Troubling the Waters
Judy Ruiz, John Wideman, Lance Olsen, and My Astonishing Students
Melanie rae thon
Troubling the Waters
Judy Ruiz, John Wideman, Lance Olsen, and My Astonishing Students
Melanie rae thon
Since I began teaching in the PhD Creative Writing Program at University of Utah 15 years ago, I have become increasingly aware of the explosions, fusions, and transformations of fictional forms. My colleagues and students are brilliantly innovative, and their work challenges me aesthetically, intellectually, ethically, spiritually, and emotionally. Rather than trying to speak of broad trends in American (or global!) literature, I’d like to evoke some of the gorgeously inventive, genre-defying prose (and lyric prose) I’ve encountered in published and student work over the past 30 years. My wish here—and in the classroom—is to liberate writers, readers, and myself from rules and inhibitions, to give us permission to investigate the subject matter we find most disturbing and mysterious in catalytic forms that amplify and deepen the intensity and resonance of our material.
“I am sleeping, hard, when my telephone rings. It’s my brother, and he’s calling to say that he is now my sister. I feel something fry a little, deep behind my eyes. Knowing how sometimes dreams get mixed up with not-dreams, I decide to do a reality test at once. ‘Let me get a cigarette’, I say, knowing that if I reach for a Marlboro and it turns into a trombone or a snake or anything else on the way to my lips that I’m still in the large world of dreams.
“The cigarette stays a cigarette. I light it. I ask my brother to run that stuff by me again.”
So begins Judy Ruiz’s astonishing autobiographical essay, “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy,” a piece that will travel from this startling confession to meditations on oranges, gender confusion and transformation, her detention in a psych ward, and her father’s extravagant beauty and brutality.
Along the way she will unconceal the imagined and real violence of her own sexual history, her rage toward her father, and her dream of transcendent forgiveness as he loses his potency and ultimately his life to cancer.
All this in seven pages.
At its heart, “Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy” is an intimate journey, the strange sorrow of a woman losing the boy she loves while hoping to embrace the joy of a sister.
The essay might have been composed in an entirely conventional, linear form. Beneath the daring leaps, the movement from breach to conflict, crisis, redression, and potential reintegration is elegantly visible.
But Ruiz is invested in amplifying the reader’s experience by performing her own disarray and despair.
“There is a pattern to this thought as there is a pattern for a jumpsuit. Sew the sleeve to the leg, sew the leg to the collar. Put the garment on. Sew the mouth shut. This is how I tell about being quiet because I am bad, and because I cannot stand it when he beats me or my brother.”
Reading this passage, I cannot stop myself from imagining the jumpsuit, the painful contortions of a child’s body, leg torqued to the neck, small mouth sewn shut.
Her brother’s disclosure follows: “The first time I got caught in your clothes was when I was four years old. Dad beat me so hard I thought I was going to die. I really thought I was going to die. . . .”
“I tell him I know how it feels to think you are in the wrong body. I tell him I wanted my boyfriend to put a gun up inside me and blow the woman out . . . ”
Jolting from revelation to obsession, the turbulence of imagery and form inflame each other—the pain is visceral, my own terrifying dreams suddenly irrupting.
Grace comes with grief. Ruiz and her brother—you and I—survive not by castration or contortion, but through wonder, love, surrender, and imagination:
“I will tell my brother there is no perfect rhyme for the word ‘orange’, and that if we can just make up a good word we can be immortal. . . . I have purchased a black camisole with lace to send to my new sister. And a card. On the outside there’s a drawing of a woman sitting by a pond and a zebra off to the left. Inside are these words: ‘The past is ended. Be happy’. And I have asked my companions to hold me and I have cried. My self is wet and small. But it is not dark. Sometimes, if no one touches me, I will die.
“Sister, you are the best craziness of the family. Brother, love what you love.”
One of the ways we catalyze our own work and inspire our students is to disrupt form, interpolating diverse discourses, juxtaposing an almost impossible spectrum of details—so strange, so irreconcilable, we may not understand our own weird conflations. Synapses crackle and spark: we human beings love a challenge.
Entering and living with John Wideman’s Fever in 1990 triggered the equivalent of the Big Bang in my imagination: suddenly I felt consciousness expanding exponentially. He calls the title piece a “meditation on history,” and indeed, it is an elegant account of the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—but it is also a lyrical exploration of the ways we are all connected through time and space, our histories intertwined, our boundaries as fluid as the waters at the center of the story. The progression of the fever and its ultimate dissipation provides a recognizable narrative trajectory, a line of chronology, dramatic tension. Wideman infuses this familiar form with dazzling complexity: contemporary scientific and medical information about Yellow Fever and the mosquitoes that carry the disease, excerpts from historical documents, allusions to the 1985 police bombing of the row house where members of MOVE had relocated, a penetrating vision of a slave chained in a ship and the mosquito who enters him . . . The disparate speakers and focalizers include an ancient Jewish man, an educated black preacher, a white doctor, a black man caring for aging Anglos in a nursing home, and a poetic, haunted voice that seems as if it might represent Wideman’s own transcendent sensibilities. To call this a “story” in any conventional sense is to diminish the multitude of its dynamic dimensions.
I imagine Wideman’s model is one I’ll be seeking to emulate the rest of my life. The first time I experienced “Fever,” I understood less than 10% of its wonders—but that 10% was infinitely rewarding. I knew that as I read and reread this astonishing work, its secrets would slowly begin to accumulate and lead me toward fleeting moments of pure apprehension, a transfiguration of the mind and spirit that approaches something I can only describe as sacred awareness.
My miraculous colleague Lance Olsen is one of the most daring inventors I know.
How do you enter a story whose title is: “Why, When It Dreams Our World, the Lobster Is Not a Telephone”?
LOB-STER—N. ANY OF VARIOUS large, edible, marine, stalk-eyed decapod crustaceans having large asymmetrical pincers on their first pair of legs, one used for crushing and the other for cutting and tearing; the shell turns crimson when cooked. . . .
Edible? Crimson when cooked? Decontextualizing a dictionary definition heightens these disturbing assertions.
Indeed, we leap from this into the fully embodied consciousness of a woman named Lola as she tongues her teeth and observes lobsters in the tank of a restaurant foyer, contemplating which one she prefers, choosing the creature who seems most courageous for dinner.
The female lobster carries live sperm for up to two years. She may opt to fertilize her 3,000 to 75,000 eggs (each the size of a pinhead) at any time during this period.
And we’re off! On our wild joyride through multiple sensibilities, we’ll encounter a husband tormented by jealousy, Joan Rivers, Salvador Dali, and of course Grady Stiles, the Lobster Boy, a sideshow attraction whose hands and feet resemble the claws of that large, edible crustacean, the glorious lobster whose blood turns blue when exposed to oxygen and becomes an opaque whitish gel when the animal is boiled.
Yes, boiled alive—please, do not forget—shocked, stunned—the lobster, split open and eaten alive, eaten raw while still quiveringly conscious.
Stabbed and picked apart, the beautiful being whose blood and eggs and sperm generate infinite possibilities of life, of story: the lobster, an arthropod related to spiders who are “related to angels in the sense that both species possess eight limbs (angels commonly having two sets of wings) and profound hope.”
Profound, futile hope. Eleven pages into this delirious lobster dream I find words to crack my own consciousness open. Profound Hope, linking spiders and angels, ants offering their lives to protect their colony, Kevin Federline watching videos of his ex, Grady Stiles shooting his daughter’s fiancé, Michael Jackson carving his face to uncanny dimensions—and Britney Spears, another suffering creature who wants more than anything not to be mocked, exposed, eviscerated live on stage, consumed by viewers ready to pierce with ridicule.
The thrill of this fiction for me is the exhilaration of shared discovery, the sense that Lance Olsen, the composer and compiler of these magical meditations, began his investigation with curiosity and attention, that he followed his imagination, keeping faith that if he stayed down long enough, dwelling in the minds and bodies of all these holy creatures, their secrets might shimmer through the web, ever so fleetingly, radiantly visible.
I don’t advocate formal play for its own sake, but as a means of intensification that slows perception and ignites ethical inquiry. This attention, this insane joy, is the genesis, the heart, the hot core and dark energy of story.
The examples I offer transgress the boundaries of form and genre, exposing historiography, science, medicine, memoir, and the nightly news as speculative fictions. They offer lyrical associative thought and fictional inquiry as means of approaching expanded consciousness and spiritual illumination. I don’t know that this is a trend in contemporary fiction; I can’t make that kind of claim. But I see these possibilities everywhere. Our students seem increasingly unfettered, willing to create fabulist fictions that are also poems—daring enough to appropriate the language of a documentary film in order to compose a harrowing, disturbingly comic confession through the voice of a woman whose father was a Nazi soldier. They are haunted by the murders of friends, the incarcerations of veterans, the slaughter of animals, the estrangement of friends, the dementia of grandparents. Familiar as these sufferings might be, the freedom to disrupt form and embrace ambiguity gives all of us the opportunity to see, as Chang Tzu encouraged us to see, “the world hiding in the world.”
Selections from this essay were delivered as part of a panel presentation Weird Science: Strategies to Encourage Innovative Writing in the Workshop at the AWP Convention in Minneapolis, 2015.
Olsen, Lance. “Why, When It Dreams Our World, the Lobster Is Not a Telephone.” How to Unfeel the Dead. Toronto: Teksteditions, 2014.
Ruiz, Judy.“Oranges and Sweet Sister Boy.”
Wideman, John. Fever. New York, Penguin, 1990.