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“Crone’s rule…Old’s cool.” Middle-Aged Narrators and Their Treacherous Texts

Elisabeth Sheffield and Christina Milletti in Conversation


“There are so many ways in which there is no crime.”—Gertrude Stein


Elisabeth Sheffield’s fourth novel, Ire Land: a Faery Tale presents the final raging-against-the-dying-of-the light days of aging professor Sandra Dorn who, in twenty-first century fairy tale form, follows email breadcrumbs left by her online “friend” Madmeave17 from Denver to upstate New York and finally to Ireland—revisiting friends and family on her journey who, like Dorn herself, have experienced a variety of personal transformations. In this tale, however, the crone—the usual witchy villain—is our narrator and her anger and disappointment, her flaws and astute observations, not to mention her hilariously raw commentary, upend expectations about older women, making visible the concealed geriatric, gendered female body in all its desiring, fleshy rigor. Once edgy, now aging, Sandra Dorn is maddeningly difficult. But her reflections on the social compacts that undermine older women are keenly precise and tempered by a dark and duplicitous humor, as she considers the limits that gender and sexuality play in the ever evolving identities for women.

I can count on my hand how many well-known novels are narrated by cranky women. Let alone cranky middle-aged or geriatric women. When Claire Messud’s novel The Woman Upstairs was released, her reply to a query about the “likeability” of her narrator—the thirty-seven-year-old, “foul-mouthed” schoolteacher, Nora—launched a short-lived literary controversy about the differing expectations of male and female narrators. Perhaps that view is finally shifting. But as the author of a crone-narrator myself (Choke Box: a Fem-Noir), it was an incomparable pleasure to come across Sandra Dorn’s whiskered defiance in Ire Land. My email exchange with Elisabeth Sheffield—about our irritable narrators and the joy of writing them—follows:

Christina Milletti: Ire Land (a Faery Tale) is a marvelous work, comprised of metafictional layers that contribute to questions about authenticity and narration on every page, not to mention a wealth of literary referents that embolden the conversation the novel has with many others. At the center of this gamesmanship is an aging woman: a once-edgy scholar who now describes herself as bloated and dull (though, ironically, her account is acutely observant). By my count, there are very few literary novels that take on an older woman as a narrator. Perhaps, Olga Tokarczuk’s many high profile awards for works like Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead—which has an older woman with unpopular ideas as its narrator—shows that that arc is shifting. What is it about the (in)visibility of older women that makes Sandra Dorn the ideal narrator for you and Ire Land?

Elisabeth Sheffield: My count accords with yours, though I also agree that that arc may be shifting (other recent examples being Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands). And yes, it was in part that (in)visibility in literature (as well as in life) that made me want to write from this perspective. I’m assuming you’ve put the first part of the word in parentheses because it’s not simply a matter of older women being unseen, but rather that they can only be seen in a certain way. That is, in high-necked, longsleeved, self-effacing and self-occluding garb, because no one wants to see those nasty old bodies and minds (which is why the recent work of the painter Joan Semmel is so thrilling). From almost the very beginning of writing Ire Land, I had those opening lines from Dylan Thomas in my head, “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” even as I felt pretty certain that DT’s advice was not meant for the likes of me or my narrator. There are plenty of books written by men, with self-destructive older male narrators who rave and burn (e.g., the refusing to fade/go gently voices of Roth, Bellow, and Mailer, not to mention Nabokov and Beckett). I wanted to create that same kind of outsized, self-destructive voice, but to locate it in a woman’s body/cultural experience. At the same time, it seemed to me that to get the burning and raving really going, I needed to strip away that woman’s body/cultural experience (or at least the approved version). Hence, Sandra loses everything—her youth/nubility, her professional success (originally secured by writing from her perspective as a “white mother”), her home, her friends, her partners, her children—everything that might’ve served to quench the flames. That is, she’d probably sound very different if she’d gone down the sanctioned path of the “home-owning, heart-chakra opening, UNICEF-giving grandmother of eight.”

In creating Sandra’s voice, I was also interested (once again) in the kind of narrator that Jaimy Gordon, in a wonderful article published about twenty years ago in The Writer’s Chronicle, calls “the Great I.” “The Great I,” or ‘the cosmic, capacious, world-sized narcissism of the idiosyncratic first person” (Gordon), serves itself as much (or more) than story. The “Great I” is also slippery—the voice of the con artist, the scammer, the lord/lady of misrule. And again, I don’t think this is a mode we see so much in fiction by women, though a couple of my favorite writers, Mary Caponegro and Marianne Hauser in The Talking Room, deploy versions of it. And, in fact, I find it in Choke Box, which is one of the things that excites me about your novel. Despite the title, the narrative voice is completely irrepressible and, ultimately, unlocatable—Jane Tamlin cannot be pinned down.

At the same time, Jane does have her sources, one of which is noir. Which leads me to a question for you: I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about the use of noir in Choke Box, not just as a narrative form but also as a source of character types and tropes, especially female ones. And when I say “source,” I of course mean a supply of types and tropes not just to work with, but against.

Milletti: If Sandra Dorn is raging at the dying of the light…Jane Tamlin is ranting at it. It’s curious to me that our narrators—one, a sophisticated professor and mother with a once prominent reputation, the other primarily a wife and mother—share a similar fate in many ways. Though one put career first, the other family, everything they once held dear is gone. Also? They both have a hell of a lot to say about it.

At the outset of writing Choke Box that sense of loss prompted me to shape Jane Tamlin’s account as a memoir akin to the gothic narratives that influenced it—among them Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jean Rhys’s The Wide Sargasso Sea, and Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow—all of which present women who are locked in rooms struggling with (or possibly towards) madness as they reflect on their troubled relationships with identity, memory, and authenticity as they tell their “own” stories. But I soon realized the atmospheric darkness—what might be called the haunting cloud of patriarchy—that characterizes gothic narratives deserved critical inquiry in its own right. So I flipped the script and transformed Jane’s account into what she describes as a “counter-memoir,” a writing back or into, the darkness, while adopting “noir” as a more formalized model instead.

The epilogue of Choke Box—“There are so many ways in which there is no crime”—is culled from Gertrude Stein’s rarely read detective novel (perhaps more aptly, “detecting” novel), Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which is based on the puzzling deaths of two women that occurred one summer near her French country home. First, a local hotelier’s wife died—she was reputed to have fallen out a window while sleepwalking. Not long after, a visiting Englishwoman shot herself—twice—in the head. Both deaths were ruled accidental, and quickly dropped from inquiry, though the circumstances that Stein unravels in her experimental fashion suggests otherwise (for instance, the hotelier was having an affair and married the woman right after his wife’s plunge to the courtyard). Unfortunately, both older women, already invisible within the community, disappeared from public concern. Just more completely than before.

Stein was well known to have loved detective novels because their resolutions were reassuringly predictable (the culprit is always found at the end) unlike in life, or her own work, which (to be super reductive) revels in the irrepressible complexity of language. If noir is characterized by bleakness, flawed characters, and the abuse of power—it seems to me that Blood on the Dining Room Floor can be read as a proto-noir novel (though it normally isn’t); and that while noir is often a genre noted for its macho hardboiled narrators, it is surprisingly well-suited for feminist adaptation. Choke Box, you might say, takes up the many ways there “is” crime in ordinary situations that we simply don’t see because the women and girls that such crimes afflict are invisible to us themselves.

While we’re talking about form, can you elaborate on the fusion of metafiction and fairy tale that shapes Ire Land from start to finish? It’s curious to me that while Ire Land might be described as a monologue in Sandra Dorn’s distinctively compelling voice, the novel clearly embodies a much larger conversation woven together from letters and marginalia, the dialogue the novel enjoys (demands?) with writers like Beckett, Nabokov, Kafka (to name just a few), while all of these suggestive references set aloft the lore surrounding Irish Queen Medb with many “cues” and “clues” to guide us. For instance, the novel begins with a letter from a professor of queer studies at Queen’s University, Belfast to Sandra Dorn’s child Kew—the first line of which is an adaptation of the first line of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. And yet the path Sandra Dorn takes, following the instructions of her invisible email guide “Madmaeve17” is suggestive of so many fairy tales in which the path “into the woods” leads to unfortunate ends. There’s a vast web distilled in this smart, compact novel that, in the end, tells the story about mothers and children—a story as old as time that we’re still telling today.

Sheffield: First, I was quite interested in your description of the gestation of Choke Box, about how it was originally conceived in response to gothic narratives by women such as “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Wide Sargasso Sea, and also about the influence of Stein’s Blood on the Dining Room Floor, which I have actually read, a long time ago, but didn’t know was inspired by the suspect deaths of two actual women.  It’s really telling, that erasure, and it seems to me that you’ve made it foundational, so to speak, for your book, building it into the voice and to apply the term to your work (before I address its relationship to mine), via what could be described as its various metafictional elements. Which is brilliant. Woman’s absence is, of course, foundational for patriarchy as well, but also, as Irigaray writes, its blind spot. And continues to be. The other night, I watched Skyfall, with my almost all-male household (even the cats are boys, the only other bitch being the dog). I haven’t watched a James Bond movie in decades. Initially, I was pleased by Judi Dench in the role of Bond’s superior, M, and also entertained by Javier Bardem as Bond’s flamboyantly vicious nemesis/pseudo-sibling rival, as Bardem is M(other)’s fallen, one-time favorite. But then there comes a scene where Bardem forces Craig to demonstrate his marksmanship by shooting a glass of whiskey off the head of Bardem’s sex worker/employee, a Chinese woman whom Craig has just had sex with the night before. Craig misses, but the woman is shot anyways (“Waste of a good glass of scotch”). The murder is barely acknowledged, and as the banter between the two men continues, the slumped form of the woman, bound to a chair, is almost completely obscured by Bardem, now standing in front of her. Which is to say that the important relationship here is between the two men, and while the rivalry does require a woman, it is not the one we see here, but M(other) in the background, whose role in patriarchy is of course a given (by Father/the Symbolic).

But to get to your question! I didn’t begin with the intention to write metafiction or even to fuse metafiction with faery tale. I was actually shooting for a faery tale. And I’m half serious.  If readers make connections between Malachi McLaughlin (MM), Madmaeve (from the ancient Irish queen Medb, later the fairy queen Mab, Anglicized as “Maeve”), the references to fairy lore in the marginalia, and Sandra’s abandoned firstborn (who may have been raised by his maternal grandfather, but also by fairies), that’s great.  I even, early on, had planned to make the last piece of marginalia, which is also the end of the novel, an explicit scene depicting Sandra’s entry into an underworld “faery land,” a la Pan’s Labyrinth or Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale. I guess that would’ve put this novel more in the genre of speculative fiction, if not fantasy.

But I abandoned that idea, for reasons I won’t go into here. If the mysterious editor is a faery, he, or they, are also well versed not just in Irish lore, but also in contemporary literature, especially the work of northern Irish writers like Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney (the final piece of marginalia in fact steals a couple of lines from Heaney’s bog poems). Further, his/their commentary and doodles on this allegedly found story clearly serve to foreground the novel as a series of texts, and to signal its awareness of itself as a literary construction, or narrative (or series of narratives).

So yes, this novel looks like metafiction, or metafiction fused with faery tale, although what I was originally thinking about was violence (to get back to the precipitating conceptual concerns mentioned above), both literal violence, and the links between anger/ire and violence, but also a less explicit kind of violence, not least because I think it feeds the former: conceptual categories (e.g., “black,” “white,” “deplorable,” “little old lady,” “taig,” “prod”) confine and constrict, and bodies push back. In Ire Land, this second kind of violence plays out through Sandra Dorn’s actions and interactions with other characters, but it also plays out through form, in the tensions between Sandra’s texts and her mysterious editor’s. What these metafictional tensions offered, I suppose, were means to call conceptual categories into question, and to destabilize boundaries. I was very interested here, as always, in the way narratives make things happen, specifically in the way they can make roles (gender roles, racial and ethnic roles, professional roles, etc.) seem natural and inevitable, especially if we’re not paying attention to the kind of story that we’re in. If Ire Land is a metafiction, it’s because what self-aware, critically savvy person would want to grow old in a story that wasn’t?

Which is not to say that being in a metafiction, with a faery editor, makes things any easier. On the one hand, I see Malachi McLaughlin/Madmaeve (or MM) as representative of a kind of liminality, or alternative to gender and other binaries (as faeries are neither here nor there), that could, for Sandra, represent a way out. On the other, I also see them as the abandoned son, filled with rage at the mother who refused to play her proper role: they are an agent of the Father (or a double M) hacking away at the fortress of ego, trying to “rout her out.” In the last quarter hour of Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M manages to escape Bardem’s firebombing of Bond’s ancestral stone mansion, via an underground passage, but succumbs in the end on the moors above to a wound sustained in the attack. She doesn’t seem unhappy about it.

Milletti: Your reply reminds me of Kate Bernheimer’s essay “Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale” where she prompts readers to consider how much our so-called literary texts owe to fairy tales (not just as adaptations or retellings). As Ire Land is certainly marked by (among many other references) Alice in Wonderland moments, gateways to other-wordly spaces, rabbits, were-rabbits, crones, and a variety of pelted transformations, I’m wondering if you’d reflect on the speculative spaces that fairy tales open in your fiction, as you also carefully address many difficult issues—gender and sexuality among them—at a moment when memoir/auto-fiction has carved out a distinctive space on fiction shelves for telling stories from a space of “authenticity.”

Sheffield: You know, I’ve read all three of Kate Bernheimer’s fairy tale novels, as well as taught one or two of them, but I wasn’t aware of this essay, which I read just now.  Like Bernheimer, I really loved fairy tales when I was young, and would “live” in them, as much as I could—in Grimm’s and Anderson’s, as well as in children’s fantasy novels (Frank Baum, George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle). I was especially enthralled by C. S. Lewis and the Narnia chronicles. And I use the word “enthralled” most intentionally, because while his books seemed to offer the most wonderful kind of escape, I didn’t realize as a kid I was in thrall at the same time (e.g., when my father decided to be Catholic and made us all get down on our knees and pray at night, I’d secretly address my prayers to Aslan, thinking I was getting away with something!). All this is to say that the space fairy tales open up in my novel is meant to be a treacherous one. I wanted to offer Sandra Dorn a way out, as I’ve said above, especially out of the conventions of both realism and of our larger cultural narratives about aging women, even as I’m not sure she finds one.

I’d like to continue on the subject of metafiction, and also move into voice and perspective. Early on, Jane Tamlin proposes that “while ‘I’ threw the knife, I am not to blame for throwing it” (31). Could you talk about these two different “I”s in relationship to writing? Which one is telling the story we’re reading? Do the other two writer characters in the novel, Ed and Jules, have more than one “I” as well? I’m thinking about Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” here at the same time that I’m also thinking about how women are written by men/patriarchal culture (or how “history” overwrites “herstory”). Or to what extent is Jane Tamlin’s voice her “own”?

Milletti: This question is at the very heart (the “choke”) of Choke Box. Its core critical tension. If the “counter-memoir” Choke Box is Jane’s effort to set history, or rather “her story,” right, how does she do that within a patriarchal system that already misrepresents women to begin with? Judith Butler’s tension with French feminism falls along these lines, and I found myself trying to illustrate that paradox as Jane’s candor (she swears to tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” from page one) peels back the tragic layers of her life, trying to represent the “there there” with imperfect results: after all, her mother says she’s wrong, her brother can’t confirm the details, her husband has gone missing, her tween son doubts her and, unfortunately, the infant can only fart.

Jane’s account is hopefully marked by humorous fabulist moments, but the “choke” in the title also reminds readers how dangerous problems of language continue to be for those marginalized within power structures. Of course, even if she were to get it “right,” the fact that Choke Box is a memoir wrapped in a novel (its “box”) creates the double Borgesian erasure you point to. Her authenticity is always a matter of discourse and her “I” evolves on the page as much as her “person.” Whether those two identities can ever match up, who can say?

But it doesn’t make her story untrue. Though it might make it a true story. Told through fiction.

You must be no stranger to these kinds of questions yourself as Ire Land works in a similar terrain, given the editorial presentation of the manuscript: Sandra Dorn’s voice has been filtered—by herself, by the editor, possibly even by Kew before we see it. And as Sandra Dorn seems to be under a siege of transformations—as are the many characters she encounters along the way—I wonder if you can reflect on how we should attend to the woman, the distinctive voice, who tells her story?

Sheffield: Yes, I agree we’re both working in the same terrain! How to depict a woman, or tell a woman’s story “within a patriarchal system that already misrepresents women to begin with”? Sandra seems to be under “a siege of transformations,” but we’re all under siege, all our lives, from the birthing room to the grave, being shifted from one culturally recognized shape (or box) shape to the next, depending on our perceived gender, race, socio-economic status. Is Sandra trustworthy or should what she says be taken at face value? No and never. At the same time, I think the way she speaks and processes her experiences is as “true” as any other representation of an almost seventy-year-old woman that I’ve seen. A woman this age could think and speak this way, and there are women this age who do, I’m sure of it, even if I’m not (yet) Sandra’s contemporary.

We spoke at the beginning of this conversation about the invisibility of old women. They’re rarely at the center of a work of art—in literature, painting, and film. I recently read about the work of the painter Joan Semmel, who is closing in on ninety, and has been doing large self-portraits of her naked body in recent years. I think I’d seen her name before I read the article, but was barely aware of her. She was notorious, back in the seventies, for her “fuck paintings,” largely realist though wonderfully painterly depictions of young heterosexual couples having sex, but over time her work began to center more on women alone, and she also got pushed to the critical wayside for a while (perhaps these two trends were connected, perhaps not).

Just this past weekend, I took the bus down to the city to have a look at the abovementioned self-portraits. The paintings are quite large, unabashed, and anatomically, very “real” depictions of aging female flesh. At the same time, the cropping and angles are unexpected and the colors amazing—parrot streaks of cobalt, green, and turquoise amongst fleshy reds, violets, and yellows. In one painting that particularly struck me, the figure’s hand, red-tinged and infused with pulsing life, seems to emerge from the lumpy purple cove of her belly and groin, as if reaching out for rescue, or perhaps to pull the viewer in. Semmel says her intention is in part to “normalize” the aging female body as a subject for art, i.e., why do the subjects of nudes have to be young? Ditto with the protagonists of novels.

The night after I saw the Semmel exhibit, I had drinks with my sister and nephew. My nephew, who’s open-minded and also interested in painting, asked me about the show I’d just seen. As I began to describe Semmel’s work, I thought I saw him squirm a little. Or maybe I was projecting my own discomfort, skirting around the aging female body in my conversation with this still young guy. To circle back to the beginning of my response to your question, I don’t think it’s possible to see anyone or anything truly. But I don’t think my nephew or I would’ve been uncomfortable if there was as strong a tradition in the history of western art of the naked, senile female body as there is of the nubile one.

On the subject of tradition and history, both in art and literature, as well as to further explore the idea of Choke Box as a “counter-memoir” to “set history, or rather ‘her story,’ right,” I’m interested in hearing what you have to say about the memoir/counter-memoir tables on pp. 66-67 and 106-107? These are all, of course, quotes from women writers, and the designation of each quote as either “memoir” or “counter-memoir” seems arbitrary (unless I’m missing something), which for me suggests you mean for there to be no opposition or binary here. At the same time, all of these writers could be considered more or less canonical for women’s literature (especially women’s literature as recuperated and claimed by feminism). So I’m also interested in anything you have to say about the relationship of Choke Box to this lineage, especially the more complicated aspects of the relationship. Male writers celebrate their male literary forebears but also dispute and/or try to discount them (e.g., The Anxiety of Influence but also more recently, as in David Foster Wallace’s essay about “The Great Male Narcissists”). Jane’s mother is certainly no enabler of her as a writer. I was also struck by “Women, don’t trust the men in your lives. And trust the women even less” (31).

Milletti: First, I just want to reflect for a second on the binary of the terms nubile and senile that you deploy above, which at once struck me since I rarely hear “senile” used (as you correctly do) in its original meaning: “aged.” In common parlance, it’s almost always used as a synonym for “forgetful” or to describe someone afflicted by dementia (in fact, my MS Word thesaurus only supports this meaning). So, ladies, you’re either young and sexy. Or disoriented, erratic, forgetful. Curiously, as the mother of some “nubile” teens myself, I often apply these synonyms to them. In my post-fifty “senescence,” I remember everything my daughters need (and have forgotten) to get through the day: sunscreen, hair ties, lead pencil refills. And here we are. Choking (up) on the irony. And jettisoned back toward my book.

The tables you mention, at first, might seem like a secondary artifact to the rest of the novel—so I’m grateful you’ve singled them out as, for me, they amplify a critical through-line that underscores Choke Box.

Though the quotes appear without citation (as though they were lifted from Ed’s memoir and Jane’s counter-memoir in a “he said/she said” style interplay) they are, as you note, all lines from novels by canonical or established women writers, and the quotes themselves represent a mosaic of obscure choices alongside some rather obvious ones—i.e., “Reader, I married him”—in order to nudge readers to question both the source of the quotes and the formal use of the tables more than they otherwise might.

Early on, I hoped to convey that Jane’s account is part of a long “herstory.” On the one hand, her narrative is distinctly her own. On the other, her problems are very typical historical problems for women whose conventional domestic roles—wife, mother, elder care-provider—end up erasing them from public consciousness. So, conceptually speaking, I wanted the “memoir/counter-memoir” tables to provoke the reader to remember the herstory they do know and who it’s been shaped by (in this case, a literary herstory). It’s true the tables represent a kind of “greatest hits” album in women’s literature. A petite archive of the voices that may have influenced “Jane” as a writer. But they also make a visual gesture by prioritizing what Meg Wolitzer has called the “second shelf” of women’s literature. And you got me: I was distinctly shadow-boxing (“countering”) Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” by trying to celebrate and build on the work of women writers, who continue to shape my own thinking.

But there’s another layer as well. The fact that the quotes seem to be positioned as a binary argument, but on second glance, clearly are not, I hope highlights how fundamentally false the binary is. I suppose I was also satirizing its one-sided formulation, not unlike the often all-male panels discussing women’s reproductive health for instance. There’s a hilarious  website devoted to this sad state of affairs called “@allmalepanels” that’s worth checking out. It thrives because this echo chamber of voice and power is nothing new. To return to our dialogue about systemic patriarchy above: those without power are always victimized by those who have it. But as Jane unfortunately discovers: it corrupts those who want it too—even the women she thought she could trust and whose betrayals are even more devastating because they’re unexpected.

Having said all that: I’d like to think that by showcasing Jane’s tragedy, Choke Box makes an argument that the Other-ed need to stand by each other. If we can’t get outside patriarchy, it would be nice to think we can work together to at least bend it in our favor.

For you also, questions about gender and sexuality are deeply embedded in Ire Land’s form and content. There is fluid movement in Sandra Dorn’s sexual history, as well as her siblings’ and their partners. Meanwhile, late in the novel, we learn that Kew is Sandra Dorn’s trans daughter. The queering of the text is further highlighted by the “fairy” tale form—a reclamation of genre that empowers and reminds readers how transformative subjects of fairy tales often are (animals becomes human, peasants become royalty, and so on), a theme Angela Carter and, more recently, Carmen Maria Machado, often adapt and amplify in their feminist and queer retellings. Can you reflect on the aspirational lineage of Ire Land? It’s a question, it occurs to me, that I’m asking during Pride Week.

Sheffield: Your reflections on the terms “nubile” versus “senile,” in relation to your own experience as the mother of teens, hit (my) home! I’m also very much in agreement with your observations about power. I think that for a writer, power is the power to be heard/command attention. But how do you do that without silencing/submerging/obliterating others?

Sandra is desperate to be heard, but no one wants to listen. Like Jane, she is “choke-boxed” up. And not only is she boxed up, by her gender, by her age, by her diminishing socio-economic status, but she is all too aware of what her box looks like from the outside. Indeed, she’s built a career out of her sophisticated understanding of the conceptual packaging our culture provides (or forces upon us), with her two books about her experience raising Kew, subjecting the question (or “Q”) of her child’s racial and gender identities to definitive, professionally advantageous answers/narratives (or as Kew puts it, “you made me into a fur hat for your head.”). And to further tighten the screws, in her youth she believed, or half believed, that she was free to pursue her desire(s), and that her awareness exempted her from consequences/destinies (e.g., having a child, or two, does make her a “mother,” whether she accepts the role or not). Or as Sandra puts it, “if you were young and pretty, you didn’t have to choose.”

So yes, as in the work of Angela Carter and Carmen Maria Machado (not to mention Kate Bernheimer), the fairy tale form provided the possibility of transformation—or a way of getting out of the boxes of language and culture by becoming something else entirely. I was also thinking about the ancient associations of faeries with the wild, undomesticated spaces beyond hearth and home, and about faeries as forces that estrange/derange humans (e.g., via the substitution of a changeling for a “normal” human child). I think it’s interesting that the root of fairy/faery is in the Latin fata (“the Fates”), the plural of fatum (“that which is ordained; destiny, fate”). That is, the word contains both the sense of fate and the possibility of escaping it. And I was also of course playing with the word’s connotation of queerness: both queerness as a kind of sexuality that “de-naturalizes” or dislocates the sex/gender binary, and queerness as a strategy (through language, image, and formatting) for coming at things slant.

My final question for you begins with your cover, which is one of the more arresting that I’ve seen in recent years. I looked for the source of the image and saw on the copyright page that it is supposedly from a lithograph in Dr. Otto Zuckerkandl’s (Dr. Sugarcandy’s?!) Atlas and Epitome of Operative Surgery. Is it really? I ask in part because it’s incredible to me that an image like this could’ve appeared in a surgical textbook (then again, “men of science” can be pretty kinky) but also because, after reading the rest of the copyright page (not to mention the narrative that follows), I don’t trust a word “you” say J. At the same time, I find Choke Box itself deeply credible, in its literary intelligence, in its sustained balance of irony vs. pathos, in its performance of the possibility/impossibility of writing as a “woman.” Maybe this isn’t really a question, but more an expression of admiration. But I would like to hear what you have to say about the cover and front matter.

Milletti: I don’t usually use the following words because I have a complicated relationship with them. But here goes. My cover image? It’s real.

Even now, it remains inconceivable to me that doctors once learned to appreciate bodies, particularly female bodies, using such violent images. What thoughts on women were in the mind of the illustrator as this image was designed? What were the young doctors thinking as they studied this figure of her disgorged neck? What message(s) did it embed in their minds? How did they pass those ideas onto their patients?

Put another way: what kind of “crime” is this? Thank you, Dr. Sugarcandy.

One of the early launch points for Choke Box was my discovery that humans are virtually the only species on the planet that can choke to death because of the evolutionary placement of our larynx, which moved higher over the eons so we could make a greater spectrum of sounds—communicate using language. In result, we now have a tiny flap of skin in our throats that, depending on whether we’re speaking or eating, moves to protect our airway or our esophagus, directing food or air into the right passage. But if we eat and talk at the same time? All bets are off. And our “choke box,” our larynx, becomes the fleshy arbiter of the future. Words don’t just matter. They are a matter built into our anatomy. You said it: irony and pathos…it’s the precise condition of being human. We exist on a fulcrum of violence and language. Whether we’re always aware of it or not.

I’m incredibly grateful to you for picking up on these subtleties, which were key in shaping Choke Box—and they’re more than evident in Ire Land as well. Throughout, you show a deep sensitivity for language, an attention to the relationship between language, power, and violence, and a stubborn, persevering humor in the face of ongoing, persistent repression.

If literature is anything, it’s a conversation between texts and I, for one, am incredibly glad Ire Land and Choke Box—Sandra Dorn and Jane Tamlin—you and I, exist in this same discursive universe together.   


  • Christina Milletti is associate professor of English at the University at Buffalo and author of Choke Box: a Fem-Noir and The Religious & Other Fictions. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Best New American Voices, The Masters Review, Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other outlets.

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