Why Families Keep Secrets:
A Red Ink Conversation
With Kristen Arnett, Sion Dayson, Angie Cruz, Briallen Hopper, Elisabet Velasquez, 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, “Haunted” will take place on November 14th at 7 pm, and features Mira Ptacin (The In-Betweens), Jaquira Díaz (Ordinary Girls), Iris Martin Cohen (The Little Clan), and Crystal Hana Kim (If You Leave Me).
The following is an edited transcript from September’s panel at Books Are Magic, “Secrets,” which featured Kristen Arnett (Mostly Dead Things), Sion Dayson (As A River), Angie Cruz (Dominicana), Briallen Hopper (Hard to Love), Elisabet Velasquez, and moderator Michele Filgate.
Michele Filgate: Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote “I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.” Isn’t that one of the main reasons we read and write? What have secrets meant to you in your development as a writer?
Sion Dayson: I have a really profound curiosity about people, so I’m often eavesdropping wherever I go, and it’s not because I‘m trying to get in anyone’s business–it’s just because life is so complicated and messy and beautiful, that I’m sort of like, have they figured it out? Do they know something I don’t know? Because sometimes I hear secrets that way. My first book actually started because of one of those things I heard on the street. I was walking through Harlem, and I was behind some teenage girls, and I heard one of them say, “she’s pregnant and never even had sex.” I went home and started writing a scene, and that scene is still a foundational part of the novel. So, I will never know the real story of that person who said that, but I think the idea of secrets–just you look at people and you have no idea what is happening. That is a motivation for me as a writer–trying to figure out what is going on with all these people you see.
Kristen Arnett: I’ve been thinking a lot about family dynamics, and the idea that everybody in a family is an unreliable narrator, which is just secrets, I guess. Or the way that we choose to remember things; and memory and nostalgia are these kind of things that are very much couched in secrecy. Things that rely on secrets or how we choose to tell them or what things we omit, maybe, those are the secrets that I am maybe most interested in writing, the things that don’t sit in there but are like the things that are hidden in writing, especially in fiction.
Elisabet Velasquez: The word secret was a word that was introduced when I was older. Of course, we had secrets all along but we just called it “your business.” So, it was mind your business, that’s how I grew up., We didn’t talk about what happened in our household, it was very much like, what happens here stays here. When you didn’t keep secrets it wasn’t called not keeping a secret, it was called gossip or bochinche. So the way that I look at writing is me gossiping on the page.
Angie Cruz: Because my book is inspired by my mother, everyone assumes that it is very close to my mother’s actual story but it is the opposite. I tried to write a novel about the things that she found would have been impossible to happen in her situation. So, the silence around my family’s story was what prompted the writing. I think sometimes people think that transparency is a healthy thing, but I actually think mystery is really fertile for writing, for the erotic, etc.
Briallen Hopper: My book is about love, and specifically about certain kinds of love that don’t get as much attention or might be a kind of secret. There are really public loves, like the person that you are officially dating or married to, and then there are private loves, like friendships or other kinds of relationships that don’t really have a name or a public role in the same way. The essay that sparked my book was an essay about spinsters. I was fascinated by the idea of women who on the outside seem not to have much of a life, but on the inside they have this passionate history that is a secret to those around them.
MF: Angie, in Dominicana, set in the 1960s, your main character Ana gets married at the age of 15 and finds herself isolated as an immigrant and stay at home wife in a Washington Heights apartment. There are a lot of secrets at the heart of this story, such as the money she tucks away for herself and the feelings she has for her brother-in-law. Can you talk about the details your mother shared with you, and how her own story allowed you to imagine such a rich interior life for Ana?
AC: I don’t have any regrets regarding the not telling my mother certain things and her not telling me certain things because I think with all the other things we have to process in our lives, and all the other fights we have to have in our lives, bringing up certain subjects into our home, our relationship would have been really difficult for us to manage emotionally, without any assistance. So being that we weren’t in therapy, or have the language to communicate in a productive way, I am not sure either of us were capable or ready to take in or work through her actually saying to me directly, “I am a survivor of domestic violence or your father was an abuser.” Instead of pushing her to talk about what happened, I asked her, what is one thing you could never imagine happening in your life? And she said, I don’t think I will ever fall in love. Her answer was so unexpected, because to me falling in love feels so accessible.
I mean, it’s hard to find someone to love, let’s get real. But it’s something I feel I have access to when I meet the right person. So that got me thinking about how I’ve taken for granted this freedom to marry for love. Or even to feel love. So I think, yeah, what is not being said is one of the things that propels my fiction. But interestingly, now that the novel is published, my mother and I are able to have these difficult conversations. I think this opening in communication is inspired by the reaction from readers, women across cultures and generations who are saying, me too. I think that when you read a book that reflects back an experience, especially one you are afraid to admit or talk about, you might realize you’re not alone.
MF: Sion, in As a River Greer Michaels moves back home to Bannen, Georgia in the 1970s to take care of his terminally ill mother. In your lyrical novel, secrets play a central role in the narrative. At one point, one of Greer’s past lovers reveals: “We have a saying where I come from in Ghana, “One who can speak never goes missing.” Greer did not want to be a man who leaves, but it is hard to battle one’s history. There are some things Greer could never say aloud; it is what kept him fully from me.” How do Greer’s secrets shape him?
SD: Secrets basically shape his entire trajectory. Even his origin is shrouded in secrecy, and when he’s a teenager he discovers some information that really shakes his foundation and that’s what causes him to leave. He’s not able to even absorb or process it so he leaves. I think some people try to stay and face the consequences of new knowledge, and other people just try to escape. So obviously, when his mother becomes sick he returns home and he’s forced to reckon with the past. But all of the characters in the book are holding some sort of secret, and sort of as Angie was saying, we think of them as negative but it’s not always negative. For some people, it’s not always malicious. They think they are protecting someone they love.
I think I was really just interested in our relationship to information and knowledge, and that there is a way to survive difficult information. And that you can’t run away from it.
MF: Elisabet, I’ll never forget sharing the stage with you last AWP for the riveting panel Vanessa Mártir moderated on Writing the Mother Wound. The poem you read about your own mother made me cry. So often the secrets we carry are heavy because of the burden of shame. How did you reach a point where you felt like it was okay to write about your own family?
EV: I grew up un-mothered. That’s a term I just learned a couple of years ago and I have been using that language to understand what happened to me. I’ve been writing a lot about how that shaped me, and thinking about my childhood and how I grew up; a lot of secrets that we kept were really just to keep our dignity intact. Secrets were synonymous with dignity. You didn’t say things like I don’t think my mother loves me, or I don’t think that I am welcome here. You don’t say, my mom kicked me out when I was sixteen–you don’t say these things, there is no safe space to say that, specifically because we live in a world that holds the mother in such reverence. So where are the spaces to say those things? Writing about my family and writing about my mother first began as a way for me to acknowledge that the things that happened to me were real and not imagined. In that way, I began to write to sort of archive my life. Once I started to do that it really opened up so many other possibilities, like writing does.“I can be empathetic of where my mom came from and the systems that failed her in order for her to fail me, and still say: what happened to me was not okay.”
One of those opportunities was going back to my mom, and asking her, did this happen? Shame and trauma and all these things have a way of making you feel wild. There’s also forgetting unintentionally but intentionally because you want to be in the space of protecting yourself. I have this essay published by Longreads where I talk about that; I had to leave my mother so I could survive. So a lot of my writing about my family first began for me to acknowledge myself, acknowledge my humanity, acknowledge the reasons why I left my house at a young age. After that other possibilities opened up.
Growing up, I had a lot of resentment , but writing opened up this space for empathy for my mom, which I didn’t think was possible, ever, because I was like, there is no excuse. I have two children; I had my first child, my daughter at the age of sixteen, and I have a 7 year old son and I would never do that to my children, never. So writing opened up the possibility to have empathy. I realized two things can happen at the same time–I can be empathetic of where my mom came from and the systems that failed her in order for her to fail me, and still say: what happened to me was not okay.
MF: Briallen, in the essay “Dear Octopus” in Hard to Love, you write: “For octopi, ink is a defense mechanism, a means of escape. It is for me as well. Octopi surround themselves with clouds of ink in order to disappear before the clouds dissipate. Sometimes they also create hovering blots of ink that mimic their own shape, so predators will attack the ink and not them. Every time I write about my family, I instinctively obscure the truth with a cloud of self-protection, and invent versions of my life that give me a chance to evade the attacks I dread. The only way I know to get past the sense of threat is to go ahead and release the ink and then slowly wait for the cloud to clear. That might mean revision. It might mean time. It might mean a lifetime of time.” I love this idea of ink as a defense mechanism surrounding you. You’ve told me that there are some things you can’t write about, and sometimes you feel limited by those secrets and at other times empowered or protected by them.
BH: My parents were hippies who ended up in a right-wing religious cult, which has given me stuff to write about! The essay that this quote is from is an essay about my brother. I have four sisters, and all of us have left behind the rigid religious beliefs that we grew up with, and my brother has not. In a way, as our lives diverged, my brother became a secret. I have a lot of friends who never knew I had a brother because I just never talked about him. My story with him is that we were incredibly close growing up, and then when I went to grad school and started dating an atheist he was like, you are dead to me. Or at least, that was my experience of it! I really related to a lot of what Elisabet was saying, about how writing can open up an unexpected space for empathy, because for a long time, I just sort of put my relationship with my brother out of my mind, and then years later, I had a friendship with someone who really reminded me of him and it opened up a space where I was able to grieve him, and grieve that loss.
So I started writing about him, but the first spurts of ink were totally defensive, just accusatory; he was wrong, and I was right. It took a lot of time and revision and talking to people and reflection and lots of drafts before I was able to say, there might be stuff here I’m keeping secret from myself, including his experience of what happened in our relationship. I think it’s natural that writing functions as a defense mechanism, but that cannot be all that it is.
MF: Kristen, in Mostly Dead Things Jessa-Lynn Morton takes over her family’s taxidermy business after her dad commits suicide and the love of her life, her sister-in-law, leaves her brother. Jessa-Lynn describes her family and says “We just didn’t discuss each other’s business. Mostly we retold the same old stories, nostalgia over things we’d rehashed a thousand times before, varnishing the memories so they shone and hiding all the bad parts. I often wondered why we couldn’t talk about the present, why the past held all the promise while the future sat before us like stagnant water.” I feel like so many families do this: avoiding the bad experiences while simultaneously secretly and privately obsessing over these moments they never want to relive again. We can become stuck on a loop. How did you navigate writing about complicated family dynamics?
KA: Luckily, I had taxidermy as a way to do that, as a kind of vehicle. Families have a lot of secrets, or the things we don’t talk about, so in writing this specific book I was thinking a lot about the idea of nostalgia, and how people memorialize nostalgia or the importance of nostalgia, and also how problematic and terrible nostalgia is, and all the shit it holds, and how bad it can be. Because there is this way that we taxidermy memories, which is that we choose to remember things in very varnished, specific, glowing kinds of ways that are not true to actual, lived experience. And in families and households there are these ways that the things we choose to not talk about are the bigger issue, and the things we do choose to talk about are these things that are completely shellacked and we have coated them over, and they are these family stories.
I do truly feel like in a household, especially when things are talked about in the present, that memories are very taxidermied, in this way that it’s very posed and contorted, and we are going to talk about it this way, and if you decide you are going to talk about it outside of that way that it’s too uncomfortable for everybody, so we are not going to do it. I think the things that are the most important to talk about are the things that are most uncomfortable, and people are very frightened. Nobody wants to be uncomfortable. The spaces in household, the things we don’t talk about, like missing teeth in the jaw, I think are like the stuff that we don’t talk about. It’s very hard to make the present as interesting as the past because the past can be almost fantasy. The past is not necessarily true, everybody’s version–even within a household–of what has occurred, is not someone else’s narrative. Memory is so specific to self, and memory is so secret, and memory feels like the real story but memory is so curated.