October 30, 2017KR Conversations

Emily Withnall

Emily WithnallEmily Withnall’s work has appeared in High Country News, Concīs Magazine, and El Palacio Magazine, among others. “Disembodied” is an excerpt of her manuscript Fracture, and the essay won first place in creative nonfiction for the AWP Writers’ Conferences & Centers Award in 2016. Her essay “Whiptail Clan” is forthcoming in the anthology Janeland from Cleis Press this year. She lives in Missoula, Montana. An excerpt from her essay “Disembodied” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “Disembodied”?

“Disembodied” is an excerpt from my manuscript, “Fracture.” It started as a twelve-page essay in graduate school, and I wrote it because I was taking a writing workshop and a class called Environmental Justice Issues and Solutions. In the workshop, I wanted to finally tell my story about my marriage and the domestic violence I experienced. It had been five years since my divorce and I was finally ready to write about what happened. And in the Environmental Justice class, I wanted to focus on an issue that was close to home for me, which was Mora County, New Mexico, taking a stand against SWEPI Ltd.—a subsidiary of Shell Oil. I chose this topic because I initially knew very little about it and was so inspired that a tiny community near my hometown had taken on an oil company. It was, in my mind, a wonderful David versus Goliath story. What I discovered as I conducted research and interviews, however, is that the story was far more complex and that the legal battles were eerily similar to my own legal battles following my divorce. As a result, my writing and research for both classes began to dovetail. “Disembodied” doesn’t contain much of the Mora County narrative, but the full story is in the manuscript, “Fracture.” Seeing the parallels between the stories made me realize how much domestic violence and extractive industries like fracking have in common.

In the essay you quote Lisa Brunner, program specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center: “I’m happy to see that we are talking about the level of violence that is occurring against Mother Earth because it equates to us. . . . When you stand for one, you must stand for the other.” How did you decide to pair a story about abuse—addressing national issues and your own escape—with the story of fracking in northern New Mexico?

Violence against women and violence against the earth are carried out in very similar ways. When I started writing I was mainly interested in the parallels between the physical destruction both of these types of violence cause—the smack on the face paired with the ripping up of earth and contamination of water supplies. But as I researched, I began to see other parallels. The legal parallels are huge. Women are generally not believed in our society and are cast as liars and emotional manipulators. Women who survive domestic violence cannot bring this into court without “proof” and even with the kind of proof any given judge deems acceptable, the consequences for the abuser amount to a slap on the wrist while the survivor must endure a barrage of criticism, attacks on her character, and questioning her truth. Similarly, small communities like Mora County are not legally able to prevent fracking or any other extractive industry because in the US corporations are considered to be people with rights, and ultimately, corporations’ rights to profit win out over a community’s rights to protect their air and water. When SWEPI, Ltd. took Mora County to court for trying to ban fracking, they won and nearly bankrupted an already poor county. This is eerily similar to my ex-husband’s continued abuse of me following our divorce by taking me to court endlessly in what I suspect was an attempt to break me financially. In addition to the physical and legal parallels, there are so many other parallels between violence against women and against the earth, including the effects of trauma and the healing process. I write about this in the full manuscript as well. My healing is an ongoing process, and the internal divisions in Mora County that were brought about as a result of their battle with SWEPI, Ltd. will also take a long time to heal.

As you wrote about Kali, I began to think about how few female figures are known for their anger. Can you talk a little bit about writing anger? Are there any other angry women you especially look up to, in literature or otherwise?

Kali entered into the manuscript unexpectedly. Part of what I explore throughout “Disembodied,” and the manuscript as a whole, are the ideas of “violence” and “anger.” To me, Kali represents a deep and purposeful kind of anger. In our society women, indigenous people, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people of color are taught that anger is an unacceptable emotion. I see this kind of thinking as a part of the violence that is perpetrated against marginalized groups. If we can’t express anger at the ways we experience violence, and indeed, in many cases, if we must try to understand why “he” is angry, or what terrible thing must have happened to him to make him so violent and angry, we are silenced and our feelings are not considered to be meaningful or important. Kali represents a kind of collective rage that is also productive in destroying greed and power and domination to recreate a new dynamic or balance. She expresses the anger that so many of us feel but cannot adequately express without making ourselves vulnerable to further attacks and violence.

It was liberating to write about Kali and her anger and to channel my own anger through her as I wrote. These were the pieces that were easiest for me to write because they were in some way a response to reliving my experience of domestic violence on the page. You are right that there are not many angry women in literature, but there is definitely a small, strong group leading the charge and revealing their anger to greater or lesser degrees. Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Angela Davis come to mind. Also, writers Rebecca Solnit, Arundhati Roy, Maggie Nelson, Winona LaDuke, Ijeoma Olou, who writes for The Establishment, and Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous, and poet Layli Long Soldier. And in my own manuscript, the head of the Mora County Commission is a woman who has been smeared in the most awful ways but has persevered, in part, I think due to her anger at what she’s had to endure. I think it’s important to express anger—not in a destructive way to myself or to others, but in a constructive way, like Kali. It’s important to stand your ground and speak your truth and demand accountability and justice. If there’s anything I want to teach my daughters, it’s this. But I acknowledge that I also have years of conditioning to undo.

How did you settle on the title “Disembodied”? What about the definition felt significant to you?

“Disembodied” comes from my recognition that we are largely disconnected from the earth. We tend to think of things as commodities: lumber, stock, and gas, rather than trees, animals, and fossils. As I write in the essay, this kind of thinking, and our dissociation from the earth, has its roots in the Industrial Revolution. And the parallels in thinking about the earth and women during the Industrial Revolution are telling—and horrific. The earth and women were seen, and continue to be seen, as objects that men can take or use how they like. I was also drawn to the word “Disembodied” because in retrospect I can identify the ways I was disembodied during my marriage. I withdrew and became a shell of myself in an effort to cope. And even now, almost ten years later, it can be difficult to tune into my body. Counterintuitively, living in my head has always been a kind of survival mechanism. But it’s only by becoming embodied, by tuning into the earth and into our own bodies, that we can begin to recognize the harm we are doing. Identifying harm is the first step toward healing.

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I am working on a few different essays. One is called “Love in the Time of Trump” (a play on Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera) and is, in part, about meeting my girlfriend at a Women’s March planning meeting and falling in love post-election. As an interracial, same-sex couple, I’m conscious of our vulnerability as hate crimes continue to rise, and I’m also interested in the ways love can work to counteract fear during such an incredibly charged and challenging political climate.

In the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, I’ve also begun work on an essay about gun violence and domestic violence. Immediately preceding the Pulse shooting in Orlando, my daughters and I witnessed our neighbor being assaulted by her boyfriend and when the Pulse shooting happened and it came out that the shooter had a history of domestic violence, it became so clear to me that there is a kind of rage, entitlement, and lack of empathy inherent in treating women poorly or opening fire on a crowd. “Disembodied” ends with me talking to my daughter about the Sandy Hook shooting, so this is clearly, and tragically, an issue that remains evergreen. Many mass shooters have a history of perpetrating domestic violence and this link is yet another way to examine violence and fear. Violence seems to be the common theme in much of what I’m writing these days, so perhaps a new manuscript or essay collection will result from that thread. I am fascinated by violence—what we consider to be violence, what we don’t, and how fear both protects us and causes great harm.