Ariel Gore gets it. Don’t ask me to limit what “it” is. Just trust me, she does.
Gore’s that really cool friend who understands the effects of abuse, ignorance, and even death. Just as well as she understands the splendor of life. Either way, she’ll have you doubled over with laughter. The honest kind that often saves us from our pasts and pushes us into a future we can’t help but want to live.
Her books are like friends that you introduce and pass on to other friends. Her journalistic eye is sharp and unforgiving, yet somehow kind and stodgily hopeful. And Gore is real, her cutting intelligence matched with fierce integrity. She takes back her skin with ink and markers, pulls her boots on, and goes right back out to kick the world in its ass. Her writing is that rare balance between pragmatic observation and hypnotic lyricism. And when you’re not laughing, you may cry. And when you’re not crying, you may have to just sit for a moment, staring out into the distance and taking it all in.
Gore’s first memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, is best described in Gore’s own words as a story “of running away from a suburban adolescence full of rich bitches, tortured punks, drugs, and sexual violence to travel around Asia and Europe, in and out of love and danger. It was the story of learning, as Muriel Rukeyser says, that the only security that matters is the security of the imagination.”
When I found Atlas, it was added to the small pile of books that I have at least two copies of, because one is often on loan. Books like these change lives. By giving them to others who need them as much if not more than we do, we affect a sense of acknowledgment, of recognition, of encouragement and care.
So along with my copies of Gore’s Atlas, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, I now have another book that I will share and share again, Ariel Gore’s recent memoir, The End of Eve. Her newest book is a stark reflection, rife with every gradient of light and shadow, of what it is like to care for a dying parent.
Ariel Gore was kind enough to take some time during her national book tour to answer a few questions via email about her recent work, her perspective on writing, and everything else we really wanted to know.
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Polyphonic Lit: You wrote an article earlier this year in Psychology Today about how “dark humor storytelling” can be a “tool of resilience” and “an antidote to the violence of life,” especially for those of us who have experienced abuse. In your recent memoir, moments of shock, disillusionment, rage, and fear are bound together perfectly, not only by the beauty of your writing, but by this necessary laughter. Humor, especially the dark variety, can be so difficult to get across so effectively on the page. How did you find that voice? How would you encourage others to find that voice and convey their own powerful laughter in writing?
Ariel Gore: First you have to see the humor in the dark moments of life. You have to be able to laugh in the face of some of the things that also make you cry. Every person has a unique wiring for humor–explore the things that you actually find funny. Read dark comedies you like–and watch movies–and study the timing and the juxtaposition of the morbid and the absurd. And don’t be afraid to be completely inappropriate. Sometimes even very funny people censor themselves in their writing because they’re afraid of committing to the inappropriate jokes on paper. But there’s heart where there’s laughter. Dig in there. Try your work out at open mics or live readings and see if you’re getting laughs at the right moments. (Small audiences often won’t bust up if they’re nervous, but a crowd of 20+ and you should get some laughs if your timing is working.) Do NOT try your jokes out on social media. Even the most gut-busting hilarity becomes unfunny within three comments on most social media. People start pitying you and sending “love and light” and that’s it–the joke is over. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny. It just means social media culture is humorless.
PL: Along with the moments of necessary laughter, The End of Eve is also wonderfully balanced by your matter-of-fact, journalistic style. You openly discuss your role as a journalist in the book, as someone who is driven to “rush in and try to dispatch some useable truth from the places that scare us.” This also comes into play in the many moments of the book where privilege, whether based on gender, ethnicity, class, or heteronormative ideals, becomes an issue that you report in a factual manner. Can you talk about how these straightforward and unfettered observations work in your books, and why they have such a distinct power?
AG: My training is as a journalist. I studied magazine journalism under Clay Felker when I was in grad school at UC Berkeley and he taught a narrative journalism style that borrowed heavily from the tools of the fiction writer and the memoirist. Things had to be well-reported, of course, but if the product didn’t tell a good story and tell it well, Felker wasn’t interested. Most of what I write now is actually fiction or memoir, but I still have that journalist in me. If I’m taking care of a dying parent, I want to know the statistics related to my experience. How many people are taking care of dying parents right now? How am I demographically like them or unlike them? It’s a different approach than hamming things up with dark humor, but it ends up serving some of the same purpose–to lighten up an intense situation. When under stress, crack a joke or go kind of journalistic/OCD and start counting factoids.
PL: My early formative years in Minneapolis were highly influenced by the Riot Grrrls who blasted my little mind open in the most wonderful way. I remember the first time I took Sharpie to belly and then to arm. And it’s something I still do. You refer to this act powerfully in The End of Eve, whether it’s “scrawling Escape Artist on the soles of my feet” at 16, the stars tinged with gold you get tattooed on your hip, and the meditative “Behave in a way that you’re going to be proud of,” drawn on your wrist. Why is working with our skin like this such a powerful act? Are we reclaiming ourselves when we “scar [ourselves] like this with talismans”? Or are we simply etching out what we want our outsides to better reflect?
AG: As women—and increasingly as any humans in a commodified society—we’re taught that our skin isn’t quite our own. Our bodies are conquests for other people or our bodies can sell things or are bodies aren’t good enough and we have to starve ourselves to increase their value. For me, coming of age in the ’80s and ’90s, in subcultures where there was a lot of sexual violence, being in charge of some of the scars on my body became so important. After an early experience of sexual violence that I wrote about in my memoir, Atlas of the Human Heart, a lot of people treated me like I was damaged now. Or they said it outright. So I was this sort of marked woman. And it turned out, you now, I didn’t mind being a marked woman. I just wanted to do the marking myself!
PL: There’s a great line in The End of Eve where you quote your friend China as saying, “‘I wanted to be the female Bukowski, the female Burroughs, but instead I’m just the female.’…right then, I felt like such the female—the caregiver.” You go on to point out that more than just being “the female,” that the role of caregiving most often falls to the queer kid. Can you talk about that on both the level of being a woman, and also identifying as queer? Has going through this experience and writing this book brought you any more clarity or understanding of this “caregiver” role that’s seemingly forced on certain people?
AG:Yes, I love that line from China.
I became my mom’s caregiver because she was widowed and only had two kids and my sister refused to have anything to do with it. So it fell to me to take it on or to abandon her, which was certainly an option. I think usually if there’s a queer kid in the family it falls to the queer kid to do the caregiving. In the same way that if there are no queers but there’s a female—it would fall to the female before it fell to the male children very generally speaking. Some people think it falls to the queer kids because we might not have children of our own. But that’s not it. I have kids. That’s not the why of it. I don’t really understand the why of it beyond the very deeply culturally ingrained idea that women and queer’s time is worth a little less.
But I reject the idea that caregiving is unimportant work.
When I was younger it seemed to me that feminist writers too often shied away from writing about caregiving. It was women’s work and to write about it was seen maybe as reinforcing the idea that it was women’s work. The work itself is so devalued that I think people feel, you know, it’s not important enough to write about. We have to climb Mt. Everest and write about that. Which of course is fine if you want to climb Mt. Everest. But being a queer single mom was my Everest when I first starting writing. Being the daughter of an abusive mother who I decided to try to care for anyway was my important work recently. And in both cases—parenting and caregiving—I wanted to give it it’s real importance and tell the truth about it and not glorify it or devalue it but dispatch some usable truth from the experience.
PL: In both The End of Eve and Atlas of the Human Heart, you invite readers into your book and, in many ways, into your mind/world. It’s really an incredible way to begin, both in Atlas where you trip the lines between memory, memoir, and fiction so beautifully, and in Eve where the your warm storyteller voice comes through. Can you explain where this comes from and the thought process is behind it?
AG: That’s a good question. I’ve never thought about that as a pattern in my writing. But now that you mention it, I do love the old-fashioned narrative style that begins with a kind of “Let me tell you a story…” I think of Hermann Hesse in Journey to the East or a book like The Little Prince in which the narrator really takes you by the hand to bring you from everyday reality into the special world where the story will take place.
PL: Your spirituality comes across strikingly in this book. The references to the I Ching, the incredible lines of bibliomancy, the various candles (from Saint Martin De Porres—which sat in front of me as I read that passage—to Marie Laveau), and the deeply meaningful imagery of the crow, all seem to flow together and form a kind of intuitive syncretism. Can you talk about how you found your own system of ritual and belief? I find that many contemporary women, like myself, must search out and make traditions of their own. How have you come upon yours?
AG: I was raised by an excommunicated Catholic Priest, so spiritual experience outside the confines of a religious institution is where I come from. And then I came of age first spending a lot of time at the Zen center at Green Gultch in northern California and then as a traveler moving through Buddhist and shamanistic and Catholic and mystic and Voodoo-influenced cultures and subcultures. So I collected things—gods and traditions and superstitions and ethical ways of thinking. I mean, if I’m going to pray, I’m not going to pray to some judgmental old white guy in the sky. There’s no shortage of judgmental old white guys on earth—so that’s not what I’m lacking. Sometimes what I’m lacking is a real sense of compassion for myself. And when I picture the face of compassion, that image might take the form of a Mary or a Marie Laveau mother-type or a deer or something else. And of course it’s still pretty taboo to write about spirituality at all. So I find a power in that. It’s good fun to try and work Baba Yaga and Yemaya and an 11th-century Tibetan Buddhist master and Saint Christopher into the same dinner scene. I mean, what would you serve? Maybe these are just the things I think about to distract myself from the grief of life and the fact that sometimes the people I’m actually feeding are a bunch of crazy jerks who happen to be related to me.
I like that so many people have really related to The End of Eve even if they’re from very different spiritual mindsets or political mindsets. There’s something so universal in the death of a parent. And the overwhelming feedback I’ve gotten form this book has been a sense of relief that comes with telling the truth about the experience. My specifics might differ from your specifics, but there is a sense of camaraderie and certainly the dark humor of it all. We can sit down and share a drink and say, wow, this is intense and hard and real. This is life and here’s to it.
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Ariel Gore is the editor & publisher of the Alternative Press Award-winning magazine Hip Mama and the author of eight books. Her latest, The End of Eve, chronicles her years spent caring for her dying mother. The memoir has been called “Terms of Endearment meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Ariel Gore’s previous books include the bestselling Hip Mama Survival Guide (Hyperion), The Mother Trip (Seal Press), Oregon Book Award finalist Atlas of the Human Heart (Seal Press), Whatever, Mom (Seal Press), The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show (HarperOne), How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead (Three Rivers), and Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).
She’s also edited half a dozen anthologies, including Breeder (Seal Press), The People’s Apocalypse (Lit Star Press), and the LAMBDA-award winning Portland Queer (Lit Star Press).
Ariel lives in Oakland, California, and teaches online at Ariel Gore’s School for Wayward Writers.