Reclaiming Anger and Denial:
A Red Ink Roundtable
5 Women Confront the Weaponization of Emotion
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, “Authenticity,” will take place on April 19th at 7 pm, and feature Mira Jacob (Good Talk), Jennifer Pastiloff (On Being Human), Deborah Landau (Soft Targets), Grace Talusan (The Body Papers), and Hannah Tinti (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley). The following is an edited transcript from November’s panel at powerHouse Arena, “Denial,” which featured Jennifer Baker, Anna Godbersen, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, Lilly Dancyger, and Alison Kinney.
Michele Filgate: Jennifer, there are many wonderful stories in your anthology Everyday People. One that particularly sticks out to me is Yiyun Li’s “A Sheltered Woman,” in which a new mother who claims to have postpartum depression doesn’t want anything to do with her baby, despite Auntie Mei, her nanny, trying to convince her otherwise. Li writes: “Auntie Mei came from a line of women who could not understand themselves, and in not knowing themselves they had derailed their men and orphaned their children.” This denial of self, this idea of not knowing who you really are, is one of my favorite topics in both fiction and nonfiction. Why do you think it’s such a common theme for writers?
Jennifer Baker: Well, especially since Everyday People is an all POC, Indigenous group anthology I think that comes up especially a lot in terms of this kind of juxtaposition as far as, well who are we next to this whiteness? And that is not necessarily something that I think all of our stories should encapsulate so much, but it is something that comes up. I think the editor in me and the writer in me really thinks about the dynamics of, well, what stories are we telling and what stories are we kind of pigeon-holed into telling, and what stories do we feel like we should be telling as marginalized people. And I try to be incredibly conscious of that as an editor and then incredibly conscious of that as a writer.
For me denial is so relegated into something political and something personal, and I just look at that so much from a privilege standpoint, being a cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman, and also from a marginalized standpoint of being a black woman, and a visible black woman at that.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar: That idea of self-denial, I think of it so much in terms of a conception of duty often competing with coming forward and expressing. So there is self-denial I feel like that in many of my character’s minds is driven by many conceptions of duty, and it’s also something I think about so much. And I think it is so important to mothers’ minds, do we deny ourselves, and if so why and when. So I think you’ve really hit on something so engendering, not to use a little bit of a pun, of real tension and conflict and I think it’s cool the way that can drive fiction. I also want to shout out a recent novel, Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, where what is so cool about that novel is there is the denial [of] I can’t just do whatever I want to do, just pack everything in the car and run away—I have this baby. But then she poses this question of is that really a form of denial given the complexity of mother-love and how that is satisfying, too? So I really like this idea of self-denial as something to look at in a gendered way.
Lilly Dancyger: I think so many writers, whether they’re writing fiction or non-fiction, they are writing to discover. You’re not writing necessarily because you already know what you want to say but you are writing to a question and an uncertainty. So I think it makes a lot of sense, this idea of not knowing yourself fully and having this duplicity, layers of awareness of yourself would be present in a lot of writing, in fiction and non-fiction.
MF: Absolutely. Lilly, you’re currently editing an anthology on women and anger called Burn It Down that will come out from Seal Press next fall. Why do you think that so many women are denied being able to display their anger? And in what ways are they denied?
LD: I think a patriarchal society only functions if women will accept a subjugated role. And I think anger is the opposite of acceptance; it’s saying no and it’s refusing something, it’s rejecting. So I think that when any group that is subjugated and is put in a marginalized position learns to say no, and to get angry, even if it’s about something that doesn’t feel directly about your position in society, I think that scares the hell out of people who are in power. Because if you can learn to say no and get angry about the little stuff, eventually you will get angry and say no about the big stuff, and refuse the corner you were put in. It’s not even just that women and other marginalized people are not allowed their anger, they are told it doesn’t exist, they are told their feelings are unrelated—it’s hormones, it’s mental illness; there is all this gaslighting that goes around to try and convince people that their anger isn’t even real, let alone enough.
MF: Have any of you felt like your feelings about anger has changed? Did you feel like you denied anger that you were feeling, and do you feel like you’ve come into your anger as more acceptable now?
Anna Godbersen: I’ve been thinking as we’ve been talking about interviews I’ve heard with women who are Trump supporters, specifically on the Kavanaugh issue. They are responding to Dr. Ford’s testimony with a lot of anger, saying, oh anybody can accuse anybody of anything. And then almost on a dime turning and saying, but so much worse happened to me, in terms of sexual assault. And then I’m thinking, oh my gosh their anger is actually similar to my anger, it’s just been twisted and found this other form. I think it’s one of the great tools of fiction that you can write at length, in depth, about something as powerful and complicated as anger. Then anger isn’t this kind of shorthand dogma that can be picked up and manipulated.
JB: Can I also add there is this flip side because when you are a black woman you are assumed to be angry. You get to be angry because it’s planted on you. So there is this aspect of oh, I don’t get to be angry or when you walk into a room and you are not smiling. I’ve had vendors come into my job and say, “oh you are not smiling.” I’m like am I supposed to be smiling right now? It’s 9:30 in the morning! I don’t smile at 9:30 in the morning. You know like [the phrase]: I don’t get out of bed for less than 500 dollars; I don’t smile at 9:30 in the morning. So by just the delineation of my skin tone I’m assumed to be angry—and I am, but it’s not an inherent persona and part of my being.
So then when I’m reading books and looking at books, and I was judging a contest, and the way that black women are pigeon-holed in prose… Well one story was that this black man is the sensitive one and it’s because his wife is angry, and it’s because his wife is sassy, and it’s because his wife is honest, that’s why he goes to cheat, and she’s the problem in the book. And this is what I love about Toni Morrison’s Sula, is when I reread, and reread Sula, the assumption is Sula is a problem, and Sula is careless, Sula is selfish, and the mother hates Sula. And the way that Toni Morrison really extends that conversation and that viewpoint is for you to see it’s not really about anger, it’s about survival. It’s about embracing who you are. It’s about not apologizing. And that’s why Toni Morrison is the goddess that she is. So I think we also have to look at racial connotations—it’s not just gender, it’s definitely not binary. It’s non-binary as well, but it’s racialized, denial is racialized as well.I’ve had vendors come into my job and say, “oh you are not smiling.” I’m like am I supposed to be smiling right now? It’s 9:30 in the morning!
Alison Kinney: I view that in terms of who is allowed to claim their anger and to express it, and who feels that they’ve never had the ability to voice what they are feeling. There is always someone you can voice your anger at who is lower down on the ladder than you. And that is something that has been exercised by white women, by Asian women. This is an opportunity to vent rage that hurts other people and it’s something that needs to be thought about, when we think about when we are reclaiming anger, at whose expense? Do we take it out on other people instead of directing it at the power structures that really deserve to have the anger directed at them? Or do we use it to weaponize other people and delegitimize other people instead?
MF: Alison, in a stunning essay you wrote for Longreads called “The Man in the Mirror,” you so expertly address what it feels like to be denied the truth, when a man you were in love with lied to you about seeing someone else. There’s a moment when his deceit is made clear, and it involves a photo of his reflection in a spoon on another’s girl Instagram page. You say: “Although we don’t always get flatware, suits of armor, and the shiny bowls of gaslights to flash variant realities at us, we live with them, all the same.” How did you feel after writing this piece? Was it liberating to no longer let him have the last word?
AK: OK so not letting him have the last word I felt a little bit better, I felt maybe 1 percent better because being able to say someone is a liar, someone is a gaslighter, someone is abusive, when that person is a therapist, that really matters. To be able to use your words and your prose and to say, the version of truth that you are putting out there was not true. On the other hand I didn’t feel 99 percent better because the essay is actually only a fragment of the story, and it’s the stuff that I was able to talk about at the time. And the only person at the time who knew the whole story was my editor. And I wrote to Sari Botton at Longreads two weeks before publication. I was like, sorry, there is this other part of the story that I didn’t say where I say the really bad thing that happened, which is why I wrote the essay.
And I was in denial about writing, that I couldn’t write it, I couldn’t say it, but now what if I do, what if I do make the accusations. She’s like, oh that’s hard, I mean that kind of changes the whole essay. I mean, you can do that if you want but we need some time, and we [have] to talk about that. So you know, the ways in which telling your truth operates in larger context and we don’t always get control of that while telling our stories. It really matters to tell a story but we don’t have control over the full context surrounding how we tell it, what we choose to tell, and the process by which we manage to heal to be able to tell a part of it. It goes on and on and on and we live with that life and you have to live with the consequences of it, too. So yeah, the truth really matters but it’s never the whole story.
MF: Anna, you’ve written a bunch of bestselling books for young adults. Do you feel like denial is different for teenagers? Is it felt more fiercely, or even more dramatically?
AG: Yeah, fierceness and intensity is the key. When you are writing about teenagers you are often writing characters in the drama of first experiences, when they don’t yet have language or perspective for what they’re going through, so it’s going to be more intense for that reason. And then with adult characters, you might be showing people facing something they have been denying their whole life, based on assumptions from childhood that were maybe strengthened when they were teenagers. The stories of our parents, our society, these are so deep and hard to unpack. So there’s this hopeful aspect, I think, writing for teenagers, where a character may confront the truth of who they are when they’re really young, even if that is painful or intense.
MF: Chaya, in White Dancing Elephants, several of your stories deal with denial, including “Talinda,” where a woman is pregnant as the result of an affair with her terminally ill friend’s husband. You write: “Today, waiting for Talinda to be done at the clinic, by avoiding certain patterns of thought, by walking fast whenever I passed by mirrors, by keeping in my mind an image of Talinda not loving George, never really loving him, I made it all right that I would be the one having George’s baby.” I’m curious how much of your fiction is influenced by your profession as a psychiatrist. You must see a lot of people who deal with denial on some level.
CB: I was thinking about this whole issue of anger and who gets to express it and I feel like the themes of “anger” and “denial” carry so many implications for women of color in medicine, in general but certainly since the 2016 election. Because there is this persona I wrote about in an essay for Medium called “Behind the White Coat”, where feelings like “anger” are to be locked in. And I really respect why because when I go to a health care provider I don’t really want to know that he was at a political march last night, I want him looking at my test results. Medicine always has to have each individual patient as sole focus. So for me, there are positive functions of a certain kind of, not denial but a very partial presentation of yourself where it’s sort of like, here is all of me that you are going to get to see.
And the same thing for the frame of therapy. When I first started in my training I remember some really important discussions with more senior psychiatrists about how to care for patients who are abusive toward others; I had to work hard to reach a position of non-judgment, whereas now that position is automatic, a function of physician identity. Truly it is. I looked at Kavanaugh like, the saddest thing, the dude never got any treatment. He could have gotten treatment for aggression when he was a young man; he could have been a very different human being right now and someone we would be proud to have on the court, actually. That’s possible within human potential, I fully believe that. For him not to have had treatment—that costs both Kavanaugh and society.Medicine always has to have each individual patient as sole focus. So for me, there are positive functions of a certain kind of, not denial but a very partial presentation of yourself.
So I think where physician perspective influences the stories the most is really being able to go anywhere the character goes and not holding back in the representation of the character and what drives them. But I do think that is one thing I truly love about fiction is it gives us a screen too. My fiction really is about the characters I wrote about. I feel like that is a gift from medicine—the translation of, no this isn’t about me, this is about someone else, because I think intensely about other people.
MF: Are there any healthy versions of denial that have helped you as a writer? For me it’s learning how to say no to people. You want to be a good literary citizen, you want to be a good mentor and help other people, but you also have to take care of yourself and protect your writing time.
CB: I just want to point out that I think the healthiest form of denial is a certain imperviousness, like some of you have seen that children’s book about the carrot seed. There is this little boy and he goes and plants the seed and all these people say, it’s never going to come up, nothing is going to come of that, and they keep saying it, and he keeps going and watering the carrot, taking care of the carrot. And of course, at the end there is a huge carrot that comes out, but I do believe that. I try to claim that space of imperviousness. Like I published with an indie press (Dzanc) and there were a lot of people who said, oh you will never get good media coverage, but my book has been in Harpar’s Bazaar, Elle, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, HuffPost, Vulture, the New York Post—a long list. I never felt “less than”, and in that I draw from my training in medicine, which teaches you to do all your work, do all your preparation, work unstintingly, and ignore anyone who doubts the possibility of the best outcome.
JB: I think we deny ourselves, like saying no, it’s hard for some people. I think also saying yes to ourselves is something we deny a lot. It’s like I can do more, I can do more, I can do more, and then you burn out. I think we deny ourselves a lot of stuff too, even if it’s just a good cry. I don’t want to do anything, I’m behind on a lot of stuff right and I’m not guilting myself about that. I could but I’m not going to. And I also emotionally eat, that’s how I cope with things. Talk about denial, my doctor said, so you are borderline diabetic and I was like, what I’m hearing is I’m not diabetic. And there are cupcakes down the street. Like you go to the dentist, you don’t have cavities, and you think great, I can go to Godiva now. I think treat yourself, be cognizant of the fact that we also deny ourselves. To deny someone else is not to be mean but to deny yourself is a hardship. Even if you say, I don’t want to write that but are you relaxing? Are you actually chilling out or writing if that is what you want to do?
LD: One huge challenge that comes up in memoir writing and personal essay writing all the time is dealing with perspectives of other people and their memories of the same events that you’re writing about and their attempts to tell you that they remember better, or you can’t say that, or that never happened, or you’re holding a grudge, or any of these things even if they are not intended maliciously. I think denying other people permission to override your own narrative when you’re writing a story about your life that also includes them, and also being able to say, that is your memory of that, that’s fine, if you want to write your own book you can, this is what I’m going to write in mine. That’s definitely a healthy form of denial.
AK: My writing career happened about three months after someone, a friend of mine, said to me, Maybe you should give up this writing thing, It’s not working for you, and you should be a caterer instead and you are really good at making dinner. And I was like, you are right, you are so right, this writing thing isn’t working out and I am really good at making dinner. Things went in a different direction, who knows, I’m thinking in terms of denial, rejection and the experience and all that; I think one of the things that can be really helpful for writers is develop a practice in writing that doesn’t force yourself to deny certain traits of yourself to try to conform to an idea of what a writer is supposed to do and be that is impossible for you to obtain, especially the harder your life is. You might not have an hour every morning to cultivate your practice and your craft.
I have a friend who has written several essays entirely on her phone through texts, and being a person who says that she can’t frame an essay but who can get on the phone with someone and basically do an elevator pitch over and over and over but doesn’t use the recording device on her phone to transcribe it afterwards, that’s an essay. So I feel like part of writing and denial is we should be thinking about the way we deny ourselves the ability to express what we need to express when we need to and in the ways that are best for us and not try to conform to a rigid idea of what we should be as writers that might be impossible for many of us to obtain.
AG: I just agree with that so much. There are so many writing prescriptions that, as a young writer, you cling to thinking, if I just do what so and so says, if I write eight hours a day or I stand on my head, then I’ll make it. But to find a practice that is really specific to you, that works, is probably the healthiest thing a writer can do.