Saturday, October 15, 2022

Q&A with Debra Monroe


Photo by Joe M. O'Connell



Debra Monroe is the author of the new essay collection It Takes a Worried Woman. Her other books include the story collection The Source of Trouble. She teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University, and she lives in Austin, Texas.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the essays in this new collection?


A: I started writing at the start of the pandemic shutdown in March 2020 and finished about 15 months later. I’d completely stopped writing during the events I explore at the end of the book—the hate activity and hate crimes in 2016-2018 that made national headlines and also very literally hurt my family. A few years later, the book came quickly. I wrote every day.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: At first, I couldn’t write about the hate activity at all. I was consciously avoiding it. Though I wasn’t yet writing about the hate activity—how the world seemed forever less safe—those experiences cast fresh light on earlier problems or quandaries I began to write about.


These were always partly my fault of course, my blind spots or bad judgment. But I began to see that they were also due to forces outside of any one person’s control, due to history in the usual way we understand the word, epochs that give more and less freedom to certain people. Or due to family histories that predated my existence.


This broader perspective on the long-ago past in turn cast a clearer light on the recent past, the hate activity. So I finally wrote about that, too. And I saw how often I was using the word worry.


I came to see it as a gendered word. For example, when a man scans the horizon for looming emergencies and prepares “outside the box” solutions he’ll draw on, we call this leadership. When a woman does, we talk about anxiety, self-care, better relaxation.


I came to see woman’s worry as a way of planning adaptive moves in a tricky landscape. I worried most of my life, navigating the coded sexism that stays mostly unspeakable, explicit sexism for which there aren’t quick fixes. And at the end of the book, I wrote about worry as a way of encountering the violent racism I witnessed as a parent.


Q: The author Susanne Paola Antonetta said of the book, “It Takes a Worried Woman is by turns funny, exhausted, sensual, outraged, and always wise.” What do you think of that description?

A: I think she means this is human storytelling applied to topics we’re used to seeing on the op-ed page: violence, acquaintance rape, hate crime. These are personal experiences even if they’re situated in history. The book explores them with the rise, fall, and deep curves of emotion we find in novels.  


A few people have seen that description and said, Is humor even possible? It’s not slapstick humor. It’s irony. Humor is rooted in pain—mapping the great gap between what should have happened and what happened instead.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the essays would appear in the book?


A: The first essays are about problems that once seemed merely personal. At the time, I couldn’t see the world’s assumptions undergirding the problems, circumscribing my role. I wanted a better role and found my clandestine side-routes—to my heart’s desire, at least to my modified heart’s desire.


The essays in the middle are about when I began to see the sexism, the endemic and casual violence directed at women when and where I came of age. Once I began to see these conditions, I got better at my workarounds.  


I put the essays about the racial violence at the end of the book to explore a time when worry as a form of problem-solving stopped working. It’s fair to say it’s bleak comedy by then, outlandish stabs at partial solutions and the unexpected way deflected worry erupted.


This is not to say I didn’t eventually come to terms with this situation, and I mean how widespread the hate activity was, local and national news piled onto our experience. Yet these were conditions I alone couldn’t change. Still, hope springs eternal.


Q: What are you working on?


A: A book called Private Life: A Love Story. I found myself doing internet searches about profoundly private topics—how to talk with a friend with a terminal diagnosis, or how to live with someone going blind.


It’s always tricky to navigate the border between what we know and are persuaded to know. But we navigate this border all day now as we log on for this or that. Our private thoughts are invaded by public information, misinformation, disinformation that we absorb while under the influence of people in a high state of suggestibility.


That’s the definition of a mob, right? But it’s also how I feel while using the internet.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment