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Rachel DeWoskin Is Done with Likable Characters

The author and University of Chicago professor discusses her new novel, Banshee, and the erasure of female rage.

Rachel DeWoskin on the roof of Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood   Photo: Dreibelbis + Fairweather Photography

Rachel DeWoskin’s past novels have been defined by a historian’s commitment to spine-cracking research. For her 2014 novel Blind, about a young girl who loses her eyesight in a freak accident, DeWoskin spent years at The Chicago Lighthouse, studying braille, playing beep-ball, and eating ice cream with blind teenagers. More recently, for Someday We Will Fly — about a family of Jewish refugees who flee Nazi-occupied Europe to Japanese-occupied Shanghai — she immersed herself in the archives of the Shanghai Jewish Refugee Museum, committing to heart “the intersections of the streets as they looked in 1941.”

Her latest novel, Banshee, tosses this out the window. The book is DeWoskin’s experiment in “distilling the story into as interior a novel as [she] could make,” with none of the elaborate historical specificity of her previous works. In it, a breast cancer diagnosis pushes Samantha Baxter, a pathologically polite and well-mannered poetry professor in a small college town, to shed every rule “like itchy lizard skin.” She soons finds herself in a soapy bathtub — then the park, then the public restroom of a local coffee shop — with one of her graduate students, a punk redhead named Leah, opening up her marriage “like a sharp-edged can, slicing [herself] up on the sides of [her] life.” 

Over the course of 300-ish pages, DeWoskin interrogates the issue of women living under the weight of a patriarchal society, asking: “How do we say the things we need to say so we don’t fall over at the end of the day having repressed them in our marrow?”

DeWoskin speaks with memoirist Emily Rapp Black about Banshee tonight at Women & Children First. In advance of the conversation, we spoke with DeWoskin about literature’s potential to expand empathy, teaching undergrads, and the novel’s accidental yet inevitable timeliness. 

Why the title Banshee?

My husband and I we were driving across California; we had the girls in the back seat. We were talking about titles for the book, and of course my kids have not read this book and are not allowed to read it, ever, until I die. We were talking about mythology and righteous feminist rage, we were trying to come up with a one-word title, and my 10-year-old from the backseat was like, “How ’bout Banshee?” She is an avid reader and knows her mythology backwards and forwards. A banshee is a woman who screams her grief. I was like, “You’re never allowed to read the book, but that’s a perfect title and I’m going to use it, if you let me.”

So, my 10-year-old daughter came up with it. Wild, but true.

While reading Banshee, it occurred to me you must have been writing the novel around the time of the Avital Ronell scandal at NYU. Its protagonist seems to have these same questions of the abuse of power stirring in the back of her head.

I actually didn’t read about it until [the novel] was almost done. When I read the NYU story, I was thrilled that I had found some kind of truth — not thrilled that it was happening in the world, but not surprised. It felt validating, in some way, of this fictional story that I made.

I wrote the novel because I was politically so enraged I could hardly sleep at night — I had to get a mouthguard. Why was I simultaneously so desperate to be polite my entire life and also explaining to my small daughters over breakfast what “grab her by the pussy" means? It was really around 2015, during the [presidential] debates, that I started grinding my teeth. And it’s not like I haven’t always been enraged; obviously, there have been grave injustices against women forever, and particularly trans women of color, poor women, and women of color. It became so acute in 2015, and then, of course, when the election happened.

I [wondered]: What would it look like if a woman who, by all of our American definitions, had all the things that we’re all supposed to want, and decided to burn her life to the baseboard? To me, the relationship between powerlessness and fear and rage has always been inextricable. Samantha Baxter was a way to explore that intersection. I tried to think of ways that she was simultaneously in a position of power and complete powerlessness. The world is not fully designed for women — who knew?

I found it interesting, too, that Samantha seems to pose a lot of narrative questions about how despicable she might be, while still being a charming and enjoyable character to read.

I was teaching a class at the University of Chicago called Literary Empathy when I wrote this book. I kept trying to liberate my students [of the idea] that they should make characters who are likable or relatable. In fact, I eventually outlawed the use of the words “likable” or “relatable.” Why are we trying so hard to make our characters pleasing when, in fact, often the most compelling characters are so precisely because their behaviors are villainous or self-interested?

What else did you assign in that seminar?

We read two books I always teach: Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, a coming-of-age story of this little red monster which is lovely and so particular in its language, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. We also read Leslie Jamison’s book The Empathy Exams, Eula Biss’s The Pain Scale, and Family Life by Akhil Sharma.

At one point, I gave my students an assignment that panicked them. The writer Jo Ann Beard has an essay called “Werner” that’s one of the most elaborate exercises in empathy I’ve ever read. She had dinner with this competitive diver who leaped out of his burning building and into the adjacent building in New York. He devastated his body and survived, but his cat perished. She interviewed him endlessly; you can go in a single sentence from his thinking to her own. I made my students read it and had them tell each other a story. Then, I had them write [their classmates’ stories] in first-person. The following week, we read them out loud in front of each other. The room was electrified, because it’s scary to write someone else’s story and then read it to that person. But the care they took was exquisite.

So, [if you’re a white author and] you’re writing a character of color, make sure that the person is sitting across from you and you’re reading it out to her. You’re [an able-bodied author] writing someone with a disability? Do your work.

Image: Courtesy of Dottir Press

You’ve described Banshee as a deeply interior project. How so?

Most of my novels are emotionally true, but the logistics and plots are not. For me, fact and fiction are so intricately involved with one another. 

So, [Banshee] is not an autobiography. Pieces of it are true and then many, many pieces are not true. But the ways Sam Baxter feels about her kid, for example, are real. I feel that way about my kids, and my kids aren’t that old, either; this is what I mean by true–not true. My children are much younger than her daughter, but I can imagine them forward, in a way. I do that partly as a way of worrying.

My students asked me if their lives had to be terrible — whether you have to be a dark and tormented person to be a writer. And I was so happy to be middle-aged, because I got to tell them, and know it to be true, that the answer is no. I think we can quarantine our worst inclinations and fears and impulses and terrors in our work and not have to act them out in our daily lives.

What are your favorite places to write or not-write in Chicago?

My favorite places to write in Chicago are my beautiful, cozy office at the University of Chicago. The downstairs lounge at the Art Institute. My own apartment across from the Aquarium. And Little Branch Café, which is right across from my apartment.

Favorite places not to write are Montrose Beach, where I want to frolic, not write, and 12th Avenue Beach, [where I] paddleboard. I love Lake Michigan; I’m amazed that it exists in a city. I swim five or six days a week. I have a wetsuit. And I like not to write at the [Shedd] Aquarium, too, when I’m ogling the baby belugas.

I also love whenever human beings make sacrifices for anything frivolous or beautiful — like fireworks, which they set off all summer and I can see from my balcony. Or the circus. I go to every midnight circus; it’s $5 for a ticket. It makes me cry every time. I find it so beautiful that human beings will take physical risks to delight other human beings. My kids take aerial silks classes at Aloft Loft, which is another of my favorite places not to write, watching my girls be empowered and hang from silks.

Do you have any writing rituals or conditions under which to write?

Since I had kids, I’ve been pretty disciplined about writing. I try to write in the morning after I swim. And I try to write multiple projects at one time — it gives me a wide scope. I like to have a project I can turn to if my other project is going so badly that I can’t work on it.

I drink coffee when I’m writing instead of before or after. So I feel like I love writing, but actually I just love coffee. I get to my desk and I feel like, “Mmm, there’s something I love about this place,” and then I realize it’s coffee. It’s Pavlovian; I associate it with the work.

The older I get, the more I try to ride any possible wave of inspiration for as long as it will take me before doubling back and revising. I find if I write a couple of pages and I go back and try to make them perfect over and over, it becomes very hard to move forward in a project. That’s a discipline for me now, too.

At one point in Banshee, Sam is reflecting on the lyrics to Prince’s “Gett Off.” She asks, “How do we learn to ask for what we need? To distinguish between what we want and what we need? And not to avoid want for so long that it becomes need?” How would you answer her?

I think the answer to this question is someplace in Caroline Knapp’s book Appetites. Basically, she starves herself for years and years, as some girls do, and she wrote this brilliant book about why. The basic hypothesis is that to want anything other than to be wanted makes you a disgusting animal in the American imagination. So, women are trained from the time they are small to be objects rather than subjects.

One of the reasons I love Autobiography of Red so much is because what Carson does, functionally, is take a famous, iconic object and make him a flying, empowered, immortal subject by the end. And that’s what an autobiography is, right? The teasing apart and together of the two roles.

I think the question of want and need [as it applies to] women is unpopular — because the want is sexually taboo, or the want expresses a kind of rage that women have historically been asked to repress. But if we repress that want for too long, it becomes not just a need but something corrosive inside us. If women were able to say, “I want this,” and if that was okay, that would be a giant step towards a more socially just environment in our country.

Details:Andersonville. Women & Children First. 7 p.m. Free. womenandchildrenfirst.com

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