WD Contributor Jera Brown talked with authors Karen Russell, Esme Weijun Wang, and Jericho Brown about what truth in writing means to them in the November/December 2019 issue of WD. Here's and extended cut of what wouldn't fit onto the pages of the magazine.
All genres can hold truth; they just come at it in different ways. For this article, we interviewed three writers about finding and conveying truth in different mediums.
Pulitzer-nominated Karen Russell writes fantastical short stories, novellas, and novels influenced by the magical realists of Latin America. Her newest book, Orange World and Other Stories, covers much of the eerie, mystical American landscape as well as the beauty and horror of romance, friendship, and motherhood.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s memoir in essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, depicts life with schizoaffective disorder and addresses the stigma of mental illness, especially schizophrenia. It was the recipient of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and a Whiting Award for Nonfiction and is a New York Times bestseller. Her debut novel, The Border of Paradise, also deals with mental illness.
The poet Jericho Brown is the winner of an American Book Award, among others. His third book of poetry, The Tradition, dares the reader to confront violence against children, sons, lovers, and black men. When asked by Lumina Journal what tradition he is writing in, Brown responded, “I’m a black gay Southern poet. I’m writing poems that tell the truth and that encourage someone to be more truthful.”
[To Wang]: In your book, truth-telling seems to start with rebutting what others accept as true. When you write, is balancing your personal story and fighting stigma around mental illness something you think about?
I'm very aware of the general conversation and what kind of cultural atmosphere exists around schizophrenia. I was very aware of that when I was writing the book. At the same time, as I'm writing, I'm constantly arguing with myself. Writing the book was a lot of me laying the groundwork of this conversation about schizophrenia. This is a lot of the cultural conversation, the scientific conversation, etc., and then here's me arguing with myself, bringing up more information, then arguing with that. For me, the book is not so much presenting the reader with a bunch of answers, but presenting the reader with the opportunity to ask themselves a lot of questions and to have more conversations with other people about the subjects surrounding the schizophrenias.
[To Brown]: A description of your book calls this collection “mythical pastorals.” Do you consider your work, especially in this collection, mythical?
I'm always making use of myth and writing toward it. Trying to write something that sounds like it was there before I was there or will be here after I'm here. Not because I want the thing I write to last forever, but because I like that sound. So if there's a mythological quality to my work, it's the same mythological quality that I felt when hearing my grandmother tell stories or, in particular, that I felt hearing stories about certain things that weren't necessarily thought of as historical.
For instance, Marvin Gaye's father shot him which, when I was a little kid, was the most mythological thing I could ever overhear. It was very important to older people around us that we not find out, and because I was aware that there was a thing about Marvin Gaye that they didn't want us to know, it was all the more interesting to me. And how a man shoots his son was also of great interest to me. And then, because I couldn't talk with them about it directly … I began looking for models of it in the world or archetypes that were passed down.
I'm thinking about Abraham and Isaac or the myth of Ganymede where a man trades his son for horses. I'm thinking about relationships between fathers and sons in that way. Not because I'm thinking about myth in terms of its potential toward immortality—I'm thinking about myth as a construction of the truth and as a way of understanding something that I can't talk about.
[To Russell]: In a Guernica interview, you quoted Flannery O'Connor: "The truth is not distorted here, but rather, a certain distortion is used to get the truth." In Orange World, the characters have moments of self-realization or "truth seeing" that are terrifying for them and the reader. Is getting to the truth the goal when you write, or is it often a consequence of honest writing? And do you often discover truth with your characters?
I have to disarm myself before I can write anything. I think if I sat down and said "I'm going to write the truth with a capital T," it would be paralyzing to me. So I'll start off with the style, just like bad SNL sketch ideas a lot of the times. The title story is about a woman who makes a deal with the devil that she'll breastfeed him for the health of her son, and that felt very plausible to me at this particular threshold that I'm on. It has to start off like a ridiculous “what if” just for me to get into this world. But that's why I've always been drawn to fiction as a reader. There are certain truths that are unspeakable in other registers.
My brother's a nonfiction writer, and I respect what he writes. But I've never been able to write something that feels true under the spell of my own name. I have to get out of my perspective and my skin.
Fiction is a place where a certain kind of stakes are reduced so you can really approach things that are literally monsters or are so horrifying that it's almost taboo to utter them out loud. I don't feel brave enough to talk about them in this kind of space, in an I-level conversation.
To your second point, that often is the terror and the pleasure of writing for me. I think it's unfair to expect a reader to be surprised by something you're writing if it's not surprising you, also. The stories that I've written that never got off the tarmac, it's usually because I had a really developed idea of what I was doing, so the story couldn't teach me something.
Jericho mentions myths as this entirely wild and ancient vocabulary to describe dimensions of reality that are feverish and surreal. A father selling his son for horses just doesn't compute with our ideas of what that relationship should be, and yet some version of that old myth is happening today. So I was happy when the devil came and did a story. It gave me access to some other descriptive language that I needed because things felt so much wilder than I knew how to process in this kind of space.
Any other thoughts on accessing truth?
Wang: In terms of truth on a much more micro level, I’ve been thinking about how I continue to allow myself to be distracted all the time, and it’s just getting worse and worse with cellphones and streaming video and movies. I am getting worse and worse at letting myself have solitude, and I love solitude.
So much of the time, I am not conscious and present: that’s when truth is able to come to me. When I’m most distracted is when I’m least able to be aware of what truth is.
That’s why I love residencies, because I can get away from things and just think and be quiet and let the thoughts come in. A lot of residencies don't have Wi-Fi or cell reception.
Russell: I’m not a huge social media person, but some of what I find pernicious about it is it’s such a curated world and you’re missing a lot of the interstitial life. You see a beautiful Instagram photo and everyone’s eating flat pan paella on the beach or something, and I guess that’s true. It obviously happened. But that kind of editing feels like such a filtration system of what's really true about being alive in a body and time together in that spaciousness.
I’m hungrier now for the intimacy of books than ever before, because that feels like life to me. I’m like, "Oh, thank God. Someone is telling me what’s so terrifying," and this eternal flux of every moment that you can miss if you’re like, "This person is so funny on Twitter." I love that too, and that has its place for sure. But it’s such an antidote to loneliness to me to read fiction and poetry in particular and have that sense of how mysterious another person’s consciousness is.
Brown: The thing that concerns me about social media is also the thing that concerns me about porn. You’re building this aspect of the world and people—younger people in particular—begin to have no idea what the world really is. And so when they meet certain kinds of conflict, they are completely confused.
Porn would be great if they had all the bodies that you actually encounter when you’re making love or as you get older and continue to make love. But the problem with pornography is that, if you encounter it too early and often enough, you begin to think everybody looks like that all the time. And if you don’t, you’re therefore undesirable. So I must be undesirable.
I think the same thing happens via social media. We have a lot of gratitude and joy in our lives. But obviously you don’t post pictures when you’re in the hospital and one side of your spouse’s face is on fire. You post the gratitude pictures with the papaya. I do think that there’s a danger of this curated, very mythological life being the goal of life.
Russell: The airbrushed pornographic images give you a totally false sense of what the messiness of love could be. As a powerful contrast, Esmé writes so lucidly about these states that are quite messy and Jericho’s poems are such a precise capture of us dreaming reality. The writing is so precise about really imprecise, really uncomfortable contradictory spaces.
Brown: But also, part of what your writing is doing is creating space for people who could not have a bunch of followers on social media. And they get to love each other. But if you’re living certain lives that we’re trying to write about, then you’re not the same person who gets a big Instagram following. It would be impossible, but you get fall in love and have all the conflicts that come with being in love, too.
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