Emotional Truths: A Q&A with Suzanne Rivecca

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Author Suzanne Rivecca

Suzanne Rivecca is the author of the short story collection Death Is Not an Option (2010), which won the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy in Rome. She has won two Pushcart Prizes and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a Creative Arts Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Abigail Lind is a writer based in Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in Slate, and she is the Assistant to the Editor at boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture. She is currently at work on a book about new ways of understanding death.

Suzanne Rivecca read her short story “Philanthropy,” which first appeared in Granta, at City of Asylum on January 19, 2017. After the reading, Abigail had a lively discussion with her about her work in social services, the challenges of translating human experience into narrative, and the awesome responsibility of bearing witness to homelessness and poverty.

You’ve said that one thing you learned at Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA) was how complex addiction is, and how it works as a coping mechanism. In Death Is Not an Option, you also show characters trying different ways of coping with personal trauma. Has your time at HYA changed how you write about coping?

I grew up with no exposure to substance use, and really no curiosity about it at all. It was something I wrote off as, “That’s bad, and that’s what people do when they’re weak.” It boggled my mind that anyone would ever do anything to deliberately muddle their own perceptions.

I remember one time when we still had an indoor drop-in center, a kid came and knocked on the door after hours. I answered the door. He was probably 18 or 19—he looked really young. He was crying, and he said, “I know it’s after hours, but can I just get one needle? Something really awful happened, and I just need to fix. I just need one needle. I don’t have any clean ones, and I don’t want to share one.”

In that situation, it crystallized for me that what this person wants to do is just obliterate their consciousness for a limited period of time, so that they can then survive the night. Obviously, I went and got him the needle, because that’s what harm reduction is: not preaching to people that drugs are bad, but empowering them to handle their drug use responsibly to minimize the threat of disease, infection and overdose, until they decide they’re ready to make a change. It’s a public health issue, not a moralistic one.

He left, and that was such a black-and-white instance of, “This is a coping mechanism. This is something that is fulfilling a need right now. I can judge all I want about whether or not he should just talk the problem out or write down a list of things he can do to solve it.” It was times at that organization that I just saw the daily stress of being on the streets, the process of walking around all day long and waiting for services all day long. They’re relegated to this second-class status all day long.

You need something to alter that consciousness, because that full level of perception is unbearable to live with 24/7. It started to make sense to me why people would want to relax their vigilance, why people would want to seek some sort of chemical respite from that.
I started seeing it as completely and utterly understandable, and in some ways, even logical. It just seemed more rational than anything, the more exposure I had to it. I started to realize that, you know what? I do that too. I may not go seek out heroin or LSD to alter my consciousness, but I have my own ways of altering my consciousness, no matter how much I tell myself that I don’t do that. The biggest ways are more about zoning out or disassociating naturally than they are about seeking a chemical that will do that, but it’s the same thing.

I try to zero in on the particular lens through which they see the world, instead of portraying them as these one-dimensional poster children for suffering.

Last night you talked about finding creative liberation in being unflinching. You suggested that there was something very empowering about “not averting your eyes” from suffering and adversity. Where do you think that drive comes from?

I think it has a lot of roots. Like a lot of writers, I grew up as this person stuck against the wall, observing everything and not necessarily participating. I always had a keen sense of wanting to present a view that’s contrary to the predominant, prevailing view that I saw around me. I was observing things that I knew were happening, and I knew I could trust my own perception, but I didn’t see that perception reflected anywhere else in my reality. For whatever reason, that was always a huge drive of mine to have a testimonial quality in my writing.

For a long time, I resisted that and took refuge in escapist writing that was very fantastical and kind of silly. In my late teens, I started trying to write more realistic stuff that embodied that testimonial aspect. The more I think about it, the more I think it has to do with this whole concept of bearing witness, which is really important to me personally, but is also really important to my work in the homeless services sector.

I think people often want to look at a homeless person—or a person who’s in obvious distress—very quickly assess how to categorize them, and then close the door on that categorization and move on for their own peace of mind. I see that over and over again in people’s responses to homelessness and poverty. People either want to find a one-size-fits-all solution and close the door, or they want to say: “That person is just a degenerate and doesn’t want help, so I’m washing my hands of this and absolving myself of accountability.”

I think the stories I’m working on now are stoking that old testimonial drive that I always had: The capacity look at somebody and assess all their complexities and contradictions. I want to counter that prevailing view I see around me—the simplistic, reductive way of looking at homelessness, poverty, and drug addiction.

That’s an incredible responsibility. Last night you said something really striking – “One of the spoils of being a winner in our society is getting to decide how your story gets told.” But bearing witness puts you in a similar position, because you’re writing the narrative. How do you handle that responsibility? Do you worry about getting things right?

I definitely worry about it. It does feel like an awesome responsibility, but I try not to think of it as a responsibility. I try not to think of what I’m doing as didactic jeremiads that are the last word on the subject, the last word on what people are going through. But in terms of writing about some of the traumas I’ve witnessed doing this work, or the terrible stories that I’ve heard, I always want to be very careful not to be exploitative in the way that I describe people in distress.

That’s another thing that really gets under my skin about doing homeless services work, especially in San Francisco. I remember there was one particular neighborhood—and pardon me for this digression—but there was a neighborhood group that was really resistant to the work that my organization was doing. We met with them to try to have an open dialogue, and to try to get them on board with us opening an office. One of the things the neighborhood group leader said to us was, “How do you know that these kids really deserve services? How do you know that their lives have been bad enough for them to warrant being out here? Have you given them the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience] Score test? What are their scores?”

After we got back to our office, my boss and I were just flabbergasted. We looked up the ACE test, which is a diagnostic tool that people use to assess people’s level of childhood trauma. It consisted of these extremely invasive questions, like “How often have you been sexually assaulted between the ages of 5 and 12? Have you been beaten, and with what implements?”

I think people expect homeless youth to divulge that information as a justification: “OK, you’re giving me these services, therefore I’m obligated to sing for my supper for you, and spill my guts, and sell myself out in a way, in order to justify that.” They want these kids to be these Oliver Twist figures.

That’s a very large problem. That incident really made me examine myself. I don’t want to be offering up these narratives of martyrdom that will give people an easy way out. I don’t want people to read them and be like, “This person had an extremely tough childhood. Here’s a graphic description of their childhood. It’s all right that they’re homeless.” That’s just reinforcing the mentality that already exists. In terms of my responsibility with this work, I try to focus on people not as collections of symptoms or traumas, but as really complex individuals who are dealing with a lot of inner conflict. I try to zero in on the particular lens through which they see the world, instead of portraying them as these one-dimensional poster children for suffering.

Weirdly enough, most of that characterization comes from me making stuff up and using my observations at HYA as a scaffolding on which to hang that characterization. A lot of it is still very inward-focused work of imagining what somebody sees when they look at the world.

Often with a male point of view, no matter how neurotic or idiosyncratic that point of view is, it’s just taken on faith that it’s this objective, omniscient portrayal of what the world is, and nobody ever questions whether it’s relatable or not.

I want to circle back to that dilemma of having to simplify and repackage human experience to make it relatable to other people. That seems to appear a lot in your work. In Death Is Not an Option, both Isabel and Kath struggle with this burden of articulating their experiences in a way that makes sense to others. Cora struggles with it in “Philanthropy.” You yourself seem to struggle with it in grant writing.

Absolutely. I think people reflexively respond to any sort of art based on how much they can or cannot relate to what is being described, and how much they can or cannot situate what’s being described in a framework that resonates with their own perspective. That’s something that has been really frustrating for me when it comes to dealing with particular responses to my own work, and responses to emotionally intimate writing by women in general. A lot of the responses revolve around this sentiment of, “This wasn’t the type of girl I was.” Or, “I can’t take this perspective as valid because it’s such a niche perspective.” It’s just a description of a neurosis or that sort of thing. Whereas, often with a male point of view, no matter how neurotic or idiosyncratic that point of view is, it’s just taken on faith that it’s this objective, omniscient portrayal of what the world is, and nobody ever questions whether it’s relatable or not.

It’s always been interesting to me because I’ve heard writers respond to this problem in interviews and in essays. It seems relatively rare to me for writers to respond to that problem in the work itself, by using the fiction as the canvas for delving into this. I saw that as a lack and a void, and that’s why I’ve been so driven to use the fiction itself as the tool for delving into this and interrogating it through my characters.

Tell me more about your current project, which is based on your time working with Homeless Youth Alliance.

After my first book came out, I had planned that my second book would be a historical novel about Walt Whitman. I just got incredibly blocked and I couldn’t do a thing with it, even though I had accumulated all this research. I went back to Homeless Youth Alliance and started working there again after a two-year hiatus. The more time I spent there, the more I realized that I actually have this urgent imperative to be writing about homelessness and poverty.

I found that I would go home from work and start writing in this corrective, oppositional, reactive way to the stuff I had to write in my grants, where everything was very neat and cause-and-effect and black-and-white. I was seeing so many things there that I had this urgent desire to do justice to in a creative way. I had this certainty that those things would be lost in the ether if they weren’t testified about and put down.

The project as it stands now has evolved into what will probably be another collection of stories about homelessness in San Francisco, and homeless youth in particular. The character from “Philanthropy” shows up several times in the course of the book. She’s the main protagonist of two of the stories, and she walks in as a bit player in several additional stories. The whole collection will revolve around her world, and the people on the periphery of her world, and even people who are outside the homelessness experience like police, mayors, supervisors at City Hall, politicians, and lawyers. All the people who circulate in the orbit of the homelessness issue, and who play specific roles in it. Service roles and legal roles and justice roles, just everybody, and the press as well.

Tell me more about Cora, who is based on your supervisor at Homeless Youth Alliance, Mary Howe. What are the challenges of writing a protagonist based on a real person?

With this particular protagonist, it’s a unique situation, because I shared a tiny office the size of a shoebox with Mary for years. We know each other so well that it’s almost as if we share a brain at this point. She’s the only person I’ve ever met that I have so directly modeled a character on, and I think she’s the only person I ever would do that with. The reason is because she is so weirdly receptive to it.

Every time I write something in which she is a central character, I give it to her. I say, “A lot of this is a bunch of crap I made up. Other features of this are stories that you’ve told me about yourself. And other features are things I’ve observed about you. Tell me if there’s anything in here that makes you uncomfortable, and even though it’s fiction, I don’t care. I will take out anything you want me to take out.”

She has never told me to take anything out. But I think with her and with anyone, there’s a fine line. There are certain things I know about her that I intuitively know are not for public consumption. It’s just an instinctive sense that every writer has. But there are other things, other stories that are part of her shtick and spiel, things that I think of as almost public domain because she’s told them so often. They’re stories that have almost taken on the contours of a myth. Those sorts of things I feel are OK to write about.

The strange thing is, I find that if I write this character and think, “I have to make it as much like Mary as possible, and I have to hew as much as I can toward duplicating her voice,” I find myself getting really stuck. It’s only when I let myself explore what her interiority is, because I obviously can’t read her mind. That’s when I find myself making things up. I feel OK about that, because I know and she knows that this isn’t intended to be an exact duplication of her. It’s this composite person that’s composed of parts of her, and honestly, composed of parts of me as well. There’s actually a lot of me in this character.

Usually the question I’m asking myself is, “What kind of emotional truth does this story reveal, if anything?

You did a great job parsing the ethical responsibilities that a fiction writer has toward the people who inspire her. I wonder how those responsibilities compare to the ones that journalists and memoirists have toward the people that they write about.

The impression that I get with journalists and memoirists is they have to avoid the kind of projection that I indulge in. It seems to me that they’re much more limited by this obligation to stick to absolute facts. With every memoirist I’ve talked to, there’s been a very fine line between pandering to everyone else who was involved—which is impossible—and portraying something that feels like an emotionally true evocation of what actually happened to you. It’s not a task that I envy at all. I think that’s the reason why I stay away from that kind of writing. It brings other people too close. It makes my obligations way too overbearing for me to want to tackle that.

Is emotional truth something you think about when writing fiction?

I always think about it in terms of emotional truth. I think that’s what I’m always trying to uncover, beyond the actual scenarios that I’m describing. Not while I’m writing it, but after the fact, when I’m looking over the thing and asking myself, “Does this story amount to anything?” Usually the question I’m asking myself is, “What kind of emotional truth does this story reveal, if anything? Or does it just consist of the sum of its parts, and the sum of its plot and its happenings?” It’s something that’s my main concern as a writer, is uncovering not what happens, but what it meant, and particularly what it meant to the protagonist. And that could be something that’s completely off the wall and different from what anyone else observing that situation would have taken from it.

You have an impressive list of grants, fellowships, and residencies on your resume. It seems that the economics of being a writer in 2017 and the economics of the nonprofit world share an imperative to package your work in a way that resonates with people in power. Obviously, the stakes are much higher in the nonprofit field. But do you see any similarities between those two ways of getting by in the world?

There definitely are. I really, really dislike writing project statements for grants, but out of necessity, I’ve gotten very good at it. If there’s one thing I absolutely despise, it’s trying to summarize and encapsulate my own work in a pitch format. It always feels false. I think there’s something so ineffable and undefinable about the way art comes out of you, and the way it evolves and the way it manifests on the page. There’s something that strikes me as almost profane and obscene in this effort to reduce it to a concept, or to situate it in some preexisting framework, or even to claim that you’re blazing some new path with it. All of that seems so status-mongering and outside the realm of what we’re really striving to do.

Weirdly enough, especially in grants that are specifically aimed to female artists and writers, there seems to be this subtext of, “You should be of service, and there should be this altruistic impulse in your artwork. You should also be mentoring other young women.” All of that is wonderful, and I think it’s great when artists are of service. But it’s an expectation in funding for women that I don’t necessarily see in blanket calls for funding. It’s this weird Victorian mindset of, “Let’s be the angel in the house.” We can’t really do selfish creative work without adding this addendum of, “It must be useful.” That’s something I’ve definitely noticed when applying for certain grants, and it always rubs me the wrong way.

It’s very similar to applying for nonprofit grants. When applying for nonprofit grants you always have to conform your work’s narrative to whatever their focus is. Certain foundations are small and family-based and they want to hear human interest stories, narratives. In grants for that kind of foundation, I tend to rely really heavily on storytelling. These are true stories of participants who have attained the best-case-scenario outcomes. The kind of storytelling is very, “Here is how this person was on drugs, and now they’re not, and now they’re in college.”

It does feel like you’re taking this huge morass of ineffable, messy, undefinable, raw human experience, and trying to grope around in it and ransack it for a form and a structure that will fit somebody else’s preconceived agenda. And that feels like what creative arts grants are as well. It’s taking something that’s sacred in a way, and also extremely messy, and does not fit into a paradigm, and squashing it into a paradigm.

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