Rae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, releases from Patasola Press, NY in June 2011. Her stories have appeared in BLIP Magazine (formerly Mississippi Review), Opium Magazine, and PANK, among other publications and have been nominated and short-listed for several awards. She has work forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, Gargoyle Magazine and other journals. Rae has received Fellowships from the VCCA and Johns Hopkins University, where she earned a Masters in Writing, awarded as Outstanding Graduate. This summer she’ll be attending the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Conference on Craft in Florence, Italy as a JHU Fellow.
We caught up to Rae at her home outside Washington, D.C. for this interview.
You write about sex a lot. Why?
My gut response to this question is always why not, but that would appear smartass and flippant, and I wouldn’t want to appear smartass or flippant, so I won’t answer why not. Instead I’ll respond with something heavy and socially relevant like what is the importance of gender study in contemporary literature and what is more tangibly differentiating than the physicality of these gender differences—how they intersect, how they lie together and Lie together? OR I might cite the practicality of sex in literature such as how often does the average person/reader/character think about sex? If an average person thinks about sex several times a day then a single story without the convergence of gender and sex would be a dishonest slice of a natural day. I like natural days. I like to see them stretched and twisted and formed through surreal lenses. For argument’s sake, a microfiction might honestly portray a slice of sexless consciousness in the span of minutes or even a few intense hours at a funeral, where characters are thinking death and grief, until the wake, where everyone is drinking and remembering and trying to forget the actuality of death. What makes us forget our demise? The creation of life. What is the mechanism for this? Sex.
Scenarios taken to their full conclusions often end on a relatively small collective of hard truths—fear, death, birth, sex….
Visceral scenarios—sex, violence, dark comedy—tend to be my muses. This all feels very war-like to me. Sex can be war. Rape, molestation, fear of walking in a dark parking garage, the natures of workplaces and maternity leave and sexual harassment. For some women, walking down an abandoned alley, hearing footsteps behind her, can be as scary as crawling a trench. Why? Because we have vaginas, and unlike the soldier in the trench, our vaginas do not shoot bullets. So: pack a gun in your vagina. Yes, that feels war-like to me. Also, women hold the wombs. We hold life. Again, the path to this is sex.
Sex as war.
Yes, man’s war. Canon, the Modernists’ hard-on for battle, though I’m much more interested in the fringe of war/battle. If you predate the modernists /“man’s war”—Hemingway, Vonnegut, Remarque….—you have, for instance, Wollstonecraft, Woolf…. Orlando is a beautiful example of sex and the importance of gender in literature with an awareness of the political, wars so to speak. It’s all set around the idea of battle and war, but focuses on the social repercussions of this in a domestic and socio-political sense, a gender sense. It’s difficult to leave the battlefield when the battlefield is a very real landscape within the narrative. I can’t deny that battle and men are necessary focuses in these narratives, but how many do we need for any given battle? Maybe it’s my chagrin living around Gettysburg for so many years. Civil War fetish is as rampant as sadomasochism. I’ve had enough. I prefer to hang out with the ex-patriot fare, The Sun Also Rises, for instance, Stein’s Tender Buttons. I prefer to explore the femme sexual. Still saddens me that Stein’s esoteric style, the brilliance of her work, shadowed in comparison to Hemingway’s commercial accessibility. Prose/poetic fusions excite me.
Where do you credit your femme lit preferences?
I’m a product of my foremothers and fathers, sure. Started with antiquities—Homer’s Helen of Troy, Artemis, Athena, Hera…. Myundergrad was in Humanities so it all started there for me. Lysistrata is one of my favorite Aristophanes’ plays. What I find interesting about Lysistrata is the male perspective being played out through female characters. Sex as tools. Shakespeare wasn’t much different. Aristophanes and Shakespeare played with the comedic and humorous spite of women and what they can withhold from men, but all for the betterment of humanity, of course. Ahem. The anti-whore with a heart of gold principle. Yes, I enjoy the play, but I’m much more interested in women’s consciousnesses of sex and how this intersects and overlaps that of men’s. It’s interesting when men write about wombs and the femme sexual. It’s the one thing a man cannot have. A womb of his own. Quintessential and punning discourse.
I tend to run from romantic sensibilities. The more intimate the sex becomes, the more gritty or darkly comedic my mind turns. The body coupled lends itself to an intense cerebral dissection that leaves no one out of the mix. Sex is a vehicle for letting the reader ask bigger socio-political questions.
Lately, I’ve been rereading Mary Gaitskill. She takes the femme sexual into gritty directions. I like that. It makes me question things.
Like what? Can you say a bit more about the effect of Gaitskill’s work on you?
I came to Gaitskill through The New Yorker. She read Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”/”Symbols and Signs” for TNY interview spot and discussed the work primarily in terms of story as opposed to the cryptic so central to Nabokov’s work. I thought this was refreshing. Inspiring. It’s too easy to fall into critical lenses and forget the storytelling. Later, I read “Secretary,” which I loved. Enjoyed the film, too, though the short story had a grittiness and minimalism that didn’t quite play out in the film. “Secretary” pushes boundaries and questions. It doesn’t push answers. This feels right to me. I want to question what is real and what is made up. What defines moral boundaries. The conventions of things.
I’m reading Veronica now. A friend, who sometimes seems to know my aesthetic better than I know it myself, suggested that I really should. I had been putting it off because I had modeled a bit in a former life and generally avoid narratives in which I have a too intimate knowledge. I’m enchanted with the work. The most gripping parts, for me, are often the most disgusting, keyhole views of these posh and downtrodden people and that’s what I enjoy in Gaitskill’s voice. She never turns from the grit, and she can offer it up with a seeping vulnerability. Her compassion has edge. Always. And it draws the reader in spite of herself. I like the intimacy of Gaitskill’s voice.
What’s next for Rae Bryant?
I’ve been spending a lot of time in New York, and will be there quite a bit this summer. My first collection of fiction, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, comes out June 29th from Patasola Press (www.patasolapress.org), a delightful and edgy new indie publisher out of Brooklyn. In late June, I’ll be traveling to Florence, Italy on fellowship with Johns Hopkins University to write and teach a little. Later I’ll be at Sewanee, and in between, I’ll be in the East Village and at Governor’s Island for my book launch at KGB and a book event. In September, I’ll be reading with Ben Loory at Powell’s in Portland. Everyone should check out Ben’s upcoming short story collection, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin Books), which was recently selected as the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers book. A few more events are in the fire. It’s all turning out to be a busy upcoming summer and fall, and I’m loving every minute. If I could just clone myself so to do it all at once—laundry, chauffeuring kids to lacrosse, helping with homework, cooking dinner, writing, traveling, editing Moon Milk Review, readings, attending friends’ readings and events—I would be living the perfect life. Well, okay. For me, it’s just about perfect as long as my caffeine supply flows, and I can beat this novel I’ve been revising into some kind of submission. It’s not complying very well right now, but no complaints. I suspect the novel is actually the dominant, and all I need to do is accept my submission, bend over, take it like a good girl. I’ll let you know how that goes.