6
Sep

Binder Q&A: Ariel Gore on “We Were Witches”

This Q&A began as a feature in our Binders biweekly email newsletter, but author Ariel Gore was so generous with her ideas and her time that we decided to share some of it on our blog too. Here and in her essay, she talks about magical realism, writing as a way to take back our power, and her new book, We Were Witches (Feminist Press, September 2017).

What role do trauma and injustice play in your work?

I guess the stories that haunt me are scenarios in which injustice seemed to carry the day. If it’s a story from my life, it’s probably a place where I left some power behind. So I write to create something like art — an artifact — that can become an elixir for the injustice. No matter what the story is about, I’m going to the places where there were silences, and I’m giving them voice. I’m finding a way to let the character get her energy back.

Why is it important — for you or for any writer — to address those issues? What are your methods for doing so?

Anything traumatic makes our bodies contract and we kind of hunch in for self-protection. So I’m looking for whatever will release the tension and help open our chests back up. Humor and magic are my go-tos right now.

In my memoir, The End of Eve, I used humor. That was the way to do it in that story, because the real-life dynamic between my mother and me included our ability to use humor to diffuse a violent situation. My mother could have a knife to my chest, but if I could make her laugh, or if she could duck out of it by pretending she was kidding, we could turn the whole situation around. So humor became the natural antidote in that story. In We Were Witches, I used more experimentation with narrative structure. I was quite focused on this hole-not-mountain narrative structure — and on magic.

We Were Witches is a novel, but it draws a great deal from your own life.

There’s a scene early in the book where 19-year-old Ariel is in labor in a hospital in a foreign country. She’s been around the world, but she’s uneducated about childbirth and hospitals, and she ends up having this very violent birth experience. When I wrote about that, I didn’t want to gloss anything over — it’s a story that has stayed with me, in and on my body, for more than 25 years — but I did ask myself: What would have helped? And one of the answers was that it would have helped if the goddess Artemis herself had broken through the hospital window and saved me. So I brought Artemis in. And now that I’ve remembered that Artemis came crashing through that window, I feel much better, and I can refocus the memory on how excellent it was to get to meet my daughter and how sweet her little squished face was and how I loved her instantly.

That scene is one of several pretty intense moments. How do pain and magic mix — on the page and in the reader’s experience?

I see We Were Witches as being at least as playful as it is painful. That’s what it felt like when I was writing it, anyway. A possum would show up out of the blue for tea and I’d say, Oh! Hello, possum! My magical thinking is that the scenes and the symbols in the book will activate the precise metaphors in each individual reader that they need right then.

When writing about painful events, as fiction or nonfiction, how do you decide how much discomfort to invite your readers to experience?

[In We Were Witches] I wanted to be unflinching in describing the experience of a young person trying to make her way in a misogynist world. But I wanted to approach it as an artist, too, and to transmute the violence and the shame into something magical — into power — for the reader as well as the character. My intention is that the ritual of reading it will embolden and protect the good-hearted. Especially the good-hearted in the margins. But all the good-hearted.

What is your advice to writers who want to write about their own traumatic experiences?

You do have to be careful. It helps to remember, as you get into the writing, that you, as the writer, have the power now. You have the control. Maybe you’re writing, and maybe you’re weeping as you’re bringing it all back to life, arranging words from the sea of words to recreate this experience. You want to write intimately and honestly — but you don’t want to drown. There has to be a way to bring your safe, adult, writer-self with you. And then, if it’s too painful, leave it alone. Not every story needs to be written today.


Ariel Gore is the editor and publisher of the Alternative Press Award winning magazine Hip Mama and the author of eight books, including the acclaimed memoir The End of Eve. She has edited half a dozen anthologies, including Breeder (Seal Press), The People’s Apocalypse (Lit Star Press), and the LAMBDA-award winning Portland Queer (Lit Star Press). She lives in Oakland, California.

In We Were Witches, magick spells and inverted fairly tales combat queer scapegoating, domestic violence, and high-interest student loans. Wryly riffing on feminist literary tropes, We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single mother beset by custody disputes, homophobia, and America’s ever-present obsession with shaming odd women into passive citizenship. The writing draws from a a rich subcultural canon of resistance and failure populated by writers like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, Tillie Olsen, and Kathy Acker. The fiction-memoir hybrid was published in September 2017 by Feminist Press.

6
Sep

In a Pinch, the Moon

“What if I made this the organizing principle of an entire body of writing? ‘Every time you get stuck, come back to this: Write about a scar. Reverse its meaning.'”

In this essay writer/novelist/publisher Ariel Gore reflects on magical realism as an act of transforming realities and reclaiming power, and how the tradition shows up in her new book, We Were Witches (Feminist Press, September 2017). Read our Q&A with Ariel here, and find her tips for incorporating magical realism into your own writing in our biweekly email newsletter. 

 

“Trauma needs a witness,” my mother used to tell me. “Children can survive any kind of abuse if they have one witness.”

I always thought that was a strange thing for my mother to tell me, since she was the main source of my abuse — and I rarely had a witness. But I took her advice.

When I saw the words “magical realism” on my dry-erase board this morning, it occurred to me that I’ve been using it to rewrite trauma and bring in witnesses for a long time now.

***

Magical realism emerges from fringe cultures and subcultures. It pushed itself up from the post-colonial earth in Latin America, Africa, and India. It bloomed among writers who had been excluded from the colonized, heterosexist, masculine centers of power. Magical realist fiction taught me that, when trapped, sometimes we have to paint our own windows of escape.

Sometimes we have to invent our own witnesses.

It’s not about changing the past.

It’s about getting the power back.

I was in maybe second or third grade when I stepped into my mother’s room, knowing she was already mad at me. What was I thinking? She’d just gotten out of the shower. She wore a white towel around her head and a white robe around her small body. I remember knowing she was mad at me, but I don’t remember now why. She had her back to me when I asked — in hopes of getting out of her hair for a few hours — “Can I go to the movies with Beth?”

I remember a painting of a naked lady on the far wall.

I inhaled fast as my mother spun around, and I don’t know if she slapped me or not — in one version of the memory, she slaps me, in the other version, she does not slap me. But in both versions, after the sound of the slap, my mother says, “I don’t care if you disappear.”

***

In her “liminal autobiography,” NobodyThreasa Meads experiments with using strikethrough text to rewrite her experience of being abused by her creepy stepfather. Sometimes she writes the story as it happened, crosses out the part she wishes hadn’t happened, and then writes a new ending. The book is organized like a Choose Your Own Adventure, and, as with those books, it slowly becomes clear that choice is an illusion.

If my mother slaps me, turn to page 3.

***

In the back of Beth’s station wagon, my legs dangled over the edge of the sweaty upholstery. I stared down at my Mary Janes and sniffled, “My mom says she doesn’t care if I disappear.”

To me, then, the word “disappear” meant that all that would be left of me was a picture on a milk carton. Maybe someday they’d find my raped and murdered body. Maybe they never would.

Beth’s mother didn’t turn around. She kept her eyes on the road and said, “I’m sure your mother didn’t mean that, honey.”

I was pretty sure she did. Mean that.

I still wanted to please my mother, then. Maybe I could learn to disappear. In the dark of the movie theater, I closed my eyes.

Picture yourself suspended safely in a starry sky. Zero gravity, but you can breathe just fine. Start with your toes and make just the very tips of them disappear. We’re out past the rules of matter and nonmatter. Dissolve your body into the night. Inch in, inch up. Can you make all of your toes disappear? That’s good. Keep pulling the energy up. Can you make your feet disappear, too? Good. Now let the disappearance creep up your legs. Now into your hips. Up, up, up.

I don’t remember the drive back from the movie theater in the back of Beth’s station wagon. I can only assume that I’d already disappeared.

***

Write about a scar, my creative writing teacher said. Real or imagined.

It had been so long since I’d had a teacher — since I wasn’t the teacher myself. Write about a scar.

Reverse the meaning of your most traumatic imprint, my Real Astrology horoscope instructed. And somehow my horoscope got bound up in my mind with the assignment. Write about a scar. Reverse the meaning.

I hadn’t decided I am going to write a nonfiction essay or I am going to write a fictional short story. I had only my teacher’s prompt, my horoscope, this experiment: What if I made this the organizing principle of an entire body of writing? Every time you get stuck, come back to this: Write about a scar. Reverse its meaning.

If I disappear, turn to page 42.

***

See, magical realism isn’t some kitschy literary device — its history is firmly rooted in the literature of resistance, in the literature of re-visioning.

We’re transmuting violence back into voice.

Maybe it won’t be the same voice we had before. Maybe we’ll prefer the new voice, wrecked and brilliant.

***

Years after that day in second or third grade, my mother will tell me it never happened. She’ll shake her head the way she did and sip her wine and insist, “I was abused myself, Ariel. I would have known better than to pass along that kind of trauma.”

See, I don’t merge genres to make the bad things unhappen or to make myself seem heroic — usually it’s the bad things and my unheroic responses that make me want to tell the story at all. But sometimes I do need to go in and get my power back. I need to go back and give myself a witness. At the very least, I need to make art out of messy memories.

We can’t unwrite experience, but the lost energy is retrievable. We can create new projections into our histories and into our futures. Magical realist stories seduce — their hallways becoming rushing rivers, their naked ladies in paintings coming to life — but if you lick those pages you can taste the resistance infused in the texts. The rivers lead to freedom, if not safety. The lady in the painting sees all.

***

Maybe the reason I don’t know whether my mother slapped me or did not slap me is that in the instant before the sound, I was busy scanning the room for a witness.

As the open hand comes at you, think fast. Block or duck. Locate your witness. If there are no human witnesses, don’t worry. We can always con the rational:
A cat can be a witness.
Or the naked lady in the painting framed and nailed onto the stucco wall.
The owl in the oak tree outside will do.
In a pinch, the moon.

I learned to disappear, like it was some kind of superpower.

But I never got lost in that sky of invisibility.

See?

If you can still see me, turn to page 99.


Ariel Gore is the editor and publisher of the Alternative Press Award winning magazine Hip Mama and the author of eight books, including the acclaimed memoir The End of Eve. She has edited half a dozen anthologies, including Breeder (Seal Press), The People’s Apocalypse (Lit Star Press), and the LAMBDA award winning Portland Queer (Lit Star Press). She lives in Oakland, California.

In We Were Witches, magick spells and inverted fairly tales combat queer scapegoating, domestic violence, and high-interest student loans. Wryly riffing on feminist literary tropes, We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single mother beset by custody disputes, homophobia, and America’s ever-present obsession with shaming odd women into passive citizenship. The writing draws from a a rich subcultural canon of resistance and failure populated by writers like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, Tillie Olsen, and Kathy Acker. The fiction-memoir hybrid was published in September 2017 by Feminist Press.