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“Dark comedy, violence, and haunted irony”: A Conversation with Christina Milletti

Christina Milletti’s novel Choke Box: a Fem-Noir won the Juniper Prize for Fiction and is forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press in March 2019. Her fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in many journals and anthologies, such as Best New American Voices, the Iowa Review, The Master’s Review, Denver Quarterly, The Cincinnati Review, Alaska Quarterly, Brooklyn Rail, Studies in the Novel, and The Buffalo News (among other places). Her first book, The Religious & Other Fictions (a collection of stories) was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, and she has recently completed a new collection, Now You See Her, with the help of a fellowship from UB’s Humanities Institute and a residency at the Marble House Project. She is an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo where she is the Director of the Creative Writing Program and co-curates the Exhibit X Fiction Series.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your novel, Choke Box, won the Juniper Prize and will be published soon by the University of Massachusetts Press. Tell me three things that the reader should know before they delve into the work itself.

Christina Milletti:  1.)  Choke Box takes its title from narrator Jane Tamlin’s name for the “voice box,” the larynx: that tiny anatomical anomaly, unique to humans, which gives us our distinctive facility for language, but, as Jane discovers, also allows us to choke to death every time we eat. The larynx, it turns out, is poorly designed, and we can pay the ultimate price for telling our stories. The takeaway? Violence and language are innately related—–and Jane’s account in Choke Box explores that perilous relationship at length. The novel’s cover signals that danger. While it may at first seem intense for that reason, the image is actually pulled from a collection of vintage medical drawings—–this one of a dissected larynx––merely designed for instructive use. In other words, some of the questions Choke Box asks are: when do we see violence? And how/why do we fail to see it? What forms do we expect violence to take?

“There are so many ways there is no crime,” Gertrude Stein writes in Blood on the Dining Room Floor (her little known mystery novel). You might say Choke Box shines a light on the ordinary crimes that happen every day in our homes. While also slowly revealing a few extraordinary ones along the way.

2.)  I have a fascination for fictions about “mad women” whether they’re found in attics or elsewhere. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea. Djuna Barnes. Emily Holmes Coleman’s The Shutter of Snow. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Marie Redonnet’s Hotel Splendid. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. There are a surprising number of stories (so many more than this short list) told by or about so-called mad women. Still others, about women whose madness presents, not as an unsettled departure from reality, but as an enraged, even corrective, attentiveness to the social circumstances that shape their narrators’ lives. Most of Kathy Acker’s novels carve out this space. Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. Lydia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.

Choke Box makes an effort to adopt both meanings, presents a doubled maddening, by peeling back (to the choke) one woman’s interrogation of the gender roles she’s been forced to play. Jane’s simmering anger about her past and the continued influence of her past on the present (not to mention the foreseeable future) colors the entirety of the novel: she makes damning accusations about her role as her brother’s ghost writer, as much as about the ghostly affect she believes her husband’s memoir has had on her family: how his words, as she’d say, control her. A familiar critique in the tradition of French feminism and its more recent evocation in gender theory which, in its own way, Choke Box is trying to work through. If, as Julia Kristeva writes, “strictly speaking, women cannot be said to exist,” what role does that leave Jane Tamlin, who has been made invisible in so many different ways in the account she presents, given that Choke Box is, at the same time, the record of her voice? What precisely is the reader being asked to read? What might a “fem-noir” be capable of accomplishing that a memoir cannot?

3.)  Choke Box takes a dive into the likeability controversy that still follows women narrators around like an old hound chasing a car. There’s a fair bit of ironic skewering, even some outright ranting in Jane’s fem-noir. She’s fed up, no two ways about it. But I know so few women who aren’t. Having said that, the question of Jane’s “likeability” was definitely the chief objection that arose with literary agents who originally reviewed Choke Box That was frustrating, especially since I think Jane’s story reaches out to so many women. I’m incredibly grateful to UMass Press (and to Sabina Murray who selected Choke Box for the Juniper Prize) for taking the risk on her story.

KMD:  Choke Box takes place in Buffalo, NY, a city where you have long resided and worked as a professor in the English Department at SUNY-Buffalo. Where does the line between fact and fiction exist in this story? How do autobiography and lived experience fuel your imaginative work?

CM: The border between fact and fiction has always been a lot more porous than we’re willing to acknowledge. We live our lives by telling stories to ourselves about who we are, who we love, what we desire, how we’re going to make it through the day. We then go about making those stories real. And if we fail, we tell ourselves stories about what happened. I’m not trying to be naïve here: a novel tells a story that’s imagined. My novel’s narrator Jane Tamlin doesn’t exist. But fiction isn’t exactly unreal either, is it? It inhabits a liminal space. What Michael Riffaterre might call “fictional truth.” Choke Box revels in that delicate relationship, regularly showcasing the movement between the seemingly real to the seemingly unreal in the simple turn of a word or phrase–—a movement Julio Cortazar, for example, elegantly illustrates in his stories “Axolotl” and “A Continuity of Parks”–—so that for all Jane’s very “real” complaints, the storyline itself often bends towards magical realism.

Sure, Choke Box borrows from real places–—like the former Buffalo Psychiatric Institute just a few miles from my home where Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride once practiced an “enlightened” form of psychiatric treatment in the 19th century. (The BPI changed names many times, but is now the newly renovated Hotel Henry.) But more importantly, I regularly adapt my own (and my friends’) experiences as wives/partners/mothers/daughters, not in terms of our specific stories, but in the collective mood of deep love and embedded frustration that we tend to share.

I began Choke Box when I was knee-deep in raising my daughters, just an infant and a toddler then, and even though I had a great partner and support system at home, it was stunning how, almost overnight in our deeply feminist home, I/we suddenly became unwillingly circumscribed by a whole host of gendered social institutions that we naively thought we’d resisted. For me, the deep intractability of gender in culture was a starting point in thinking about the novel. I didn’t realize just how damn stubborn you have to be—–cranky, fierce––to continue to push back against embedded patriarchy. And I wanted to explore the mindset of a woman who felt similarly betrayed in both subtle and overt ways. How might she act out? To what lengths would she go? What might she do to correct the account of her life? Choke Box asks if it’s possible to rewrite one’s story. Whether we can ever simply live it. And if it’s possible to delimit the constraints put on us by calling attention to the limits of language that shape our worlds. Kathy Acker puts it this way in Empire of the Senseless: “Language, on one level, constitutes a set of codes and social and historical agreements. Nonsense doesn’t per se break down the codes; speaking precisely that which the codes forbid breaks down the codes.” Choke Box starts with that mandate as a model. While also addressing the problematic cycle it evokes.

KMD:  As an educator, and curator of the Exhibit X Fiction Series at SUNY-Buffalo, you are committed to hybrid and experimental writing by women. Would you describe Choke Box as a hybrid? Why or why not?

CM: Given the subtitle of the novel—”a Fem-Noir”—I think there’s only one way to answer: Choke Box is definitely playing with expectations of the fiction and memoir (and even mystery and ghost story) genres. But then I’d suggest to you that genre is really a mixed state to begin with. That hybridity itself is the rule, not the exception. You could say I’m having a heck of a lot of fun showcasing that effect. And I guess it’s an aesthetic I’m always working with: how far can we stretch the borders of the real? Where does the unreal begin? When does darkness transform to absurdity, even humor? Fiction writers, memoirists, nonfiction writers—we all tell our truths by borrowing from the same toolbox of strategies. So I have no problem claiming that Choke Box is a reveal-all memoir. As told by a fictional character. Who believes her husband has become a kind of ghost.

Given the collection of textual artifacts that turn up in Choke Box’s pages, though, the novel can also be described as a curated collection of materials—–a “box” of trinkets and loaded talismans: encyclopedia pages glossed with additions and cameos (which I’ll let readers discover on their own), a “historical” afterward written by a scholar, and a series of “he said/she said” styled tables that gesture from the novel’s pages out to readers’ own bookshelves. Do these inclusions make Choke Box a metafiction or a hybrid? Probably both. I often celebrate that pervasive conditionality in my own fiction–—and admire it in the work of other writers, particularly those we invite to Exhibit X Fiction, the reading series I curate at the University at Buffalo. The series gives us an opportunity to discuss with all our guests the nature of innovative and experimental writing since it can take so many forms. In my essays and in the courses I teach, I then tend to steer those questions specifically toward the work of women writers, since so few scholars study their work, or the issues they (and their fictions) bring to the table. Those issues are, after all, the same ones that most interest me.

KMD:  The book also makes striking use of the page as a visual field, with charts, sidebars, and more. What can fiction writers learn from poets about the visual nature of language, narrative, and the readerly experiences of a text?

CM: I suppose I’ve always been attracted to fiction that presents the entire page, the full structure of the book, as an opportunity to shape the reader’s thinking, both through words, and the words’ relationship to the space they inhabit. Kathy Acker. Carole Maso. Susan Howe. Raymond Federman. William Gass. Steve Tomasula. Samuel Beckett. Djuna Barnes. There’s a long tradition of narrative writers who embrace the entire page in telling their stories. In Choke Box, I try to do something similar—–corral a rangy storyline to take shape through a lens with many filters. The primary view is Jane Tamlin’s perspective. But her life, her story, is revealed like one of Joseph Cornell’s sculptures: as a collection of artifacts that offers the pretense of realism in the juxtaposition of select, idiosyncratic objects in one “boxed” container, but which, taken separately—–Jane’s library research, for instance, or the books she’s read, or the Afterward which puts Jane’s story in context—–offers a slightly different account. Form and content aren’t inseparable. Many poets have shown us that. But there’s a long tradition in fiction that has been enamored by the same queries too. I suppose I’ve taken Antonin Artaud’s quest for a “theater of cruelty” to heart, and applied it to fiction. Is there a way to present readers with a fiction (not merely a theater) that will directly impact them and their ideas so that they can’t close the book without being changed in some way? I like to think that fiction can be like a puzzle whose shape you’re unsure of while you’re reading it, trying to put it together. And that finding its shape, arranging the story’s meaning in your mind, also sculpts your thinking along the way. The process, in short, is very much a part of the final product.

KMD:  What artistic works in other mediums––whether it’s painting, film, sculpture, photography, or something else entirely––were most formative for thinking about Choke Box?

CM: There’s no doubt that film noir influenced Choke Box. The intensity, the dread, the storied cynicism. But I’m way too sympathetic to femme fatales, their back stories, their heated plots. I always end up rooting for them when I’m not supposed to. So contemporary noir hybrids and adaptations with a gendered twist often appeal to me more. The Babadook, for instance, is an all time favorite, for its unrelenting domestic eeriness, the threat that shades every scene––as much as the mother who refuses to give up, who takes a stand, and finds a unique solution to her family’s haunting problem. That kind of storyline is very real to me. Mothers are never given the option of looking away. Hell, we have to see what’s coming down the road before the dust even starts clouding the skyline. Or we’re in trouble.

Beyond noir, there’s no doubt that artists who work to move art into the worlds of their audiences have left a deep impact on my thinking. Performance artists from the under-assessed Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven to contemporaries like Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, Adrian Piper, and Carolee Schneeman (and so many others) offer a lens to think about idiosyncratic art experiments as gender activism, and function as an aspirational model for Choke Box.

But for all of the constellation of influences like these and others, Choke Box is foremost a love letter to women’s fiction–—to the novels and writers who have shaped my writing, my thinking, and who have taught me what a powerfully nuanced narrative can accomplish. Choke Box adds to that dialogue, amplifies it, and the “Memoir/Counter Memoir” tables (on pp. 66-67 and 106-107) highlight that conversation. As you read the tables vertically and horizontally, you might even find the scaffolding of a plot that can be found in Choke Box’s pages, though the tables also present a kind of genealogy for Choke Box itself. Those pages came late to the book’s structure: they were the last real change in the final revisions. But it seemed a mechanism for formalizing the implied conversation the book was already having, for showcasing how one novel carries a tacit bookshelf within it of all the novels that shaped its ideas. The tables do their own work. But they’re deeply celebratory of the women writers I admire.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What else can readers look forward to?

CM: I’m just about finished with a new collection of stories called Now You See Her that takes as its launching point Kathy Acker’s claim, “All stories begin with girls.” Every story in the collection offers a “girled” perspective, makes an effort to amplify and offer nuance to how we see the girls in our lives when/if we see them at all. Like much of my work, Now You See Her is embedded by the magical act of perception implied by its title. The stories are told by ex-sisters, winged daughters, patient wives, and frayed mothers in an effort to showcase the dark comedy, violence, and haunted irony that accompanies girls in social encounters throughout their lives. From a story about a pre-teen who slowly transforms into a rock to a piece about a wife whose marriage adapts to her exponentially shrinking husband, each story presents readers with the covert challenge implied by its title: do any of us really see women’s roles, bodies, or desires clearly, even at this culturally sympathetic moment? How do girls of all ages work to reason with—–or resist—–the murky personal landscapes they’re challenged with every day?

Just one more story to go and I can call that collection (like our interview) a wrap.