“We’re Not Static”: Shauna Gilligan Interviews Jeannine Ouellette, Author of THE PART THAT BURNS

Jeannine Ouellette’s stories and essays have appeared widely in literary journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of a Curt Johnson Fiction Award, Margarita Donnelly Prose Award, Proximity Essay Award, Masters Review Emerging Writer’s Award, two recent Pushcart nominations, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Medill School of Journalism. Her work has been praised by Joyce Carol Oates as “simply beautiful, precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid.” Ouellette teaches creative writing with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and is the founder and director of Elephant Rock, an independent creative writing program in Minneapolis. She earned her MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on her first novel.

Ouellette’s most recent work, a memoir, The Part That Burns (Split/Lip Press, 2021), was included on The Rumpus’s Most Anticipated for the first half of 2021. The Part That Burns is a beautiful reflection on the complexities of daughterhood and motherhood. Moving through childhood, the teenage years and adulthood, it explores what it means to be female with a body through which desire ebbs and flows, is given, denied, and, at times, forced.

In this interview we focus on the craft of writing memoir, the structure and themes of The Part That Burns, and delve into the process of remembering from and within trauma. The interview also touches on the links between the Ouellette’s work as an adult educator and writer, and reflect on the important impact and influence her creative writing mentors had on writing this memoir

Shauna Gilligan: The Part That Burns, a memoir in fragments, deserves a slow and careful read to soak up the beauty in how it is constructed and how the narrative—through different lenses—unfolds in waves. Let’s first talk about the title, which is arresting and intriguing, and a phrase that appears several times in the book. Where did the title come in the process and what had you hoped it would convey about this memoir?

Jeannine Ouellette: I’m thrilled you asked this, because I agonized over the title. As you know, The Part That Burns is also chapter title, and an earlier version of that chapter was published as a short story in Narrative in 2018. There was something about that phrase from the start. Another option I liked, and other people liked, was Four Dogs, Maybe Five—a phrase that says so much about how trauma destabilizes memory and our sense of what is real and true. But, in the end, it felt misleading because people really love dogs, and this book is not about dogs. So, I went with The Part That Burns. Interestingly, I think that excepting the title and chapter heading, the phrase appears just twice in the book, both times in the chapter by the same name. First, the narrator is in her therapist’s office, thinking about cellular memory, worrying that her body is forever tainted by things that have been done to her. She thinks, “When I’m fiery and floating, I watch myself from above. My body is not me. I am the part that burns.” Later, the narrator is giving birth to her son and is intensely in her physical body, while also zooming out into the atmosphere and seeing herself as part of something larger and more permanent. She is trying to hold and integrate multiple truths at once: the pain and trauma that live within her, but also the power and love within her, and the beautiful babies that have grown within her. She says as she holds her newborn son, “This boy is neither flower nor weed. He doesn’t come from the earth. He comes from me. The part that burns is the part that glows.” So that phrase, the part that burns is the part that glows—is about complexity, about how the painful experiences that live within our bodies can have lifelong consequences, while at the same time contributing to the beauty of our inherent selves. This is a tricky thing to talk about, because I would never wish painful experiences on anyone. I would lay my body down in front of a speeding train to prevent a child from experiencing what my stepfather did to me. Yet, I am who I am because of the sum total of all of my experiences. The more I have learned about the lasting impact of childhood sexual abuse, the more I have come to recognize, sometimes uncomfortably, that some of my best attributes also stem from that trauma. I’ll give you two examples. The first is mothering. Without doubt, the worst aspects of my childhood made me a more conscious, loving, curious, and research-oriented parent than I would otherwise have been. I read voraciously about child development—nothing was autopilot. And that’s its own kind of gift, isn’t it? To enter into something wide open and full of intentional inquiry? The second example is very specific. I read once that survivors of childhood sexual abuse often develop a very precise use of language, a kind of hypervigilance around their verbal expression. I wish I could find my source for this, and if I do find it, I will let you know. But I know read this—I spent my twenties and thirties devouring researched texts about sexual abuse and recovery—and it absolutely rings true for me. I can almost see sentences forming in my mind before I speak them, and I can rearrange the words even as they’re forming on my tongue. I also have an extremely accurate memory for dialogue. It’s exhausting sometimes, but it’s also a huge part of what makes me a writer. Language is very alive for me, and I’m never inured to it. So, this is what I mean when I say the part that burns is the part that glows, and I am so glad that you asked!

SG: Thank you for such a deeply honest answer, Jeannine—I hadn’t known about the connection with abuse and preciseness with and in language. That is so very interesting and something that runs through this memoir as you explore the themes of protection and perception. I found many recurring themes running through The Part That Burns and one which resonated with me was that of your search for doorways and that of demolition which “sucks you in” and “swallows”:

Doorways are formed by tree branches arching overhead. You can step under them into new worlds. You can even slip through on accident.

I can still get away. I just pull myself through a doorway inside of me.

Here’s the thing about doorways: once you step through them, you can’t go back. Even if you do, you will never see the world the same way as before.

It strikes me that in using the structure of The Part That Burns as a way to explore this theme, you are, somehow as the writer—and also asking this of the reader—attempting to re-order the perspective or the lens through which your memories are recalled and experienced.

JO: Yes, and you aren’t the only one who has said that reading the book is like stepping through one doorway after another within this house of memory. I love that feedback because I hoped for something like that when I was building the book. I have a decades-long fascination with portals into other worlds. Thresholds of all kinds, in fact, literal and metaphorical. Liminal spaces are ripe with possibility. I feel like we’re crossing tiny thresholds every day, with every decision we make. The narrator, as a child, looks for magical doorways, but ones that she can see—branches touching overhead to form archways, as she puts it. Later, this concept becomes more figurative. She recognizes at one point in the book that motherhood, too, could be a doorway. And for her, it was. I think, too, that your point about perspective is crucial, which is why I was especially excited to find, while working on the final revisions to this manuscript, that autobiography assignment I completed in ninth grade. I added that—only lightly edited from the original handwritten version—to the book late in the process, and I was practically jumping up and down I was so excited about it, because the narrator is so blatantly dishonest! At age fifteen, she presents her life through a ridiculously rosy lens not only because she’s hiding from the world, but also because she is hiding from herself. Still, bits of truth push through her false depictions, in ways that to me feel almost comical. Since readers already know so much about the narrator’s life prior to that chapter, they hopefully see that comedy—and, of course, the sad desperation—of her deceptiveness. That high-school autobiography presented a marvelous look into her house-of-mirrors, and, of course, a potent reminder of how we all participate in this kind of self-deception. We experience one thing while presenting another and we alter the way we think about and recall certain events depending on so many external influences. We adapt and revise the story of our lives as we move through the living, because that’s human nature. But the stories we tell ourselves hold tremendous power over who we become and how we live. The least we can do is be conscious of them.

SG: And that is one of the affects that reading your memoir had on me—I became very conscious as I looked backwards and inwards—of the stories that I have told myself. Tell me, did the most fitting quotation from André Aciman that you use to open this book—“There is no past; there are just versions of the past”—dictate the form and order in which the standalone yet linked writings appear in The Part that Burns?

JO: Indirectly, yes. The shapeshifting nature of the past, and the reality of cellular memory—this truth that we carry our past selves within us for our whole lives—was always the framework for the book. But in terms of Aciman’s quote, I chose it when the manuscript was fully revised and complete, at which point I was specifically searching for an epigraph. I know not everyone loves epigraphs, but I appreciate how a good one can cast a light on what follows. For example, the epigraph in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina is a James Baldwin quote: People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead. That quote illuminates her story. So, when I was looking for an epigraph, I began Googling about the nature of memory and so forth, and one of the first things that came up was a 2013 New York Times opinion essay called “How Memoirists Mold the Truth”—a brilliant work I had been teaching in my memoir classes for all those years since its publication! It’s a deeply thoughtful exploration of memory, writing, and the way these two forces interact and impress themselves upon each other. Aciman says when we write about our past, we change it, and it becomes difficult to know where one version leaves off and the other begins. Often, he says, the written version becomes more “real” than the lived version. In this way, we can actually improve and heal certain aspects of our lives through creating narrative. Aciman writes, “We can have many pasts, just as we can have several identities at the same time, or be in two places in our mind without actually being in either …. Maybe there is no true life or false life, no remembered or imagined itinerary, no projected or revisited moments, no worthy or wasted days, just as there is no such thing as mask or face, truth or lie, right or wrong answers. Can something be and not be at the same time?” Similarly, Einstein said, “… [T]he distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In other words, everything is actually now. But Aciman is not suggesting we’re making things up as we mold the truth. Not at all. He’s saying that as we transform lived experience into narrative—as we endure the push and pull of that process, shape and distill experience with language, slow time down, speed it up, reverse its chronology, all the stuff we do when writing—we essentially eliminate what existed before and replace it with this new version we’ve created. I think that’s beautiful.

SG: Reading your answer, Jeannine, it seems that no other epigraph would have served your memoir as Aciman’s did—it echoes the structure and how your style shines lights on different events as you view them through different lenses, thus changing the perception and feeling of the past.

I was particularly taken with how you used different tones and paces of writing to explore, dwell on, and stand back from pivotal moments in your life: when Mafia left you, your sister and your mother; when you were taken into care; when you gave birth to your firstborn Sophia. For example, in “Four Dogs, Maybe Five” the wonderful elliptical writing fits this narrative so well. Did you find the writing fit the theme or the theme formed the writing?

JO: The theme drove the writing, definitely. I had tried and failed all my life to write these stories, even though I have been publishing work since my early twenties. I just couldn’t write anything about my childhood because it always turned out horribly. Then, around the time I turned forty, a parade of factors converged to make it finally possible for me to write these difficult stories. Some of these factors were predictable, like having more life experience, being in a loving marriage, graduating out of the most intense years of motherhood as my children grew up. But the biggest influence was a workshop I took in 2009 with the poet and master teacher Paul Matthews, whose creative writing sourcebook, Sing Me the Creation, is the most unusual and esoteric writing book I’ve ever encountered. Essentially, Paul introduced me to a whole new approach to writing. One of the most distinctive elements of Paul’s workshop was his use of writing constraints, which changed everything for me. So much so that writing constraints—their history, their impact on my writing, and their utility for anyone who is trying to write about trauma, especially—became the topic of my graduating lecture during my MFA. I also wrote about this topic for Cleaver Magazine. Writing constraints helped me break through and into this material by turning it sideways and bringing a bit of levity in the process. One of the writing constraints I gave myself was to use a jackalope in order to write about my stepfather. And even though I know that story is dark—it just is, childhood sexual abuse is a dark story, no way around that—jackalopes are silly! What a silly legend! So, writing constraints changed everything for me, and those constraints, their imprint, is very much tied into the structure of this book and its themes.

SG: You mention how important a role that Paul Matthews played in the process of being able to write about trauma. You, too, are a creative writing teacher working often with vulnerable adults in prison settings and I wondered how your experience of writing this memoir might feed into your teaching. In other words, how, if at all, your work as a writer informs your teaching practice and vice-versa. And a sub-question is the broader role of facilitating creative writing.

JO: In all of the settings where I teach—and I teach across multiple venues—I find that students are often drawn to writing about their traumatic experiences. So, in that sense, the fact that I have done this work is useful. I am able to guide from direct experience, not just writing my memoir, but living my life, and also studying specific methods for writing difficult stories. When I teach in prison settings, I’m acutely aware that we’re all on a continuum not just in terms of what kinds of trauma we’ve experienced, but also what kinds of tools we’ve had access to for processing trauma. While it’s undeniably true that childhood sexual abuse is traumatic and has lifelong consequences, I also had certain undeniable, unearned privileges that I do not take for granted, starting with being white, but also including adequate food and shelter, clean water, lack of substance abuse in my immediate family. Addiction runs strong in my family tree and its behavioral aftermath likely tinted my childhood, but active addiction wasn’t pouring fuel on the fire, at least. Also, I had access to decent public schools and wonderful teachers. My mom struggled in many ways, but she was passionate about education, and she modelled that from the start. She models it still. Education, in turn, gave me access to concepts—like cellular memory and epigenetics and PTSD and, on the flip side, meditation and bodywork and yoga and so forth—that have been central in my becoming who I am. Ultimately, I think my experiences have led me to compassion, and the kind of strength and clarity, too, that comes from surviving difficult things. Also, and importantly in regard to teaching in prison settings, I choose not to access information about specific reasons for my students’ incarceration. I feel like, why should I? After all, they have no way of knowing all of the many ways I’ve done wrong or hurt others. There’s a fantastic organization based in Minneapolis called We Are All Criminals that promotes a much deeper and more accurate understanding of incarceration in this country, including the ways in which we literally are all criminals in one way or another, with the only difference between freedom and incarceration often being the color of our skin or the balance in our bank account. So, whatever the setting, my aim is to teach creative writing in the most inventive and productive and devoted way that I can. I do use various writing constraints in all of my workshops across settings and find that my students and I are consistently stunned by the quality of work that can emerge from these methods. I also focus on the craft of writing above all else. First, because that’s what it is to teach writing—to get behind the curtain and really get curious about what makes things have certain effects on the page. But, also, I feel the craft is where the healing lives. I’m intuitive and perceptive and a strong facilitator, but I am not a therapist. The art is the therapist, so I focus exclusively on the art, and let everything else emerge from there. In my experience, this fosters an extremely safe space for creating.

SG: Of course, the best adult educator always meets the student where they are at—in the room, at that time—and, thinking of Paulo Freire here—this then enables the educational process to be one of growth and empowerment. I love how you phrase that creative process—the art is the therapist—and it reminds us of how powerful and freeing the written word can be when we have an empathetic and devoted facilitator by our side.

Trauma is at the heart of this memoir. Trauma triggers and resurfaces, is recognized as such first by the body and later in school because it is named—yet when I finished the second and third read, I felt—because of the beautiful section “Bent: Daughterhood Recalled Through Skin and Bone with Lillian Ouellette-Howitz”—that side-by-side with this trauma is hope and recovery. You say that for all us you wish

to love more ferociously, this bruised up planet and each other … love loudly with our voices, too, singing and humming and hissing into the ether from within these strange and temporary shells that hold us.

Can you talk a little about this duality of trauma—the marking that also pushes towards hope and recovery?

JO: I’m glad you mentioned Bent, because writing that collaboratively with my daughter was one of the most inspiring, healing, and bonding experiences I have had. But in regard to duality, I simply love complication, the way two things can be true at once.  Trauma is at the heart of the memoir, yes. But thank you for noticing the note of hope there, too, the sound of something on the other side of trauma, something strong and resonant. I don’t tell the story of the narrator’s life after her divorce—and her second marriage is barely mentioned, partly to protect the privacy of many other people and partly because it’s just not part of this story. But I loved being able to write “Bent” with Lillie and I really hoped it would show that even as trauma spirals through generations, so, too, does healing, hope, love, strength, resilience, etc. All the good stuff. I am not even sure it is recovery, per se, that I am thinking and writing about, but, rather, becoming. We’re all just trying to become the fullest, truest, most luminous versions of ourselves. We are human beings—which means we are not nouns, but verbs. We’re not static, and neither are our experiences, even the ones that have already happened. We have this remarkable capacity to transform ourselves and our relationship to our experiences, including the wounds. I speak from a place of great privilege, though. I have had access to many advantages in my life, especially, as I mentioned earlier, education.  Above all, though, I was so fortunate to be able to become a mother—which I so dearly wanted—and to spend those years immersed in caring for my three babies. Motherhood became my deepest healing, my most transformative doorway.

SG: And if we take the concept of becoming as a way of living—it is an evolving state of being, transformative and circular—always moving forward through the doorways of our experiences.

The Part That Burns is a beautiful reflection on the complexities of motherhood, daughterhood, and what it means to be female with a body through which desire ebbs and flows, is given, is denied, is forced. You say at one point that your body is not you, that you are “the part that burns.” It put me in mind of the recently published A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and a book I read some time ago, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. Were there any publications that you found influenced you as you wrote this or as you put it together with your publisher Split/Lip Press?

JO: Thank you for mentioning the complexities of living in a female body, especially with regard to desire! I appreciate your perceptive reading! I haven’t read The Ghost in the Throat but the title is fascinating. It reminds me of a concept in Chinese mythology—ghost on the chest—which refers to lucid dreaming and sleep paralysis, which suffered greatly from in middle and high school. That’s not in the book. I also left out my migraines and scoliosis. It all seemed like too much. It was too much, trying to live it. But in the living, I had no choice. With the book, I could leave certain things in the shadows. Anyway, as for Jo Ann Beard, I love everything she writes, , so that’s a huge compliment to even mention her name in the context of my work. She did—and this feels like some tiny brush with celebrity—choose the short story version of The Part That Burns as a finalist in the Crazyhorse nonfiction contest a couple of years back, and it brings me great joy that she liked it. And The Boys of My Youth was certainly an influence in the sense that her structure is unconventional and, in that way, offered permission to take risks and break down boundaries. Meanwhile, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which I read when I was twenty-four, changed my life. I got to study at Tin House with Dorothy in 2016, and she read “Four Dogs, Maybe Five”—a shorter version of that section—and loved it, which is how I ended up having the courage to ask her for a blurb for this book. Dorothy also told me that she built Bastard by combining separate stories. She had to figure out how they fit together, and, of course, write new sections, and so forth. But hearing her process was inspiring because it was similar to what I was envisioning. Finally, while I was writing this book, I was specifically seeking out fragmented and nonlinear work to help me soak in different ways of approaching structure, and two books I ended up loving are We the Animals by Justin Torres and Monkeys by Susan Minot. They’re novels, but they’re also autobiographical, just like Bastard out of Carolina. And they’re incredibly affecting.

SG: Interesting intersections of texts there! Thank you for your recommendations, I’m not yet familiar with those works by Torres or Minot. So, we’ll end with a bit of fun:  

Photograph or painting?

JO: Both!

SG: Theatre or cinema?

JO: Cinema. I love theatre, but … I’m a cinema girl at heart.

SG: Silence or music when writing?

JO: Silence! I so wish I could write to music, but I can’t.

SG: What are you reading now?

JO: The Blessing by Gregory Orr, which is a beautiful memoir of grief and hope. Also, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosch. She is one of the great geniuses of our time, and her work—she writes these graphic memoir hybrid kinds of books—makes me wish I were an illustrator! Her work really matters.

SG: What are you writing now?

JO: A novel. Wish me luck!

SG: I absolutely wish you luck, Jeannine, and I very much look forward to reading the said novel. Thank you for your openness, honesty, and for your work. It too matters.

Shauna Gilligan is an Irish writer whose latest publication, Duality, with artist Margo McNulty, is an exploration of shrinking buildings and land memory in The Curragh, County Kildare. She is particularly interested in the depiction of memory and history in fiction, and creative processes. She has received many awards for her writing including the Cecil Day Lewis Literary Bursary for Literature: shaunagilliganwriter.com.

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