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“We’re Coming for You”: An Interview with Colleen Kolba

Colleen Kolba is a writer and cartoonist. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Hobart, and Entropy, among others. Currently, she is a Digital Teaching Fellow at the University of South Florida.

Her story, “Womb,” appeared in Issue Ninety-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Andrew Farkas about repetition, patriarchal masculinity, and the use of “non-normal” elements in fiction.   

Please tell us about the origins of “Womb.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Over a year ago, the image of a little boy preoccupied with building papier-mâché

wombs got stuck in my head. I wrote a few stories about him I wasn’t satisfied with, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Then, last fall, I was invited by the Humanities Institute at USF to participate in an ekphrastic reading. It turned out the visual constraints I was given to work with for the reading were enough to finally write the first draft of “Womb” and feel like his story was being told.

I’m really interested in Elliot. At first, he just seems like a crazy kid who found out where babies come from (wombs) and now wants to experience that genesis the only way he knows how (art projects). But as the story goes on, Elliot starts to feel a bit like Anthony Fremont, the boy with godlike powers in the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone. Is this how Elliot developed for you (from just a kid who needs a babysitter to someone or something far more powerful), or did you always plan for him to sneak up on us? And why did you decide to give Elliot, a child, the dreamlike powers he has? In other words, how do you see Elliot working in this story?

For me, Elliot became a way to grapple with concepts of “patriarchal masculinity” (to borrow bell hooks’ term). I’m fascinated by who young boys are before they’ve totally bought into the narratives our culture sends them about masculinity (which most boys get/conform to very early on). I wanted to interrogate what that turning point is (from boyhood to a more traditional masculine role) and what it means to push against the narratives we’re given so early it seems like we’re born into them. Elliot is able to escape it, at least by the end of the story, which to me seems almost like a godlike power—through his art projects he’s able to create something else, but even this space there’s still a great discomfort and the end products of his children are still this haunting masculine force that’s trying to conceptualize something different and better than what our culture offers men.

This story begins simply enough: the narrator becomes a nanny because jobs are scarce and she has to take what she can get. Even when the little boy she works with (or maybe for, as we learn in the story) says that he makes wombs, being a child, we think, “Oh, what a crazy kid.” From there, the story accretes more and more eerie, unsettling moments, but by the time they feel odd, we (the readers) are already onboard. Did you actively intend to pull the reader in by making everything seem “normal” at first, or were you pulled into the story in the same way the reader is? Why do you think the subject matter lends itself to this sort of technique?     

As a reader, I enjoy and admire writers who can include “non-normal” elements without explaining too much and get the reader to buy in. I think one technique for achieving this is exactly what you describe—things start normal enough, we get a little invested in the characters, and then slowly, we start to go, “Hmm that’s a little odd.” I hope to achieve this in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheap trick—I always start with character, so if my writing is operating how I’d like it to, the reader is invested in the characters. Everything else is just a revolving piece around the humanity in the story.

There’s a good deal of wonderful repetition in this piece (the little boy building the wombs and sending them upriver, the husband constantly saying “what,” the failed missions to Mars, the narrator’s repeated assertion that she doesn’t want a baby). Coupled with the repetition, though, is the fact that everything seems to be breaking down (the constant heat, those failed missions to Mars, the pollution). Consequently, it feels like nothing new can happen, that there will only be repetition until the world burns out. But the end feels startlingly new (what with the men birthed from the wombs and Elliot’s children). So, how do you see the repetition working in this story? And does the end signal a break from the repetition, an escape from the old failures?   

I’ve had a preoccupation with the way repetition works in storytelling and why it works or doesn’t feel boringly redundant to the reader and I think it’s because that’s how humans operate—we function within patterns, and repetition offers many of us some degree of comfort. I set up a bunch of patterns and storytelling is what happens at the movement towards, away, against, sideways of these patterns. In the context of “Womb,” the characters are operating in a world where they’re trapped in the narratives they’ve been fed and Elliot and the narrator are the ones who deviate from this, but not without some conflict. I see the end as a movement in a new direction from the repetition of gender-based narratives. It’s meant to be a hopeful ending.

What have you been reading recently that you might recommend?

I’ve been returning to Eleanor Davis’ How to Be Happy, a collection of short comics that’s beautifully illustrated and fills me with a sad kind of hope (I don’t know if that makes sense). I’ve found myself seeking an antidote to the news I’m constantly consuming with the non-journalistic reading I do to achieve some kind of healthy stasis in my day-to-day. I’ve also been reading There is No Long Distance Now, Naomi Shihab Nye’s flash fiction collection to inspire my own work and to share with the high school writers I’m currently teaching at UVA’s Young Writers Workshop.

What are you writing these days? 

I’m currently working on a novel-in-flash-chapters and a graphic novel. Both are about the narratives of young women, which is about as generous as I can be in my descriptions of these projects. I’ve found in the past that if I talk too much about my writing while it’s still in its early phases, I lose energy towards creating it.

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