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.