Hilary and I have spoken before. With each new book that appears, I diligently come forward as her friend and colleague, as a fellow writer in the fun as fuck trenches of indie publishing, which feels like ascendant exile, sometimes like a lot of rubble, but to me where anything good could happen. It’s often enough a rubble full of velvet pebbles. And unlike corporate publishing, it feels reliant on friendship. How beautiful is that? So when Hilary publishes, I try to especially become her friend, but I also have to recognize, with each new book I become—in a different way—less and less her friend, because awe separates me. A writer, even to her best friends, is always saying, in her writing: You don’t know me. You didn’t know me then. I was here. And so when I interview H, it is so explicitly as a friend, and so much a new and newer stranger, to the concerns, grains, delineations she orchestrates—the elbow and wrist and gust she must have been, even over coffee that time . . .
Strawberry Fields is a novel that retells the work of journalists. It moves their necessary nonfictions into a necessary fiction, where more truth, or something, can be fulfilled. It is a disjointed, yet dogged, collection of their stories of finding stories, and, like dogs, bringing them out of the woods. Its engine is a love for journalists, an interest in the work of war reporting in particular (in these sad, dour, pathetic years of hatred for journalists). And in its fragments, its refusals to gather everything up and rip a big plot across the sky, the engine also has to be the sentence. The sentences of Strawberry Fields are ironic, banal in hilarious ways, unadorned and devastated, and delicate, always intelligent. It would be a good novel without topic (if that were a possible severance)—just the weird song, the harsh humor, in Hilary’s head. But this is to say, the topic is so relevant—Hilary writes all of her books on this topic—our international upheaval, our wars, our capitalism and our terror—and I think it might be an incredible idea to follow this writer in her work on this topic. She is problem solving, trying all of the handles, figuring out her forms, the sentence, the right distance, the way to tell our story, to scream what’s happening, and to grieve among us.
CB: I love this interview with Ottessa Moshfegh because the interviewer seems deranged by the patriarchy and it’s fascinating to watch Moshfegh sail her confident feeling for life and writing over the head of the entire discussion. Strawberry Fields follows Moshfegh’s McGlue as the second winner of Fence’s Modern Prize in Prose. In the spirit of this interview with her, I wonder if there is ever a way your writing, or you as a writer, maybe just person, get/s addressed that you’ve wanted to sail over—move through—make into something else.
HP: I hadn’t read that interview! Hell’s bells.
Well, I admire Moshfegh in it as I admire her McGlue: a dark, queasy mouthful of gorgeous suffering world.
Strawberry Fields is my third book, and all three take as a subject the violence named “the global war on terror.” Regularly enough after a reading someone will note that this is not a very feminine topic, and that discussion can go a few ways. Sometimes, for example, my work is described as that of a “young American girl.” (I am 37.) It’s easy to be snarky about moments like these—and they are wearying, as if war were not a subject for women, as if women are not subject to and subjects of war—and afterward it can feel fine to roll my eyes. But often these conversations also include much more meaningful exchanges—even if sometimes in negative form—about the problems of cultural and literary representations of war, and about political struggles and failures across generations. So even if my work is being “girled,” that’s not all that’s happening, and I don’t quite want to pretend so.
The better answer, then, has to do with the dynamics of silence and failing speech that get us into these patriarchal sinkholes. What I mean is that such conversations deal in hard subjects to speak of—the imaginaries and political rhetorics and histories of war—and that the ways this speech remains frustrating, constrained, suffused with stereotype, are no incidental awkwardness but work to preserve the status quo of American empire.
So, if you’ll allow me a leap: I’ve been thinking lately that the word I’d like to sail over or move past is “difficult,” as it’s applied to literature. This may seem paradoxical, but I think these common categorical terms for the literature we know and love—“difficult” or “experimental” or “challenging” or “marginal/outside the mainstream/nontraditional”—may obscure more than they illuminate. I use these terms myself, in varying tones of pride and apology and scholarship. I often describe my work this way, mostly because that’s how it’s treated in the publishing industry (it’s nonlinear, characters often aren’t named, some basic details are absented, etc. etc.). But even when meant positively or neutrally, these old categories tend to shore up the capitalism and conservative tendencies of Big Five publishing, which regularly suppresses work (including, bafflingly, almost all poetry?) it has paternalistically decided is too “hard” for readers. Which often means, too challenging to its own worldview.
To treat some literature as “difficult” or marginal, and some as “accessible” or “conventional,” etc., also means that the aesthetic choices and forms of the “accessible” are taken for granted, not examined as they should be. Instead we could and should talk more about the ethics and politics manifesting across aesthetic choices.
And anyway I think these labels reflect values in publishing more than they describe readers’ experiences. When you teach literature, of course, you find that the literary world’s ideas about what’s accessible and what isn’t don’t map onto students’ responses. Sometimes literature that speaks to the frustration and incomprehensibility of being a person in history is very “relatable.” Or, people are interested to have experiences in reading so mysterious they can’t quite talk about them. Ideas of the difficult vs. the mainstream also leave genre fiction in an oddly underacknowledged position, since genre fiction tends to be “accessible” in style and structure but may be profoundly challenging to actually grapple with.
Fence has done such significant work for decades, contributing to literary conversations like these.
So I guess I want to challenge myself to stop using words like this, and refuse them as ways to talk about my own work and the work I love and publish. Not because I don’t get what they mean but because I’d like to see what’s on the other side of that. If we sail over the idea that we’re being “difficult,” do we get further from the familiar terms that fortify familiar powers? What happens if we just believe there’s a readership for “challenging” work because we believe readers want to challenge the realities they’re living in? Where can this dream-sailboat go…?
CB: “Difficulty” is such an awkward word for what happens between big and small publishing. Because certainly big publishing does publish some very difficult, extraneous, even confounding texts, really adventurous and weird ones, too, but I often feel that women writers (“girls”) are expected to lay everything out, to explain everything, to accommodate, to nurse the reader with explanations, organization and pathos. It’s apparently so terrifying if a woman reads as disorganized (I mean, I have to glean from student evals . . . ). Of course she’s not disorganized, she’s organizing your disorientation, but whatever.
In Strawberry Fields, as several reviewers have pointed out, the narrative evades conclusion, and it also evades its own lures. Because you set up the lure of there being this crime novel, a page turner, a thrilling detective story, through the recurring character of Alice and her work and relationship with the detective Modigliani. They seem to be investigating, together, something huge. Something about the war on terror. Something with potential to reveal . . . but you evade that, flooding the book with a lot of other voices and scenarios.
Chelsea Manning had a recent interview with Democracy Now during which she spoke about the tape she had leaked in 2010—the cause of her imprisonment. The notorious “Collateral Murder” video shows U.S. forces firing indiscriminately on Iraqis from a helicopter. The dead include two employees of Reuters, a photographer and his driver. When Amy Goodman asks Manning to comment about the particulars of this video, and to do, like, a takeaway about its particular importance, Manning only agrees that it was a particularly helpful video to leak insofar as a journalist was killed so there was more follow-up, but she does not want to focus on it:
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean, it was among hundreds of other similar ones. It’s just that there’s more—there was more information about the aftermath of this incident because there was an investigation following it. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Because the Reuters journalists were killed?
CHELSEA MANNING: I mean—yeah. So, apart from that, it’s just routine—it’s just a routine incident. Just another day.
It’s a striking interview. Watching somebody refusing a centralizing narrative in order to make sense out of something. She has no fetish energy at all towards that video. All she wants to say is that that video is like nothing, and there are many nothings, and no one’s. A flood.
I know you did a lot of research for Strawberry Fields, and a lot of it focused on the war on terror and the journalism coming from these wars. I wonder if writing a novel could ever feel like you were a leaker, too, or maybe a flooder . . . Or you couldn’t be leaking the stories that have already been published as journalistic pieces, but maybe you were?
HP: I love the theory of the leak you’ve just offered. Disorganization as less a state than an act: the active disassembly of organization. And decentralization as an act: to direct the gaze away from the centralizing narrative. The leak is a focal point, then; the leak helps us begin to see how power operates beyond our daily vision, daily recognition. But as you say/as Manning says, the leak itself shouldn’t be seen as the one significant truth. The point of the leak is to imagine the flood.
Somehow, Caren, when I try to think about all this—the leak—I just picture those ads for sanitary pads, the blue glass of water that’s poured over the two pads, and how in our competitor’s pad, it’s just horribly everywhere. That blue water, of course, stands in for menstrual blood, and its degree of difference from blood—its distance from the real thing—further reinforces the sense of shame and urgency that this blood should never ever be seen. The leak is shame and exposure. What we think of as clean, what we need to be clean, the leak exposes as dirty. Of course this is the metaphoric language, too, of airstrikes, which are clean when they hit combatants (or those who can be claimed as combatants…), dirty when they’ve killed civilians—as if these were two different types of blood.
So—in these ways, Strawberry Fields is a leaky novel. As I wrote the book, it was important to me to counter the seductions of developmental plot, though at the time I wasn’t sure why. I set that “main” Alice/Modigliani plot in motion—a murder mystery in which another mystery is nested, as in the classic detective novel form—but then actively didn’t resolve it. The main thread keeps fraying. It’s related, I think, that this novel tends to avoid or evade proper nouns, those marks of singularity, specificity, significance. Throughout the novel settings and plotlines evoke real places, events, and histories, but often they go unnamed or misnamed; details are blurred out, made more like fable or suggestion, slightly misaligned with the world we know—or kind of know, or think we know, from the newspaper. I think together these stylistic choices could serve (though really this is just my thought, when it’s a question more for readers than for me) to draw attention to acts of reading and knowledge-making, to how reading is working, and to emphasize points of contact and thus of friction between novel and world—a plot that doesn’t gather itself back up, but dissolves outward; a sense of recognition and factuality that remains elusive, precisely vague.
To me this is a novel that’s especially “about” the reader; many of its passages work through modes of irony, in which there’s a distance between what’s said and what the reader understands, or is trying to understand, or wants to understand, and that distance may be where the story is taking place. This type of narrative stresses our active, participatory role as readers—our implication and complicity with the story that seems to be happening before us—it aims to dirty our readerly hands, to expose us as we read.
Some earlier drafts of Strawberry Fields had an epigraph by Timothy Donnelly, from his poem “The New Intelligence,” the first in the book The Cloud Corporation. Here’s the bit I mean, which begins in a daily domestic scene, looking out from our windows at the world:
For the hour that we spend
complacent at the window overlooking the garden,
we observe an arrangement in rust and gray-green,
a vagueness at the center whose slow, persistent
movements some sentence might explain if we had time
or strength for sentences. To admit that what falls
falls solitarily, lost in the permanent dusk of the particular.
I was very interested in the focal point of the “vagueness at the center,” and how in the poem there’s an argument about the particular, the solitary, the singular—that its life and death are its own—which the refusal to describe that central vagueness both undermines and, on another level, reinforces. The particular is there, but we only see that larger dusk; whatever it is, it’s lost. I also kept having a disagreement with this poem, which in its second half takes a direction that is good—it is very good!—but which is somehow never what I want. Every time I read I always, for reasons to do just with my own desires, want it to have gone in a different direction. I liked how my relationship with the poem exposed me to myself as a desiring reader, a reader who wanted something; it brought my attention to the space between me and the text, the space that desire occupied, an air of complicity. For me, the poem leaked, or I did.
CB: I believe that we could think almost anything through the problem of clear blue blood. You’re telling here of the importance—no, necessity—of the prism, and the fracture, and you put words like “main” in quotations. I don’t struggle too, too much with a fractured, a decentralized narrative, because I often feel that sentences are the work of holding, and protracting, a character.
There are so many points of contact between novel and world, between the so-called nonfiction and fiction. That’s always a kind of readerly work, readerly speculation and braiding that I so enjoy. SF is somehow a fictive re-imagination (or collection of imagined, sometimes fabulist, origin stories) about actual journalistic pieces, many of which describe international, imperialist, capitalist war. And I also think about the ties between your work of nonfiction, Watchfires, and this novel. Watchfires (among other things) thinks through your life through some various health statuses—through the folds, breaks, mysteries of your health. You write (and in this work of nonfiction, in the third person) about having anorexia as a teenager-
But this isn’t true: sometimes she catches herself thinking of those years as a possession. She was possessed. By some malign spirit of the age she lived in. When she with great effort exorcised it from herself, she felt as if—forgive the metaphor—she was awaking from a nightmare into the light. Was the disease herself or was she diseased? Who was it who so endangered this body, terrorized her family three times a day, drove her mother into desperation, had so little mercy? She was sick. Did a demon possess her? It was she.
Anorexia—or its specter—shows up again in Strawberry Fields as a journalist visits some kind of therapeutic center for girls. Their condition, or commonality, goes unnamed, but there are passages like this-
The girls were always touching one another, the orderlies, even me. Just to cross the room they threaded their wrists through one another’s elbows, they walked down the hall to mealtimes holding hands. When the feeding tube broke out in its wretched beeping, a girl sprang up to rub its blockage clear, the girl to whom it was attached murmuring a thank you from her doze on the couch.
What did it mean for you to write a frank nonfiction account of your own trial with anorexia (in Watchfires) and a fictional account of a nonfiction writer (a journalist) attempting a report on these girls and their unnamed/defamiliarized condition in Strawberry Fields? Do you find it meaningful, as a writer, to circle the tropes and figures of your life in different ways? Did you find it meaningful to somehow connect such a condition, or this sort of scene, with scenes of international war? What did it mean for you to include a scene like this in SF?
HP: Both Watchfires and SF view anorexia in an emphatically political context. From narratives of illness I want ideas of the collective and not just the individual; the political frame is vital (as in your own forthcoming essay, Blackfishing the IUD!). I write about anorexia because of its connection to the political tradition of the hunger strike; because I’ve experienced it; and because, as your quotations above get at, it’s a disease that often affects children (I was 13 when my illness began).
In SF the story of this treatment clinic—for girls who have problems with eating—occurs amid other stories that describe the suffering of children and involve the questions of agency which anorexia so maddeningly materializes. The anorexic is both victim and agent of her/his/their disease. She is struck down by it yet the cure must be enacted by her. To be cured she must eat. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder; anorexia is about dying, though it’s discussed more often in terms of body image, media, dieting, looks. It is a very slow, very visible, very public suicidality. Another story in SF—the title story—centers on an incident of pesticide poisoning that affects migrant farm workers and their children. The children starve no matter what they eat. Maybe together these two stories think and rethink the trope of “starvation in the land of plenty.” In this second story, the children are easy to understand as innocent, as victims—other actors have made specific choices that comprise the economic, racial, and environmental injustice in which these children’s lives are sacrificed to the production of strawberries. In the story of the anorexic girls, innocence is there, but hard to define. These are children but they are making a choice that implicates them with death. (Or should I say the illness itself chooses? Who’s the agent?) They are caught up in a profound refusal; they’re threatening to leave society, productivity, family, reproductive capability.
“The children’s suffering has been unimaginable” is the opening line of this novel. I chose the story that begins this way to serve as a sort of prologue, for the questions of innocence and experience, of forms of knowledge and agency, that follow. The children in this story are refugees, formerly child soldiers. At the end of the story, an administrator at the refugee camp reminds assembled international journalists (in response to a question they’re trying to ask) that “children are easy to fool.” To me this line—seemingly about the kids in the camp—also implicates or even describes the journalists, including our narrator, known as “the American.” The journalists are being warned that they themselves might be children, and fooled. The suffering they’re trying to witness is beyond comprehension, and if you want something simple from it—if you come to these children wanting a truth you can tell—you may be fooled, you may fool yourself.
Some questions might be: When is innocence fooling itself—a willful ignorance? Does innocence leak? What sort of citizens are children? (Remembering here George Saunders’s sardonic line about “American fetuses walk[ing] the earth like happy unsoiled giants”…) Watchfires portrays the Boston Marathon bombing and its perpetrators (the brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, age 26, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, age 19 at the time). Anorexia is a subject of the book, both my own disease and the larger phenomenon, how it’s metaphorized, or could be. The book ends with a fantasy that reads anorexia politically: the narrator, a version of me, enters into a competitive hunger strike with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. To win is to die of hunger. The Boston Marathon bombings are a potent illustration of how acts of violence may be read in political vs. psychological terms (a question that reflects back onto eating disorders; a question they too present). Were these bombings more like an act of terrorism affiliated with a group such as al-Qaeda (or, arising the next year, ISIS) or more like an American mass shooting? Some articles emphasize, for example, Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s troubled mental health, beyond any ideological leanings. The left has increasingly been critiquing who does and does not get named “terrorist” in the media—how white male mass shooters are described instead in terms of personal mental illness, even when they so often share ideologies (misogyny, white nationalism) and are influenced by larger online communities. Ideas about “us” and “them” manifest entanglingly in discussions of the Tsarnaevs and of the Americanness of their violence—violence they described as a response to American war abroad.
When I was recovering from anorexia I read books like Suzie Orbach’s Hunger Strike, which frames anorexia in feminist terms, as a response to gender-based inequality and oppression. I haven’t kept up with theorizations and treatments of the disease, but it’s easy to feel that in the general culture such critiques—which emphasize the disease’s social and political aspects; the collective and not just the individual—haven’t been sufficiently heard. Meanwhile anorexia has spread from its stereotypical patient profile—a young woman from a privileged class in the so-called developed world—across genders, backgrounds, urbanizing nations.
I want to keep taking anorexia seriously as an expression, an embodiment, of critique, in an age when the capitalist drive toward consumption is escalating into climate crisis and mass extinction. Is the figure of the anorexic a harbinger? Is her public refusal to survive terroristic? I don’t mean that I’m in any way for anorexia, a brutal disease I’m daily grateful to have survived. But I want to help dignify this suffering and work to address it by first seeing it as meaningful, not dismissing it as a girl’s grotesque superficiality.
CB: Can I ask you one more question? You told me that one of the lines in SF (I won’t give it away—but it’s my favorite) is a line you wrote once as a teenager. What do you do, in this life, with your teenage self?
HP: Oh wow. I have no idea! I put that line in because it felt sweet to do so, like a little something just for me and my mother. I wrote this novel mainly from 2011 to 2013, when I was increasingly very sick (Watchfires talks about this—a worsening neurological condition) and it felt as if my life might keep narrowing, until I could no longer write. There was a kind of frantic despair. So I think I included that line as a way to let things feel tender and absurd and private and public and humble and like they had really happened and would not disappear.
Then, to my surprise, I got better.
I guess what I want from my teenage self, or what I get from her, is just that sort of sweet escalation. I’m sentimental about it, adolescent. Like the joke the whole table finally joins, or the conversation that happens in the car on the way home, or any feeling of lingering, smoking one more time on the porch or letting the room get dark. I’m happiest when one more thing happens. Even though I forget this almost every day. Doesn’t this have something to do with writing, too, and how unaccountable those hours are, how far they get from anything you could call “productivity” or even “writing.” It’s so embarrassing and nice and leaky.
Purchase Plum’s Strawberry Fields.
Re/read Beilin’s story “Our Audubon” from the Winter 2011 issue of Fence.
Hilary Plum is the author of the novel Strawberry Fields, winner of the Fence Modern Prize in Prose (2018); the work of nonfiction Watchfires (2016), winner of the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award; and the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (2013). She teaches creative writing at Cleveland State University and in the NEOMFA program and is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center. With Zach Savich she edits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press.
Caren Beilin is the author of a novel, The University of Pennsylvania (Noemi Press, 2014), a forthcoming memoir, Spain (Rescue Press, 2018), and a nonfiction book on women’s health, Blackfishing the IUD (Wolfman Books, 2019). She teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.