February 3, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Candace Walsh
Imagine a memoir in the form of a centipede. Each segment of its body is a chapter. In each chapter, the narrative takes on a new genre’s characteristics, from noir to Choose Your Own Adventure. This is Carmen Maria Machado’s second book, In the Dream House: A Memoir. Her narrative flows through each discrete-genre segment like the centipede’s life force: potent, skittery, undulant, spiky, and fluid.
Once, Carmen Maria Machado fell in love with an unnamed woman writer, who gained her trust, mingled their worlds, and then steadily turned their love affair from a fairy tale into a horror movie.
The story Machado tells, of her time with an abusive girlfriend, is executed in her signature gorgeous-surprising style, but the story of one woman abusing another is absolutely horrid, because we women can at least, while enduring vagaries petty and seismic of the patriarchy, comfort ourselves from the lofty moral high ground. No, we can’t? Not entirely.
In the book’s prologue, Machado acknowledges the brutal incompleteness of queer life in historical archives; even sparser, depictions of queer abuse. She writes, “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this. I speak into the silence.”
Machado’s story is also absolutely horrid because we queer women can at least, while enduring homophobia, heteronormativity, physical threats, and microaggressions, feel smug because as Machado avers, “To find desire, love, everyday joy without men’s accompanying bullshit is a pretty decent working definition of paradise.” But it is sometimes hell instead? Yes.
The ever shape-shifting momentum of the book, powered by its thrumming, antic centipede energy, echoes the relationship’s mutability from heart-shaped bed to haunted basement, bliss portal to sinkhole; Machado’s role from chosen to chastised as her girlfriend rapid cycles through the roles of love-bomber, interrogator, waif, harpy, terrorist.
The book’s structure and craft choices also foil merciful dissociation. Even the most traumatized, abuse-experienced readers who would otherwise dissociate or put the book down are strapped in by her use of second person point of view, and captivated by the pleasures of her text: the how and the wow of Machado pulling off her ongoing legerdemain, iron-hand-in-velvet-glove with the recognition of Machado’s girlfriend’s moves and the speaker’s justifying responses. The gullibility. The freeze hunkered down in a seat reserved for flee: when the girlfriend squeezes her wrist, “It is the first time she is touching you in a way that is not filled with love, and you don’t know what to do. This is not normal, this is not normal, this is not normal. Your brain is scrambling for an explanation, and it hurts more and more, and everything is static.” The mucky, shamed feeling of being treated like garbage. Maybe I’m garbage? Garbage that dare not speak its name: a partner-abused queer person.
Why the silence? That comes down to questions like: Who gets to be a bad person or be the prey of a bad person? Not a marginalized person, not without maligning the fragile reputation of their already-marginalized group. These conundra pace the perimeter of In the Dream House’s scar-tissued heart. It’s definitely Bad for Lesbians when an abusive lesbian is outed. Back when Machado was tweeting about writing this book, my unvoiced gut response took the form of tut-tutting thoughts: “Can’t you write about something else? Didn’t you get the memo about how we all have to be exemplary citizens in order to maintain our meager patch of societal acceptability?” Queer women can’t afford to be as publicly bad or done-bad as straight white couples, for fear our singular stories will erase all the Ellen-and-Portia happily ever afters that justify us to straight relatives, friends, and legislators, and reassure vulnerable young queer folks that It Gets Better.
Garbage festers in dark, covered places. Having to be perfect is another way society tells us we’re not allowed to be who we are, what we are: flawed humans. Not flawed because of who we love. Flawed because we’re humans. As Machado puts it, “queers—real-life ones—do not deserve representation, protection, and rights because they are morally pure or upright as a people. They deserve those things because they are human beings, and that is enough.”
For all this talk of flaws, Machado’s book is free of them. Machado is a master of roping the glancing and the glinting, the ineffable and the unseemly. She hazards offbeat comparisons: “In those months, hazy from lack of sleep and raw with anxiety, I felt like a calculator with someone’s finger over the solar panel—fading in and out, threatening to shut off altogether.” She also describes things we often banish from our minds before putting them into words, like the dissipating pleasure that anticipates an argument with a volatile person: “By the time you’ve wound out of the mountains and gotten back to a freeway, the bite of the fight has sweetened; whiskey unraveled by ice.”
In the Dream House is intoxicating, mesmerizing, and addictive like the best bad relationships are, but at the end, we aren’t abruptly dumped as readers the way the horrid girlfriend dumps the speaker. Machado ushers us to a curtailed freedom via final chapters limning her release and recovery: a chiaroscuro of rebound sex, epiphany, and her friends’ and acquaintances’ stinging skepticism: “Maybe it was rough, but was it really abusive?” She exits the dream house, but the dream house has forever changed the way she sees the world, imparting the fraught knowledge that far too many people on the outside are zombified by the same inertia and denial that once kept her captivated and captive.
Candace Walsh is a first-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. Her essays have recently appeared in Pigeon Pages, The New Limestone Review, and K’in Literary Journal. She also has a short story in Akashic Books’ Santa Fe Noir. Follow her on Twitter @candacewalsh.
January 31, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Marie A Bailey
The first time I saw Pam Houston was in 1991 or 1992. I was a graduate student in English at Florida State University. The university was hosting a creative writing conference and Houston was on one of the panels. I had not read her story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in part because I didn’t like cowboys.
During the panel, one of my professors asked Houston whether she thought being a woman created roadblocks for her in the literary world. Houston’s response was brusque and silencing, along the lines of “I’ve never had a problem with that.” I felt that my professor had unwittingly hit a tender spot and Houston had nipped back at her.
Later I saw Houston walk across the floor, adjusting the elastic waistband of her flowing skirt, looking irritated. There was something about Houston that day that both intimidated and attracted me, both as a woman and a writer. Even though I’m several years older than her, I would have bowed that day to her seniority in life experience and writing.
I didn’t think about Houston again until early 2019 when she came to a local independent bookstore to give a reading from Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country. I think I fell in love.
I’m a happily married cis woman but I am still attracted to strong women, of which Houston is one. I saw her from the back as she walked past me to the front of the room. She was wearing a light-colored lace dress with cowboy boots, her calves solid as rocks. Her smile was infectious and her ease with the audience (packed in like sardines) was downright joyful.
By the time Houston was done with the reading and Q&A, I had placed her way high on a pedestal, nose-bleed high. So even though I had purchased a copy of Deep Creek before the reading, I slipped out without asking her to sign it. I knew I couldn’t reach that high, and I didn’t want to ask her to bend down for me.
I read Deep Creek off and on for the next couple of months. That’s one of the things I love about collections: you don’t feel that you have to read the whole book in one sitting. There’s much about her life with her parents, her ranch, her dogs, her sheep, and the wildfire that almost took everything. But Deep Creek is more than a collection of essays. It is a thoughtful rendering of a woman’s life, her journey from someone “born to two humans who wanted me not at all” to “a child of the wilderness.”
Deep Creek is a love letter to Mother Earth, to Mother Nature: “When you give yourself wholly to a piece of ground, its goodness enters your bloodstream like an infusion. You will never be alone in the same way again, and never quite dislocated. Your heart will grow down into and back out of that ground like a tree.” Her love for her ranch and the creatures great and small that abide there is the gift one gets from reading Deep Creek.
Deep Creek is the first book of Houston’s that I’ve read. I knew little of her personal life. I read in horror of her parent’s abuse and neglect of her, but I don’t know if the horror I felt was over their acts or Houston’s even, detached tone as she related the abuses. I felt no cathartic cry of anguish and anger, but a steady movement toward love and belonging.
Houston has survived numerous life-threatening events, some a result of her risk-taking behavior. At least that’s how some would see her behavior. For Houston, “it was hard not to believe the earth was somehow keeping my best interests in mind.” She has survived multiple abuses, car wrecks, and natural disasters, and she’s survived it all with her heart intact and open to love.
Through Deep Creek, I’ve learned to marvel at this young woman who has met every challenge that Life and Nature will throw her way only to come through with more love for the wild things, people included. When she got a “precancer diagnosis in the form of HPV 16,” she decided to make some changes. “… I’ve said for years if I ever had to make a choice between giving up coffee and dying, I would choose death. But as it turned out, all death had to do was wave at me from the window of a bus at a distant intersection for me to quit all caffeinated beverages cold turkey.”
I compare myself to her, like I compare myself to anyone who might be superior to me. In 2001, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and had to have a total abdominal hysterectomy salpingo-oophorectomy. I haven’t stopped drinking coffee or wine, and although my cancer is gone, I still sometimes behave with fatalistic abandon.
Yet, Houston nails my truth, and the truth of many of us women over fifty, when she writes:
“Two mostly wonderful things about life after fifty: I’m never sure what I am going to say until I hear myself saying it, and it’s hard to remember, with any real accuracy, feeling any way other than how I feel right now.”
I embrace these words. For them alone, I’m grateful to Houston.
Marie A Bailey has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She blogs about writing, nature, cats, and knitting at www.1writeway.com and writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction for various publications on Medium as @marieannbailey. She currently lives in Florida.
January 13, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Lisa Kusel
A week after my family and I fled Bali and flew back to the states, I met my literary agent for lunch at Todd English’s Olives restaurant. Over fig and prosciutto flatbread, we talked about my future. I asked him if he thought I should continue writing the novel about a character who suffers from anosmia, or if I should rewrite the WWII book; the one that garnered ten rejections and sent me scurrying off to Bali in the first place.
“Neither,” he replied. “You should write the Bali book.”
“What’s the ‘Bali book’?”
“Come on, those emails you sent—the ones about the snake hunter, and the cremations? They were hilarious.”
“Yeah, but who cares that a forty-something woman ran away to Bali and almost lost her marriage because she was such a whiny b—”
“Did you?” He wiped his mouth and threw his napkin down.
“Did you lose your marriage? What really happened?”
“Well, I guess I learned—”
“Don’t tell me. Tell them,” he said, pointing at a foursome of women munching on beet salads at the table next to us. “Tell them,” he said gesturing out the window to the pedestrians passing by. “It’s everyone’s story. Everyone who ever thought it’d be the greatest thing in the world to move to Bali.”
“But it wasn’t great. It didn’t turn out at all like I wanted it to.”
“Really? I’m not so sure,” he said as he stood to put on his jacket. “I hear Vermont winters are really long,” he added before swirling out the revolving door.
As I watched him disappear into the swarm of humanity down East 17th Street, I thought back to our time in Bali—to the lovely people, our crazy bamboo hut, the ants, the heat and the monkeys. Sure, it was chaotic and horrible, but it was also pretty fantastic.
Should I tell the Bali story?
More to the point: I’ve been writing fiction ever since I discovered I had a talent for creating imaginary worlds out of thin air. Now my agent was suggesting I write nonfiction.
Could I tell the Bali story?
I mean, how would I do that? I usually get inspired to write a new book when a long-forgotten memory, a glance at a photograph, or something in the news cuts in line in my crowded brain. If it’s dressed nicely and smells good, I unlock the red velvet rope and usher it over to the table reserved for COOL IDEAS.
I order the IDEA a few drinks and get it to let its hair down. Then I look around the room and invite some other CHARACTERS to join us, and now the conversation gets loud and heated; all of us yelling over each other to be heard. What do you do for a living? What are you reading right now? Do you believe in God?
I push us out onto the dance floor, where I sweat and sashay to the ever-changing beats until I figure out genre, point of view, setting.
By the time it’s last call and the musicians are winding their electrical cords into tight loops, I’m ready to funnel this bubbling brew of imaginary people and their adventures onto the blank page.
But…if I were to write THE BALI BOOK, I couldn’t make up a main character—I’d have to be the main character.
And forget about making shit up: I’d need to deliver meticulously re-enacted accounts of what really happened.
I’d have to bow to the goddess of TRUTH.
Writing nonfiction—writing about me—meant taking the IDEA to a different venue altogether. No drinks or frenzied dancing. I’d have to to sit it down and stare deeply into its eyes.
So I took the Bali idea to a quiet café and ordered two double lattes. I reminisced with it. Tried to recollect, in as much detail as possible, the thousands of conversations I had while I lived in Bali. I replayed my days waking up covered in sweat, spraying my daughter’s clothes with DEET, fighting with my husband, trying to write, walking through the jungle.
I gazed deeply into my own navel.
And you know what? I hated it. I hated thinking about me and talking about me and writing about me.
I lied to the Bali IDEA, saying I had to run out to a doctor’s appointment, and instead went home and wrote a novel about a sex-hating housewife who lets her husband have affairs, then uses the details to write bestselling erotica.
Making up Love Lies Here felt wildly freeing and refreshing. I was giddy, I was, allowing utter strangers to take up residence in my psyche, traipsing and tramping through my imagination like a bunch of drunk teenagers breaking into their high school on a Saturday night. I loved having them inside me, plotting, scheming, writing, talking, eating, screwing.
After I finished it I returned to the café where I found the Bali IDEA still sitting where I’d left it.
“Hi there, Bali story,” I said. “Sorry I left you for so long.”
“No worries,” it replied with an expectant smile. “I knew you’d come back.” It placed its hand in mine and gave it a firm squeeze. “Ready?” it asked.
“Sure,” I said, because this time I was. This time I knew I could give the Bali idea my full attention. Whether it was because I’d gotten another novel out of my system, or because enough time had passed, or because I was actually starting to think I had a really rich story to tell, I couldn’t say. What I did know for sure was that my agent was right: I should tell the Bali story.
More to the point, I could tell the Bali story.
And I’m really glad I did.
Lisa Kusel s the author of Rash, a Memoir, as well as the short story collection Other Fish In The Sea and the novel Hat Trick. She is presently writing a young adult novel at her desk overlooking Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. You can find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LisaKusel12 and Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lisa_kusel/
December 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Susan Tiberghien
Writing the afterword for the 20th Anniversary Edition of my spiritual memoir, Circling to the Center: Invitation to Silent Prayer, I uncovered the alchemy of the narrative arc.
When first working on the book, I realized how each chapter brought more light into my life. I saw this as alchemy, almost magic. I saw how the first chapter circled around a small five petalled flower, a cinquefoil. And how the fifth and last chapter circled around a double buttercup, a renunculus. My little wildflower had become the golden flower of innumerable petals. Alchemy!
Memoir is story-telling, telling the story of one facet of our life. In every story there is a beginning, a struggle, the narrator (in memoir, the author) wants something. There is a middle, the narrator encounter difficulties which lead to a climax. And there is an end, a resolution, the narrator has a transformation, however small. We are story telling creatures. When we relate an experience to a friend, we tell it in story form. Otherwise the friend may lose interest. When we remember our dreams, we are telling ourselves stories. And best to write them down lest we forget.
When I would sometimes take care of a few of our grandchildren, and when they were being rambunctious, I would ask them to sit still just a moment. Then I would say, “Once upon a time…” Two or three pairs of eyes would latch on to mine. All was quiet, attentive, expectant. And I would relate a fairy tale, a folk tale, a tale which has withstood the centuries. Or I would make up a new one, remembering the climax.
In my memoir. I was writing about darkness in my life, about deeply difficult experiences. As I I progressed, I saw the three steps of alchemy. First, putting the base metals into the furnace to burn away the dross. I would go into the dark to relate stories of adoption, of anorexia, of Alzheimer’s – nigredo, the blackening. Then the second step, washing and distilling, looking for the gold. I would come to grips with each ordeal– albedo, the whitening. And finally polishing the bits of gold and bringing them to the light. I would claim my own transformation – rubedo, the reddening.
I saw that these three alchemical steps are the three parts of story. The alchemy lies in the story arc. Without it, our memoirs may be beautifully written but they are flat. As memoirists, we are sharing not only a busy profile, a heart-breaking profile, or an attention-grabbing profile. We are sharing part of our being. We are pulling back the curtain and saying this is how I survived, this is what it felt like. Or this is how I stood up for justice, this is what it felt like. This is the narrative arc that pulls the reader to the climax. How we overcame, or did not overcome, the odds.
This is the sharing that readers are looking for. We are all interconnected, writers and readers. We learn from one another. In writing memoir, we share an experience. It lights a candle in the darkness for the reader. We remember the metaphor of Indra’s net. How over the palace of the great God Indra, there was strung a net of thousands of jewels. They were arranged in such a manner that if one of them caught the light, it was reflected in all the other jewels.
Let your memoir catch the light by shaping its story arc. Be an alchemist!
Susan Tiberghien, an American writer living in Geneva, Switzerland, is the author of four memoirs, two writing books, One Year to a Writing Life and Writing Toward Wholeness, and most recently the 20th Anniversary Edition of Circling to the Center, An Invitation to Silent Prayer. She teaches at C.G. Jung Societies, the International Women’s Writing Guild, and at writers’ centers and conferences in Europe and the U.S. She founded and directed the Geneva Writers’ Group for 25 years. Recently she did two master classes for the Jung Society of Washington,.
December 9, 2019 § 13 Comments
By Anika Fajardo
In the courtyard in my father’s house in Popayán, Colombia, grows a tree. Its pale branches challenge the brick walls and reach for the sky. The delicate petals of the yellow flowers bow over the hibiscus and impatiens in the garden below.
“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me as we stood in his garden looking at its leaves that brush against the broken bottles cemented to the top of courtyard wall meant to keep out intruders.
My father told me this tree is called the borrachero and if you speak Spanish, you’ll know that comes from the word drunken. Once, when the tree was in bloom, my father had inhaled the scent of the blossoms. He felt strange, not quite right, and went to bed with a headache. He slept for twenty-four hours, perhaps in a sleep as deep as the one in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The tree, he said, had poisoned him.
At the time he told me this story, I was eight years into the cycle of writing, revising, and submitting my memoir. I had been writing about getting to know the man who was my father but without whom I had grown up. I had revised and edited the stories about the city in which I had been born and my visit at age twenty-one to the village where Guambiano Indians chew coca leaves. I had been filling in the details about the baby carrier my parents had used to carry me on walks through the páramo before they divorced, before my mother brought me back to Minnesota. I had been rewriting the story of my marriage and birth of my daughter. For almost a decade, I had been writing about my father and this house with the borrachero tree in the courtyard.
The borrachero tree or Brugmansia, I learned later, is native to the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. The tree or shrub with yellow or white trumpet-shaped flowers contains a toxic substance called scopolamine, which can cause hallucinations, confusions, and even death.
Sometimes my memoir felt like that tree. Deadly. As I reworked it and rewrote it, twisting and turning the narrative and the themes, the whole thing would feel black, as if it emanated a noxious fume that filled me with doubt and despair and exhaustion. And yet. It was beautiful. There were turns of phrase that I loved, sentences that glistened with meaning and metaphor, chapters that tied themselves into neat bows.
“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me. I pictured him in work boots and thick leather gloves. Perhaps he wore a bandana around his mouth and nose to try to protect himself as he hacked the trunk. “But every time I cut it down,” he told me, “it grows back.”
It’s been two years since my last visit to Colombia. And now I think of my father’s story: the tree that cannot be destroyed. My desire, my wish, my need to finish and publish my memoir was like that tree. The pursuit of publication takes a frightening amount of determination and will. It defies all logic, that urge to put your words out into the world.
And now I look at the book that lies on my desk, the one with brightly colored flowers on its dust jacket. The one that tells the story of magical things happening in Colombia and in my life. My memoir.
And I realize you have to be like the borrachero tree—beautiful and powerful, growing back no matter how many times you’re cut down. Eventually, you just might reach over the barriers, touch the sky.
Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Her middle-grade novel, What If a Fish, is slated for publication from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in summer 2020. A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/anikawriter Or Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anikawriter/
October 28, 2019 § 8 Comments
By Jessica Ribera
Memoir writing is intense. I’ve taken the very hardest things that ever happened to me, dissected them, and laid them out on the surgical tray for everyone to see. No one forced me (well, I do feel that there was some spiritual prompting, but that’s different); I’ve done it with purpose.
I’ve done it so that I and my children will always remember the important ways I came to be who and how I am as their mom. I’ve done it to get the attention of a world that hurt me. I’ve done it, as my dedication says, for “young children with big ideas doing hard work.” And I’ve done it to give other people permission to do it too, to search and share from their hearts, to throw off shame and fear of worthlessness.
It’s bold, and I fear that I’m stepping into a role, grasping some right to empower others that no one ever said was mine. But maybe Someone did? Maybe the burning need to show and tell, maybe “a way with words,” maybe a romantic heart all add up to be a passport to step into other people’s thoughts and give them new language. So gutsy. So scary. Hopefully not so stupid.
I have read through this book so many times that I am often sick of it. All the editing and spelling checks, agonizing over word choice, choosing epigraphs, looking up rules can be tiresome. I grew somewhat numb to the content over the last few months. Then today, my editor sent me the typeset version to check and comb through.
My words, but more than that, my life, my capital “S” Story shone at me from my screen, looking like a book, something to be kept, to be shared, to be alive long after I die. I read for a while and saw it fresh: the story of a girl I learned to love. I felt so very proud of myself, the girl who had to live through all the crap before she could write about it, and I wept. I think about all the people I’ve fallen in love with, all the mothers, sisters, and friends I’ve clutched to my heart, writers of random books. I used to read the antique books my mom had out as decoration. I love to grab a used book I’ve never heard of from the Goodwill or bookstore shelf. Oh, how I hope to be someone’s sister-friend, to surprise them with how well I know them someday when I’m dead.
This process is hard. To be successful as an artist, you have to trust your instincts, try things that other people are too embarrassed to do, and make the offensive claim to the right to create. There’s an old ghost of a voice in my head that says, “Such a show-off. You should feel guilty for thinking so highly of yourself. How dare you tell the rest of us what to think.” I have to give myself some credit for these fears; even this year I’ve been called self-obsessed, navel-gazing. It felt so terrible; if that’s what I’m being by trying to be a writer, I’d honestly rather die (but not really because I figure my children would prefer a selfish bitch mother to no mother at all!).
So I fight the voices inside and the ones outside. I know the risk I’m taking. Some readers feel like cliffs. Sharing my words, my life is risky. It’s a jump off a bridge, and I won’t know until after I jump whether I’m headed into warm, Hawaiian waters or spiky stones. I might be hurt. I already have been. But not every time. Some of my advanced readers have let me fall into the bubble bath of their validation, their receptivity, their gratitude.
Writing cannot be about what other people think, and I fought through the whole writing process to listen carefully for my own small voice. But, now that the book is coming out, the first thing I have to do is try to get other people to think about it! I have to self-promote, to guess at how to curry favor and build platform while also staying committed to who I am. I have to humbly ask for blurbs and reviews. My ambitions yell, “the sky’s the limit!” while my budget and time constraints say, “oh, would you please calm down.”
But I’m loving it. Seeing these pages with their chapter headings and breaks, with my name and ISBN number feels like a miracle. “Launch” is the right word. I feel all the excitement and fear of a pilgrim voyager, eager to see the other side of the ocean.
Jessica Ribera‘s first book, The Almost Dancer, will be available this November from White Blackbird Books. Other work has appeared on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, Red Tricycle, The Brevity Blog, Fathom Magazine, and her own blog, jeskybera.com. She’d like to be a comedian someday.