Where were you on the evening of December 3, 1979?
I was in a living room with a brown shaggy rug, tangled curls flying, rag doll clutched under my armpit, enormous headphones clamped around my toddler ears. I was dancing, my mouth plugged by my right thumb. A stretchy black coil connected the headphones to a cord, which ran to the wooden wall unit, which held my father’s record player. A 45 spun round, the needle’s gentle connection to the grooves sending the sound—maybe the Eagles; the Bee Gees; Earth, Wind and Fire—back through the wire to my ears. My parents sat on our nubby couch smiling, looking on. This is where everything begins, and where everything ends.
Where will you be on the morning of March 1, 2018?
Probably hiding. My book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, comes out that day. It’s the memoir I wrote about the state of being uprooted, about what happens when everything we know explodes, about gentle and not-so-gentle obsessions and the search for identity. The book tells the story of my emigration from the Montreal of my childhood to the California of my dreams, and calls upon witness interrogation tactics, music and pop culture, news stories, and the iconography of the West to explore whether we can cure loneliness through landscape.
I’m just kidding, I think, about the hiding. I’m very proud of this book I wrote. But also terrified of it. Well, the me now is a maybe a bit afraid of it. The little girl with the sweaty hair dancing to the Bee Gees is not worried about a thing.
It’s notable that this is a self-interview, because a key feature of the book is that its structure is built on a scaffolding of interrogation. Someone is asking the narrator a lot of questions, which much of the book responds to. Who is that interrogator and why are they there?
I don’t want to talk in detail about who the interrogator is because I think that’s the wrong question. But why all these questions—that’s important. I explain in the book that I have a relationship with interrogation that stretches back into ancestry. I, and my people, have at times been forced to answer questions by those who have the power to determine whether or not we are granted passage to places both geographic and psychic. There was a time in my life, when I was sixteen, when this apparatus of interrogation came to a sharp point. This was a traumatic incident where I was required to be a witness in a family court case. The incident, and some of the events that came before it, instigated in me a silencing. The book’s interrogations are an attempt to address—or more accurately, to redress—that silencing.
Have you ever driven 50 in a 25?
Can you repeat the question?
How would you classify your relationship to authority?
Could you tell? I have a hard time with it. Particularly with male authority. Many a gym membership has lapsed because I couldn’t stand to have the spin instructor or weight trainer barking orders at me. I believe this resistance has to do with epigenetics. Say, if those who came before you were hunted. Say, if those who came before you were evaluated as sluts.
Who are your literary accomplices?
My book is a hybrid of narrative and fragments. Many writers gave me permission to write this way, which is the way I could get my story out and bring my questions into focus: Lidia Yuknavitch showed me how to find the story inside my body; Maggie Nelson permitted me to look sideways at grief, which allowed me to directly see it hovering there; Abigail Thomas showed me how small parts can make a whole, and how many voices a narrator can have; Claudia Rankine revealed the power in reduction; Bhanu Kapil demonstrated how interrogations matter; Lia Purpura reminded me to look, really look, at things; Rebecca Solnit prompted me to follow threads of inquiry as far as my mind can go. I could go on a while, but in the end I believe that we all act alone.
Where were you on the night of February 13, 1989?
Sixth grade dance in someone’s basement, awkward embrace with Jay K., approximately two feet of space between us, my hand on his shoulders, his on my waist. Our feet did a slow side shuffle-sway, left, right, left, right, to “Never Tear Us Apart” by INXS. Strung lights blinked through the shadows. Two worlds collided—not mine and Jay’s, but the realm of girlhood and the universe of what comes after it.
Do you think you’re guilty?
We’re all guilty of certain things, but usually not the things we’re accused of. I’m guilty mainly of doubting myself. No, that’s quite not right. Of believing I don’t belong. No. Of wanting so openly to belong in the first place. Of letting that wanting show.
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
You’re asking that a little late in the game. That should always be the first question. And, I mean, what is truth? What’s true to me is suspect, or misremembered, to you. Truth can be tricky when writing memoir. I endeavor to stick to my truth as closely as possible. Investigating memory is messy. Sometimes you first have to imagine what the truth could be, to get close enough to finally see what it is.
Then you admit you have kept secrets?
I could fill a grain silo.
The problem is, even grain silos fill up at some point. A person could go into more detail if they had paid better attention in math class during the surface area and volume section.
But in elementary school I had to raise my hand constantly to ask the teacher to repeat the math concepts, because it all sounded like rushing water to me, like the kind of Class IV rapids your summer camp counselors say will be fine to take the canoes over but then the current catches you all unaware, cracking the wooden boats in two, tossing you into the churn, baptizing you in an ecosystem of river gravel and tiny leeches. After a while, the teachers leave you marooned to help others with more aptitude.
Anyway, at some point, silos could get full. Imagine a grain silo of secrets beginning to bulge at the seams, the sides of the cylinder bowing from that pressure. Imagine the moment of rupture.
Natalie Singer is the author of the memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Proximity, Lit Hub, Hypertext, Literary Mama, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, ParentMap, Alligator Juniper, Brain, Child, Largehearted Boy, Full Grown People and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie has been the recipient of several awards, including the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction prize and the Alligator Juniper nonfiction prize. California Calling was first runner up for the Red Hen Press nonfiction prize and a finalist for the Autumn House Press nonfiction prize. Natalie has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and Seattle’s juvenile detention center, and she has worked as a journalist at newspapers around the West. She is a 2017-2018 writer-in-residence at On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts collective in Seattle, where her writing responds to the season’s works and creates a conversation with the community. Natalie earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she lives in Seattle. (@Natalie_Writes)
Author Photograph by Stuart Isett. ©2017 Stuart Isett. All rights reserved.