Part I of this interview can be found here.
Lynn Lurie is the author of Corner of the Dead, winner of the 2007 Juniper Prize for Fiction, University of Massachusetts Press (2008) and Quick Kills, Etruscan Press. We recently had a delightful conversation about her writing, which I am happy to share with you. You can read Part I of our conversation here.
Quick Kills (and Corner of the Dead, for that matter) resonated so much for me with the experience of having recently read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, both in terms of fairy tale and in terms of the idea of trauma: experiencing trauma, “recovering” from trauma, and how one can repurpose or remake that trauma as narrative, and I’d love to hear any impressions you have of her work.
I read An Untamed State without taking a break. When a work of literature tracks my own sense of the world I am grateful for the connection. This writer is someone I know and who knows me even though we may never ‘meet’. In Corner of the Dead there is a rape scene and the victim, like Mireille, adopts a system of counting to try to free her mind from her body, which no longer belongs to her. The context for the violence is also very similar, spawned by a hatred that has longstanding origins in inequality, in war, in poverty. Until we address injustice this kind of violence will likely become more virulent and more frequent.
When Mireille returns to her parents’ house with the knowledge her parents failed to protect her, I was especially riveted, this is the core of QK, parents acquiescing in a daughter’s ‘death’ and refusing to acknowledge it. The parents in QK and An Untamed State had opportunity to take meaningful action that might have minimized the horror, but elected to turn away. They are the perpetrators alongside the “untamed” who are doing the actual heinous acts.
Children are told fairy tales as a warning. The warning is adults will not protect you, even the ones who promise to do so, and there are more dangers than can be named. Be wary, they tell us.
Narratives I have read of trauma are fragmented. They rely on the editor or scribe to impose a structure. How one remembers pain isn’t linear or chronological. I read testimony of victims of the violence perpetuated by the Shining Path and the military before writing Corner of the Dead. For QK I read testimony of children abused by the Catholic Church, sex traffic victims as well as accountings of the violence in Sierra Leone and Sarajevo. I am interested in these stories because they tell us so much about who we are, who we can become, how close to the wicked edge we are. These, however, are not fairy tales.
Yes, Renata Adler, so interesting you saw that, I read her quite some time ago and actually tried to find her to see if she would write a blurb for QK. I recently re-read Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, and it is obvious to me now that I have tried to emulate her use of the ellipsis and her manner of melding together seemingly unrelated events as the narrator unravels. On the issue of a woman falling apart, Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is remarkable. No one can invoke political terror like Herta Muller. I am fond of Xiaolu Guo, in particular her novel, Village of Stone.
I know you’re involved with Girls Write Now, which is such a fantastic organization, can you talk a little about that experience?
All children deserve a place of safety where they can experience success and experiment with their ideas. I knew children in my village who were exceptional yet their lives would not give them opportunity. GWN targets girls in New York City who need more access to resources. The girls are brimming with stories. I learn from their fervor and struggle. I am hopeful their voices can reach even the most disinterested. I have to believe a story like, “What is the What” makes the reader want to reaffirm his or her commitment to others. If I did not believe this, life is without purpose and that is too hard a truth. Can you imagine how many more “What is the What” stories there are to be told?
While we’re on that subject, I’d love to ask about the challenges of writing about/from the perspective of children. Who does it well, and how do you attempt to approach it? And then, too, the reliability/unreliability of child narrators in general.
I am not convinced we ever take leave of childhood. In part this may be because there is no natural delineation, even puberty is an extended process with no clear boundaries. But more likely, what happens in childhood–even with best efforts to separate from the past–influences the trajectory of our lives. We speak the language of childhood. It orders our thinking and as we learn new languages the earlier experiences with grammar and diction remain dominant.
I think children are or aren’t reliable narrators, not because of childhood, but because of circumstance, no different from an adult. Children tend to be credible because of their candor, whereas adults are skilled at censoring themselves. Editing and awareness of the consequences of what one says is learned later in life.
The short story “Orbit” by Noy Holland, is narrated by a young girl as she experiences the protracted death of her mother. The narrator is not an adult looking back; rather we are with her as she sees her mother leaving her, pain by pain. It is likely the children are not alone in the house, even though the narrator mentions no adults, but this isn’t important. There is no doubt that the children, especially the narrator, are absolutely adult-less. So while certain facts may not be accurate the emotion in the story couldn’t be any more reliable.
The young girl says, “I hold my breath between our breaths so she [mother] will not stop breathing. But sometimes I breathe. I cannot help from breathing.” We all remember making this kind of bargain. It allowed us to hope, that just maybe, with sacrifice it is possible to stave off the inevitable. Only a child could say, “Get me out of here. Unmother me.” The narrator’s voice is so wracked with grief that her too true story is indelibly etched in the reader’s memory.
Fleur Jaeggy in Sweet Days of Discipline and S.S. Proleterka write from the perspective of an adolescent girl. We are reminded how in adolescence we assess and analyze others’ stories for their honesty, especially when sex is involved. A young girl in boarding school describes an encounter with a man. The narrator thinks, “For a moment it occurred to me there was no man.” Adolescent girls are good at honing in on what is an exaggeration because they too, are prone to tell stories that aren’t entirely accurate. The narrator’s sister in QK tells her about a classmate living with an older man who is teaching her how to be a sexual being. The narrator doesn’t ask for details to further evaluate the veracity of the story, (something an adult might do) but simply asks, “Do you think she’s telling the truth.”
At the end of QK the narrator, who is no longer a child, has a very childlike desire. She hopes the parents will just disappear, as if this will make everything ok. Adults can be very childlike and the inverse is also true. This illogical comment doesn’t throw into doubt our understanding of the narrator; rather it makes her more accessible.
When a detail of childhood is recalled with specificity it can take us back to the point of reference. We know the narrator in Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline is an adolescent when she says, “Many of the girls possess diaries. With little brass studs. With keys.” This description returns me to my childhood bedroom where I am pulling the red bound book out from between the mattress and the bedspring, scribbling frantically in the dark. I hope the reader who has passed through public elementary school will trust that the narrator in QK is an adolescent when he or she reads, “At the entrance to the school cafeteria is a table with individual cartons of milk and a dish for money…. The women in blue hairnets sell blue and pink iced cupcakes.”
No, don’t make me look back. This isn’t solely because I don’t want to find faults but is related to why I wrote both novels: to get rid of them. They were burdening me, hurting me. I have in some small measure exorcised them. When I am asked to read something from QK I shudder as I sift through. I have not looked back at Corner of the Dead. A passage might come to mind, but I would not, as I would with any other book, re-read it. To re-read Jaeggy is a joy whereas to re-read Corner of the Dead would be quite uncomfortable.
Nicole is an Editor of The Toast.