While October 31 means Halloween for many, here at PRISM it also means there’s only one month left until the deadline for our literary nonfiction contest! We recently interviewed our nonfiction judge Amber Dawn by email to talk about nonfiction.
You’ve written poetry, fiction and nonfiction, in addition to your work as a filmmaker and performance artist. When you have a story, how do you decide how to tell it?
I am a hypocrite of a creative writing mentor. “Just write!” I’ll say, as any instructor or mentor would. “Just write and worry about structure later.” But I rarely follow this advice because a story without a structure makes me feel lost, homeless. I like my art to have a house. In retrospect, poetry, my first “home sweet home,” may have been the creative discipline I took to first because it offers such a bounty of forms and as a new writer I wanted to try them all: glosas, ghazals, syllabic verse. During my undergrad (BFA in Creative Writing at UBC) I went so far as to translate sonnets from Italian to English, whilst honouring the original rhyme scheme. And this to me seemed less maddening than free form.
When I wrote Sub Rosa—a feminist speculative fiction novel that leans heavily towards the horror fantasy side of the genre—I knew before the first chapter was completed that I was writing a milieu story, a hero’s journey. I didn’t agonize when I reached the ending, as other novelists do, because I simply embraced the form. There was no question as to whether my protagonist would return home from the “belly of the whale”—of course she would. All heroes in milieu stories return home again. Dorothy never stays in Oz.
Branching into film and performance art was just another way for me to acquire more “real estate” for my art to live. I love film because as a filmmaker I can get away with cliché. Doesn’t every film shot in New York City open with an aerial view of Manhattan? When we see a sexy woman about to exit a car, we always see her high heels hit the pavement first, then the classic slow pan up her legs. Poetry or prose writers could never get away with such stock images. We have to be constantly refreshing motif and imagery. (Uniformity of text leads to death of literature, is another thing I’ll say to students.) So in film I get to play with familiar imagery that will no doubt evoke particular responses from the viewer because they’ve seen this imagery again and again. And then you get into movements or sub-genres within film. If I had more skill in and money for filmmaking I’d make a series of short film noir, each with a female as the grimy detective lead (“Lady Dick” or women’s detective films are already a robust movement.)
How do I decide what story will be best housed in which form … well, I have something of a form fetish. I often start with form.
You’ve said that “speculative fiction allows me to turn unthinkable questions into extraordinary questions.” Are there things that nonfiction allows you to do that fiction doesn’t?
I believe that nonfiction gives the reader permission to explore how they themselves are connected to the content. When nonfiction asserts “this is real” it seems most readers respond with “hey, this is real for me too … I live in the world where ‘this’ is really happening.”
The difference audience responses I get when I read fiction vs nonfiction are very palpable. My novel, Sub Rosa, deals with missing girls, sex work, consumer craze, the garrisoning of women’s sexuality—you know, big feminist issues. When I read from Sub Rosa I receive wonderful, though abstract, comments from audience members … they liked it, it made them think, it stuck with them … When I read nonfiction, which often covers the same big feminist issues, audience members who approach stand closer to me; they frequently want to hug me. They disclose personal stories of their own. They want to continue the discussion. They want to explore possible calls to action to respond to these nonfiction stories. Powerful stuff, nonfiction.
So much of your work involves the ideas of identity and power and who gets to name and label. Can you describe what, for you, is the line between fiction and nonfiction?
Above, I talk about being a “form fetishist,” so in that, I will also say that hybrid nonfiction as an emerging and evolving genre classification is alluring to me. The first hybrid nonfiction I read was The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, which blends Kingston’s personal memoir growing up as a Chinese-American in the late 1950s with Chinese folklore and mythology. Kingston succeeds—astoundingly so—at blending her own story with the fictions that surrounded her childhood and her culture at the time.
It’s interesting to me that Kingston wrote this book right around the time (early 1970s) when Hunter S Thompson coined the term gonzo journalism and helped steer a movement of alternative nonfiction, a movement that openly mixed with fact and fantasy. Fact and fantasy and drugs and ego was Thompson’s particular mix. (And who can blame him? It was the era when the American dream was collapsing, I would have probably dropped peyote and pontificated about how disillusioned I was too.) Personally, I haven’t gotten cozy with the gonzo journalism movement. I become nervous when I see writers, especially white straight male baby boomers, employ a somewhat heightened creative prose and very self-determined personal voice when telling the story of “others.”
This is an ongoing conversation: who has the power to write about who? and in what type of writing style? and for what audience? Nonfiction writers will always be examining the line between truth and storytelling, between being an observer and a participant, and between personal experience and the stories of others. This is where I can speak to the idea of who gets to name and label in your question— I think blending fact and fiction works best in memoir. We can be highly imaginative when working with our own stories, like Kingston has in The Woman Warrior. As a writer, that is the place where I exercise personal creative power—with my own stories and the stories of people I know to be kin.