Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An Interview with Peggy Shinner

This spring, 9L staffer Steve Davenport talked via email with Chicago-based writer Peggy Shinner about her recent book, You Feel So Mortal/Essays on the Body, discussing the process and craft involved in putting together a collection of essays. We're pleased to share this interview with our readers here.

SD: I love and admire these essays, Peggy.  You move unapologetically and intelligently through so much history that is at once cultural, generational, familial, and personal that I’m moved to say it should be required reading in high school, in undergraduate programs, in MFA Creative Nonfiction workshops, in community centers and religious centers of every stripe and creed, in retirement villages.  Yes, required.  Please temper my enthusiasm or agree with me by talking a bit about the reasons you wrote these essays, how body became the organizing principle, and the readers you wrote them for.

PS: Thanks so much for your generous comments, Steve.  The first essay I wrote for the book was “The Knife.”  I had been a practicing martial artist for many years and in my training we were learning to use a knife.  It was a practice knife, wooden or rubber, not a real knife with a sharpened blade.  The purpose of training with a knife was to learn to defend against it, but of course, in order to learn defense, we had to learn offense.  And I found it disconcerting to aim a knife at someone and stab or slash them.  I thought I might have something to say about this.  At the time I experienced this not so much as an idea but a weighted pressure.  This pressure would yield something.  The next essay was about autopsies.  My father had had one, at my authorization, and I had long been uneasy about it.  What did it mean to cut the body open?  So then I had knives and autopsies and it didn’t take much to see a connection between the two:  the vulnerability of the body.  The body under duress.  It was at that point I understood that I was writing a book about the body, that the essays would largely fall under that rubric.

SD:  In the back of the book, the acknowledgments, you thank Rosellen Brown and Nora Dvosin for helping you with the ordering of the essays.  Would you talk about that process from your initial ideas about ordering through their efforts to the final line-up of essays?  What did you learn?

PS: Well right off I wanted to create a dialogue between my personal experience, which for me was only a starting point, and the larger world.  The body is intimate, yes, we all live uniquely in it, but it’s cultural and historical too.  For better or worse, history has weighed in on our bodies and we carry those determinations with us.  “Family Feet” seemed like a good place to begin that dialogue.  I have flat feet.  My father had flat feet.  What does that mean?  Jews, it turns out, have long been thought to have flat feet.  Like many racialized constructs, this one may have started out with a kernel of truth and then the truth gets distorted.  Jews make poor soldiers, bad athletes.  Some unknown person identified and then taunted my mother and I as Jews on an escalator.  How?  Why?   That was the conversation I was interested in having: looking at the place of collision between the personal and the global.  It’s a very fertile place.  And from there, with encouragement and input from trusted readers, I considered rhythm and trajectory.  The cadence between the essays.  This is like a snowball going down a hill, if you will, building momentum.  So the question became: how to best build that momentum, how to have the themes accrue meaning and weight.  The essays seem to fall into two broad categories: my body, female, Jewish, martial artist, daughter, lesbian; and the bodies I came from, parents, lineage, cultural forebears; and I tried to use those two constructs as broad organizing principles.


SD: When I read a contemporary’s work, I want to pick up a trick or two.  One trick I’ve picked up from you is the condensed historical or cultural list.  They appear at different points in the book.  “Berenice’s Hair” opens strongly with such a list and in fact is a quartet of lists.  Each sentence of the first list signals a different people’s reverence and rules about a woman’s hair.  I like the writerly dismount at the end of that paragraph when you give two sentences to one example and switch the emphasis from the culture (Egyptian) to a particular woman (Berenice).  I like also that after the paragraph break, you go right back to the list and the same patterning, this time ending on two particular, more recent examples, Yoko One and Princess Diana.  Would you talk about your use of the list, how you came to the practice, when you employ it, why, and the research that goes into the construction of a list?

PS: Someone recently called You Feel So Mortal an “anatomical memoir,” and although the book is not a memoir, there’s something about the phrase that resonates.  It is, in a way, a catalogue of the body, an anatomy, albeit an incomplete one—feet, noses, breasts, hair, posture, the mind itself—and very much a list in and of itself. 

I like the lushness of lists, I like to combine the exuberant and the spare.  To pull out the thread as far as I can.  Lists have no end, you can go on forever; on the other hand, you can’t go on forever because every element has to do its job, strike a new or slightly altered note.  “Berenice’s Hair,” a condensed history of women and hair, is the ultimate list.  It’s divided into sections and each section has a loose theme: hair as a force of creation and destruction; hair as a lifecycle marker; the mandate to cover and the consequences of cutting one’s hair; hair and standards of beauty.  The list as a way of making the unruly ruly.  It connects the seemingly disparate.

SD: For this reader, if the focus of the seven essays that compose Part One is the body (feet, posture, breasts, nose job, etc.), the focus of the five essays that compose Part Two is love filtered through understanding and forgiveness.   And there’s much, it seems, to forgive: your mother, your father, your great-aunt, your partner Ann, Jewish culture with its many laws and allowances, yourself.  Is that an accurate reading of the cumulative effect of the essays.

PS: Love filtered through understanding and forgiveness?  Yes, I think it is.  With the emphasis on understanding.  Forgiveness comes after that.  The key for me is asking questions, identifying the right ones to ask.  Why was I uneasy about my father’s autopsy, for instance?  Because early on I understood that I had been asking the wrong question.  I wanted to know why he died.  Well, he had a stroke on the Dan Ryan expressway and he died four weeks later.  There was no medical mystery.  What I really wanted to know was: why did he have to die?  Why does anyone have to die?  And because, in my confusion, I asked the wrong question, I directed it to the wrong source.  I directed it to the gods of medicine rather than to the gods of fate.  It was an existential question, not a medical one.  Once I understood that, I could let go of some my uneasiness about his autopsy. 

SD: What question did I not ask that you expected or that I should have asked?  

PS: This isn’t a question as much as a declaration.  I love working in the essay form.  It’s capacious, elastic; it holds so much.  I think of Virginia Woolf, her fiction actually, although she was a great essayist too.  Her work was so layered; any given moment contained multiple moments, multiple threads.  Exteriority and interiority bound together.  She eschewed linearity because linearity didn’t capture her sense of reality.  We are not linear individuals.  We are not discrete.  History is not discrete.  One person, one action, one moment is linked to another.  What are the connections?  That’s what I try and do in the essay.  See what each thought holds, what it contains.  Push the boundaries of the container, stretch it as much as possible.  Honor digression, which is the recognition that each thing has the potential to contain another thing.


Peggy Shinner is the author of You Feel So Mortal / Essays on the Body (April 2014, University of Chicago Press). Her work has appeared in The Southern Review, Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, Daedalus, TriQuarterly, Another Chicago Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, and Bloom, and been anthologized in The Oldest We’ve Ever Been: Seven True Stories of Midlife Transitions (University of Arizona Press, 2008) and Her Face in the Mirror: Jewish Women on Mothers and Daughters (Beacon Press, 1995). She has been awarded two Illinois Arts Council Fellowships, residencies at the Ucross and Ragdale Foundations, and a fellowship at Ausable Press. Currently, she teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern University. As a trained martial artist, she taught Seido karate for seventeen years. A life-long Chicagoan, she lives there with her partner, designer and book artist Ann Tyler

Monday, May 19, 2014

Part 5 of "Inside the Secret"

The final installment of José Luís Peixoto's serialized memoir of his travel through North Korea is now up at Visit our Featured Writer section to read this and previous installments.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Part 4 of "Inside the Secret"

Part 4 of our current web feature, José Luís Peixoto's "Inside the Secret," is now up at the site! If you haven't been following our serialization of this memoir of the author's travels through North Korea, you can start at Part 1, posted in April.