Just One Question for Ethel Rohan

24 Mar

Just One Question is a series. (It will be!) In it, I pose just one question to a Hot Pants author about their work. In this episode, I ask Ethel Rohan about Hard to Say, her remarkable collection of flash fiction published by PANK last year.

Jennifer: “Septicemia” is a hard word to pronounce–harder still for a child. But we know that your book is about more than the tongue-twisting ailments of the narrator’s mother. It is about the narrator finding the language to describe the events that shocked her in the formative years. By the end of HARD TO SAY the narrator has spoken a deep fear, yet she says she’s ruined. Does the narrator mean that giving words to her fear has ruined her? It seems to me that this belief runs contrary to what pop psychology says: “Let it all out.” Many writers will relate to the trouble of choosing the right words to describe the concerns that preoccupy them, whatever those concerns may be. If all writing is about writing, is your book a cautionary tale?

Ethel: Thank you for this complex and interesting question.

Yes, I agree, the linked stories in Hard to Say center on the narrator’s struggle to articulate the events that most marked her childhood. Ruin, both real and imagined, is at the heart of this little book and is threaded through every story. Two stories overtly explore the theme, one of the early stories, “Corruptionists,” and one of the final stories, “Peeled.”

In “Corruptionists,” the narrator has spoken something profound, her deepest desire, and to God no less: Please don’t let my mother die. The narrator’s initial elation, God answered her prayers and her mother has been saved, soon turns to confusion, hurt, and a sense of betrayal and abandonment: her mother is different, lessened, and no longer her ‘real’ mother.

At the close of “Corruptionists,” the narrator feels a deep sense of self-blame and believes her prayers prevented her mother’s death and ruined God’s plan. However, the reader knows more than the child narrator here i.e. the narrator is blameless. Thus while the narrator might feel ‘letting it all out’ and articulating her deepest desire has ruined her and her family, readers know she’s misguided and the pop psychology belief you’ve mentioned above would appear to hold up.

There’s a similar deliberate reference to “ruin” in one of the final stories “Peeled” where the narrator believes her college drama instructor has plumbed her six senses and forced her, ruinously, to feel and intuit everything ever more intensely. Her instructor further goads her into admitting her darkest fear: “I’m afraid I’lll go crazy like my mother.” At the end of the story, the narrator tells her instructor, “You’ve ruined me.” However, here again, my sense is that readers will be smarter than the narrator and realize that her articulating her darkest fear aloud might just be what saves her, again supporting pop psychology’s popular belief that it’s best to ‘get it all out.’ What will damn the narrator is not that she feels things too intensely or that she speaks aloud from her deepest, darkest self, but if she allows her fears to become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Is all writing about writing? I suppose, but I admit that’s something I haven’t given a whole lot of consideration to. I’ve thought more on how all writing is about the writer. I certainly didn’t intend to write a cautionary tale here. I just wrote down some of the more traumatic events in the life of this narrator, as a child, and a young adult, and a young woman. It also feels like a strange beautiful terrible ode to the narrator’s mother too, a witnessing and a recording and a mourning of the mother’s very real ruin. If the stories caution some on how not to live, or how to live better, or how to live despite, I’d be glad of that. That’s a huge ask for our stories though. Sometimes stories are just stories. My least requirement for the stories I both read and write is that they be interesting and affecting. I hope I’ve at least accomplished that with Hard to Say.

To learn more about Ethel’s published work and upcoming releases, visit her often at http://ethelrohan.com/.
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