Brokering a Deal With Imagination: An Interview with Selah Saterstrom

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

If Selah Saterstrom were to retroactively bundle her three novels into a conceptual trilogy—a hybrid triumvirate comprised of THE PINK INSTITUTION (2004), THE MEAT AND SPIRIT PLAN (2007), and SLAB (2015)—I suspect her readers would have already intuited it. Despite her kinetic prose and the variousness of her forms, Saterstrom’s oeuvre is intelligent in its cohesion and destination. Like her earlier works, SLAB is a feat of formal acrobatics: it is a literal drama set in the contemporary South infused with pictorial symbolism, apocryphal histories, hymnal lyrics, recipes, and the protagonist’s clipped interviews with Barbara Walters. Its subject matter will be familiar: Southern poverty, institutional misogyny, gun violence, Hurricane Katrina, the Confederate Flag, and most painfully, their amalgam wound. Its perspective, though, promises to be wholly new: Tiger is a ferocious protagonist whose spirit outgrows her circumstance so long as it’s not stultified by weary traditions.

As she prepared for a new semester as the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver, Saterstrom took some time to answer a few questions about SLAB with characteristic conscientiousness and verve.

Brazos Bookstore: This novel is structured as a stage play (or maybe the inverse is true). How cognizant of the dimensions of the stage were you while writing SLAB?

Selah Saterstrom: My mother’s community of Waveland, Mississippi, considered ground zero of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, was obliterated. No buildings remained. To put it in a bit of perspective, more than half a million people in Mississippi needed help from FEMA (in a state of 2.9 million, that is 1 out of 6 Mississippians).

In the storm’s aftermath, I was deeply struck by the sheer number of slabs. The absence these slabs contained was animated with innumerable, fragmented presences ringing in the hell hot heat. Standing on my mother’s slab, I thought: What is this? What happens here now? So I began to experience the slabs not only as evidence of disaster, but also as sites that could host multiple emanations. And I started to think the slab might have its own logic as a form. So the slab also became a place of potential inscription, a gravestone, an altar, and of course: a stage, a site of performance (memory). I knew very soon after Katrina that I would write a book utilizing this zone, because that is how it became for me: a slab was a zone, a space of potentials, a space where narratives broke and recombined and fractured again and constellated new narrative logics. So, this thought of the slab-as-stage was present even as the disaster continued to unfold.

BB: How does the functionality of the stage compare to that of the novel?

SS: Both the stage and the novel, or perhaps the page, create the conditions conducive for the crossroads to shimmer into range. Both host potential transformations for those willing to go the crossroads, which is that place that is always way out of town. Put another way, that place that is the wild in Fanny Howe’s notion of bewilderment. She writes, “What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and ethics.” Both the stage and page invite bewilderment and its subsequent blessings (which are sometimes best taken with a shot of good whiskey).

Both have the constraint of edged perimeters, that space where the stage or page seemingly ends, a perimeter/boundary that supposedly mediates and elucidates the space between the audience member/reader (participant) and the theatrical production/novel (ritual). And both consistently trespass that perimeter/boundary. In Mississippi and Louisiana we have a word for what I am trying to say, lagniappe: the energy that exceeds, that goes over, that which overflows the cup, which blurs the line. It is important to note that the lagniappe gesture is rooted in generosity—it is always understood as a gift. So, it is a constraint that generates marvelous situations.

Both, I think, ravenously pursue the punctum: the heart rending detail that establishes a sort of direct contact that reframes our participation in existence on the side of the mystery, whether we interpret that mystery as foul or fair.

Both gather lines of narrative drift and arrange them towards something unseen. Both extend the invitation to risk. And with that: to risk new questions, new points of view, which is one of the things art can do and why it is necessary.

BB: How did you come to decide on the ultimate form of SLAB?

SS: In much the way I did with my other books. When I begin a novel, I often think I know what the work is “about” in some general sense: this is about magic; this is about a broken heart; this is about my step-dad and the post-Vietnam rural South; this is about dead people who were, in life, almost unbearably dynamic…Often, what I think the work is “about” coincides with what I hope it is about. For me, to date, this is usually a suspicious turn of events.

I suppose if any of the work is ever “about” something for me, as a writer, it is about writing—experiencing writing in a way that, in a very lagniappe kind of way it strikes me, exceeds whatever content it is entertaining, through me, at the moment. There are the books and their content and I am attached to those things, but more so for me, as the writer or thing-body that the books move through to get to the page, there is something else. This something else might be the un-place where I attempt to collaborate with uncertainty.

So there is always this moment when I’m struggling to find the form and I have to release what I think and hope—the fog of that—and listen what the text is actually saying and see what it is actually doing, and make choices on behalf of what it needs. Herein, perhaps, one of writing’s divinatory gifts: the way our texts, in the end, read us.

BB: Since SLAB already lends itself to drama, can you talk about the experience of having your novel adapted by Gleason Bauer and Emily K. Harrison for the ATLAS Black Box in Boulder?

SS: It was an amazing experience in large part because of the people who brought SLAB to the stage. The performance was a multimedia collaboration including video installation designed by Christina Battle and a sound score composed by Janet Feder and Paul Fowler. It was adapted by Gleason Bauer and Emily K. Harrison. Gleason directed SLAB, and in addition to an incredible cast of actors, Emily played the main character, Tiger, like nobody’s damn business.

To experience these engaged and brilliant artists bring their full attention, presence, and actual bodies (not to mention their resources) to and through the text—over a four-year period—was such a gift. Watching it performed, there were times I could hardly stay in my body. You know, kind of like grace: this just happened to me—that I got to experience my work animated in this extraordinary way, and not because I deserved it or earned it, I just got to have this tremendous gift. It was very humbling and super cool.

BB: It seems the municipal attitude toward the post-Katrina slabs is one of ignominy. What is your attitude? How about Tiger’s?

SS: Well, let me say that Gulf Coast and New Orleans people are resilient people. Skillful Will, it’s in the culture: to work with what you have to create the most poignant result. From within the disaster: laughter, rebuilding, gardens, a tenacious belief in the soul of the land, in spirits, and a commitment to not opt-out of being in it, complexities and all.

I want to be very mindful here—Katrina displaced more than a million people in the Gulf Coast and New Orleans region. To ground this, in July of 2014 the population of New Orleans was back up to only 79% of what it was in 2000. A lot of people were forced to leave, and due to various (often grueling socio-economic) circumstances were not able to return. Just because these people did not return does not mean they are not resilient people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Resilience doesn’t exclude struggle on every level and knows how to travel.

In terms of the municipal and its relationship to the slabs (and/or other sites of disaster that remain untended in logistical and also emotional ways), it is my hope that the municipal will broker a deal with imagination. I mean at the level of public policy and governmental leadership. But these desired shifts at the level of the municipal exist within a thick humidity of poverty, which makes it very challenging for the municipal to partner with imagination. Mississippi is the poorest state in the union. It also ranks last in its rate of child poverty, and is next to last in hunger and food insecurity crisis issues. Louisiana is the third poorest state in the union, with the largest gender wage gap to boot.

There is, of course, community desire for the municipal to generate new strategies for working with the slabs: engaging with, honoring, or re-visioning such sites (physically and emotionally), and the energy they hold and broadcast, but there are limited resources.

So what I think is happening, and will continue to happen, is that where the municipal fails, the visionaries—the artists, musicians, writers, the community activists, and the healers stand up and insist. They bring new dreams, and it is the outrageous, subversive, healing energy of dreams that is needed to minister to the ongoing wounds of the region. There are really incredible people doing this work, let’s all take a moment to send them thoughts of increased support...

What is Tiger’s attitude about the slab she stands on? I don’t have any kind of monopoly on knowing. I guess what I would say is that I think the slab is a place where she translates into another kind of light.

BB: There is no prose in Scene Thirteen, just three disparate illustrations of the Confederate Flag. Assuming the inception of this scene predated the shooting at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and the outcry that led to a 37-3 vote to remove the flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, how do you think it will register differently for a Fall 2015 readership than, say, four months prior?

SS: I am so glad you asked this question. It was the one question I hoped you would ask.

The main character, Tiger, is an expression of her culture and its history, in beautiful and very problematic ways. She is poor and a woman and a survivor inside her difficult socio-economic system, yes, but still, for example, she enjoys the privilege of being white. She is white in a region where if you are not white, you are not going to have the same advantages; you are going to be at risk for elevated levels of violence and poverty. In fact this region is the entirety of the United States, is it not?

I knew that she was made of this stuff: survival (and the endearing ways survival sometimes expresses) and an inability to see her privilege (and the things she blindly assumes or accepts because of this inability).

For example, her position concerning guns. In many ways, for me SLAB is a book deeply concerned with gun violence (something I didn’t know when I began writing), and its impact on people—families—including Tiger’s. But she still (literally) upholds the place of the gun in her culture. She has a “You can get the girl out of the South, but you can’t get the South out of the girl” attitude that has never helped any girl I have ever known.

Her symbols droop, crack, and fail, but I don’t know that she ever gets to the place where she understands this. This foil—her lack of understanding juxtaposed to the reality of her situation—allowed me into a space where I could point to the problems of these primary Southern symbols: Guns, God, and the Confederate Flag. The Confederate Flag is a failed symbol and a symbol of white supremacy. That is what it is.

I knew that the Confederate Flag had an important place in this story. It is also present (to my thinking) in the most brutal scene of the book, a scene involving a gun. The two symbols meet in the work, and I felt I needed to write that intersection in the most intense, visceral, and powerful way that I could muster (which of course fails. Fail Better, etc). Chapter (lucky) Thirteen, in which Tiger draws some confederate flags, is meant to boost the signal of the failed symbol.

When she draws the flags, it is second nature for her to do so in her moment of crisis, but at the same time it is gesture which reveals how emptied of power, value, or help the symbol actually is. So, what I hope readers will take away from Chapter Thirteen is what I have always hoped: to see this symbol droop in the light of the wounds of those who have upheld it. That seems to me to be an instructive point of view.

But—and much more importantly—if you haven’t watched the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina Statehouse, stop what you are doing and watch it right now. The energy in the crowd will affect your nervous system.

I watched the removal live online, and have watched it since. It was and continues to be a profound experience for me, and has also been a site for my own engagement with and acknowledgment of my white privilege. This includes engaging with and acknowledging my ancestral history of slave ownership, and the ways this has been mythologized in my upbringing.

BB: Preacher looms large—from the subtitle to the recipe-in-verse (“When the Saints Go Marching In”) to the moment he finally appears in Act II. Is his character inevitable? Does the wickedness of, say, Scene Three [in which TIGER Has a Devil of a Time], beget this salvation?

SS: Preacher showed up—as a being/character—about five minutes after Tiger said hello. He is inevitable. For me, in the writing of SLAB, he was the backbone, the central crux (crossroads) of the entire tale. The story, for me, has always been about when Tiger and Preacher meet on the hallelujah day.

In the novel, his section is considerably shorter than Tiger’s. Achieving narrative balance in this book was less about the distribution of narrative weight in terms of pages and more about an energetic balance that reflected their agreement, the sort of agreement that the disaster makes.

BB: The narrative impetus for this novel is a Barbara Walters interview. Barbara asks Tiger questions about her private and public life, and Tiger (who’s quite a ham) responds at length. How did you come to choose Barbara Walters as the interviewer as opposed to, say, a local anchorwoman?

SS: Well, it just seemed right, what can I say?

I thank Barbara Walters in my acknowledgments for being an inspiration to girls and women everywhere. I suppose this all might hatch between two sets of experience.

One, being a child and my grandmother having the television on, and seeing Barbara Walters in one of her interview specials, which seemed utterly magnificent to me as a child. It was like I always somehow just always knew Barbara Walters was a pioneer for women who wanted careers. The other influence might well have been brought on by my dear friend, Bo McGuire. I wrote a lot of SLAB at the artist residency program, Casa Libre in Tucson, Arizona, where Bo happened to also be living. In lightning time we developed a morning ritual: coffee, a smoke, and The View, which is where I really learned about Dolly Parton, who Bo told me all about during commercial breaks. It was a wonderful ritual during a time of intense grief and mad writing, writing for days on end, all night long, it was a time of abandon for the small lot of us at Casa Libre during that time. Those funny and serious conversations with Bo initiated an on-going conversation about female archetypes and a particular kind of drag and drag-reversal. So I suppose in this odd way Barbara Walters also speaks to me on some level about gender and performance.

BB: As for the errata in the Walter’s section (she harkens back to an interview she did with Chekhov, which you attribute to a letter Chekhov wrote to A. S. Gruzinsky in the Notes): is this a subtle way of letting the reader know the conceit could be fantasy? What else might it suggest about how to read SLAB?

SS: That reference had a rather tortuous journey into the text! I needed to quietly introduce a sense of impending abruptness (because in fact a gun will appear in the story). So it was about how to frame an abrupt jolt that didn’t derail the narrative, while also propelling the narrative into a deeper sort of surrealism. It felt like invoking a reference might be a way to do this. The Chekhov reference is a bit tired—it’s been invoked a lot. It had a flatness that seemed useful. So I went with it.

In terms of what it might suggest about how to read SLAB, I’d say perhaps it is a moment that reminds us we are never outside of the wound. There are many wounds in our world. The wound of racism, the wound of misogyny, the wound of homophobia (I read today that as of July this year, seventeen transgender women have been murdered, mostly women of color. This exceeds the number of transgender women killed in the U.S. in all of 2014). There is a pervading poverty paradigm—the enacted and embodied violent policies and actions that reinforce the dynamic of utter lack.

With this narrative move, I didn’t mean to rip a shiny bow off the ending of a hard story in a cheap or unearned way. Rather, it’s about not vacating the pain, but becoming ever more willing to feel acutely uncomfortable. If we do this, I think we can begin to face what needs to be faced, and we might also acquire the ability to bear it.

Slab By Selah Saterstrom Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566893954
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Coffee House Press - August 11th, 2015

Lawrence Lenhart holds an M.F.A. from The University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction and nonfiction at Northern Arizona University and is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

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