Rachel DeWoskin's "Banshee" follows a woman exploring impulses and freedom after a medical scare
Rachel DeWoskin's Banshee is a novel about Samantha Baxter, a woman who faces a serious medical diagnosis and casts about for meaning while acting out in ways inconsistent with the life she has lived so far. She crosses lines in her job as a professor and her roles as wife and mother. Through it all, she recognizes the incongruencies of her actions, but she does not just plow ahead disrupting her middle-aged life; instead, she both makes her choices and contemplates how they unfold.
While her actions appear extreme, ranging from sleeping with a student to alienating her husband, Samantha does not leave her life and home. Her defiance centers on how she acts within her existing family and professional relationships. Samantha says what she wants to, unapologetically follows her impulses, and lets the consequences unfold. Accordingly, the prose consists of her first-person narration of her experiences and perspective as she transforms and reacts to her major health problem and to how she feels in new situations. The plot becomes about what she does or doesn’t do, what she says or doesn’t say, and what she thinks and feels about all of it.
Writer, poet, and Ann Arbor native DeWoskin previously acted in a Chinese soap opera and now teaches at the University of Chicago. She will speak about and sign Banshee at Literati Bookstore on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm. Beforehand, I interviewed her about her writing and new novel.
Q: You have been an actor, and you write both novels and poetry. Tell us about your work in the arts and what compelled you to become both an actor and a writer.
A: Well, I don’t know if my years in a Chinese soap opera really qualify me to call myself an actor; that job was more of a lark/fluke. I was in Beijing in the late 1990s and this TV show was looking for a young Western woman to play a raucous vixen in love with China. I landed that role somewhat randomly -- and without talent or qualification, other than being exuberant, American, and wildly young.
As for the novels and poetry, I’ve always written as a way to explore questions that compel me, including what the hell was I doing on a Chinese soap opera and what did my participation mean? For me, sometimes wonders of many sorts are best expressed by prose and other times they lend themselves to expression/examination by poetry. I wrote my newest novel, Banshee, out of curiosity about what it might feel like to shed the polite rules of society like itchy lizard skin. And I wrote my other recently published novel, Someday We Will Fly, because I wanted to imagine with depth and complexity how people raise children in contexts as excruciating as war and family separation.
Reading and writing have always been my favorite ways of asking -- and complicating -- the questions I need to ask. Books don’t necessarily provide answers, but they reassure and inspire me, and act as templates that connect me to other human beings -- across all kinds of eras and boundaries.
Q: Speaking of asking questions through writing, you are both a prose and poetry writer. What writing practices work best for you? What is something that you recommend to your students, and what is something that you’ve heard from them, about the writing process?
A: I like to work on multiple projects and across genres because I can move from one mode of thinking, reading, and writing to another. This possibility serves as an escape, a way to get a little distance from my own drafts of books and poems until I can be a better reader and reviser of them. It also oxygenates the work itself, letting me import some of my favorite aspects of each genre into the others: the clarity and lyrical efficiency of poetry into prose, for example, or the propulsive engine of prose into poetry. As for my students, my classroom is a lab for all of our work, and we read astonishing writing together, ask questions about truth, beauty, and craft, and liberate ourselves and each other to follow wonder. I’m a fan of writing not “what we know,” but what we don’t yet know, what we feel compelled to try to find out.
Q: Samantha Baxter is a strong protagonist and her voice is the backbone of the novel. How did you develop Samantha as a character? Since you are also a professor, what parts of her do you relate to?
A: Samantha Baxter gave me a way to ask some fiery questions of the “what if” sort. What if a woman shed all the polite requirements and went shrieking through her life? What’s the relationship between fear and rage, and to what extent do both originate from powerlessness? Can rage function as a way to counteract the powerlessness that mortal fear engenders? I wanted to do away with likability, even relatability, wanted to make Samantha furious and unapologetic, and refused a comeuppance for her.
I often thought, while writing Banshee, of James Baldwin’s beautiful interview with The Paris Review for their “Art of Fiction” series. He was talking about the difference as he saw it between preaching and writing, and he said, “When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.”
Something forced me to find out what it might look, feel, and sound like to burn a middle-class, professorial, poetic life to the baseboards. And I don’t think I exactly resemble Sam Baxter, but I found writing her to be tremendous fun. It’s worth saying here that one of the things I love most about fiction is that it allows us to be multiple versions of ourselves, rather than encouraging us to double down or shrink. This is good news for truth, since no simplified version of the truth can be either interesting or true. It’s also part of the reason that books -- the ones we write and the ones we read -- offer us a way to connect to others across all kinds of distances. And to connect not just in spite but sometimes because of our contradictions.
Q: As a poet, Samantha often narrates her thoughts about words, specifically their rhymes and their meanings, such as, “[h]ere were a billion balloons, lovely words with double o’s -- moons, zoos, taboos, Leah’s low, vowel-y oohs, Alexi’s baby coos moving away from me.” What inspired this characteristic of Samantha? What does it reveal about her personality?
A: It’s facile to say that I love words, but also true. For me, memories are mostly about language, the ways things sounded or felt when I read, heard, spoke, or wrote them. I spent my childhood memorizing and trying to write books and my adolescence writing -- often terrible -- poems. Rhymes always felt like magic to me, and the relationships between words, not just rhyming pairs but any sequences, sentences, stanzas, paragraphs, or pages, required and inspired close examination.
One of the reasons I find poetry so appealing is its frank and unapologetic concern with words themselves: how they look on lines, the spaces between them, the shapes -- and sometimes colors, textures, sounds, or surprising lemony scents -- of them, where to cleave them apart or together. The way Sam uses words is an expression of my own delight in them, and also my belief that the words are the story, that what we say and write carries so much meaning that it’s worth getting it right, all the way down to the most granular units, letters, and worth noticing each sound, gesture, slash, mark, dot.
Q: In some ways, Samantha seems surprised by what is happening to her and what she does, at the same time as she drives the upheaval of her life. She questions, “[h]ow do we learn to ask for what we need? To distinguish between what we want and what we need? And to not avoid want for so long that it becomes need?” In times of crisis, do you think that people are deliberate and thoughtful about their actions and choices, or that they are impulsive and at the mercy of their needs?
A: Like most people, and characters, Sam contains multiple versions of herself, some of them in conflict with each other. She has wild internal contradictions and is in a crisis that requires not just reassessing who she is, but also measuring some difficult, porous boundaries: between her body and her mind, between subject and object, need and want, and herself as an active, furious agent and a passive, terrified patient. Of course, not all patients are powerless, but Sam feels like she’s literally losing parts of herself and thus feels shock. She wonders how to calibrate terrifying news, to ready herself for a surgery that's almost sci-fi it’s so shocking. The feeling of not knowing what will happen to her inspires Sam to behave wildly and with uncharacteristic self-interest, partly just to remind herself of the agency she still has. Of course, we all have the capacity, in situations both banal and profound, to be combinations of impulsive and thoughtful, horrific, and heroic. And sometimes we can be both analytical and self-aware and also crazed/unable to stop ourselves from unsavory behavior. Bad in real life but good in fiction!
Q: You deliberately chose Dottir Press for publishing Banshee to be sure to preserve Samantha’s disruptive characteristics. What considerations did you have in mind for this decision? How did you go about getting this book published?
A: My agent, the savvy and indomitable Jill Grinberg, has worked with writer, feminist, and editor Jennifer Baumgardner of Dottir Press before, and as soon as Jill read Banshee, she suggested we show the manuscript to Jennifer. Of course, I’ve read Jennifer’s work and followed her badass career, and I was holding my breath with the hope that she would publish the novel. I was right to want this outcome as much as I did; Jennifer’s team at Dottir has been brilliant at every moment of the process: editing the book into its most beautiful version, designing a cover that makes the novel look like a secret, and championing it with levels and brands of energy and understanding that are not to be taken for granted.
Q: What books are on your radar to read and recommend right now?
A: On my nightstand is a fantastic stack of books that I’m about to teach or thinking of teaching for a seminar in migration stories: Edwidge Danticat’s new story collection, Everything Inside; Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, Unaccustomed Earth; Aleksander Hemon’s new memoir, My Parents, An Introduction /This Does Not Belong to You; Lillian Li’s delicious debut, Number One Chinese Restaurant; and my favorite novel, which I am forever re-reading and teaching, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. Also some poems: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and a new poetry manuscript by a poet whose work I absolutely love, Kirun Kapur. Her new collection is called Women in the Waiting Room and it’s breathtaking. Don’t miss it when it comes out next year.
Q: Two novels and a poetry collection by you are coming out in quick succession this year and next year. What are you working on next?
A: I’m adapting Banshee with Ally Sheedy for the screen, a wildly fun project. She’s a brilliant editor and reader, in addition to being a genius actor.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Rachel DeWoskin will speak about and sign "Banshee" at Literati Bookstore on Monday, September 9, at 7 pm.