Live at the Red Ink Series: On Using Reinvention as a Writing Tool
Featuring Gina Frangello, Anjali Enjeti, Sam Cohen, Chet’la Sebree, and Marisa Siegel
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, “Writing About Family,” will take place on September 23 at 7 pm (via Zoom) and will feature Marie-Helene Bertino (Parakeet), Victoria Chang (Dear Memory), Julie Klam (The Almost Legendery Morris Sisters), Denne Michele Norris (Electric Literature), and Qian Julie Wang (Beautiful Country).
The following is an edited transcript from May’s panel, “Reinvention,” which featured Chet’la Sebree, Marisa Siegel, Anjali Enjeti, Gina Frangello, and Sam Cohen.
Michele Filgate: What does reinvention mean for you as a writer and in your own work?
Gina Frangello: I’ve heard other people, including my husband, talk about the fact that, when you write a memoir it’s like every autobiographical or obsessive strains from your fiction comes to a head in your memoir because you’re telling your own story, and so recognizing all these different threads that you’ve played out in your fiction. I feel like the memoir is a little bit of a period at the end of a sentence, for me as a writer, and that now I’m really looking at new spaces, new terrain, because I feel like this was the end of a particular era of my work.
Chet’la Sebree: I am feeling similarly about how form is this sort of reinvention in my work. I am a poet and for my second book, Field Study, I have such a hard time talking about it. Even in the project I talk about how I don’t know what to call it. Is it a prose poem, is it a lyric memoir, is it a lyric essay? I think that part of me doesn’t want to find a box for it; I want it to live as its own moving puzzle piece as it exists. But I think giving myself that permission was hard. I love a sonnet, so I love a 14-line poem, and I love a line break, and so to have written all these sort of, tiny, tiny prose boxes over the course of 100 and some odd pages, as opposed to a discrete poem that’s 14 lines, is so completely different for me. I mean, it has me thinking about what are the possibilities for my language? I feel myself to be a poet in so many ways but what are the possibilities, where can I go from here? So I feel excited about the reinvention of my understanding of my own artistry, where that could lead me.“For me, reinvention in my writing is really about trusting my process because for a long time, I didn’t.”
Marisa Siegel: Yes! For me, reinvention right now is about genre and form and not being boxed into one. And also reinventing my idea of what it meant to be a writer versus the reality of my life, that it also includes being an editor, that that’s maybe equally important to me, that it also includes being a mom, and that looks a certain way when you have a six-year-old. I think reinvention, for me, right now in my writing life, has been about making space for all of those pieces, and still trying to make space for the writing.
Sam Cohen: So, I did want to say that one thing I have loved in the pandemic is taking really long walks with really brilliant people, and I was walking a few weeks ago with my friend Amanda Ackerman who is a really great poet and writer, and she was talking about how she sees stories as mycelial networks, or sort of working the way that mycelial networks work as things that are sort of already existent, and we can take a thread and invert that thread or move it to another place or tie two threads together, and figuring out the ways that stories need to be retold. I think my book is also really doing that, it’s characters who can’t really live with the story options that they have or the stories that they’ve been told about themselves. And so, needing to reinvent these stories again and again or pick up threads from the story before in order to sort of make something else.
Anjali Enjeti: I think for me, reinvention in my writing is really about trusting my process because for a long time, I didn’t. I felt like I had to write on a certain routine or write every day to be a writer or write in a certain way, and didn’t give myself a lot of credit that I did have some kind of method to write and it might not look like how other people were writing Before, I used to be so caught up with this very toxic notion of productivity, and I think a lot of us writers, especially during the pandemic, have really been examining what we think of when we think of productivity, and that maybe this is not a very good model for many of us, and in fact, maybe it’s very harmful to our creative process. So I’ve learned to be very forgiving of myself when I write, where I write, how much I write, and I don’t use the traditional markers of completion that I once used to foist upon myself.
MF: Gina, in Blow Your House Down you write about pretending to be someone else, “a Greek chorus of doomed, wild women, when Gina was not a body I could inhabit, when I needed them to survive.” But when you met the man who would become your lover (and now husband) while still married, that changed. You say “I never once felt even mildly tempted to pretend I was anyone else again.” Can you talk about the need to feel like someone else, and how you went from this multitudinous fracturing to feeling more whole?
GF: I think a lot of writers live largely in our heads, and I started writing when I was four years old. I used to dictate stories to my mother, and I would illustrate them—she’d have to write them down at first. I started to write my first novel when I was ten. My mom would buy this brown butcher block paper that she’d roll and cut off for me because we were always broke. And you know, I wrote first as a means of escape, and I don’t think that’s uncommon. I lived in a neighborhood where there was a lot of violence, a lot of misogyny, a lot of child abuse. My parents were very kind people and they stood out there, but I saw these things all around me, everything from friends getting murdered to kids being abused but nobody would talk about it.
So from my earliest memory I had kind of a guilt that I didn’t have parents like that or that I wasn’t being subjected personally to that kind of violence, but I also had secondary trauma because it was everywhere. And so, writing was really a way out. I mean, when I started writing my novels when I was ten—they’re not the kind of books you would think a ten-year-old would be writing. They were all about child abuse and trauma and death, things like that.
So I think originally, it was a coping mechanism to write the things that were unspeakable. And as I got older, I also had a very difficult time, as I think many women do, admitting when I was unhappy, and admitting when I wanted more, and admitting when I even wanted to burn things down, and so I lived vicariously through my characters. So in my memoir I do talk about how, when I began my affair with my then-lover, now-husband, it was sort of a moment of reckoning, not in the sense of you kiss the frog and he turns into a prince and you’re saved, but in the sense that I had stepped so far out of my box of what I believed about myself and what I had worked hard to make other people to believe about me because I needed to believe it—it was like the box just collapsed and suddenly I was only in my life.
MF: Chet’la, in Field Study I love how you weave in quotes from a bunch of other writers and intellectuals. At one point, you quote Dirk Wiemann “The new world was built on the ruins of what had been unmade, destroyed.” And then you say: “If it weren’t for ruins, I wouldn’t be writing.” Can you elaborate on that?
CS: When he said that, it was at a symposium called African Americans in the Long Nineteenth Century; we were talking about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and many other topics. But when he said that, that really stood out to me because I thought about how at so many points, I didn’t think I was going to become a writer, and how it was always sort of moments of crisis or trauma when I sort of repositioned myself and recognized, no this is what I want to do.
I lost a family member my first year of college to a murder, and it haunted me, obviously, throughout college and still haunts me now. When I was about to graduate from college, I just kept thinking what do I want to do, who do I want to be in the world? I was planning to get a PhD in English, and I was in therapy at the time, and my therapist said, “You light up when you talk about the one PhD program that would also allow you to get an MFA, why are you applying to PhDs?” So I ditched all my PhD applications and applied for MFAs. And then, I finished my MFA and was working a desk job and teaching first year composition, and just sort of running myself ragged. I didn’t really know where I was going And then my aunt got sick and died of terminal brain cancer. She was only 52 and I was 26 at the time, and I said, what do I want? If this is the middle point of my life, where do I want to be, what do I want to do?
And so I think that for me, a lot of times the writing was propelled by these really difficult moments where I asked what do I want out of my life? And is this the life I want to be living? And I just kept coming back to the page. Like Gina, I have been writing since I was a small child; I have a second grade notebook that says, “I love to write.” It’s the thing that makes me feel the most whole and human. Sometimes I get away from that in this world of capitalism. I get away from that in pursuit of other things, and I think unfortunately these moments of trauma have reminded me of what I really want to be here for and what I want to do. And they have continued to propel me forward.“Deep transformation does so often come through moments of trauma and not being able to hang onto the self that existed before the trauma.”
Both my books so far have been sort of rooted in ruins. My first book deals with Sally Hemings and the erasure of her history and what feels like ruins and loss. My second book has to do with a failed relationship, so it also feels like it’s dealing with ruins. I think for me the idea that ruins propel my work is multifaceted, and hopefully, it’s not all that propels my work. There’s lots of joy in the work for me as well, but I do feel like there’s something fundamental to these really pivotal moments in my life that were unfortunately related to trauma that have led me to the page over and over again.
MF: Marisa, you have a poetry chapbook coming out next year called Fixed Stars. I love that title! You also have an essay published in Lilly Dancyger’s fantastic anthology on women and anger, called Burn It Down. And you are the editor-in-chief and owner of The Rumpus. How does reinvention inspire you in all of your different roles?
MS: I grew up with a lot of trauma. This is what my essay in Burn it Down is about; it’s not a secret: I had an abusive dad; there was sexual trauma. I think that to some extent I’ve always been reinventing myself; I’ve been pushing against things my whole life and actually, a lot of what this last year has been about inside my head—and what I hope it will look like for me outside my head if the world begins to open up again—is imagining what a reinvention might look like where I’m not reacting to someone else’s bad behavior, where I’m not fixing someone else’s mistakes. Where I’m instead taking the time to tell my story.
I’ve spent the last eight years now working for free. I love The Rumpus tremendously, and I do see the work I’ve done at the magazine as a reinvention. I’m such a word nerd that I googled the definition of “reinvention” before this event. What really struck me is it’s not about creating a new thing; it’s about taking something that exists and reimagining it such that it becomes something that appears to be new. Not something that is new, but something that appears to be new. I think that what I’ve spent the last several years doing is trying to re-make a space where things feel intentionally equitable, intentionally accessible, and intentionally inclusive.
The title of my chapbook, Fixed Stars is from a Sylvia Plath poem called “Words” that has been important to me since childhood. The chapbook is about what can’t be changed, what is fixed, and about control and who has it, and you know, it’s poetry so it’s also about 70 million other things. It’s mostly made up of poems I wrote a long time ago. It feels kind of like how Gina described earlier, like this book is gonna be the end of an era in my writing. I mostly write hybrid prose now. Poetry is always my home; it is the place where I feel happiest, and spending time with poets is still what makes me happiest, but I think that hybrid work is definitely where my writing heart lives now.
MF: Anjali, you’ve had quite the year, publishing two books at the same time and also as a political activist whose work as a co-founder of the Georgia chapter of They See Blue, an organization for South Asian Democrats, was instrumental in the election. In Southbound, the last essay is called “Identity as Social Change.” You write about your They See Blue colleagues: “It is a movement about solidarity, camaraderie, coalition building, and lifting one another up. It’s about how our shared identity can propel us to become agents of social change, whether this takes the form of running for office, volunteering on a campaign, registering voters, or protesting.” Can you talk about reinvention when it comes to politics, and how your activism has shaped what you write about?
AE: I have been in one form or another an activist with various social justice issues, whether it’s abortion rights or intimate partner violence, but I did not find my way to electoral organizing until Trump was elected. Soon after that election, I found out that Asian Americans had one of the lowest voter turnouts of any racial demographic in the country. And that just floored me. I live in this very heavily Asian American area in Georgia, 90 percent of my neighborhood is Asian American, my kids go to public schools where at least 40 to 50 percent of the student body is Asian, and Asian culture is a part of my daily life. I am half Indian, but it’s not just Indians, I’m around people who are Chinese and Korean and Pakistani and Bangladeshi, so when I found out that Asians weren’t voting, I was like, what am I doing with my time?
I happen to live in the 6th Congressional District where Jon Ossoff was running against Karen Handel in 2017. So I just threw myself into that race. Once I got involved, I was hooked. I started to see how well things that used to really intimidate me, like knocking on doors of total strangers, worked. I saw how having these one-on-one personal interactions with voters is crucial. I realized that so much of voting is people either feeling completely ignored by local state and federal governments, feeling like their governments don’t care about the issues that impact them and their communities the most, and just feeling like they are erased.
So that was my big reinvention, and then once I started doing that organizing work, that’s when I started doing more political writing. Most of the articles I’ve written about politics are actually about voting rights. For so long in this country there’s a narrative that people are too lazy to vote. I find that to be extremely rare, actually. Lots of people would be interested in voting if they weren’t so suppressed, if they weren’t so deliberately misinformed, or if the rules didn’t change so often, and if their polling place didn’t move from one place for one election to another. I felt like I had to write about this.
My writing leading up to the presidential election and the runoff, was me waking up to this reality that we as a country are actively disenfranchising voters at every level of government. And you know, once people are listened to and heard about why they aren’t able to get to the polls, things change. If there was ever a reinvention in my life, it’s been the last four years when I finally understood this and realized that I just hadn’t been paying enough attention to voting rights in my life.
MF: Sam, in Sarahland, your debut short story collection, there are many different Sarahs. I love what you said in a Bomb interview: “People have asked whether these are meant to be read as different characters or the same Sarah and I think it’s both. It’s a character who keeps being almost fully obliterated in order to transform.” Can you talk about obliteration as the catalyst for transformation?
SC: I think that transformation sounds like something fun, and it often is fun and absurd in the book, too, like there are I think a lot of fun and wacky transformations, but deep transformation does so often come through moments of trauma and not being able to hang onto the self that existed before the trauma. And I think also in the book often there’s a kind of loss of story for the character, and so the person they believed themselves to be or the structure that they believed themselves as a collective, that they believed themselves to be a part of, was something that they couldn’t believe in anymore.
And that does require a kind of total transformation. In the chrysalis the caterpillar completely falls apart and becomes a kind of goo before it becomes a butterfly. So I think as a kid I thought the caterpillar just grew wings, but it actually completely loses its caterpillar self—and there’s a lot of loss there, right—like it can’t live in the ground anymore, it can’t crawl, it really does lose a whole self but is somehow kind of still the same being. And so I think that’s sort of what’s happening in the book.