What happens when you let your strong female characters step outside their boxes? Writers Katrina Carrasco (The Best Bad Things), Madeline ffitch (Stay and Fight), Tessa Fontaine (The Electric Woman), Chia-Chia Lin (The Unpassing), Ling Ma (Severance), and Lydia Kiesling (The Golden State) joined a panel at AWP to discuss working with places and situations not often found in literature and the ways in which these energize and inform their storytelling. Moderated by FSG Executive Editor Jenna Johnson.
Jenna Johnson: The idea for this panel came when a colleague and I were talking about a few recent books we had published, and the ways in which those books presented women who roamed well beyond the usual territories or who found themselves in strange situations. We wanted to talk today about what that means.
We know where women have been told to be, and where to stay, in real life, but are the rules the same for books? Have books always been spaces where female characters could roam more freely? Or have the rules and consequences been the same as real life? Would you each tell us briefly about a female character you remember from your life and reading who surprised or inspired you in terms of her mobility or her reaction to place?
Ling Ma: I’ll start. Claudia Wu of The Baby-Sitters Club series is a personal favorite, simply because, when I was growing up, she was one of the only Asian-American female characters in children’s fiction and she wasn’t good at math. Very important, because neither was I. The fact that she existed at all inspired me.
Katrina Carrasco: I think mine was Nan Astley from Tipping the Velvet. She runs away from her small town and goes to the big city and is super gay. You didn’t get to see that in a lot of books, especially when I was growing up, so that was a really important book for me and her journey was really important for me in that way as well.
Madeline ffitch: I started making this list and then just couldn’t stop. One is Sylvie from
Tessa Fontaine: I went back to a childhood favorite, too—I was thinking of Alice, actually, from Alice in Wonderland. I think what I love about that character is that she continues to come into strange situations where she is told that she is part of what’s happening, and continues to say “okay,” and carries on the madness. I love that it’s sort of like the improvisation game “Yes, and . . .” She continues to fall down into the strangeness of that rabbit hole.
Lydia Kiesling: I’m going to name three books that kind of knocked something loose and helped me write my own book, although for some of them, that help wasn’t clear until later. They’re all books that have a first-person female narrator who is really intelligent but feels some sort of discomfort either from external forces or from interior forces. One is The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt, which is a wonderful novel—also about a woman who is with a child, and has to care for that child. Her own interests and aspirations are funneled into her son to a large extent, but he’s also kind of a hindrance to her. I thought it was refreshing to see the interplay there. The other one is a book called After Birth by Elisa Albert, which I read either right before or after having my first child. It’s a first-person narrator—a really acrid, mean voice at times—and she’s got a one year old and finds herself adrift in that experience. The last book is one that I had read in middle school and then high school, and didn’t realize until I was writing my book how much the voice had influenced me. It’s the book How Stella Got Her Groove Back. I love it because it’s a pick-up-and-go story. And it also has a very relentless first-person narration that has a lot of run-ons. It’s very stream of consciousness. When I was reading early proofs of my book I was like, “Wow, I really got a lot from that book,” but I did not realize that it was embedding itself at the time.
Chia-Chia Lin: I was thinking about the books that inspired the particular book I’ve been writing. I also was drawn to Sylvie of Housekeeping, and a few other ones like My Ántonia, which I read when I was very young. I’m reading one now by Joan Chase called During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. In all of these books you have women living in the domestic world but in a landscape that is kind of wild. There’s an interesting way to me in which the wilderness and the outdoors infiltrate the indoors. I’ve always been really interested in that tension. For me, the depths of family are like a really wild place. I think there are a lot of resonances with land and wilderness.
For me, the depths of family are like a really wild place. I think there are a lot of resonances with land and wilderness.
Johnson: Chia-Chia gives us a good segue into the next question. Each of you are dealing with character and questions of place. Which one came first? How did they influence each other? Did they fight with each other?
Ma: I think originally when I started Severance, it was written in the collective first-person—the “we,” the “us,” the group of office workers. Candace Chen’s voice kind of came out of that. But, in terms of place, it wasn’t until Candace went back to Shenzhen, China to look at the printing facilities that I realized that she was even Asian American. So when that scene popped up, I realized, “Oh, I understand there’s going to be stuff about her immigrant background in this novel.” It felt very charged that she was going back for a business trip to look at bible manufacturer. Her immigration from China was one of the major threads of Severance. Something I think about a lot is that Candace immigrated to the US in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It was in the ’80s when Xiaoping introduced the special economic zones that freed up Shenzhen and other places in China for basically oversees manufacture, and as a result, China became very westernized; there was also a huge economic boom. So, Candace Chen returning to China—it’s returning to a place that doesn’t exist for her anymore. Those are some of the ideas I started playing around with as I wrote.
Carrasco: For me, I think character definitely came first. I knew I wanted to write a queer Latinx character. So, I really wanted my main character to move through a world and be very physical. Because I chose a historical setting, there were constraints on what she could do. I kind of worked around that by introducing her alter ego who moves through the world as a man. Once I had her form as a character, and got to know her better, I realized I wanted a place that holds up to be as interesting as she was. Surprisingly, Washington—which is now a very idyllic place where you can get ice cream—has a very dark and dirty past. I matched her location to her after I created her.
ffitch: Ling, something that you said resonated with me. I think place really mattered to me in observing work and the way that people have to contend with where they live, and things like the weather, and plants and animals. I was really reluctant to narrow my characters down in any way for a long time. I think that might get to another question that you mentioned, Jenna, about characters being boxed in. I think sometimes there’s too much of a rush to write, to type, or conduct workshops early on for the novel. People would say, “Oh queer characters wouldn’t say this, Appalachian characters wouldn’t say this, non-educated characters wouldn’t say this, college-educated characters wouldn’t say this, women wouldn’t say this, men wouldn’t say this . . .” I wanted to start from a place of observation—listening with an ear for what I had heard people say—and reflect the unlikely affinities in relationships and unpredictabilities in the people I love, the people I’m close to, the people I know and see every day. That made it really hard for me to narrow it down to one character and the facts of money and blood, like where they are from. But eventually I did have to do that: this character is from Seattle, this character grew up in this other place.
What is clear from the beginning is the attention from the Appalachian hills and having to contend with the physical world. It reminds me of something that Mary Gaitskill said. Someone asked her a question about political writing and she said something to the effect of: Too much in contemporary fiction, characters don’t have to deal with the physical world that they live in. They don’t have to contend with—if it’s raining or snowing or if their house is falling down. If they’re too cold, or too warm, or if they’re hungry—these physical things get really cerebral, just moving through the world with a lot of alertness and attention. The undeniability of that physical world is the place from which I started the novel. The character stuff got more specific later on. Ling, I can’t believe how specific your characters were. It’s amazing that you started with more of a chorus. It was interesting to hear that part of your process. I’m interested in hearing other folks’ processes, too.
Fontaine: Something that you were just talking about, Madeline, feels very right to me, too. My book is nonfiction, so I didn’t really choose where the characters were and who they were. I think I didn’t know that I was writing a book when I was first out there—I spent a season performing with America’s Last Traveling Sideshow—but I was taking copious notes when I was out on the road. Maybe if I had gone in really sure that I was going to write a book, or with some ideas about who a lot of the performers were, I wouldn’t have listened as well as I tried to. Through listening to the way that people talked about themselves and their bodies—we had female and male performers—I just wrote down continually the things that people said, and how they presented themselves, what they said when they were on stage, what they said when they were off stage. All of it was contradictory. People kind of presented in one way, and then were completely different in other ways. That became what I thought about the most when I was writing these people, who are also characters (this is the hard part of nonfiction—you’re writing about real people who must also function as well-rounded characters), and the way that you have to distill them oftentimes includes pieces of contradictory characterizations and self-characterizations. All of that is very much set in a place, and everyone was performing these dangerous feats, and continually going against who they were or how they had presented themselves before. So, yeah—contradictions!
Kiesling: I want to first give a plug for The Unpassing, which is coming out in May, because it has one of the strongest senses of place that I have read in a really long time, especially related to how you were thinking of families and domestic spaces and wild settings plays out so beautifully in the book. It’s got stunning landscapes, interior and exterior. It’s great.
I’d say I started my book from thinking about place. The place was there before anything else. I’m a Foreign Service brat, so I moved around a lot while I was growing up. When you’re in the Foreign Service, you have several years of postings overseas, and then you come back to the US and you go back overseas. And then every year you have something called “home leave,” and on “home leave” you kind of go to where you’re from, in the US typically, to see family and do things like that. My parents are both from California. My dad is from the Bay Area but my mom is from very far northeastern California, where Oregon and Nevada meet, basically. So we would go there, and there was basically no landscape or place that was more removed from any of the places that we had lived. We had always lived in large cities, all around the world. And then we would go to the town of Alturas, which is very tiny, and the population has been declining since I was born, and very remote. The big city to go to is Reno, and that takes three hours or more sometimes. That place meant a lot to me when I was growing up, but was not my home by any stretch. So I was interested in the ways in which these places can kind of imprint on you and become a part of you even though you can never say that they’re your home, or that you even understand them necessarily. I thought a lot about space, which is very much a theme in the western US and in the popular American imagination, and the idea of getting territory, though as we know people lived there already.
Johnson: Did you have a sense of situations or places that your characters were going to be in that you would want them to find a way out of? What boxes have you found your characters in and were there family/social/political pressures that created these boxes?
Fontaine: There is a tradition in the sideshow of women, usually young women, usually the newest recruit (which is what I was) being box jumpers. This means you run backstage between the acts and just slide your body into different boxes, and you become a headless woman, a four-legged woman, a spider-bodied woman with a human head, and there are sort of incremental variations of this in many sideshows, both historical and contemporary. It’s an amazing sort of literal disembodiment that always happens to young women. It’s the young women who are always cast in these places. It became this strange thing for me where the only time my body appeared at all was when I was running between acts. Every time I was inside a box, there was this missing piece of my body that was presented as the miracle to the audience. A literal box.
Kiesling: I think apart from place, one of the catalysts to write a book is that I had my first child, and I was working full-time at a university, and unlike many American workers, I did receive some paid parental leave (but it was very difficult to access for those, you know, bureaucratic reasons that are really boring to explain or hear about but can really, really frustrate someone to the point of breakdown). I was surprised when I had my daughter—before giving birth, I was like, it’s going to be enough time, I’ll be ready to go back to work. I really scoffed at the idea that I would not be ready. Working was really important to me, for financial reasons, but also for reasons of identity and ambition. I was more worried about the prospect of caring for a newborn, which people say is very difficult. I was expecting that to be the challenge. Then I had the baby and was very lucky that I had an easy baby, to the extent that babies can be easy. But it was the looming deadline of returning to work that became the thing that was so frustrating. Then once you start work, whether or not you’re breastfeeding, it’s just difficult to be away from a very young baby for a very long time for a lot of logistical and other reasons. The way daycare is set up, it doesn’t really match the working day plus commute that most Americans have. Family life and work are sort of inimical to each other in American society. It’s not babies that are hard, it’s that society puts conditions on us, man. That’s what makes it really difficult. But when I had opportunities to be alone with my child, and now children, I’m like, “Oh, no—they are also hard.” So the book started as this fantasy, letting myself live in the fantasy of what it would be like to just leave work and be with a very, very young child, and how that becomes my nightmare, especially because the conditions that necessitate work still exist. And when you have the outside situation of our immigration system, which is very real for many people, where there is literal ripping of children from their parents—it has always been geared to separate people. There have been people coming to America for a very long time who are leaving spouses or children behind because we have a very “KEEP OUT” immigration policy and always have, especially for particular groups. That was the literal thing that could not be surmounted that I wanted to put into writing.
Lin: In my book, one of the largest characters is the mother, who is incurious and dominating within the home. But that’s kind of the extent of where she acts. There’s no role for her outside the home. My book is set in the mid-1980s and the mother is from an extremely rural village in Taiwan. She’s limited by certain constraints which I think we’re all familiar with—you might have a lot of agency within a certain sphere but perhaps outside of that sphere, there’s really no conceptual place for you. That’s kind of the box I was working with, but I guess I could ask a question, too.
I didn’t really know that I was writing this box which she was going to then step out of. I’m curious if any of you have a better idea of where you’re going when you start writing. Or whether you have these big ideas in your head while you’re writing, because I never do. I’m always just doing my thing on paper, and then two-hundred pages in, I’m like, “Oh shoot! That’s what that’s about.”
ffitch: This is an interesting question. Sometimes I feel like if anyone asks my opinion about anything, I’m like, “Yeah! Boxes—I have an opinion about that.” But I actually don’t think I’d name boxes as my leading metaphor if I hadn’t been invited to. As I was saying earlier, I never know where I’m going when I start at all, and I can’t believe that people do, and I can’t decide if I’m jealous or not. But I definitely start with conversation and new relationships. I talked about being inspired by the character of Sylvie because she sort of never got the memo about the box she was supposed to be in. Also, her biography doesn’t inexorably add up to who her adult character becomes. I find that to be refreshing, fictionally. Sometimes it seems like the proliferation of pop psychology makes us believe that we know why people are the way they are. “If they were this way and this way and this way when they were kids, and they came from this place and this place and this place, then this is why they are the way they are.” I like seeing characters that make us realize that we don’t know anything, that we don’t know if that’s true or not. To me that’s maybe more the project of fiction, looking at that particularity.
I like seeing characters that make us realize that we don’t know anything.
When it comes to character, we start talking about character versus place, and lately, rather than thinking about particular characters, I’ve just been thinking a lot about relationships. Because when it comes to boxes, what I noticed in my book is that the characters themselves are written in first-person narratives, in four perspectives. The first-person narratives, when I’m in a character’s head—they’re not necessarily aware of the boxes, but the characters they’re around are making them aware of the boxes. Like the scene where a non-native Appalachian woman who works on a pipeline on a crew of native pipeline workers assumes, “Aren’t your people against these pipelines?” She’s putting other people in boxes, and her assumptions get confronted. Also, where I live, most people who work for the industry are also against the industry, I think. So it seems like there’s this phenomenon where people have to be confronted a lot on their assumptions of other people. The novel is set before gay marriage in 2015, so the transplant from Seattle is assuming that when the queer couple’s child gets taken, they will want to take it to the Supreme Court. But the queer couple is like, “We just want to get our kid back. We don’t want to be a poster child for this.” But, also, the Appalachian characters assume that because the transplant from Seattle has a four-year college degree, that she should be a professor. Like, why isn’t she raking in the dough? Why doesn’t she have a lot of money? Those are definitely not valid assumptions either. I think that’s one way that I ended up dealing with boxes, without really meaning to, by noticing the way people are seeing each other and talking to each other and asking each other questions, and the way that plays out, which usually ends in a lot of conflict.
Carrasco: I really like this question because one of the fun things about writing my main character is that I had to get to know her first, because I didn’t know her immediately. But once I did, I realized that her specialty is breaking out of boxes. If she is given a container, she will break it. And that became one of her driving forces. She is very much driven, and will kind of just do the thing that she probably shouldn’t do. For that reason she really gathered a velocity, because if she had a constraint, the first thing she would try to do is break it. And that gave the narrative a really special kind of energy. But I noticed, as that was happening, there were still containers that she couldn’t escape, and one of them that was most interesting to me—when she was presenting as male, I noticed that she was very much constrained by toxic masculinity. She started to exhibit behaviors that weren’t commendable or good, and really kind of macho to the point of posturing, and hard-headed. That was interesting to explore, because it was surprising to me. But she became more problematic in some ways than some of my male characters who I kind of expected to be the ones causing problems in certain dynamics. Despite her tendency to bust through everything holding her back, I noticed that boxes still existed around her because of the world she was moving through.
Ma: I don’t plot my novels in advance, and about two-thirds of the way through writing Severance, the question that I kept getting confronted with was, why is Candace still at the office as the apocalypse happens? Why is she still staying there? That question forced me to think about immigrant expectations and the model minority myth. We kind of had to go into her background. One influence was Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays called Wanderlust, which is invested in the cultural history of walking, sometimes as a political act. Solnit says, about Jane Austen novels, that often the female characters can only exercise their freedom through walking in the countryside where they are able to just go around unescorted, and just be by themselves. And I thought about that a lot as Candace Chen works in her office and takes these—she creates this blog called New York Ghost. She starts taking these long walks through New York, chronicling the decay of the city as it slows down. I thought about walking and freedom a lot in part because of Rebecca Solnit.
Kiesling: That makes me think of a question. I’m thinking about our books, and my book has a character who gets up from her desk and leaves. And in Severance, the character stays to the point at which staying starts to seem ludicrous. I know you’re not supposed to read Goodreads reviews, but I find them incredibly fascinating. I did a Skype thing with this book group, and they talked for an hour about my book and then I Skyped in and they grilled me. (You’re so confronted with people’s opinions whether you read Goodreads or not!) One of the things that some people really struggled with was, “How could you just get up and leave from your job, that doesn’t make any sense!” I think if you have the kind of job where you know you could get up and leave and no one might even notice for ten days, that’s its own demoralizing kind of thing. There are a lot of jobs like that; I’ve held some of them. It makes me wonder whether any of you have encountered reader perceptions of your characters and found that your decisions have been really perplexing to your readers to the point that it affects their reading of the book, and they’re like, “Well I just don’t get why anyone would do this or is like this.”
Fontaine: Mine’s a little bit different because my book is nonfiction, it’s a memoir, so people are asking these questions about me and my own personal choices. I wrote this whole book about running away to perform with the sideshow, and I investigate throughout why I make that choice. And yet, all the time, people are like, “I don’t understand why you did that.” I think this actually goes with this idea that you were saying you have in fiction, about people’s backstory not necessarily adding up to who they have become. I think there’s a tendency in memoir to try to make a pretty clear A to B to C to YOU, however the alphabet goes. Causality, right? That everything cleanly causes the next thing. And I feel like some of the job of nonfiction writers is to resist some of that—to sort of say, “Here are some things that I think were part of this really messy life, this really messy set of choices.” But also, there’s never going to be a clear A to B to C categorization for why any of us or our characters make any of these choices. We can psychologize forever but I think that that is a particular part of nonfiction that I really appreciate: coming up against corners within boxes and maybe saying, “This is a point after which there is no more investigating. There isn’t a sense of knowing what else is out there.” So, just connecting back to this last question about boxes, and when we bust out of them, I think a really important point is also that most of the time most characters can’t fully bust out of their boxes, or bust out of parts of them that are still inside. Not only is it the ways that you are different from where you began, but also the characters who are not able to bust out.
ffitch: This is a really interesting question. It ends up being what do you need to explain to the reader, and what kind of reader are you explaining things to, and what kind of performance are you putting on. Everyone can talk about this from their own perspective. The publishing industry is so New York City-centric, and so many things in my book make total sense to rural people, but the feedback I’d get would be, “Nobody knows the difference between a duck and a drake!” But also, straight readers would be like: “We need to know more about the Dad. How can there be two women raising one child?” They want the sordid details. And I’m like, “I’m not explaining that part.” It always ends up being this balance between the things I write that make a lot of sense to the people I care about but do not make a lot of sense to other people. My experience as a reader is that I’m more transported when I’m not trying to be related to or pandered to. I’d rather read something where I’m transported and convinced as if I’m overhearing a conversation to which I might be a secondary audience. That’s my preference as a reader, so I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing. It’s a pretty fraught question. It started feeling disturbing to me that I was writing about things that meant a lot of things to me. I was trying to make sure they would make sense to the people who might see themselves in the book. But then the people I would be workshopping with or sending it to would be people who weren’t part of the same communities as me. So I started making sure I was sending drafts to people that I thought would see themselves in the book, and see what they thought. That helped me get my footing a lot more. They could tell me, “this part doesn’t really make sense, you haven’t done your job right here,” and that feedback was important and I’d know that I had some work to do. It gave me a better sense and did make me feel like I’m accountable to the people I want to be accountable to even if I can’t be accountable to everyone.
Carrasco: To Lydia’s point about Goodreads—I know we are not supposed to look, but I think we all do. Something that’s been interesting to me is the reaction to my main character’s physicality and her enjoyment of fighting. A lot of readers are really freaked out by that. Speaking of the boxes topic, we have a very limited sense in our culture of the ways in which women can be violent or enjoy violence and what justifies that. Usually, it’s after they’ve been assaulted. In most other cases, it’s not okay for women to enjoy violence or enjoy fighting. And it’s been interesting to me to see some reactions to the book like, “Oh my god this is so violent I almost couldn’t read it.” It’s confusing because I would make it a James Bond movie level of violence—but the role of a woman as antagonist in those interactions has been really interesting to me and it’s made me really rethink how women are allowed to act. Here’s a person who identifies as female and also enjoys fighting and enjoys the pain of giving and receiving punches, and people are very upset by that in interesting ways. I’ve seen it happening and I really want to write an essay about it because it’s been very interesting to me to see the responses to the main character.
Ma: I, too, have looked down the abyss of Goodreads and something that I see coming up is, “Well why is this the main character? Why does she seem so distant? Why does she seem so detached?” Severance was written from the first-person perspective and I think I was trying to create this mindset where this character is already aware of all of the ways in which her options are limited and that she’s already maybe preemptively disappointed. She preemptively does not have expectations. So, what you sometimes get is this sort of low-grade, almost affectless tone. It’s a protective measure, an almost defensive voice.
Johnson: Picking up from a bit of what Katrina was saying, I wanted to ask you all about style and choices in style. As a culture, what do you think we expect women to be writing? When you began working on your projects, did you feel like you were butting up against any of those expectations? And did you make any stylistic choices in terms of bringing in humor?
Madeline, you were emailing me the other day about how funny Severance was and talking about whether or not women are allowed to be funny, and what that does to a character—to be a funny woman. As female writers, how are you thinking about that both for your characters and for yourselves?
ffitch: Can I ask you a question about this, Ling?
ffitch: I just finished your book, so now I’m coming on like a superfan, but that’s cool. So, you have this part, this description of—and it’s not a funny scene—it’s actually really upsetting and scary and sad. But, one of the characters . . . is it okay if it’s spoiling for the readers?
ffitch: Okay. One of the characters’ dad is dead from this fever that has been infecting people and there’s a description of his face being eaten by maggots and I think that the word “maggot” is used eight times in every form, like “maggoty maggots” and “maggoted.” Anyway it’s really funny but it comes at a non-funny time. There’s also a lot of these hot sex scenes, but they’re described in a really funny way, like with the words “Arnold Schwarzenegger” and stuff like that.
Ma: Schwarzenegger dick.
ffitch: Thank you. But then, you know, this scene is in earnest, it’s not comical, it’s not a comedy. Anyway, it’s really funny, and it made me want to ask you if you’re consciously working that into your writing or if it’s just how that comes about for you as a craft question.
Ma: Well, for the “maggot” moment—which, thank you for noticing that over-the-top maggot passage—when I was writing it, I was like, “I don’t know how to describe a corpse, and I don’t want to look at pictures, and I don’t want to do the research into that kind of gore.” So I kind of just decided to push the gas on it a little bit, and say there’s a lot of maggots. You know, maggots are mating are all over . . . and it kind of just made me laugh, so I kept it. As you know, my favorite comedian is Richard Pryor—he’s one of the few comedians who’s able to be super funny and super angry and also super vulnerable. You often get comedians who are really angry and really funny, but the vulnerability is missing. I think for a sex scene to be hot it has to be twenty percent gross. What’s that saying, it’s like in cooking: you need the acid to cut the fat? You need the grossness to cut the hotness. Thank you for asking that.
Johnson: That’s going to be in your craft book.
Fontaine: About style, really quickly, and expectations of style. Memoirs are often gendered as female. At first, I thought that I was writing just a nonfiction book and I was a little bit embarrassed that it was going to be marketed as a memoir. It obviously is a memoir, but I thought that classification would cut away at the seriousness of how people would take it. So I really felt that for a long time, and then only kind of through learning more about the history of women’s writing and the history of memoir and a lot of early women only being able to publish and write in diaries and letters and in these personal spaces, that I understood that it’s been a long intentional campaign to make memoir seem unserious. That made me a crusader for it. I now feel really honored to be part of that tradition and still sometimes feel a little bit embarrassed to say it. It’s a complication I struggle with. I know some of the other writers up here also write nonfiction and I’m wondering if there’s any tension between what part of your writerly identity you want to put toward your fiction and what part you want to put toward your nonfiction?
Kiesling: I recently had the memory of a blog I used to read in like 2008 that was called True Mom Confessions. There was a whole series of these sites, like True Army Wives Confessions. It was all women, though. It was their confession, and it was this really poorly designed website, and really lurid. I was very mesmerized by it because motherhood felt like a state that was very far from me. There was an element of voyeurism and horror, but also, there was clearly some reason that I was looking this up. And I think it would have horrified me then to think that I had written a novel about being with a small child. But what has been interesting to me is to see that motherhood is this realm that women are often associated with whether they want to be or not, to the extent that a lot of women who do have children want to fight against that as being the sole thing that defines them. But there’s a limit to that. I’ve noticed that in fiction, there just weren’t depictions of very nitty gritty parenting. That was just not something that you would see books about. Part of that to me was a formal challenge. Like, yeah, it’s really boring. How would you describe that? Instead of pulling away and being like, “I’m not going to define myself by motherhood,” I decided I would, instead—and I hate to use this expression, but—lean in (it’s really wormed its way into the lexicon, it’s so horrible). But I decided to go fully into it, “and now the string cheese will be unwrapped and now . . .”—because that’s what the experience is like. It’s just been absent from fiction, even though motherhood as a notion and an idea is lionized in some insincere ways.
Johnson: I’d like to ask a little bit about genre. I think a couple of writers on this panel are talking specifically about sort of blurring genre. I’m wondering if there are others of you that have played with this. If you think about how different genres allow women to do different things—are women allowed to move differently in a thriller or in science fiction or a historical novel? Or in nonfiction? Tessa, you’ve addressed this a little bit already. But would you also talk a bit about considering other genres and why you’ve tested them (or didn’t test them) and what you found liberating (or not liberating) about the ones you’ve chosen (or haven’t chosen).
Carrasco: With my book, I intentionally wanted to blur genre lines. I wanted it to be a literary fiction character study but also have historical elements, some crime elements, and really kind of mess with readers’ expectations in terms of all those things working together. Sometimes it doesn’t make readers happy.
Are there constraints for how we’re expected to make stories work in genre fiction? I think there are certain genre constraints that result from reader expectations, because readers expect certain things from certain kinds of books. I think the project of the author is to know what you’re playing with when you’re blurring genre lines and to roll with the fact that people are going to perhaps not get it, or misinterpret it, or that they’re not going to have seen anything like it before. I think a huge part of writing is obviously that we’re trying to communicate, we’re trying to share stories with people. The gap between what people expect and what you’re writing can be frustrating when you feel like it’s not getting crossed. But that’s the project of making something new and breaking out of the boxes that genre can put us in. Hopefully readers find it even if it’s not what they expect.
I think the project of the author is to know what you’re playing with when you’re blurring genre lines and to roll with the fact that people are going to perhaps not get it, or misinterpret it, or that they’re not going to have seen anything like it before.
Lin: Well I’m not playing with genre at all, my book is pretty straight-forwardly literary fiction. But I will just say that I think that I find literary fiction offers this endless world of possibility. People are so patient with interiority in literary fiction, and with entering someone’s mind. People are really receptive to that. That mode of writing is by itself already so freeing. But I’ve also considered science fiction, because I read a lot of it when I was little. I feel like in the science fiction world, you can play with roles and contracts in a different way. Because, you know, you’re starting from such a blank slate. It’s a really different way of playing with roles than in literary fiction.
Ma: The only genre that I started out trying to avoid was the immigrant narrative. Which was probably a personal hang-up. Because growing up that’s all I saw Asian authors writing. Of course, this is dictated by the publishing industry and marketing demands, et cetera. But I did end up writing an immigrant narrative. It was just one wrapped inside an apocalyptic sort of tale. Inadvertently, I kind of fused the two together. It was an office novel, as well, which is a genre that I really love. I guess I just ended up grabbing all three and just mashing them together—angrily.
Johnson: One last question. Can each of you tell us about an unexpected place you’d like to see a woman either in fiction or in real life?
Lin: Maybe this is not a place, but I was just thinking about the books that I want to read. Maybe if this book exists already, you can tell me about it. I would love to see—and this is not at all that boundary-breaking, probably—but I would love to see a book in which a woman is building something with her hands, have it be really tactile. Because I feel like there must be a ton of books of men building a boat and winning prizes. I just want that language in books and I want a lot of them.
Kiesling: Mine is similar, actually. Right now I’m researching the oil and gas industry in various places, so I’m reading a lot of nonfiction. But the books, they tend to erase the lower levels of labor. So, there’s a double erasure. I mean, I’ve read a whole book about the oil industry that does not mention women. I think part of that is that there are just very few, but the language—it’s “oil men.” That’s how they’re described. There are certainly women doing all of those things, any of those things. One of the reasons I love Severance so much is that it is such a wonderful work novel. I think there are not too many books where women are working, and I think seeing different work that women have done would be really interesting.
Fontaine: I want to read more books where the female heroines are shy and quiet, and uncomfortable. Because I think we have really super wonderful and important books where there are female heroines who are outspoken and really loud and really resistant. And I love those characters so much. But I don’t want all of the women reading those books to think that that is the only version of a personality who can step outside of the bounds. I want some quiet, uncomfortable, insecure female heroines.
Ma: I totally agree. I think in the era of aspirational women’s marketing, actually having unremarkable female characters who are insecure and uncertain, there’s a lot to be said for that. I also don’t think you can have toughness or strong characters without “leaning in”—there’s that term again—leaning in to that uncertainty and insecurity, so I would second that.
Carrasco: My answer to this is sort of specific. I would love to see more butch female characters. I feel like a lot of queer woman representation is still for the male gaze, because it’s very femme lesbian focused. As a femme lesbian that’s great, I don’t want to be erased and femme erasure is real. But I want to see more positive and nuanced representations of butch women and non-binary folks as well, and have that be more normalized so I can read more about it.
ffitch: So, I am a parent. And I feel like we are caught in a dichotomy right now where there are motherhood narratives that are either two sides of the same coin, like, “I decided to reject all this motherhood stuff in favor of freedom!” or, “I decided that I would just lean in to motherhood and it’s just this lifestyle choice!” I find those to both reflect very western capitalist attitudes about freedom of responsibility and caretaking and community, and I don’t think they really describe what it feels like to be part of a family or to take care of someone generationally, whether they are babies or elders. I’m interested in family stories that are decolonized or breaking free of this typical binary that we’re in right now, which is tired.
Katrina Carrasco holds an MFA in fiction from Portland State University, where she received the Tom and Phyllis Burnam Graduate Fiction Scholarship and the Tom Doulis Graduate Fiction Writing Award. Her work has appeared in Witness magazine, Post Road Magazine, Quaint Magazine, and other journals. The Best Bad Things is her first novel.
Madeline ffitch cofounded the punk theater company Missoula Oblongata and is part of the direct-action collective Appalachia Resist! Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Guernica, Granta, VICE, and Electric Literature, among other publications. She is the author of the story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn.
Tessa Fontaine’s writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Sideshow World, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama and is working on a PhD in creative writing at the University of Utah. She also eats fire and charms snakes, among other sideshow feats. She lives in South Carolina. The Electric Woman is her first book.
Lydia Kiesling is the editor of The Millions. Her debut novel, The Golden State, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian, Slate, and The New Yorker online, and have been recognized in The Best American Essays 2016. Kiesling lives in San Francisco with her family.
Chia-Chia Lin is a graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review and other journals. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Unpassing is her first novel.
Ling Ma received her MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Vice, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. A chapter of Severance received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. She lives in Chicago.
Jenna Johnson is an Executive Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.