Live at the Red Ink Series: On Writing and Being Haunted
With Jaquira Díaz, Mira Ptacin, Crystal Hana Kim , Iris Martin Cohen, and Michele Filgate
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 conversation, “Defiance,” will take place online on June 11th at 7 pm, and feature Afia Atakora (Conjure Women), Laura Bogart (Don’t You Know I Love You), Tiana Clark (I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood), Rachel Vorona Cote (Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Bind Women Today), and Amy Jo Burns (Shiner). Register here to attend the free Zoom livestream.
The following is an edited transcript from November’s panel at Books are Magic, “Haunted,” which featured Jaquira Díaz (Ordinary Girls), Mira Ptacin (The In-Betweens), Crystal Hana Kim (If You Leave Me), and Iris Martin Cohen (The Little Clan).
Michele Filgate: One of my favorite essays by Virginia Woolf is called “Street Haunting.” She says of walking around and having the inclination to understand the strangers we pass and meet: “Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?” I think the same thing could be said about the act of writing: we want to inhabit the lives of fictional characters or our past selves or other people were writing about so that we can enter those overgrown, wild forests, right?
Crystal Hana Kim: What I’m trying to do when creating characters is live in that struggle to understand and empathize with their different identities. I create characters that are different than me. Well I’ve written one book, but in that book, the characters live during and after the Korean War. I wasn’t alive during the Korean War, so it’s that continuous struggle for empathy. I don’t know if it’s possible to completely inhabit someone else’s mind. I’m on the side as a writer that there are parts of your character that will remain mysterious to you. Meaning you form them with identity markers and then they become so real that they take on a bit of a life of their own. But the act of struggling to empathize and to understand, that is what I enjoy in writing.“I just spent over five years with psychic mediums and psychics—people who claim they can talk to the dead. Their world has stayed with me, haunted me.”
MF: Neil Gaiman writes in an essay called Ghosts in the Machines: “The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voicemail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Halloweens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.” Brain Pickings shared a reading he gave of this essay, and in response to an audience question he said: “The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us.” Is it the job of the writer to leave no ideas uninspected?
Mira Ptacin: I just spent over five years with psychic mediums and psychics—people who claim they can talk to the dead. Their world has stayed with me, haunted me. It’s “residual” because I’ve been inhabiting their brain and trying to see the world through medium-colored glasses. When the mediums go on “ghost hunts” a certain type of haunting is called “residual energy”—
Jaquira Díaz: Some of the things that drive me as a writer are obsessions, or being haunted by something, but also the avoidance of that thing that I’m obsessed with or haunted by. Ordinary Girls, for me, is a memoir about my relationship with my mother. I was haunted by this idea of even writing about my mother. I avoided it for years. When I first started writing this book, I didn’t even mention my mother, even when I was writing a scene that was supposed to include her. It was actually a friend who, after reading a draft, asked, Where is your mother? Why isn’t your mother in this book? And I had to seriously examine why I’d been avoiding writing about her. I’d been writing about mothers, everyone else’s mother, about terrible mothers and good mothers, mythical mothers, but my own mother was nowhere in the book. When I realized that this was a book about her, everything kind of started coming together.
MF: Jaquira, in Ordinary Girls you write about La Llorona, a ghost story you were told as a kid about a woman who “killed her children after being rejected by a lover.” You write: “The scariest part was not that La Llorona was a monster, or that she came when you called her name three times in the dark, or that she could come into your room at night and take you from your bed like she’d done with her own babies. It was that once she’d been a person, a woman, a mother. And then a moment, an instant, a split second later, she was a monster.” Your book has a lot to do with your own mother and at one point you say that “I was afraid that, eventually, I would turn out just like her.” Can you talk about how your mother’s violence, drug addiction, and mental illness have haunted you over the years, and whether writing about your past allows for a reckoning with your ghosts?
JD: One of the things I was thinking about while writing that chapter was how women—women living in poverty, women who suffer from mental illness, and especially mothers of black or brown children—are judged and labeled, referred to as monsters when they do something wrong. I was thinking of La Llorona: what if she had been an ordinary girl once? What if she was just a victim of these systems, people that perceived her as a monster? And I was also thinking about this idea of the inevitable, how it had always been possible that I could turn out like my mother because I’d grown up in a house just like the one she grew up in. I tried using monstrosity as a lens. Growing up, I was a juvenile delinquent who got arrested multiple times, and there came a point after so many arrests and so many times in front of the judge, when the judge and the police and the prosecutors, everyone stopped talking to me and asking me questions, and just started talking about me, while I was still in the room. I remember the moment when I realized, they are talking about me and they don’t really care, like they’ve already written me off. And so I was thinking about those systems, trying to ask the reader to think about what it means to be a girl or woman who has already been labeled a monster. And what it means to be a girl that’s controlled by a system that has already labeled her.“As I’ve come back into it all in my 40s, I’ve realized that my ambition now means getting to talk to other smart women that are writing books.”
MF: Iris, The Little Clan is based on your own experience running a literary salon in New York City in your twenties. In an essay you wrote for Lit Hub, you say that “the pursuit of deeper artistic endeavors does not take place with a disco ball over head and cocktails in hand.” How has ambition haunted you, particularly in your twenties and then also as a theme in this novel?
Iris Martin Cohen: On one hand, running a salon in Manhattan was very exciting and I was like, this is it. I’ve made it. I am doing the thing I’ve always wanted to do, but very soon after came the obvious realization that throwing book parties is very different from writing books. I don’t know why it was so obscure to me in my twenties, maybe because I really just wanted to drink and stay out late but with the veneer of literature cast over it. I think in some way, because of the strange success of the salon, I got to witness firsthand where a kind of ambition led. I saw all these famous male novelists I had admired, these brilliant “life of the mind” people that I had grown up reading about, being kind of gross, mostly interested in getting drunk and hitting on young women. It made me question my whole idea of worldly, literary ambition. So I gave up and ran away, decided to just hide at my desk and think and write all the time, that true purpose of a literary life, the creation of literature; it’s also the arc of Ava in the book. But I am ambitious, I want people to read me.
I’m learning how to re-engage with literary events from a more sincere place, and from the position of a creator. Also, as I’ve come back into it all in my 40s, I’ve realized that my ambition now means getting to talk to other smart women that are writing books… to actually connect with people that are writing beautiful things, and engaged in the daily struggle of making art and putting it out in the world, which can be difficult and disheartening. To write books I am proud of and to interact meaningfully with this community really defines ambition for me at this stage in my life. Less parties.
MF: Crystal, in an interview for Publisher’s Weekly you mentioned that you grew up hearing stories from your grandmother about the Korean War, and I’m wondering how her experiences haunted you and helped inspire the novel that you wrote?
CHK: My maternal grandmother and I are really close. She was fourteen when the war broke out and she had to flee. When I was young and my parents were immigrants, she came here for two years to take care of me. What struck me as I got older was that she seemed extremely haunted by all of the missed—not even opportunities because they weren’t opportunities—but the missed potential lives of her past. She would often ask, what if my father had stayed alive, what if I hadn’t been tricked into my first marriage, what if that first husband hadn’t died? These stories about her past, potential lives always revolved around men because as a woman, she felt like there were no other choices. Except for this question of, what if I could have gotten an education? She was only able to finish middle school and she really wanted to go to high school, to college. At one point she’d given that up and wanted to go to trade school, like hairdresser school. None of those possibilities were open to her. So a lot of her stories were full of, regret is the wrong word, because it’s not like those opportunities were available to her, right? That haunting stayed with me. Talking to her made me understand a bit more about my own mother, her daughter, and the ways in which I lacked empathy for my own mother sometimes. When I started writing, I was curious about my grandmother’s experience. What was it like to survive the war and live in its aftermath as a woman? For my grandmother there are the many hauntings of her past, and I’m interested in how they imprinted on my mother and then was imprinted on me, which impacted my novel.
MF: Mira, The In-Betweens centers around Camp Etna, a camp in Maine for Spiritualists and mediums. Can you talk about what drew you to this topic and how your relationship to the afterlife changed as you researched and wrote this book?
MP: A friend of mine, her name is Celia Johnson, she’s one of the cofounders of Slice Magazine, said that I should check out this camp. It’s called Camp Etna, it’s about two hours north of Peaks Island, where we live in Maine. Celia said it’s “a camp of Spiritualists.” I didn’t know what Spiritualists were. I Googled Spiritualism and what turned up was just this fascinating Wikipedia entry about the history of Spiritualism and how it started with two young girls, and how it was a time when women were really treated as the second sex and people of color were just not allowed to stand up on the stage and speak. It was a patriarchal society.
And then these two girls started talking about how they could communicate with the dead, and then the abolitionists started backing them, and the first women’s rights convention happened around the same place the young girls lived, so they started backing these two girls. So just based on the history alone, I knew I could write a book about it—I found it so fascinating. But on top of that, and personally, what was happening in my life, speaking of ambition, I used to live in Brooklyn and I was very ambitious. I started a literary reading series too, which took up so much of my time. I thought that living in New York was perfect for great networking, and networking would help me get a book published. But my spouse and I ended up getting really burnt out and so we left and we moved to Maine. Not too long after our move to Maine, around the time I started to learn about Spiritualism and Camp Etna, I had become a new mom, and I was trying to figure out how to live in that role.
It was so hard because I was a writer, I published my first book, I was trying to hustle my book, I was a new mother, I was teaching, I was trying to be sane. I quickly became exhausted and I had so much anxiety, I had ambition, I thought I’m supposed to look a certain way, I’m supposed to be the mother of the world, and just too much pressure and I kind of snapped. I had some issues, but at the same time I was working and I was doing some research on this book, and I learned that Camp Etna had women who were presently living there, and a couple men, but it was a really matriarchal society, and it was people who had basically dropped out and moved to this camp. And they were living in the woods, and they were living a life that was basically just guided by their intuition and their instinct. Aside from the fact that they said they could communicate with the dead, they also just lived guided by their gut and not guided by capitalism and not by goals of having a house. They were very at ease, and at peace—
MF: Writers have certain stories they return to over and over again. What other things are you haunted by that you want to examine in your writing?
IMC: My next book (Last Call on Decatur Street) is coming out in August, and I’ve been really haunted by the idea of homecoming and the ways that home shapes you. I’m from New Orleans, which is difficult to write about because it is a very haunted place and a very complicated place. I love my town passionately and yet, it’s so messed up, there is so much darkness to it. I had been kind of avoiding facing that darkness. But I’m really interested in exploring these ideas of haunting, of inheritance, the question of race, of what it means to grow up in this white supremacist environment. And also, speaking of New Orleans in particular, of substance abuse, alcoholism. It’s a city that is so seductive, and so alluring, and people just fall in love with it, but underneath are these really destructive forces, ghosts of history present everywhere. I wanted to look at my town and how much of that I’ve inherited and how it gets passed along through a lineage, and how to reckon with the beauty and the darkness of the particular place where I come from.