In our column “In Conversation,” jmww invites two writers to talk about their latest books, the path to publication, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. This month’s conversation features Beth Alvarado and Frankie Rollins. Frankie’s flash fiction novella, The Grief Manuscript, was released May 2020 by Finishing Line Press, and Beth’s latest book Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales, will be published by Black Lawrence Press this month. Frankie and Beth explore the ways that grief has shaped their recent work. They first met as teachers at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where they both lived.
Beth Alvarado: Whenever I think or talk about The Grief Manuscript, I call it a memoir—and I know you love hybridity—but I think that goes to the authenticity of the voice. It’s so compelling and feels so deeply true and not self-censored. And it moves the way thought moves, especially in times of duress, in fragments and associatively. I’ve heard David Shields say that the essay gives us a way of recording “the mind on the page,” but you have certainly done that here. As someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, reading The Grief Manuscript makes me aware of something I hadn’t quite thought about before: that fiction may also free us up in terms of access, to not only express emotion, but to feel it. I wonder if you would just talk a little about what fiction, or what hybridity, gives you.
Frankie Rollins: Shield’s “mind on the page” is my goal in any genre, actually. The older I get, the more that I find my loyalty to genre distinctions falls away. My commitment is more vitally connected to saying the thing well. Being emotionally clear. Bringing the reader into the through-lines of the moment. Bearing witness. Using whatever language it takes, in whatever form.
In fact, I was sending The Grief Manuscript out as creative nonfiction for a while until my friend, Sandra Shattuck, looked at me with alarm in her eyes and said, “You don’t think this is really nonfiction, do you?” I started laughing because I DID, even though all sorts of other realities happen here, like the narrator’s head rolling off in the garden, her tongue being cut loose and escaping under a door, etc. To me, metaphors are just one translation of the “real” story. The “real” story is about grief, which is violent and amorphous and all-consuming. How can the ordinary language of boiled eggs and carburetors and weather reports ever capture it?
Even if all I could do was to write marrow-raw portraits of my sorrow and shame, the writing of these brought me back into my own range of vision. This is the authenticity you mention. I wrote myself a ladder to climb out of a well and I never once cared about audience or genre. I gave myself permission to write anything to get myself out of there. Ultimately, suffering renders courage and empathy for others. I suspected that there were others in their own wells who might need company, so as it turns out, I wrote to them.
Speaking of managing grief, challenges that characters face in Jillian in the Borderlands are devastatingly real, such as deportation, accidents, cancer, PTSD, and border violence. You use magical realism to point to other possibilities of reality, though, other ways through. Did the characters themselves demand the magic? Your use of multiple points of view offers a kind of muscular, individualized storytelling by each character, and it makes me wonder how much they were bossing you around.
BA: I started the stories in this book a few years after my mother died and my husband died while I was writing it, and so I was a kind of tuning fork for grief. Like you say, suffering helps you become more empathetic. But grief may have also been what gave me access to the other-worldly elements, ghosts who rise up and foil a school shooting, a Chihuahua who channels spirits for a faith healer, the spirits who guide Jillian to safety in the desert. All the “magical” things come from wishful thinking, maybe, are ways of keeping loved ones safe—and they have to be magical because, in reality, you are helpless.
“Jillian Speaks” was the first thing I wrote after Fernando died. The main thing that was “true” about the story was Angie’s longing. I longed for Fernando to come back and lo and behold he did, in the form of Bobby. Writing the story helped me feel the grief I’d been afraid of feeling. I could feel it through Angie and Jillian giving voice to it. In creating Angie’s remembering, I remembered details I had buried and that I might never have had access to without her. And I probably understood my children’s loss more fully through imagining Jillian’s. So even though I wrote about Fernando’s death more directly in the essays, I feel closest to the evocation of grief that happens in this story.
Which is to say, yes, the characters took on lives of their own. I would sometimes have to wait a long time to switch from one voice to another, especially when I was first writing it. I would have to wait for the voice to come to me—Junie the Chihuahua wasn’t the only one who was channeling. Once the character was finished telling her part of the story, I would have to wait for the next voice to speak. I hadn’t realized this until just recently, but having the story told in many voices seems so right for a book set in the borderlands, a place where there isn’t just one story, or one perspective, or even one language. And, of course, the grief begins in the personal, but in the book as in our lives, spiraled out into the cultural as the Borderlands became militarized and children were taken away from their parents, as people were denied their right to enter and apply for asylum.
What about your magical, metaphorical characters? I’m thinking, especially, about the Burden Animal and Right Angle. Even their names are perfect. In some ways, they seem like aspects of the narrator’s consciousness, but at the same time, they give the book emotional range and texture we wouldn’t have without them. It’s so ironic. Given their names, you would think they would be flat characters, but instead the opposite happens. Can you talk about the process of creating them? Did they spring, fully born and fully armed, from your head? They do seem mythic—or, at least, they take on mythic proportions. When did they surprise you? How did they evolve?
FR: I am completely in love with Bobby. I knew he was based on your husband because of the love that pulses from the pages he’s in. Jillian and Angie’s adoration translates palpably. It was almost too late for him to be redeemed, but he finds forgiveness with them. When Angie describes the weakness in his biceps as he neared death, I feel like you were telling us the deep truth of love. That it always has a death date even in its first moments. I cried when Bobby died.
My characters, in contrast, were kind of talking all at once. Those names just came to me as if they were already written into the world. I’ve been living with the Burden Animal since I was a kid, although I didn’t know his name until I wrote this book. I think most of us have some version of this, a version of ourselves that keeps a tally of minor and major failures. The Burden Animal was a puzzle because I couldn’t figure out what the narrator should do about him. I imagined squashing him into the sidewalk into a grease stain. Or burning him up. But in the end, I did what we all have to do with our least favorite parts of selves, I accepted him as part of this life I’m living.
I like the section where the narrator is talking about the couch and sees that the Right Angle isn’t there, but that she’s drawn him on the wall behind the couch. That was a moment when I realized that every character in the book was some facet of my own complex. The Seahorse, some dead and shriveled dream of what life could have been. The Gray Monkey, the part of myself that sincerely needed tending. The Right Angle is a thing that measures the self and finds it lacking.
As my book gave me room to forgive myself, the same message is throughout your book. It’s the same kind of forgiveness of the “flower world” you mention in Jillian in the Borderlands, “that awaits all of us, whether we are ever healed or not.” I wonder if your book is offering us this space of the flower world even now, despite all of the current devastations the book names. (Even Junie, the channeling Chihuahua, must die!) The book is hinged on a series of relationships and loves. Jillian and Angie lovingly collect people. Do you think that loving people and nurturing relationships is a way to reach the flower world in this life?
BA: I would love to believe there is a flower world in this life. If there is, it’s in those moments when we are able to be most present for and most accepting of others—where we are able to set ourselves—our egos, I guess—aside. In Angie and Jillian’s lives, it’s funny because they don’t seem to gather other people around them until they need help, because of Glenda’s accident. When Glenda needs them, they go to her and then, because of Glenda, they travel to Mexico to see Juana of God. The darker the times, the more they need others and the more others need them. Juana of God, around whom they build community, seems to have a gift for total acceptance, and so does Bobby which is why, maybe, you are drawn to his character. Of course, he wasn’t always so accepting, we gather, and has had to learn to forgive himself. Jillian seems to have that gift—Angie is a little too prickly and anxious, although she softens as the book goes on.
I just want to mention that the idea of the Flower World comes from Yaqui—or Yoeme—philosophy which merges their own tradition with the Christian tradition. As I understand it, the deer dancer, who represents Christ, comes from the Flower World, which is a spiritual world filled with the beauty of nature. Using the term “Flower World” is the place in the book where I come closest to appropriating and so I want to acknowledge that. Fernando’s mother had many close relatives who were Yaqui and we used to take our children to the Deer Dances at Easter. I remember this moment in one of the dances when the Chapayekas, the dancers who represent evil, storm the chapel and, standing in front of the chapel, are all the little girls who have just made their first Holy Communion and they throw confetti flowers at the Chapayekas to repel them.
I love the idea that flowers can be powerful weapons against evil. I love that little girls are brave and victorious when faced with “monsters.” So for me, in the Jillian stories, which are about the borderlands, the Flower World represents yet another liminal space, and Junie, an animal who channels the spirits of healers, is someone who embodies both worlds. I love the idea of the spirit being of the body, not separate from it, and of the natural world as one with the spiritual world. They are not, to me, separate or even distinct realms, and I hope using the “Flower World” honors not only that philosophy but the culture it comes from.
When I wrote the sentence above about little girls who are brave and victorious when faced with monsters, I felt like I was describing The Grief Manuscript. Rereading parts of the book just now, I realized how much grief takes away our defenses and agency, makes of us little girls again, so vulnerable. And yet we are brave and resilient. Just after your book takes one of its deepest dives, the narrator says, “Shhh. . . . Something is going to happen next.” How is not-knowing liberating? What are your narrator’s weapons? What makes her so resilient? What has facing the Grief Monster given her? And you?
FR: The narrator’s only weapon seems to be her entire willingness to do the suffering. It’s terrible. It feels hardly useful, and yet it is the way to become even more resilient. She doesn’t flinch from facing her demons. She allows the dance and studies it. She’s studying the Burden Animal in these pages, looking at how the Animal makes its moves and where it resides inside of her. Every word of misery endured in these pages is simultaneously an act of gathering strength. Of course, neither the narrator or I knew this at the time. I do feel rendered in ways—some psychic baby fat burned away—I hardly even know what to dream of in the future when once my dreams were so clear. As you write in Jillian in the Borderlands, “being alive has its own consequences.”
I am, actually, pretty sick of this not-knowing. Of course, we’re in an acute situation of not-knowing as a species enduring a pandemic. But I think that embracing the not-knowing made me understand that this is the only state we are ever in. Generally, we’re just convincing ourselves that we know anything about the future. Or we hope. Or we suspect.
The act of little girls being brave and victorious appears in both of our books. Jillian embodies this blend of the natural world and the spirit world, and the spirit as it moves in a body. All of her artwork speaks to it.
BA: That moment where your Narrator is driving: “I can barely drive. I have taken the wrong turn again” rang so true. I totally get that feeling of just moving ahead, of not being able to see. As someone who was always so focused on the future, I felt like it was totally taken away from me when Fernando died. I was just moving forward in darkness—I even moved to Oregon—I didn’t have my own life any more. And so that “Something is going to happen. . . ” seemed such a relief to me. That not-knowing, while exhausting, implies a possibility.
FR: I was thinking about your move to Oregon and wondering if you meant to do that—if you were still in the liminal space of grieving and just gravitated towards love and your daughter and the twins.
BA: Yes. Exactly. I went where I was needed. And in a way replicated my old life: being torn between taking care of children, trying to write, and having to teach/support myself. Maybe I replicated my conflicts because they were what made me feel normal? I don’t regret being near her and the twins. They are everything to me—but I did just upend everything before I even knew the twins!
Angie says as much when she moves to Mexico to be with Jillian and her twins: “If it’s true that you have only one life, she thought, why would you spend it far away from those you love most? Still. She wasn’t sure she was ready for such a rupture. One life ended, like that! and a new one—not one of her choosing, really—about to begin.”
FR: My cousin, Frankie Abralind, made a huge painting of that line “Something is going to happen next” and it’s hanging in my living room. I stare at it all of the time and wonder what “something” is. I mean. Is the next part of our lives going to be recognizable at all?
BA: I don’t know. Right now, it’s true, not-knowing is scary more than full of possibility. It seems like everything is about to be so much worse, which is hard to imagine.
FR: That’s why I’m interested in your idea of replicating patterns as a path of comfort.
BA: I was reading, just this morning in Jess Row’s book White Flights, about Freud’s distinction between healthy mourning and melancholia. In melancholia a person keeps returning to “the traumatic loss, unable to process it,” and so it haunts them. This reminded me of the grief your book expresses, the way the book faces the trauma. You don’t flinch. “Willingness to do the suffering”—that is one of the powers of your book, I think. Because you faced things, change is possible. Like Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.”
I am not sure that I have fully faced the trauma of Fernando’s death, even after seven years. I keep returning to it, in nonfiction, in fiction, in my dreams, in conversations. I am still trying to process it. But maybe I have faced it? Or maybe I can face it only temporarily and then have to turn away? Maybe saying I have not faced it is of those things that is at once true and not-true. I have no way of objectively knowing since I’ve never been through anything like this before. Likewise, replicating patterns might be a trap or a path of comfort or both?
Which leads me to the other “weapons” in The Grief Manuscript, where the narrator also keeps cycling through all the levels of grief: the self-blame, the anger, the doubt, the sorrow. It’s really brilliant, Frankie–the book’s analysis of grief, its autopsy of the relationship, its dive into the self—so those patterns won’t be repeated. Your language and your metaphors are the “flowers.” It’s like you’ve created your own mythology.
FR: Yes! Thank you. There is comfort in mythology and power in creating it for yourself or others. As in your book when Juana and Junie pull stones out of Angie’s belly even though she is there to get help for Glenda. The possibility that we don’t know what we need and others might know for us and might magically help us.
BA: Yes, that moment surprised me, too. Angie takes Glenda to Juana for healing, but Juana ends up pulling seven huge river stones out of Angie’s body and those stones become part of the foundation for the Casa de los Olvidados, the community that will eventually sustain them all. If grief is a dividing line between worlds, maybe myth-making is a way of trying to make sense of what we’re leaving and where we might go?
FR: In fact, maybe the only way?
Beth Alvarado’s latest book, Jillian in the Borderlands: A Cycle of Rather Dark Tales will be published by Black Lawrence Press in October 2020. Her essay collection, Anxious Attachments won the Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was long listed for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spievogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her previous books include Anthropologies: A Family Memoir and a book of short stories, Not a Matter of Love. Her stories and essays have been published in many fine journals including, The Sun, Guernica, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. Three of her essays have been chosen as Notable by Best American Essays. She is a recipient of a 2020 Oregon Career Artist’s Fellowship. www.bethalvarado.com
Frankie Rollins published a flash fiction novella, The Grief Manuscript (Finishing Line Press, May 2020). Another novella, Doctor Porchiat’s Dream, was published in Running Wild Press Anthology 3 (Running Wild Press, December 2019). She previously published a collection of short fiction, The Sin Eater & Other Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013). Other fictions and essays have been published in Feminist Wire, Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, and The New England Review. She lives in Tucson, AZ. http://frankierollins.com/