Essays

Beneath the Surface of Empathy: A Review of Not That Bad, Edited by Roxane Gay by Peter LaBerge

BY LETICIA URIETA

  Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture , edited by Roxane Gay ( HarperCollins , 2018).

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay (HarperCollins, 2018).

CONTENT WARNING: RAPE, SEXUAL ASSAULT, HARASSMENT

Adroit_Asterisk.png

The act of beginning this book was an act of facing an experience I knew would be enlightening, painful, stomach churning, powerful and resonant. I was excited by the prospect of being able to read and talk about this book, and yet I kept stopping and starting it out of fear and knowing. I knew that listening to each story had the potential to make me feel empowered and, at the same time, dig into my own traumas and feelings that are still difficult to face.

My experience with this book has been multilayered; I chose to read it and listen to the audiobook in which each author read their essay aloud. I wanted to consider whether there was a certain power that these authors could reclaim by telling their own stories aloud. Even in her introduction to the book, hearing editor Roxane Gay deliberately and clearly reading the names of each contributing author was powerful, like saying their names conjured a protection against an erasure of their stories.

In her introduction to the book, Gay describes the stories we tell ourselves as mechanisms for coping, or simply understanding trauma, even when coping hurts us as survivors. She describes the refrain she has often told herself, that her gang rape and the subsequent assaults and mistreatments were “not that bad,” and how, because of this refrain, “the surfaces of my empathy became calloused.” This feels important to read before spending time with the testimonies of the other contributors, as Gay asks readers to consider how rape culture and misogyny have limited our own sense of empathy for survivors of trauma. To call the authors’ stories ‘testimonies’ feels important too; testimony has a legal context, but many of these authors did not and may never have the opportunity to seek out justice through a system that often dismisses or renders survivors invisible, or else subjects them to extreme scrutiny that prolongs and amplifies trauma-as the country has seen played out during Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh. V.L. Seek describes this in her essay, “Utmost Resistance”: “We are trapped in a legal system that has never favored women and has never believed survivors. And we are mired in a circuitous and damning dialogue, so powerful that it invalidates our experiences, our traumas, our truths-a dialogue so powerful that we begin to doubt whether our experience was never there at all.” The act of telling these experiences is an act against erasure and for affirmation that it happened, as memory often fails survivors after traumatic events.

To call the authors’ work ‘testimonies’ is not meant to detract from the fact that each essay is carefully crafted and each one focuses on a different aspect of rape culture that largely impact women and femme peoples, though this collection spans genders and sexualities.

Some of the authors have chosen to tell their stories as linear narratives, while others have chosen to focus on a specific aspect of their experiences or their continuous path towards understanding and healing from these experiences. In Claire Schwartz’s essay, “& The Truth is, I Have No Story,” she grapples with the narratives that people have attempted to use to frame her assault, like “at least you weren’t killed.” By removing her experience from a comforting narrative structure, she disrupts these narratives of “not that bad” when she insists, “I want someone to watch me thrash and crumple because that, too, is the truth.” This is an idea that is echoed throughout the collection—that survivors do not owe the public or those hearing their testimonies a convenient or palatable narrative about their trauma. Sexual assault and harassment are pervasive and healing is work, not something that a survivor can simply achieve and move on from. Another contributor, artist Liz Rosema, has chosen to navigate the collective silence of youth impacted by an inappropriate coach in her comic, “What We Didn’t Say.” Some of the authors confine their stories to themselves, while others employ the direct address of “you” to confront a perpetrator, as AJ McKenna does in “Sixty-Three Days,” or to address other people who might have experienced something similar to their own experiences, like “The Ways We Are Taught to Be a Girl,” by xTx. The diverse ways in which the authors choose to tell their stories speaks to the divergent yet relatable ways that many survivors navigate their traumas and their understanding of what has happened since.

The contributors to this book range from well-known, professional writers to academics to celebrity actors, yet all of their stories are treated with equal respect and care. In fact, it was stories from the writers who were less well-known that I gravitated towards, as they explored important ideas, like how intergenerational trauma begets more trauma and the ways that acts of sexual assault and harassment take away a person’s autonomy over their own body.       

One contributor, Vanessa Martir, an accomplished writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, wrote a piece about her relationship with her mother’s trauma and how it affected her ability to navigate her own in her essay, “What I Told Myself,” which is from her memoir and took seven years to write. When I asked her about her experience of recording herself reading her work, she said, “When I was asked if I wanted to record the essay, my immediate answer was yes. I knew that no one could do my story justice the way I could. To say I was nervous is an understatement, but I certainly walked out of there feeling fierce and unstoppable...and yes, empowered.” Martir’s work as a community educator is to empower others to tell their most necessary and difficult stories, and so her words ring true to others: the act of telling our stories can be a part of the healing process. While the act of listening to her words and to the words of the other contributors can be difficult, it feels to me to be an act necessary to fully experience this book.

Sharisse Tracey, whose essay, “Picture Perfect,” is one of the more graphic and disturbing ones to read, spoke to me about how it felt for her to have her essay included in this collection: “I knew, should my essay be chosen, in what I knew would be thousands of entries—that said to me, you matter. Your story matters and people care. Not only do people care, but they are pissed off, hurt, outraged, angry, horrified and they want to help to secure that these stop at the source and those perpetrators be brought to justice.” Tracey continues to affirm how powerful this experience has been for her when she describes the act of recording her piece, saying how difficult it was and how her voice cracked and she fought back tears. When listening to her audio recording again, she said that, “I braced myself to listen when I first received the audio file. It was painful to hear the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped by her father. I tried to listen as if it were not me...but that was impossible. Although I’ve lived with the story, hearing it still brought me to tears. I believe the experience of listening to stories can often be more powerful, especially when they are read by the authors. In this case, with Not That Bad, I feel that all of us had to read our own stories. We own those stories. We live and breathe our words daily. Unlike readers, we can’t put the book down when it gets too painful or turn off the volume. Each of us paid for all of our words. Most of us are still paying.”

These stories are for the authors themselves, allowing them to work through their own processes of healing. They are for other survivors who need to read these stories in order to feel seen and to feel less isolated in their own silences.

But the stories of the people in this book are also working to name that which patriarchy and rape culture seeks to make unnamable, because to name an act levies power over it. These stories are directed at a society that is sustained by survivor’s silence and fear in the face of rape culture, and that seems insurmountable. The fact that this book exists speaks to the notion that it contains only a handful of stories among countless others, and that is a statement the book is making too. As Zoe Medeiros writes in her essay, “Why I Stopped,” “The more of us who come out as survivors, the harder it gets to ignore that there is too much to survive, the harder it gets to pretend that this doesn’t happen or it only happens to certain kinds of people.”

It feels too big to assign this book the job of “fixing” something for any of the contributors or for readers. Rather, the book seeks to create a conversation that is too loud to ignore. The subtitle, “Dispatches from Rape Culture,” is very deliberate. Rape culture, as it exists across spaces and cultures, creates a battleground between those fighting to dismantle it, those unwilling to interrogate it and those actively working to uphold it. These are some of the stories from that battleground.

There are times that, as a survivor, it feels difficult to know where to channel my anger and what the next step is within growing movements towards justice like the #MeToo movement. As Lyz Lenz writes in her essay, “All The Angry Women,” “my anger still feels homeless and without a direction forward.” Not That Bad may be a way forward; it draws on the work that activists have done and engages in a conversation that I hope will not soon end.

Adroit_Asterisk.png
Urieta.jpg

Leticia Urieta is a proud Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

Fighting the Silence: A Conversation with Alexander Chee by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRIN KHAN

 Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  (Mariner Books, 2018).

Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018).

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

Adroit_Asterisk.png

Alexander and I discussed his essay collection while seated outside on a hot day at the Tin House’s Summer Workshop at Reed College in July, where Alexander was faculty for one of the novel workshops. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kirin Khan: In your essay “On Becoming a Writer,” there’s this moment where you talk about how in the U.S., there is an insistence that the measure of success for an artist is becoming middle class, and that failing that means your art has failed. How would you describe success outside of that middle-class aspiration?

Alexander Chee: It’s often unspoken but it’s something I’ve definitely experienced so regularly over time that I started speaking about it. For my first novel I was paid $4,000 out of a $6,000 advance before the house went bankrupt. I saw the paperback rights get sold, ended up getting half of half of that money because of the bankruptcy. It was probably significantly less money than a lot people make for a novel, so it was funny that one of the first reviews that would come up when you google my name was by someone who had taken my poetry career very seriously and accused me of ‘selling out.’

It’s been very moving to me over that last two years to have so many young writers who are so different from each other tell me how much my work has meant to them. How it’s helped them connect to themselves, to write the stories and poems that they have been wanting to write. I think for me the definition of success is making space for other writers, especially at this point in time in our history as a country and culture.

A friend of mine (Noel Alumit) sent me these postcards from a prisoner who had read my first novel. The prisoner, a convicted pedophile, described himself not being able to speak for the four days that he was reading it. He went on to say it was the first thing he’d ever read that ever showed him how what he did was wrong. I didn’t realize that I had written my first novel to do that, but that strikes me as a measure of success.

KK: That moment was incredible to me, just reading about it in the essay “The Autobiography of My Novel.”

AC: It’s what you end up meaning to people that is the real marker. You should want to get paid, even paid well, but we’re trying to change people’s minds, trying to illuminate, to help people reconnect to themselves and others. That’s the marker I use to see if I’m succeeding or not.

KK: In the essay “After Peter” you talk about being a minor character in this story, and that you tell it because the people who would tell that story are all dead. That devastated me. How do you write about large scale loss? In the collection, you confront it again after 9/11 (“On Becoming an American Writer”), this massive scale loss, and how paralyzing it can be as an artist.

AC: It’s important to remember that your despair is a gift to them—not to ones who were lost but to the ones who took them. In these conflicts, they want you to feel like their win is inevitable, they want you to give up on fighting back or succeeding. It’s interesting to see things like the cultural production that we have in the U.S. that is much richer and more diverse than it has been in a while. At an age when we have more and more Black filmmakers, POC filmmakers, writers, thinkers, critics doing astonishing work, at the same time, we have this white supremacist takeover of our three branches of government. It points to the way they really are a minority and the country is not with them. This is their revenge on us. They are trying to act like they are the majority and that their wins are legitimate—and they’re not. It’s on all of us not to give up in the face of that, not to give this country to them in the process.

KK: Do you view writing about the people we’ve lost is a way of resisting that?

AC: Yes. I think one of the biggest challenges we face is the loss of intergenerational knowledge. I had a student last year doing an assignment for a writing class. She was a Black Lives Matter activist and she started doing some research into her family and discovered she came from a family of Black Panthers. None of them had told her. She was stunned to discover this, like, “Were you just going to not tell me?”

That’s very rare, not common at all, but in that silence, there is something to investigate. Why would they watch her doing what she was doing and not tell her about their own experiences? That silence, whether it’s born out of death, loss or fear, it’s something that we have to reach into and fight so that we can have those lessons of, how did we fight before this? How did we find courage before this?

The thing that’s very moving to me now are the intergenerational conversations that are possible with internet and social media. One of the things that’s been most gratifying to me is connecting to young queer writers and young writers of color, hearing from them, the work they are producing. I’m still part of a very small group of out gay Korean American writers—for a long time I was an only one, and the first. Then there was Sam Park, who died just as James Mattson debuted last winter, this sad mix of debut and loss. Sam died of stomach cancer; his posthumous novel is coming out this fall. I’m waiting for there to be so much more than there is, and I can see it coming. I feel myself still trying to hold that space for people. I’ve been funding fellowships at Jack Jones Literary Arts and Lambda Literary and am looking at creating one in Sam Park’s name at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

KK: When you say you’ve been waiting for it, what do you mean?

AC: The writers who are arriving are the ones that I’ve been waiting for.

KK: Like a queer, POC revolution?
AC: Yeah, exactly. Patty Yumi Cottrell. Franny Choi, especially.  She’s amazing. One of the reasons I’m still on Twitter is that I get to see her tweets. It’s a delight to me. Chen Chen is fantastic, too.

KK: In “Girl,” you explore the shame of being misgendered as a kid and what’s underneath that. I was often mistaken for a boy as a kid. When I was a bit older, I’d get these sexy, cheap costumes for Halloween, and I’d wear a wig and high heels, but then I’d get mistaken for a man in drag. It was really disorienting that there was no way for me to be perceived as female, whether I performed this kind of hyper-femininity or wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.

AC: You were always trying to be a woman and not quite getting there.

KK: Right. I just am what I am. I thought it was interesting that in your essay, you explore that childhood shame of being mistaken for someone that you can be much more comfortable with later. I was wondering if you had things to say about that, that moment of being mistaken for a girl as a kid versus looking really hot as a girl and passing in that moment as an adult.

AC: One thing I like about what’s happening with gender now is that we’re thinking about it more as a relationship to the self rather than a relationship to others, making self-identification more important first. A panoply of identities is making that possible. What makes me interested in say, queer liberation, is that it makes room for other people whether they are queer or not. It allows young children to feel the freedom of identifying as a boy but wearing hot pink shoes to school and butterfly wings.

KK: And getting to be pretty.

AC: Yeah, getting to be pretty. Nail polish and what not, all these things that were so risqué as a teenager in the ‘80s, that are so mainstream now.

KK: You write about the excitement and potential violence there.  I felt that.

AC: That’s the thing, especially for men who do drag for the first time, who pass. It’s a vision of the reality of being a woman in a way that nothing can prepare you for, which is the constant threat of violence.

KK: Do you think writing about large scale loss, such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11, is different from writing about individual loss, like your father or Peter, specifically? Does it feel different?

AC: Grief and grieving are never really over, because they’re born out of love. So long as the love is there, the grief is also there. You learn to live with the loss, and it becomes this long-term meditation. One of the great wounds of the AIDS crisis was that the Gay community finally had this tremendous victory for pleasure in terms of sex, so many different kinds of sexual explorations were happening. The other was this way in which it was a warning, for those who were able to take it, about what this country would face under healthcare for profit. It was happening just as that change was happening in healthcare. When I look at this friend of mine who just got 185K bill for this cancer procedure she had—it’s just a crazy way to think about trying to live a life in this country where 40% of Americans would have an emergency if they needed more than $400.

KK: That reminds me of how, in the book, you talk about there being three decades worth of wealth accumulation for the rich, and that this was literally letting the poor die and determining our value.

AC: Right, acting like its natural.

KK: That it’s a reflection of our worth that we are poor in the first place. Therefore, our deaths are justified.

AC: In the aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s win, it was funny to see this renewed attention to the sorts of values that she is putting forward: healthcare for all, a climate change proposal that’s aggressive and confronts what’s actually happening to the earth, and suddenly, there was a lot of discussion of whether these kinds of values would work in the rest of the country. At the same time, there are polls that show that Democrats are favored at 49% versus Republicans at 37%—this massive leap has opened up. These issues are supposed to be hurting Democrats and Americans, but what if this is what people want? Healthcare for all has been widely supported by a majority of Americans for a very long time, going back to Obama’s election. The only place where it hasn’t had widespread support is in Congress.

KK: Noel Alumit previously said, in conversation with the 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellows, that one thing he wanted us to know is that “your novel will not fix you.” And that that is something he wished he knew with his first novel.

AC: That’s funny.

KK: In “The Guardians” you talk about your novel waiting for you to reach where it is, in terms of speaking out. What are your thoughts, do you agree with Noel?

AC: You’ll still be the same person after you publish your first novel. It won’t magically fix any of the problems you have with your personality or government or any of those things. The cognitive process of being able to reconcile that which was not reconciled before certainly was a profoundly, psychically transformative experience for me, and that was part of what I write about in the collection, in both “Autobiography of My Novel” and in “The Guardians.” I don’t know that it was the writing itself that was the recuperation, as much as the writing was how I was able to see what needed to be recuperated and how I was able to chart that for myself.

It reminds me of when I was a yoga teacher and was learning about chanting. Chanting was a way of observing your breath through the sound that your voice makes. Writing was also like that, a way to observe the mind. It is not therapy, and I think that people who think it is therapy are putting a lot at risk. I was talking with another friend who writes memoir about the importance of doing the private writing for the self—many of these essays were born out of or reliant on journals that I’ve kept. Journals allowed me to reflect and tell myself things that I needed to tell myself. Out of that, I was able to figure out what I needed to put in an essay. If I was using the essay alone to do that, the success or failure of that essay would weigh too heavily on the recuperative process, and would be an incredible violation of it as well. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think that your writing can fix you, as Noel said. It can’t fix you. But it can show you how to be fixed.

KK: In “The Guardians” you also talk about being in a video/documentary where you lie about how abuse hasn’t harmed you. I felt that there’s this desire to say that, even when it isn’t true.

AC: Your feelings catching up to you can take so long.

KK: Which isn’t something people tell you. In the same essay, you discuss repetition as a form of forgetting. Can you ever really write the trauma? Do you feel like you go back to it and are writing about it in different ways? Or do you feel like at one point you’ll be done, or is it more like grief, where it transforms as you grow?

AC: It’s a Freudian idea, Freudian repetition trauma. With this book, I do have this feeling of having concluded something. There may be more to write later, but I think now I’m really excited about turning to other projects.

KK: In “Girl” you write that sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask. You repeat the idea of the mask: in “Girl” you put on the mask and find out who you are without it, and then in “The Guardians,” there’s another mask, whether it’s behind the novel or in the documentary, of pretending to be okay. That idea is also talked about as passing as whole. There’s passing as straight, passing as white or by race, and then there’s passing in relation to trauma, passing as “okay.”  Can anyone really pass with respect to trauma?

AC: Lots of people are fooled, and they can’t be faulted for being fooled if you put all your effort into it. I should add that, unfortunately, people have some pretty horrific opinions about how you should handle sexual abuse and rape.

KK: And whether it was bad enough.

AC: Yeah. I went through that with one interviewer recently who was like, “Well what you describe in there, it wasn’t that bad, right?” It was a woman. I was just like, “Yeahhh, I don’t know how to talk to you about this, it was really clear in the essay.”

KK: It’s a scale used to silence people. I’ve heard that the fewer details about rape that you give, especially when pressing charges, the more likely it is that someone will sympathize with you. Because the more they find out, the more likely it is that they will say, “I would have done something different.”

AC: Yes, yes. I remember that. Even when I was very young, seeing how my friends who had been in this choir with me had to leave school, because they were harassed once the story of the crimes came out. No one was empathetic. At least if they didn’t actually have to be, and even then, empathy was its own fraught situation. So, it didn’t seem like there was any reward in trying to talk about what was left.

It’s the strangest thing. I was teaching the novel Agostino by Alberto Moravia to my students in Italy.  The story is of a young boy who is on vacation with his mother, who is this beautiful widow, and he falls in with this very rough crowd of boys while she is enjoying herself with a new lover. They introduce him to the ringleader of the child gang, this older man who is a pedophile. They trick him into going on a boat ride with the man—that is essentially how he inducts boys into this gang. My students were really horrified by the novel and by what they saw as the misogyny in the novel—the mother is treated constantly like an object of desire by everyone, including her son. Her value is always focused on her looks; she’s always judged on her desire to have a sex life. And I kept trying to push the conversation further, and finally I had to lay out—in the novel if you look carefully, the pedophile eventually becomes this boy’s mentor on how to be a man. This mother is considered an enemy of his manhood, and I said, “The mother has only ever supported him, the pedophile is the one who abused him. Why in this world is the mother the one who is hated? I know you’re struggling with the misogyny but I need you to look all the way in. What does the structure of the novel communicate? It’s the depiction of a world that’s gone wrong—what is it saying that’s wrong, and that, finally, was what you could see when you pull back from all the rest.” It’s a slim novel, but it lays bare a structure that we see again and again in terms of what’s happening along the border with children being separated from their parents and being essentially pushed into situations where they are in the hands of abusers. And we’re being asked to treat the kids as criminals, as the trespassers and blame their parents as well. It’s a lot.

KK: It really is. In “The Guardians,” you get down to the “this is what happened” piece and you take us through it, which is incredibly hard and incredibly brave. In the #MeToo movement, there are narratives about women being abused as adults, but I don’t see as much about childhood trauma, and men and boys are just beginning to step forward publicly as survivors—it’s rampant for all genders. I just wanted to emphasize that that’s no small thing that you’ve spoken out so boldly about it in your essays. People are going to ask you about it and that’s got to be hard. What were your thoughts when you decided to really write this essay?

AC: I was trying to get at the ways in which you turn yourself into something else in the attempt to hide the pain. How you engage in a second kind of erasure after the first erasure that was the trauma itself, and how hard it was to reconnect to that boy who was so alone back then, and who built these baroque defenses that turned out to long outlive their capacity to protect me, and that I had to dismantle in order to engage in the kind of recuperation that I desperately needed.

KK: Which is something that people don’t talk about with PTSD—these tools saved your life at one point.

AC: Right they got you through something. Being hidden got me through something. The thing is, it was time to stop hiding.

Adroit_Asterisk.png

Kirin Khan is a writer living in Oakland, CA who calls Albuquerque, New Mexico her hometown, and Peshawar, Pakistan her homeland. Kirin is an alum of VONA, Las Dos Brujas, and the Tin House Writers Workshop, and she is a 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2018 Steinbeck Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Your Impossible Voice, 7x7.LA, and Foglifter among others. Kirin is working on her first novel.

The unholy idol of narrative: A Conversation with Alice Bolin by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Alice Bolin, author of  Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a New York Times Editor's Choice and  recipient of a Kirkus Star. Her nonfiction appears in publications including The New York Times, ELLE, Vulture, and Tin House. She is assistant professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis.

Adroit_Asterisk.png

I fully admit it—I’m drawn to dead girl stories. It’s an easy pull given that so much of our popular culture employs the trope for entertainment. Dead girl stories are quite literally everywhere. As a thriller writer who has used the trope in my own writing, I was jazzed to read Alice Bolin’s critical essay collection, Dead Girls. What I found was a collection about so much more. Bolin uses the dead girl trope as an entrance into a journey, one that leads the reader through an Americana of popular culture, which expertly turns back around to examine itself. I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Bolin a few questions about her latest work.

Meredith Doench: The collection of Dead Girls covers so many different topics—it’s fascinating to see how they all eventually come together. How did you determine the structure for the book and what were your goals in the ordering of the essays? I’ve heard you refer to the book as the “unholy idol of narrative.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how it fits into the structure of your collection?   

Alice Bolin: The four sections of the book are mostly organized by similarities in topic—the first mostly about true crime and violence against women, the second about Los Angeles, the third about witchcraft and sisterhood, and the fourth a long essay thinking about when I moved to LA and the politics of white femininity. But I do intend for there to be sort of an evolution through the sections. I start out the way readers might expect, talking very explicitly about Dead Girls, but I didn’t want to dwell there. I wanted to try to find a way out—and I model that in the book, straying farther from the “Dead Girl” theory as I go on. I also wanted there to be a way in the book for me to reflect and revise what came before. In the introduction and in the last essay I was able to look at the first essays I wrote in the book and question the assumptions that undercut them.

In the first essay I say that Dead Girls are sacrifices to “the unholy idol of narrative,” meaning that one excuse for killing girls in pop culture is that “it’s a good story.” Today’s humans are addicted to stories, and we probably consume more of them than at any time in history. And these narratives help us to abstract and metabolize pain, like that of living in a violent, misogynist culture. I do see an overarching narrative in my book, but it’s obviously fragmented, out of order, doubling back on itself. I don’t necessarily want it to read smooth. I want the reader to be aware of their experience of reading it.

MD: I was very keen on interviewing you not only because I love works of cultural criticism, but also because the dead girl trope touches on my own work. One aspect of my writing is a lesbian thriller series where the first two books feature a string of “dead girls.” Your book has given me a lot to think about in this regard. You talk about how the dead girl trope can be found in genre and literary styles of writing. What responsibilities do you think an author has to her audience (and possibly culture) when working with this type of trope? Do you think there is any difference in responsibility between genre and literary writers?      

AB: This is a really interesting question. I think that a writer has both ethical and artistic responsibilities to her audience, meaning that she should tell a good story without also telling a damaging one. This is at the heart of my criticism of the Dead Girl story. That it’s not only politically suspect—the catalyst is a teenage girl body quite literally objectified—but also artistically lazy. If we’ve seen it a million times before, is it still a good story? So I think we can follow both our artistic and political instincts to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of this genre. There are a million ways to subvert or complicate this trope narratively, and quite often doing that creates a much fresher and more interesting product.

I think genre writers actually more often push the boundaries of these narrative formulas, because they are so self-referential and allusive—they take it as their duty to comment on and play with the genre conventions.

MD: I think that your father and I might be cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of our reading tastes! I was touched by the descriptions of your father’s personality and his active reading style. In many ways, the descriptions of your father reveal a lot about you. Was it difficult to incorporate such personal relationships and experiences in a book that also feels very academic at times?  

AB: It was difficult, though my relationship with my dad was the least difficult to write about, especially because he took a pretty active role in the writing process. I interviewed both him and my mom and let them read and give notes on the first draft of the essay. My dad loves the essay and keeps rereading it. He is such a ham and likes being one of the stars of the book.

I think to be a nonfiction writer you have to tell yourself that your relationships and experiences are yours to write about in whatever way you choose, but I’m not sure that’s true—I’m still working on not stepping on or appropriating other people’s stories when turning them into characters.

MD: One of my favorite parts about the book is that it brings up issues of writing—in particular, creative nonfiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the question you ask regarding how you can use the form of the personal narrative without it using the writer. This “meta” question turns the reader’s eye toward the artist’s structure and choices of what to include (and exclude). In some ways, it is like your discussion of how the dead girl trope works. How does your work invite readers to pay attention and consider exactly what they are reading and watching (i.e. consuming)? Do you see what some might call the “blind consumption” of popular culture connecting with crimes against women and minorities in American culture?       

AB: It is really gratifying that you connected with this part of the book! By talking explicitly about the ethics of nonfiction and my specific aims with the book, I am not only inviting people to think about the ways the essays were created, but to take my conclusions with a grain of salt. I want to allow myself room to think things through and to change my mind, and to let my readers do the same. You’re right that one goal I had with the book was to encourage people to be more mindful consumers of popular culture, thinking about what trends and repeated narratives say about our values, and why we are drawn to what we are. I don’t think that that is going to solve all of our cultural problems—in fact it is probably the last place we should start if we want to end gun violence or violence against women or police brutality. But if our culture is a mirror on our values, we can clearly see the problems of our society by watching and reading more critically.

MD: In the not-so-distant wake of reports that Sherman Alexie has continually sexually harassed (his word, in his written statement, was “harmed”) women in the literary communities in which he was a part (and a HUGE name within), how do you feel about including Alexie in a book that seeks to illuminate the harm done to women by men? Had the timeline been different, would you have thought to exclude your analysis of Indian Killer as a part of your essay, “Black Hole,” or have you thought about revising the essay to include the reports? Also, you only briefly mention the privilege of the “Dead Girl,” that is the Dead [White] Girl, and I’m wondering why you neglected to include, in further depth, cultural criticism surrounding the murders of women of color and people of non-conforming genders/sexuality and, perhaps especially in “Black Hole,” the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in North America?

AB: I don’t think I would exclude Alexie entirely, but if the timeline were different I would have written about the allegations against him. I’m a critic, and my essays are not endorsements. I still think Alexie is an important, if obnoxious, figure, and the book I focus on, Indian Killer, is his least successful and most bizarre, with tons of gratuitous violence and no satisfying conclusions. Alexie used his institutional clout to prey on people and otherwise behave badly, and I think it’s crucial that he is stripped of that institutional power. But his literary legacy will have to be reckoned with, and had I had the time I would have considered the way his known transgressions reflect on Indian Killer, this troubling and complicated book. Whether that attention might add to his institutional power is a fair question, but that’s basically the minefield I work in every day.

I am talking mostly about fictional violence in the book (or the dramatized world of true crime), and I’m thinking about the reasons the murders of white girls and women hold so much sway in those arenas. In another version of the book, I would have written in more depth about the marginalized victims you mention, but in the end I decided that it was not primarily about murder and violent crime—it’s about Los Angeles, reality TV, witchcraft, writing, and my own experiences. The Dead Girl story becomes more of a case study or a backdrop; a way to understand both the threats and privileges I carry with me through the world and the paradoxical way white women can be both oppressed and oppressor.

Adroit_Asterisk.png
Doench_Photo.jpg

Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.

This body is an inheritance: A Conversation with Elissa Washuta by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Elissa Washuta, author of  Starvation Mode  (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta, author of Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

Adroit_Asterisk.png

Meredith Doench: Your memoir, Starvation Mode, was an interesting read, and I was fascinated with the chosen structure. It covers a large span of time—early childhood into adulthood. I think it can be difficult to write about long stretches of a life so clearly and so succinctly, but your memoir does so beautifully, in large part because of its clear framework. It’s written in three parts and uses a collection of 36 rules as section breaks for Part I and four lies in Part II. Why did you choose such a structure for the book, and how long did it take you to find it? How did the use of vignettes as oppose to lengthy narrative highlight the message of the book?

Elissa Washuta: In beginning to write this book, I presented myself with a structural challenge: to, within a span of about twelve thousand words, using linear chronology, recount my entire life’s history of eating. I was driven by my anger at a review of my first book: the reviewer faulted me for, among other things, failing to apologize for my eating disorder and dysmorphia. I knew responding directly wasn’t the classy thing to do, so I responded with this book in which I tried to dig in further and even more unapologetically. I wanted to experiment with linear chronology because my first book is non-linear. Segmentation and quick glimpses allow me to span a lot of time without rushing: the focus is sharp and fast-moving, without transitions. Using transitional connective tissue would bore me, and so I hardly ever do it. I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.

I was struggling with that project, though, because the idea of being bound within linear time bored me. I believe I’d just heard Claire Vaye Watkins give a lecture on “craft transgressions,” ways of raising the stakes by breaking the rules set by the piece. Part II halts the progress of that recounting of eating that I undertook in Part I.

MD: “I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.” I love this, and I have also given it a lot of thought to this in my own writing.  I like how this method engages readers in a way that invites them to participate in the prose rather than being spoon-fed the ideas. Do you see this as something that designates [creative nonfiction] as literary (as opposed to genre writing)?

EW: I’m not actually sure I know what the distinction is—not in a concrete, detailed way, anyway, not well enough to delineate a designation. I think it’s possible that the method and purpose of inquiry separate the different approaches to nonfiction, but I’m just as willing to believe that the separations are arbitrary and flimsy.

MD: As someone who has struggled with disordered eating since my early teens, I could relate to much of what is written in Starvation Mode. The part that really smacked my gut with recognition was “Rule 9. YOU MUST EAT ONLY SIX HUNDRED CALORIES PER DAY.”  This section so clearly and accurately describes what I’ve always referred to as the betrayal of my body (the moment I grew breasts and my hips widened). You write about how quickly these changes occurred for you and the idea that starving the body would stop these changes. For many of us, this is the moment that changed everything regarding personal relationships with our bodies. It also intersects, in some ways, with issues of gender. Did you find this emotional topic difficult to write about so openly and honestly?

EW: This book was hard to write, craft-wise, but it wasn’t difficult emotionally. Writing My Body Is a Book of Rules was so hard I had to pummel myself with alcohol and cigarettes to get through it—I was remembering acts of sexual violence that I’d forgotten about or remembered only partially. The same is true for the book I’m working on now. But Starvation Mode felt like an opportunity to explore the interior that was responsible for the public acts people around me saw: my weirdly fast and focused eating, my denigration of my own body, my strange and hard-to-keep-up-with dietary restrictions. I felt like I had a chance to explain myself.

MD: Another aspect of the memoir I found fascinating was the discussion of meat (whether to eat it or not), and how the body, despite the mind’s knowledge of its needed protein, made it difficult to swallow/ingest the meat. I’m fascinated by the “mind” of the body, and it’s depicted so clearly in your work. In many ways, I found these references to be reminiscent of Roxane Gay’s Hunger and the way she writes about her extensive nutritional knowledge that is overpowered by the physical body’s hunger. In your own memoir, do you see the body working against the mind or the other way around? How do these polarities in your work add to the larger discussion of bodies and their hunger/starvation?

EW: I think it’s possible that my difficulties with meat are the result of inadequate stomach acid, which can be caused by stress. I mean, that’s what the Internet says. I think in this way, the body is working with the mind: I feel constantly stressed and anxious, and my body behaves accordingly, focusing less on digesting food and more on responding to the stressor. I wrote Starvation Mode about three and a half years ago, and at that time, the Paleo Diet still had quite a hold on me (not that it doesn’t at all now, but I don’t follow it, even if its rules still run through my head), and I really thought I needed meat in my diet, so on top of the ever-present life stresses of trying to make enough money to survive and trying to stay safe while living among men, I was stressed about the fact that I thought I should be eating meat but couldn’t.

I don’t really know how my work is situated within the larger discussion of bodies and hunger. I don’t read other books about disordered eating. I still have patterns of disordered eating, and I can slip back into a full-blown eating disorder very easily.

MD: The fear of slipping back into a full-blown disorder at any moment is stress-provoking in itself! As I was reading, I wondered if this memoir served as a release for you in regards to disordered eating. Do you feel like your life is different now? Have you let go of some of these issues that plagued you in the past?  

EW: No, I don’t think it was a release. Maybe temporarily, but years later, I’m still struggling with it. I just drank a bottle of Ensure instead of eating a meal. My eating and appetite problems are basically the same as they’ve always been. I think the difference, now, is that I’m older and I’ve accepted it and I’m not hiding that I sometimes struggle to stop eating Doritos and sometimes struggle to eat anything at all. I drank the Ensure in my colleague’s office. I think now, I’m more willing to let people in to see it in life and not just on the page. Maybe now that it’s been dealt with in narrative, I’m able to detach it from one.

MD: I found the pairing of binge eating and mental health/medication interesting. Many of the descriptions regarding food during this point of the memoir feature such an urgency to binge, such a deep starvation and hunger within the body: “I would rip [the bag] open at the seams on my kitchen counter and devour the contents like a jackal with her face at a mess of entrails.” Could you explain your thinking about the weight gain that occurred during this period? Was it simply primal need of the body or was the weight a form of protection?    

EW: I don’t think it was either, exactly—I don’t know the mechanism of action of the drug that caused the weight gain, but when I began taking an antipsychotic drug, I gained weight quickly, probably in large part because it made me so ravenous. So in a way, the body did suddenly have this need, but I think of it not as primal but as manufactured and imposed.

I know that other people have spoken to the emotionally protective effects of fat, but that has not been my experience. I constantly find myself—even now, in my house, having not been in the proximity of another human for almost 24 hours—contorting my body to make it smaller. I wrap my legs around each other twice when I sit, I keep my elbows close to my ribs, I often try to gather myself when I’m in public and somebody walks near me in an enclosed space. I am always trying to take up less space. Taking up more so suddenly, without time to adjust, was hard for me.

MD: Your speaker makes a clear point throughout the book that food, no matter how good it might be, doesn’t fill her: “What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.” This idea has been part of a much larger cultural narrative regarding hunger, the body, and women’s identity with the flesh they inhabit, particularly for obese individuals. How do you see your memoir expanding or joining the larger conversation on a “starving” American society? Do you see this as an issue for all genders and races?            

EW: I can only speak to my experience as a Cowlitz woman. I’ve been thin for most of my life. I definitely don’t believe that my problems are necessarily representative of anyone else’s experience of their own body, so it’s hard for me to speak to the larger conversation—I tried to tunnel into my own brain and my experience as deeply as I could.

I think Starvation Mode is really a book about the ways that hunger and romantic or sexual desire have gotten tangled up for me, about boys and men looking at my body and thinking it should be different, and that look is the thing I was devouring. But I’ve been single for years now. Now, if a man thinks my body should be different, he doesn’t get to touch it. My god, I’ve wasted so much of my life listening to broken men tell me to start running or eat Paleo because I needed to be “fit.” Speaking to other Native women about our shapes has helped—I’m never not going to have a thick waist (even at a size zero, with my ribs showing, I had belly fat) and I’m never not going to have a bony ass. This body is an inheritance. Eating has become a lot less charged for me. I mean, I’m still full of holes, and I have more ways than ever to stuff them full, so I keep having things to write about.  

MD: I love the idea of the “body is an inheritance.” It’s not something I’ve given much thought to regarding my own body. Do you see any connection with this quote and your statement that eating has become a lot less charged for you?  

EW: I think so, at least in part. As I said, the eating problems have remained, but I’ve come to (usually) accept and even appreciate the appearance of my body as it is, so I’m not deliberately restricting my intake anymore at all. I’m not sure what changed, but I know that I look at my mother and my ancestors and see clearly that they are and were beautiful, and that I look like them. It’s hard to talk about the period after the end of tension, because as a person who builds narratives, I’m following and modulating the tension. In real life, I wish my ass weren’t bony some days and don’t think about it on others; I notice the lack of definition in my upper arms in a photo and promptly forget about it. I suspect that the answer is as simple as the fact that I realized a few years ago that wearing dresses makes me stop feeling the constant nagging of a waistband digging into my belly, so I hardly wear pants, and I’ve been able to let go of that ever-present, back-of-mind feeling that something with the body isn’t right.

Adroit_Asterisk.png
Doench_Photo.jpg

Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.