I'm pleased to reprint here Paige Clifton-Steele's interview with Suzy McKee Charnas, which appears in the current issue of the Aqueduct Gazette.
An Interview with Suzy McKee Charnas
by Paige Clifton-Steele
Suzy McKee Charnas’ Dorothea Dreams, first published in 1987, which is as intricate and ethical a work as her better-known Holdfast Trilogy, has been brought back to print under Aqueduct’s new Heirloom imprint. Set against the backdrop of invisibilized urban struggles over race and inequality and the isolated drama of Land Art, Dorothea Dreams is a drama that links people of many peripheries—people at the edges of populated space and the edges of public American consciousness—together in a graceful ghost story. Aqueduct goes into depth with Suzy about her writing, her characters, and her art.
Aqueduct: Dorothea Dreams takes for its narrators two women whose position in society is precarious, counterposing the different kinds of exclusion and the different degrees to which the women (Dorothea the white elder and Bianca the Latina child) have the power to choose that position, and binds them by the common thread of male violence. What else connects these two characters, if anything?
Suzy: Ambition, however repressed or disguised; a degree of self-chosen invisibility; quick wits and flexibility in the face of exigency; strong willfulness; daring and intelligence. And probably a lot of other things that aren’t that clear to me.
Aqueduct: Dorothea Dreams takes up ideas of possession and escape to transform them into concepts that increasingly resemble one another. Dorothea herself is a woman artist whose life is possessed by the towering figures of the literal ghost who haunts her and her obsessive desert artwork. Both have a hold on her that she escapes by the end of the book, and yet both “escapes” are partial. There can be no total severance of Dorothea and her art, Dorothea and her ghost.
Suzy: Well, she escapes from the art because Roberto’s damage of it releases her—perfection is no longer possible, acceptance of the imperfect occurs, and with acceptance comes forward motion, instead of the stasis of the perfect.
As for the ghost, Dorothea takes it into and makes it part of herself—again, acceptance, not of the course of action urged on her by the ghost but of the fact that she has been that person in that situation making that choice, but that she is now a more advanced version of that person, making instead a braver choice, to mix in with chaotic and dangerous events instead of avoiding them, and take her chances with the consequences.
Aqueduct: Likewise, the character of Bianca cannot escape from the neighborhood she comes from. It’s striking that Bianca’s escape from her neighborhood becomes an intrusion on Dorothea’s escape from the New York art world, and that these events happen against the background of a history of shifting borders in the American West. Is “escape” a total fantasy in a world in which every piece of land is someone’s neighborhood, or can it be recast as a new way of negotiating neighborhood? Is our very idea of “escape” a politically charged one?
Suzy: The physical frontier in this country did in fact represent possibilities of escape from class boundaries and, often, lifelong poverty for both Spanish and Caucasian settlers, but usually at the expense of others (the Indians, imported slaves from Africa or exploited labor from China and Ireland). Add the fact that for many settlers of the west the constantly moving frontier provided a literal escape from established systems on the eastern coast, and you have a wildly fractionated and heavily charged palimpsest of “escape” facts, metaphors, and, of course, frustrations (“wherever you go, there you are”).
Aqueduct: Carolyn Ives Gilman, in Narrative Power, draws out some of the dangers of the tropes of novelistic narrative—its emphasis on the personal over the communal, the simple over the complex, conflict over consensus-building. In its very structure, Dorothea Dreams seems to argue (or at least entertain the possibility) that it’s possible to have it all: that the human interest story and the current events story can coexist. Can you talk about your attitude to storytelling? Is there any friction between the integrity of the characters you create and their suitability to illustrate the conflicts and connections that they do? Or is the unity of the political and the personal a perfect one in the storytelling? If the focus on a few characters necessarily reduces a giant story, how do you as author ensure an illuminating rather than reductive simplification?
Suzy: Look, you don’t ensure anything in this enterprise. People tend to look at finished work and read into it a great deal more pre-planning and control than actually existed in the process of envisioning and then executing. For me as an author, at any rate, I may choose a character to “stand” for an element of the story (Roberto as angry teenaged male belonging to a particular group of people with a long history and a particular vulnerability to exploitation by a stronger, richer group). But once he opens his mouth and speaks, Roberto comes to life for me. He doesn’t “take over,” as some authors will say of characters whom they wish to exalt in the eyes of others, but every word that he speaks (and dialog goes onto the page as dictation) asserts a kind of autonomy for him as he develops his own inner life.
This is true for all the characters who move beyond spear-carrier status to that of principal or comprimario part in the opera that develops from their interplay. I provide a rough framework within which they write their story. Sometimes I see something irresistible, and I reach in and tweak things to go a certain way, on the road to what I am beginning to discern as an appropriate ending for this story (or at least a stopping place). If the characters go along with it, if they fall in with the new pattern without resistance, that’s the way we go. If they drop dead on the page, I regroup and find another way, maybe to the same conclusion, maybe not.
Once they’ve spoken and made choices for themselves, they acquire an internal consistency of their own that stands, for them, in the place that what we think of as “integrity” or “coherence” stands for a real human being. The author who tries to force that integrity into a pre-determined pattern or direction risks killing a story dead.
Characters develop their own personalities and politics. As an author, you mess with them at your peril.
Aqueduct: Where does this internal consistency come from?
I write to discover what I know/think/feel about some things: my characters teach me this. My job is to accept what they open to me, and explore and develop it by making room for the characters to be what they are.
Aqueduct: One of the novel’s particular strengths seems to be its insistence on the reality of unseen connections, such as between Revolutionary France and (then) contemporary US, or between communities made disparate by gulfs of space and wealth. The ghost story at the heart of the book makes, at some level, these connections concrete and present to the intuition. What else would be lost if this book were not a ghost story? What is gained by its being one?
Suzy: Part of what would be lost is simply my own understanding of the way the world works and how history exists and persists. I take a very long view, both backward and forward (one of my best courses in college was in geology: let that stuff in, and your mind is blown permanently into dimensions of time that the dominant American culture in particular is terrified of and rejects, which I take to be one reason that my work isn’t of “best-seller” quality).
A ghost story, in the sense that you see it in Dorothea, is actually a story of the persistent influences of the past, and of our attitudes toward and relationships to the fact that there has been a past and will be a future in which we ourselves will become part of the past. There is also, in my mind, a powerful connection between the influences of the past and the arts of the present, because I am of the opinion that we do in fact reincarnate many times, and in some lifetimes we draw on our past experiences to deepen and enrich the art that we bring to the present.
Without the ghost, that deep past full of anxious echoes wouldn’t exist to ground the story in the larger flow of time that I believe we all inhabit, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not.
I also believe that our connections to the past, both personal and cultural, are vital and full of power. Without the ghost in this story, Dorothea would be adrift, as so many modern people are (or feel) adrift and unattached, careening toward unimaginable futures without direction or any feeling of agency.
Without the ghost to react to and against, Dorothea would not fully understand the power and depth of her choices in the present.
Aqueduct: Ghosts traditionally appear as reminders of tragedy not properly resolved—while resolution is the function of the memorial. Dorothea Dreams grapples with tragedy: whether it is tragedies we as a society choose not to memorialize (the encroachment into communities of color) or those we choose to memorialize, whose enormity resists our understanding (the French Revolutionary slaughterbench), we have traffic with ghosts, perhaps, because there are some tragedies that we cannot make memorial for. Can you talk about the function of memory and tragedy in your book? How is the ghost related to Dorothea’s art? How is Dorothea’s art related to the/her past?
Suzy: The ghost brings with him a small, frightened perception of one of the great tragedies (and adventures) of history: the Revolution in France of 1789 and the decades of reaction that followed that series of events. He tried to withhold himself from the great flood of emotions and events that those decades embodied in Europe. He withdrew, and circumscribed himself, making himself small and frightened, and a ready tool of administrative control.
Dorothea has also withdrawn, trying to find her own artistic authenticity as opposed to her commercial identity.
Her contact with the chaotic energy of the Cantu family and its circumstances opens a window for her to make a different choice, and she does: she rejects the ghost’s self-protective contraction into self and system, and chooses instead to openly defend the exploited and to give her creativity up to the world to enjoy and learn from—to expand back into and re-engage with the world, both through concrete action to protect the Cantu kids from the wrath of the law and through opening her artwork to the gaze of the art world.
What she remembers is that once, in another life, she made the opposite choice. That is what the ghost brings: that awareness.
What she chooses is to honor memory, and then move on, into new, riskier, more challenging territory.
Aqueduct: There’s an interesting moment near the end where Dorothea’s daughter accuses her of an essentially maternal weakness. (“Today, she suggested point blank that I see in Roberto something of my younger son in his more wayward, draft-dodging days.”) How do you see the significance of Dorothea’s role as a mother, especially with regard to death and sentimentality as her old friend and lover advances toward death? Does it speak to any generational split between women that you were seeing at the time?
Suzy: There was and is a generational divide among women about what a woman is and should be, and Dorothea has recoiled from this so far, devoting herself to something she’s seen as gender-neutral—her art. Her daughter, an active feminist of the time, has challenged Dorothea to go beyond this minimal position, to claim her rightful place as someone who challenges masculine power simply by being the powerful creative person she is.
Dorothea, strengthened by taking action in the matter of the Cantus, steps up to the plate, and can now move forward into her daughter’s more activist world of feminist resistance. Time, of course, has altered this dynamic drastically. In our debased and deeply reactionary present, Dorothea’s daughter’s children, should she have them, would be showing their female autonomy by fellating their male schoolmates in the hallways in order to be “popular” among their peers and putting up YouTube clips of themselves in poses and activities perfectly appropriate to the Playboy “bunnies” of the past as a way of demonstrating how ”free” they are.
And, as a matter of course, objecting strenuously to the term “feminist” to describe themselves.
It should be understood, by now, that what we do, we do for ourselves and our own peers; our female posterity will do “their own thing,” and it’s very likely to be their grandmothers’ “thing” and a direct repudiation of all that we hoped and fought for, for them.
Aqueduct: Ricky Maulders, Dorothea’s dying friend, is something of a reverse Orpheus. He steps briefly away from his own death in order to retrieve Dorothea from a life lived in the artificial absence of death that her privileged seclusion has become. Is he successful?
Suzy: I think probably yes. The power of death and dying is great, and I think we underestimate it out of fear. Ricky brings the world to Dorothea in a different way than Robert and Blanca bring it, but because he doesn’t reject the inevitability of his own impending death what he brings is very effective. There is nothing in this world that can’t be turned to positive effect, if the will to do this is strong enough. He brings her his courage, and she finds the strength in herself to recognize her own and begin to use it. Love doesn’t just give: it also accepts gifts.
Aqueduct: What is the relationship of the land to the politics of the book? What draws you to the desert New Mexico setting?
Suzy: The land is the place where the politics plays itself out, but when the politics are done and gone, the land will still be here and will recreate itself as a functioning part of the ecology of the future. We make the land part of our politics, but this is only a dream of the feverish human consciousness, a fantasy of dramatic meaning.
For me, the power of the setting is its age, its endurance through past time and into future time, and its impassive presence upon which we perform our ridiculous little dances of pride and possessiveness. I love the evident age of this landscape, with no luxuriant green disguise: just the bones of the planet, right out in the open, scoured and devoured by wind and water.
It puts us in our place.