Chavisa Woods: Beyond the Narrative
Author: Sara Rauch
May 27, 2013
“If you’re writing a big sprawling book about America, and racism doesn’t come up at all, well, I would wonder about that.”
Chavisa Woods is a Brooklyn-based writer and artist. Her debut collection of short stories, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind (Fly By Night Press, 2009) was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for Debut Fiction. She has read or performed at the Whitney Museum, Penn State, the New York Vision Festival, the NYC HOWL Festival, and the New York Hot Festival.
The Albino Album, her first novel, was released this spring by Seven Stories Press. Lucy Jane Bledsoe called it “a 21st century fairytale: potent, grim, fierce, redemptive.” It’s the story of Mya, a fiery, unhinged, growling, big-hearted country girl in a dirty black tutu and combat boots, and it follows her (and her family—both blood and found) from the cornfields of Indiana to Missouri and Kansas to New Orleans to New York City. It’s a rip-roaring ride of a novel, a book unlike any other.
Chavisa was kind enough to talk to Lambda Literary Review about The Albino Album, what it was like writing it, her responsibilities as a writer, and what’s next in her literary career.
First, let me just say, The Albino Album really blew me away. It’s such a big, all-encompassing book, and it’s so interested in connection and how we humans affect one another, so I wonder: Did you purposefully set out to write this novel, or did it happen organically?
I have no idea.
First I started writing a story about a love triangle between a gutter punk girl, a dandy fag and a little boy who thinks he’s an angel. That turned out to be the last chapter. Second, I wrote a story about a little girl who unleashes an albino tiger on her mother. That turned out to be the first chapter. They were both titled after and pregnant with rock songs. Then I started writing the middle, and then I realized I was writing a novel, and then I was set on writing the novel, laying it out and all. Is that… organically? A bit of both.
Tell me about why you decided to structure the book as a mix-tape.
There’s not only one answer to this. Music has always been a big part of my life. I’m a musician and a singer. My father is a musician. Most people in my family at least play an instrument or sing. It’s always been a constant part of my life, music as a backdrop at least, and sometimes, a forefront. The most pivotal moments in my life, I associate with different songs or compositions. In most of the movies I love, there’s a scene that I remember with the song that was playing in the background. For instance, that moment in Foxfire when they are stealing the car and L7’s “Riding With a Movie Star” starts blaring. And I think anyone who has seen Crooklyn remembers the main character stepping onto the stoop of her Brooklyn apartment building, wearing that polyester dress to go to her mother’s funeral, and “Oh-o-Child” comes on. I can’t hear anyone sing “things are gonna get easier” without seeing that scene. That scene would have played very differently silent.
The soundtrack creates another aesthetic level to any story. You can imbue a narrative that might otherwise be bleak with rock ’n’ roll. I really liked the idea that a book could have a soundtrack. So setting it up as a mix-tape was a way of adding an actual soundtrack to the written form. Even though the reader is probably not listening to the songs when they are reading the book, I hope they are hearing the music in their head; those the visceral feelings of the songs are there, coloring the narrative.
How did you choose the songs? And, which came first—the song or the chapter?
The story always came first, but then I kept the song in mind as I was writing the story so that they had a very (I hesitate to use this word, but) synergetic relationship. Most of the chapters can be read as if the song which they are titled for was written about what happened in that chapter. I think the first chapter is a good example. If you read it and then listen to the song, you could perhaps see how Survivor might have known what happened to that little girl and written that song for her.
As far as the choosing of the songs, sometimes it was obvious and sometimes I had no idea. But the process of creating art, when you’re deep in it, often produces little moments of magic.
I’d been outlining this chapter, and I needed the perfect song, and I had no idea what it was, so I couldn’t continue writing until I figured it out, because the songs are all embedded in the chapters. After several days of not writing and trying to figure it out, I was sitting on the subway, obsessing, and I asked I don’t know what, for a sign. I asked, I guess the universe, to give me the damn song already. And the door between the cars opened, and this skinny kid with a guitar came on and started playing, really loud and perfectly, “This is a Man’s World.” And I just sighed and laughed, and gave him a five-dollar bill when he passed the hat, cause that was the song, and it came right at the moment I asked for it. It was for the chapter that introduced the character Idrissa, the intersex activist who lives his life as a man and is very closeted and conflicted about his body and his gender, and is also falling in love with this crazy girl he doesn’t really want to be with, but has been very lonely without. So that was just perfect.
Some of my favorite scenes in The Albino Album happen when the characters are talking—you have a knack for dialogue, for capturing the different ways in which humans speak and sound—do you read your work out loud as you write?
I talk to myself a lot, often as different people sussing things out. I think it comes from years of being in theater and speaking as different characters, and also, just being a bit socially odd. When I’m writing a story, I can be found mumbling to myself while walking down the sidewalk, totally acting out some scene between characters that is happening in my head. It’s a really glamorous process.
In my review of The Albino Album I called it a novel of the human condition. A lot of your characters live outside of, or in some ways transcend, the boundaries of sexuality, race, class, and gender. What kind of responsibility, if any, do you feel as a writer when portraying these characters?
It’s interesting that you say that, because I don’t think they transcend those boundaries. But maybe I’m misinterpreting what you mean. I will say, I feel the same responsibility to all of my characters, however they identify. (laughing)
A few months ago, I had a story published that was about a man who woke up with the Gaza Strip on his head. It’s called “A New Mohawk.” The story is written with the main character as the narrator. Many people who read that story assumed I was a trans-man. Some of my friends who I hadn’t seen for a while also thought I had transitioned and contacted me saying so much.
A lot of the comments I saw in regards to the story were people relating to this story as being about the character’s identity as a queer or trans-person, when, for me, the story wasn’t about that at all. One of my close friends read the story before it was published. She’s transgender, and she said she really liked that the main character was trans, but that the story wasn’t about him being trans. Of course, it comes up. But that’s not what it’s about. The plot of the story would have been basically the same if I had written with a more traditional, straight, male-bodied born man as the main character. But the details would have been different, because that character would have different things to deal with along his way.
When we read stories about middle-class, white, straight men, people don’t say, Oh this is about them being privileged white straight men, they just say like, Paul Auster has a new book out, or whatever, and this and that happens in it.
But most art and entertainment that is commercially produced by mainstream institutions with characters who aren’t straight white people and who are okay financially, are about the fact that they are not those things. So I think we as audience members get trained to see these sorts of characters this way, as if the only story they have is one centered around the fact of their minority identity.
I’ll use the movie The Help as an example of this. There was a pretty significant public discourse over that movie, and I still think it should get more attention. A big issue with that movie was that one of the few times a film was produced on a large Hollywood scale with a leading cast of black female actors, the movie was all about the fact of them being black women and dealing with white on black racism. It’s the same movie that gets produced over and over every five to ten years. It’s like a major motion picture that isn’t an action film, with black people as main characters, cannot be produced without it all revolving around the fact that the characters are black, as if black people don’t have other stories besides dealing with being black or white on black racism. In the end, these stories are really just white people dealing with their issue, their own racism, using black characters as straw figures, like endless therapy for their guilt. And then, with that movie, there was the whole white savior issue on top, which ties into it all.
And don’t even get me started on every lesbian film that has been produced on a large scale either being completely about or shrouded in overtones of a threesome. There is always some male third, some male focal point. Even in The Kids are Alright they have to stick a man in, and deal with lesbianism as if our stories are all about the thing that’s “missing,” when we aren’t missing anything at all. The stories that get told in the mainstream about minorities revolve around the fact that the characters are minorities, and it doesn’t go much further than that.
I come with a lot of labels myself. I’m a white woman. I’m a queer, dyke, punky, leftist, vegetarian, artist, on and on. But for sure, my characters are not all women, they are not all white, they are not all leftist punks. In this book, actually, none of them are me at all. I also don’t choose typically to write about the lives of the types of characters that are most commonly produced. There are very few, well maybe no, straight, white, well-off male leads in any of my writing. So yes, I have a responsibility as a writer when writing both those characters who share things in common with me and who are different than me. I have an obligation, as all writers do, to be honest to my characters, and to let my characters be honest and tell their stories.
As far as my characters transcending the boundaries of class, race, sexuality and other identities, maybe what you mean is, their stories aren’t centered around those identities. Idrissa is black and intersex, and an immigrant, and sometimes he has to deal with racism, nationalism and gender issues when moving through the book, when functioning in society. But his story is not about overcoming racism or gender issues. His story is about his failed political activism, fighting for a class that he doesn’t belong to. His story is about trying not to fall in love with someone who terrifies him. His story is about being a scaredy-cat prude who’s put in the highly unusual situation of having to steal a horse for romance.
And Mya, she’s born very poor. I don’t think she ever transcends that. She spends the whole book surviving, desperate, and finding ways to live within that context. Even her final, brutal act is steeped in her beginnings. But again, her story is not about her poverty. It is not about her queerness either. It is about her as a very full and complicated person and the people she encounters.
Gabriel is the only character who I would say transcends his boundaries. He wants to be an angel, so he goes and lives as an angel. He transcends the boundaries of his species.
Very few writers are able to allow their characters to transcend society. Borges does it. His characters transcend the boundaries of physical being, space and time. But my writing is realism; magical realism, yes, but based in the society we actually inhabit. So my characters have to deal with how society deals with them. And most of my characters are “others,” and society deals with them pretty brutally, so it’s not peripheral. No, I wouldn’t say they transcend it, but I would say their stories transcend the boundaries of narratives that are usually allotted to this motley crew. And I guess I went into this with a feeling of obligation to tell those stories responsibly, and by that I mean as honestly as possible.
Animals in general are very important in The Albino Album: they’re central to the plot and propel it forward, they create both internal and external conflict in many of the characters, they become both tethers and tokens of love. I wonder if this is a comment on how thin the line between human and animal really is? Is there more to it than that?
Yes. Years ago, on a poetry tour when I was twenty-one, a friend of mine asked me a question that he, I believe, misquoted as a Buddhist mantra: “Are you the human dreaming she’s a tiger, or are you the tiger dreaming herself human?” For some reason, that question stayed with me for many, many years, and this book is a mythology I created from thinking too much about that question.
Animals have been representational for humans for generations. Ancient cultures and magical practices have long associated different animals with individual human spirits, personalities and characteristics.
Animals also represent apparent cognition that we cannot communicate with in any complex manner through language. In this way, they really showcase the limits of human empathy and subjectivity. If we are unable to properly communicate with something, look what we do: we subjugate it, we own it, we make it symbolic of ourselves, and we eat it.
Animals in the book are used in many ways. In the first chapter, “Eye of the Tiger,” the characters think they have the tiger under control, locked in the cage, and it’s this huge impossible thing in a context very unfitting for such a creature. But it’s the little girl, the main character, who lets it out, because as her mother says, “She don’t like to see nothing caged up.” Much of Mya’s story is about being something so brutal that society has to lock it away, cage it up. That’s what the tiger is too. And that’s also what many of the less brutal animals represent also. Of course, it’s an act of pulling the line between civilized and wild very tight to a sheer thinness.
But beyond that, they are their own thing; non-representational, actual animals. Much of this book is set in rural areas, and animals are much more integrated into the lives of people in those areas than in the city.
And, while we’re on the topic of animals, tell me more about the albino animals. How did the idea come to you, and what do they symbolize?
Throughout my childhood I had a very bad relationship with an albino Pit-bull.
This dog was bred with another white Pit-bull a few times, and I helped it give birth to several white Pit-bull puppies over the years. So that was always in my mind. There’s something ghostly about such a strong, brutal, white animal. Or maybe it’s ghostly for me, because I associate it with a sort of a haunting.
This book is quite fetishistic. It was a natural inclination for me to make the killer an albino animal, because I had a personal association with mean albino animals. But as I got to writing it, that sprouted out in many more interesting directions. I had to find out where these albino animals were coming from. I soon realized they were being bred by a neo-Nazi in the rural Midwest. That is the most extreme extension of racism as absurdist.
The main character, she’s from a poor, white, rural area. If you’re writing a big sprawling book about America, and racism doesn’t come up at all, well, I would wonder about that. After she leaves, she has to make her peace with people who are much more sophisticated than her liberal and leftist urbanites. But her history (where she comes from) is always there with her. And instead of it being some unspoken tension, I think it’s better that it’s in your face, this albino horse named Aryan, bred by a neo-Nazi, which is her inheritance. It is a beautiful inheritance. It’s an animal, which knows nothing of these human issues. It’s an impossible magical thing, a big white horse with blood-red eyes. But it’s also marred with this history.
And of course, the albino tiger, in the very beginning, it kills its maker. As well it should, as will any hate that one breeds to be so brutal and gorgeous.
Albinism is also a very queer thing. And the level I take it to in this book is impossible. I’ve seen albino rats and ferrets with blood-red eyes. But there’s no such thing as that kind of an albino horse. This ties back into Mya’s mother’s visions of a horse made of the blood that ran out from her childhood beatings. So these animals, most of them, are very mythological. The horse, Aryan, is several things at once; it’s a “queer” animal, it’s marred with a bad history, and also, it’s a manifestation of a very personal vision of salvation passed down from the main character’s mother to her. By claiming Aryan and doing what she does, she retroactively absolves her mother of her powerlessness. That’s how I see it, anyway.
There is a lot of discussion in the novel about naming—especially the power of naming and how it relates to ownership and visibility. Will you talk about why this is important to you, and to the characters you create?
Oh, this is ancient. Knowing someone’s name gives you power over them. Witches don’t use their real names so they can’t be easily hexed by their foes. Naming is owning.
A classic example of this notion is the fairy tale “Rumplestiltskin.” The miller’s daughter, who later became Queen, owes an imp her first-born daughter. But if she guesses the imp’s name, she gets to keep her child. And she does, and she does.
Very few people in the book, even upon hearing it, can pronounce my main character’s name. So in this way, one could argue, very few people have power over her. She’s hard to identify and really claim ownership of. But also, there are very few people she feels know her, and very few people she can trust.
There’s been a quote floating around the Internet that has been associated in multiple memes with Quvenzhané Wallis, the young actress from Beasts of The Southern Wild. It’s from a writer named Warsan Shire, I believe. She said, “Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right … Give your children difficult names, so the world may learn how to unfurl its tongue in the direction of our stolen languages.”
I read this recently, and I really loved it, even though it was on one of those awful Internet postcards. I realize this has a less ubiquitous cultural significance, but I see so much in this statement.
My main character falls for her lover, Idrissa, because he can pronounce her name when no one else except her family members has ever been able to do that. And in case readers don’t know, I keep referring to her as “my main character” because her name is never actually written out anywhere in the book. She’s nicknamed Mya by people who can’t pronounce her name fully.
Of course this quite transparently comes more than partially from personal experiences that grew into a greater understanding of the roles that different types of names play in one’s life and in society, as monikers of class, race, nationality and so many other things.
I’m marked. My name is Chavisa. Until very recently I had never heard of or found anyone with my name (and they are all younger than me). My mom made it up. It’s difficult to pronounce. It’s weird. Often, I mean, several times a week since I was a child, when I introduce myself to someone new, they begin this nationality/ethnicity guessing game with me. Especially if they can’t pronounce it. They say, “Oh, is that Icelandic, Spanish, Mediterranean?” what have you. I usually tell them, no, my mom made it up. Then, one out of ten times, the next question is, “Is your mom black?” Usually this is asked without any hesitation. And I get this from people of color and white people alike. My friends have witnessed this and totally have lost it. I mean, if you’re looking at me, well, I’m a very Irish-looking red head. But hey. It’s possible, I guess. Nonetheless, it is an assumption rooted in very obvious stereotypes.
In the book I play a lot with these stereotypes. It’s not necessarily a politically correct book. Okay, that’s an understatement. In the lower classes of all ethnic backgrounds in the U.S. it is more common to find “outlandish,” non-traditional, creative and defiantly non-biblical names. I look at my book a bit like a mythology. Everything is magnified, exaggerated to the god-point. I have five truck-driving uncles named after different countries. I have a main character with a name that is so impossible it exists nowhere on the page, and seldom in the tongues of any speakers.
I think I’ve said a lot of contradictory things here. I’m not sure I’m answering the question. I’ve said these stereotypes are rooted in something real, and simultaneously, I’m offended by certain assumptions based on them, and furthermore that I used them as a main platform for my largest work. I guess, when I think of my name, and Mya’s name, and “those kinds of names,” I want to say to the people who can’t pronounce it and who absolutely have to place it before they continue talking to me, “Yes, this means I’m not from where you’re from. No, that is not a bad thing. And no, that also doesn’t mean I’m from where you are assuming I am from. It’s probably just a place that you don’t know.”
Maybe it’s hard to say in other words. I think I said it best in the book, in the chapter, “Name.” (The Goo Goo Dolls made it in. I know.) I talked about it this way, and I’ll let these more poured-over words give the final answer:
“Every time she spoke her real name, uttered the syllables of the tribal artifice she was so dubbed, it was as if she was conjuring her mother’s congenital poverty, holding it up as a dare, a bizarre totem, in the faces of beholders, those who could look but never touch, never quite reconstruct the icon that was manifest of a heritage of lack, of un-ownership, of complete dismissal of membership in a society built on the distribution of reproduction of easily circulated, tangible commodities. And yet it was also a proclamation of the most profound elitism, so it was, in a way, a wealth. When she spoke her name, it was simultaneously a proclamation of enslavement and freedom; the freedom to be un-owned by society, and yet the freedom to own nothing of value to this society, which is a segregation, which is to be enslaved within one’s identity. ”
At one point Mya says, “I start thinking about who I would have been in history, but I can’t find myself nowhere there. Then it hits me that this now will someday be history and I wonder who I will be in this history then, later. But I can’t see me in the history of the future or of the past.” It seems to me that she is speaking for so many groups who find no home in standard history—which is usually an account of the past written by the victor—but also that her invisibility allows her to move with more freedom. There’s a struggle there of course—I’m thinking of the scene where she buys a ticket to go to the top of the Empire State Building but is denied access because she doesn’t have an ID—but there’s also a great sense of boundlessness to Mya’s character. Will you talk about the dichotomy that her invisibility creates, and how and why you think it’s applicable to today’s world?
That is it, exactly. I said this in many different ways in the book. This goes back to the previous paragraph, exploring this concept of the simultaneous social “freedom” and “enslavement” of those who are born into and/or live on the margins of society. I mean, speaking casually, I would like, quote Courtney Love, “Where you stop that’s where I begin.” My main character embodies this punk tome completely. She is in many ways untouchable and more than kind of scary. But like you said, while she can access places and modes of existence that others can’t, she lacks the basic access to spaces and commodities that most people take for granted.
In this scene, Mya is reacting to people who were trying to make her feel guilty about her horse’s name. They’ve perceived in her the same privilege that they feel guilty about in themselves. But she’s from somewhere else. She has very different issues to deal with. She doesn’t have the same history as the oppressor that they share and that they assumed in her. She’s trying to figure out, in the view of these new urbanites she’s come to live with, who she would be in their narrative. So I guess this is a section where she is becoming aware of her class difference, because, she realizes, she’s not there in their history of things. And yes, those are generally the characters I write and write for. The ones who aren’t in the history books, which most often contain the narratives of the victor, or at least of those with access to producing, distributing and preserving a historical narrative.
This gives her a lot of freedom. Back to the name thing, it’s difficult to find her. She’s a person without identification, without records, and without a name that anyone can pronounce, so she can just blow things up then sort of disappear. She is boundless in that way. She is way off the grid, to the point of being almost magical. But like all magical creatures, the restrictions are very strange. Vampires are immortal unless they come in contact with something as common as sunlight.
Mya can’t go up to the top of the Empire State Building and look at the city through binoculars, something every tourist who visits New York City can do. But she can completely destroy the monolithic building and totally disappear, without fear of retribution or of being found, if, in the end, she wants to, that is.
Your characters’ voices and stories are so unique and so engaging. What was it like creating these people? What was it like “living” with them while you were writing?
I love writing in the voices of different characters. For a book this large, it would be daunting for both the writer and the reader to have it all in one voice. I particularly love the shift from Mya’s voice to Idrissa’s. They are so different, and when Idrissa describes her, you get a completely different picture of Mya than what you’ve had before. I noticed during the weeks I was writing in Idrissa’s voice that I conducted myself with a much more proper tone and attitude. I was really getting into him. With Mya, it was the opposite. I even growled sometimes. Maybe I’m a method writer.
The chapters with the uncles were my favorite to write, well, the most fun. The uncles were so unlike any characters I had written before. Sometimes they would say things that would make me laugh as I wrote them. They really surprised me. And their chapters were action packed, which is also not something I usually do. To get into the mood of that, I watched the movie Fast and Furious. I don’t usually watch action films. I wanted to see how they made good action believable, how they made it work, and maybe that was the wrong movie, but after watching that I realized, they don’t make it work. They just do it. So I just let the uncles do it. There was a moment with Brazil, when he said to his brother who was haranguing him, “People who live in glass houses should watch their mouths cause I’ll break your face.” That made me laugh. I was like, Wow, you just said that. Okay. I felt like I was sitting around, having a beer with these five grizzled truck drivers. It was great.
Who are your writing influences? What are you reading right now?
I’ve been stuck on two writers the past year, and have primarily been reading Richard Brautigan and Harry Crews. The latter uses animals a lot as well, and writes about PWT and the rural south in ways that are deeply troubling and much more disturbing than anything else I’ve read, with perhaps the exception of some things by Kathy Acker. Crews really freaks me out more than anything, and I like that in a writer. A Feast of Snakes is the best of his works, in my opinion. The dog fighting and the snake eating are not the most troubling occurrences in the book, and at the same time, everything is written so perfectly, so poignantly.
Brautigan I cannot put down, and want to pick up again and again. For him, it’s obvious that the medium is the message, and I’ve fallen in love absolutely with his writing. The Pacific Northwest is often the perfect canvas for his gorgeous prose, and I haven’t spent much time there, but I’ve fallen for the area through him. I’m almost out of things to read by him and I’m not sure what to do after that. His words were great and new, like fresh mowed grass, or like it splitting in front of me and that feeling of everything being minted and clean. I’m not sure what the second reading will be like.
As far as long-term influences, I read a lot of both poetry and prose, and my favorite writers would have to include Angela Carter, Anne Carson, Marguerite Yourcenar, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, Borges, Flannery O’Connor, Audre Lorde, Harlan Ellison, Toni Morrison, Anna Ahkmatova, Ralph Ellison, Marge Piercy, Eileen Myles, Margaret Atwood, Carson McCullers, Tom Robbins, and as a teenager and young adult I was totally in love with Jeanette Winterson. I read everything she wrote up to about 2003. Without any one of these writers, my voice would be radically different than what it is today.
What inspires you, as a writer, and as a human being?
Inspired is not a word I use often.
But my favorite things about being alive are swimming, literature, sex, turtles and cheese, not in any particular order.
As a writer, I’m always fascinated by how other writers work: do you write everyday? Do you write in a specific place? When you settle down into working, what does that look like?
I do write almost every day, whether it’s just a poem or a journal entry or a work of fiction. I can write anywhere. I like cafés. I also have a desk by a window that I can sit at for eight-hour stints. I like there to be some kind of background noise, either the radio or people chatting nearby. There’s a lot of snacking and unfortunately, still, smoking involved. People ask me this question a lot. I don’t think my answer is that fascinating. Now I wish I had some other more quirky ritual, but really, I just sit down and write.
Last one: What’s next?
I’m about a third of the way through a novella which is like a mix of The Stranger and Trout Fishing in America, but I’m not ready to say much more than that right now.
The next several months will be spent getting The Albino Album out there. I’ve basically just had a baby, and now have to get it to walk on its own.
I’m still surprised and grateful that this book was published. I mean, the lead character, the heroine, is a queer, female domestic terrorist, a girl who goes around the country in combat boots and a black tutu blowing things up, and the book is also very language driven. Seven Stories acquired this book before it was finished. I’m so glad that there are still presses out there who are willing to invest in radical literature.
Next, I need to make sure the book can make it on its own, that it finds its audience, or rather, that the audience finds the book. I think they will. I wrote a book that I would like to read. It’s a book I would like to read now, as an adult living in New York City. But it’s also a book I would have needed when I was the weirdo kid living in the rural Midwest, trying to find art that was relevant and trying to envision a world that would have me.