Cynthia Reeves on Novellas, Illness, Ghost Dancers, and Nonviolent Resistance
Cynthia Reeves just published her first book.
The smashing novella Badlands won the Miami University Press Novella Contest—and not only is it no ordinary book for a first-time author, it’s no ordinary book period. The story takes place during a night of crisis in the last days of Caro Singleman’s life…days that are fractured by hallucination, memory, and dreams that hinge on Caro’s work as a young archeologist digging on the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. Meanwhile, her husband Daniel struggles with his own regrets and hopes.
Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After, neatly describes my own experience with Reeves’ book:
“Badlands brings us searingly close to two painful losses, the wholeness of the body and the survival of a people. But Cynthia Reeves makes the experience cathartic through her gorgeously wrought prose and her profoundly empathic spirit. This is a fierce book, and a brave one. I came to the end of it enriched and grateful.”
Our wide-ranging interview took its cue from the all that Badlands holds: from a woman’s body to what’s missing in traditional historical narratives, to Ghost Dancers and marriage
This is your first book. How did you come to center fiction writing in your life?
I came to writing the way many women who start late do: I was busy with other things and kept putting off my dream of writing. I was sure that someday, I would effortlessly juggle raising children and writing. So I worked for ten years in business (as a management consultant) to become financially secure, and then quit to have children. I had this naive idea that the children would play happily together while I wrote.
The reality? My second child was 18 months old before I found time to devote myself to writing. At that point, four years had elapsed since the birth of my first child; another ten years evaporated before I realized that I needed a community of writers to move from my isolated writerly life—taking classes, participating in workshops, and generally flailing around—to something that would give me a consistent base upon which to build a professional career. I found that community and a sense of direction at Warren Wilson College, the low-residency program where I earned my MFA.
Some of what I wrote in those raising-the-kids years was then dusted off and polished and published. In fact, the original story that became Badlands began about ten years ago. It had the main characters, the archaeology motif, the dying woman, the dreamscape, the shifting point of view, and a rather hazy idea about creating the portrait of a marriage. In six pages! Obviously, it was missing something. That “something” one teacher described as opening the story’s doors and windows. When I was finally ready to do that, I was given the great gift of working with some exceptional teachers at Warren Wilson. The result was this novella.
I should add that things didn’t just fall into place with the MFA. Life still intervenes in unexpected ways. This year I have been more devoted to the production and marketing of the novella than working on anything new. That and helping my daughter with her college search. I never expected to be so consumed by my children’s lives now that they’re both teenagers. In some ways, I find myself more distracted because I have to be involved with the emotional temper of their lives. When they were younger, the care was primarily physical. They have so much more to deal with than when I was a teen—the social and academic pressures are unbelievable. So I try to give myself permission to step away from the writing periodically to deal with family and other pressures.
I had the privilege of attending a Grace Paley reading a couple of years ago at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She had at least one of her daughters and a couple of grandchildren in the audience—if fact she reprimanded one of them in front of everyone and he obeyed her! I thought that was pretty remarkable. She wrote brilliantly—I love her work—but she was not very prolific because of her devotion to her family and to political and social activism. She is a role model for women who want to make a difference in all arenas of their lives. I think she teaches us that the quality of life matters more than some arbitrary production of pages.
You’re a woman writer publishing in an uncommon genre—the novella—and your narrative style breaks more than a few norms. Do you think the fact that you have few literary counterparts influences how readers will respond to your work?
I think the novella is a perfect medium for stretching the boundaries of so-called realism. The form is long enough to develop a full-bodied story but short enough not to tax the reader’s patience. I was always conscious of grounding the novella in a “story”—in this case, a strong narrative line propelled by Caro (the story’s wife and mother) dying. But precisely because Caro is dying and tethered to a morphine pump, and because much of the drama takes place during the night when Daniel, her husband, and Caro dream, it was necessary to portray different states of consciousness. Those who have read the book seem to respond first to the story and then to the ways in which the associative language is used to create the landscape of the mind—dreams, hallucinations, lucid dreams, and reality.
Bodies—especially the female body—is fundamental to Badlands: Caro’s cancer-ridden body in the last days of life; the bones of murdered Ghost Dancers; the common flesh of mother and child; the physicality of sex. How does your story draw from both the reality and the cultural idea of a woman’s body?
The somatic experiences of the body were a conscious part of the creation of the book. I wanted to look without flinching at cancer and death and what they do to the body. I had witnessed my best friend die of cancer and, a year later, I watched my husband suffer through chemotherapy and radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease. I felt angry that I was so totally unprepared for the damage and pain cancer inflicts on the body. You read about it, but that’s so different from watching a person experience the assault firsthand. And the extremes of emotion that accompany the experience of watching someone suffer—from praying for a miracle to hoping for death to spare them—were also something for which I was unprepared. I think the novella was my way of working through these feelings.
I made several choices for these characters that relate to cultural ideas about a woman’s body. These choices allowed me to capture some of the conflicting attitudes women and men have about the female body, and also the misapprehensions about physicality that husbands and wives have about each other. I’m most interested in what remains just under the surface of the marriage, especially when you consider how physically and emotionally intimate marriage is. What spouses don’t know or feel comfortable sharing is more compelling to me than what is articulated.
One of my intentions was for the reader to “see” the body recreated by cancer. This stems directly from my own lack of preparedness. Caro makes a choice not to reconstruct her body to conform to a cultural ideal; instead, she lives with the damage from breast cancer. Daniel and Caro are thus forced to address their own notions of beauty and how those ideas have changed as a result of the disease. I also wanted it to be possible that a man would not reject a woman because her body had become something else. I know it is possible.
Caro is especially affected by the changes in her body, not only from the cancer, but also from the natural process of aging. I remember reading somewhere during the writing of the book about women who hide their bodies from their husbands as they age. That struck me as very sad. Perhaps it’s my own idealistic notion about love: that the external should not matter. Of course, it often does matter. And I wonder why it is that men can age ungracefully without feeling the same pressures.
Caro finds human bones from Wounded Knee during an archeology dig. The dig’s director wants to categorize them as bison bones so they can move on in search of older artifacts and, ultimately, greater glory. Caro challenges him about what is and is not worthwhile in history. In your opinion, what are the greatest gaps in our human story?
The greatest gaps in our human story are the smallest ones. My daughter recently wrote a sentence in a college application essay that blew me away—“Every child who dies in poverty becomes part of a human story that will never be told.” History records the big events, the great leaders who influence the rise and fall of governments, the most admirable and the most evil. But these sweeping stories are not the human story, which takes place on a much smaller scale. One of the sparks that restarted my original six-page short story was testimony I read in Voices of Wounded Knee by William S. E. Coleman about the survivors of Wounded Knee who died trying to reach safety. The epigraph to my novella, Badlands, contains part of this testimony. Of course, the names of those men, women, and children are lost to history, but they were not lost to the mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, and children who grieved for them.
As history is told and re-told, discovered and confounded, how do biases shape what emerges? Is there anything we can do today to ensure that our present reality is remembered truthfully?
What is reality? Whose perspective are you using? I don’t think there is such a thing as truth. Even what emerges as “history” is contaminated by the biases and intentions of the storyteller, as well as the audience he or she is addressing. What I learned as history in the sixties and seventies is very different from what my children are learning today.
So too with personal histories, the biases are inextricable from the story. For Caro and Daniel, for example, the story of their marriage is really the story of two marriages—the one Daniel perceives and the one Caro perceives. Can the two versions be reconciled? And the story Caro creates for the Miniconjou mother and child is fiction—albeit well-intentioned fiction. Might it be at least as “true” as what really happened?
I think the best we can hope for is that intelligent, liberally-educated people commit what they know about history to paper, and those who read those papers absorb as many of these different perspectives as possible before reaching any conclusions about what constitutes reality. And, of course, you should always be open to that next brilliant analysis of some past or present “reality” that changes your mind or broadens your thinking to encompass the new reality.
The choice to tell this story with association and juxtaposition, rather than with a traditional chronology, directly contrasts with the linearity of the American history that figures so prominently in Badlands. Do you think framing history as a timeline diminishes the human lives that create it? How does that balance against the value of a chronology?
Badlands does not reject the utility of history as a timeline. Historical patterns and trends depend on the linear sweep of history—events follow one to another, usually in some understandable progression, at least when viewed from a temporal distance. A chronology helps the student of history comprehend these patterns.
On the other hand, individual stories don’t unfold in a purely linear fashion. People experience periods of dream, lucid dream, hallucination, mental dysfunction, and/or reverie that remove them, either temporarily or permanently, from the forward arrow of time. Using juxtaposition and association, rather than relying strictly on what is called linear realism, allowed me to capture this human experience of time—the linear progression of days coupled with the digressions into irreality and memory that are equally part of reality.
As I said before, I don’t think history captures, or is intended to capture, the individual lives that comprise it. History is by its very nature “collective”—individuals whose human stories become part of our larger story are those who step outside of the more narrow confines of community to contribute to the collective human story. Besides, it would be impossible to incorporate the whole of human existence into “history.” In the end, I don’t think it’s even important because I don’t believe that chronology either elevates or diminishes a life.
What makes each human life valuable is what emanates from the individual in the here and now—his/her cares and concerns, his/her contributions to various “communities” (family, town, workplace, church, volunteer organizations, etc.), and the memories he/she creates within those communities. Eventually, sad to say, even those things will be lost to the past. But the point is this: the individual life is significant as that life unfolds and how it touches other lives, however briefly. It is in this way that every human life matters.
From Caro’s missing breast to the children who are introduced into the story through their absence, Badlands fixates on what’s missing. Do you think that’s comparable to how most of us live our lives—wondering what might’ve been and dwelling on what we’re not?
Funny how our fiction captures our fixations. As a writer who has come late to her work, I am obsessed with the “might have been.” It’s not a good way to live your life, to be sure. I think writing fiction allows me to live those other lives from the safety of my little writing space without disrupting anyone else’s life.
Both Caro and Daniel think about what might have been. Daniel wonders if he might have pursued glass architecture, but he also wonders if Caro regrets giving up archaeology for family. Caro seems reconciled to her commitment to marriage and children; her fixation is her failure to honor the woman and child whose bones she unearthed. In effect, she spends this awful night trying to rectify her mistake.
I’m not sure the “what’s missing” is always attributable to regret. One of the lives I wanted to live was that of a wife and mother, and I have, and that requires commitment. Certainly a huge chunk of time! Writing while raising children—frankly any occupation that juggles raising children in the mix—requires sacrifice.
With a creative endeavor that depends on continuity—like writing—that sacrifice may be even greater. I mean, there are months when my writing has to take a back seat to family concerns. I spent four years almost completely away from writing in my early forties taking care of my friend and then my husband and family. Afterward, I was able to recommit to writing with a passion I did not have before. Part of this was because I had reached the age my friend had reached when she died. I remember making a conscious commitment to honor her absence by not wasting the gift of years I would have and she would not.
The Ghost Dancers were one of the most awe-inspiring examples of mass nonviolent resistance in American history. Even considering the awful end to their saga, what do you think their story says to us in 2007—particularly to those of us engaged in very different kinds of nonviolent resistance?
I’m currently reading The Bottom Billion, a book by the liberal economist Paul Collier. What drew me into the book was his assertion that there are certain situations in which change can only be effected through military intervention—in places where corrupt governments will never prioritize alleviating poverty. I wonder if he is right. I want to hope that he’s not.
What I want to believe is that peaceful resistance works—even if it takes a very long time. People are impatient; they want to see results in their lifetime. Sometimes nonviolent protest takes generations for its consequences to be felt. Violent action seems to effect change more readily, and in some cases, appears to be justified.
I am no expert on the history of nonviolent protest, but it seems to me that the legacy of Wounded Knee is not only the catastrophe of the genocide. Over the past century, American Indians have come to be viewed in a different historical light. The American history I read growing up was slanted toward the violent encounters between American Indians and whites, and biased by an unwavering belief in American exceptionalism. That belief in American superiority as a justification for expansionism was the excuse the government used to wipe out or integrate cultures different from the American “norm.” Nowadays that particular belief has been derailed by, for example, our involvement in Iraq. Likewise, the American history that my children are learning just thirty years after me is very different—not only a much more balanced view of what happened to the American Indian, but also the contributions of women and other marginalized groups.
The tenacity of American Indians clinging to their own cultures and ideals for the past several centuries, in the face of nearly overwhelming attempts to eradicate those cultures and ideals, has influenced this rewriting of history. There is a lesson for those of us involved in peaceful protest about change—that it takes almost a superhuman patience to effect change through nonviolent means, but it does work.
What are you working on now?
I’m finally committing the spirit of my Italian ancestry to paper—I’m writing a story cycle that starts in a small Italian village during World War I and continues up to the present day in America. I want to say it’s a novel-in-stories, but I’m just not sure what its final form will be.
Anything else you’d like to add?
One thing I have come to realize is that the publication of the novella—though it represents a personal milestone—is not really what makes me happy. That may seem hard to believe, but the fifteen years of trying were in some ways more rewarding than actually arriving at this juncture. Yet I do think publication is important as a validation. I heard the poet Jane Hirschfield once remark that we are not, after all, writing personal diaries—we are writing so that someone else will read what we’ve written. Writing has allowed me entrée into a very interesting, compassionate, and supportive community and connected me with an enthusiastic group of readers. That’s the ultimate reward of this career.