The Rage-Trance and Fragmented Narratives

SJ Sindu

Publisher’s note: Our anthology The Female Complaint includes two contributions by SJ Sindu, “Husband Hunting, or The Survival of Indian Arranged Marriage in Worcester, Massachusetts” and “Test Group 4: Womanhood and Other Failures.” Each story consists of brief, seemingly disparate segments, stitched together by the common theme of the characters’ experiences of suffocating gender expectations in their Sri Lankan and Indian families. Here the author describes the anger that fueled her writing and inspired the use of the fragmented narrative form.

For the first five years of my serious writing career—I’m talking here from the time I decided to pursue writing in my junior year of college to the time I graduated from my master’s program—I wrote from rage. Pure, unadulterated, fresh—rage against my body for the way it stubbornly held onto fat, against my family for their insistence on me getting an arranged marriage, against my school and town for making it so hard to live as a queer person.

The anger bubbled up in me every time I sat down to write. I wrote my first novel in the grip of that trance, and it didn’t surprise me when a recent reader told me she felt it was written by a crusader, by someone who had skin in the game.

But once I finished that novel—polished it and handed it over to my agent—the fury ebbed. It still simmers under me sometimes. I can feel it, just under the surface. But I can’t write from that rage anymore, not the way I did before. Now when I write, my mind is peaceful, more meditative than angry. And if I may say so, my writing is so much the better for it.

I’m saying all this to say that these two stories in The Female Complaint, “Husband Hunting” and “Test Group 4,” were both written, revised, and polished in this trance-like rage, one of the most curious effects of which plays out in form. My anger has fragmented these stories. Perhaps it’s because anger is not sustainable as an emotion. I could write only little bits and pieces at a time, couldn’t make myself stay in the trance for more than an hour. Almost all of the little fragments in both stories were written at different times, sometimes years apart, and then put together into a coherent whole. “Test Group 4” was the last short piece I wrote this way. It was as if after writing it, and after writing my novel, I had put those demons to rest.

An interesting thing happened after that. My writing got longer, more stretched out, less condensed and cramped. I discovered flow. I could stay in my newly meditative trance for hours. And as I mentioned before, I believe my writing is better because of it.

But I am thankful for the rage I felt, the rage I was able to channel during those first five years. Many beginning writers find it so hard to actually put words to paper, to train their bodies and minds to the rigor of writing day in and day out. But this rage made meeting that challenge easier. Writing became my own anger management program, and I siphoned fury through my pen, through my fingers onto the page.

Now, I offer it to you, this rage that has calcified and recorded my anger voice, in the hopes that if you’re feeling consumed by the type of fury that once took hold of me, you’ll find peace in these words.

SJ Sindu is a PhD student at Florida State University. Her creative writing has appeared in Harpur Palate, VIDA, Black Girl Dangerous, and elsewhere, and her debut novel is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press.

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Godiva with books

The Wintry Vagueness

Cathleen Calbert

Publisher’s note: In Cathleen Calbert’s story “The Star of the North” (in our anthology The Female Complaint), a Californian spends a disorienting year in St. Paul, Minnesota, “where people were nicer and taller and grayer,” and finds herself feeling ambivalent about all the things she thought she wanted. Here, Cathleen explains some of her inspirations for the story.

My story “The Star of the North” derives in part from a year I spent in Minnesota. I actually liked St. Paul: nice people (of course), lots of bookstores, and good cafés. However, the winter was indeed tough (though the magic of making snow out of boiling water provided a moment of delight).

Also, living in “the Star of the North,” I experienced something of what it is to be a “faculty wife,” since my partner had a one-year teaching position and I was supposed to be doing something . . . artistic.

I think it’s not easy to hold onto one’s sense of self when one suddenly becomes secondary, “the spouse” (even with the insanely good blessings of a sabbatical). The character of Laura comes out of that sense of displacement in both role and setting. And when I wasn’t trying to write out of my wintry vagueness, I too amused myself reading classified and personal ads. Introverts Unite!

Cathleen Calbert, winner of a Nation Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize, and other honors, is a Professor of English at Rhode Island College. She has published three books of poems: Lessons in SpaceBad Judgment, and Sleeping with a Famous Poet; a fourth, The Afflicted Girls, is forthcoming.

No One Will Understand, No One Will Believe

Rosalie Morales Kearns

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re offering Lynn Kanter’s novel Her Own Vietnam (paperback) at 50% off and free shipping. The discount is available only on our website, where you can also read about the accolades for the book, including an Indiefab award for military fiction and praise from the national magazine of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

The protest movement against the Vietnam War was a formative influence on Lynn, who was a teenager at the time and went on to a lifetime of hell-raising for social justice causes. Just a couple of years ago, her Facebook profile picture showed her being arrested near the White House in a demonstration for immigrants’ rights. Is that bad-ass or what?

When Lynn decided to write a novel from the perspective of a U.S. Army nurse who’s stationed in Vietnam, she spent years doing research and conducting interviews with female veterans.

Reading the novel made me understand what should have been obvious: medical personnel in a war zone deal with horrific battlefield injuries all day every day, and they come home traumatized from it. Another eye-opener for me was learning that even when treatment for post-traumatic stress was eventually made available for Vietnam vets, the nurses weren’t eligible: they were told they couldn’t possibly have PTSD because they “hadn’t been in combat.” Continue reading

Characters You Imagine, People You Never Meet

Glendaliz Camacho

Publisher’s note: In the Small Press Picks review of our anthology The Female Complaint, one of the stories singled out for praise was Glendaliz Camacho’s “Noelia and Amparo,” which “turns the traditional wife-mistress/unfaithful husband tale on its head.” Here Glendaliz describes her “unearned homesickness” for a mythologized Dominican Republic, and how it inspired the story.

The Dominican Republic is a mythologized place for me.

In thirty-six years, I’ve been there once for a few weeks as a tourist, but it’s a place that cannot escape my imagination. Since I grew up in the most famously Dominican neighborhood outside the country, it revealed enough of itself to engender love and wonder. It’s the noncustodial parent I idealize, but having grown up as American as MTV and breakfast cereal, I find that its inner workings will always be unknowable to me. I suppose I set so many of my stories in the Dominican Republic to cure myself of this curious case of unearned homesickness.

In the same vein, I imagined characters in “Noelia and Amparo” in order to know people I would never meet—in particular, my great-grandmother. I had only heard snippets of things about her over the years. My father grew up in her house with many of his cousins. At night, when they called out goodnight to their grandmother from their beds, they faked other voices until they exploded into giggles and she realized that, Wait a minute, there cannot be that many grandkids here. Continue reading

Your Mid-Flight Snack: A Little Psychological Warfare

Joanna Lesher

Publisher’s note: In this post, Joanna Lesher describes the inspiration behind “Diversion,” her hilarious contribution to our anthology The Female Complaint. The story takes place in the cramped quarters of a turboprop plane, where the narrator overhears the boasts of a misogynist male passenger and decides to take a subtle revenge. You’ll never think of flight turbulence the same way again.

Like most of the stories I write, “Diversion” is a combination of truth and wishful thinking.

In 2011, I was living in Hiroshima and working as a teacher at a private English conversation school.

Though English is a compulsory subject for every Japanese student, the lessons focus primarily on reading and writing. As a result, many Japanese English learners have trouble with speaking and listening comprehension. Hence the market for conversation schools.

And hence the tendency of some male foreigners to make lewd comments in English about Japanese women, secure in the assumption that these women wouldn’t understand what was being said about them. Continue reading

Along Came the Questioners

Catherine Haustein

Publisher’s note: “Grave to Cradle,” one of the stories in our anthology The Female Complaint, envisions a nightmarish near-future where everything—including science—is owned by the “Cochton” family, a nifty combination of the Koch brothers and the Walton (Walmart-owning) family. My favorite line: a resuscitated Isaac Newton tells the protagonist, “I’ve avoided women as I have avoided being shot through the knee with an arrow, but I find you affable.” Here the author, chemist Catherine Haustein, discusses how she came to write the story.

I almost don’t dare tell how I came to write “Grave to Cradle.” It started with a politician visiting my school. She came to discuss the future of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education in Iowa. Being a chemistry professor, I was summoned. The politician, groomed by special interests, reached out to us with a message that sounded like this: Our corporate donors need your science to make more money. Give it to us and you will be rewarded. And so will we.

There was no wonder or curiosity, no joy, no “We the people.” The slums wouldn’t be saved; the poor wouldn’t be cured. It was science for the selfish, and it was ugly. I was ashamed of myself for being a scientist. Continue reading

I Can’t Promise That No One Gets Killed

Rosalie Morales Kearns

Publisher’s note: This is the introduction I wrote for our short story anthology The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women (Shade Mountain Press, 2015).

There are so many stories behind these stories.

First, the anthology’s title phrase, with its multiple meanings that can’t be pinned down. The term “female complaint” evokes nineteenth-century patent medicines. It hints that femaleness itself is some kind of malady. It speaks to the patriarchal tendency to dismiss outspoken women as complainers.

Then there’s the story of why I chose this theme, which is connected to the story of why the pieces are all by women writers, and that’s connected to the story of why I started Shade Mountain Press. Some readers may remember a glorious wave of women’s anthologies in the 1980s and early ’90s, titles like Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers; Dreams in a Minor Key: Tales of Magic Realism by Women; and What Did Miss Darrington See? An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction. I was in my twenties at the time, and I devoured these books; I was starved for them. The canon was skewed male; most of the work I was assigned or encouraged to read had been by male authors. Now it seemed that just over the horizon was an era when this exclusion of women would be a thing of the past. Continue reading