In conversation - TaraShea Nesbit
Every now and then a book turns up with such a simple, elegant approach to a thorny problem that you are immediately caused to slap your own forehead whit the heel of your hand and cry “Well, obviously!” TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos can be added to my list of such books now. TaraShea writes the story from the collective first person, giving the book all of the advantages of approaching the differences in the characters while creating a monolithic identity for them. That this is a book about women that has managed to give a multi-vocalled nuanced voiced to an entire gender is no small achievement, that it does so in the format of a narrative driven novel is a feat we should all be taking notice of. For some reason in the interview below between TaraShea and me, conducted via email over a few weeks, feminism doesn’t come up directly. It should have, this is the most effective approach to a feminist (and intersectionalist) text I have been lucky enough to read. But let’s get into that below:
Matthew O'Donoghue: You're originally from Dayton, Ohio, what was growing up there like?
TaraShea Nesbit: Dayton is probably a typical American suburb. There is a military base and factories. It tolerated my acne and Kool-Aid hair dye job. I played sports. I dated boys too old for me and took solace with the thought that I would leave. But now I return and things are more progressive than I remember, with bike paths even, it's charming but charming in the way something can be when you do not actually live it.
MOD: I struggle with the place I grew up. I was lucky, we had a little independent book shop and a library, which is still there but the book shop is gone. I never really thought I'd end up in books. It always seemed exotic and alien and me as a child would be amazed at where adult me is now. Was writing something you specifically went after? Was it there from a young age? Were you a reader?
TSB: The big movement for me was between reading a lot and thinking that I could be one to write books myself. I wasn't going after much as a younger kid, but I did like to take evening walks with my grandmother's friends. Her friends were all women living alone—age had done the inevitable to their husbands--and as we circled the cul-de-sacs they talked about gardening, making ceramics, and the social life of their retirement community. They doted on me, and talking to them about what I read became a way to entertain my grandmother and her friends. My friends my own age were not super intrigued by trilobites, for instance. Now I wish I would have asked these older women more questions. They were the same generation as the main characters in my novel, and my grandmother did war work at a factory in her twenties, but never would say what she did exactly.
I read science books and novels in grammar school and then bigger novels and moved into poetry in my teenage years. I wrote things often and in high school ran a literature and arts magazine, but I began college as a double major in Spanish and Political Science. Writing was not exactly practical.
Eventually a poet professor I admired deduced my conflicted feelings about not pursuing writing as a career and said, what's the worst that could happen? You could fail? So what? I switched to English Literature and hoped for the best, or that the worst would come quickly so I could get on with it and become an accountant, or a trilobite technician.
Facts can be lies; facts might be the truth for the accountant who is paid by the king. Facts are work-for-hire.
MOD: It's one of the really remarkable things with reading that it's an essentially solitary pursuit but it opens up a lot socially. What was running a literature and arts magazine like as a teenager? I'd have been terrified. I think most people try and hide out of the way as much as possible at that age. So were the seeds for The Wives of Los Alamos sewn in these walks with your grandmother’s friends? Los Alamos is a really interesting place to set a novel as it's about the war at home but set in a space that isn't home for the protagonists. Was that something that came from hearing about the experience of being at war at home?
TSB: It did not occur to me that these walks with my grandmother and her friends were part of the novel, but when I started writing this book about three years ago, I do recall thinking about the rhythms of their conversations. Not that they talked about the war, but I learned about their friendships, and because my grandmother and I were quite close, about the discrepancy sometimes between the private and public selves. War and the Great Depression had worn them, I'm certain, in ways that weren't exactly apparent.
About the lit journal in high school: I was pretty scared about being in charge of such a thing, but I also had a stronger desire to help put art into the world.
MOD: I think that the focus on the minutiae of the lives of the women in The Wives of Los Alamo is one of my favourite things about it, the fact that there are certain things that bind everyone (the lack of water and the risk of running out halfway through a shower, for instance) but that they react to it in such a variety of ways within friendship groups, personally, towards the institution running the "town". It feels lived in. Certainly by the end of the novel there has been a certain amount of attrition felt by the inhabitants of Los Alamos. Was there much research for the novel? Did you feel a responsibility to facts? Werner Herzog calls facts "the accountants truth" and I'm always fascinated by the line that the artist treads in writing about history.
TSB: The archives talk to me about where to imagine. Lacunae. What do we do with the gaps? Even if an historian, or journalist, how do we write what is left out? With this particular work, I began writing it as non-fiction - initially, while perhaps fragmented, everything corresponded exactly to the archival.
All artistic interacts with the political. The gaps in the archive are where we as women, or people of color, or the losers of any victorious story, find ourselves. (I'm expanding here on a sentence Susan Howe writes in The Birthmark: "If you are a woman, archives hold perpetual ironies. Because the gaps and silences are where you find yourself.") Facts are not the accountant's truth. Facts are all kinds of things. Facts can be lies; facts might be the truth for the accountant who is paid by the king. Facts are work-for-hire. Facts are written by the last one standing. Facts are often lost for those below the line of privilege.
I'm both embracing and rejecting of facts. I want their contexts. I'm not letting them into my house without getting to know them first.
I did do a lot of research for this book - In Los Alamos, listening to oral histories, reading memoirs, thumbing through the archives, viewing photographs. There was enough left out of the record to make writing a novel a generative experience. I mean: there was enough missing to give space for the imaginative.
Also, the women disagreed about what the experience was like. While some said it was the safest place they ever lived, others recalled a child drowning in a pond and a man coaxing a young girl behind a toolshed. Some said they never locked their doors, others said it was a terrible three years behind barbed wire. So staying "true" to the "facts" meant a certain discordant chorus of history.
One more thing about facts. They can be, when positioned side by side, quite hilarious. I came to this conclusion after reading Patrik Ouředník's Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. If you aren't familiar with it, it is a slim novel that reads in part like a history textbook due to the listing of “facts” one after another, but some of these facts are surely fabricated, and none of them are cited. Europeana claims to, according to the title, provide a brief overview of the twentieth century. Told non-linearly, this text draws parallels between wars and human experiences over time by setting the facts of World War I next to the facts of World War II, and so on. What remains is an indirect critique on war, human nature, and the present state of the world, done so with subtle humour. Most people find is pretty dour or haunting or terrible. I find it a delight. I've attached the opening b/c I have a PDF readily available from teaching it and I have already given it to everyone I know here in the U.S.
But a first-person plural narrating agent never implicates the reader. Instead, it is inherently concerned with the togetherness of a group consciousness the reader is peering in on.
MOD: Europeana looks incredible. I’m a fan of things that are baroque and confuse straight forward storytelling. I mostly agree with you about facts, and how they change around intersectionality, and the interpretations that all facts are vulnerable to. There’s this incredible book called Black Athena by Martin Bernal that shows how the influence of Greek (white) culture is overstated and the origins of African (black) culture and its attendant ideas and achievements are downplayed. History, whether fiction or non-fiction is inherently “in play” and not settled. When there are so many differences in historical perspective it will constantly be in flux and it starts to be quite easy to separate facts and truths. I think the reason that it was important to me to hear you talk about your research was because I needed to hear what you were thinking of in terms of perspective. You’ve written the book in the collective first person and this fascinated me. To me, and I’m quite happy to be told otherwise, what you achieved was a cohesive, monolithic identity for all of the women at Los Alamos but with each different way the “we” approach the same problem you find a space within that identity to show the differences between the individual women. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that achieved so elegantly before. There was a sense of difference without otherness. Was that the intention, to tell the stories of everyone equally, or was it something else?
TSB: Black Athena! How did I not know of this book before? Thanks for mentioning it. It seems you might have an ongoing interest in history yourself. Has this always been the case?
I agree with what you say here, about a "a sense of difference without otherness." I am interested in intersubjectivity and how individuals live within communities. Part of what intrigued me about this formal challenge, the first-person plural narrating agent, was how it suggests that intimate feelings are known to the community, while simultaneously suggesting they are held only by the individual. What does it mean, for instance, for a "We" to say they never confessed to one another how alone they felt? In my reading experience, it indicates that the group perceives this loneliness whether or not the individual has said it outright. And so the group members are within, always, even when their experiences are often individual.
There is another reason for choosing this point of view. The "we" is an interstitial space between mimesis and the non-mimetic. Where a second person narrating agent reads like a command to the reader to do something, a perspective that often feels "unreal" -when do we go up to strangers and tell them to do something? - even when the "you" is an implied "I" the reader is implicated. But a first-person plural narrating agent never implicates the reader. Instead, it is inherently concerned with the togetherness of a group consciousness the reader is peering in on. But we say "we" naturally, we do speak for groups, and yet we often don't say we all experienced one emotion, unless the group cohesion is so strong and/or their is an other outside the we that takes up the individuals' energy, subsuming the I, at least until the other goes away. Zamyatin's We is a different kind of 1st person plural, more of a cautionary tale of the “I” being subsumed.
I don't see the "we" in The Wives of Los Alamos as strictly mimetic or non-mimetic, but roving between self and group, at times with tension, such as when the bombs are detonated on civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the women finally learn what they have helped build. But I think you are correct in this way, I don't want to privilege one voice over another, which can over-simplify the experience by curating/injecting my own beliefs into the lives experience of women in the 1940s. Rather, I hope it reads like many accounts, observing fluctuations of the group that constitutes the we.
And the non-mimetic aspects of the point of view remind a reader that this sense of, what David Foster Wallace called, the "collective dream" of history, is a construction. The "we" doesn't, I think, enable a reader to step into the dream of reading in the quite the same way, as one's attention is moved from individual to group and back again. The story explores character differently, with emphasis on the plot of time and the tensions of contexts. As an historical reconstruction and analysis, this non-dream is a reminder of how each history is constructed, while still, at times, enabling readers to slip into the dream state.
So these are things I think of with the first-person plural perspective, though I do not claim to be successfully performing them all.
I imagine you've read all kinds of point of views and rationals for them. Anything else particularly stand out as unusual yet well implemented? A few years back I read a third-person plural text, The Transformation by Julianna Spahr. Quite an interesting way to explore a triad.
MOD: I only knew about Black Athena due to a kindly lecturer. It’s incredible though, the guy got chased out of the academic world and his theories decried from the various tower of academe. I love that it’s all been accepted now and it’s the current understanding of how knowledge entered the Mediterranean world. I’m very keen on the idea that ideas evolve and our understandings evolve with them and the knowledges we’ve built our ideologies on are so impermanent. I like the scope that gives for change.
I come from a fairly small town that I’m not very keen on and probably because of this I’m incredibly open to the idea that I might be able to reimagine or eradicate my history and make it less painful in some way. Pretentious though it sounds I feel I’m, to a certain (and a completely personal) extent, at war with history, with the weight of it, with the expectations and the rituals of it. I don’t want to destroy it but I feel that it has to become, or our interpretation of it has to become, polysemic for it to have value. That obviously comes at the cost of certainty, of absolutism, which, in a society based on binaries, is problematic. So when I read how you attacked history (and to some extent I think every exploration needs to be an attack or you’d never reveal anything fresh) I was delighted. There was a polysemic verbalisation of events that held together as a series of undeniable events. It was hugely satisfying to see that even being attempted but the narrative of the book was engrossing and the rhythm helped me get a handle on the different, nameless “we” characters, I was absolutely smitten. I have to confess that the idea of there being a tacit acknowledgement of the unacknowledged understanding of how other people are experiencing this shared space hadn’t occurred to me, and it casts another light on it. If you’re aware of something and don’t address it are you in some way complicit?
I also hadn’t considered the way the reader is interpolated by “we” rather than “you”, the welcoming nature of it and the travel of perspective within it. I had considered how it revealed the version of history we usually hear or tell as a construction, especially as it also commented on how you had constructed this story. It’s an unusual device and one that takes a moment to get a handle on, which I think leads to a moment of dissonance where the construction of the book becomes visible to some extent. I hesitate to use the term post-modern, I’m not entirely convinced by it, but once you use a device that makes it clear that a story is being told something changes in the reader’s perception of the text, they need to do a bit more work putting the pieces together themselves, they need to start constructing the story alongside the author. They are making decisions based on partial information and that means taking some responsibility for the interpretation. I think it might complicate and interrupt the dream of reading too, especially when the only name the group and the individual protagonists get is “we”.
So, if this is in some way correct, it raises some interesting questions for me. What do you feel like you owe the reader? How would the ideal reader approach your book? Is there an ideal experience for the reader to have from reading the book?
TSB: We are so based on binaries, aren't we? And based on character-driven stories, which I dislike in how it can reflect a naive self-involvedness. I don't believe in character as the main thing in a life, or in a story. Not that there is a main thing in life. But. Contexts are so compelling.
To answer your question about a reading experience. I don't have an ideal reader in mind, but I'd say it is similar to what I admire in others more generally, and fail at doing sometimes, myself. To be curious, empathetic, and vulnerable. As I wrote the book I hoped it would complicate histories. A person buys a book and reads a book with their own contexts. It's hard to be obligated to a stranger, but I really owe readers appreciation if they take the time to read this book. We all have many ways of experiencing time and I feel real gratitude when people put time towards what I’ve written, and write to me after reading the book.