In “Milk Blood Heat,” The Body Keeps the Score
Dantiel Moniz's debut collection is about life in Florida—but more than that, it's about life in a body
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Proximity to self, the body, and womanhood is encapsulated in every story in Milk Blood Heat, the debut collection from Dantiel W. Moniz.
From the intrigue and connections of marine life in “Feasts,” to the unspoken yet palpable conflict between siblings trying to put the ashes of their deceased father to rest in “Thicker Than Water,” to the deep love and protectiveness of an older sister for her developing body and those she loves in “Tongues,” Moniz’s stories launch readers into the depths of emotions we may not be ready to face—especially since these characters aren’t equipped to go there either. What remains is the relatability in every story and a closeness and beauty in the fault lines within ourselves.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Moniz about the connective threads in her stories, her creative approach to expressing her characters without judgment, and how the pieces inspiring her fiction become whole.
Jennifer Baker: I think when we think about collections in general, we tend to look for those thematic ties. What are all the things that keep coming up for us? And I don’t want to prescribe what those are for your book, but I personally felt a lot of disconnections occurring in Milk Blood Heat. It felt like people were clamoring for connections in these pieces yet kept hitting a wall. Even in stories that stand on their own, were you searching for a level of cohesion in the collection?
Dantiel W. Moniz: That’s actually a really good insight about connection or the want of connection. Or thinking that you’re doing it and it’s absolutely something else. We tend to present ourselves in public the way we would like to be observed. I think that has a lot to do with this stigma of not being able to be fully human and what all that entails a lot of the time. We have to always be positive and good. And what does goodness even mean? What does it look like? Is it really positive and good if we’re not fully who we are, which does include darkness. A part of what my project was for this collection was to explore what those terms we think of as absolutes—good, bad, right, wrong—are actually subjective. Based on perspective. And they don’t mean anything when not pinned up against their opposites. We need both things, we need that fullness. I think I’m trying to get the reader to look at who is doing the defining in any one moment. Who is that privileging and who is that disprivileging? I definitely see all the stories as cyclical and connected even if they’re not all the same characters. I think people think it can’t be a linked story collection unless the characters are the same but that’s leaving out thematic ties and voice and location and all that stuff.
JB: You also get into the body. Your work tends to be very much rooted in sensory detail and I love that. I’m thinking of the stories “Feast,” “Tongues,” and “The Loss of Heaven,” about how characters question other people’s perspectives of their bodies in relation to figuring things out. And we come back to the opposition and these dichotomies of what’s the expectation versus “who am I?” Can you talk a little about those stories or perhaps talk about one in pursuing those ideas of visibility?
DM: Let’s do “Loss of Heaven.” Obviously that one stands out because it’s the only one where the protagonist is male. But even in that male gaze I’m still really focused on how the women are operating in this space. You have Hilda and you have Gloria, his wife, who’s going through a recurrence of her cancer. There’s a little bit of a layer between that, but I’m still thinking, how are women being seen? A lot of the time, you know how it is when it comes to women of color, especially Black women, owning their bodies. When you start out as your body being property through slavery and then your body being property through patriarchy. It’s a very cringeworthy process of getting to “Oh this is my body. This is something that is for me that carries me through this world.”
I’m glad you said that the stories and characters feel very in the body. That was something that was important to me. I wanted the stories to be felt in our physical bodies. Kind of like our emotions, right? Sometimes people can think of emotions as this thing that you’re projecting or just happening to you. But emotions happen in your body. You can physically feel euphoria and grief and all that kind of stuff. So, I’m really concerned with the body. The way capitalism does us, it’s very easy for us to think of our bodies as static or our bodies as products. When in fact we’re moving and changing and it deserves our care and attention, but it’s hard to do that sometimes in this world. And it’s hard to do this outside of capitalism. Self-care is “I need to buy like bubble bath or all these things.” But I wanted to be focused on our real-life bodies—and we aren’t our bodies, we’re what lives inside our bodies. And what does that mean? I think that’s always the question I ask myself, “What does it mean to have a body? Why do we have one? What do we do?” But our bodies are ways we connect to others too. So it’s this singular thing for you, but it’s also how you connect with other people in your life. If you’re thinking about your body as static, as a product, as something you’re not comfortable in or you don’t like, it’s very easy to disconnect from your entire world.
JB: It’s interesting to think about that even more now. We’ve been in isolation for what feels like years but has been months (as of this conversation).
DM: And then March is in three months again, how?
JB: Right! It’s interesting to read a collection like this and especially a story like “Feast” where I felt the most in the body. That one felt like we’re dealing with so many things and the marine life correlations in terms of loss/pregnancy/life. But I felt even more isolated because I feel disconnected from my body even though I’m with myself all the time. And as writers we’re isolated too. Technically we are by ourselves. When you’re writing this how are you going about capturing those moments that are so internal?
DM: For “Feast” in particular, I had this image. Somebody that I know had posted a prompt “Somebody’s sick. There’s an aquarium,” and then I was like “What can I do with that?” And then I started thinking about “Feast,” and I read a piece about how an octopus, if it’s injured, it will start to eat the injured limb, so it can regenerate. It made me think of ouroboros and the phoenix rising from the ashes. But as far as getting into that character’s head, I just put myself in the bed. When there’s the moonlight coming in the window. I tried to ground it in these very real sensory things. The atmosphere this character lives in, and then once I got the environment down I can kind of pinpoint how the character would feel. Because for me, going through my life, I’m very much “This is where I live. This is my apartment. This is what my apartment feels like to me.” And then I’m able to use kind of an echolocation for the rest of the world in this story.
JB: The writing process is so unique in itself, right? It is never one thing. Sometimes you write in your most relaxed state or your most heightened state.
DM: Just like it’s not the same for every book, whatever your writing process is, with a collection it’s not the same for every story. A lot of people will say “I had all these feelings/emotions when I was reading your piece.” I didn’t have those emotions while I was writing it the same as the reader might feel. I think I need to have this distance for me to be able to realistically portray [those emotions]. If I’m super in my feelings, trying to get the feelings that I want people to feel while they’re reading it, I’m probably less likely going to get that. When you’re in your emotions, you’re away with your emotions. So there’s a little bit of distance that I have to feel. I have to see it from outside the boat, kind of, instead of being in it.
JB: I’m similar in that way. I think you can capture the most emotion when you’re an observer, which I feel is our job.
DM: Exactly! It’s observation rather than participation. There has to be a certain level of coolness. Because if you’re participating, and it’s important to you, you’re missing things. But if you’re watching something play out then you’re watching everyone’s faces, what are the details going on? And you can see it all. I really like that about being a writer.
JB: And as writers from that observational standpoint it really feels as though you cannot judge your characters.
DM: You can’t! If you already have your biases towards someone or something you’re already creating with that lens. So it’s going to be harder for you to make a character or a world that feels whole. It’s going to feel stunted because your ideas about whatever that is feels stunted. Like, my characters judge each other. And that’s their world and that’s fine. And a reader will come to judge. But as a writer I didn’t want to put that in the text before [the reader] got there. My place is to show: here’s what the situation is. I feel tender towards all my characters. Like, oh, look at you, you little thing you. But at the same time I can’t judge them and effectively do my job. And I can’t protect them and effectively do my job.
JB: You said you felt tenderness about all your characters. And I think about “Thicker Than Water.” With that story it’s very interesting how much it was obvious but also underlying the tension of what people were refusing to talk about. When writing the dynamic between the two siblings dispensing of their father’s ashes as supposedly a form of closure. How did you approach this story and the layers to it?
DM: I’m the type of person who collects ideas and interesting things in my phone and after a while I’ll be like “Oh this idea connects to this idea connects to this idea and it’s a story.” And then I put them in a folder. I had wanted to write about siblings for a little while, siblings who had a complicated relationship. But I wasn’t sure how that was adding up.
With the way that story is presented, there’s enough in the story by the end to understand what happened. But I thought it was important to not just go out and say “this happened” because the main character, and this is a first-person story, has not resolved the complications of her relationship with her father. She is not at this moment ready to resolve that. So you have this wall. And I wanted to make sure that wall stayed in place. If you have a character who is in first person who is not ready to do this, how would [the reader] do it? So I had to rely on atmospheric clues about that kind of thing. I think it’s very interesting too, the way that, like you said, the trip is supposed to be closure. But really what the trip is is their mother being like, “I don’t want you all to be fighting.” And maybe this mother doesn’t have a full understanding, or has blocked her own self from having a full understanding, of what the problem is between her two children. And so I just really wanted this story to be about love, honestly, and the love for your own family. But how is that mixed up and really difficult? How are love and harm conflated a lot of the time and what does that look like in real time between these two characters? And you have this sister saying “This is your fault” and the brother saying “It’s not my fault, but we’re not all being real here. And now I have to strike out to make my own family and these connections.” What does that feel like between the two of them?
JB: I’m really glad you brought that up. I felt that evasiveness is a way of trying to preserve love and that happens a lot throughout this collection too.
DM: Yeah, you have to actually sometimes be honest with yourself about the people that you love. Would that love still exist in this kind of spotless, pure way? Our ideas of what constitutes love… or I can’t love you if you don’t XYZ. It’s about our conditional relationship with love all the time. I didn’t want the evasiveness to be coy like, “Oh, this person withheld this information for a twist at the end.” But it felt more natural for it to be a layer underneath what’s happening.
JB: My last question is: what are some story collections you’ve learned the most from?
DM: Obviously, Danielle Evans. I had a workshop with her when I was at UW and she was my professor. Every single thing she says is just genius. I’m super excited to get into the new one, but Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self was just doing things that back then were new and exciting. I was really into Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater. The way she handles darkness is very interesting to me because I’m always interested in what’s stigmatized or what we can’t talk about. Antonya Nelson’s Female Trouble was instrumental to me in writing these stories because it was: here’s a whole encapsulation of being female, of being a woman identifying in this world, which I felt was really true in a way that felt like “I want to do this.”