The economics of being-looked-at-ness: S&R interviews Teresa Milbrodt

Teresa Milbrodt is earning a good bit of acclaim lately, and her new short story collection, Bearded Women: Stories, should only amplify her reputation. Fiction Editor Dr. Jim Booth will have a review of the book in the coming days, and in the meantime we were able to persuade the gracious but extremely busy Milbrodt to field a few questions.

Scholars & Rogues: Bearded Women presents the reader with such a wonderful menagerie of freaks – there’s a gorgon, a set of conjoined twins, a giantess, a three-legged man, a woman with a parasitic twin, a woman with four ears, a Cyclops, women with beards, and the list goes on. I know this is a wide-open question, but can you explain for our readers where all these characters came from?

Milbrodt: I have always been fascinated by people who look different or those who don’t fit in. When I was a kid I was overweight and got teased a lot at school, so I often thought about people who were considered “different” or otherwise ended up on the margins of society. I also had a very independent streak from a young age, and was constantly asking why it was wrong to be different, and why I had to do things the same way everyone else did them.

This interest in difference and marginalization was one of the reasons why I took a class titled “Theories of Othered Bodies” from Dr. Jeannie Ludlow while I was getting my Master’s degree in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University. The class focused on various kinds of bodily differences, body shaping, disability, disease, and why we consider certain kinds of bodies to be “normal” while other kinds are “not normal.” For that class our final project had to involve some sort of public presentation, so I decided to write a series of stories about women who were living with various kinds of bodily differences and then do readings. I did a lot of research on sideshows, so-called “freaks,” and the history of the “normal,” basically steeping myself in the subject until my head was about to explode. Then I shoved all that information to one side of my brain and wrote like mad. That’s where stories like “Cyclops,” “Bianca’s Body,” “Mr. Chicken,” and “Ears” had their genesis.

After all that reading I also became very intrigued with the idea of the sideshow, and wondered what people who could have made a sideshow living years ago would be doing in contemporary times. Working at gas stations? As coffee shop baristas? In tattoo parlors? They’d need to make a living somehow, and they’d probably be stared at even though no one was paying them for the privilege. But what if they could make people pay them for the privilege? That uncomfortable tension between money and being-looked-at-ness is a very interesting one to explore, which is why so many of my characters face it in different ways. Paying people to ogle them seems to us to be a very dirty and wrong thing, but it’s very prevalent. Reality TV is a great example of the modern-day sideshow in which we put people on stages and classify ourselves as socially “above” or “below” them.

S&R: Many readers will be instantly struck by the kinship between Bearded Women and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. But there’s a key difference, it seems. Dunn’s freaks saw themselves as superior to normal people, but your characters see themselves as being, for the most, very normal. And many of the people they interact with appear to accept them as they are, as well. Can you talk a little bit about the ways in which these characters seek integration within the everyday culture?

TM: Some of my characters have a choice as far as whether they want to “pass” as normal or not. The bearded woman in “Mr. Chicken” shaves. The barista in “Cyclops” has a wide shade to cover her single eye. The woman in “Ears” often uses a scarf to cover up her neck ears. The woman in “Bianca’s Body” sits behind a desk at her news anchor job, so no one can see Bianca. They’re all trying to pass as “normal” because they don’t feel any different than anyone else, they just have something that makes them corporeally exceptional.

For many of them who can hide their exceptional traits, the real tension is whether or not to reveal themselves to other characters, especially if they stand to gain monetarily. I would argue, though, that for the characters in these stories who can’t hide their freakish qualities, there is an uneasy tension between themselves and the rest of the world. Even if other people aren’t being outright rude, the women know they’re being looked at. It’s just a reality they have to face.

S&R: While we’re on the subject of Dunn, you did an MA thesis on Geek Love, right? What led you to that decision and what kinds of themes did you address?

TM: I read the book Geek Love in my “Theories of Othered Bodies” class, and it seemed to work well with other subjects I wanted to address regarding bodies and the economics of being-looked-at-ness. The characters in Geek Love unabashedly make a living because of how they look. They were genetically engineered (albeit rather crudely) to do just that.

Another chunk of my thesis was based on Judith Butler’s theory of “recognition,” in this case being recognizably or non-recognizably human. Generally we think of being recognizably human as a good thing and non-recognizably human as a bad thing, but in my thesis I explored the latter as a gray area. I examined Geek Love, two other published short stories, and three of my own stories, analyzing both the benefits and the drawbacks to being “non-recognizably human.” Again, much of that led back to the economic benefits of non-recognition, as well as the power those individuals have to control the attention and gaze of a crowd. On the other hand, there’s a level of danger and objectification that accompanies non-recognition, because people don’t see you as human or necessarily as “worthy” of the consideration afforded to a human being.

S&R: I know you didn’t set out to write a political economic treatise, but the book lands right in the middle of the whole #Occupy movement. Forgive me if I’m projecting, but I can’t help noticing that your characters live life on the fringe of economic solvency. Obviously the nature of their differences mean they’re going to find a lot of career doors closed to them, but it seems like you’re up to more than that. Would I be out of line reading your freaks as a metaphor for “the 99%” and the growing ranks of people who are just trying to make ends meet?

TM: As an author it worked well in terms of tension and plot to give my characters economic worries. Such problems forced them to make tough choices, and tough choices create good stories. At the same time, I’m very much aware of “the 99%” and the lengths to which people have to go nowadays to survive. Many of my characters face the decision of whether or not to sell themselves in some way, shape, or form. They’re speaking to the desperation and marginalization that many people face, so I think the metaphor for the Occupy movement works on many levels. I only wish I were that clairvoyant…

S&R: I have often called myself an exile. I’m from the rural South but now live in the urban West. You, too, are a writer who’s a long way from home. Being a native Ohioan now living on the Western Slope of Colorado, do you feel that artist-in-exile tension? If so, how has this affected your writing?

TM: I don’t feel a tension, no, but the move west has given me a clearer picture of how being raised in the Midwest shaped my identity and therefore my writing. Midwesterners often have a very stoic “we-can-deal-with-this-crisis” attitude. We are not drama queens. We blot a few tears on a tissue, mope to our spouses, then put our heads down and keep soldiering on. It’s a very down-to-earth culture, and not one that I realized affected my writing until people from New York and California started reading my stories and remarking how my characters seemed very understated emotionally. They’re not understated, they’re just from the Midwest. They’re dealing with it. The Midwestern motto should be something along the lines of, “It could be worse, and in fact it was last year, so really this isn’t all that bad.”

As far as I can tell, my characters are still from the Midwest. At least they’re behaving that way. I’ll let you know if and when that changes.

S&R: I thought your decision to begin Bearded Women with the story of a woman with a parasitic twin trying to conceive a child was brilliant. It sort of forces us to immediately confront the question of embodiment and identity, and in doing so establishes the tone for the rest of the book. But it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me in one respect: It almost feels as though her husband is cheating on her, even though it’s still her body. Am I overreacting to something or are you intentionally working to established a gendered tension here?

TM: Oh yeah, the gendered tension was very intentional. The husband doesn’t see himself as having an affair with a younger, cuter, lower half. He’s still having sex with his wife. The legs and other parts are still connected to his wife’s body, so what’s the problem? My protagonist is the only one who sees Bianca as being a separate person (with better legs, ones minus the cellulite). In that particular story I was exploring both the nature of personhood, i.e. who should we consider a person, and to some extent, the tension of the aging body. Women especially seem to feel that tension (just watch TV for five minutes and count the number of ads for skin rejuvenator creams), so I wanted Bianca and my protagonist to play out some of those issues related to aging and sexuality.

S&R: Your writing probably strikes a lot of readers as being very simple stylistically. I find it to be elegantly direct and spare, but that kind of economy has to be a lot harder than it looks. The end result, I think, is that your voice comes off as very honest and authentic, simply because there aren’t any spaces in the narrative for deception to hide. Is this style instinctive for you?

TM: It’s just my voice. A little sparse, very wry, and not overly emotional. It’s what comes out naturally. I have to be very conscious of voice and tone when I try to write in other ways.

S&R: I get the impression that you know your way around the ancient Greeks. Have you always enjoyed reading mythology or are we seeing the result of research done expressly for this book?

TM: One of my college professors classified my work as “Midwestern mythic,” which I thought was a fitting term. Mythic themes and magical realist plot lines have always been a fascination of mine. It’s fiction, so why be constrained to the boring old real world all the time?

But to actually answer your question, I loved reading Greek mythology when I was a kid, and I’ve returned to those tales since the characters in them are both interesting and skeletal. In other words, there’s already a backstory and history for mythological figures, but at the same time there’s a lot of space for a writer to flesh out exactly who these people/gorgons/cyclops are and bring them to three-dimensional life. Plus I wanted to explore what it might be like to go through life with snakes on your head.

S&R: This is probably an unfair question, but what’s your favorite story or character in the book?

TM: “Bianca’s Body” may be my favorite story because I think it delves into a lot of interesting questions about embodiment, freakishness, sexuality, personhood, and motherhood…. My favorite character is probably the protagonist in “Mr. Chicken.” She’s trying to maintain control of the restaurant she’s managing in the best way she knows how, even if that means growing out her beard to combat the leers of morbidly obese Mr. Chicken. I like her sense of responsibility, her creativity, and her no-drama work ethic. I guess she just strikes me as a real Midwesterner.

S&R: I’ll frame this as a comment instead of as a question since I’m not sure exactly how to word the question. Not only does Bearded Women raise interesting questions about embodiment, but in three of the stories you confront what I guess I’ll call, for the moment, extra-embodiment. In the lead story we have the parasitic twin. At the end we have conjoined twins. And the snakes that make up the gorgon character’s hair are, we learn, individual entities. So for these people, the “body” is a far more problematic concept that it is for most of us. I find myself thinking about Donne’s “Meditation XVII” and wondering about the implications of these stories, where our conventional sense of the boundaries of the body are being challenged.

TM: In all of those stories, the characters assume a sort of caretaking responsibility for the “extra” parts that go beyond what we’d consider to be the “normal” limits of the human body. The women realize they’re responsible for more beings than just themselves, and they take that role very seriously. While that’s putting a somewhat maternal spin on the issue, in the hugely cosmic macro sense, the actions of individuals generally affect more people than just that individual. Our choices affect our families, neighborhoods, towns, and society. It’s a real web of civilization, as many have said. I think the interdependency in the stories reflects those connections to some extent. (For strange reasons that will forever perplex me, some people seem loathe to admit this connectedness, like they want to believe we’re all living in our own little bubbles. Maybe they should try walking around with snakes on their heads.)

S&R: Throughout the book the freaks are routinely portrayed as being pretty normal folks. In spots they find themselves having to deal with normal people who are damaged, though, and the prevailing feeling is that the whole dynamic is upside down: that the freaks are normal and the normal people are actually freaks. At what point in life did you begin to suspect that we had things backward?

TM: Third grade. I was the only kid in my class who didn’t tease our new Thai art teacher because she spoke with an accent. She seemed like a pretty good teacher, and I remember getting really upset at the other kids. I didn’t consciously classify them as freaks, but those who resort to ridiculing others on the basis of difference certainly have their own emotional issues to contend with.

S&R: The world of literary publishing has changed so much in the past few years and it continues to change by the day. Tell us what it’s been like to work with an independent press like ChiZine. Do you have aspirations to work with one of the larger legacy houses down the road?

TM: The literary industry is both an exciting and confounding place. It’s difficult to break into the larger houses because the kinds of writing and authors they’re willing to publish is extremely limited. There are a number of excellent small presses such as ChiZine who are willing to take risks on new authors such as myself who have something interesting to say but are struggling to find a place to say it. Because they’re taking those risks, many small presses are putting out books that are arguably better than those being produced in New York.

My editors have been fabulous, they’re concerned about quality, attention to detail, and publishing excellent books that may have been overlooked by the mainstream presses. They’re also very focused on a particular audience and mission, putting out sci-fi, fantasy, and horror works that are pushing or defying the conventions of genre.

I’d like to work with one of the larger houses down the road, but that would involve a project that didn’t fit within the scope of what ChiZine publishes. Right now I’m working on a couple of middle-grade novels for ten to thirteen-year-olds that wouldn’t be quite ChiZine’s style since they focus on adult and young adult fiction. I’d love to work with ChiZine again on another short story collection or adult novel.

S&R: Last one: what question do you wish I had asked? Then answer it.

TM: I’m going to keep wishing you’d asked the question, and just answer it. Rene Magritte is my favorite visual artist, with Salvador Dali a close second. They paint like I write. My favorite quote also comes from Dali: “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.”

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