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Julia Ingalls: Reader Abuse

December 18, 2013

A conversation with Julia Ingalls on the fiction and non-fiction of child abuse.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

We, Monsters by Zarina Zabrisky is the kind of unapologetic, visceral novel that explores the tenuous boundary between literature and reader exploitation. Structured as a travelogue of increasingly bizarre sexual behavior in a Bay Area sex dungeon, We, Monsters exposes the central character one leather-encased zipper tooth at a time. While this may seem more titillating than exploitative, the heart of the narrative beats with a much darker, less palatable blood. A stay-at-home-Mom-turned-dominatrix, Mistress Rose starts working in the dungeon in order to write a novel but starts to unravel when she meets Mike, a psychologically manipulative stranger who gets his rocks off by uncovering people’s darkest secrets. We go further and further back into Mistress Rose’s past until we are at the disturbing center of the novel: an episode of abuse whose unsentimental recounting is all the more horrible—and moving—for its precision.

Child abuse is singularly disturbing to write about, but there is a difference between cathartic purge, which is healing for the victim, and literary treatise, which is great for the audience. The subject matter, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is challenging to critique without sounding insensitive or callous, but that’s what critics are for: to define the line between assholery and art. Nabokov seems to get a pass with Lolita because of how he tackles larger issues of sexuality and masculinity in society, reducing his articulate narrator into Lolita’s hapless reject. In contrast to Nabokov, what does a direct account from the victim herself (or himself) do to a reader? How convincing should—or can—an author be, and how critical is it to know whether or not the writing comes from the writer’s own past? Does child abuse make for a good read? Or, like Holocaust footage, it is necessary in and of itself to remind readers that such travesties happen more regularly than we think about them?

We, Monsters, a gripping, nuanced exploration of how child abuse affects its adult victims, might be the answer. In Zabrisky’s hands, the brutal subject matter is leavened with emotion, humor, and an honest exploration of female sexuality. Much like Lolita, it is slyly funny and richly characterized, allowing the reader to develop empathy for anti-heroes. Most importantly, the book is a work of fiction, which upholds the conventions of craft to tell a universal story. As with her short story collection Iron, the brutality and urgency of the subject matter is presented in flights of gorgeous prose, capped by her hardlined native-Ukranian outlook.

I first met Zabrisky outside The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles after she read from a story about a Russian heroin addict escaping thugs. She seemed equal parts forceful and vulnerable; if we ever got into a fight she would easily knock me to the ground but then comfort me in my defeat. Her reading was accompanied by Dick Dale’s 1960s surf guitar anthem “Misirlou,” which, while whimsical on the surface, is propelled by a dangerous undercurrent. Listening to her read again at the Literary Death Match and the Roar Shack reading series, where her theatrics amplified her work, I was keen to hear more. We spoke via Skype to discuss the difficult process of crafting a raw, powerful story into a taut, dignified work.

Julia Ingalls for Guernica

Guernica: I wanted to ask you about your structural choices, specifically your choice to use footnotes. Was that something you knew you were going to do from the start?

Zarina Zabrisky: It came naturally in the earlier stages of the book. I was always fascinated by Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which was in the back of my mind while I wrote We, Monsters. Footnotes, or a split page, is natural for a native Russian reader. Most classic Russian novels have a split page, like War and Peace, or anything by Dostoevsky. Because we are taught to write and speak in French, part of the text would be written in French, but then it would be translated into Russian and included as a footnote. A real novel has to have footnotes. In the case of We, Monsters I did it for main character and her double-life, her split life. Of course, some readers will not read the footnotes. I asked my American friends, “How often do you read footnotes?” and the answer was, not frequently. [Laughs.] However, for me, it was important that there was already a background that sat still on the page.

Their libido eventually goes dormant because they’re not participating in their own fantasies, they’re acting out someone else’s.

Guernica: The interplay between the footnotes and the main text made me distrust both the footnotes and the narrator. I felt like I was in the middle of two unreliable narrators.

Zarina Zabrisky: That was intentional.

Guernica: The novel deals with sex very frankly; you write in a way that is both forthright and funny. The conversations the women in the sex dungeon have are surprising in how mundane they seem: body image issues, life goals…and how best to deal with the foot fetishist customer! Whether or not the reader can relate to these women professionally, a personal intimacy does develop listening to them being simultaneously hilarious and gritty. Mistress Rose’s recurring Cleopatra fantasy, in which she becomes Cleopatra and slays a slave after having sex with him, makes her even more real to me. Was this motif—a woman reclaiming her sexuality by murdering her lover—something you learned while writing We, Monsters?

Zarina Zabrisky: The Cleopatra fantasy was a later development. When I wrote the first draft of the novel, agents in New York told me to “sexualize the narratives and make the workers in the dungeon more exotic and erotic.” But that’s not what the novel is about; I was outraged. No women in my novel have any kind of sexual life or fantasies. I spent about nine months studying women—their fantasies, their conversations—and observing sex workers in the dungeons and on the street. Their libido eventually goes dormant because they’re not participating in their own fantasies, they’re acting out someone else’s. Libido is not a part of their adulthood. But my main character does retain her sexuality as she awakens to her past. The Cleopatra fantasy became more personal to me, and to her, and helped her find her true self.

Guernica: Thematic repetition and foresight strengthen Mistress Rose’s story. When she confronts Mike at the end, there is a clear echo to the Cleopatra fantasy she’s been having. Similarly, the scene in which she revisits her childhood trauma is especially painful—but not exactly surprising.

Zarina Zabrisky: I’m glad the echo came across! I like to use them in my work.

Childhood memories are generally more convex and chiseled and brighter than the grown-up versions. That’s what happens.

Guernica: The language in that central scene, the revelation of abuse, is much more vivid than the scenes in the Bay Area that are gray and gloomy.

Zarina Zabrisky: I don’t know that that was intentional. When I write, I see it like a 3D movie. The childhood scenes were brighter to my internal cinematographer. Language reflects the reasons.

Guernica: The language in each section distinguishes between her unhappy adulthood and these brief moments of happiness, even though her childhood overall is not very happy. In fact I found the section about her childhood especially beautiful, until we get to the traumatic scenes. Were these contrasts a conscious choice?

Zarina Zabrisky: Childhood memories are generally more convex and chiseled and brighter than the grown-up versions. That’s what happens.

Guernica: Why did you decide to make this your first published work?

Zarina Zabrisky: I didn’t decide right away, even though I was writing it for a long time. At some point, I knew it was something that I wanted to share because I felt like I was actually saying something that I wanted others to hear. I don’t think of myself as a socially aware writer. Writing is much more than delivering a political or social message: it’s about sharing something that feels so real. Although I should state that my character is not based on personal experience; I didn’t grow up in Odessa, for example.

Guernica: Do we need to remind people what fiction is? The line between fiction and non-fiction is eroding. Creative non-fiction is outselling fiction because people have become skeptical about the power and purpose of fiction. It seems people have a hard time separating the two.

Zarina Zabrisky: That’s something for my readers to explore, hopefully through the book.

Julia Ingalls is primarily an essayist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, Salon, Dwell, The LA Weekly, The Nervous Breakdown and KCRW.

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