Live at the Red Ink Series: On “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”
Featuring Samantha Hunt, Madhushree Ghosh, Ursula Villarreal-Moura, Annabelle Gurwitch, and Naheed Phiroze Patel
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books Are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next discussion, “Avoidance,” will take place on September 8th at 7pm EST in-person at Wild East Brewing Co. and on YouTube Live, featuring Sari Botton (And You May Find Yourself…), Sarah Thankam Matthews (All This Could Be Different), Elissa Bassist (Hysterical), Melissa Lozada-Oliva (Dreaming of You), and Kayla Maiuri (Mother in the Dark). Purchase tickets here.
The following is an edited transcript from May’s panel, “Answers,” which featured Samantha Hunt, Madhushree Ghosh, Ursula Villarreal-Moura, Annabelle Gurwitch, and Naheed Phiroze Patel.
Michele Filgate: The name of this series comes from a Virginia Woolf quote from Mrs. Dalloway about correcting love letters in red ink. I often like to turn to another quote from Woolf during the panel discussion. Woolf wrote in To The Lighthouse: “What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” Does that quote resonate with you? Does it mirror what it’s like to work on a book?
Samantha Hunt: In The Unwritten Book, I enjoyed moving away from a sense of an individual self into a plurality, whether that’s community building, being haunted by ghosts or just living with our gut bacteria. I was thinking of bodies as multiple spaces. I’d been struck by a person who choose they/them pronouns as a way to include their ancestors with them. The Unwritten Book is about family so that made sense.
One of the processes of the book was collecting disparate stories, connecting things that didn’t necessarily want to connect with each other. How can we make peace, how can we make calm amongst forces and people who don’t want to make peace and calm? The idea of there being only one answer feels too easy and even false, but collections are a way to get past that, like, let’s collect all of the truths, right? Let’s collect all of the answers.
In practice, with my own writing, one model and one book I think about a lot is Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. It’s structured like Saturn’s rings—individual ice crystals held together in orbit. How do we move from the idea of sycamore trees to Communism to pregnancy? Throwing things together, forcing relations, is the way I love to write, and even if I don’t always love it, it is how I write.
Madhushree Ghosh: Our brain is meant to work on both sides. We tell each other lies when we say, I have a science brain or an arts brain, I can’t math—if that be the case then we would have been given half a brain. We are given a full brain so we are supposed to use it, we are just hesitant to use it or intellectually lazy when we don’t want to use it. I always say that because I’m using both sides of my brain, it’s hard sometimes when one side is working better than the other, but they work if you practice. We–especially women writers have a hundred thoughts, which we then distill into a few. So this really spoke to me in that my book Khaabar, almost half of it was written during the pandemic when I stared at my dog and my dog stared back at me, and we had a pallet of 108 rolls of toilet paper—that was my life.“I just remember being really obsessed with words from a very early age and just wanting to know what they all meant, and how to arrange them so it sounded so captivating.”
When you are living in fear of the unknown, as a scientist what diagnostics means, knowing what this virus can do, knowing millions are dying all over the world and there’s nothing you can do about it, then how does that affect your writing when you are writing in fear? You are writing in fear and you may say you’re not, but you are. You’re also writing in isolation in the truest sense of the world.
So braiding isolation, braiding your thoughts, and getting it down to the crux of what matters—in my case, I’m using food to talk about how do we question belonging, where do we belong as immigrants, as people of color, as migrants and indentured people? How do we belong and who says we belong? And do we consider that a radical question or do we consider that a valid question? You can look at multiple ways and suddenly there is a light at the end of a tunnel, and the light is not the light of an oncoming train but it really is illuminating, and you understand why your book needs to exist.
Annabelle Gurwitch: I just want to say, no one who reads me is thinking, you know, Annabelle Gurwitch is thinking about Virginia Woolf. But I keep a copy of Ms. Dalloway on my desk because I pull it out when I’m writing because what it does for me, what Woolf’s work does for me is, it slows my brain down so I can take those multitudes into these small moments. And the small moments of trying to understand life, that’s a lot of what I’m trying to do or what motivates me. In one of the stories in this book, when I—the character me, whatever, it’s memoir—when I go to get the Mona Lisa procedure, named by a male doctor I’d like to note, the laser treatment for having a vagina with the climate of the Sahara, and I go into this doctor’s office and there’s the fertility area with the sunlight streaming through and orchids the size of baby heads, and families are lounging and eating together, they are picnicking, and I’m shuffled off to the place where women are getting the laser for their vagina.
And there are high wingback chairs, and all of us have dark glasses and sun hats, and there are photographs on the wall of deserts. And someone thought to do this, this is the world, this is how we are you know, and when that’s happening that day, this is when I feel like I’m having a good writing day, is when I can think about Ms. Dalloway’s day—and I think of myself as my own kind of Dalloway—and I just have to write this and share this, these little details that tell us you know, about who the world thinks we are and how we are to experience life. So it’s a good day for me when I can keep Virginia Woolf in my mind.
Naheed Phiroze Patel: I really like that whole juxtaposition of the arid desert versus the fertile Eden, but my answer is a little different. So the image of the match struck in the dark made me think of this quote from Valeria Luiselli, she says, “A match struck alight in the dark hallway, the lit tip of a cigarette smoked in bed at midnight, embers in a dying chimney: none of these things has enough light of its own to reveal anything. Neither do anyone’s words. But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know.”
So I love the idea of the fact that when we illuminate something we choose to shadow something else. And we think that we’re only making the choice of illumination, but the negative choice is being made at the same time. I think that’s really interesting, and maybe we should be paying more attention to that, to the shadow, to the boundaries of the match struck in the dark.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura: Well first off, I love that everyone is focusing on different parts of the quote. I think that’s so telling of how writing works in general, what’s salient to us is maybe not salient to the next person, but it’s beautiful. I love hearing everyone expand on this. I think of it more in terms of the writing process and how collecting all of these times that you sit down, like the mornings that you don’t want to and the mornings that you’re really energized, and the evening that you know, you’re tired but you get an idea and you go back to your computer. And all the different moods and energies and ideas and words that come to us, that’s the meaning of life, for a writer. Having all these moments and stringing them together into something that is larger and I feel represents me on some level or represents the human experience.
And somedays it feels really mundane and awful and you just can’t get enough coffee or like, snacks in, and other days you are just so energized and feel like you have a mission and you’ve gotta write this even if it takes every drop of energy in you. I feel like, obviously Virginia Woolf was talking about something slightly different maybe, who knows, but for me that’s what resonated, this constant never giving up, just this journey of one foot in front of the other every day, making a constellation of it.
MF: Madhushree, toward the end of Khaabar you write about memory. You say, “I have to be careful when I talk about my history and where I come from—what am I choosing to remember? This is tricky because the memory cells adhere to what they want to. It may be the truth in my mind, but mostly it’s the truth in my heart. I will hold on to that.” So I wanted to talk about that quote because you’ve already brought up that you’re a molecular biologist in addition to being a writer, and I’m wondering how your scientific background impacts the way that you explore your memories. Especially when you were talking before about how you trust answers that are backed up by facts?
MG: My book is a food narrative memoir but it’s really a love letter to my parents, it’s a love letter to the country I left, and to the country I now call my own. So when you are looking at all these factors some of them are a little contradictory, and my love letter to my parents are parents who died over fifteen years ago, so when people talk about mourning their parents, I mourn them every day.
Let me talk about Indian culture and what I think makes sense to me, and then talk about science. In Indian culture, a mourning tradition, is when the person dies their widow or widower is sat down and asked over and over again, what happened? What did he do before he died? How did he die? The questions are very invasive but they are repeated. The neighbors will come and ask, the cousins will ask.
That happened to my mother over and over again, and I remember my sister and I sat there in horror, watching this person we loved, talk about the person she loved and how he passed away. When you can repeat something over and over, it either becomes the truth or the pain of that, the trauma of that, reduces significantly; those words don’t have that meaning that they did the first time she said it. Whereas for my sister and I, we didn’t recall it like her. For us, we’ll be living with that trauma forever because we don’t talk about it as much. When you are looking at it from that perspective, mourning, funerals, you talk about the person a hundred times in order for you to create the memory. That eventually means you can change how you think about that person with joy.
If the relationship had been a happy one then you think about happy things rather than thinking about the sadness of the passing. So memory is very important in terms of the scientific ability of what you remember. Coming from India, again, we are taught to memorize, most of us have photographic memories because you memorize tomes of books for your tests. It’s s just part of our life, when you can pinpoint exactly how you thought or what outfit you were wearing, was your hair braided—you can’t forget that and much as you would like to forget, you can’t. That’s hardwired. Your brain is a computer, the computer needs to be overridden with other memories in order to think of it as a happy memory.
Your memory is going to change; I’m sure if I wrote the same book 20, 30 years from now, it would be a different one.
MF: Samantha, in “The Unwritten Book,” you look to your late father’s unpublished novel as a way to make sense of things and even to communicate with him. At one point you write: “The dead leave clues, and life is a puzzle of trying to read and understand these mysterious hints before the game is over. Even if these clues are not coming from the dead. Even if I’m making the whole thing up.” What was it you were searching for in your father’s prose?
SH: One question I went into it with was, who were you? He was a lot older than I was, I’m the youngest of six kids, and he was a very, very quiet man, and he was an alcoholic his whole life. So, who are you, was there, but, it also became a way for me to think about how to tell myself a new story about death. What Madhushree just said is so true to this. I wanted a new story for death that didn’t hurt so much, and as I was writing the book during the pandemic and being hurt by death basically daily.
I had been thinking about a quote from Katha Pollitt I found in Darcy Steinke’s menopause memoir, Flash Count Diary, about how storylessness has always been women’s problem, and I thought, oh that has a lot to do with what I’m thinking about with death. Why are American stories about death only scary, only horrible? I was always drawn to the worst possible tales like, tell me more, how did they die? But then when death starts to get a little too close to home you get less interested in that fascination.
I was using my dad’s book, like a really bad detective, like a cheesy private investigator or something, I was collecting clues and maybe even just making things up. The process felt like a game, and I found joy in that. I have a science background, I studied geology. That brought me back to the truth of death, the one story, one narrative that really does give me peace. I was like, wait, no one is going anywhere, we don’t own these cells. They are staying here on planet earth. Everybody is here, everything is forever. And that is an incredibly comforting, beautiful story.
MF: Naheed, in an interview with NPR you said: “One of the questions I really wanted to explore in the book was how to “mother” when there is a vacuum of support and care.” Can you elaborate on that, and how it pertains to Mirror Made of Rain?
NPP: My book is told from the point of view of this young woman, Noomi, whose mother has a traumatic incident in early motherhood that prevents her from being fully present as a parent. In India, the multigenerational family model is pretty common, and you would assume that having all of these adults around you, like grandmothers, aunts, all of these people living with you, sometimes in the same house, that you would have a lot of support.
But it very often happens that even in those cases, even in that abundance—you know there’s that phrase “water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink”—there is a vacuum of support and care, because when a mother fails, she fails all by herself. There is no impetus to jump in and fill in that gap when, for whatever reason, whether it be mental health or any kind of disability, a mother is unable to do what is needed for her child… The mother in my novel book is an addict, and she’s an addict in pretty bad, obviously horrible ways, she’s not like a functional alcoholic, she’s an addict in very dramatically embarrassing ways. Sometimes trauma gets passed down through families like paintings and teacups; it’s an heirloom . And it’s about what Noomi does with that inheritance, does she survive it?
MF: Annabelle, in “You’re Leaving When? Adventures in Downward Mobility,” you write in the opening chapter (referring to you and a friend): “Decades of maintaining a manageable if sometime marginal stability have imploded, sending us on a roller coaster of emotional and financial mobility, a decidedly downhill ride.” Your book is hilarious despite being about serious topics. How does humor help you in the ongoing search for answers?
AG: I’m trying to write the way I see the world, and what interests me in the world, and humor is so subjective. I think the world is hilariously horrible.
So just speaking of death and parents deaths, I’ve written about how when my father died, we had him cremated and we were planning a memorial, and people were going to fly in for this memorial destination a few weeks later. And my parents had a terrible marriage but they were stuck together, and so my sister and I hoped that my mother would have some time after my father died to just, you know, blossom a little bit, but her health declined, and the night before my father’s memorial, my mother falls into a coma.
It’s terrible, and people are going to be arriving and I’m fighting with the rabbi, and I’m saying, rabbi, we’re going to have to memorialize my dad and my mom both tomorrow. Because when my mother dies, no one is going to fly back in for this. And he tells me, you can’t do that, it’s against Jewish law. And my sister who is something of an unordained rabbi is trying to get in between us, and I’m like, we’re fighting with the rabbi in the middle of the night before the memorial. By 7 pm my mother passes, and the memorial is about to start, and the rabbi comes up to me and says, you win.
And I think yes, I won! I mean, it’s so terrible! It’s so terrible that I’m so happy that my mother has died and she’s gonna get memorialized and I just think, you know, this is something that actually happened, and it’s also what interests me is this convention of oh, we can’t, and bumping up against this convention. So that’s the way that I see the world and the world that I want to share with readers, and I think that’s hilarious. I don’t know if the rabbi did.
MF: Of course, that makes so much sense. Ursula, in your collection of flash fiction Math for the Self-Crippling, there’s a story called “Macroscopic Sacred Puzzles” where you write about the character’s husband getting glasses and studying the world anew with his newfound vision. “Between his eyelashes, no puzzle piece is trivial,” you write. “Every atom equals a garden.” That sentiment applies to how one might approach the world through storytelling, too. Word by word, atom by atom, there are entire worlds in the miniscule. Is that something you think about as you’re writing?
UVM: I don’t know how everyone else came to writing but I remember being 11 and learning poetry, and I remember there were two memories in particular. One is, I had an English teacher who would teach us stories and poems, but then the exam would be writing we had never encountered, and so we had to apply the skills we had learned on the other poems and stories to something fresh. And I remember the exam had, Robert Hayden’s poem, that ends with love’s lonely and austere offices.
During the exam I raised my hand, and I said to my teacher, “I don’t know what austere means but I want to answer this question.” And I just remember being really obsessed with words from a very early age and just wanting to know what they all meant, and how to arrange them so it sounded so captivating. I just thought that was the most powerful gift on the planet, to just know the words, and to dazzle people with them.
Maybe the year after that, I had this English teacher from Glasgow—and she taught us Muriel Spark, and I had never read Muriel Spark before and she made us read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This teacher would play Kate Bush and write in cursive on the board, and it was this otherworldly experience that I had never thought possible in a school day. She would give us this writing that was just so beyond anything I had ever read, and so I felt like I was always collecting these stories and these images.
And I just knew at this age that this was something that I wanted to do, I wanted to have this power to produce an image in someone’s imagination, and to have that kind of euphoria that I had while I was reading poetry. I thought, okay, my whole life is going to be devoted to writing poetry. And I was happy, and I went to college thinking that too, thinking like I’m going to be a poet. And then I started writing stories but I’m still obsessed with individual words, and I feel like Math for the Self-Crippling is definitely a testament to that. I labored over every single word because I wanted in my own way to do what Robert Hayden did to me during that exam, which is I want to pour myself into this person’s imagination and understand everything and be in these offices.