Thank you, all, for being so supportive of The Butter’s first week. It has been a total blast and I can’t wait to see what this place becomes. I especially want to thank my colleagues Nicole Cliffe, Mallory Ortberg, Nick Pavich, Nicole Chung, and Maria Seiferle-Valencia. They made this week possible in so many ways. I also want to thank the intelligent, lovely writers who trusted their work to a new publication–Rion Amilcar Scott, Stacey May Fowles, Syed Ali Haider, Michelle Dean, Inda Lauryn, Alex Myers, Erin Zweiner, Lisa Wells, Laura Lippman, Trevor Dodge, Adrienne Celt, and Jessica Duncan.
I am surprised by how quickly fall came and went. One day, I looked out my window and enjoyed a bright shock of red and orange. Today, the trees are bare and spindly, skeletal.
Nikky Finney, who won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011, wrote this astounding meditation on watermelon and racism.
If you haven’t yet, take some time this weekend to see Beyond the Lights, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. That is, go see Beyond the Lights after you see the only movie I have been able to think of for the past year, Mockinjay. I wish I could tell you I was seeing the movie today, at least four times, but I have a broken ankle and am being held prisoner in my apartment. The good news is that my beloved Peeta will wait for me. In the meantime, I am consoling myself with my life-sized cutout of him.
Talented director Mike Nichols died this week and he will be missed. I was such a fan of his work and I plan on watching Working Girl this weekend because that is one awesome movie. It is worth reading this excellent profile of the man in The New Yorker.
Stacia L. Brown is one of my favorite cultural critics and for Colorlines, she wrote a fine, well-researched piece on black fatherhood.
Because she is perfect, Ina Garten has some advice about making your Thanksgiving dinner ahead. Foolproof!
Last night on Twitter, I was waxing rhapsodically about Scrubs, one of my favorite television shows of all time. This clip is endlessly funny to me.
Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns, is one of the most haunting, elegant, and insightful memoirs I’ve ever read. In it, Burns writes about a small industrial town, the kids who want nothing more than to escape that town, and a secret some girls dare to tell and some girls dare to hide. I had the opportunity to ask Amy Jo a few questions about her powerful book.
What did it take for you to write this book, and to reach back into not only your past, but the past of this town, Mercury, that was so indelibly changed by Mr. Lotte, the silence of some girls, the outcry of others?
When I first started writing nonfiction, Mercury was the one topic I didn’t dare write about. I told myself that my writing couldn’t do justice to this small town that still holds so much of my heart. Looking back now, I see that I was terrified of what it would cost me to tell the truth about my life there. In the meantime, I had amassed a lot of other pages of competent writing, but they meant very little to my readers because I’d put myself at very little risk.
>When a mentor of mine encouraged me to write about where I was from, I quickly discovered I couldn’t write about the things that gave me joy in Mercury without also recognizing the things that had caused me pain. I tried to avoid any memory of Mr. Lotte, but I still found evidence of him at every turn. I realized then that I didn’t need to put myself through a harsh interrogation about Lotte’s actions and the lies I’d told, as the police had done years ago with me and many of his other piano students. Instead I could open myself up to the truth by fully answering one question: What have I been silent about? This prompt allowed me to explore the psychological fallout of the town scandal rather than focusing on the scandal itself. When I felt my resolve weakening, I reminded myself that this wasn’t just my story, but it was our story–a story that belonged to all of Lotte’s students, to those who spoke out and those who did not.
This was as much a memoir of a small town as it was a personal memoir. Did Mercury feel more personified as you wrote Cinderland?
Absolutely. About halfway through writing the book, I realized that in some ways my memoir was a story about losing my first love–and it wasn’t a person that I’d fallen for. I’d long been in love with Mercury, the town that both bewitched and infuriated me, a place that had witnessed my greatest triumphs and my deepest regrets. In order to convey the strength of that attachment to the reader (as well as the sense of betrayal when so much of the town turned their backs on the girls who dared speak the truth about Mr. Lotte), Mercury needed to become a true character on the page, one with its own beauty and secrets and longings.
There were details of your experience with Mr. Lotte that you wrote more implicitly than explicitly. I admired the elegance of that choice and it reminded me, in some ways, of the approach Lidia Yuknavitch takes in her memoir The Chronology of Water. Why did you make this choice?
One of the toughest things for me to confront about what Mr. Lotte did was how very quiet it was. His subtle approach led me to question whether it had happened at all, which in effect led me to question my own character and integrity instead of his. That cycle existed for a lot longer than it should have, and I couldn’t deny its power as I started to examine my life. If the damaging effects of sexual violence were contained solely to the events themselves, we might stand a chance of actually grasping the depth of the psychological harm they cause. Its their tendency to slip into all of life’s “implicit” moments–from singing a solo on stage to sitting on the hood of a friend’s car to warming yourself at a campfire–that can make sexual violence such an insidious and ever-present reality.
I think it’s a memoirist’s duty to not only faithfully report the facts of her experience, but the emotional truth of that experience as well. Because I’d been silent for so long about Lotte’s crimes–so silent I couldn’t even admit them to myself–I felt it was important to portray the weight of that silence in every scene, every sentence, and every word. I felt the echoes of what Lotte had taken from me long before I heard the sound itself. The book couldn’t exist as an explicit explanation of the facts (which I attempted in many early drafts) because that wouldn’t honor the crooked, quiet paths of my memory.
I love that you mention Lidia Yuknavitch, as I’m a huge fan of her work. She writes in Chronology that she remembers things in “retinal flashes,” which is a brilliant insight into the necessarily jagged structure of memoir. Memory doesn’t bow to our perceptions of rational order. Its ethos is best revealed through shards and spirals and flashes.
At times, it felt like you were reaching for some kind of absolution for your absolutely understandable silence so many years ago. Do you feel like you were writing toward absolution in any way?
I do. The guilt I felt about remaining silent is a demon of mine that I really wanted to explore in the book. It offered much richer artistic territory for me than, say, exploring the ways in which I might have found healing or closure in my life. I find those ideas to be largely illusory and not nearly as compelling. I wanted to forge into my own darkness, and part of that darkness was my restless searching for a reprieve from regret. My choice to stay silent became a self-defining moment because I identified more as Lotte’s accomplice than his victim. That was a watershed realization for me. My regret had held me hostage by assigning me all of the blame and offering me no refuge. To persist in that belief meant to self-inflict the pain I ought to have attributed to Mr. Lotte all along. In order to dislodge this idea so embedded in my psyche, I had to pull it out of the darkness, regard it with a discerning eye, and let it speak for itself.
This week, I have been reading the most astonishing book, Man vs. Nature by Diane Cook. The stories are surreal, with the sharpest edge and in one way or another, each story reveals something raw and powerful about being human in a world where so little is in our control. What are you reading?
My lips have been so chapped. Thank goodness for lipgloss (mine is popping).
Enjoy Ryan Adams singing you into the weekend. Listen to this song at least thirty-three times.
Have a great weekend. See you on Monday!
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.