Interview with Jen Gardner
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: We love how the specific moments in “The List” weave together to lead us through such a visceral timeline. How did you choose these particular scenes for the piece?
Jen Gardner: I wrote this piece after a challenging conversation with a male coworker. I worked in a library, and he had noticed some signage I had recently put up promoting women’s literacy. He asked me why we needed specific signs about women when we could just treat everyone the same. “I treat women equally,” he told me. In the moment, I tried to explain how society as a whole still inhibits women regardless of the attitude of individuals, but I left the conversation feeling frustrated. It brought up all of these images of times when I had been held back, degraded, or threatened because of my gender.
When I got home, I wrote my list. I started with my earliest memory and just kept going. I couldn’t write fast enough. As soon as I started describing one memory, it triggered another. When I looked back at the page, I felt shocked. I knew these things had all happened to me, but I had never seen them written out all together like this. I finally saw just how much space they took up. I kept the piece to myself for a long time, feeling that I had written it for me and that was enough. Since then, I’ve learned of other people in my life who have quietly been suffering with their own lists. Hearing their stories inspired me to share “The List” as a small way to remind others that these situations are never okay, that they are not to blame, and they are far from alone.
RR: The capitalization of the pronoun “He” typically carries a connotation of respect and authority, though that seems to be intentionally subverted here. Can you talk about your decision to capitalize the pronouns in reference to the men in this piece?
JG: The capitalizations were meant to be irreverent. I wanted to visually point out the irony of men continuing to hold positions of power and authority in our society, while again and again failing to be held accountable for their behavior, especially towards women. The capital He was meant to name the elephant in the room. I can’t think of a single woman in my life who has not experienced something similar to the scenes I describe in “The List,” and many women have experienced far worse. Yet these experiences are clouded in shame and buried under the added pain and disappointment of knowing that the majority of these men will never be named or held accountable. I wanted to call that out and name it.
Having grown up Catholic, a lot of my writing is also influenced by my experiences in the church, and subsequently choosing to leave it. When I decided to capitalize the pronouns in this piece, I couldn’t help but to think back to the Bible passages and hymns that were a huge part of my worldview as a young person. I remember feeling irritated at the way that men were glorified while women were largely sidelined, and then so angry when some of these so-called church leaders were caught abusing their power. The capital He comes from deep frustration and is intended to be sarcastic while also pointing out the sad reality that many of these men still walk around with respect and authority afforded by a society that is all too eager to look the other way.
RR: We were especially intrigued by the uniqueness of form employed in this piece. How do you approach form when you’re drafting, and what led you to take on the form of a list for this piece?
JG: For this piece, the form came naturally. I wanted to better understand why my coworker’s words had ignited so much frustration in me, and making a list felt like the most straightforward way to access all these memories and find the common thread. What began as a personal exercise eventually turned into something that I wanted to share. I felt that the list format added a weight to each individual memory. I wanted people, especially the men in my life, to read this and visually see how each small moment added up to a summation of experiences that impacted the person I am today.
In general, my writing form varies. I began by writing songs and poetry, and I do not shy away from incorporating poetic elements into other types of work. Some of my favorite work to read defies traditional structure (for example I really enjoy novels and memoirs in verse), and I let myself experiment with different forms in my own writing.
When I think about form, the most important thing to me is to use form to enhance the message of a piece rather than distract from it. When I write, I think to myself, how does this story want to be told? I’ve written stories in the format of a song, and I’ve started poems that have turned into short stories. When I’m inspired, my priority is to just sit down and write, and I don’t worry too much about what form it will take in the end.
RR: Much of your work centers around the treatment of women in society and in the workplace. How do you approach such a difficult topic through your writing?
JG: Writing has always been my way of coping with and processing difficult experiences. As an adolescent, I experienced the sudden loss of a close friend as well as the effects of addiction within my family. I turned to writing as a way of working through my emotions, and to this day it is a strategy I use when I am feeling overwhelmed or struggling to understand something in my life.
I never expected my gender to have such a large impact on my life or my writing, but as I grew older I started having more and more experiences that made me realize just how much gender roles and expectations were impacting me day to day. I was reprimanded at work for wearing shorts despite the fact that there was no employee dress code and my male coworker was allowed to continue wearing his. If I told people I wasn’t interested in having kids right now, they would assure me I would change my mind. I put my heart and soul into meaningful work with youth in education and nonprofits, while my partner made significantly more money doing manual labor. I told him that it felt like women’s minds would never be as valued as men’s bodies.
So often, I have not felt at home in my body or aligned with the expectations of my gender, and the comments about my weight or my hair length or my marital status are frequent enough that they start to detract from the things that are actually important to me. So, I write. Writing allows me to both let go and to acknowledge that my experiences matter. If I am lucky, a few other people will relate and find their own meaning in my writing too.
RR: Do you keep any other lists that hold significance in your life?
JG: I do make a lot of lists. I am easily distracted, so mostly they help me prioritize and keep track of things, but I also keep lists of books I want to read, movies I’ve enjoyed, and names I might want to use for characters in my stories. I write down nice things my grandma said to me on the phone. My partner used to sleep talk, so I have a list of the funniest things he has said in his sleep. Often, these lists have little significance, but once in a while I go back through old papers or the notes section in my phone and find something that inspires me to write.
Jen Gardner’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.