books

A Classroom Visit

Last week, I had the privilege of fielding some questions from the students in a colleague’s Women in Literature course. They were reading “My Life as an Abomination,” a short story in which a young woman explores her sexual identity. (It’s also where I got the title for this blog!) The questions the students asked were a little challenging — especially since I’d written the story about eight years ago — and also insightful. Here’s some of what we all had to say:

I have found that everyone has their difficulties growing up. We all have our issues whether it be; family life, battling an addiction to drugs, finding your identity, feeling alone or like an outsider, etc. For you, what was the hardest part about growing up? (Assuming there was one that trumps the rest).

I was pretty shy and bookish as a child, so it was difficult for me to fit in at times. Most of the kids who went to school with me were really into pro wrestling and arson, and I was more interested in reading science-fiction novels and watching Doctor Who. One result of this was the assumption among my peers that I was gay. This was Northeast Philadelphia in the 1980s, and there was a lot of homophobia in my school, so it wasn’t uncommon for the other kids in my class to beat the shit out of me. One kid tried to drown me in a public pool once, and another kid gave me a concussion in the schoolyard. There were other incidents as well. Sometimes I fought back, and other times I didn’t. And though I wasn’t gay, the fact that people would pick fights with me because they thought I was may have played into my understanding of the narrator of “My Life as an Abomination.”

Where did the idea for this story come from, did it stem from real events in your life?

I wrote the story in response to a writing prompt. The prompt was to write a story that ended with the line, “To think, she could have been a sailor.” My immediate thought upon reading the prompt was that a woman spoke this line, and from there I started imagining why she might say it. I never found it difficult to write in the character’s voice. To me, she’s an outsider who want to fit in, and I think most people feel this way at one time or another in their lives regardless of whether they’re men or women. To this extent, it stemmed from events in my own life, since I’ve been as much of an outsider at times as anyone. But beyond that, the details of the narrator’s life do not parallel my own.

Being that you are a man, you give a very realistic feel to the lives of teenage girls.  Did you base any of these characters on women that you may have known?

To an extent, but not really. I knew someone who worked in a flower shop once. And I also knew someone whose house was tilted. But these details are mainly superficial. Before I wrote the story, I hadn’t met any women who told me about struggling with the same issues as the narrator of “My Life as an Abomination.” After the story was published, however, a couple of friends of mine who do happen to be gay told me that the story did, in fact, capture some of their own issues and concerns about coming out to friends and family.

In your story, the girl seemed to come from a not so normal family. While writing this, did you make it so that the girl had her feelings toward men and wanting to be with a woman because of her family life growing up?

I found it interesting that most of the girl’s relationships were with women (her mom, aunt, sisters etc.) and how her view of men were tainted. Did you portray it this way to show a possible cause to her feelings towards women? 

No to both questions. I don’t believe that anything “causes” homosexuality. People are born one way or another. More accurately, they fall somewhere on the Kinsey scale. We have natural inclinations, but culture labels them as “good” or “bad,” “natural” or “unnatural.” This is what I was trying to bring out in “My Life as an Abomination.” A young woman with a particular set of sexual inclinations keeps bumping into cultural messages that tell her she’s bad for feeling the way she does. As a result, she has to learn to set those messages aside and find her own way to happiness and fulfillment. Fortunately, we live in a time when we’re gradually moving away from such labels.

If you had to rewrite the story, would you mention more of the father? There was not really much of a mention of a father. It was mostly more about the mother who obviously was not happy about her marriage.

I’m pretty happy with the story the way that it is. Even though the father doesn’t show up a lot, I think his presence is definitely felt, as the following question suggests. I would, however, add more cowbell.

In your story, the father exerts a level of control over the sexuality of the girls/women is pervasive, startling, and disturbing. I feel like a big turning point in the story was when the narrator described the relationship between Allison and the professor. Was the professor in the story (Dr. Eck) meant to mirror the father and was Allison’s interactions with him meant to provide the narrator with a source of strength and introspection with which to break out of the dysfunctional, misogynistic world she had grown up in and start living in her own skin?

Yes. I think I even named him Dr. Eck because it sounded a little bit like “Ick,” and I wanted him to come across as someone who’s as unsympathetic as the father. Basically, Allison provides a model for the narrator, an example of how to stand up against patriarchy and preconceived notions about sexuality. She shows the narrator how to be comfortable with herself and that there’s really no such thing in life as “normal.”

What personal experiences in your life encouraged you to compose such a story? Also, what are your thoughts on sexual and identity fluidity?

Mainly it was my general sense of being an outsider through most of my young life that encouraged me to write the story. I guess it was my way of saying that everyone feels alone sometimes, and that at least we all have that in common.

As for sexual fluidity, I think we all fall somewhere on a spectrum of sexual identity and preferences, usually leaning one way or the other, with some of us leaning more strongly in one direction than others. Most people are probably somewhere in the middle, but society tends to push us in a single direction that we might term heteronormative. In other words, to be “normal” in our society is to be heterosexual, so a lot of people who think they’re heterosexual have just never stopped to wonder whether they might be attracted to members of the same sex. Or if they do, they know that such thoughts generally can’t be spoken aloud because doing so would violate many of our cultural taboos. If our culture didn’t apply labels like “gay” or “straight,” I imagine people would feel a lot more open to exploring their seemingly conflicted leanings.

In terms of identity fluidity, I find that I can be many different people over the course of an hour.

I know many of my classmates have commented on the fact that you are a male writing as a female, but I would just like to comment once again on how great of a job you did at narrating from the female perspective. I was especially impressed by your narration as a young girl–you captured the emotions of a lost, troubled girl quite well and nearly had me convinced that you were once one of them. In fact, I was racing to finish the story because I was wondering if perhaps you got a gender-corrective surgery later on in life (this was before I read the blurb about you!). Once again, I was very impressed. Was this your first time writing as a woman? Why did you choose to present the story in this way? Why did you choose to write about this “abomination” at all? Were your characters or subject topic influenced by anyone that you know? Have you written anything else in a woman’s voice?

I’d say that about a third of my fiction is written from the perspective of women. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve always written from the perspectives of both sexes. Even in high school, I’d write short stories from both perspectives without really thinking about it. Maybe the problem is that no one ever told me not to do it, so it doesn’t seem like a huge leap to me.

The longest work I’ve ever written from a woman’s perspective was my novel, The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl. I don’t think writing that book was much different from writing other, male-centered, fiction because my biggest concern is always creating characters who seem human. And to me, some of the most interesting things that make us human don’t have much to do with gender. We all have secrets. We all experience desire. We all want things we can’t have. And we’re all flawed in so many ways. That’s mainly what I try to get at in everything I write, but the idea of having secrets and desires and wanting to fit in really drove me to write “My Life as an Abomination.”

The way gender comes into play for me has less to do with who I am and more to do with our culture. I’m especially interested in the kinds of messages our culture sends to both sexes. What it means to be a man. What it means to be a woman. Our culture places different sets of demands and expectations on members of each sex, and these are the factors I like to explore in my fiction. I don’t feel like I’m putting on airs when I write from the opposite gender’s point of view. Mainly I’m just asking myself how I would feel if culture placed X or Y expectations on me based solely on which chromosome my father gave me.

Some Good Words from Kirkus Reviews

I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share this advance review from Kirkus as it’s copyrighted material, but it‘s copyrighted material about my book, so here goes:

When a prep-school classmate dies, a graduate student past his sell-by date must face his escalating anxiety over growing up.

After lightly eviscerating the life of a suburban housewife in his fiction debut, Schuster (The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl, 2009) turns his attention to the wilderness years of 20-somethings in Philly. Grad student Charley is elbow-deep in wallpapering with his wife Karen when a phone call idly informs him that Billy Chin, a former classmate from Saint Leonard’s Academy, committed suicide by leaping off a local bridge. It’s quite the wake-up call for a young man mired in the quicksand of his dissertation and a dead-end job promoting a bank in a giant dollar-sign costume. In a neat metaphor, he’s regularly blown off his feet by passing semis. This means we often learn more about Charley’s unstable personality through internal monologues and cell conversations inside the suit than during the Hamlet-esque paralysis of his life. To assuage his fears, Charley calls his Marx Brothers-quoting best friend Neil Pogue and their gang of comrades from Saint Leonard’s to dream up a tribute to their fallen friend. Five bills in hand, Charley reacquaints himself with former teacher Phil Ennis, now the school’s greed-motivated, self-important development director. Charley’s lack of backbone lets old rival Frank Dearborn turn what was intended to be a tasteful tribute to Billy into a garish festival complete with performance art. Charley is not a nice guy but his spiraling tumble into self-awareness is a wince-worthy exercise in sympathy. “All because I refused to do anything,” Charley admits. “Because doing something meant change. Because change meant growing up. Because growing up meant leaving so much behind.”

Schuster’s off-kilter portrait of a guy unsatisfied like the old Replacements song adds pivotal bite to the pre-programmed humor of his ensemble.

Though I’m not quite sure how to read that last line, I did see a reference to Hamlet somewhere in there, so I’m willing to boil the whole thing down to a one-word blurb:

“Hamlet-esque.”

-Kirkus Reviews

All of Us Can Write Beautifully: An Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston

Best known for her 1975 memoir, The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston has made a career of blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, dreams and reality, even the living and the dead. More recently she edited Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, a collection of fiction, nonfiction and poetry written by veterans. The following is a transcript of an interview I conducted with Kingston when she visited Montgomery County Community College for their annual Writers Conference in November of 2009.

Your work tends to blur a lot of boundaries—fact and fiction, for example, as well as the living and the dead. Why does the interplay between these seeming opposites assume such a central role in your work?

It could be because I feel constrained by labels or boundaries—and by stereotypes, which can bind a person in. I am working on freeing myself as an artist, freeing my voice. Maybe it also comes with my upbringing. I come from immigrant parents and am always trying to bring two cultures together, always trying to find where the common ground is.

When you mention that common ground, I’m reminded of a passage toward the end of Tripmaster Monkey in which a character named Yale Younger, playing the part of the famous conjoined twin Chang Bunker, rails against his audience, yelling, “We know damned well what you came for to see… You want to look at the hyphen. You want to look at it bare.” Is it fair to say that looking at the hyphen is one of your own major interests? How do you look at the hyphen without making a freak show out of it?

That is a freak show. Chang Bunker is from Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins. They were actually Chinese twins, and they were freaks during the Civil War. There’s our country being torn apart, and Abraham Lincoln actually invited them to the White House to show that the North and South should get together. And it’s even freakier because one of them got drafted—but you can’t take both twins. So what I’m doing is using the ligament that joined the Siamese twins as a hyphen. When you think of Chinese-American or African-American, so often there’s a hyphen put in there, and I’m trying to say, “Wait a minute—the hyphen should not be something that separates but something that joins. Let’s integrate everybody and everything.”

There’s a sense of ambivalence there, too. There’s so much that Wittman Ah Sing, the protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey, is in some ways both proud of and ashamed of in terms of all of the cultures that are acting upon him. Do you see that as central not to any specific culture but to America in general?

I suppose if we think of Americans in general, there has always been a looking down on new Americans by the ones who’ve been here a long time. Aside from racial terms, we have terms like greenhorn for people who haven’t learned the American ways. There’s a class structure that we all set up, and those who do well have to affirm that anything is possible here. That’s why there’s a looking down on those who don’t make it.

So we have these mythologies built into our culture, and if you’re not living up to those mythologies, somehow you’re a failure. I love the way within your work, the mythologies are living with us so palpably. When you talk about them, especially in Woman Warrior, a lot of them are Chinese mythologies that follow your characters throughout the narrative. But even in America, it’s still very plain for us.

That is a theme that goes through all of my work. Here are mythic ideals and mythic heroes and heroines—and always feeling I don’t live up this. There’s myths of bravery, myths of success, but also myths of some of our great ideals such as being a peacemaker or democracy, democracy being an ideal that we don’t live up to if we assume that some of us are not as good as the others. When I’m teaching, I especially find it important that even talent should be democratic. Writing, like art, does not depend on genius, but we can learn to write the poem or learn to write the big novel.

This reminds me of your recent work with veterans. You’re taking people who really don’t have training in writing, but you’re working with them to produce very moving work. What drew you to this project?

What drew me was that I was trying to write a book of peace. Again, I was thinking of a Chinese myth that inspired me. There were, at one time, three books of peace, and they were all lost—in book burnings, library burnings. I thought I would write one for our time, and that book burned in one of the big California fires. Then I thought I would gather a writing community around me, and they would be veterans of wars because then they could ask the really hard questions about war and about peace. I gathered that group, and together we learned ways of drawing the stories out of one another. We were writing in community, and we listened to one another. It was my faith that everyone has a great human story, and it’s just a matter of finding the ways to bring those stories out.

Did you encounter any resistance as you were working with veterans, especially in the early going with this project?

I don’t think it was resistance. It was more like tantrums and outbursts. The outpouring of anguish. There would be tears, and there would be screaming and acting out. Balling out everyone around, balling out the world. Then my task would be to help someone use this energy and shape it and form it into words, into story, into poetry.

In a lot of cases, I think it’s very much what we do in a composition class. The ideas are all there, so how do we shape those? How do we give you a voice?

Yes. And how do you take all of this chaos that’s in our feelings and in our minds, and find the words for it.

Right—making sense of that chaos so that it becomes sensible, so that you can share your story, which in a sense is sharing your burden, with another human being.

And then the story or poem has the most miraculous arc and shape, because as we put conflicts into this form, it will naturally take you to revelation of meaning. And by the end of the story, there is resolution.

In a way, you’re enacting that positive version of the hyphen that you mentioned. You are becoming that connection, as opposed to the division. That’s where the value of writing is. But when you’re working with veterans, how do you decide what to include or what to leave out?

The whole process of editing is difficult. But, again with my ideal that all of us can write beautifully and that we can process trauma into art—that we can make a piece of beautiful art and that we can transform a war experience into a wonderful war story—with that idea, I made it my goal that everybody who wanted to be published in a book will be published. And we did make that goal. It’s a huge book with eighty people—forty poets, forty prose writers. The way it works is that people have to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. Constantly, I am editing and shaping. And I’m not the only editor. Some of the veterans themselves are editing. We’re editing each other, giving each other feedback, and after many, many drafts, everybody came up to publishing level.

I love that you say it’s all about revision, always returning to the project, because it’s never really done. That’s what I emphasize with my own students, too. They get so frustrated, especially initially, and they say “What do you mean I have to go back? I’ve said all there is to say.”

But in college, there isn’t time to do multiple rewrites. At most, people have time for one. And that improves it a little bit, but if you can work on a story over many months, many years, and finding the excitement, the drama, the rest of the story, we come to a great work.

To hear the full interview, click the play button below.


Produced by Matt Porter for Montgomery County Community College On the Air. Airdate 12/6/09.