Why Adding Monsters and Fairies to a Memoir Can Make It Even More Real
Matthew Cheney, Carmen Maria Machado, Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, and Sofia Samatar discuss the speculative memoir
Sofia Samatar: Since I am starting this adventure, let me tell you why I chose to bring this particular group together. Carmen has written some of my favorite short stories, and one time when we were sharing a hotel room at a conference, I told her I’d been thinking about the intersection of memoir and speculative fiction, and she said she was actually working on a speculative memoir at the moment. Matt’s a fiction writer, too, and I invited him because, also at a conference, at some reception in a dark room, we were standing around with our paper plates, and he told me he was writing a dissertation on the blurry space between fiction and nonfiction, looking at Virginia Woolf and J.M. Coetzee and Samuel R. Delany. Rosalind is a brilliant writer, whose story “Insect Dreams” I have read many times. Her work plays with history and the fantastic, and recently she told me her new book is about the idea of the female Adam, and described it as a “hybrid” and a “faux autobiography.”
I started thinking about the idea of “speculative memoir” because I was a fantasy and science fiction writer whose work was becoming more and more autobiographical. Of course, all writing draws from experience, but there’s a particularly weird energy to writing memoir, in a deliberate way, in a fantastic or uncanny mode. It seems to announce a certain relationship to memory, and to experience. I wonder if each of you could start by talking a bit about this in relation to your own work. What do you find compelling about the concept of speculative memoir?
Carmen Maria Machado: Right now, I’m working on a memoir called House in Indiana that uses genre tropes to engage with and unpack a narrative of abuse. That means that interspersed with chapters that detail actual events, I have fictional sections that use these tropes as extended metaphors. As I was writing the first draft of this book, I kept thinking, “Am I allowed to do this?” And then Sofia and I had a conversation about speculative memoir at AWP, and then she turned me onto Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies which took off the top of my head. I’m just so fascinated by the elasticity of the essay form.
Matthew Cheney: When Sofia mentioned the term “speculative memoir” to me, I was immediately intrigued, because it provided a term that made me think of a bunch of otherwise pretty different material: Samuel Delany’s “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” (from Flight from Nevèrÿon), elements of work by Virginia Woolf and J.M. Coetzee, Richard Bowes’s Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, Jeffrey Ford’s story “Bright Morning,” texts by Carole Maso and C.D. Wright, and more.
I have written one unabashed speculative memoir, a story called “Killing Fairies” that was in A Capella Zoo in 2015 and reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2016. I wrote the story with my 40th birthday staring me down. I had begun to realize I’m losing a lot of memories from my early life, and before I forgot everything, I thought I ought to write about my first year of college. What I did was create one completely fictional character and then use him to shape all the other material, most of which was strictly true to my memory (which is not to say true to reality). The fantasy element is subdued and ambiguous, but it’s there, and I like the way it destabilizes the whole, because here we have this memoir-like thing that most readers will know by the end can’t really be a memoir because such stuff is impossible. But I hope that the impossible conveys an emotional reality, one that couldn’t be crystallized by memoir alone.
I hope that the impossible conveys an emotional reality, one that couldn’t be crystallized by memoir alone.
Rosalind Palermo Stevenson: I am working on a book called Adame, which as the title might suggest is an exploration of the female Adam, but explored through the creation of a faux autobiography. Like most of my work, its narrative style is a fusion of prose and poetry. Adame is also a fusion of the real and the imagined. It builds from an autobiographical base but brings in imagined characters, situations, as well as distortions, and reinventions. When I began the piece I found that I had included myself by name, alternating that with the name Adame. And yet what I was associating with the actual “me” of me was a rush of imagined material. As I followed this path onward the shape continued to define itself more and more that way and I began to get excited about the concept of a faux autobiography.
What excites me is the ability to give play to the imagination and through that to arrive at a place of emotional truth. Working with the speculative, the highly imagined, having the license to incorporate anything as long as that “anything” coheres and has integrity in relation to the piece itself is for me a way to go deeper into my interior world and in that sense to achieve the greatest degree of authenticity. I love the concept of the imagined becoming or being a vehicle of emotional reality.
What excites me is the ability to give play to the imagination and through that to arrive at a place of emotional truth.
SS: This is all so rich: genre, memory, time, the impossible, the faux. And this reaching toward the intensely imagined in order to tell the truth. Everyone seems to be saying this, in some way — that it’s precisely the tropes of fantasy and science fiction that are capable of expressing trauma, it’s the impossible that conveys emotional reality, it’s the rush of imagined material that’s “the actual ‘me’ of me.” When I was writing my own uncanny autobiography, Monster Portraits, I felt something very much like what you’re saying, Rosalind — this incredible breadth, the license to incorporate anything. I was myself, my own memories were there, yet I also inhabited a series of monsters. And each monster revealed another facet of my thinking or experience.
There can be a lightness, too, to the speculative memoir. You’re not tied to a narrative, a life story. It’s life writing that doesn’t encourage people to put you in a box. In a way, it might even block the kind of voyeuristic gaze that just wants to peer into your life. It’s too weird for that. And yet, as we’ve been saying, it’s the most piercing truth.
CMM: I’m really interested in the parts of the real, lived experience that exist beyond empirical evidence and tangible events. Fantasies. Daydreams. Memory decayed by time. Hallucinations. How experiences knock up against one’s sense of narrative. Even when people witness the same incident — say, an accident — their accounts of it rarely match up. What happens in between two cars smashing together — something gloriously, horrifyingly physical — and the way people experience that event, and then recount that experience back? I’m obviously not the first person to explore this — I feel like memoir as a genre is constantly asking these questions about how to best encapsulate memory — but it’s just really captured my attention lately.
RPS: I’m particularly drawn to the idea, as Sofia phrased it, of “reaching toward the intensely imagined to tell the truth.” But still I ask myself: why does this “emotional truth” seem to find its authentic expression in the imagined? (And what exactly is meant by emotional truth?) For me it has a lot to do with getting out of the way of myself. I think of emotional reality as something which comes out of a connection to deeper consciousness and an expression of the writer’s interior world. It becomes an “allowing” rather than a “controlling.” I love Sofia’s idea of “blocking the voyeuristic gaze.” For me the imagined can block that gaze. The voyeur often being myself!
I’m really interested in the parts of the real, lived experience that exist beyond empirical evidence and tangible events. Fantasies. Daydreams. Memory decayed by time. Hallucinations.
SS: I think Carmen’s right, of course, that memoir is always asking questions about memory. What’s interesting to me is what happens when memoir — which is already strange and tricky and fraught in its relationship to memory — meets the deliberately imagined, the blatantly non-factual, the impossible. As if you’re taking a memory that’s already decayed and then tearing it up, or sewing a bunch of feathers onto it. It becomes a bit monstrous. And this — all of us seem to agree — is when it’s finally recognizable as yours.
I must also admit that I love facts! I treasure the facts as I remember them, and I love to write to them. Almost as a constraint. How, in a city of winged scribes, does my parents’ living-room couch appear with its orange fuzz? And their dusty, gauzy curtains.
MC: Yes, for me the etymological trace of memory in memoir feels like something necessarily active. Now that I’m older and have this whole bank of memories from adulthood, I’m very much aware that there were experiences for which I have no memory. What I know is the gap only. Or I have friends and family who remember things vividly one way, and I’ve also got a memory of it, but it doesn’t align with theirs. Similar to what Carmen says about the notorious unreliability of even confident witnesses, there are things for which I have vivid, strong memories, memories I have confidence in, but that I’m quite sure, from the outside evidence, must be wrong. It’s unsettling, but for me also has become one of the primary engines for writing, because memory is so tied to both self-conception and to history. Who I think I am is who I remember myself to be. And memory is key to so much of the social and political world: memory gets cultivated and weaponized for purposes of nationalism, militarism, imperialism…
The label of memoir sets up readers’ expectations for a certain level of reality, and so to use those expectations to undo reality rather than confirm it is an appealing challenge for me as a writer. Not (purely) out of a sadistic relationship with the reader, but for the purpose of investigating how memory shapes our idea of self, history, world, identity, possibility.
The label of memoir sets up readers’ expectations for a certain level of reality, and so to use those expectations to undo reality rather than confirm it is an appealing challenge for me as a writer.
Rosalind, I’m curious what you see is the role of fact, or actual events here. Why not call the work fiction? What does the actual allow that the fictional might not for you?
RPS: I see it largely a matter of positioning. The idea of speculative memoir or faux autobiography suggests to me the idea of setting out with a basis in personal fact/actual experience, saying I and meaning me, placing the weight of the piece on that personal life base, but skewing it, reimagining it, introducing fantastic and impossible elements. My intention in writing Adame is to position it from an autobiographical base, but to add to and alter that base with reinvention, enhancement, and the reimagined. Why? In some ways introducing the imagined is perhaps a way of daring to approach the material. But it is primarily a way of conveying something that can bring it closer to essential reality than actual reality. Perhaps it is even to say something about the way reality as a construct of thought might encompass all that it can imagine.
CMM: Like Sofia was talking about above, I’m very actively interested in memoir-adjacent work that contains impossible elements. I’ve always thought of genre, in the broadest sense, as a management of expectations — if a dragon appears, or a ghost, or futuristic technology, does that development jive or clash with the reader’s expectations for the world? The pleasure of using these devices is that we can take a thing that, by definition, must be real, and include things that, by definition, cannot be, and the resulting text is sweet and sour. Some people would argue that once you include the unreal element, the genre automatically switches away from nonfiction, but I definitely think there needs to be room for the work that occupies that gap.
SS: To wrap up, I wonder if each of you would be willing to mention a work or two, written by others, that you think of as speculative memoir? For me, it’s somewhat hard to name. I feel hesitant; I don’t want to call a piece of writing “memoir” unless invited. The work has to call out, to announce itself. And that’s fairly rare in the genres generally grouped under “speculative fiction”: fantasy, science fiction, and horror. But Matt told me about “Buffalo” by John Kessel, which seems to fit beautifully. And I think of the works of Bhanu Kapil — all of them, but maybe especially Incubation: A Space for Monsters and Ban en Banlieue. And the ghostliness of Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter, the way it opens in an uncertain space between memory and dream.
MC: Works that announce themselves to us as memoiristic speculations and speculative memoirs are, indeed, relatively few — “Buffalo” is a wonderful example, a work I absolutely adore; Rick Bowes’s “My Life in Speculative Fiction” would be another — and as much as I enjoy and respect those, I find myself drawn more toward the outcasts and outliers, the freaks that make friction in any taxonomy. I think of Woolf’s Orlando, which when published was not read as what we can now see it as: a fake biography infused with love for Vita Sackville-West. Now, having access to biographies and introductions and annotations, we read it more as we would a speculative memoir, or speculative biography, or whatever, than we would have were we a random common reader off the streets in 1928, someone who didn’t know anything about Woolf or her friends but who picked the book up and was intrigued and so read it. What might that experience be? Are we, the later readers, better poised for Orlando’s pleasures, or are we hindered by the accumulation of information through the years?
I feel like the speculative should always end with question marks, and so here are a few: How informed must the reader be, how certain of genre and stance? I know nothing about Pamela Zoline’s life, but were I editing an anthology of speculative memoirs, I’d seriously consider “The Heat Death of the Universe”, but is that a violation (and if so, a violation of what)? What do we make of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS? Is Barry Malzberg’s Galaxies a work of metafiction or a speculative memoir or a whatzit? How about Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, or Leonora Carrington’s Down Below, or Clarice Lispector’s “Brasilia” — or, indeed, any of Lispector’s Cronicas? Must we know for sure?
RPS: For my list I first offer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, the first three hundred pages of which bear the heading “A Factless Autobiography.” Writing through his many selves — his heteronyms — each one named, given a birth date, a personality, a physique, etc., Pessoa’s book, never finished, exists in the fragmented pieces of the experience, thoughts, memories, opinions, feelings, dreams, irritations, things imagined, personal things and personal truth of his life. I also include Carole Maso’s The Art Lover, which in some ways flips the expectation of the way that speculative memoir might work by writing an alternative form of fiction filled with inventions, memories (false or real?), and stylistic innovations, and then in the middle of what is being read as fiction she breaks the form with her true, painful, memoiristic account of the death of her friend from AIDS.
CMM: I think of Geoff Ryman’s 253 as a work of speculative memoir. He reveals in the book that the date of the fictional train accident is the same date he learned one of his best friends was dying of AIDS, and the plot mimics the slow-motion crash of grief so perfectly. Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. (From an interview in The Guardian: “But when we arrive at the question of where the story itself came from, he draws a deep breath, and slows almost to standstill. ‘It’s…erm…The experience of the boys in the flat is…based on my dad dying. When I was…six.’”) And the entire oeuvre of Lucia Berlin, which was functionally autofiction. The stories overlap in such imperfect ways, and seem to be cut directly from the fabric of her life.
About the Authors
Matthew Cheney is the author of Blood: Stories (Black Lawrence Press). His fiction and essays have been published by One Story, Conjunctions, Weird Tales, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, and others. He is currently completing a Ph.D. at the University of New Hampshire.
Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is a finalist for the National Book Award and the Kirkus Prize, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Guernica, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and elsewhere. Her memoir House in Indiana is forthcoming in 2019 from Graywolf Press. She is the Artist in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.
Rosalind Palermo Stevenson is the author of the novel The Absent, the novella Insect Dreams, and the chapbook Kafka At Rudolf Steiner’s. Insect Dreams has also been published in the anthologies Poe’s Children (edited by Peter Straub) and Trampoline (edited by Kelly Link). Her story “The Guest” was selected to be included in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana, and her short fiction and prose poems have appeared in numerous literary journals. She lives in New York City.
Sofia Samatar’s latest book, Monster Portraits, a collaboration with her brother, the artist Del Samatar, is forthcoming in February 2018 from Rose Metal Press. The author of the novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, and the short story collection, Tender, she has received the William L. Crawford Award, the John W. Campbell Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She lives in Virginia, where she teaches at James Madison University.