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“Like Finding a Great Sweater in a Thrift Store”: An Interview with Angela Woodward

Angela Woodward’s collection Origins and Other Stories won The Collagist 2014 prose chapbook competition, and will be out from Dzanc in 2016. Her novel Natural Wonders, also forthcoming in 2016, was the winner of the 2015 Fiction Collective Two Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She is also author of the collection The Human Mind and the novel End of the Fire Cult.

Her story, "Clarity," appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight of The Collagist. 

Here, Angela Woodward talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about the Incas, plundering and machine fairy tales.

How did this story begin? Was it always a back-and-forth, or did that decision come about later in the process?

I use a lot of source material in my fiction, and sometimes it’s like finding a great sweater in the thrift store, the thrill of stumbling on some piece of writing that I can remake. That happened for me as I was casting my eyes over an article in a professional journal for English teachers about the Incan writer Guaman Poma’s “struggle for legitimacy.” You can’t imagine how dull such an article is. It has to be, to fit into that kind of college English journal. It wasn’t like I was reading for any professional reason, either. Just passing the time with what happened to be in front of me. It had these wonderful quotes, poor Guaman Poma, who of course I’d never heard of, asserting his “skill and knowledge.” I got a tingle right away with this article. I was almost sweating in my intense need to twist it to my own ends. It was probably years and years of someone’s research into rhetoric and imperialism, and I plundered it for my own purposes. It seemed immediately that I could dramatize the “struggle for legitimacy” by doing the comments on the monkey’s paper. That idea was there from the beginning.

Early on I found the teacher’s sections to be grounding—something that helped me find my footing in between Guaman’s own retellings. Then of course, as Guaman’s story continued, I found myself horrified by the teacher’s callousness. What was the process like in shaping this narrative and deciding when and where to have the teacher’s comments come in?

I could have had a straight up beautiful and terrible story if I had left the teacher out of it. Guaman’s parts have an intense lyricism, the spider web interpreters, the crickets, the dress of thistle down. It was really tempting to go with that, and do some kind of condensed, poetic piece about captivity and bloodshed, something. The voice of the teacher really wrecks the poetry, but it’s exactly that wreckage that I was getting at. I had to let that have its way. I had to let the teacher be banal and a little clumsy in his phrasing. And those comments are all that shape Guaman’s narrative. Guaman doesn’t introduce his artifact, and he doesn’t bring anything to a close. The teacher’s voice is the only thing that holds his story onto the page. Sadly, the teacher also has to throttle Guaman’s voice at the end. But I don’t think we can get the one voice without the other. They clarify each other.

Even amid the bloodshed and horror, I found myself amused by these two characters’ interactions. I loved Guaman’s resistance. His story seems out of his control, in that he’s simply trying to keep up with and find the words for the flood of memory that is pouring out of him. His narrative is beyond instruction. For the teacher, it’s all instruction. So much so that the beauty and sadness of Guaman’s accounts are lost. In this way there is a lot of commentary and criticism on the teaching of writing. Do you teach? If not, what is your relationship to the world of teaching and did that help inform your story?

I do teach, several classes of basic composition—the pre-college writing courses at my college—and I tutor writing the rest of the time. Early in my teaching career, I had students who wrote incredible stories about family violence, racism, crazy things they’d seen. I don’t get much of that now, probably because I have much tamer, younger students. If the lab monkey took my class, I would totally honor his narrative. I would not mess with it. He wouldn’t need to introduce the artifact. But I wanted the teacher in “Clarity” to be bound by the same horrible system that wiped out the Incas. He’s doing his best, but he’s responding as his system allows him to respond, that is, critically. You said the teacher was callous, but I find him mostly hapless. He’s trying to do his job.

Teachers try to be fair, positive, supportive, to act like a peer, “it’s just a suggestion,” right? But it’s impossible to get away from the power differential. So the monkey is saying through his plagiarized story of the Incas, look what you did, you destroyed my civilization, you slaughtered my ancestors. And the teacher is saying, look what you did, you messed up my grading scale. They’re not equivalent calamities.

What current project are you working on?

I’m just beginning to work on something that seems like an interconnected collection of machine fairy tales. I have a shred of one story so far, and I think there are more like it. I’ve also been doing a longer narrative, very slowly, about a woman living alone in a city where people and things suddenly vanish. She’s a member of a sect that forbids reading. She’s trying to learn more about the dissolutions, while resisting the onslaught of text in her environment—billboards, name tags, signs, addresses. The tension is her struggle to remain illiterate. I wanted to write this in a month, just for a lark. Instead it’s taken on a meditative aspect, as the woman is deeply in tune with her environment and its signals. I have to listen and feel so intensely to get into her experience that I can only write a few sentences at a time.

What’s been your favorite read of 2015, so far?

I came across a novel from the 1980s called Reindeer Moon, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. I believe she was an anthropologist, and this is her single work of fiction. It’s about a woman in a Stone Age tribe, and also all the animal spirits she inhabits. It’s like nothing else. Totally singular, unclassifiable, great.

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