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"Until There Are No Edges": An Interview with Natanya Ann Pulley

Natanya is an Assistant Professor at Colorado College. She teaches Creative Writing, Innovative Fiction, and Native American Literature. She's been an editor at Quarterly West and South Dakota Review, and is currently a guest editor for Black Candies. She writes fiction and nonfiction with outbreaks in poetry and collage. Her work can be found at The Toast, Drunken Boat, As/US, and Waxwing (among others). She enjoys felting wool and spending time near the Rockies with her husband JP and two dogs, Voodoo and Mojo.

Her story, "Seven Years of Cups," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about grief, lies, and the strangeness of motherhood.

What first inspired you to write this story about a family that lives inside a hospital?

I’m pretty obsessed with the idea that humans exist in many planes at once. That I can be in my own home with all of the things I know around me, but feel separate. Or that one can be outside in the open with a great sky above, but experience a physical crushing—not just emotional or internal, but a physical reaction like a panic attack. The idea that people who spend a lot of time at a hospital become a part of it isn’t an unfamiliar one, but I really wanted to push that as far as I could. I wanted to see what living years there might look like especially for someone stuck in the suspended, but ongoing loss of a father and I wanted to complicate it further by including a growing family. I think we like to believe that people pull out of dangerous grief and trauma for their family and over time and because they have to, but I wanted to see a person and his family defined by this grief for too long and in an unrealistic way. I wanted to see how long someone could hold onto holding on.

I’m intrigued by the idea your speaker poses of a “possible un-truth” that has floated inside him for so long that it had started to seem like a truth. Are there are any “possible un-truths” you’ve experienced in your life?
When I think of a lie, I think of a vicious thing: something invented as a weapon. While there are plenty of lies in everyone’s world, I’m much more interested in the un-truth. The truth undone. Or a type of lie that exists out of defense or denial or necessity. Not a white lie, but a thing to believe in order to wake up each day. In a very ordinary sense, the lines on a road boast an un-truth. They suggest I’m safe if I stay within them, if I understand their meaning, and if others do as well. I believe in those lines so much that it doesn’t faze me how often I’m putting my life on the line by getting in a vehicle with hundreds of others, often distracted, tired, driving too fast and under weather conditions or other influences. But I do it all the time to move throughout this world. Many years of driving and these sorts of un-truths meant to build some trust in me and the world around me begin to pile up—laws, justice, that fair is fair, authority’s intentions are good, that skin color doesn’t matter. One thing I find incredibly damaging right now when considering #BLM and police brutality is the idea that anyone could ever really understand what this particular type of racism feels like for a black person or a targeted person of color. I’m half-Navajo, but don’t present as Native American to many people and so even though I do experience racism, I’ll never experience it the same way a black individual being pulled over would. We(I) tend to think with enough information and empathy and rational, we can put ourselves in another person’s shoes. It’s not just that this is untrue—it’s that the truth we’ve built up (“We’re capable of really understanding racism now that we’re in the 21st century”) is undone over and over and over. It wasn’t just a vicious lie used as a weapon by some, but it was also a sad untruth invented to comfort us into believing change is possible in an easy way—a convenient way. I think lies are cruel and painful, but untruths are heartbreaking.

There are hints in the story that the speaker has been violent in the past. Early in the story, he describes a frustrating experience with a contractor friend: “He was just trying to help out but by the time the staff caught up with us, I’d already dug a needle through to his bone.” In his retelling, the speaker is not angry. He actually relates to the contractor, understands that his friend meant well. The violence is buried in the sentence; the speaker seems detached from it. Can you speak to the narrative choice behind this moment? Why is it important that we know about his violence early in the story?

The story starts seven years into the character’s time at the hospital—after this traumatic event of both his father’s demise and the birth of his first child (within some span for him that feels very close). It felt clear to me that the character has been through various stages of grief and trauma—that anger was certainly one of them. Part of his acting out may be due to the type of story it is—this bloated world with everything over the edge, over the edge, over the edge, until there are no edges anymore. But also, I wanted it to be clear that he was not okay, even dangerous and his detachment was not safe. I’m also enamored by detachment—both its blessings and its curses. Seven years into his “life” at the hospital, I wanted his most basic reactions to be worn out, to be old news to him. Obviously, he should worry about this attack of his and possible future attacks. Obviously he should be worried about a lot of things. But detachment cares little for things obvious. And it has no need for shoulds.

The speaker describes his children by their precise age, weight, and height. He seems to know little else about them. Why do you think his children’s measurements more memorable to him than anything else?

Ha ha. This was a fun detail to include for me. First, I was thinking about how newborns are just little blobs of sensations and reactions and how it takes a little time to get to know their personalities (or rather for those personalities to develop). So we relay the strangest information about them when they are born. I am not that great with measurements, but still seem to relay the weight, length, toe count, and eye color of babies when describing them. It’s a strange desire to want to know a person when one can’t. To want to account for an unknown when little simple measurements is all one has. Second, because this character is detached from his own emotion, because he’s in some sort of denial, I think he believes these details make sense. That they relay something real or truthful about his children, when he can’t do it himself. The first child arrived when his father was dying and I think maybe the measurements were the easiest thing for him to hold onto it. And he hasn’t let go of that. Third, I played around a lot with the kind of language these characters might pick up from being in a hospital and in an earlier version of the story, the narrator used more medical terms. But I found this to be … well, cumbersome to read, but also just not fun for me. So I decided this would be the thing that he would pick up on. He was given the measurements of his children when they were as born, it’s what he hears about new life in the hospital each time a child is born, and that’s what he’s sticking to. 

Who are you reading right now?

I recently read Natural Wonders by Angela Woodward, which was such a delight—playful, funny, sentences to nest into, and also, something very sad, but strangely hopeful. And I’ve started Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary and Carmen Lau’s The Girl Wakes. I’m also casually reading Saga, which is a very fun, amazing “space opera/fantasy” comic series. And I’ve been revisiting Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I touched upon it in a class when teaching Joanna Ruocco’s Dan last Spring, but I was so struck by the idea that there is no absurd world. Rather, absurdity is something we bring with us because the world is unreasonable and our expectations of the world can be even more so. Camus says, “What is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational (world) and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.” I’ve been re-positioning myself in our current reality with this idea and through this reading. The violence, the election, losing both Prince and Bowie feels very absurd to me, like we all were dumped into an alternate universe this year. But this isn’t a constructive way for me to work through it, I think. Calling the world absurd doesn’t deal with the very real things that were always in motion before this—that led us to this. My “wild longing for clarity” tends to capture me and keep me from action.

What projects are you currently working on?

Mainly my non-fiction collection which deals mostly with being biracial and different forms of trauma I’ve experienced. Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toil of working through this collection, so I’m learning patience with this project. But I’m a short story writer mainly, so I’m always kicking about some little somethings here and there. I wonder sometimes if I’m a novelist, but usually I end up thinking: this is just a really long story. Or worse, a story cycle. Ha ha.

I’m also delighted to be a guest editor for the annual horror literary journal Black Candies. This next issue is the “Gross and Unlikeable Issue” with female writers only. While submissions have closed, the reading process has been eye-opening. I expected some of the same topics (pregnancy and menstruation) and we certainly wanted body horror in the mix. But, oh man, so many dead babies. Metaphoric or not. Miscarried, stillbirths, infanticide—dead, dead, dead. It’s been tough reading on my heart. At times, my response has been very poor—wishing for other topics, squirming away. And there are plenty of other story ideas, but these dead babies outweigh them. However, I always have to end my wishing and remember: here it is. This is what women think about and we are told not to. We are told to think of the potential of our bodies and the gifts we give—life, like it’s a prize. But for many women, this is what is horrific about our body’s potential or sometimes failure. Making life, ability and or the monthly reminder of life, keeping a child alive—this is dangerous, dangerous stuff. And here are the female writers that don’t want to hear the glossy and fairytale stories of it. They want to talk about the horror, the abject. So I’m reading with respect and open to the wail here—instead of wanting to shut it out. And, oh, we’ve got some really amazing ones.  Of course, there are plenty of other wonderful and super gross stories by women I’ve enjoyed reading. It’s going to be a great collection with plenty of stories about other topics as well, a girl that turns to candy, another that grows another pair of legs that fall off, and tales weird, cosmic, and disgusting.

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