Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “Prostitute in the Christmas Village,” the mother’s character strikes us as very direct and authentic. How do you approach writing about real people in your life?
Janine DeBaise: Probably the weirdest thing about writing nonfiction is that your characters might read your piece! I write about my family all the time, which worked fine when my children were small and became a little awkward once they were old enough to read. They are sticklers for accuracy. If I accidentally attribute the wrong words to the wrong child, my son Sean will protest. “Devin said that, not Bryan.” In my own defense, I’ve got four kids so it isn’t always easy to keep track. I kept a blog for many years, and my readers would chime in with comments about what I’d written, and my kids would roll their eyes at the comments. My youngest son said once: “Your readers think that you’re funny. But really, we’re funny. You just write it down.” That’s the job of the writer: to observe ordinary people in everyday life, notice the stories that are worth telling, and write them down.
RR: Gus’s gift displays his innocence, but it also catalyzes a more serious, adult moment of shock in the essay. How did you consider Gus’s perspective of innocence in that context?
JD: I’d use the word unaware rather than innocent. It’s clear that Gus lives in a difficult situation and has been exposed to a rougher world than the narrator of the piece. There’s really no chance he will remain innocent as he gets older. The real innocent in this story is the girl telling the story. I’m looking back at my teenage self, who knew what a prostitute was – and that the idea was scandalous – but who hadn’t yet given any thought to the deeper implications. Some people who live in privilege never grow up to think deeply about these issues. That innocence can turn to ignorance and a blindness to the inequities of the culture we live in. Unless, of course, you’ve got a mother who by example teaches you compassion, acceptance, and understanding.
RR: There’s a natural charm in the way your mother handles the moment, and we love how her comment that “Everyone should have a warm sweater in this weather.” Do you see warmth and safety resonating in other ways here?
JD: Well, she feeds Gus milk and cookies! (laughs) My mother routinely made lunch for the neighbor kids and welcomed them into our home as if they lived there, giving them a safe haven, a tradition that I’ve continued in my own home. There’s a famous experiment in which dogs were put into a cage where everytime a bell rang, they were given a painful shock. So they knew that a shock was coming whenever they heard a bell. Other dogs were put in a second cage that had a safe spot where they wouldn’t get a shock. Those dogs learned to move to the safe spot when they heard the bell. The dogs in the first cage, sadly, learned that they were helpless to escape the shock. So even when they were moved to a larger cage where they could escape the shock, they didn’t try. That’s why it’s important to give every child a safe haven. Sometimes it’s possible for them to escape their circumstances, but not if they stop trying.
RR: How has teaching writing and literature influenced your own writing?
JD: My college students are frank and outspoken.They are passionate about the things they study: science, plants, animals, environmental issues. They challenge me and educate me, and that prevents me from locking myself in the attic to write esoteric prose that no one will ever read.
RR: We understand you write both poetry and essays. What do you love best about each of those genres?
JD: An essay lets me share a bit of my life with someone I’ve never met, give them a glimpse into the twisty labyrinth inside my head. Ordinary everyday life on this earth can be wonderful and terrible, and there are always those moments that just stay inside my head and rattle about until I write them down. Writing is a compulsion, an obsession, a habit that is so ingrained that I can’t imagine my life without it. My students, many of whom are environmental activists, talk about how they want to change the world. I think as a writer my goal is different. I want to get inside people’s heads and change how they see the world. Poetry, on the other hand, comes utter despair, or transcendent joy, or deep conflicting emotions. I write poetry when I’m trying to make sense of the world. Writing poetry begins with the humbling realization that life is messy and the universe is chaotic and we puny humans can’t possibly understand the mystery of it, but it’s in our nature to try anyhow.
Janine DeBaise’s work in Issue 8.1: