TCR Talks with Rachel DeWoskin
By Gina Frangello
The versatile writer and former actress Rachel DeWoskin—a member of my Chicago writing group since we were set up on a “blind friendship date” by our mutual close friend Emily Rapp Black—was born in Kyoto and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After studying English and Chinese at Columbia University, DeWoskin moved to Beijing to work as a public-relations consultant and ended up all but accidentally becoming a Chinese TV star and sex symbol on the blockbuster nighttime soap opera Foreign Babes in Beijing, which was watched by approximately 600 million viewers. Following this heady and surreal experience, DeWoskin returned to the United States in 1999 and returned to her first love—literature—earning a master’s degree in poetry from Boston University. Her memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, was published by W.W. Norton in 2005; Paramount Pictures purchased film rights and the project is currently in production. DeWoskin has since become the author of five novels: Big Girl Small (FSG 2011) Repeat After Me (Overlook 2009), Blind (Penguin 2014), Some Day We Will Fly (Viking 2019) and Banshee (Dottir 2019). DeWoskin, whose mannerisms are gracious and intense in equal measure, is, in addition to her writing, a devoted mother of two, married to the playwright Zayd Dohrn, a morning exerciser, a fierce friend, and the core creative writing faculty at the prestigious University of Chicago. Who better to dissect the complications and contradictions of a woman, like Banshee’s Samantha Baxter, who “has it all” than DeWoskin, who is both extraordinarily productive while leading an intimate family life?
It was my pleasure to discuss Banshee with Rachel over an email exchange conducted while we were both traveling like maniacs over the summer. Further, as a breast cancer survivor myself, the publication of Banshee feels watershed to me. Transcending facile “sick lit” portrayals of virtuous heroines and “feminist outlaw” labels that eschew serious examinations of women’s own culpability, DeWoskin presents instead a ferocious, lyrical, highly skilled tightrope walk of one woman’s simultaneous emotional disintegration and sexual awakening in the face of a dehumanizing medical industrial complex and a lifetime of seeing male colleagues “getting away” with behavior she would never have considered prior to staring her mortality in the face. What results is one of the most complex, morally ambiguous and intimate stories of body and women’s (still) societally sanctioned roles I have read in recent years. It was my great honor to read and blurb Banshee prior to its publication, and it’s even more exciting to share my conversation with Rachel DeWoskin with TCR readers.
The Coachella Review: Your protagonist, Samantha Baxter, is one of those women who seems to “have it all,” going back to that old cliché. She is married to a man who appears devoted and has a fabulous adult-ish daughter as well as a prestigious reputation as a poet and a plum professorship. One of the things we as women hear so often is that the goals of feminism have “already been attained,” so we don’t need it anymore, and a frustration on the part of many men as well as some women is that they don’t understand what women are so “angry” about. When Sam gets a scary medical diagnosis and her rage begins to simmer, that rage wasn’t born overnight—the medical scare is just its catalyst. Why are white, successful, financially secure women still enraged—and often terrified—in our contemporary, so-called-enlightened world, and especially why was this the case even before Donald Trump was elected and brought feminism back to the American consciousness?
Rachel DeWoskin: Injustice, whether it’s race, gender, or socio-economic based, sinks us all. We’ve always needed to fight for and together as women, across the divides that threaten to prevent us from uniting. This is related to the fact that we need allies of all sorts in order to fight the obscene injustices being perpetrated in our names and on our watches against women, children, immigrants, people of color, many human beings whom we should be working together to protect. So the hopeful, optimistic response to this is that many of us have always been intersectional in our vision of feminism (and our rage), and have always known that the world is not designed to accommodate, celebrate, or liberate women, especially those most marginalized among us—women of color, disabled women, and trans women.
TCR: In Vanity Fair’s recent oral history of Bennington, it seemed to me that the affairs between professors and students—and these were undergraduates—were not only common but still romanticized in retrospect as part of a glamorous and decadent literary lifestyle of the time. The tone was jarring, set against our talk of power inequalities and exploitation now, and the carefulness of academia. How can we on the one hand champion an atmosphere in the present in which sexual harassment is justifiably so taboo, and at the same time celebrate these power dynamic transgressions in generations past? Are people only pretending to believe in the political correctness of contemporary academia? Is it still the same old, same old under the surface?
RD: Well, it’s not news that the power dynamics of sex have always been complicated, and of course the academy is a landscape for all sorts of interactions—romantic, intellectual, effective, horrifying—they run the gamut. Universities are microcosms of society, whole universes contained in small spaces, and thus lively and volatile settings for fiction that works to explore questions of agency, desire, and the relationships between subject and object. I’m not so much taking a position on whether these relationships are ever okay; I’m interested in layering all the versions of them, from the 1970’s transgressive/sexy take all the way to the contemporary idea that such connections are by their nature exploitative. Happily for me (and you), the domain of novelists is to find all the messiness and we get the freedom to take into account the contradictions that make stories and even individual characters their most true and interesting selves: agency, adulthood, transgression, power, victimhood, virtue, vice.
TCR: Let’s talk about the medical industrial complex and women. For example, just recently there was a big study citing all the ways that menopause, hysterectomies, hormone therapy, and about one hundred other risk factors predispose women to Alzheimer’s, finally exposing that the fact that women are diagnosed twice as frequently as men is not, actually, about the fact that we live marginally longer. In retrospect, it seems negligent that the medical community has sort of halfheartedly known of these risk factors for a long time but they have never been part of any real public health protocol and most women have no idea that menopause or their response to menopause has anything to do with Alzheimer’s or brain health. It’s also been shown that when men and women show up in an ER complaining about the same degrees of pain, men are given pain medication while women are more frequently told they are “stressed out,” referred to counseling, ignored, or given inadequate medication. What were you exploring about the treatment of women in the medical industry—in particular the cancer industry—in Sam’s story?
RD: When I was a teenager, between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I had an internship working for Michigan Senator Carl Levin. I was tasked that summer with researching National Institute of Health (NIH) provisions and budget recommendations, and I remember one day shouting with surprise when I came to understand how little money was earmarked for research into women’s health. It seemed to me, at nineteen, that resources were being shunted away from women, that our reproductive rights were being challenged not just in the obvious ways (a constant, exhausting effort to prevent women from getting basic, necessary care, to defund Planned Parenthood, and to strip us of human rights like choosing what happens to our bodies), but also in financial, structural ways. I was appalled. And then, I got a little bit older, and watched those injustices continue to bubble under the surface even of the progress we seemed for several decades to be making. And my own body got slightly more frail, tempted by betrayals of various sorts, some of which suggested the possibility of death. Writing Banshee, I wondered about medical appointments I had lived through and also those that my friends were experiencing. For whom and by whom was this system we’d all been suddenly dropped into created? And why did I feel like an alien, parachuted onto some planet where no one was exactly certain how to think about or understand my body, not to mention how to talk to me about it? I ask over and over in the book: what’s the relationship between a body and a life? And I wonder, in my real days and also my fictional mind, to what extent are the literary and private (wildly complicated) aspects of a health crisis honored by our current medical industrial complex? Is my desire to be understood as a 3-D human being, even when I’m in a paper robe on an examination table or in a tube, irrational? And if so, is that irrationality somehow innately feminine? And of course those questions invariably lead me back to power dynamics: which lucky humans get to be subjects and which slightly less lucky ones objects? What happens when we cleave into both? I am often two people in conflict with each other, especially somehow whenever I’m at a doctor’s office, so I found it delightful (if disturbing) to interrogate my own wonder at those interactions.
TCR: One of my very favorite things about Banshee is its refusal to give the reader an easy ending. We leave Sam still not really knowing how ill she may be, not knowing what the impact of her behavior may have had on her marriage or career—though the latter looks pretty bleak—and not knowing what she herself will want if it turns out that she is, post-surgery, reasonably healthy and expected to live a very long time. This made me think a lot about the resistance publishing has developed—in my opinion dating back to about 9/11—to ambiguous books, to books that do not in some way offer up a narrative of reassurance, even if a protagonist behaves badly earlier in the novel. Why did you choose to leave Sam in the moment of her surgery, and did publishers have any reaction to the ending, or in any other way indicate that they wanted Sam’s story to resolve more cleanly or for her to be more repentant?
RD: Thank you. I was trying to be truthful—or straightforward, trying not to gimmick it up. More and more it seems to me that there are so many endings we don’t get to know, including, of course, our own. I wanted in Banshee to find a core of fear (mine and one many of us share), and a giant part of that fear is about not landing on something reassuring. Often we don’t have that luxury, and we almost never have a guarantee of it. As you know, our beautiful friend-in-common, the writer and disability-rights-activist Emily Rapp-Black, often talks and writes about how we’re all only one diagnosis or accident away from living different lives than the one we might mistakenly think we can take for granted. We have to live with uncertainty and ambiguity, and I made the ending of Banshee a painful reflection of that. I was also determined to resist any scene or sense of comeuppance. I didn’t want to punish Sam for her wild behavior, even though/if some of it is inexcusable. Because I’m tired of narratives in which women who act on their impulses, whether base or not, plummet from grace. And finally, I wanted to stay as close in on Sam as possible, and that meant not getting to know what happens to her because she doesn’t get to know. In other words, I, as the writer, and you guys, my beloved readers, have to suffer some of the same ambiguity that drives Sam to burn her own life to the baseboards. Sorry! And you’re welcome!
TCR: This novel obviously brings up huge issues surrounding how we might choose to live if we can see our own deaths looming fairly imminently, vs. how we may choose to live if we have forty or fifty years ahead of us. I have always been kind of fascinated that more people choose to blow things up when they receive a diagnosis that shortens the time they expect to live. I know a great man, actually, who upon getting a cancer diagnosis went home, told his wife of decades that he was leaving, and picked up and moved to New Orleans. My own impulse has always felt almost opposite. If I knew I were going to die next month, I feel like all I’d want to do is focus on the people I love and making it easier for them, whereas if I am going to live inside my own skin and life for decades still, it had better be the life I want to live, and if it isn’t I’m going to disrupt it. Did it take Sam’s illness to liberate her from a life she didn’t really want anymore, or is she just being an asshole—and are those things mutually exclusive?
RD: Ha! Not mutually exclusive. I think Sam says early in the book that this “cancerpalooza” is like getting drunk, that is to say that she is doing things she wanted in her marrow to do anyway. If I found out I was about to perish, I would absolutely hide under a blanket with my lovely daughters and my husband, and also seek out my parents and keep doing the things I most love doing. For me, those things do not involve ruining my life or the lives of the people who trust and count on me. But for Sam they do. One fun aspect of being a novelist is getting to write characters who are the opposite of me – to ride questions of what if – to their furthest reaches. What if I did all the things I would never do? What would that look like? And how would I (or an character) justify those choices? Maybe it’s easiest just to say that what’s true in Sam, or true about both Sam and me, is the inextricable relationship in her between fear and fury. Being afraid makes me furious, because I hate powerlessness. I didn’t want Sam’s fear to come only from external forces or contexts – in fact I worked not to rely on those – but instead also to originate within her. In that sense, having her cells turn traitor was a perfect way to examine what fear might do. Having her betray her own ethical compass by going in a direction that runs counter to my own impulses, felt true in a way that both scared and liberated me. I think in a sense we can quarantine a lot of darkness in our work – and therefore not even be inclined to enact it in our lives. And not be infused or toppled by it.
TCR: Sam is going to lose her breasts, whether she is seriously ill going forward or not. This, alone, is no trivial thing. One thing I notice in the medical industrial complex is that reconstruction is considered part of breast cancer treatment rather than either fully optional or a decision patients make later. It is absolutely assumed on a deeply core level that women want to have breasts and that it is psychologically better for women to have implants than to remain without visible, societally-acceptable breasts. In writing this novel, did you have any revelations about the role of the breast in a post-childbearing woman who will have no future need of breastfeeding?
RD: I don’t really know what the default recommendations are, but I think our bodies are like our manuscripts, utterly individual and sometimes in need of revision, but so un-standard as to be almost untreatable by any standard means. I mean, it’s not possible to revise someone else’s book or body without that person’s sensibilities informing every word choice, each beat of a line. The way I feel about my own breasts may not be similar or even related to how someone else feels about hers (or mine!). I think we have a cultural aversion to change, and to losing anything, and that when we have to give up parts of ourselves, which of course happens in so many ways both literal and figurative as we age, it’s culturally indicated that we should try quickly to replace those parts. And part of it is about beauty, and standards of what we look like or are expected to look like. I’m doubtful that that pattern or strategy works for everyone, and one of the aspects of the medical industrial complex I was grappling with in the book is its ideas of “standard” anything. Standard care, standard recommendations! How can anything standard work for a sampling of women as wide as will need breast cancer surgery, and yet, how can the medical industrial complex understand each person as a fully rendered 3-D human with her own imagination and history and way of interacting with her own body? By being novelists? I haven’t fully solved this question yet, but tell me if you get to a good answer first. . .
TCR: While reading the earlier draft of this novel, I was deeply reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, especially in the scene where Sam walks topless through the park. There was something primal about our real selves being revealed through an utter abandonment of convention and civilization. Who are the writers who influenced you in writing this novel?
RD: So many. Pamela Eren’s intense, visceral book Eleven Hours gave me some kind of permission to imagine such a tight timeline, and to honor the physical experience of a woman as worthy of an entire novel. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen influences everything I write, because of the supremely original, lyrical efficiency of its verses. And James Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain is my favorite, a book I think about no matter what I’m writing, because the language is on fire and the way he drills into each character’s story makes it impossible to look away, or to be sure what behaviors are forgivable or even whether that’s ultimately the question. And Anne Carson’s book The Autobiography of Red matters to me indescribably, because of its gorgeous defiance and poetry. Of course, many of the poetry books that have mattered most to me I put into Banshee directly through Sam Baxter, and that was wild fun. I always put books in my books, tucking them into my characters’ backpacks and interior lives. And my army of girlfriends gave me all sorts of inspirations for this book – from shared terrors and personal and political furies to hilarious solidarities. There’s no way I could have written Banshee without a crowd of brilliant, difficult, full-of-contradiction women in my corner.
TCR: One of the great aspects of Banshee is the way Leah, Sam’s graduate student and lover, has genuine feelings for Sam and yet Leah’s feelings are also inextricable from her desire to advance as a poet and to produce better poetry. This, of course, is at the crux of so much of the power dynamics of sex—it isn’t always as clean as the older, more powerful person “using” or exploiting the younger or less powerful person; it’s also about an exchange, and historically has been a form of albeit problematic mentorship in the lives of many artists. Some might argue that Leah is the one using Sam, and that Sam is the more vulnerable one with a great deal more to lose—not only her marriage and the respect of her daughter, but of course she is potentially very ill and is having a kind of nervous collapse. Were you seeking to complicate this? How did you see Leah’s situation as you wrote the novel?
RD: Leah is supposed to be a badass, with her own ideas, goals, energies, and agency. She makes a pass at Sam, and I find it unsavory that Sam says yes to her since Sam is an adult, and Leah’s young (well, not too young to consent; that would be a different sort of novel, and not one I’m likely to write). But more interesting to me than whether Sam is good or bad is the question of whether we can understand why she does what she does – a philosophical question, rather than, or at least in addition to, a moral one. To me, their power dynamic suggests that Sam is broken, which is clear from the onset of the novel. The idea that Sam finds Leah sexy at all is an issue—but part of what’s happening is that Sam is looking backwards for some other, earlier, healthier, and less mortally-aware version of herself. So Leah is almost, for her, a lovely mirror into which she can safely stare, right at a moment when looking at her own life or body (again, that question of the relationship between our lives and our bodies) has become excruciating. Leah finds Sam sexy because of the poetry. Because Sam has written poems that matter to Leah, and is the captain of Leah’s MFA-workshop-ship. Because of all the reasons we find our mentors and inspirations inspiring, and because the lines between inspiring and desirable are blurry and melt-y. Neither woman is ruined by the encounters they have, but to my mind, it’s reasonable to expect adults in charge of younger people not to abuse their positions of in-charge-ness, and also possible to hold contradictory ideas in mind, and to grant that a twenty-four-year-old woman like Leah should be allowed to have her own agency, and to act on desires that compel her. That there would be a tangled and intractable relationship between Leah’s drive to make meaningful work and to love someone who has inspired her seems to me to be clear and true. And the contradictions of that desire and its realization make for good dramatic engines.
TCR: You’re also a poet and have a forthcoming collection—was it difficult to write the poetry for this novel, and what were you seeking to achieve with it?
RD: I absolutely loved writing the poetry for this novel. I wanted it to be like that scene in the movie Adaptation where Nicolas Cage has an idea and makes a recording of it, thinking he’s a total genius and then it cuts to him twenty seconds later, thinking he’s an absolute asshole and failure. I love that scene so much. I mean, what do we make, in our potential final moments, of what we’ve made? Was it enough? How could it be? Sam wants to have made beautiful work in the world, but now, in addition to staring down her own worst and basest self, she also has to consider the possibility that her poems aren’t an adequate record, haven’t made her romp on the planet worthwhile. There’s some existential brutality in that, and I think most writers endure it even when we’re not dying imminently. So the poems are lively, but also flawed, just like Sam.
TCR: I feel like this novel should be in the lobby of every major breast cancer center in the country. Have you had any response yet from breast cancer survivors or those currently in treatment?
RD: That would be nice! Would you mind joining forces with my publicist? I have gotten letters from breast cancer survivors, really nice ones about how close they felt to Sam’s voice and mind, and how brave the book felt and made them feel. Of course, I think this book might also be tricky for some survivors, and I welcome all parts of that conversation and will be delighted to have it with anyone who wants to write me.
TCR: Finally, in a recent event we did together, there was much talk about how if Sam were a man behaving this way, this wouldn’t even be a novel, per se, because it’s a story we all know far too well already. And yet even the jacket copy on Banshee opens up with a line that essentially judges Sam in advance, and at that same reading I’m referring to, numerous audience questions addressed the “morality” of Sam’s actions, with phrases like “inexcusable” and “atrocious” and “mistake” being continuously used. I’m going to ask a question that may not be answerable, but essentially if this story would barely be a story if its protagonist were a man, yet Sam’s behavior is widely regarded as “immoral” and crappy, even in the copy written by the book’s own publisher, which is the message being sent: that it is completely normative and unremarkable and not even worth dissecting that men are, by and large, immoral; or that women are judged by entirely different standards than men, still, even in a feminist novel published by a feminist press?
Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction and a forthcoming memoir, Blow Your House Down. Her novel A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014) is currently under development by Netflix, and her most recent novel, Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint 2016) was included on several “best of” lists for 2016, including Chicago Magazine’s and The Chicago Review of Books’. She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus for three years and as the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, interviews, book reviews and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, the LA Times, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, Buzzfeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, LARB, and in many other magazines and anthologies. Gina is the faculty advisor for The Coachella Review. www.ginafrangello.org