Cassandra Has Seen Some Shit And She is Mad
Gwen Kirby’s "Shit Cassandra Saw" reimagines women throughout history seeking emancipation from the cruelty and stupidity of the patriarchy
Gwen Kirby’s collection Shit Cassandra Saw is structured around a handful of women lost to the annals of history, with a modern twist added. There are ancient warrior queens turned contract hitters, cross-dressing pirates, and lady duellists in a Seurat-like tableau.
Like its cursed prophetess namesake, Kirby’s collection is obsessed with the act of seeing as witnessing, but also how the narratives of history obscure the people trapped within it. In most cases, history and the structures it seeds shun those who choose to live beyond its borders, like women hanged for witchcraft or adulterous professors haunted by dead preachers.
And in the case of these unruly women, all dead, do they exist if they remain unrecorded by history? For Kirby, the answer is yes.
The collection’s electrifying opener is instructive: Cassandra offers a rambling list that starts with lightbulbs and washing machines before peeling off into hilarious, bittersweet spite. The Trojans who damned Cassandra are nearly an afterthought—she remains with us to the end. Dead but holding onto the last word, even if it belongs to no one but herself.
What you need to know about Kirby is that she’s deeply invested in hope. That might not be obvious if you only have the title of her debut collection to go on, but look closely and it’s right there in the marrow.
Sometimes, Kirby’s brand of hope looks like teenage potential of the female variety: in “Casper,” summer swelters with theft and convenient but transient friendship, while the protagonist of “The Disneyland of Mexico” yearns for love in all the wrong places. Other times, it’s the gritted determination to endure a baseball game to the end, embodied in the players of “Mt Adams at Mar Vista.” And, often, hope is a rage hot enough to burn a city to the ground.
As 2021 drew to a close, Kirby and I talked over video call about the ways in which women use narrative to reclaim their inner lives, the limits and propulsive power of form, and her ambivalent love for young teenage girlhood.
Samantha Cheh: Aside from the obvious stuff, do you think much has changed for women since Cassandra’s time?
Gwen Kirby: I think not as much as changed as one might wish, or as much as we would like to tell ourselves that they have—while at the same time recognizing how much they’ve changed and how grateful I am for all the ways that they have changed.
I think the story “Shit Cassandra Saw” is really trying to get at that. There’s so many things now, like vibrators and washing machines, all this great stuff—but at the same time, so much still has to be done. A lot of the stories in my collection are contemporary stories about women who are still angry and frustrated, who are still taken advantage of and not allowed to be themselves.
When I wrote “Shit Cassandra Saw,” it was right after the 2016 election. I just sort of let it rip. I let myself play with a historical figure in a way that I never had the confidence to do before, but I started to realize that I was so hungry for stories about women in the past. For women in the past who were like me: angry, funny—just normal people.
SC: I love how the women talk to each other across history. You chose to write about less obvious figures from history. I mean, Cassandra is one and maybe Boudicca, but Gwen Ellis Ferch? That’s pretty left field.
GK: I wish I could say I did all this research and whatever, but I just love history so I try to constantly expose myself to it. I was listening to this podcast where they talked about the first woman hanged for witchcraft in Wales was named Gwen and I was like holy shit! I have this little folder full of women from history, fighting pirates and things. I felt like the historical spine could kind of hold the collection together in a way that it had been missing before. I could lean into my own playfulness, passions and enthusiasms.
SC: It’s really interesting the way in which these women have this deep wisdom, but it’s a wisdom that they know has no place in the world that they inhabit.
GK: I really wanted the book to feel like I had opened up a space for that wisdom. Before, no one was asking that Welsh prostitute what she thought of the world, or how she felt about how men treat her. I just wanted the book to be my own little world for them to speak.
SC: You allow these women to narrate these inner selves within the story, but there’s no impulse to share or explain them to the other characters in the world. Cassandra sees all these things she doesn’t bother to tell the Trojans; Boudicca has this unstated wish to be a man, while Gwen Ellis Ferch has this rich inner life that she keeps secret from her mother and the world.
GK: I don’t think it’s that they didn’t want to share their thoughts and feelings, but there’s a certain feeling with all of them that you would have to earn that from them—and the people around them haven’t earned it yet.
SC: Your characters wield significant control over their stories and their anger, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of these women can’t escape death in their stories—Nakano dead from gunshot; Gwen Ellis Ferch hanging at the end of a rope. Even as she describes it as a glorious fight, Mary Read still dies in childbirth. History can’t seem to change.
GK: I think that all of those stories get at a melancholy truth, which is that even as these women own themselves, they’re not independent of history. They’re not independent of society. As much as I feel that you can be as empowered, angry or self-aware as you want, but you are still a part of the world. Your choices are still circumscribed—not just by our future but by being alive.
The paths narrow before you as you go through life and there is a kind of sadness but also strength in that they are owning their own lives. In telling their own stories, they are liberated from them. I talk about women so much with this book, but I think that feeling that all the paths behind you have closed is very universal.
SC: Oddly enough, the few men who are in the stories are also trapped by the form and structure of your stories, especially in the hermit crab pieces.
GK: I really enjoy writing stories that feel like they circle back on themselves and accrue meaning, which flash can do really nicely and quickly. You set up this structure that is like a little tiny watch—Boudicca goes up to bat three times and it accrues; or Cassandra just lists objects and it accrues by itself. I like how tightly wound those stories are. They can capture a single moment in a story.
The other thing is I love watching form pushed to its limits and fall apart, like a character starts out retiling a bathroom or writing a Yelp review and it just spirals out of control. That feeling of pressure that lives inside all of us—pushing up against the self and form—that’s pretty central in all the stories.
SC: I defo see it in “A Scene in A Public Park at Dawn” where you have this high octane duel with big emotions and guns going off, but it’s also very tightly controlled. Everything seems choreographed.
GK: I just feel like that’s what life is like. You look at the insane the way the world is right now—how frickin’ hard everything is—but we still move through the world in all of these prescribed forms. We go do our jobs and act a certain way. We act a certain way in our marriages, towards our parents, even as it can feel like everything is falling apart.
In “Scene”, there are all these emotions that are chaotic internally but they’re also going through this dance that’s been choreographed for centuries that allows them to express anger. It’s an outlet and a constraint. I feel that way about form but also life.
Some days, it’s absolutely, freaking maddening to have to go to work while the planet is burning and there are fascists everywhere—but also, thank God I have to go to work! Because if I just sat at home, I would lose my mind. There’s that tension in a lot of my stories between the comfort that form and ritual can give us, and also how much we can feel trapped in that—how much we are trapped in that.
SC: Sort of how your young teenage girls in “Casper” have jobs and shared experience to give structure to the shapelessness of summer, but also the individual wants and desires they never speak aloud.
GK: Yeah, those three girls weren’t together because they were destined to be best friends—it was just sort of a quirk of fate in this small town, for this summer. And they’re also so, so afraid of the things they’re learning about themselves. There are things they really want from one another, but don’t want to have to admit to because to admit that you want a friend or love or someone to like you—it’s to expose themselves in ways that they maybe don’t really have the maturity to do. Or maybe they see that they’re not each other’s right confidant.
SC: Your affection for young teen girls is palpable throughout your work, especially in “The Disneyland of Mexico.” You deal so tenderly with the very specific experience of growing up uncertain of who you should be—not just as a young adult but a female one.
GK: I think those stories are me working and thinking through what my own young adulthood was like. As someone who developed a woman’s body long before she was one, you get this feeling that suddenly you are something to the world that you are not to yourself. Something that you’re not ready to be yet. That was a time that I felt like I had a lot of cognitive dissonance: I wanted so badly to be grown up and the world was treating me that way, but at the same time, I was 12.
I have a very vivid memory of just turning 15, and I was sitting outside after driving training and this group of men just came over and—under the guise of flirting—wouldn’t leave me alone. I was definitely scared, but it’s weird because I was also flattered.. Which is, you know, ridiculous but I wanted to be a woman and I was not. I remember wanting to reach towards the next thing and being really scared and unsure of what that even meant.
I’m fascinated by coming of age stories about girls and the way in which our bodies are changing. Our ambitions are changing. That’s maybe when we first start to really hit some of the hard and fast expectations about womanhood. There’s something kind of pure, wonderful and fascinating and messy about that time of life. I think it’s just really good fodder for stories.
SC: In stories like “Disneyland,” “Mt Adams at Mar Vista” and “We Handle It,” what is very clear is the resilience that young girls have in face of very difficult scenarios. I think it’s a resilience that is very particular to the female experience.
GK: I think those girls at that time in their lives have something of the cynicism that we acquire as we go—or at least, they pretend to wear it. But I also feel like at that age especially, when you see something that’s not right, it’s followed by a desire to change it. There’s this feeling of hope and possibility and potential in the face of the world, which I think is just also a feature of being young,
All of those stories also speak to the way in which teenage girls and women are there for each other—the way in which those friendships are where we find that resilience and hope. We get to have relationships that help us, especially in times like teenagerhood when we’re lost. I do think that’s one of the ways in which patriarchy is worse to men.
SC: There’s a very deep hopefulness and those stories. I always feel that lit fic about young women tends to be characterized by a very deep sense of unhappiness—but there’s so much tender hope in the way that you approach those kinds of moments.
GK: I’m full of tender hope! But there’s a lot to be said for knowledge, as well. When you’re growing up, there’s things about that that are lost forever, but there are also beautiful things that you gain. I’m a hopeful person and when I write, I want that for my characters too, even when they go through things that are hard. That’s how I live with feeling angry and still avoid becoming embittered.