At the recent Chicago book release party for Cris Mazza’s new novel Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, from Emergency Press, I arrived late, fresh from a Wicker Park reading at Revolution Books. There, I discussed my novels Drain and Blank with a series of incisive socialist thinkers, and after the event, when I traveled the several miles south to the outskirts of Pilsen, the small restaurant across from the factory already had the closing-time look about the place.
No doubt, to some of the graduate students also in attendance, this must be Mazza’s 43rd book. She’s written yet another carefully insightful broadside in a series of seemingly endless offerings that each provide, in turn, some new angle to look at landscapes unfamiliar to all but the most observant wayfarers of the human condition. Mazza’s writing always maintains her trademark quiet brutality, her keen-yet-cutting prose with its stark points amid otherwise oddly sculpted valleys. This work is as powerful now as it was 20 years ago; she manages to write about the same obsessions—gender and sex, relations and transactions, human hunters and their quarried prey—in startlingly new ways.
Various Men is no different, but completely different, as will no doubt become evident from the following recipe for desperate living best known to this website’s readers as, wait for it, The Big Other Interview.
Davis: I think of you, writing while standing up, at your home 50 miles west of Chicago, in that completely non-Chicago neighborhood that feels more like some Hinterland, someplace akin to DeKalb or even western Iowa, and I strain to remember at times that you are a migrant there—not some natural part of the landscape that just happens to write these wonderful stories and novels that so often swirl around California. Still, I’ve never thought of your California works as anything even remotely stereotypical of what the literary establishment might consider California writing (no washed-out hippies or Laurel Canyon or San Fran or central valley dust bowl stuff or Hell’s Angels reminiscing about punching out Hunter S. Thompson and thinking “well, that guy made us look plain.”)
Still though, do you think of yourself as a California writer? What’s the focus of the new novel?
Cris: Indigenous and Homeland offered bucolic views of my native Southern California. But I knew there was a seedy underbelly, and it wouldn’t be those papery husks of wild oats, descendents of some abandoned 18th century farm, buried now under the thumbprint swirl of streets in a planned community. I wondered if there was any sex trafficking in my pastoral homeland.
Davis: You must have considered this as a real object in the midst of your writing landscape, no? How would you even arrive at this idea?
Cris: Actually, I don’t remember how I first heard about the “Love Nests,” outdoor prostitution camps where (mostly) under-aged girls are forced to service dozens of men every day. But it seems you’d have to go looking for it to hear about it. Of all the debated dilemmas, issues and social ills in the media, sex slaves working in outdoor prostitution warehouses was not (and still isn’t), apparently, headline-worthy. After discovering it—probably some blip in the middle of some other story regarding the scourge of “illegal aliens”—I had to search but did locate true underground investigative reporters who’d gone into the camps, infiltrated the cartels, spoken to girls, and had written exposés no one was reading.
Davis: This might prove a fascinating set of transcripts—but it’s only a part of the novel. My guess is that you had to time-travel a bit into the stream of your own experiences to pull out the other “sex” part of this story?
Cris: The other part of the novel … concerning statutory rape and sexual harassment (or what Janet Burroway called “the multiple realities of desire”) … that stuff developed into a novel-worthy idea in a familiar way: I was doing exploratory surgery on my memory. Exploratory surgery is probably obsolete now, with so many machines and ways to look inside a body. But I think when it used to be done, they cut someone open to poke around to see why something seemed so wrong, then closed the body up, now more harmed than before it was opened. The same can be said of exploratory surgery on a memory.
Davis: Sounds like you’ve had enough of this type of remembrance.
Cris: But it’s an addiction of mine.
Davis: Fair enough.
Cris: So my exploratory surgery started when there was some instance of sexual harassment in my vicinity, and my usual first thought came to mind: “Hey, he never sexually harassed me, what’s wrong with me?”
Davis: The most interesting part of this story, which you’ve told me before, is that this is a “usual” thought. My usual thoughts are things like, “I need to pick up bananas at the store,” or “What would Lake Michigan be like once emptied of water?”
Cris: Then I started thinking back, realized that sexual harassment laws were still relatively new in 1989 when I wrote “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” – a story that got a lot of attention. Which then made me start wondering if, before that, perhaps I had been sexually harassed prior to 1980 when the EEOC “forbade” sexual harassment, so I hadn’t known what to call it. (What a stupid pursuit, but I admit to be in search of something I could cling to as an excuse for some personal failures.)
Davis: I see where this is going. You. Made. Lists.
Cris: I started making a list of silly instances, nothing amounting to much, when all of a sudden—bolt of lightning here—I remembered: hey, I was student-teaching, supposed to be preparing for a career as a high school teacher, and my master-teacher was not only having sexually frank conversations with me about my state of virginity and his marital problems, giving me advice and playfully touching me, he took he to an “adult bookstore” (that misnomer has always amused me) and squeezed into one of the porn video booths with me, and gave some running commentary on the performance of a couple of bodies in various vigorous fornication positions. Was that sexual harassment yet?
Davis: Your high school teaching career?
Cris: I never did become a high school teacher.
Davis: And I blame this jerk for depriving the world of the potentially the most interesting AP English courses ever…
Cris: Poor man, he’s really not to blame. (As for me not becoming a high school teacher, he should get a medal.)
Davis: Aren’t these people are often involved in numerous liaisons at once?
Cris: When I then discovered that this same master-teacher had been having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student at the same time that I was his student teacher and he was (I thought) pursuing me sexually … well, essentially, I sexually harassed myself 25 years later. The lesion left from exploratory surgery.
Davis: Something like the reverse form of reclaimed memories in priest-abuse scandals?
Cris: Yes, they tried to arrest him for the relationship with the 16-year-old … when she cried foul 25 years later. And she followed-up with the predictable lawsuit. And there were more news stories about those court appearances than there were reports about the human trafficking in the same Southern California county.
Davis: And so, the linkage….
Cris: Society wanted to publicly revile and recoil from the man, 25 years later, but didn’t want to hear…
Davis: …about your own feelings of pre-sexual harassment -label non-involvement, of not being the one to have been used by this man?
Cris: …about those teenagers forced into prostitution. He was a pig to be dealt with, while they were just “the illegal problem.” The parallel I discovered, while writing the book—in myself and my own reaction to these seemingly disparate situations—was what provoked this particular obsession to write Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls.
Cris Mazza has authored sixteen books, most recently Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, a novel. Her other fiction titles include Waterbaby, Trickle-Down Timeline, and the critically notable Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? In 1995 & 1996, Mazza was co-editor for the original Chick-Lit anthologies: Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction, and Chick-Lit 2: No Chick Vics. In 2006, her essay “Who’s Laughing Now: Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre,” explaining the co-opting and corrosion of the title, appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction (Routledge). In addition to fiction,
Mazza also has published a memoir, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian. A native of Southern California, Mazza grew up in San Diego County. She currently lives 50 miles west of Chicago and is a professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be found online at www.cris-mazza.com.