Christine Stark’s novel Nickels was recently named as one of the finalists for the 24th Annual Lambda Literary Awards, 2011. Published by the Modern History Press, Nickels is listed as a finalist in the category of Lesbian Debut Fiction. Christine Stark tells about her novel in the following conversation.
Ernest: Hi Chris and congrats on having Nickels listed among the finalists. Please tell our readers what inspired you to write this novel? Who are your literary influences?
Christine: Thank you. I’m very excited that Nickels is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.
When I was 19 and 20, I read House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros; Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson; and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. They were captivating books, especially thematically and stylistically. I loved the girls’ voices and their central positions in the stories. Also, I found the use of vignettes in House On Mango Street to be a particularly compelling way to convey the girl’s perspective. Stylistically, House On Mango Street is so true to the consciousness of childhood that when I sat down to write Nickels years later, I returned to House on Mango Street. Given that the protagonist in Nickels never entirely leaves behind her child consciousness, it made sense to me to write Nickels using a stream-of-consciousness/prose poem style. In the 90s, I discovered Sapphire’s work and devoured Push—the book the movie Precious is based on. One day someone said that Push was the best portrayal of dissociation she had ever read. I thought: I want to write a book about dissociation; and so I did.
Ernest: Who should read this book? For whom was it written?
Christine: Everyone should read Nickels. Seriously. I don’t believe that any literature should be limited to a certain audience. The point of literature is to make us more whole and more aware. Literature makes more complete our understanding of the world. But it is true that the book was written for particular people—most broadly girls, and those who have been girls, especially those who have been abused and ignored and devalued.
Ernest: How do you see your novel fitting into the lesbian literary canon?
Christine: People have different definitions about what constitutes lesbian literature. Some say it is anything written by a lesbian; and others say it must have lesbian characters that are central to the story. By either definition, Nickels is a lesbian novel. In the book, the protagonist is aware of her sexual orientation at a young age. Her parents mistreat her specifically for being a lesbian, but embracing her sexuality saves her as a girl and young woman.
In terms of a lesbian canon, Nickels shares similarities with Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Although Nickels is different from The Well of Loneliness, published by Radclyffe Hall in 1928, there are still some similarities, especially some of the difficulties between the lesbian characters and their mothers.
Ernest: Why is the protagonist named “Little Miss So And So” and then later “So And So”?
Christine: When the writing went beyond a couple of prose poems and I realized it would be a book, I had a moment where I thought “what is this girl’s name?” And no name came to me. I thought: Sarah, Cindy. And after the second name, it was clear to me that this girl, because of the way she is made invisible and viewed as crazy by her parents and many of the adults around her could not have an individual’s name. She is not treated as an individual with respect, dignity, and sovereignty but rather as a receptacle for the abusers’ shame, fear, rage, and inferiority. I also wanted her name to be vague and dismissive because the abuses directed at her are directed at so many. I wanted to invoke the way other writers and thinkers have used the idea of “Everyman” and “Everywoman”.
Of course, one character cannot represent all abused girls, but I hope that readers will think about the similarities among abuse survivors, and the way girls are mistreated. Also, hostilities directed at children scapegoat them and therefore, have nothing whatsoever to do with the inherent value of the individual child. Instead, they are about the abusers’ projections and the abusers’ needs, and I would argue, society’s projections—such as portraying girls as inferior, weak, crybabies, vixens, and so on.
Paradoxically, children feel as if the abuse they experience is entirely about them and their supposed shortcomings.
“So and so” is dismissive and that is what the girl must fight, live, grow, become against. Her name changes from “Little Miss So And So” to “So And So” because others perceive her to age out of the “little miss”; but in her mind, she does not entirely grow up. Because of the abuse, parts of her do not grow up.
Ernest: That is so interesting and makes perfect sense. Are there any real life situations or observations that correlate with the protagonist’s life?
Christine: One similarity between the protagonist and me is the setting. I have lived in the Twin Cities and Madison, Wisconsin, which is where Nickels occurs. I couldn’t psychologically go where I needed to go in order to retrieve this character’s psyche and experiences while also completely making up the environment. For instance, I couldn’t set the story in New York City or southern California, because even though I have visited those places and could conceivably use them as settings, I needed to have the physical place be immediate and accessible and familiar, because place in the story acted as a kind of anchor to bring me back from retrieving the fictional character and her story. In short, the setting grounded me. Also, I used real locations because I have a personal fondness for reading books set in “real” settings. I will pick up a book set in a place I have lived and read it cover to cover even if I am not that interested in the subject or writing style. It’s just something I do.
I drew upon my own experiences and other survivors’ experiences to inform the portrayal of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and dissociation that So And So copes with in the novel. She is a fictional, composite character created from my friends, acquaintances, me, and stories I have heard over twenty years of working against rape along with a healthy dose of imagination. Her trials and tribulations are fairly average for people who have been chronically traumatized as children. Some have had much harder times while others have not struggled as much as she does.
Ernest: How does the overall style and structure of Nickels relate to the content?
Christine: In Nickels, the father gives the protagonist a nickel every time he sexually assaults her. Therefore, structurally the novel has five sections: age 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25. We lose years in between each section, so there are jumps in her development and experiences that we do not share with her. This disconnection creates an organizational dissonance that matches the psychological disconnection the protagonist experiences on a daily and sometimes minute-to-minute basis.
Stylistically, the novel is a series of prose poems with virtually no punctuation, although white space, changes in formatting, and italics teach the reader how to read. I tried writing it with punctuation but it removed the reading of it from the way the character’s mind works and I didn’t want that. Oftentimes her thoughts tumble one right after the other, if not simultaneously, and I wanted to retain that sense of urgency and, at times, chaos and overwhelm that a person with dissociative issues can experience, at least at times. The style makes the story more accessible and authentic.
Ernest: What was it like writing about such an emotionally difficult and complicated subject?
Christine: Joyous. At times during the writing, it would become very intense, and I would jump up and wander around the house or yard for a bit; but overall, the writing of the novel was a freeing, lifting experience; partly because I was giving voice to experiences not generally discussed, so it was powerful to do that as a writer. And partly because the act of writing is transcendent, no matter what I am writing about. Putting words on paper, or a screen as we do now, and having them match what is in your head creates harmony. It means I am not alone.
Ernest: What is Nickels’ social or political importance beyond the literary world?
Christine: Certainly to give voice to chronically abused girls, to provide understanding of the psychological and emotional survival of being physically broken into by a father, and having a compromised mother. I hope people think about terms like “torture” and where that occurs and how it occurs in the everyday fabric of all our lives—whether it happens to you or someone you love or someone you live down the block from. I hope people think about who is cast as strong and hero in our culture, versus who is cast as weak and responsible for her own victimization. The rape of children is the ultimate injustice. Nickels is part of the work to reframe that injustice, to name it, to end it, and to link it, politically, with other work for social justice.
Ernest: The sexual violence that occurs in Nickels is arresting, but there are many other factors in So And So’s life. How does her class status affect her life as she moves from working class to poverty class?
Christine: Class status is a defining and often limiting aspect of So And So’s life. Growing up working class defines her experiences as a girl and when she moves into poverty class as a young adult, it greatly limits her ability to take care of herself and fully participate in life; yet it also provides her with the ability to have free time to begin healing. The stigma associated with poverty adds to her shame and instability, but she has a fairly well-developed analysis of class which is greater than someone raised in the middle class. Her working class background prepares her to resist the shame of poverty, to understand it on a meta level rather than get completely lost in it as a personal failure. For her, much of her life is about staving off shame, working class/poverty shame, and the shame experienced by that class of people known as “the raped”. It is never an all-or-nothing for her—the shame exists, she feels it, she resists it, she feels it again, and resists again.
Ernest: In closing, what are some of your current writing projects?
Christine: Currently, I am finishing a memoir, and writing short creative nonfiction essays not meant to be included in the finished memoir.
Ernest: Thank you Chris! I wish Nickels and your writing talent the best ahead!
Christine: Thank you for your time, Ernest.
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To learn more about Christine and her books, visit her online at http://www.christinestark.com/.