An Adoption, A Suicide, An Investigation
Patty Yumi Cottrell on strong, unreliable voices and finding inspiration on the early-morning F train
Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disturb the Peace introduces readers to Helen Moran, a woman who, upon learning of her adopted brother’s suicide, returns to her adoptive parent’s home to investigate the causes. With grim humor, Cottrell writes toward and around the experience of alienation — from identity, family, and society — and the unsolvable mystery of another person’s consciousness. When Cottrell’s singular character calls herself Sister Reliability, but proves to be anything but, it underscores the cognitive dissonance between what a first person narrator says and believes and what a reader understands.
Over email Cottrell and I talked about the allure of first person point of view, perceptions of mental illness, and the authorial choices she made in writing this novel.
Adalena Kavanagh: Your novel is in the first person, and though your protagonist gives herself the task of investigating her adoptive brother’s suicide, we learn much more about her interiority than the brother’s life and death. Why tell this story in first person? What is it about that perspective that you’re drawn to as a reader and writer?
Patty Yumi Cottrell: I think first person narratives are seductive and neurotic. Writing this book was like being trapped inside a person’s mind. It was uncomfortable at times, but also necessary for this particular story. In a lot of ways, I didn’t know what I was doing. I figured it out as I wrote. The voice was my priority. I wanted it to flow easily, like a river going down the side of a mountain.
I don’t know why, but it’s always been difficult for me to write in third person. I like figuring out the particular texture and fabric of a narrator’s voice. For some reason, I associate third person with control and manipulation. I’m probably wrong about this, but that’s my sense at the moment.
Kavanagh: To press you a little bit, why was it necessary to tell this story in first person?
Cottrell: It was necessary in the sense that I wanted to follow this very particular voice that had arisen out of the confusion and murk of my life. The voice sounded strong to me. I wanted to follow it to see where it would go.
Kavanagh: Did any specific event or piece of art inspire you in crafting the voice? I ask because I can pinpoint certain ah-ha moments that completely change the trajectory of a piece. I like hearing those stories.
Cottrell: What inspired this book was not reading contemporary fiction for a couple years. And working full-time in Manhattan. And riding the F train into Manhattan at 5 in the morning. And walking around the West Village. I wouldn’t say there was one event or piece of art, but rather an accumulation of experiences. One piece of art that I do remember from the time of writing the book is the Sugar Sphinx by Kara Walker.
Kavanagh: You mentioned associating the third person perspective with “control and manipulation.” Do you mean omniscience? If so, I can see what you mean. That said, because your narrator is first person we’re forced to figure out how reliable she is (in as far as any person with varying degrees of self-awareness and self delusions can be said to be “reliable”). It took a while for me to understand that Helen is very straightforward, but her sense of reality might be compromised. You tease out some of the questions about Helen’s mental state without making clear what her mental state is. Why leave it open ended?
Cottrell: I think the word compromised assumes there’s some kind of truth that has been distorted. We all do that. Who is truly reliable? What is Truth? The thing is, I don’t think Helen is schizophrenic or bipolar. That’s something her brother writes about her, but how reliable is he? I don’t think anyone’s mental state as diagnosed by the DSM is pertinent to this story. I could have deleted that line about schizophrenia or whatever, but in the end, my editor and I made the choice to keep it, because it seems like something the brother would say. He enjoys throwing out suggestive crumbs as clues, but the crumbs don’t always lead anywhere. He’s an enigma. I believe Helen and her brother are both sane people, and resourceful in terms of how they deal with the world.
Kavanagh: Did you have any blocks while writing this?
Cottrell: I didn’t have any writing blocks, but I did take long periods of time away from the book. I was teaching at a charter school and that took up countless hours and days.
Also, I think at some point, I went down the wrong path for the book, and I had to delete a third of it. Or maybe it was half. Looking back, I don’t see this as an obstruction, but rather a moment of good fortune disguised as a crisis. That moment of uncertainty was clarifying in a way. I wasn’t sure I would be able to finish this book. I didn’t feel confident about it. But I knew I wanted to try.
Kavanagh: Would you mind expanding a bit on what the wrong path was?
Cottrell: I was writing more directly about Helen’s past experiences in New York City, for example, doing drugs in New York City with the troubled young people, but it was way too trippy and druggy, like a car filled with weed smoke and ecstasy and teenagers. This went on for a hundred pages. Writing those parts, I felt like I was on drugs, tripping. The narrative became unsteady, and I needed to bring it back to a place where Helen had more authority in terms of what she was saying. The drug section was too ephemeral. It wasn’t working at all. It was a dead end.
Kavanagh: I was struck by the narrator’s choice of referring to her adoptive parents and her adoptive brother as “adoptive.” This reminds the reader that the family dynamic is almost always influenced by the act of adoption. Was this conscious? If so, why?
Cottrell: It’s something that came about naturally. It’s part of her delivery. A few people have commented on it, like, “Oh she never lets you forget that she’s adopted.” That seems fine to me. Why should she let the reader forget she’s adopted? The repetition of the “adoptive” qualifier signals not only an estrangement from her family, but also an estrangement from her circumstances of existing in the world as a Korean adoptee.
Why should she let the reader forget she’s adopted?
Kavanagh: I found her references to her adoption both self-conscious but completely understandable (and maybe inevitable). I’m sure there are adoptees who don’t feel any sense of self-consciousness around adoption but I imagine it would be nearly impossible to forget, especially for transnational adoptees adopted into families of a different race.
At one point the narrator recalls a conversation she has with her adoptive brother (adopted from Korea, like the narrator, by white parents). They both talk about wanting to be white, and then the narrator says:
“We were nothing less than disappointed about being Asian and very ungrateful about being brought into this country, a country neither of us had asked to come into, and neither of us identified as Asian, we never checked the Asian box. If someone asked us our nationality, we usually said, adopted.”
This struck me as the core of the book, both for Helen and her adopted brother. It’s also a unique take on race, which for obvious reasons, people have much invested in, as self-identification, but also because in America it so often affects how you are seen, and treated. But in this passage you highlight that the internal parts of the experience of race are often cultural and situational. For two Asians raised by white Midwesterners who don’t make any accommodations for their adopted children’s birth culture, in place of the cultural experience of race, instead they have the experience of adoption.
I guess this resonated with me because if people asked me my race saying “mixed” feels most accurate, both as self-identification and as experience. I’ve talked to different mixed/and or biracial Asian writers and I was struck by their common determination not to write mixed/biracial characters because they feared their fiction being read as autobiographical. (I’m not sure why I was surprised to hear this — but I always figured that if someone thought my fiction was autobiographical that was their problem, not mine.)
As a Korean adoptee (and forgive me, I am not reducing you to those two identifiers) did you ever fear your novel would be seen as autobiographical? If so, how did you get beyond that? And if not, why not?
Cottrell: I never had that fear, strangely enough. I will say I dislike psychological and psychoanalytic interpretations, often those readings say more about the reader than anything in the book. There are elements of the book that overlap with my life in obvious ways, for example, as you point out, I am a Korean adoptee writing about other Korean adoptees, but the book is a work of imagination. Events, characters, places, etc. are all shaped and constructed deliberately. Reading is a private and subjective experience. If people read the book a particular way, that’s none of my business.
Kavanagh: By psychological and psychoanalytic interpretations do you mean psychological and psychoanalytic interpretations of the text or of the author (and her intentions) through the text? I think they’re two different things. I object to a psychoanalytic interpretation of an author through her text but I probably read text with a psychoanalytic lens — I’m interested in why people do what they do, and though flawed, I do think psychology can give us a way in.
So if not those critical lenses, (of text, and or author through text) which do you prefer to read through and be read through?
Cottrell: I mean psychological or psychoanalytic interpretations that dismiss the narrator as simply crazy, schizophrenic, bipolar, etc. I haven’t given much thought to those types of interpretations being applied to the author. I like readings that assume the death of the author (for example, deconstructive). The other way the book can be read is under a tree, or in a park, or in the midst of an argument with a loved one, or in the Walgreen’s parking lot.
Kavanagh: Helen sets out to solve the mystery of her adopted brother’s suicide and as much as you can ever understand such a personal decision, she does come to an understanding. What felt different for me as a reader was the fact that in many first person narratives (and in novels in general) we expect the narrator to come to a better understanding about their own interiority and life but you almost completely sidestep the epiphany model! She even says “If someone asked me to describe myself, I would say I was the adoptive sister who missed her adoptive brother’s funeral.” She doesn’t tell us how the experience has changed her, but she does reach a final acceptance of her brother’s suicide. The reader gets inside her head and comes to a fairly deep understanding of the narrator but the narrator herself lacks a certain sense of self-awareness, which strikes me as uncommon for a first person voice (it would be easy for a writer to unintentionally write a first person who is too self-aware).
Was Helen’s lack of self-awareness a conscious decision? And if so, did you have any models in mind?
Cottrell: I thought her confidence and lack of self-awareness was funny. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, but that it came about naturally because of the person she is and her circumstances that could be considered destablizing. I like how she doesn’t question her actions. She feels strongly about what she’s doing. Many confident people lack self-awareness. Then there are the people who are very confident because they’re actually good at what they do, like Russell Westbrook or Ottessa Moshfegh. So it all depends.
Kavanagh: What are a few of your favorite first person novels or characters? What about them resonates with you or influenced your writing?
Cottrell: I like Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Humbert Humbert is such a monster, he ruins Lolita’s life, his self-awareness is only in service of himself, and he’s quite cruel, yet he can be charming, intelligent, and he seduces the reader into seeing things from his point of view, no matter how fucked up it is or distorted. Lolita is a work of cold genius. No one can touch it.
Kavanagh: Lastly, I want you to imagine a book not yet written but one that you desperately want to read. What is it? What does it do?
Cottrell: I want to read a book by Jesse Ball that channels W.G. Sebald. The fabric of this imaginary book would be incredibly fine and light. It would change me upon reading it.