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Brittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels, including A Study in Charlotte, The Last of August, and The Case for Jamie, which will be released March 6, 2018. She’s also the author of the poetry collection Girl-King and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is a creative writing instructor at the Interlochen Arts Academy.
Can you tell us about the process of writing in a teenage boy mindset? Did you ever consider a different gender dynamic to Holmes and Watson? Such as two girls or two boys?
That’s a really good question, and I’ll start by answering the second part first. Holmes and Watson are interesting figures in the history of queer studies and queer theory, and there is a really strong case to be made that Holmes and Watson have a romantic connection in addition to a platonic one. There is some evidence that Doyle, in fact, based Sherlock Holmes and John Watson off of a pair of his friends who had lived together as “confirmed bachelors” in London for a long time. I would love to see some kind of canonical adaptation of Holmes and Watson that works really closely with the original Sherlock Holmes stories and re-imagines it as a queer relationship. But I’m not necessarily the person to write that story, and I was also keenly aware that it is not my place to be telling a lesbian version of Sherlock Holmes. There are [stories where] Holmes and Watson are re-imagined as lesbians, they’re just not been picked up by mainstream publishing in the same way, or they haven’t gotten the attention they deserve. The same goes with gay, male Holmes and Watson. There is, of course, a way to make them both girls or both boys and have it be a platonic relationship, but one of the most important things for me was creating a relationship that blurred the lines between friendship and romance in the way that a lot of really obsessive teenage relationships do. And in my own experience, in where I felt like I had the most right to be telling this story, I wanted them to be a boy and a girl.
In terms of writing in the voice of a teenage boy, I actually really enjoyed it. I never imagined writing in anybody else’s voice for the series – I knew I wanted Jamie Watson to be the world’s worst rugby-playing-teenage-boy-poet, and that was something I thought about quite a bit from the beginning. I think that teenage boys get the short end of the stick in a lot of ways. I feel like while we are expanding the representations of different kinds of teenage girls, we are sometimes forgetting about the complexities of teenage boys; that they evoke different kinds of gender expression in the same way that girls do. Jamie Watson is kind of a hot-headed romantic, and, in a lot of ways, he’s a lot more sensitive than Charlotte is, and in my own experience, that’s been the case as well: my male friends have felt things more deeply than I have. So, I drew Jamie a little bit from life, a little bit from my imagination, and a little bit from the original Dr. Watson and what I imagined he would’ve been like as a teenager before he evened out as an adult. That was where I started building Jamie.
How was it writing a mystery novel? How do you as a writer anticipate readers’ expectations and subvert them?
I hope I do that! I mean, we have certain expectations of a mystery novel, particularly ones having to do with murder – that you’re going to find a body, and that then you’re going to find a second body. You’re going to have a detective who exists a little bit outside of society, and because of that, has a unique view as they look in. The most important thing to me in writing the Charlotte books was that I wanted the girl to be the genius, and I wanted her to be the kind of genius that was frightening, not the kind of type-A perfectionist genius we see portrayed so often – that there was something raw, jagged, and frightening to her intelligence. In a lot of ways, I think the Charlotte series is a character study where they solve mysteries, rather than a mystery series that has some ongoing characterization, and some of my impetus for that comes from my changing relationship to the Sherlock Holmes stories as I’ve gotten older. When I was a kid, I loved those stories because they were wonderful, little puzzle boxes, but now, I’m more interested in the relationship between the outsider and the person you think of as his human credential. As in, you can say, “Holmes must be an all right guy because this really wonderful person is his best friend.”
One way I wanted to subvert original the Holmes and Watson relationship is that I think Jamie is still on his way towards being a good person as much as Charlotte Holmes is. He makes a lot of mistakes, and in the original Sherlock Holmes stories I think Watson is very steadfast, loyal, and not an incredibly dynamic character. So, I wanted to give Jamie a little bit more room to have flaws.
In terms of writing a mystery novel – don’t do it. *laughs* It’s a lot of fun, but you will find yourself constantly contradicting yourself and constantly making a giant muddle of your work. I think I tweeted when I was thinking about it a few months ago, something like, “revising a mystery novel feels like you have this giant, messy ball of yarn that has a grenade inside, and the only tool you have to open it is a chainsaw.” There’s no way it’s not going to end with dismemberment and blood. I’ve had to allow myself, as a novelist, to be messy in my plotting and in my decisions in a way I’ve never really allowed myself to be in my poetry, because in order to get the novel done, I have to say things I’m going to contradict later, I have to make decisions that are wrong, and characters will die who will have to be resurrected by the final draft. There’s a lot of stuff I have to ultimately fix. I think mystery novels seem very tightly plotted and controlled, but you’re only seeing the finished product. At least in terms of the way I work, I have to clean up all my edges, constantly, and that’s been a big challenge for me. It’s gotten a little bit easier as time has gone on, but when I was first writing A Study in Charlotte, I was like “Oh my god, what have I done!” *laughs*
When it comes to constructing a narrative, how did it differ when writing a poetry book versus a novel?
In terms of writing Girl King, originally the book wasn’t in sections: it was one long arc in terms of the poems. One thing that was really useful, actually, as I continued to revise the book, was putting it into smaller arcs and thinking about each section as a self-contained unit. Constructing a narrative of twelve poems was a lot more natural for me than constructing a narrative of, say, forty-eight poems. As I was used to constructing these smaller, tightly-constructed poems, so, I found that sections were really useful. I also was worried in the original few drafts of this book [Girl King] that the reader might trying to ascribe one speaker onto the “I,” to constantly return to this one conception of who is telling these stories, and that that reader would be looking for her narrative development over the course of the poems. I really think there are a number of speakers in the collection, and one thing that having it in sections de-emphasizes is the importance of having one voice in the collection. There’s this weird slippage with poetry much of the time. People really like to read autobiography into your poems, whereas nobody would read A Study in Charlotte and say, “I know you’re Jamie Watson,” and you reply “Yep, totally Jamie Watson!” *laughs*
But with Girl King, oftentimes I would put poems next to each other that very clearly had different speakers to try to trouble that idea a little bit and to break up the idea of who was talking. So, a lot of the construction of this [Girl King] has to do more with setting and with time-period. I like to think about those poems next to each other, speaking to each other. For example, maybe there will be a poem set in 1990’s, Illinois, next to a poem set in the nineteenth century, but I feel like the speakers are quite similar, and so we can kind of transition from one to the next in that way. Or, I will put two speakers from a similar time-place who are quite different people next to each other. I think quite a bit about creating tension in that way.
In terms of writing a novel, it’s just very different. I would think quite a bit about how the events of the novel mimic the character’s internal journeys throughout the course of the book – if my characters are moving from this emotional point to this emotional point, how can I put them through a series of emotional events that would lead them there, and how do those events, and what they are, mimic the internal struggle of these characters?
What made you choose to write about the descendants of a fictional character and making the ancestors real in the world of the novel? How true did you feel you needed to be to the source material? How do you make it fresh for a 21st century audience?
Woof. *laughs* For the third question, I just hope I have! I guess to answer the other questions, we Sherlockians do a thing called playing the Great Game, or the Grand Game, depending on what continent you’re on. What we do, we strange group of people, is that we pretend Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were real, Dr. Watson wrote the stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the literary agent, and all the inconsistencies in the stories add up in some way, or are mistakes that Dr. Watson himself had made when he was writing the stories. We do that because there are a lot of inconsistencies and mistakes. Jamie points out a few of these over the course of A Study in Charlotte; he breaks down “The Speckled Band” and all of the errors Doyle made while writing it.
I wanted to make my Holmes and Watson, Charlotte and Jamie, the descendants of Holmes and Watson for a couple of reasons. The first is, if we suppose Holmes and Watson were real, then we have all of this amazing, weird expectation placed on any descendants they might have. So, if they were real people in the world they would have been quite famous; they would have had a kind of celebrity that was really troubling for the descendants who felt they had to live up to it. In a lot of ways, I wanted to mirror the feeling you have when you’re a teenager, when you feel like there is a certain amount of expectation placed on you by your parents—whether it’s to be like them, to not be like them, or to perform in some proscribed way they’ve set up for you. So, I felt there was kind of a nice mirror there; there was a way for me to satisfy some of my Sherlockian impulses while also staying true to the spirit of Young Adult fiction.
In terms of it being new – well, it’s interesting. I think there are a lot of adaptations that focus on the ways in which a modern-day Sherlock Holmes would be a technological wizard, and I think that definitely has merit. But the thing that drew me to writing a story like this was that I love campus novels. I love boarding school novels, and there seemed something kind of strange about Charlotte having her own CSI lab in the middle of a setting like a boarding school. So, in terms of keeping it fresh or new for a modern day audience, I tried to focus on the characters themselves feeling modern rather than the trappings, or the means of deduction, feeling hyper-modern, because I’m not a technological expert. So, quite a few of things I have Charlotte focus on are spy training techniques, a lot of MI5 stuff, that doesn’t require technology. She knows how to tell if people are lying, which I now know how to do since I had to study it for Charlotte – it’s weird, to be able to look at someone you don’t know and be like … *makes a telling look, laughs*
In A Study in Charlotte, Watson struggles with his national identity, stating, “In England, I was an American. Here it was the opposite.” As your work seems to center around Anglo topics, do you see this sense of national fluidity in yourself?
At the time I was writing Girl King and A Study in Charlotte, I was thinking a lot about those questions. I had been living in Scotland for a while; I had plans to move back to Scotland, and, at that point, I was thinking quite a bit about what it meant to be an American abroad. I had never felt so American as I did when I was outside of America, and that was a really strange and interesting experience for me. I think that feeling of being an outsider, no matter where you are, is something you feel a lot when you’re a teenager, whether you’re trespassing on another social class, or trespassing in somebody else’s family – that you don’t belong where you are, this idea that you’re never exactly quite right. That was something I wanted to underscore with Jamie Watson. Another reason why I made Jamie this outsider was in tribute to the original Dr. Watson, who comes back from the war in Afghanistan to London where he’s friendless and alone. I wanted to think about what that would be like for a sixteen year-old boy, minus some of the trauma, which is also something Doyle doesn’t really explore. His Dr. Watson has old war wounds – although, with Doyle’s inconsistencies, sometimes the wound is in his leg and sometimes it’s in his shoulder, which is part of the reason why on page one of A Study in Charlotte, Jamie says he misses “London like an arm, or a leg.” *laughs* Sometimes I don’t know why anybody reads these books; I just wrote them for myself!
That was one way I thought about it; that Jamie didn’t necessarily have a home he felt he could go to, especially in America with his father nearby who he wasn’t close to – that he would feel quite like an outsider. I really dislike the word “Anglophile,” but I suppose, in some ways, you could say I am one or someone who is really comfortable and happy in Scotland. When I was living there, I found the sense of history really fascinating. I loved the idea that I could stand somewhere and that place had existed for a long time. I had a Scottish boyfriend for a long time, and when he came to visit me in the States, he made the observation that America feels like it could blow away at any time, like a bazaar, or a county fair. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for months after he’d said it.
I’m really interested in exploring that sense of being uncomfortable where you are, and what is productive about that feeling of being uncomfortable. If you were standing just outside something, how does that change your relationship to it rather than participating in it? Some of it just comes down to being a writer, in that I watch myself watching things all the time. There’s nothing so acute as the experience of being a foreigner, and I really liked being a foreigner, which probably says strange things about me.
In your poems, you blend together historical, mythical, and pop-culture references seamlessly. Is there a process of choosing these? And is there a worry that these references will clash with one another if you choose them?
I really feel I have less agency about what goes into the poems than I do about what goes into the novels, in that sometimes the reference just sort of presents itself, or I get really, really stuck on a title [a poet friend like Rebecca Hazelton] has given me… In terms of this, so much of the time I think that when I’m writing a poem, I am writing it to revise something that really bothers me, and that botheration doesn’t have to be negative, necessarily, it could just be an idea that I get stuck on. As a kid, I was pretty obsessive. If I liked something I really, really liked it, and I think I learned how to channel that into writing. And so, if I watch something and I really love it, I will watch it four hundred more times, and then I will write something about it. I love the things I love to death, I guess.
What’s an example?
Sherlock Holmes, obviously. When I was a kid, the X-Files… but yeah, I just am sort of obsessive and sometimes I think about my poems as an encyclopedia of things that I haven’t been able to get rid of. There’s a Marie de France lai I wrote about in Girl-King about a woman who was accused of cheating because she is carrying twins, the idea being that, if you have two fetuses inside you, they have to be the result of parentage of two men. And I just thought about that all the time for some reason and I’m not sure why. Mostly, because I think it—we tell stories to explain the world, but sometimes the story that you choose to tell to explain the world is a shitty one, like this Marie de France story. What can we make of that? I wanted to explore it.
I was really obsessed for a really long time with Victorian magicians. There was a year… the best year of my life was the year that there were two Victorian magician movies that came out, The Prestige and The Illusionist—do you remember that? They came out at the same time! I was like, ‘I don’t know even know what’s happened here!’ I love Nicola Tesla, I love the horrible monster that was Thomas Edison, I have no idea why I love these things, but I just do. And I think a lot of the time, my poems are my way of explaining to myself why I love them or why I was bothered by them, or both. And I usually love things that have a big flaw in them that don’t let me step inside of them completely, and my writing is a way of fixing that or revising it. …Like my Berryman imitations, where John Berryman is my favorite poet, and his depiction of women and black people is just flawed, offensive, and occasionally straight-up gross…And yet, the way he works with language is so interesting to me and was so influential; I started rewriting his poems phrase by phrase, making his Henry into a woman—which I hope offends him, wherever he is—and trying to explore, at least, my feelings on gender. I don’t think I’m the person to rewrite Berryman’s poems on racial politics; that’s not something that I’m qualified to do… Tyehimba Jess has rewritten some of the Dream Songs, like in his pom “Freed Song”, which is wonderful. But yeah, so some of my work was intriguing to work out like ‘what is it with Berryman?’ and ‘why do I love him and how can I fix this’, which is not to say my poems are doing anything but satisfying some need for me to talk back to those poems.
Have you ever purposefully, or unconsciously, written poetry about your Sherlock Holmes series? Is there a process that gives the characters more depth, or tell you new things about them?
So my second poetry collection, Unhistorical, has a long murder mystery about Holmes and Watson, as Holmes and Watson. That’s coming out next year… The Holmes and Watson poems I was writing were trying to speak more directly to some ideas I have about power, genius, and agency than what I think the Charlotte Holmes book are doing, and the poems—those Holmes and Watson poems I’ve written—are also in conversation with the more contemporary poems in that manuscript, in that they depict a relationship that the Holmes and Watson one. I want those to be read on top of each other as much as possible. So much of what I love is from the nineteenth century, and getting to write from a place where I can use that diction is creatively fruitful for me. I also think that those concerns from Doyle’s stories are pretty contemporary, ight? Like, who has more power in the relationship and why is the question that I think we ask a lot in all of our friendships and relationships in the day to day, even if we aren’t aware we’re asking it. There is a poem in Girl-King that I think about as the precursor to the Charlotte Holmes books. It’s called “Autotheism” which is the word for the worship of oneself as a god. The poem is set in contemporary America, and while it’s not explicitly about her, I very much had a young, female, Sherlock Holmes in mind when I wrote that.
How do you form multi-faceted characters like Holmes, and what is that process like?
I like to start with conflict. I like to start with people who are very conflicted internally, and are in conflict—whether it’s friendly or unfriendly—with the people around them. And then I like to see what decisions they make and what they want to say to each other. Most of my character discovery comes through dialogue. I really like having one character take offense at something the other said, and then just seeing what happens. Even if a lot of that doesn’t actually make its way into the final novel, it’s really educational for me about my characters. And in terms of poetry, and in terms of writing fiction, it’s all about voice—what would they say, why would they say it, how would they say it, would they be silent, would they stare you down until they make you speak? Those are all interesting questions for me, and I think they can tell us a lot about a person. But I’m also hyper-verbal, and so it can just be I’m drawing from my own experience.
What would be your advice for aspiring, young writers?
Don’t specialize. Take as many different classes in as many different things as you can. Study each one of them deeply. Spend a semester just writing fiction, even if you think you’re a poet. Spend a semester writing poetry, even if you think you’re a fiction writer. If something interests you, and you can fit it in your schedule and you can check off some requirement with it, do it. I really always wished I could have taken an Anthropology class in undergrad, but didn’t. When I graduated, I realized, ‘oh, I guess I’m just…never going to take an anthropology class.’ All information is useful to have. And what I draw on when I’m writing, sometimes I bring up stuff from years and years and years ago. Keep your notebooks, keep your old class notebooks. I refer to notes I took in my university Shakespeare course all the time. Give yourself occasional permission to slack on something else if it means to get your writing done. One weekend, you can be a really bad friend, or a really bad student. You can’t do it all the time, but sometimes you’re going to have to make a decision, and occasionally your writing has to win…and that was a big issue for me in my twenties when I was teaching and I was taking classes and I was trying to hang out with people and trying to live my life. It was hard to find the time to write because it’s so solitary, and you never know if it’s going to be any good, but you have to prioritize it. I think one thing that is easy to forget when people are telling you that, is that something else has to lose for a little while. So something can lose for two hours on Sunday for you to write; something can lose for you to write on Monday morning; something can lose on Friday night. Not all the time, but you need to figure out a way to put the work in.
About the authors of this post: this interview was a collaboration between the entire Winter 2018 staff of 30 North.
Want to read a previous interview with Brittany Cavallaro? Click here.
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Dear Tatiana and Mike
Hunger is probably one of the most heart-wrenching and powerful memoirs I have ever read. Written by Roxane Gay, the author of Difficult Women, Hunger is a personal and harrowing tale that details her struggle with weight and how it has impacted her childhood, teens, and twenties. In the beginning, she opens up with the struggle of dealing with her “wildly undisciplined” body and how she claims she is “trapped in in a cage” (Gay 17) because of the rape she suffered when she was twelve years old. So, she turned to food as a comfort, gaining more and more weight because “[If] I [Gay] felt undesirable, then I could keep more hurt away” (Gay 15). I felt a strong sense of understanding with this topic. I don’t know about you guys, but while I’ve never struggled with my weight, I know first hand about what trauma can do and how it can decimate a person until they are nothing. You feel like nothing so you treat yourself like you are nothing because that’s what you feel what you deserve.
I liked how straight-forward and honest about the content of her memoir, stating that “This is not a weight-loss memoir. There will be no picture of a thin version of me, my slender body emblazoned across this book’s cover…Mine is not a success story. Mine is, simply, a true story” (Gay 4). I find myself admiring her cutthroat approach of warning the reader that not every book will have happy endings. Life is full of hardships; most things will inevitably get worse before it gets better, until you reach a place in your life to balance out the bad and the semi-good things that come across your life.
I look forward to hearing from the both of you soon,
Dear Tiara and Mike,
I also found Hunger to be a very well written and powerful memoir. This novel really helped me to understand Gay’s struggles in ways I never would have imagined. Gay’s trauma plays a very large role in her struggle with her body, and in a way this memoir puts you into her body and makes you feel all of her imperfections. Like Tiara I also felt as if I could better understand her point of view when Gay went into detail about her trauma. She looks at her body as a constant physical reminder of the trauma she endured: “The past is written on my [Gay] body. I carry it every single day,” (Gay 41). Through all of this, she also struggles to fully tell her story for the next 25 years and had chosen to keep this trauma a secret from everyone. However, now that she is in the state of mind to be able to write this memoir she is also able to begin to unravel how she felt, and how this trauma has shaped her mind. “Those boys treated me [Gay] like nothing so I became nothing,” (Gay 45). This analogy works really well in that it paints a picture of what’s wrong with anti-feminist thinking. Girls’ bodies are viewed as objects that are only in existence to serve men. So, when you ingrain this into a twelve-year old girl’s brain that her assault is a result of her having a nice body, then it only makes sense that she would in turn choose to destroy it to avoid having to face that trauma again. However, it wasn’t until high school that she learned that, “being raped wasn’t my [Gay’s] fault,” (Gay 71). Yet, even with this new possibility of healing we see that Gay doesn’t see herself being able to truly heal.
Gay’s trauma being a key factor for her weight gain is very in tune with current social issues. I think that is what made this novel so successful was it’s urgency with a topic so prevalent. She cites many examples of how she is discriminated in the American culture because she is overweight. We see the importance of understanding mental illness in today’s society. Without understanding Gay’s mental struggles over most of her life we wouldn’t really be able to see how that has shaped who she is. Without this back story all we see is a woman who became medically overweight, but once we have the trauma we understand that she is a woman who is a victim of rape culture. Eating was Gay’s coping mechanism, and not a result of being lazy. In a world where girls are told to dress more conservatively to avoid harassment from boys, Gay’s adolescent self took that one step further and changed her body to protect herself.
One thing I noticed that was very prominent in this section was that Gay tip-toed around the subject of her trauma before diving in with details. This left me feeling somewhat confused because for a while I didn’t think she was ready to acknowledge that part of her life. With this being such a sore subject I began to wonder if the trauma was too painful for her to write about. However, then she dove in and that part felt somewhat abrupt to me. The writing leading up to the story didn’t seem to flow very well into it. Once she had actually gotten into the story I feel that the writing became more comfortable and all of her ideas began to reconnect.
I look forward to your thoughts,
Dear Mike and Tatiana,
Following up with Tatiana’s statements, Gay elaborates how, while she is the cause for her weight gain, she does not agree with the extreme health and beauty standards that America has adopted. Obesity is not only looked down upon in America, but in several different cultures as well. Gay is Haitian-American and in her heritage and household, being overweight becomes a huge concern. She states “when you are overweight in a Haitian family, your body is a family concern” (Gay 55), mostly, as she also explains, is the fact that they associate being overweight with being gluttonous. As some of you may know, Haiti is (sadly) mostly known for being underdeveloped and poverty stricken. Though this is just a common stereotype, people only have an outside point of view. However, because of the psychological trauma she suffered as a result of her rape, she is never successful in keeping the weight off for long. Both cultures have a very negative outlook on individuals who are overweight and while not all people think that way, the media portrays it as such.
This is very disheartening because not every person that is considered “skinny” are not always considered healthy and not every person who is considered “fat” is not always unhealthy. I have a family member that is constantly struggling with her weight because of her battles with depression and bipolar disorder. Because of this, she has adopted unhealthy eating habits, finding comfort in the one thing that continues to impact her negatively until this date. She also suffers from a number of different health complications like diabetes and sleep apnea. It can be frustrating to see how unhappy she is because of the way she looks. I don’t know about you guys, but it’s hurtful to watch the ones you love destroy themselves from the inside-out. It can be frustrating to see how unhappy they are because of the way they look. As I got older, I realized that the way you see yourself is all about perception and the cultural values which can impact those that do not fit within the norms. The terms “skinny” and “fat” have both become so skewed by society, that many people grow up not ever being fully comfortable with themselves because the definitions of the terms change so frequently even though the human body can not
Let’s talk about this some more in our next correspondence,
Dear Tatiana and Tiara:
I hope you both appreciated that I actually had to get out of bed to make coffee in order to write this and have it make sense. I was not coherent about 10 minutes ago.
You two have raise quite a few points about the struggles that this young woman faces with her introduction into American society. The literature is insightful into a very real situation that exists, especially in America. People who visit from foreign countries may be taken off guard with the harsh body standards that are present here. This is not to say that Haitians don’t like to eat, but they have a different societal expectation. In fact “Haitians love the food from our island, but they judge gluttony” (Gay 55). In America, gluttony is not such a publicly shameful thing, but being raised with different values has effects on people. Gay is one such example where her perception of body image was thrown off with the negative outlook she started to have about herself when she learned how the terms “fat” and “skinny” were used so extremely. Though she suffered with these standards, she also gained insight into how Americans differ from other countries’ populations and how people view themselves.
The fact that we mention that the author appears to tip toe around the recollection of past events in her life is an interesting prospect. One would beg the question as to why this might be the case. A few suggestions come to mind after reminding me what I had read. Gay could be nervous about remembering what had occurred in her life, not wanting to have to recall the traumatic experiences and the feelings associated with them. Another possibility is that she aimed to entice the reader to keep reading the work about gain more interest as time goes on. It could be as simple as a marketing ploy, but most would tend not to think this way. There are multiple interpretations that one could develop by journeying through this memoir. Perhaps one of you could offer some insight into her struggle with her body.
Dear Tiara and Mike,
To further dive into what Mike was working through on Gay’s struggle, I feel that Gay makes a point to say that the struggle she faces with her body is even more complicated by the shame she feels. Fat-shaming becomes an ever-present problem for her in her daily life, which we see when she says, “When I am walking down the street, men lean out their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, how they see it, and how it upsets them that I am not catering to their gaze,” (Gay 188). She explains that this creates a conflicting environment for her (Gay 199). There is shame in the fact that she would have an eating disorder as a fat girl. She tells us that people are more likely to support correcting an eating disorder.
I think Gay hits the mark with another major social issue within this section, which I think only strengthen her writing. The last few years have been dedicated to focusing on body positivity. We see actors and singers like Demi Lovato who suffered with eating disorders as well as bipolar disorder. We also see actors like Jennifer Lawrence who worked to be a strong female lead that looks healthy instead of too skinny. We’ve even seen some countries like France ban the use of models that look too underweight from modeling as well as an increase in the amount of “plus-size” modeling included in magazines. The world is trying to move to a place that eradicates shame for being bigger. However, we still tend to really only focus on eating disorders where the person is only becoming too skinny. If they’re already fat we don’t really see it as an issue, but rather as a solution. This is what Gay made a point of when explaining her own struggle with eating disorders. She suffered from bulimia, but she never got to the point where she was skin and bones. Her body remained “imperfect.” Using this point of view on eating disorders helps us to see why Gay struggled so much in truly being able to come to terms and accept that she had an actual eating disorder that needed medical attention. She let it go on because she knew society didn’t see it as that big of an issue.
Dear Tiara and Tatiana:
As I eat my incredibly unhealthy fast food, I am writing about eating disorder which is ironic to say the least. I have a McChicken and some fries to be exact.
Eating disorders are another major concern that many people have sensitivity to. It would be best that we stride carefully when referring to these concerns. It looks like we are doing just fine at this point which is great. The eating disorder that Gay faces in this book is a detail that could stand for a little more detail. That being said, I would propose the question of when Gay originally became aware of the eating disorder. The issues could stem from the manner in which she was raised and the values that she was raised by. She may not have been considered to have an eating disorder until certain people came across her and decided as such. Gay’s journey back through her younger years is as much of a recollection as it is a way for her to see how much outsiders influenced how she felt about herself.
Body positivity is another movement that we can appreciate throughout this book. People are typically supported when they decide to change their eating habits, but in a healthy manner. This memoir shows this by sharing how she “became vegetarian because [she] needed a way of ordering [her] eating that was lee harmful” (Gay 199). Gay went through her situation at a time before the body positivity movement was blown up as it is today. However, one could note that body image problems have always been present among woman and men, and especially focused in America. Only recently has it grown enough to sincerely be supportive. This is a good theme from the book: addressing body image concerns.
From the warmth of my bed,
Afterword from the Writers
Roxane Gay’s Hunger focuses on immediate social issues of body image. The book was written as a memoir to her body and she does something out of the box by using her body as a vessel to truly represent these issues. She brings to light issues such as stereotyping, mental health, eating disorders, and fat shaming all by using her own experiences. In these experiences we see firsthand that these issues are very real and in turn can have a depreciating effect on the human body.
About the Author: Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, the nationally bestselling Difficult Women and the New York Times bestselling Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. She has several books forthcoming and is also at work on television and film projects.
About the Authors of this Post: Tiara Hawkins is a junior majoring in English with a writing emphasis. She enjoys reading and sleeping when she is not working or going to school. She works as a reader and operates the Facebook and Tumblr page for 30 N.
Michael Larrea, on his last term at North Central College, is majoring in Information Technology. His knowledge of how to make equipment work really helps with events that 30 North has wanted to host this year. He is forward thinking and expressive with his ideas.
Tatiana Guerrero is a senior at North Central College pursuing an English writing degree. She loves curling up on the couch with a good thriller novel and a hot cup of coffee. After graduation she hopes to pursue a career in publishing.
Mark & Thom,
When I saw this book on our reading list, I was overjoyed. I knew of Murakami from my dad (an avid reader) and from of my interest in Japanese culture, but had never acted on the impulse to read his work. Truthfully, I haven’t read for my own enjoyment in quite some time, and even though Men Without Women was an assignment, the book was glued to my hand this week as I found quiet, leaf-coated nooks on campus to escape. To me, there is something about Murakami’s style that draws you in from the first line, a kind of carefully constructed simplicity carrying so much meaning. For example, the very beginning of “An Independent Organ” – “There are people in the world who – thanks to a lack of intellectual acuity – love a life that surprisingly artificial.” In one sentence, Murakami easily describes the superficial way some people live, some of whom with we have all interacted at some point. As he expresses so much in so little time, it makes me wonder how the original text is worded in Japanese. If I can find a copy, I will try to use my limited knowledge of the language to learn something new and include it in my next letter if I succeed.
But, in just the title, Men Without Women – there lies the core of all seven stories. Most of the men spiral downwards when they have lost the women, each fall taking shape in individual forms of sorrow, despair, or longing. Yet, Murakami still varies the narrative: Samsa from “Samsa in Love” is a man without a woman, unknowingly, until he meets the locksmith, and Kitaru from “Yesterday” does not become one until the end, and is better for it. Habara from “Scheherazade” is only one because he has the aforementioned eponymous woman, but not completely. All the works have varying plots and types of conflict, but if there is a man without a woman, there is also a man with one. It reminds me somewhat of Newton’s third law, where for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Reactions, complementary and contrary to emotional loss, permeate the collection.
This theme of loss, while still engrossing, is repetitive, but reflects how a certain course of events tend to repeat over and over, mirroring reality. Murakami even states how constant loss can influence a person in Men Without Women: “You might meet a new woman, but no matter how wonderful she may be . . . from the instant you meet, you start thinking about losing her” (224). Paranoia sinks in from the start, regardless of anything else. With this truth, Murakami’s take on the loss of love is fresh, detailed, and relatable, even with a pattern that has occurred forever, one that we still find ourselves in from time to time. I use the word “we” because as much as the book is about men, it is about women – after all, men cannot be without women if they do not exist. Messy, sometimes unhealthy relationships are the focal points of the work, only from a male perspective. Having specifically men narrating the stories was also a necessary choice Murakami made to describe the loneliness and pain of loss, as the women depicted did not suffer in the same way. Whenever they left the protagonists, the women usually had someone, whether a boyfriend, husband, lover, or family, to be with them. The men were left in a snowstorm, barely able to see a hand in front of their faces. Feeling themselves disappear, they remained cold, empty, alone, and exactly where Murakami wanted them.
Kaitlin & Thom,
Kaitlin, I hope you have the opportunity to read Murakami’s work in the original language. Translation can sometimes lose nuances in the original text. I also have an interest in Japanese culture and Murakami took common individuals, with common problems, and made them interesting.
I feel that a theme of choice is also present within Men Without Women. We see men and women make them, and see the consequences of the decision. In “Yesterday,” Kitaru’s situation is summed in his line “I known her since she was a kid, and it’s kind of embarrassing, y’know, to act like we’re just starting out.” In one choice, Kintaru sets the course of his relationship with Erika. They miss out being together because Kitaru makes the choice to not push forward, and Erika chooses to not share her feelings with him. With “An Independent Organ,” Dr. Tokai chooses to date married women, and the same women choose to cheat on their husbands. Wrong as Dr. Tokai’s action are, he didn’t trick the women. In the end, Dr. Tokai discovers the women are using him, and he lets that knowledge destroy him. Through each of his stories, Murakami is reminding readers that we live in a messy, complicated world.
Personally, I’ve dreaded facing a sentiment Murakami has chosen as the core of his stories: loneliness. The last few years I have filled my days with so much noise as to forget my own loneliness. I fell into video games as an escape. My life followed a pattern: wake up, work my survival job, and play video games until I fell asleep. This mechanical pattern repeats often in each of Murakami’s short stories, like Kafuku, in “Drive My Car.” Since picking up Men Without Women, the loneliness that Murakami infused the soul of his stories with has pushed its way back up from that dark recess inside me, that “deep down inside your body” as Murakami put it, and left me lying awake at 4am.
I’ve lost women in my life. Two girlfriends I loved and was with for several years each. Both left, they didn’t die, they just walked away. I stood alongside each character in Murakami’s stories and felt what they felt. Except in “An Independent Organ.” I never understood the ‘casual dating’ most people do. Kino’s numbness to pain in “Kino.” Kitaru’s feeling of worthlessness in “Yesterday.” Those feelings, though, are all too familiar to me. I’ve tried to escape the grey landscape that all men without women live in. I, like Gregor Samsa in “Samsa in Love,” felt trepidation towards the new world–social scene–that we had awakened to.
Just like the “red-wine stain on a pastel carpet,” loneliness creeps and spreads out from it’s initial contact with your soul. It starts to affect you in other parts of your life. I hesitate to open up and let others know what I’m thinking or feeling. Last year, a class assignment on writing nonfiction experimental–a story of something happening as it’s happening–led me to write about my attempt at socializing again. So, I went out to a bar. I didn’t talk with anyone. I just sat on the stool, drank my beer, then left. In a weird way, that memory makes me feel just like Kamita in “Kino”, sitting quietly in the corner while passively sipping his drink and reading his book. I’ve tried to fill the loneliness with new friends, but it pushes back. I end up keeping everyone at arm’s length. In time, even they drift away. I form relations with nameless, featureless faces among crowds.
Kaitlin and Mark,
I find your interpretation of “choice” to be rather interesting, as, in my observations, Murakami’s stories express a theme of external “choice.” That our choices are not true representations of our free will, but rather responses to the choices that life has presented before us. Take the examples of Dr. Tokai and Kino. Both find themselves alone, in a room, dwelling upon the loneliness of their lives. Dr. Tokai chooses to waste away, while, though his narrative ends before any conclusive elements, Kino appears to move on. In Kino’s case, this option for reflection is placed before him in what he literally believes to be a manifestation of the tree by his house; the tree is presented to be symbolic of life, so it ties back to the idea of life presenting choices. Another example of such a “choice” would be Kafuku and his driver Misaki. Though she has been placed into his life by what seems to be divine will (in the story it is said that his associate recommends her, but in an literary sense, that’s essential a disguised deus ex machima.). Though it is not inherently implied that any sort of romantic connection could arise between the two, Misaki’s professional silence allows time for Kafuku to reflect and therefore choose to open up.
The book itself serves as a sort of meta-opportunity for the reader to reflect and potentially, through potential emotional connections to those represented in the book, choose to open themselves up as well.
Mark & Thom,
Choice and loneliness. These two themes you have brought into discussion have great influences each other in human behavior, which is what Murakami does best – portraying simple, heartbreaking reality.
People make bad choices. Everyone does, without exception; it is a fact of life. Mark, your mention of nonfiction brought up a memory which I described in a nonfiction story I wrote last year about a time when I was overcome with jealousy. An outgoing, peppy girl – my opposite – was befriending a girl to whom I felt quite close, and one day I made an overtly possessive remark. A selfish decision; an unfortunate choice. I do not know how that may have influenced my future relationship with my friend, but I know my actions were caused by a fear of abandonment. In other words, a fear of loneliness.
Loneliness influences us to make decisions to counter it, whether it be lying to keep a significant other, joining a club, or immersing oneself in novels, befriending characters because reality is too difficult. These decisions made to avoid isolation occur frequently in Men Without Women. Kafuku sought out Takatsuki for revenge, but also because he didn’t want to share the grief of his wife’s death alone. Even though they didn’t have the same level of pain, he desired companionship with someone who knew her almost as well. Erika Kuritani made the choice of sleeping with the man from the tennis club to quench her loneliness because Kitaru couldn’t be there to support her. She also lied to Kitaru because she didn’t want to suffer from his loss. Even Kitaru made a major choice to avoid isolation – adopting the Kansai accent because he didn’t want to be treated like an outsider at the Hanshin Tigers’ games. The gravity of this decision does not come across in English, but in Japanese the accent is immediately discernible from the standard Tokyo style with its elongated vowels, different contractions, and constant cacophony. Think of a harsh Brooklyn accent – while still English, the words seem so otherworldly and different. Kitaru altering his entire sound and speaking style (a large portion of one’s identity as it indicates the culture of where one was raised) just to “be part of the community” during a baseball game shows how much he needed to belong (43). We seek human connection and will do a number of things, horrible, ambitious, and selfish, to keep ourselves from being without it.
I have never been, by a basic definition, a lonely person. I’ve always had many friends with few conflicts and have dated my first boyfriend for over two years, so I haven’t experienced loss or heartbreak like the men in Murakami’s stories. But, from time to time I find myself struck with a kind of loneliness when I’m at parties or in large groups of friends. Everything is fine, and suddenly I’m pushed into the depths of a murky lake. I can hear the gurgled laughs and am periodically blinded by fleeting rays of joys, but I can’t feel the warmth. Tethered to the bottom, I smile, too, but know they are out of reach. It’s usually spurned by a shared gaze or a joke I do not understand, but, in those moments I become an outsider instantaneously.
I could make choices to establish deeper relationships to avoid this feeling, but something always holds me back. Like Kitaru, I busy myself with silly things rather than with what can be done to procure boundless possibilities. Something holds me back, and I remain stagnant.
P.S. In examining my Japanese copy of Men Without Women, I discovered that “Samsa in Love” was not originally included, but was placed in the English version. This was a surprise, but made sense, as I thought that story felt a bit out of place. Gregor Samsa is also not Murakami’s own character. Just some food for thought.
Kaitlin and Thom,
Kaitlin, your words of being in a “murky lake” and “tethered to the bottom” is like Scheherazade’s story of the lamprey and the trout. Is that how we are going to live our lives? I can’t believe I would ever befriend the guy my girlfriend or spouse cheated with, Kafuku did.. That’s just too…well, messed up. You mentioned the chapter on “Samsa in Love,” which I thought was an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
I was up all night again yesterday. Murakami’s story of “Scheherazade” bothered me.Things left unfinished, left unsaid: “what he really wanted, he thought, was for her to tell him the rest of her story, but he didn’t put that into words. Doing so might jeopardize his chances of ever hearing it.” I met a girl on an elevator Saturday. The opportunity to chat was there, but I let it slide away, just as Kitaru slides away from Erika in “Yesterday”. Kitaru’s lyrics, “Yesterday/ Is two days before tomorrow,” are they pointing out the present is what’s missing? We worry about what is gone, we long for a future that waits a day out of reach, all the while wasting the single moment that we actually live in.
Last night I puzzled over a passage from “Drive My Car.” Murakami wrote “He didn’t want to imagine such things, but he couldn’t help it. The images whittled away at him like a sharp knife, steady and unrelenting. There were times he thought it would have been far better to never have known.” It ties back to the unfinished story of “Scheherazade.” I wonder at Murakami’s message. Is our desire to know what keeps us unable to move out of stagnation, out of loneliness? All the years I spent in solitude, wondering what was wrong with me that made my previous girlfriends leave, could have been avoided. I just needed to let go and move on. Murakami’s phrases between “Drive My Car” and “Scheherazade” make me think it is those individuals who cling to what was lost, analyzing every little detail, that end up alone. The inability to let it go drives us into a deeper pit. Does the pain and emptiness fade if we abandon seeking the truth in situations like those of Men Without Women?
I hope so.
About the Author: Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949. He grew up in Kobe and then moved to Tokyo, where he attended Waseda University. After college, Murakami opened a small jazz bar, which he and his wife ran for seven years.
In 1978 Murakami was in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat. According to an oft-repeated story, in the instant that he hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night.
About the Author’s of this Post: Kaitlin Koncilja is a freshman at North Central College majoring in Psychology and Sociology. She enjoys Japanese, video editing, and writing poetry. She hopes to work in criminal research while still finding time for her other passions.
Daniel Clowes is considered one of the most notable comic artists of our era, and has had a couple of his works made into feature length films. An example of this would be his book Ghost World, about two girls and their journey after replying to a man’s newspaper ad for a date, which was turned into a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch. He tends to feature lonely, self-loathing men who want to feel connected, but push away those that try to get close; the male ego is a constant in his works. In “Ghost World”, the man from the newspaper ad exemplifies these traits. In “Patience”, Clowes has made subtle changes of this theme, while also still remaining true to his tendencies.
As the story begins, it’s 2012 and Jack Barlow learns that Patience, his wife, is pregnant. As they are discussing their financial worries and how they will make it work, Patience reflects on her early years:
Clowes overloads the reader with tons of information in the beginning of the novel. He is purposefully using this tactic to leave the readers confused; it can be difficult to follow what is happening during the first time reading through, so it helps to read a second or even third time to truly capture all of the little intricacies. When Jack goes back to 2012, the readers will also learn more about why things played out the way that they did.
In the scene after the one shown above, Patience starts to talk about her old life but Jack doesn’t to talk about it and quickly diverts the subject back to the baby. Everything seems to go well afterwards, but if you’ve read any of Clowes’ other books, you know not to be fooled by this.
One day, Jack comes home to find Patience has been murdered. Clowes takes on the cliche of a woman, dying early on in a story to provide momentum for the rest of the story, also known as being “fridged.” There are other occasions in his works where he has used cliches to call attention to them and even parody them to reflect the current state of our culture. While they can at times be subtle jabs at the cliches, Clowes makes his purpose clear by overly drawing on the use of the cliche of Patience being “fridged” and makes it over-the-top. He does this with his use of dramatic language, especially when Jack finds Patience’s body, and his colorful palette.
After being framed for the murder of his wife and unborn child, Jack was sent to prison for 18 months. He was released after evidence appeared that proved him innocent, further giving him fuel for his quest for revenge. It’s suddenly 2029, and Clowes paints a picture of what he envisions the future to be like: inappropriately sexual public displays, monitors projecting a dictator’s speeches on loop, and people dressed in crazy outfits. A lot of this can be considered stereotypical of what people visualize when they think of the future. Clowes has been know to have depicted the future in a similar fashion in previous works of his.
Jack learns of the existence of a time-traveling device, and his hopes of seeing Patience again are hurtled into the forefront of his mind. This is when the “cosmic timewarp deathtrip” part of the tagline comes into play. The novel follows Jack as he is flung around time and space, trying to save Patience. As I mentioned earlier on, Clowes has a type. His protagonists are lonely, self-loathing creatures who have an ego. Jack is no different, and it becomes unclear at times what his true motives are in continuing on with his journey. There is a point in Jack’s journey where he contemplates why he is even doing this anymore. He doesn’t know if he’s even doing it for his wife and unborn child, or gone beyond all of that to a point of pure revenge:
The line becomes more and more blurred as Jack keeps leaping through time, being yanked about time and space by the time-traveling device. Jack experiences these strange visions, and his body begins breaking down and reforming. Throughout the graphic novel, Clowes includes these wild, colorful images, and during the evolution of Jack reforming, he really takes advantage of that. He uses a much broader color palette in “Patience” as compared to some of his other works, such as Ghost World with its black, white and green palette and other of his works that have stuck with the more basic black and white template. The vivid colors are very impactful in the scene where Jack’s body is being ravaged by the process of time-travel, his interior organs becoming visible through his exterior flesh.
While “Patience” has a similar thematic style to Daniel Clowes’ other works, there are some interesting differences. His male protagonist, while still a loner with self-deprecating tendencies, goes to great lengths to exact vengeance for his wife’s murder. Fans of his oeuvre may be conflicted about their feelings for this piece. There are several cliches that occur throughout the novel that can give readers pause, but by the end they should be able to see the way that he is using them in a parodic manner. His art style was amped up for this piece, as well, so die-hard fans may have a hard time liking the immense color palette that Clowes uses.
“Patience” is a story of love, murder, and self-discovery. Clowes paints a vivid picture of love lost, and a man doing whatever it takes to find his wife’s killer while struggling with the morality of changing fate. The visuals are so beautifully executed that Clowes’ storytelling is amplified by their use.
*Images consist of photos taken by Kayla Etherton and images found on Google
About the Author: Daniel Clowes was born in Chicago, Illinois, and completed his BFA at the Pratt Institute in New York. He started publishing professionally in 1985, when he debuted his first comic-book series “Lloyd Llewellyn.” He has been the recipient of multiple awards for his seminal comic-book series, “Eightball.” Since the completion of “Eightball” in 2004, Clowes’ comics, graphic novel, and anthologies have been the subject of various international exhibitions. Clowes currently lives in Oakland, California with his wife and son, and their beagle.
About the Author of this Post: Kayla Etherton is a recent graduate of North Central College majoring in Graphic Design with a minor in Marketing. She enjoys reading all kinds of sci-fi/fantasy literature, but has recently been reading mostly graphic novels. She is also an alum of the NCC Women’s Track and Field Team.
Sandra Simonds’ Steal It Back is a call to action for readers and a personal reflection that gives commentary on modern social topics including feminism, capitalism, and motherhood. Simonds takes the reader through her personal journey of stealing “it” back – everything from femininity to power, adventure to vulnerability – and along the way, readers are prompted through Simonds’ breathless, fierce writing to steal “it” back as well – whatever that may be to the reader.
The most unconventional poem of the collection is also one that best encompasses Simonds’ unique style. “Occupying” is a single paragraph that extends nearly seven pages without a single period. Though there is the occasional exclamation point or question mark, the lack of periods adds to Simonds’ quick-paced, intense voice and forces the reader to consume the poem in one breath. Simonds also utilizes repetition effectively in this poem, and in others of the collection. The line, “They are building a Catholic schoolgirl” is repeated throughout the poem. This draws the reader’s attention to Simonds’ idea that “they”, whether it be her parents or another authoritative figure in her life, tried to shape her into a good, Catholic girl, for better or worse. Simonds talks to the reader in meta fashion and seems to be replying to her critics, writing, “Oh you think this is so terrible? Well / you try to write a better one, friend.”
While it may seem like the nonstop, continuous, repetitive nature of such a poem could lose the reader’s interest, Simonds manages to transition between different subjects and scenes seamlessly; she recognizes when the reader’s mind may begin to trail off and regains traction with a fresh image or line.
Simonds’ most effective technique is to juxtapose heavy topics with the everyday.. McDonalds, Sephora, and Lady Gaga all make appearances alongside feminism, the monotony of unfulfilling jobs, divorce, and the trials of motherhood. She uses her personal experiences while still relating to the larger issues at hand in the world. In the poem, “I Grade Online Humanities Tests” she writes about her complicated relationship with a mechanic, but also about the larger issue of men feeling entitled to things because they are used to being in power. She writes, “the guns are male because he owns the guns…and Home Depot is male because he owns and owns/and owns and all he can do is own/everything that will rot/like privacy or speech or porn or black swans/or my big tits.” While her poetry may have started out for Simonds as a release for her own emotions, she expands and touches on the bigger problems in society that her life experiences bring up.
One aspect of Simonds’ writing that may not appeal to all readers is her tendency to write poems that clearly show a passing of time during her writing process. She separates some of her poems into pieces on different pages and the subject changes slightly on each page. The disconnect suggests that she may have left the poem and returned at a different time to finish it. In “A Poem For Landlords,” Simonds outright states, “I am writing this so fast./I will not be able to look/back at it but just now/I am looking back at it since I made/dinner and cleaned the house.” Some readers will be turned off by her blatancy in stating these actions and describing her writing process, however, it adds honesty and an interesting pacing of time to the poems. She may also be giving commentary on the futility of poetry in enacting change.
Simonds has created a collection that is not easy to digest, or to forget. By the time the reader reaches the final lines of the book “I know what is real/and I know how to steal/back what is mine” they won’t be able to resist the urging of Simonds to do the same.
About the Author: Sandra Simonds’ poems have been included in the Best American Poetry consecutively in 2014 and 2015, and have appeared in many literary journals. She is an Associate professor of English and Humanities at Thomas University in Georgia, and lives in Tallahassee, Florida.
In “LOOK“, Solmaz Sharif assembles personal anecdotes and perspectives to show the way the War on Terror has shaped the people of the United States’ view on Iran’s beautiful people and culture. She asks us, citizens of the United States, to “LOOK” at what we’re doing in the Middle East. Her upbringing has given her a perspective on the war in Iran that needs to be heard today, and the poems in “LOOK” demand that readers ask questions about themselves, their soldiers, and the “enemy’s” soldiers that so few people dare ask. Sharif’s poems enlighten the reader of the circumstances beyond their experience. She emphasizes the “exquisiteness” of those viewed as monstrous. She shows our apathy through the use of “DRONES,” and our dismissive nature towards the lives of those who live there. It’s clear that she strives to replace our passive nature with a passionate one, and she intends to do so by making us “LOOK.”
“LOOK” relies primarily on two ideas to establish its basis. It uses the U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, particularly the 2007 version, to tell us how war affects the lives of individuals on both sides. It also uses her perspective as an Iranian-descended, Turkish-born, U.S.-raised woman to complicate public perception of war even further. Sharif blends these two ideas wonderfully, alluding to dictionary definitions of phrases like “BATTLEFIELD ILLUMINATION” followed by “on fire / a body running.” The use of military terms and definitions offers the apathetic perspective of soldiers, but her use of personal anecdotes heightens that connotation, even changing it from neutral and descriptive to painful. Her redefining of Military and Associated Terms tells the stories that the initial definitions were created to hide, of the people who are lost in the war, the people described as “Collateral” or “Dolly” by those who distance themselves from the lives in which they intervene.
On the page, Sharif uses disparate spacing, lines separated by empty space, and poems that consist of letters with redacted information all in order to show us the things we have been told not to look at. Sharif invokes a “VULNERABILITY STUDY” of people personally affected by the wars, “a newlywed securing her updo / with grenade pins” and “your face turning from mine / to keep from cumming.” She works on both sides of the war, though, showing US military coming home to their family, saying “’What a dramatic moment this is’” and “’What’s wrong? What happened? My buddy.” She asks of these moments, of these two different portrayals, “’What does that say?’”
While the core of the poems lies in observing warfare and its atrocities – the untold stories and unmentioned perspectives – it also explores race and femininity in a way that shows their intersections with the war. Sharif grew up in the United States, but she refers to a conversation with her psychiatrist in which she was asked “’So you feel like a threat?’” Her response was “Yes.” She also asks us to look at times when she felt threatened because of her gender. She also tells of times with family and friends where her and their beauties were able to shine. She talks of pictures of family lost long ago, and of the effects of the war on them and on herself. Effects like “seeing a dead body walking to the grocery store” being “kinda like acceptable.”
This is what Sharif’s poems do best: they get the reader to look at all sides of the war, in its entirety, see what it is doing to the victims and the perpetrators, see the vulnerabilities but also the strengths in the victims and perpetrators of war. Anyone who takes interest in knowing the experiences of those whose lives are surrounded by war should absolutely read this collection of works. Anyone who wants to try to understand another point of view should read “LOOK”, because it gives the reader an opportunity to do something so rarely done: a look into the lives of another, vulnerabilities and strengths, valor and atrocities included.
About the Author: Solmaz Sharif was born in Istanbul to Iranian parents. She holds a degree from U.C. Berkeley, where she was a part of Poetry for the People, and from New York University. In 2014, she was selected to receive a Rona Jafe Foundation Writer’s Award. “LOOK” was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her works have appeared in The New Republic, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Witness, and various others.
Laura van den Berg’s Find Me explores the mind of Joy, an orphaned cough syrup addict, as she experiences life after the potential end of American civilization. The novel opens during Joy’s stay (or imprisonment) in a hospital searching for the cure to a disease that wipes the memories of its victims before taking their lives. Eventually, Joy escapes and wanders in search of her biological mother in a dystopian landscape. Although the novel seeks to be a more distinctive narrative in a sea of dystopian novels, Find Me maintains a sub-par impression upon the reader. Ultimately, van den Berg confuses and continually loses touch with her readers through spoon-feeding themes, disclosing unnecessary information, frequently using clichés, and distracting the reader with a jumbled organizational structure.
Throughout the novel, van den Berg spoon-feeds her audience with overstated messages of profundity. Rather than allowing the reader to dissect the possible meanings of the work, such as the importance of belonging and being found, one is bombarded by statements such as, “To be looked for is to matter” (223). The theme of the novel is not open to interpretation and discussion. Thus, the narrative feels simple and interest diminishes.
Along with overstating themes, van den Berg frequently reveals information that neither affect its plot nor its message. In the second half of the novel, a character is hinted to possess psychic or predictive abilities (176). One would believe that such a profound disclosure would affect the premise of the plot, but it did not affect any element of the novel. It was not relevant at the time of its revelation, and it continued to stay irrelevant. If the author’s intention was to add depth to the character, or to garner interest, it did not appear as such. Sequentially, the disclosure of irrelevant information invoked feelings of disappointment and confusion.
Peppered throughout Find Me, clichés particularly common to young-adult dystopian novels frustrate the reader. Towards the beginning of the novel, as Joy is reliving a memory where she watches reruns of The X-Files, she states, “I’ve never liked the things girls my age are supposed to” (34). This overused statement not only turns off the reader, but feels mildly condescending. What are 19-year-old girls supposed to like? Why must Joy declare how she’s “not like other girls”? One cannot help but interpret Joy’s declaration of difference as a method of implying superiority to stereotypically feminine women. Furthermore, as the novel continues, Joy engages in sexual activity with her roommate in the hospital, and does not shower for days to hold fast to his scent. Her desperate hold on her moments with him has a poetic appeal, but feels empty; reactions to physical love such as this have been overused in romance novels and films. As a result, the many clichés of Find Me contribute to its lack of distinction in the dystopian/post-apocalyptic genre.
Along with relaying random information and overusing clichés, van den Berg distracts readers with the confusing structure of the novel. Although it is predictable, with one chapter relating the present and the next revealing the past, it distracts from the plot. The reader can easily get lost along the way by forgetting the most recent events and constantly attempting to retain information about the past. Some of the chapters reveal disturbing qualities of Joy’s past that add emotional depth to her narrative, but others feel random and unnecessary. For example, the larger portion of chapter 18 is dedicated to stating facts about Norway and the origin of the disease that has ravaged America. While the disease has arguably caused the events of Find Me, and Norway is the home to a minor character, the information given about the two falls flat, thus unnecessarily interrupting the progression of the plot. Further assisting in the disruption of the novel’s flow was van den Berg’s consistent use of three-dot breaks. For example, within the span of the five pages of chapter 40, three-dot breaks appear 10 times. The excited thoughts that Joy experiences could easily have been encapsulated in paragraph form. The information instead reads as overexaggerated and encourages the reader to rapidly skim through it in anticipation of the last page. The chapter, along with the many others that exude the same love of scene breaks, resultantly reads as choppy, scattered, and lacking in cohesiveness. Laura van den Berg’s writing style ultimately detracts from the reader’s consumption of her work.
Although Find Me loses touch with its readers, it still has some charm. Van den Berg’s use of imagery was imaginative. When Joy experiments with an unknown drug she states, “my brain is a blue jellyfish that has crawled out through my ear and is hovering somewhere along the roof of the tunnel, happy to finally be free of the body” (225). An experience with drugs may prove difficult to convincingly describe, but van den Berg has accomplished it without seeming stereotypical or overdramatic. Additionally, the language was well-written; the tone felt conversational, yet still possessed gravity and poetic qualities in the right places. The positive elements of the overall work do not cover for its flaws, but they are still present and worth considering.
Fundamentally, explicitly stated themes, excess information, the overwhelming use of clichés, and a distracting writing style effectively contribute to the lackluster impression of Find Me. If the novel had better confronted its themes without overstating them, readers would be able to fully appreciate the novel. However, its audience instead becomes disinterested and lost in a book about the act of finding.
About the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. Find Me is her first Novel, which was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.
About the Author of this Post: Ashley Suslowicz is a freshman at North Central College majoring in English and minoring in Sociology. After finishing her undergraduate studies, she plans to attend law school near Chicago. She loves Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and coffee.