Live at the Red Ink Series:
On What It Means to Unravel Along with the World
Raven Leilani, Natalie Diaz, Vanessa Veselka, Meredith Talusan, and Elisa Gabbert
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, “Choices,” will take place on November 12th at 7pm (via Zoom) and feature Danielle Evans (The Office of Historical Corrections), Eula Biss (Having and Being Had), Sejal Shah (This Is One Way to Dance), emily m. danforth (Plain Bad Heroines), and Christa Parravani (Loved and Wanted).
The following is an edited transcript from September’s panel, “Unraveling,” which featured Raven Leilani, Natalie Diaz, Vanessa Veselka, Meredith Talusan, and Elisa Gabbert.
Michele Filgate: We’ve dealt with so much loss this year, with the pandemic only being the tip of the iceberg. But we’ve also seen pain and anger transformed into action: even more people participating in and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and a new urgency to vote Trump out of the White House. What does unraveling mean to you right here in this moment in time, and also in your own work as a writer?
Raven Leilani: I think it means being human. Allowing yourself space to feel. Jami Attenberg wrote a really wonderful essay about resilience recently, on making room to not be resilient. Making room to feel things and allow yourself rest, but also I think there is an element of unraveling that is a survival response. So that is how I feel about this moment where I’m trying to survive, but also remain intact, but also leave space for a human response to this pressure. But in writing, I think unraveling is something I try to harness on the page, where I also want to make room for my characters to be human. To feel and be situated fully in their human bodies, and respond in a way that allows room for contradiction, even.
Meredith Talusan: Writing has always been for me the place where I feel like I can be most fully myself with the gamut of my emotions, I think in part because I grew up in a household that was extremely tumultuous. I had very young parents who both had severe addiction problems. So I feel like in life, keeping everything together, and not losing control has been a really, really entrenched coping mechanism for me. It’s actually quite hard for me to cope with unforeseen circumstances, with events that test my emotions. But when I write, whether I’m writing something personal or I’m writing the stories of other people, that is where I feel like I’m able to harness those emotions and be a more unraveled version of myself, and a more vulnerable person, which I think is something that has been really key to me feeling more like my complete self, rather than this person who is keeping everything together yet actually has all of these feelings and emotions that are unaddressed or unresolved.
Natalie Diaz: Of course being a poet, I’m thinking a lot about the word itself, and the contradiction of the word, that it is at once an unraveling that is also leading to a new raveling. It used to be, another word for un- is out-raveled. So I guess I’ve been thinking a little bit about the fact that we live in a condition of unraveling, and some of what has been really difficult, not that this moment isn’t different, but in some ways we have moved away from our ability to shift and change. I feel that way a lot with being involved in the institution and the academy, and yet, every one of our peoples have done that over time. It’s like, you take an energy and you reorganize it and you put it out in a new way.
So one of the ways I’ve been thinking about it, and I believe it’s the way I come to my work on the page, and the way I come to my classroom and most of the small increments of my day, is to understand that I will necessarily unravel—and where I can be my best self is through learning how to re-ravel so that every untangling gives me an opportunity to re-entangle in new ways. I really feel the way to do that now, what does it mean for me to be a poet, what does it mean for me to be a daughter, to be a mother, to be a teacher. So for me in a way, I’m trying to figure out what is the momentum and rhythm of unraveling or raveling, and how can I somehow make that a forward motion or a valuable motion of return.
Elisa Gabbert: I was going to jump in because as a poet, I did sort of leave my comfort zone of being very much in my own head when I wrote The Unreality of Memory. I started writing it in 2016. I had this reorganizing of my priorities and I felt this great urgency to respond to the moment, and really immerse myself in this kind of material of the moment, but also what I saw as historical precedence for what is happening now. It’s partly driven by great fear; I was driven by fear all of 2016, not just after the election. I thought, that can’t possibly happen, but I was afraid of it, still so afraid of it, but it did happen. I had to come to terms with the fact that it did happen, while it still seemed impossible. So, I was writing a lot about disasters and apocalypse. The longer I went through the process of writing it, the more I felt like I was unraveling; the last essays were the hardest to write, absolutely, and I lost my ability to sleep. I was physically in pain; I couldn’t imagine things getting worse. And they did.
Right around when I completely finished my book, turned in my final edits, that is when everything was going into lockdown. I had already come to this place where I’m like, okay I’m done with this disaster stuff, I want to write poems again, I want to write literary criticism, I want to read books and think about beautiful paragraphs. Now, I’m a little bit lost. Things certainly got worse. It’s funny how relative suffering is, in a way, when you are suffering, you think: this is suffering, this is a ten. The truth is, you don’t know what ten is. You could be at a four, but it feels like a ten to you, and maybe later you will find out what a five is, much less a ten. I think I’m constantly, to echo Natalie, unraveling and re-raveling, unraveling and re-raveling. Feeling like, this is as bad as it gets, then collecting myself and feeling like, okay I can handle myself again, I know what to do, how to be a person and a writer, and then it all falls away.
Vanessa Veselka: So, it’s interesting, hearing you talk about the scale of suffering, and things like that, I think that is one of the reasons it is so important to have other people in our lives—or in my life—is that I really rely on the people who have been through wars, who have been through hard things, who have been through big social movements. All of those things, those stories, give me a sense of strength and resilience. Something that’s owning me might go from an eight to a four, and, I’m more human for that,
Still, it’s been a rough year. It was difficult to write The Great Offshore Grounds during this time because I was deeply conflicted about whether I should be writing at all versus organizing because I’d worked as a labor organizer and a lot of other things before. So that question of, where should I put my labor and what is art, and what am I doing with my time, was part of the unraveling for me in the process of writing. As events would happen, I would just completely spin out; how can I say that what is in front of me is the most important thing that I should be doing right now, as opposed to every other thing I can be doing. I found it very hard to come back to the page in that sense. I mean, I always had a strong discipline with it but I found it hard to bring my heart back. Showing beauty, these things that are less immediate, they are still important. I had to go back and forth and do that a bunch with the novel.
What I think with unraveling, and I’m thinking about it now, is that there is this balance between vulnerability and scrutiny. Because part of the issue with unraveling is that you are becoming vulnerable, but we are in a culture of scrutiny as well, because that is a natural part of picking everything apart and deciding, do we want to keep this? Or do we want to throw this away? Everybody is kind of doing that in different ways, and there are painful sides of that and there are beautiful sides of that, but that vulnerability and scrutiny are right there at the same time, so as you unravel you are in a state of danger, but you are also in a state of becoming. So, for me in my work, a lot of it comes down to looking at history, at economics, looking at people, their lives, their addictions.
MF: Elisa, in your eerily prescient essay, The Great Mortality, which is in The Unreality of Memory, you write about The Black Death, and I’m going to quote here from your essay, “As William H. McNeil writes in Plagues and People, the plague on some level was ‘a routine crisis of human life.’ Many at times seemed to take this mass die-off in stride, like the weather. It’s paradoxical how quickly we adapt to suffering.” You also say later on the essay that “every plague is a double plague of contagion and fear.” I’ve noticed how much has been normalized during Covid-19: wearing masks, disinfecting groceries, carrying hand sanitizer everywhere we go, but what I can’t adapt to is the suffering. I’ll never forget walking past a hospital here in Brooklyn back in May, and seeing a refrigerated truck they were using as a makeshift morgue. I had seen photos in the news, but seeing it in person, it was just absolutely terrifying. I’m wondering what you have learned about the way people cope with pandemics, both in your research for this book, and your lived experience over the past six months?
EG: I thought a lot about normalization when I was writing my book. There is another essay, not the one on plagues, actually, but there is one about compassion fatigue where I was really responding to the way I was feeling in the first year after the election, where I talked about how I was reading the news and tweeting constantly about the news, and just reacting all the time. When people would say something like, stay mad, that would make me mad, because I was like, how hard is it to stay mad when everything is infuriating? I couldn’t imagine not being mad. And then fast forward a year or two after that, I had to admit that it was hard to stay mad. I was no longer angry all the time. Thank god in a way, because if you are literally angry all the time, you are probably going to have a heart attack, and not be able to think clearly, to do things that can help your local community or even just take care of your children or whoever it is you need to take care of.
I at some point came to a realization, not even a conscious realization, but you can rationalize what happens unconsciously, which is that at some point you stop being mad because it’s reality, it is what you are dealing with every single day. So for most of the past four years, it’s not like we’ve been living in a war zone. I had a job, I haven’t had to deal with really any kind of personal crisis, it’s just been knowing so much about what is happening to other people that has been so oppressive.
When I was reading about really anything, the Black Death is a great example, but reading about people who lived through the Holocaust, or Chernobyl was one I was really struck by, people were sort of very quickly like, oh yeah, you move on. They were very matter of fact and sort of folksy about it, like what are you going to do? You have to do your job, you have to work on the farm. Whatever it is that you have to do to get through the day, the war, the nuclear disaster sort of becomes background. That was sort of comforting to me in a way. I felt less guilty that I was starting to feel like suffering and disaster and crisis are normal. I was like, my life hasn’t changed all that terribly much. I still have a job, I’m not hungry, so I felt a little less guilty once I realized, look, even people in the Holocaust started to feel like that was normal. So it became this question of—don’t privilege the emotion. Just try to think through things. You don’t have to be angry to be rational about what the right thing to do is, it might even help to think through it calmly. I guess all that research helped me have perspective in some way.
MF: Meredith, in Fairest you write: “I didn’t actively dislike being a man. It was more that for so much of my life, I lived vicariously through women, who were always the central characters in my favorite stories, searching for and finally finding the love of men. It was thrilling to imagine myself living these fantasies, whether in rom-coms or Shakespeare, but especially from great novels set in England. But whenever I finished those books, I had to live with the disappointment that while women in real life had the chance to experience some version of these stories, my pleasure in them was always destined to be indirect, so that one moment when a virtual stranger called me a Lady gave me an outsized amount of joy.” Seeing as we’re all writers and books are part of our DNA, can you talk about how some of these novels helped you unravel a different life for yourself?
MT: Yeah, in terms of Fairest, which is a memoir, one of the things that was really important to me was to question this entire kind of way that trans people are often portrayed, which is that somehow we have this fixed, inexorable identity, that no outside influence would in any way alter the trajectory of our fate. I just don’t believe that. I think that trans people are certainly a manifestation of the way that the things that we read, the people that we encounter, the things that happen in our lives, are things that have enormous effects on us. And in my case, I have been an avid reader ever since I was a kid, I devoured many books, and I’ve always gravitated towards female protagonists. It’s just always been a huge part of my emotional makeup. I think that just in terms of those books, they influenced me to be able to recognize myself, and recognize that I wanted to live in the world in a different form, regardless of how difficult that is, and that is not actually so unusual.
Or at least it’s not an experience that is unique to trans people, and I think it’s something that is deeply connected to a lot of the things we are talking about. My book published the Tuesday before everything erupted around George Floyd and all the protests around the country. We moved two hours away from New York City, and one of the most difficult things that I had to experience was the decision not to go into the city. We’ve only been here in the Catskills for about a year, so my queer people of color community is still there.
For such a long time, I’ve been very frustrated about the ways in which demonstrations in the United States have been, or the Women’s March was; there was a lot of discussion around safety and lack of confrontation. I grew up in a very different protest culture in the Philippines, where we were very confrontational towards injustice and dictatorships, and people routinely protested on the streets. So this was happening, and I was living around immunocompromised people, and the decision not to be there, even though I participated in protests here, required a lot of rethinking about the type of person I am… these questions around what does it mean to be writing and facing a page at this specific time became so visceral. Thinking deeply about my work and trying not to do it selfishly became vital for me; you acquired the resources that you’ve acquired, you’ve studied the things you have studied, you have lived the life you have lived, in part to express the ideas that you have. I feel like I grew into my role as a writer in a very specific way because of the events of the spring and summer.
MF: Raven, in Luster Edie is a young woman who gets involved with a man in an open marriage, and she ends up moving in with the couple. At one point you describe Edie comparing herself to Rebecca, the wife. You write: “I feel boring for the compulsion to compare myself to her, and even a little mean, but her serenity bothers me. It bothers me that she doesn’t wear prettier underwear, that her marriage is inscrutable and involved, and that I am somewhere inside it.” One of the things I love about your novel is how the focus becomes less on Edie and Eric and more on Edie and Rebecca. In an interview for BOMB you said: “as they draw closer, the conspiracy between them is frustrated by the emotional consequences of that transaction, by the friction of their lived experience. There is a kind of romance in that, maybe perversely, the care they have to take, the fragility of their bond, how often the gratification is delayed and intensified because of the differences they need to reconcile.” What was it like to unravel the relationship between two women sharing the same man? Did you always know you wanted to focus on them?
RL: I did. I would say the man was more of a delivery system, I feel like the relationships that interest me most and I find the most compelling are relationships between women, the way they can be profound and urgent right away. Their relationship is complicated. There is an eroticism there that is both hindered and stoked by the difference in their lived experience. Rebecca is the wife, and writing a book about an open marriage, or any sort of infidelity, I understood that there are conventions to that story, and it was important to me to try and subvert the idea of what we expect from an arrangement like that. The easy thing to do was to have made Rebecca a villain, a scold, and have them fight over this man, as opposed to two serious women who get to let down their masks and reveal themselves to each other.
When you were talking about unraveling, one of the things I was thinking about was, who is allowed to unravel? Lately we have seen online and elsewhere these kind of, I think, messages meant to be uplifting, inspirational refrains around black women, specifically, for being resilient and strong, and I think that at least, it was important for me to write a black woman who is afforded the grace to fuck up. I think that to have depicted her only as a stoic and resilient person would have been an inhumane portrait. Ultimately it’s where I was coming from with this relationship, was to have two women slowly, bit by bit, showing their private faces to each other. It really isn’t until she develops this relationship with Rebecca, having looked elsewhere in relationships with men for affirmation, that she finds someone willing to challenge her in a meaningful way. This has been true in my life, that the most affirmation, the most rigor, the challenges that have made my work better, have come from with other women, other women who are serious about their craft, or allowed to be serious.
MF: Natalie, In Postcolonial Love Poem, you write such stunning poems that span a wide spectrum and include the body, water, air, desire, basketball, and even unicorn horns. In “The First Water Is the Body” you write: “What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth. I have never been true in America. America is my myth.” Can you talk about the myth of America and how you unravel it through your poetry?
ND: One way to imagine what it means to live and move in this country—being native, being queer, being Latina is a weaving analogy, which requires visualizing or imagining the warp and the weft. The warp is the material that moves downward, in tension, and the weft is what is woven across the warp, to build a story or pattern. The weft moves kind of like this nation’s telling of us, so this nation believes it has control of the narrative. As the weft comes across the warp, it builds what we see visually and what we then read as a kind of story or a narrative.
But what is really interesting is the weft is actually the weakest part, so the weft coming across is extremely weak, and it is completely reliant on the warp that is holding these strings being woven, or these threads or these materials that are being woven across. Yet, in this relationship, the warp is etymologically “the thing thrown away,” the thing you discard and throw away. So, I think for me, I’m interested in what tension is. I think creativity is actually a tension. I grew up in a very large family in a two-bedroom house, eleven kids and parents and whatever cousins were with us, so tension and noise and chaos for me are the normal. I think in constellation, I think in collective, collaborative kind of relationships.
Along those lines, one of the tensions that has become a very important place for me to return and to rethink and reorganize is desire, and what is desire, and for me it is a tension. I think desire is not something only human; I believe it’s the way a plant might grow or the way, in the desert a tree might hold water and imagine. We have trees here that know how to hold water for months and months and months. This is something in the book—we have wildflowers that literally hide themselves for twenty, thirty years. So imagine the desires we have had where we felt like we might die of those desires. And then to think about the relief, so sometimes the breaking… it’s been really generous to hear all of the different way we in this conversation are coming at this because something I really had to teach myself is that, it’s not a permission necessarily, but that breaking is very natural. Desire, I think, is one way of breaking. I have to try to reorganize energies so that it’s okay for me to break. I have troubles in the mornings, and I don’t sleep very well. I do this with language because language is one of the ways I touch the world, so I have to voice: this is anxiety, but what if it’s something else? I don’t know what this feeling is, but what if it’s something I can reorganize and it can move me forward? Importantly, what if it can’t?
I’m thinking back to something Vanessa said earlier, you said something about the relationship between scrutiny and unraveling. I’m thinking about that in terms of tension and relief, tension and relief. And for me, it’s like desire and touch, desire and touch, desire and touch, and so I have to, because I was formally and maybe mostly an athlete, those tensions for me are literal, physical, I have to push up against things. I have a hard time sitting still without touching things—I’m trying not to do that here on the screen. Those are some of the ways I think I’m trying to do that in language, on a page. I’m also trying to be aware, poetry really is one small part of what language is to me.
Since we have been talking about what is happening in this moment, there is a way that I have put poetry and text and writing and creative writing, I’ve shifted where it exists—the thing that has been most important to me is the language I practice in my home with my lover, and the language I practice with my parents. I’m home on my reservation right now, which is a difficult place to be. What is that language practice with my beloveds who are my friends? And can I break in that space, or I can hold off breaking, or I can be there when someone else is breaking, and all of this may or may not arrive at the page. In some ways, I guess I’ve worked backward to poetry to try to create a practice that does some of what a lot of us have been talking about here, which is to exist, somehow. To sit here and say, I feel my shoulders, which is a little bit anxious and uncomfortable, yet that is somehow also a lucky thing.
MF: Vanessa, in The Great Offshore Grounds you write: “Some ships navigate by charts and landmarks, piloting through understanding the larger picture and their place within it. Other vessels have to rely on dead reckoning. They know only where they came from and how long it took to arrive at this moment in time. From this they can try to make the thousands of minute calculations and course corrections necessary to reach the shore.” Can you talk about how you navigated writing this novel, a book that deals with both familial and American history and ghosts? Was there a fair amount of dead reckoning involved?
VV: Yes, there was definitely a lot of dead reckoning involved. Navigation in general comes through the book because I was fascinated with it as a historical tool in many ways. I started looking at whale navigation and saw that different whales navigated differently. Some by electromagnetic lines and fields, some by sonar—and I saw parallels. Do you navigate by just bouncing a sound of something as you go? I am here, and that is right there. I am here, and that is right there. Whatever “that” is. Or do you navigate by memory? You’ve been here before, you came as a calf with your mom, and you know your instinct is bringing you back but it’s not just your instinct. Those different things, I began to think about a lot. Writing about American myth, I have great, big problems with it as a totalizing thing. I started thinking about, how do we judge what progress looks like in this country? How do we judge it, do we judge how far we are from one action, thing or place? Do we judge it by what should be and could be? Do we guide by what is familiar or do we reassess it every moment and correct it every moment to say, moving forward? And all of those things were part of my way of finding language to talk about American history and choices and the discomfort I feel with a lot of that, and not knowing how to navigate that.
I think the thing about dead reckoning, which is the final retreat of sailors, and sometimes that’s all you have left—you had the stars, you had the landmarks along the coast, but on a cloudy night they’re useless. Dead reckoning: I know how fast I was going; I know where I started; I know where I was pointed—and that’s the way I had to navigate writing the novel.
I want to say one more thing, very quickly. At the very beginning of this conversation, we were talking about that sort of outrage and fatigue at various things, and I know there is a lot of fear and has been for a lot of legitimate reasons, about normalizing where we are at. There is so much outrage that is just performative though. It’s okay to normalize resilience too, it’s okay to normalize surviving things. What I mean is, it’s not just the absence of something, it’s not just the absence of outrage, it’s the presence of resilience, it’s the presence of other things coming forward as well.