2019 Contest: Interview with Nonfiction Judge Selah Saterstrom
Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels Slab, The Meat and The Spirit Plan, and The Pink Institution. Her collection of essays, Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics, won the 2015 Essay Book Award. She teaches and lectures across the United States, and is the Director of Creative Writing at The University of Denver.
Interview by Sarah Cheshire
Black Warrior Review: Your first novel “The Pink Institution” exquisitely weaves together lyrical prose and poetic verse, using fragmentation and rupture to prod the disquieted spaces carved from violence and inherited trauma. The Pink Institution had a huge impact on me as an emerging writer in that it shattered my perceptions of the possibilities of form. What does hybridity mean to you and what can it do?
Selah Saterstrom: Thank you so much for reading The Pink Institution with such a keening eye and heart.
What does hybridity mean to me? I’m not sure I can offer an efficient response in this moment! Here are some observations: Hybridity is not a new movement, but an ancient one. Hybridity is about intimacy. Hybridity is about power. Hybridity can happen through collaboration or by coercion and force. Its result can be stunning. Its result can be a wound that burns the length of generations and inside of bodies. Hybridity is about paradox. Hybridity is about contradiction.
Backtracking a bit, as you know, the hybrid’s illustrious guts deeply root in animal husbandry, referring to the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar (archaeology suggests farmers domesticated pigs at least 9,000 years ago!). Hybridity is for sure, on some level, about fucking. We could begin by saying that the hybrid is historically read as the bloom-expression of an intimate union between what is wild and what is tame.
Hybridity also excites in permaculture and horticulture circles: astonishing emanations! Hybridity provides numerous paradigms that light up all the vectors: technology, healthcare, sustainability, and so on. What do writers mean by hybridity? Perhaps at its most basic, it is code for a zone where genres puncture and conjunct. Or: where genres breathe into one another and “conjunct”. Or: bleed into one another. Hybridity will work with any mood or frequency. These conjunctions might utilize the interruption, the rupture, the trespass, the waking into/within, and so and on. Through intimate techniques, identity slips into a multivalent intelligence: “Make yourself comfortable while I slip into something a little more…” Something more.
But you know this term “hybrid” has other depths, often avoided. Dominant culture might say, “Oh yeah that difficult stuff is there, but that isn’t the part we mean…” Sometimes I have wondered if contemporary auto-fiction and other experimental ethnographical modes of writing are responses to the limitations of hybridity as it has been invoked (that is, as a white-washed category).
For example, if the hybrid is the result of the tame mating with the wild, what does this mean for our vanishing wilderness? What does this mean in the death-light of programs meant to tame? Historically, who gets to use the term hybrid while also profiting from it? And who forced these couplings? And who gets to watch and for how much? Part of hybridity’s DNA is its hidden, always-waking call to consider the conditions that created it.
Sometimes I also wonder if hybridity is less a category, and more of an inborn feature of language itself.
BWR: You currently live in Denver; quite far, geographically and culturally, from your childhood home of Mississippi. As a southerner myself, I am very aware— especially when I leave the South— of the fraught position the region occupies in our country’s larger cultural imagination. What sorts of reactions do you get when you tell people you’re from Mississippi? How do you talk about the Deep South to folks who are unfamiliar with the region? Overall, how does your connection to place inform your writing?
Selah: A long time ago I asked someone I was in love with if he had ever been to Mississippi. His response: “No, but we can all spell it can’t we?” I have never forgotten this moment! But why? I don’t know.
When I tell people I’m from Mississippi the response is never one that centers jealousy (to be from such a place) or affirmation (I want to go to such a place). I usually get a look that says: “Damn.” Sometimes this look seems to understand the complexity of the “Hospitality State” and sometimes I can’t read the look at all.
People have feelings about my accent. Some find it intense while others volunteer they can’t hear it. Most people feel like they can comment on it. Most people have something to say about what it means about me.
Recently someone told me my accent had softened. She said it like she was saying an insult. Because we are both from the same place I knew that, in fact, it was an insult. Her words felt like a slap and I could feel my face stinging into a bright red while in her presence. My own voice had betrayed me, but what was betrayed was also inaccurate. Which, coincidentally, is often how I felt while growing up in Mississippi.
I feel profound love for Mississippi. For me, as a queer white woman, this includes dealing with racism, abuse, and poverty in my own bloodline and its affects within myself, mentally, physically, and spiritually. To love Mississippi, for me, is to be in love with a liberation process because that is the work to be done. The process is painful and extends the invitation to face and deal with trauma, collective and personal.
BWR: In her famous essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature,” Flannery O’Connor said, “ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.” What haunts your writing? What are ghosts symbolically? What do they reposit?
Selah: What are ghosts, and what do they reposit? I like your questions, Sarah: they don’t fuck around! Ha! Much like with your excellent question concerning hybridity, I’m not sure I can offer an efficient answer in this moment. Furthermore, there are different sorts of ghosts. You mention the symbolic, but that is only one category of ghosts. My life is flush with different sorts of ghosts and it has been this way since I can recall. Someone once told me that ghosts are the movie stars of all my stories. And you know what? That someone who said that was a ghost.
The book I’m finishing now is about a retired psychic detective. Her job was to talk to ghosts on behalf of The Law. For a long time this narrator stuck me as a real asshole, let me tell you. I didn’t know how I was supposed to spend years with her (the time spent writing the book), but now we are old friends. Now, I know I will miss her terribly. Now I know I’ll never recover from having loved her! She taught me a lot about ghosts and the novel includes her own dissertation on the classification of ghosts as an appendix.
She has a mentor, too. And so he enters the frame. He is the neurologist, Dr. Jules Cotard, who was a real guy who, in 1880, identified and developed the study of a mental illness we now recognize as Cotard’s Delusion (sometimes referred to the Walking Corpse Syndrome). A person with Cotard’s Syndrome believes they are already dead. Everything is business as usual, only we are all dead. It is only by some trick or accident that we’ve gotten the wires so switched as to think it the other way round. One of the things Dr. Cotard learns is that his patients make a very compelling case, indeed.
Absolutely none of this answers your question!
Do all ghosts signal unresolveds? I’ve never met a content ghost. Have you? They might exist. But I haven’t met one.
I’d say: ghosts reposit presence (which absence is a form of). So we say: ghosts move stuff around; stuff gets moved around. It sure does! All that clanking chatter in the attic, all that dragging slur in the basement. Richard Rohr says that pain that doesn’t get transformed gets transmitted. Until we see, acknowledge, own, resolve, shift, and heal our shit, there will be ghosts and every location will be a potential charnel ground.
BWR: Before you were a professional writer, you obtained a Masters in Theology from the University of Glasgow. Your interest in religion eclipses much of your work, and is a central point of inquiry in your newest novel, “Divinatory Poetics.” What do you understand the relationship between religion/ spirituality and creative work to be? What does the act of getting “inspired” look like for you?
Selah: I don’t experience a hard line separating my writing practice and my spiritual practice (though the practices don’t always look alike). The two inform one another constantly and radically, both always performing midrash on uncertainty, as they do.
I feel like a very dense person who takes forever at learning love’s forms. For me getting inspired looks like a daily practice and commitment to seeing and listening better. It is hard, daily work.
BWR: What did you inherit from the women who share your blood?
Selah: I inherited their stories. In my family everything becomes stories, so this is what gets passed down.
Stories can be a lot of things. For example, stories can be recipes. They can contain active agents: they can give strength, courage, advice, and healing principles. I can read some of the stories I inherited and some, not yet. Even now there are a hundred closed books inside of my blood waiting to be read once my life uncovers the light these stories require in order to become legible.
I have learned that this inheritance is also about what I do with the material – how I hold it in my body, heart, and mind. At times this means a need to transform or transmute the material. For example, healing or shifting transgenerational trauma can require this.
BWR: As a gifted long-time tarot reader, what advice might you give those who are just learning the craft?
Selah: I encourage those just starting to work with the cards to read Rachel Pollack’s classics, Forest of Souls and Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom. I would encourage those who feel the tug of the cards to allow these questions to haunt you:
- How can I listen better?
- How do I position my multiple selves in the guts of the flux while remaining sentient, oriented towards justice, and able, through a variety of modes and practices, to offer visibility to some poignant patterns?
BWR: What major arcana card has guided your path recently?
Selah: Every Sunday I draw a card for the week ahead. I call this the Healing Principle card. The paradigm of the card (its web of meanings) becomes a sort of sieve that every thing that happens in the week moves through. As such it illuminates strands of experience I might otherwise overlook. It makes connections between narratives that lead to portals to other useful or insightful depths.
In the past two months, I’ve drawn The World card again and again as the weekly Healing Principle card. Everything is in this card/paradigm. It is, after all, The World. It includes the entire mess of beauty and terror; the deaths and the rebirths; the sun-side and the moon-side of any given situation. It can be overwhelming, stimulating, and charged while also being simultaneously contained. It trips and slips over its multitudinous unfixed lines while also maintaining its form. One of its favorite costumes is the Ouroboros.
It invites us to think of boundaries (which invite us to look more closely at our own abandonment issues). It invites celebration (and shows us why we struggle to celebrate in healthy ways). It invites introspection (while blasting Death Metal).
The World card figures a profound kind of being-with; an imminence, and the way imminence radicalizes the present moment (harnessing its momentum that we might pitch new, inspired narratives). The World card represents the Hermeneutic Circle and reminds us that we can’t get out of it so we have to decide how we are going to be in it. How are we going to be in this? We have to ask this question every day.
BWR: What kind of work are you hoping to see in our contest?
Selah: I experience the sentence as a field with its own ecologies, atmospheres, textures, hauntings. These fields can look and work in a lot of different ways. In other words, “nonfiction” can assume many forms for me as a reader. I am excited to read work that blooms through the urgency of its own poignant processes.