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Monday
Jul092018

"Grief Was a Stone in My Gut": An Interview with Debra Di Blasi

 

Debra Di Blasi is the author of seven books, including, Prayers of An Accidental Nature (Coffee House Press), The Jiri Chronicles (University of Alabama Press/FC2), and Drought & Say What You Like (New Directions), which won the Thorpe Menn Literary Excellence Award. Her newest collection of hybrid shorts, TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New America: #AlternativeFictions, is forthcoming August 2018 from Black Scat Books. Selling the Farm: Descants from a Recollected Past, was a finalist in Four Way Books Larry Levis Poetry Award and semifinalist in the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Award. Her writing has appeared in Boulevard, Chelsea, The Iowa Review, Kestrel, The Los Angeles Review, New Letters, New South Fiction, Notre Dame Review, Pleiades, Triquarterly, Wigleaf, Wayne Literary Review, among many others, and in notable anthologies of innovative writing. She is a former publisher, educator, and art columnist. Learn more at www.debradiblasi.com.

Her essay, "Turncoats," appears in Issue Ninety-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Debra Di Blasi talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about digressions, forgiveness, and researching comments on social media.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Turncoats.” What inspired you to start writing the first draft?

I was living far, far away in Hong Kong when my father began to die of Parkinson’s, and the family farm was sold by a sibling without my knowledge. Grief was a stone in my gut, weighing me down so fiercely that I wanted to take to my bed and sleep without waking. Instead, I took to my words. “Turncoats” is part of Selling the Farm: Descants from a Recollected Past. Part lyric essay, part poetic memoir, the ‘descants’ attempt to create a four-dimensional literary cartography describing the farm where I grew up and how my family and I — and perhaps my childhood friend — were shaped by those extraordinarily beautiful acres, for better and for worse; thus, the reference to “the remembrance of farm and creek” in the essay. Recalling specific places on the farm triggered specific memories. The book would not be honest or complete without including this beloved friend who was indeed the only friend who often visited the farm when we were children, because she loved it, all of it, from creek to fields, wild to tame animals, stifling hot, overcrowded house to outhouse. And I loved her for loving it as I did. I still do. And she still does.

On my first reading, I read the essay from start to finish as presented. The second time, I skipped around, reading only the left-justified sections, then only the paragraphs in the innermost brackets, etc. Did you intend to encourage this sort of exploration when you arranged the text into unconventional spaces? How did you arrive at this piece’s form?

You read correctly, perfectly! Thank you. The structure of multiple indentations reflects digressions while recalling moments from distant or recent past, editing myself, revising my Self for all to see. Without deliberately indicting other memoirists, my view of the genre in general is that it is full of lies and omissions. For me, those initial lies and omissions often reveal a deeper truth for the writer and, one certainly hopes, the reader, about the creatures (oneself and others, bipedal and not) that we create out of language. The intent is not only to illuminate the many facets of remembering but also to reflect the process of writing and revising one’s recollections, exposing the fallibility of memory and the intrusion of self-aggrandizement. Most of the 100+ essays in the book are similarly structured.

The essay contains descriptions of friend and farm from your childhood, memories so affecting that you say that you may “choose to recall” them on your deathbed. In the end, though, you also write that you hope that your friend, who once betrayed you, has “no need to remember anything but did she leave a light on somewhere behind her.” Is this a kind wish, an indication of forgiveness, hoping that your old friend carries no lingering guilt? Or do you mean to deny her the memories that you’ve heretofore recalled in such vivid detail? Are memories such as those described in this essay something to be desired, or are they a burden? (Or both, neither?)

That light she left on behind her? It’s our friendship, what keeps the darkness away even now. And this essay, when all’s said and done, is my wish that her life now is so bursting with love, kindness and beauty that it overwhelms even the “opulence” we shared on the farm. Ours was/is one of the great friendships of my life — as childhood friendships can be for lucky people. She and I remained close friends for decades. We shared our terrible secrets. And though geographical distance may have invaded our closeness, I think of her often and miss long conversations with a person who knew me since we were four years old. By the way, Selling the Farm contains another essay about her, fondly recalling the night we camped out in a “disappearing nightscape under the gegenschein belt.” For me, as writer and reader, a worthy memoir is not about blame or revenge but rather forgiveness. About, in fact, leaving a light on behind you.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

In addition to publishing excerpts from Selling the Farm (which I consider complete and have begun submitting the manuscript to publishers), I simultaneously completed a collection of very short intentionally provocative fiction, TODAY IS THE DAY THAT WILL MATTER: An Oral History of the New American: #AlternativeFictions. Black Scat Books snatched it up pretty quickly and, because of the time-sensitive content, is bringing it out in August, before the fall 2018 US elections.

This book is in many ways the polar opposite of Selling the Farm. Selling the Farm is about grief and attempting to bring back the dead; TODAY is about rage and attempting to expose the nasty, suppurating socio-cultural-political pimples under the country’s skin. I spent two years researching comments on social media (Facebook, Twitter, CNN, Fox News, YouTube channels of Alex Jones Info Wars, Rush Limbaugh Show, comedians Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, reality TV, intimate conversations, surreptitious eavesdropping, ad nauseam). The research focused acutely on how language was used, misused, and abused; the way we lie to ourselves and each other; the out-of-control self-promotion — of which I have been and still am guilty — where we reflect not the assholes we sometimes (or often, depending on who “we” is) are at our core but rather a media-acceptable persona not much different from those projected by The Kardashians. 

To quote from the book’s Preface:

We speak shit. Be shit. See our shit selves through Selfie eyes… Culture of manufactured colors, scents, emotions, algorithms. We live here now, inside this narrowing. Dissolution of language, civility, morality and veracity. The foothold’s crumbling. Each shitty death’s on its way. So what! We shrug. What now? Now this. This is the day that will matter. This day. The only one.

The voices range from monstrous politicians based on public figures to hideous bigots to sympathetic or empathetic. There are also dialogs, a Jesus-is-a-white-woman “Cantata for Three Voices,” flickers of few words, tiny images with expansive subtext that must be dredged by the reader. Some of the stories are tender and kind, juxtapositions against those that decry the shits we’ve become. It’s interesting that most of the pretty ones occur in Portugal, where I live now. I’m meeting with theatre director Suresh Nampuri to discuss a staged public performance in Lisbon, which has a surprisingly vital theatre scene of works performed in English. (The Portuguese are remarkably fluent in English; it’s the English and Americans here who have a difficult time with Portuguese language.)

Finally, I’m working on an illustrated children’s book, Let Us Save the Only Only. I want to make children cry for all the right reasons.

What have you read recently that you want to recommend?

Michel Houellebecq is one of my favorite living contemporary writers. He provokes, he offends, he enlightens, he makes me laugh, and the core issues of his writing are always critical to the times we live in (or will live in, as some of his books have proved prescient). I just finished Submission, wherein the narrator is a mediocre Parisian academic (Houellebecq has never taught at university, by the way) at the moment The Muslim Brotherhood easily takes over France’s political — and therefore academic — system.  The emotional and philosophical complexity of this book thrill me; that, and the narrator’s hilarious digressive musings on food and sex at critical socio-political moments. 

I also finally started reading smart-smart Martha Gellhorn’s travel memoir-reportage, Travels With Myself and Another. (You can guess who “Another” is.) This woman who grew up in staid St. Louis, Missouri, was bleeding fearless — or rather, she may have been afraid but she moved through her fear to get to and at and sometimes in the story. She reported from all over the world, in difficult, dangerous places. She caught tropical diseases, roughed it with some strange, dubious characters, met Chiang Kai-shek and so many other important political players. As someone who has traveled much of my life, and sometimes into dangerous situations, sometimes with questionable people, the book is a breath of fresh air from the past, when webs were made of real-time/real-space humans from around the globe who continually crossed paths, in the strangest places. It’s why I now live in Portugal.

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