Mapping as Metaphor: Part Two
March 1, 2017 § 3 Comments
Part two of Brevity assistant editor Alexis Paige’s consideration of place, grief, and the river as metaphor, talking with Angela Palm, author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. [Part One can be found here]:
PAIGE: There’s a powerful depiction of sexual assault in the book. The scene struck me most for its brevity and omissions, for what did and didn’t make the page. Can you talk about how you approached writing the scene and why? Can you describe your decisions about what to include and what not to include, and how you came to approach the moment tonally?
PALM: I didn’t want the narrative to become about that particular violence, but instead wanted the incident to appear in the book as one link in a chain of violence, wherein accumulation would be more powerful than individual acts. Because that was my experience: a slow boil of not-quite-right exposures to violence in a culture where such experiences were not questioned, had no language with which to be questioned. The sexual assault didn’t fit my then understanding of what rape was. It didn’t fit anywhere and so I tucked it away along with everything else, but my body remembered, the way a body remembers what’s been done to it at unexpected times. My mind remembered it more spatially, in flashes. Emotionally, I was numb. So I wanted to write it the same way—emotionless, just the quick flash of bodies in space. That window I looked out of, what a body too big to move feels like. A sensation that said wait—what just happened? is what I wanted to convey to the reader because that was how it felt. The scene focuses on how the experience connects to where it happened, too—the window’s symbolic meaning transforming from excitement and promise to pain and escape. That inextricable linking of place and experience at the book’s heart.
PAIGE: Here, I want to present a few sections of text to show how you seed certain ideas and to show the spectacular weaving you do so deftly and deeply—different modes of writing, others’ writing both scholarly and literary, various epistemological primers, and of course, your own musings and felt experiences.
On the first page, in the first chapter called “Map of Home,” you write, “Where did one town start and the other end? Was there an unnamed part between the two that was up for grabs? I wanted to conquer that yellow land and write myself all over it: this part, this swath of land right here, belongs to a girl.”
Later, after having left Indiana for Vermont, and regarding efforts for you and your husband Mike to claim your own place/ identity, you write about the “One Square Inch” project and about your own search for silence, the silence you find in the mountains:
I believe I fear actual silence—the far edge of quietude. In Annie Dillard’s essay ‘Total Eclipse,’ she describes leaving the site of an eclipse viewing before it is over because the experience is too all-consuming. She plunges into a meditation on existence, barely emerging before the eclipse’s shadow sweeps her under and away for good: ‘It is now that the temptation is strongest to leave these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why burn our hands any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gold had risen. I return to the same buried alluvial beds and pick through the Strata again.’ Silence strikes me as a kind of total eclipse, and this lawn of Frost’s may be just as risky. It could overtake me if I let it. Pure silence, pure freedom, would somehow reveal me to myself too starkly, too soon. The lighting would be wrong, the picture unsettling, distorted further than I expected in every direction. I want only to see a little bit more at a time, to mine very carefully through the layers of sediment below my feet. To lose water by drops and not by gushes. To fly and return. I want some sense of clarity about the buried alluvial beds, to hold as precious goods the names of its materials, to walk across them and experience the malleability of the middle, before it’s pressed so hard from above and below that it metalizes. (197-198)
Both of these passages illustrate not only of the artistry of the book, but also, its larger themes—especially the searching the narrator undertakes and the friction she seems to crave between safety and risk, between self-determination and self-immolation, between a desire for something-ness and nothingness. The narrator is drawn to risk—to the “far edges” in many instances, most notably in her relationship with Corey, which is both completely natural and somehow also taboo; he is just a boy and she just a girl, but he is also a convict, and she a writer, a mom, a wife. There are so many triumphs of this book, but one I especially admire is your navigation of larger cultural tropes, the way you push into and through, and ultimately beyond, the ready-made clichés of bad boy and good girl, for example. The twin portraits that anchor the book– both you and Corey—are utterly human and empathetic and raw and whole. What did you learn about yourself and your relationship with Corey—and perhaps your relationships with danger and desire while writing this? What did you learn, ultimately, about the thorny business of being a girl, then woman, in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America?
PALM: My relationship with Corey allowed me to do that rare thing—openly consider the alternate routes my life might have taken. It taught me a great deal about compassion and forgiveness and the confounding paradoxes of being human. It also taught me that I can’t predict where I’ll find support, or a friend, or something true about the world or myself. Being a girl, then woman, in the rural Midwest in my particular family very much asked me to do and be what was expected of me, which had a pretty narrow definition. All the attendant clichés. Be smart, but cross your legs at the ankle. Have opinions, but only if they’re like ours. Go to college, but marry the nice guy with the good job. Mind your manners, don’t speak up. A kind of half-assed, half-informed feminism that rendered much of what felt natural to me—those edges toward the fringe, that desire to engage with the questions or longings in the back of my head fraught with tension and discord. Just being me became an act of rebellion. In some ways, decisions about what to do with my life, my body, my mind, were hardly decisions at all but a fulfilling of other people’s expectations, I now realize. The truest thing about being female–in the life I’ve had–is everyone has a different idea about what that ought to look like and you’re constantly preserving or negotiating yourself in situations in which your being female is a factor in how you’re treated or thought of. And worst of all, sometimes that can get uncomfortable and even unsafe. What I say to myself now, as a mantra, is I’m not at your disposal. Not my kindness, not my smile, not my compliance, not my time, not my body. I decide when to offer these things now. And I no longer value other people’s ideas of how I should act or who I should love or what kind of mother I should be and so forth. As for edges, Dillard’s scene in “Total Eclipse”—getting out of dodge before the total darkness overtakes her—is how I feel when I look at pictures of Earth, or think of the galaxy, or even in fleeting moments of human freedom that I happen to find on the fringe. There’s a danger in that darkness, in the shucking away of every manmade thing, but a thrilling pureness too.
PAIGE: Vivan Gornick’s landmark craft book, The Situation and The Story, distinguishes the situation, the events of the narrative, from the story, “the thing one has come to say.” I don’t quite want to ask what you think your story is (though you’re welcome to answer!) for fear of sounding like an agent who has trapped you in an elevator, but I do wonder if there’s one place in the book that you would identify as especially emblematic of your story—that thing you came to say? If you had to star or circle just one section—perhaps a scene or a series of paragraphs or one metaphor or thread that runs through the book—what would that moment be?
PALM: There’s a paragraph early in the book, page 20, that begins, “Like rivers, people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past.” That paragraph anchors the river as metaphor and holds every truth about this book. It contains the meanings behind the different narrative events selected to tell the story: the pull of the past on the present, the bittersweet experience of leaving and returning home, the power of nature’s natural course nurture’s fight against it, the tug of our public selves on our private selves, the impact a single person or event can have on the course of a life. It holds all of that, as the banks of a river might hold water, and more.
PAIGE: : In the process of revision or editing, can you describe a particular challenge—whether in terms of craft or in terms of steeling yourself emotionally for the task? And what did you learn from dealing with the challenge?
PALM: Right away we decided to restructure the book chronologically and add focus to my relationship with Corey, which was originally a more minor thread. A cohesive narrative arc was stitched across what were originally self-contained essays, and then the book shifted into memoir territory. So, adding anecdotes and memories to essays where they weren’t already organically occurring was a challenge. There was, for me, risk in implying that my whole life could be defined by this person. Which of course isn’t true. Yes, I thought of him and considered reaching out over the years, but the book could easily suggest, by virtue of its balance of inclusion and exclusion of experiences, that I was perhaps obsessed with him or dwelling constantly on the past. I am an obsessive thinker, but I didn’t want to be boxed in by that. I came to terms with this risk by reframing my idea of how modern memoir handles time and subject matter: it’s not one’s whole life, told blow by blow. There are a hundred ways to tell the stories of a single life. This isn’t the only version I get to tell. It’s one version. It’s my thoughts about a certain series of events.
PAIGE: Here’s an obligatory memoir question: what has the response been from those people who are subjects in the book and/ or from your hometown? Has any of the response surprised you? And how and in what ways did you consider your subjects and how they might react as you were writing?
PALM: I thought my family would be less accepting, but they’ve been wonderful, supportive champions. I suppose that was the biggest surprise. Corey has been gracious, and is proud of me. For him, it matters that someone remembered him as having good qualities, not just as a monster. It’s encouraged him to do good works from prison, in the small ways that he can. Most other folks have been enthusiastic and some have told me they’re glad someone else saw life in this small town the way they did. Only a few have complained vocally about how certain people or aspects of the area are portrayed. A few people were put off by my depiction of rural Indiana—they feel it doesn’t represent their experience—the 4H clubs, the fairs, the values of their rural Midwest while others said it is spot on. Many folks have had a privileged experienced of Indiana. And I think it’s a mistake to privilege that experience over another. I didn’t set out to write what is already known. I intended to portray the fringe—those are my people. And let me tell you—there are far more troubling scenes in Indiana than all this. I wanted to bring as much humanity to my portrayal of place and of the people in this book as I could while still preserving its difficult truths. The earlier drafts were tinged with attitude. As I drafted, the attitude fell away and the nuggets of human complexity remained. I suppose my biggest worry about its reception was that no one would understand my compassion for a person who is rather indefensible. Not a single person has failed to see that. It gives me great hope for this world.
PAIGE: What are you working on now, and how does it draw from and/ or depart from the work you did in Riverine?
PALM: I’m working on two new manuscripts—an essay collection and a novel. The essay collection springs from the final chapter of Riverine in that it looks more closely at how I continue to shape my idea of family, and contemplate the utility of the nuclear family in our modern era—its shifting purposes, its commercialization, and so forth. It’s not as narratively focused on my personal life as Riverine, though, and instead draws on political and social and historical and environmental contexts here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. The novel deals with that core human truth of our not ever being able to really know another person, but it looks at it through the lens of how our internet habits distort our relationships and our legacies of self. I confess that I’ve found it very difficult to write since the election, since the ongoing trauma occurring in Aleppo. It’s hard to find a reason to prioritize one’s own stories or thoughts with so much else that requires our attention and our energy and our care. Still, art is necessary. Still, the smaller wrinkles in the vast cloth of human experience are worth ironing out.
Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir From Anywhere But Here, an Indie Next selection, winner of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, and a Kirkus Best Book of 2016. Palm was awarded the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Axinn Foundation Fellowship in Narrative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Ecotone, Creative Nonfiction, At Length Magazine, Brevity, Paper Darts, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont, where she works as an editor.
Alexis Paige is the author of Not A Place on Any Map, winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Paige’s work appears in Hippocampus, New Madrid Journal, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity’s blog. Her essay “The Right to Remain” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, nominated by The Rumpus for a Pushcart Prize, and featured on Longform. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com