories flooded back—the colors, textures, sounds, and smells that I experienced almost twenty years before made more sense now that I re-encountered them in context. Part of me still can’t believe I’ve experienced the Hashemite Kingdom in different stages of my life—both as a girl of 16 in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and later as an ex-pat poet exploring firsthand the desert capitol of Amman.

Recounting the above experience underscores one of the difficulties of writing about the Middle East (or any part of the world where you’re only a temporary member of the community); that is, finding the right distance between you, as the narrator, and your subject. The problem with the anecdote about my early “experience” with Jordan is that it seems to romanticize the culture. The combination of nostalgia, gratitude, and wonder is but one of many feelings I have about this particular place. In contrast are those harder facts and difficult truths. As a resident of Amman, I confront these on a regular basis not via firsthand experience, since my status as a Westerner in this city provides a number of comforts and privileges, but by conversations and interactions with the local people who live in Jordan.

I’m curious, who’s narrating your novel? Is the primary point of view that of an American or Jordanian? Are you encountering any of the same pitfalls while trying to write about the Middle East?

 

SF: I think you summed it up perfectly when you said one of the most difficult aspects is “finding the right distance between you, as the narrator, and your subject.” I too am aware that my perception of life in Jordan is skewed by my being a Westerner, my scant understanding of Arabic, even our living in Abdoun, a somewhat ritzy part of Amman near the US Embassy. Although I tried to forge Jordanian friendships, I realize that I understand very little of the intricacies of Jordanian daily life. At this juncture, without the tremendous research it would require or the years of firsthand experience, I would not presume to write from the point of view of a Jordanian.

And yet I presume to set the majority of my novel in Jordan! There are five “narrators,” most of the point-of-views are a close third person, with the occasional first person narrative, and all of them are Americans who experience Jordan in very different ways. There is a professor who is an avowed Arabist, his wife who despises traveling, an army major who views Jordan through the filter of his past deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, a young woman who strives, with pure but misplaced intentions, to “fix” the Middle Eastern view of male/female relationships, and a final narrator who has lived in Jordan for a few years and stubbornly clings to her “Americanism” as both a shield and a barrier from the world around her. All are operating on a stubbornness to force the Middle East to conform to their distinct visions. But of course Jordan confounds them because it is not something that can be easily defined or pigeonholed. By presenting these different perspectives of Westerners living in or visiting Jordan, I am hoping that the reader comes away with some middle ground closer to the truth, or at least gets a sense of the unknowable rich nature of a place steeped in such history and tradition.

 

SL: The primary characters of your novel sound fascinating, and I’m fairly certain that I’ve met several versions of them during our two years thus far in Amman. What strikes me most about your plan for the new book is the idea that no matter how thoroughly we explore or experience a particular place, it ultimately remains “unknowable.” What is it that people say about our human capacity for understanding? The more we learn, the less we know? What I’ve discovered in trying to write about the Middle East is that exploring a region is much easier to do in person than on the page. Whatever the genre, writing about nations and cultures from an outsider’s perspective presents a series of unique hazards: appropriation, reductive observation, dealing sensitively with disenfranchised groups and political unrest. Even when one has been immersed in a part of the world, it’s difficult to characterize a culture without objectifying it. As a guest of this country and one who is aware that my status as an American influences the extent to which I “see” all things international, the last thing I want to do is to exoticize the Middle East or characterize its people in a reductive way. As much as I’m interested in the political implications of place—and considering that Jordan shares borders with Israel and the West Bank, as well as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, there are many such implications—I’m more interested in the concealed interior life of this country as a whole, which brings me to an important question: which authors do you think write best about other cultures without objectifying them? Have there been particular difficulties you’ve faced while trying to write about the Middle East? Sensitivities, perhaps, you didn’t have to consider when writing the short-story collection?

 

SF: I agree that an outsider perspective presents unique hazards, but I think subverting a narrator’s reductive observations and appropriations can be exciting for a fiction writer. I often choose narrators who are outsiders, or interlopers, preferring to have a bit of distance between their point of view and the other characters in my stories. I have found that literature is rarely objective, and it can be exhilarating to present an unreliable narrator and demand that the reader figure out that the outsider perspective is just that, outside of the fold, not part of the whole, and certainly not capable of telling the entire story.

I think the stories in my collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, share that outsider perspective with the narrators of my novel-in-progress. There are obstacles separating each character from the main group; Meg Brady, who, as a new army spouse, is skeptical about the rules within base living and longs for the freedoms of her civilian life. Kit Murphy, who, as an injured soldier on his way out of the army he loves, is separated from his brothers-in-arms, and yet he can never wholly return to civilian life. Josie Shaeffer, whose husband died in Iraq, wedges her bitter grief between herself and the army community. Also, as I wrote the stories, I was acutely aware of how all of my characters are markedly different just by their being a part of the military world, part of that one percent of America who are affected by our country’s actions in the Middle East in a way that civilian America is not.

These differences are slight when compared with those of a Westerner observing life in Jordan, but, as I said, I am attracted to that sort of narration and it echoes some of my own experiences. After college, I spent a year teaching English in Japan, and when I returned home my writings were full of the gaijin (foreigner) role in Japanese society. My husband and I lived in Hawaii for a few years and, while Hawaii is of course part of the United States, there is a native Hawaiian culture very different from stateside America, and the mainlanders are always aware of their haole status. I have delved into this distinction in my past writing as well.

I keep quite a few books on hand for contemplating details of life in the Middle East (Edward Said’s Orientalism, Fadia Faqir’s Pillars of Salt, Shawn Dorman’s collected essays Inside a U.S. Embassy, and a couple of modern Arabic fiction anthologies translated into English). However, I can’t seem to think of successful books written by an outsider that fully illuminate another culture without being reductive, especially one about the Middle East. There is the memoir Married to a Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. Geldermalsen, a New Zealand-born nurse, recounts how she meets and marries a Bedouin in Petra, and then lives with him for twenty-four years. But even she admits she was treated differently than many of her fellow Bedouin wives because she was a Westerner. I can think of quite a few books that deliberately delineates the “outsider” perspective from the world from which she is narrating, giving the reader a narrator who conceals as much as she reveals. I find myself turning again and again to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (Vietnam), Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (a fictional Central American country), and Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake (Malaysia), to study the complexities of each novel’s unreliable narrators as well as figure out how these narrators view and translate the cultures they are living in.

Are there particular works of literature that you find yourself rereading as you write your new collection? When I was writing my stories, I tried very hard to keep them as nonpolitical as possible. So I am always a little amazed when a reader finishes the collection and seems to think I am taking a clear political stance. Although you say you are most interested in the “concealed interior life” of Jordan, is there a place for politics in your poetry?

 

SL: In order to situate myself in the goings-on of the region, I read (and am still reading) a great deal of prose: Arab folktales; Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present; Price of Honor and Paradise Beneath Her Feet (books of nonfiction about honor killings and the role women play in human rights issues across the region); Flaubert’s memoirs of traveling in Egypt; King Abdullah II’s recent book, Our Last Best Chance. Like you, I read Married to a Bedouin, as well as Benjamin Orbach’s Live From Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. I really enjoyed Fouad Ajami’s The Dream Palace of Arabs, a book of nonfiction that culls together Arab politics, history, and poetry.

As an American exploring Jordan, I think it’s impossible to keep politics out of the writing. However, I’m well aware that the worst political poems are either didactic or thinly veiled propaganda. I also know that given the tensions between the West and East, anything I write about this part of the world will carry some heat. Case in point: Brian Brodeur recently posted an interview with me for his terrific series, How a Poem Happens. Although I’d answered his questions about my poem, “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” several months prior, our conversation was published on the eve of July 4th. The tone of “Advice . . .” is both earnest and satirical. It juxtaposes helpful tidbits about moving to Amman with a number of stereotypes about Arab culture. Like many Americans, the poem is very enthusiastic and sometimes ugly. It prompted one online reader (anonymously, of course) to write this: “Please Shara, stay in Jordan.”

Please Shara, stay in Jordan. Although a friend suggested that I take the message to mean something along the lines of “This poem is so beautiful! Please, stay in whatever space allowed you to make it, so that you can make more . . . ,” I have no doubt that the author’s real intent was an indictment of my American loyalty. Part of what literature affords us (demands of us!) as writers and readers is the exploration of complex feelings. Such explorations often reveal moments of hypocrisy, contradiction. It saddens me to think that our national impulses have become so polemical that a poem that underscores human duplicity (not exclusive to Americans, by the way!) is misconstrued as evidence of infidelity. Although it was startling to be accused—however subtly—of being unpatriotic on the day we, as American citizens, unite to celebrate our country, I can’t say I was entirely surprised. The irony, however, is that living on foreign soil has given me the opportunity to see America with clearer eyes. I have never felt so thankful to have been born in the United States. I have never been more grateful that my birthright affords me the freedom to write a poem like “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife,” which attempts to underscore a few unsettling misconceptions about the Middle East.

 

SF: I adore your “Advice from the Predecessor’s Wife”! I feel you were able to sum up in two pages what I am trying to express in an entire novel, that murky territory of misconception and misunderstanding often experienced by ex-pats. I assumed your poem was narrated by a cynical Westerner with little patience for the culture around her. Hers is a very authentic voice, knowing and archly amused with herself, and I can see a reader mistaking her point of view for your own. Which I think is a triumph, that you created a voice so vivid that the reader has difficulty separating fiction from an assumption of fact. I have found that to be one of the benefits, and dangers, of “writing what you know.”

I too have received some mixed reactions. I’ve gotten both moving praise and scathing criticism from fellow military spouses—the community I thought would most embrace my work. A war widow sent an email thanking me for letting her see she was “normal” and “belonged” and was no longer an “outsider looking in” at her grief and displacement over her husband’s combat death in Afghanistan. Another spouse resented the fictional stories in my collection that dealt with extramarital affairs, signing off her expletive-laced email with “Don’t quit your day job.” As you said, literature ought to examine and perhaps reveal human complexities, and I think it also ought to provoke an emotional reaction in the reader. I’d prefer that response to be a positive one, but I’ll take a few naysayers if it proves I am tapping into genuine emotion. And I certainly understand military spouses feeling especially protective about their sphere and experiences. Perhaps in the same way that the individual who commented about your poem felt threatened by what she saw as some disregard for America, and was moved to express that.

We’ve touched upon American reactions to our work. I understand your current manuscript-in-progress, tentatively titled The Explosive Expert’s Wife, covers subjects from stateside bombings in the US to the beauty of Amman and its people. Do you mind telling us a little bit more?

 

SL: Thanks so much for your feedback. Of course, while making one’s work public invites a certain amount of conversation and criticism, I’m still surprised at the kinds of quick (and sometimes cruel) potshots people take at others, particularly online. An “expletive-laced email”? I can’t fathom this type of message in response to You Know When the Men Are Gone. Your stories humanize soldiers and their families, and extend and enrich your readers’ understanding of the multifaceted nature of military “sacrifice”—sacrifice that involves not just physical risk on foreign soil but deeply personal vulnerability stateside (emotional, psychological, familial, marital, health-related, and otherwise). At any rate, I think you’re smart to recognize the book’s admirers and naysayers as evidence of the collection’s power to provoke. Although writing about politicized material has its challenges, I agree in Shelley’s 1821 characterization of poets (and creative writers when we’re at our best) as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I also agree with Adrienne Rich when she says, “I’m both a poet and one of the ‛everybodies’ of my country. I live with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion and social antagonism.”

It’s this sense of fear (however manipulated, however legitimate) and cultural confusion that compels me to explore Jordan, America, and the Middle East in my new work. As you suggest, The Explosive Expert’s Wife aims not only to examine and destabilize the darker fears and prejudices associated with the region, but also to celebrate the region’s beauty and mystery. The counterparts to the ex-pat poems feature stateside explosive ranges, government labs, and American terrorists like brothers James and John McNamara (who dynamited the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, killing 21 people and injuring more than 100), and the Unabomber. My hope is that the poems will speak individually, as well as to each other—“The Explosive Experts Wife” to “The Accused Terrorist’s Wife,” for example—in order to spark a larger dialogue about notions of terrorism, marriage, culture, country, gender, and home. It’s a tall order!

Already, the hourglass has turned in many ways—soon, I’ll be counting down the last year of residence in Amman. I haven’t written a poem about Arab Spring, although we’ve watched the movement evolve from its beginning. I haven’t written anything about the 150,000+ displaced Syrians who have crossed into Jordan, most of whom are living in temporary housing less than an hour from Amman. I’ve yet to draft a poem about the hotel bombings that terrorized the Kingdom’s capitol in 2005. It’s unclear to me whether I’ll be able to successfully explore such complicated topics in verse. Sometimes I wonder whether certain things can even be described. As an American poet, a wife and mother, I feel an obligation to try.

 

SF: Thank you for your generous words about my collection. I am really intrigued by your work-in-progress. I haven’t heard of any current work of literature that tackles the concept of “terrorism” in quite this same way, viewing a vast spectrum from a mostly Western point of view (the 1910 Los Angeles Times building bombing to the post-9/11 world), creating dialogues/echoing images between certain poems as you mentioned, challenging our assumptions of who become “terrorists,” engaging the reader to think beyond our American boundaries and concerns. Having read your first collection, Two-Headed Nightingale, I have no doubt that The Explosive Expert’s Wife will be extraordinary.

 

 

Click here for photos from Siobhan and Shara’s travels in the Middle East.

 

Siobhan Fallon’s debut collection of stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone, was listed as a Best Book of 2011 by The San Francisco Chronicle and Janet Maslin of The New York Times. Her stories and essays have appeared in Women’s Day, Good Housekeeping, New Letters, Publishers’ Weekly, among others, and she writes a fiction series for Military Spouse Magazine. She earned her MFA at the New School in New York City and lives in Falls Church, Virginia. siobhanfallon.com

Shara Lessley is the author of Two-Headed Nightingale and a recipient of the Wallace Stegner, Olive O’Connor, Reginald S. Tickner, and Diane Middlebrook poetry fellowships, as well as the “Discovery”/The Nation prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, and The Missouri Review, among others. Shara currently lives in the Middle East and can be reached at sharalessley.com.

 

A Guest of This Country: A Conversation With Writer Siobhan Fallon and Poet Shara Lessley