Welcome to “Behind the Byline,” the column in which NER shares conversations with our current writers. Nonfiction editor J. M. Tyree spoke recently with author Emily Geminder about the powerful content and unusual shape of her essay “Phnom Penh 2012” (NER 36.4).
J. M. Tyree: Could we start with some basic facts about what you were doing in Cambodia as a reporter? What drew you into this life?
Emily Geminder: In 2011, I went to work for The Cambodia Daily, a newspaper in Phnom Penh. There were four of us, all women in our mid-twenties, who started together at the paper. That was really the launching point for this essay. We were like any young journalists coming to Cambodia—a little wide-eyed and out of our element. But the fact that we all were women drew a certain amount of attention: speculation about the publisher’s motivations, jokes about the editor who’d hired us. Whereas of course four men coming in at once would be nothing remarkable at all. And then there’d also been this terrible tragedy a few months earlier in which a young woman at the paper had died. Drugs were involved, and three other employees were fired. The four of us heard trickles of this story, but no one talked about it directly, and some of what we heard initially turned out to be completely wrong. I think this added to our sense of being linked to something dark and unsayable and also gendered, a ghost who was always following us. On the one hand, it was a very specific entry into this world but at the same time, a not entirely uncommon one—you can’t work in Cambodia for any length of time and not find yourself thinking a great deal about the undercurrents of history and the strange and uncanny forces they exert on the present. When I got to Phnom Penh, I started taking Khmer lessons from an amazing teacher named Chin Setha, and he and I would go line by line through the Khmer newspapers, which were even more brutal and violent than the English-language ones, so just coming into the language was an initiation into this sense of pervasive violence, particularly violence against women. And at the same time, the trial against the four senior living leaders of the Khmer Rouge had just begun, and there were whispers about why charges like forced marriage and sexual violence had been so slow to be addressed by the prosecution, if at all. There was a sense too that there was a history of violence that was continuous, something unsayable but hovering just below the surface of everyday life.
JMT: When thinking back on these experiences, what made you decide to write about this time in such a lyrical but elliptical way, rather than in the form of a more standard-issue personal essay?
EG: I think the piece really started to take its current shape when I began to hear the voice as plural. Which was also a way of thinking about what it means to be female in a very male-dominated environment and what that does to relationships among women—the incredible camaraderie and protectiveness and almost blurring of identities it inspires, and also the fractures that emerge. A plural voice can reveal that tension in that its we eventually gets pulled taut, almost to the breaking point. The reader senses it’s a kind of temporary enchantment. I found myself experimenting a lot with repetition. I wanted to get at the sense that there’s something cyclical at work here, a kind of uncanny recurrence. This sense that it’s the very thing that can’t enter into language that’s bound to keep happening, that it almost possesses those who can’t give it a name.
JMT: Were there other writers who influenced your decisions about style?
EG: Reading Claudia Rankine and Maggie Nelson and Roland Barthes really changed the way I thought about nonfiction. Coming out of the journalism world—where you tend to view language as something inert and functional—I thought for a long time that nonfiction was something I had no real interest in writing. But then I saw these writers doing really extraordinary things in the borderlands between prose and poetry, using the interiority and fluidity of the essay to look not just inward but outward, to create this dynamic exchange with the world. They were taking the same rigorous approach to issues as journalism but doing it in a way that pricked the reader into a kind of immediacy and intimacy and maybe even complicity with the subject matter, and in such a way that form was inseparable from substance. If we’re all to some extent captive to language and narratives not our own, then I think the only way to get at something new is through the language itself. There’s no way out but through.
JMT: You mix elements of horror and humor in a way that strikes me as very honest and true to life, at least in my very limited experience hearing from or about writers who have worked in somewhat similar situations. Any reflections about that specific choice?
EG: A lot of the writers I love mix darkness and humor in brilliant ways—Anne Enright, George Saunders, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Lucy Corin. I think part of that is just getting at the true texture of life, which is never ultimately any one thing but always this impossibly jumbled mess. If you get far enough into anyone’s psyche, there’s always horror and there’s always humor and often they exist side by side. There’s also something about inhabiting a dual or split consciousness that lends itself to humor, where you’re jumping around among multiple viewpoints at once—the assumed I (white and male, typically) and your own, for instance. So you can’t not be aware that as a woman you’re bringing a very different consciousness to the newsroom gallows humor about, say, an incident of gang rape, but you also know how to slip simultaneously into the de facto male consciousness. And something about that tension, that split, seems to give way to a comic undercurrent. I think there’s something about the experience of being unsettled, too, that’s related to humor and horror both—an inability to stand still and see something in any one way, the brain’s scramble to make connections between seemingly disparate things.
JMT: I wanted to be sure to ask you about an element of your essay I admire very much, its very short length. You capture an entire world in this brief space, but I wonder how many pages and drafts had to be left on the cutting-room floor? Hearing something more about your process would be illuminating.
EG: I tried initially to write a straightforward short story that drew on some of the same experiences, but I failed horribly every time. So certain lines had been rattling around my head for quite a while. Once I started to hear the voice, though, the essay actually came pretty quickly. But then I put it away for a long time—about a year and a half—before sending it out. I remember really loving the experience of writing it but also being very aware the whole time that it was this weird experiment that might actually be completely terrible—the sort of thing you write for yourself but never ever show to anyone else. So much of the essay, too, relies on sound and repetition, and I almost had to forget it, to get the rhythm of the lines out of my head, before I felt like I could make any sort of judgment about it.
Emily Geminder’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, Witness, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award and a fellowship award from the Vermont Studio Center.