Photo by Matt Valentine
NER fiction reader Megan Howell talks to Carrie R. Moore about illustrating disassociation through the second person, alluding to racially charged histories, and her story “In the Swirl,” from issue 43.4.
Megan Howell: In “In the Swirl,” readers follow an unnamed art-student-slash-lifeguard over the course of a summer. A narrator tells her story in the second person, directly addressing readers—the “you” of the story—and making us and the main character one in the same. Reading the piece, I was reminded of The Mothers, a novel whose narrators include a Greek chorus of older Black women gossiping about a Black girl.
I was wondering if you had in mind an identity for your narrator when you were writing your story. Who is this person? And why do they know so much about “us”? Or are “they” a narrative device without a self?
Carrie R. Moore: Regardless of the point of view I select for a story, I’m deeply committed to characterization, what my protagonists desire or fear and how they navigate inner conflicts. The heroine of this story is a teenager, then a twenty-something girl, then a thirty-something woman trying to hold onto her earlier earnestness, despite the world telling her that it is more appropriate—read, safer—to get over those emotions and plow ahead with mature adulthood. “Opal,” as she was named in an earlier draft, is constantly looking back on the events of her life in an attempt to understand them. What were her father’s motivations? Her mother’s? Jacob’s? Her other friends’? What was anyone feeling at any given time?
I’d been thinking about the functions of the second person and what opportunities it might afford writers. Of course, Lorrie Moore, N. K. Jemisin, and Junot Díaz come to mind, and I wondered how point of view might aid my own storytelling. If other short stories have used the second person to provide a set of instructions or illustrate the limits of such instructions—as in “How to Be an Other Woman”—I wondered if that device could emphasize the new understandings of events that we have as we age. In “In the Swirl,” the older narrator conceives of her younger self as entirely separate from her adult self, and the second person is an indication of that disassociation. In other words, the “you” in the story is a younger version of the older narrator, though by the last paragraph she merges with the older version. The protagonist knows so much about herself because so much time has passed, and she can look back with clarity.
MH: What is “the swirl”? Is it just the vortex that animals get trapped in? Or is it larger than that?
CRM: The word “vortex” is so apt here. Certainly, the animals and creatures get trapped in the manufactured cyclones of the swimming pool. But the narrator is also trapped in the swirl of her emotions. She has such high-highs when falling in love, and such low-lows when things don’t work out the way she’d hoped. I’ve often sensed that adults are reluctant to validate the emotions of young people, as if somehow their intensity indicates a lack of control and therefore a lack of significance. I was very interested in that disorienting period of adolescence and wanted to write a story set within it. And there’s also the swirl of time, the nonlinear structure that encompasses the heroine’s adult life.
MH: I feel like as fiction writers, we often look to other forms of artistic expression when trying to convey our reflections on creative development. A ton of Künstlerroman—tales of artists coming of age—deal with plastic arts and music, not writing. I personally believe we do this out of a need for privacy: we don’t want readers thinking that we’re secretly writing our life stories when we’re not. I was wondering if your perspective was different. Why did you decide to make the main character a painter? Why not a writer?
CRM: This is so interesting! I’m certainly a fiction writer for a reason, and I need my privacy. However, when it comes to my characters’ occupations, I try to think of how their passions and careers connect to how they see the world. “In the Swirl” is a very imagistic story, and that’s largely because Opal (I still call her that in my mind) is an artist who interprets her world visually. For instance, when she’s in the car with Jacob, she’s looking at his face in the streetlight, despite what he’s saying aloud. Or when she’s encountering some roach or mouse, she’s really fixated on how they move. If she were a writer, I suspect she’d be more preoccupied with language.
MH: The story fixes itself around a seemingly unimportant memory: fishing out a dead mouse from a pool filter and screaming. The mouse becomes a key metaphor. It redefines the main character, triggering a years-long flash forward to her picking up a dead pigeon without much hesitation. Her relationship with nature is the only subplot that has a conclusive ending (“Where has she gone, the girl who screamed at any and everything? You clutched the hands of your sister’s children, remembering how easy it had been for you once, to release whatever you felt”). We see how it’s evolved whereas her relationships with her dad and Jacob stay up in the air. Even the trajectory of her art career remains up to interpretation: we know that she goes to art school, interns at a gallery, and finds moderate success as a painter, but we can only guess how she makes it from point A to point C.
Why tell the story of the main character’s development primarily through animals? Why not people? Or art?
CRM: At their core, people are animals, especially when they’re not practicing at being otherwise. Given the story’s interest in unmasked earnestness, I wanted to tell the heroine’s story without affect, and one of the ways that shows up is in her reactions to creatures that frighten her. If I told that narrative through people or art, there’d be an element of control there, since she learns to mute her emotions after her experience with Jacob.
Further, the animals and insects in the story contrast the protagonist with the other characters, most of whom have very strong emotions that lurk under the polish they try so carefully to maintain. Her father’s fear. Jacob’s desire. Renee’s unwillingness to think too deeply about her traumatic car accident.
MH: One of the most startling scenes happens when a random man gropes the main character. The setup is tragic: she’s at the mall, minding her own business, looking at clothing and planning out future art she wants to make—and then a stranger assaults her. She keeps the attack a secret, not wanting her overprotective dad to limit her freedom, which he does anyway. The passage reminds me of what author Emma Cline wrote on her experience being sexually assaulted at a professional literary event: “… [he] put his hand on my back, then dropped it lower to grab my ass; how swiftly I was returned to my body, to the fact of my youth and gender.” As artists, being objectified like that means being denied the opportunity to self-actualize. We become just our bodies, muses at best, subjects of abuse at worst. In a way, the main character is reduced to the dead animals she fishes out of pool filters.
I feel as though Black women have an extra, often unspoken burden to contend with when writing about sexual trauma, which is racism. Racist media often portrays men of marginalized groups as predators and the women as unrape-able. Consequently, breaking the silence can get pretty complicated for those who don’t have white privilege. What was your thought process like when writing about the main character’s sexual trauma? Your story takes place in the Deep South, which has its own history of racially charged sexual violence.
CRM: All of this is so true and was at the forefront of my mind throughout every stage of the writing and editing process. The heroine of “In the Swirl” is so emotionally vulnerable, so willing to put herself on the line for the causes and people she believes in—yet I felt like I couldn’t write this story without acknowledging the reality of her physical vulnerability. “In the Swirl” takes place in the early 2010s, which is around the same time that Zeba Blay coined the term “carefree black girl,” to describe a way of being a Black Woman who embraces her full-complexity, who can shape her identity outside of the usual parameters of suffering, injustice, and trauma. The phrase became an aesthetic, and you began to see images of Black women in flower crowns or billowing dresses, curations of Corinne Bailey Rae and Erykah Badu playlists, and affirmations about joy and dreaminess and being open to the world. And yet, as the heroine in my story is opening herself up to heterosexual love, the fact of sexual violence remains. Even when she’s standing outside of a Forever 21 and thinking about her own future, it sneaks up on her.
The story is also one of many of mine that take place in the Deep South. In particular this one deals with swimming pools, which have their own racially charged histories. Though I didn’t allow my heroine to have a carefree existence when it came to her interactions with men, I did play with how she had a job that her ancestors could not have held, that there could be all these Black people enjoying the pool with the history of that remaining subtextual. (For instance, the high rates of drowning among Black children are certainly a presence in this story, as indicated by the swim test the campers take. Yet the story doesn’t directly articulate this reality.) As a writer, I’m interested in how the past muscles its way onto the present. But at the same time, I believe fiction might allow us brief, temporary relief.
Megan Howell is a fiction reader for NER and a DC-based freelance writer. After graduating from Vassar College, she earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland in College Park, winning both the Jack Salamanca Thesis Award and the Kwiatek Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Nashville Review, and The Establishment among other publications.