Wei Tchou | Longreads | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,646 words)
We’re certainly living in a time of revolution. I feel a great deal of wonder when I reflect on the fact that we’ve witnessed our society’s cultural norms regarding sexual assault and consent shift in real time, on the most public of stages: Washington, Hollywood. Yet I’m perhaps less attuned to the shifts happening within myself, in light of the national conversation. I know that I conceive of my own consent and agency more intentionally now, from day to day. But where I most often notice this evolution is in the way I think about my past — it’s as if many of my memories have been entirely rewritten.
I was thinking of all of this as I read Tanya Marquardt’s Stray: Memoir of a Runaway. In the book, Marquardt writes about escaping her dysfunctional home at age sixteen and finding community within the early-nineties underground goth scene in Vancouver, British Columbia. The book is haunting and spare, and wrestles with the nuances of one’s agency, in the face of cyclical abuse. Marquardt is an award-winning performer and playwright. Her play Transmission was published in the Canadian Theatre Review, and she has published personal essays in HuffPost UK and Medium.
We became friends, back in 2011, while we we both attending the M.F.A program at Hunter College, and we sat down recently to speak about the art of crafting memory into literature, the ongoing stigma against personal writing, and the ways in which the cultural conversation surrounding consent affected the writing of her book, among other topics.
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Wei Tchou: So, there’s a lot of artifice involved with writing about oneself — you inevitably have to make yourself into a character, and maybe that character has to evolve depending on the narrative or because of some realizations you make about yourself over time. I was wondering if you could talk about writing the version of yourself that’s in Stray?
Tanya Marquardt: I found myself thrashing around with my memories for a really long time, just sort of writing stuff down, one thing leading to another. It was kind of like being on a rollicking ship or something. Sometimes I thought, why am I writing this down? I don’t know! I just feel compelled to write this! And then all of a sudden, this ‘thing’ would coalesce and I’d see the version of myself I was trying to articulate.
It just…dawns on you that you’ve got the version right?
Well, I usually have to get a lot of writing before that happens, especially when I’m starting out, because I’m just writing a memory that isn’t fully formed at all. It feels really uncertain — part of it might be in paragraph form, and then some notes and then maybe a poem, and then maybe I draw a picture. I try to stimulate my memory enough to pursue it in a literary way. For me, I have to get this massive amount of work first. For example, I wrote a piece for Medium about watching my grandmother’s funeral on YouTube.
That sounds awful.
Yeah, it was a very strange experience. The piece wound up being, I think, two thousand words, but I had to write three times that amount before I realized that I wasn’t only writing about this specific experience, but also about the version of myself that’s an orphan. I grew up with my birth mother and was adopted by the father who raised me, the vacuum cleaner salesman I write about in the book. So I always felt like I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t the right fit with the rest of my family. But when I met my paternal grandmother at 26, she accepted me unconditionally and I felt like she completed this circle that was broken, with her love and acknowledgement of me as her grandchild. And she’s part of the reason my birth family found out about me. So writing about her was this key that unlocked this bigger story about what it means to be lost, and what it means to find home.
I just got stuck reliving that moment over and over again, thinking that if I could change it slightly, I could fix it. What I’ve had to do is to accept that that moment is a broader part of my whole existence, a part of my life’s story.
Yeah, when we were at Hunter, I remember one of our classmates telling me that the act of writing memoir is like sculpture, because the first step is getting all of this stuff on the page, then you have to try make sense of it.
Yeah it’s super cheesy, but I think of that Michelangelo quote. He’d look at a piece of marble and he would think, “Oh, the sculpture is already inside this big chunk of marble, and I just have to hack away all the crap that’s around it.” It kind of makes sense when you apply it to memory, hacking away until you get to the story that’s inside the memory.
I find myself incapable of not writing about the traumatic things that have happened to me, and one thing I wonder about when I think about how memoirists create these various versions of ourselves, is whether that’s our natural way of resolving trauma — looking for the right story.
Totally — I think that’s what happens when a person has PTSD. Like, I have PTSD, and before I starting writing the book, I was stuck in a traumatic moment, like a record that kept skipping. And that caused me a lot of anxiety because I just got stuck reliving that moment over and over again, thinking that if I could change it slightly, I could fix it. What I’ve had to do is to accept that that moment is a broader part of my whole existence, a part of my life’s story.
Yeah, rather than trying to fix it. I mean — we’ve talked previously about how we were both diagnosed with PTSD and had to go through this intense therapy. It was really hard for me to accept that I’d been recasting all these old traumatic patterns in my life, thinking I could fix the broken record. It can be pretty painful to come to the understanding.
Yeah, listening to you talk, it reminded me, I’m in a twelve-step program and I was in a meeting when I realized that every person that I’ve known in an intimate way, mostly lovers, I had been using them as cast members in this version of my trauma. And it was a really insightful moment, because I’d always have these horrible breakups and these dramatic relationships and I always thought it was them. And you know, a relationship takes two people, and some of them were abusive relationships, but I was casting everyone in some sort of magic soap opera that I thought was going to help me work it out. And of course, that never happened.
It never happens! My therapist always reminds me of my own patterns, and how I project them into my life, and for a long time, I was not willing to believe that that was what was happening, because in the moment you feel like you’re making decisions.
Yeah, you feel like you have agency. But the more I tried to control situations or manipulate my life into being what I wanted it to be, the less agency I actually had. But once you can see the pattern and what you are repeating, you can see how it is abusive to you and then you can change your patterns. And that becomes very empowering, I think. And I did find writing the book to be part of that.
Yes, I did. Because I could see the story of the trauma, see it as part of a narrative and mold that into a work of art. You know, the book is an object that you can open up. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. The act of writing, it was part of me re-calibrating, along with getting sober and finding a great therapist.
I’m curious, because in previous conversations, you’ve also resisted this idea that writing is therapy or that we heal through writing.
I resist because I feel there is a common misconception that memoir’s not really literary, it’s not really formal, it’s just way for you to heal yourself. And I think that’s a way for people to demean the form, to think of it as less than other literary genres.
I found myself struggling with the language around consent and really asking myself, ‘What was happening in that scene?’ I didn’t verbally say no, but I was definitely saying no with my body, and didn’t he know that? I had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn’t consented.
Yeah I think people still seem to primarily think of memoir as a women’s genre and that’s a huge part of why it’s dismissed as a form, even though when you get Philip Roth or Paul Auster writing memoirs, those are somehow immediately considered works of literature.
Yeah, and I think part and parcel with that is this idea that memoir is just a way for you to express your emotional self or to find a way to heal yourself and that it has nothing to do with craft. That makes me really mad.
Did you think about that a lot while you were writing?
It’s funny that you ask that, because before we met, I was answering questions for someone who asked me if I used chemicals while I was writing Stray. Did I do drugs, did that help me through the writing of it?
That’s a weird question.
Well, the first draft of Stray, I was just hammered. I would wake up and I would have pages that I didn’t remember writing. And at the time I was like, “Maybe this is what I need to do to write.” Looking back at it now, I don’t think that’s true and I would never recommend doing that to anybody, even though that’s what I did. I didn’t write drunk because I needed a drink to write about trauma. I wrote drunk because I was an alcoholic in the last dregs of the party… I was really burning my life to the ground before I got sober.
And it must have been painful to have to revisit all that trauma.
Yeah, in a way I was self-medicating, but there are way better ways of coping: running or going to therapy. And for better or for worse, I did get out an initial draft. But I wouldn’t have finished Stray if I didn’t get the tools to help me be conscious, and address my addiction and my PTSD outside of the writing. I would have never have been able to craft or edit the book, would never be able to add reflection or investigate the literary form, all things I did when I got sober. So, going back to your question about memoir and healing, I think it’s a thing where it’s both. Yes, it does heal you, of course. I think there’s a department at Columbia now where you can learn something called narrative medicine — you can go in and work with people who have experienced trauma and help them by having them write out their stories, and to see their sickness or their trauma as part of a journey; a story. I think that’s really beautiful. …
PTSD therapy is often totally narrative-based.
Yeah, a lot of it is narrative-based. But I think I always hesitate when someone asks me the question about memoir being therapeutic because, at least for me, it’s also hours of crafting sentence by sentence, word for word, the same as fiction. You work on dialogue, research, fact-checking, ordering sections, chapter headers. It’s all craft.
Why do you think it’s still so easy to dismiss, if it’s basically using the same tools as fiction, or even journalism?
The two things that come to my mind are that people like to identify a thing, and memoir is by nature unidentifiable. It’s ephemeral. It’s about how one investigates their own memory, which is very ephemeral. So people want to dismiss it, because they’re too scared to walk into that ephemera. And then, it’s elitism. I think it’s a small group of people, historically white men though not always, saying these are the books you read, this is who gets to do it, this is what it should look like, period. And you know what? Fuck that.
I don’t know! I’ll admit that sometimes I find that I can be pretty dismissive of personal writing.
Yeah, me too. Why do you find yourself dismissing it?
I think I sometimes feel that there’s a tendency for memoir to capitalize on trauma. But maybe it’s not completely correct to pin that on the writer of the narrative.
Do you think Stray does that? Do you think Stray capitalizes on trauma?
[Long pause]… No. I mean Stray is so… spare. I think a lot of what I think of is —
— like, trauma porn?
Yeah, kind of like trauma porn. Like essays about horrible relationships where it doesn’t feel like the work is fully processed. When I read that sort of work I’m not always sure what the value of it is. Like, what am I supposed to be thinking about?
Yeah, like there’s no insight. I know what you mean, and I’ve read a lot of that kind of work on the Internet, though in books too. I think sometimes it’s because that person doesn’t identify themselves as a writer, so they aren’t investigating trauma formally. Maybe they’re asked to write a first person account about their experience. And there are people who find comfort in that, in hearing that they aren’t alone, regardless of its literary merits. I get that. And sometimes I think writers get encouraged to detail the trauma by people on the outside.
I decided to push back against that shame, not to defy my father, but to defy the shame itself.
There is this pressure now to reveal, reveal, reveal, because we’re in this writing economy in which that gets the most eyeballs.
It’s very dystopian, like, it reminds me of episodes of Black Mirror. We want to see someone being genuine, but we also want it to be performative. Which is perhaps a way to dismiss human emotions, particularly human suffering. There’s something about wanting to see the thing itself without any reflection, a story that isn’t being crafted for a reader. I mean that’s what art is, crafting something for the reader, and if you’re not doing that, then something gets lost, I think.
I’m curious to hear — you asked me if I think parts of “Stray” are trauma porn. Did you wonder that while you wrote it, because there are very explicit sections.
There were sections that I really struggled with, almost all the way to the very end. About whether to put them in or not.
What was your concern with those sections?
Well, the sections with my father were mostly about facing residual shame. And honestly, I didn’t know if I had the strength to say to my readers, “This is what happened to me.” I was afraid of being judged, of the repercussions to my well being. But I decided to push back against that shame, not to defy my father, but to defy the shame itself. I have spent too many years living with shame. And I don’t want to do that anymore. And in the end, keeping the material was also a narrative decision. You couldn’t fully understand what I was going through and the choices I was making unless you knew that I had been abused by my father.
And the assault with my boyfriend in the treehouse, I took it in and out because I found myself struggling with the language around consent and really asking myself, “What was happening in that scene?” I didn’t verbally say no, but I was definitely saying no with my body, and didn’t he know that? I had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn’t consented, and more than that, I thought it was my job to endure whatever he was going to do to me. As girls and women we are taught over and over again that our bodies belong to other people, and that our job is to give ourselves over in service to someone else’s pleasure. And once I saw that, I had to figure out how to write about that on the page. And in the end, I did put the scene in and added reflection about how even now, as a grown woman who knows about consent, I still have to continuously learn to say no, whether it’s around wanting to have sex or not wanting to have sex, or even if it’s like, “No, I don’t want to do the dishes tonight.”
I also felt like narratively, you needed to know that right afterward we had this strange dinner with his mother, a woman who seemed like she was straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, just sitting there eating sausage like everything was fine. Which happens all the time. People have these moments of assault where they feel like something’s taken from them emotionally, or psychologically, or physically, and then they go home, and they pay their bills.
You’ve talked to me about is how your agent and editor encouraged you to go back and reflect on those difficult scenes. What was the actual experience of having to going like?
So I think there’s two threads here, one formal, and one around trauma. Formally, before I got into the MFA program at Hunter, I had only written plays, and when I got into the program, I thought writing personal essays would ultimately help me become a better playwright. So, I was used to writing dialogue and giving stage directions. Reflection and exposition was something that I had to figure out. And then at a certain point, I decided that I wasn’t going to make the language around the traumatic experiences overwrought and that I would put description on the page as it happened, action by action, not to minimize it or trivialize it, but just let it sit on the page. And I made that decision from a literary perspective and also as a person trying to figure out how to talk about trauma.
It was later that my agent and my editor told me, “You know, the way you have it on the page is really beautiful, and I think you’ve made a great choice. But a lot of people have never experienced this before, and if you don’t give us a sense of what you were thinking, how you feel about it now, what you wish could have happened but didn’t, or what your dreams or fantasies might have been, we’re not going to be able to stay with you over the course of a whole book.” And I think they were right, I think they were really right.
I fought them a little bit. Sometimes I said no. And sometimes I was scared to go back and reflect. It took me a really long time to know how I felt about things.
What was scary about going back?
That I would have nothing to say or that I would have to relive something again to go back in. Or, that I would find out something about myself that might shock me. (Laughs) But I didn’t. And it was actually very good. It was pretty empowering.
What did you find empowering about it?
In reflecting on my experience, I realized that I wasn’t damaged. I wasn’t as broken as I thought I was. All that trauma that happened to me, doesn’t belong to me. It belongs with the people who did it. You know what I mean? So as hard as it sometimes is to put on the page or to deal with it, it’s also been very empowering for me, because it’s put the trauma where it belongs. Which is with the people who did it.
And that happened through reflecting, because I realized it wasn’t my fault. It had nothing to do with anything I did, because I was fucking seven. Or younger, or even sixteen, you know?
Trauma is very tricky to unravel especially if it happens when you’re young or pre-verbal. Maybe it’s too broad of a statement, but I think in a lot of ways that’s what we’re all dealing with right now, as a culture. How to unravel different kinds of trauma.
You mentioned consent earlier in the context of these national conversations we’ve been having lately about the ways in which men behave toward women. And having to go back, in light of those conversations, to investigate that scene in your book, the confrontation with your boyfriend in the treehouse, with this new language of consent. I mean, I did the same thing. As soon as those words were given to me, to talk about this experience that I didn’t previously have language for, I was reexamining —
— every interaction I ever had. And also, since I am a queer woman, some of my memories didn’t involve men and I also had to look at those, because power dynamics affect us all. But also going back, when I was in my early twenties I was wild. And I don’t mean in a “Yeah I was wild!” way. I mean, I didn’t know how to properly wash my hair. I didn’t know how to grocery shop. I just ate pizza and chain-smoked cigarettes and drank vodka straight out of the bottle. I wasn’t taught a thing about boundaries, and the people who assaulted me knew that and manipulated that to their advantage. I think about that a lot. Right now, I think about consent all the time, and I feel like we could talk about it forever. I’m glad we’re talking about it now.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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Wei Tchou is a writer in Brooklyn whose essays about culture, identity, and food have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, The Paris Review, and GQ, among other publications. She is at work on a memoir about ferns.
Editor: Dana Snitzky