An Interview with Marie-Helene Bertino - Believer Magazine

In her two-hour Electric Literature masterclass, Marie-Helene Bertino talks about why she writes magic: there is something she wants to say “about memory, joy, trauma, class, ongoingness, [and] what we mean to each other.”  “Disrupting Realism,” the masterclass hosted by Bertino and friends, is one-part celebration—Parakeet has landed in paperback—and two parts literary citizenship. Bertino, who knows what it’s like to desperately want to attend a program but not have the means to afford it, aims to make writing accessible. The event is available to all, free of charge.

Parakeet is Bertino’s third novel, published in 2020 at the height of the pandemic. If mischief is defined as the catastrophes and winks that reveal us to ourselves, then Parakeet, like any good Homeric narrative, dabbles in quite a bit of it. Page one, line one, the protagonist’s deceased grandmother shows up as a parakeet with all the irreverent bite of a George Saunders character, and defecates on her granddaughter’s wedding dress six days before the wedding. She assigns an impossible mission: go look for your brother, though you won’t find him. The bride searches, “feeling manipulated, hopeful, confused, weak-willed, undercaffeinated [sic], assuming the worst and hoping for it. Human.”  

Bertino writes trauma and estrangement between siblings—the ensuing isolation and loneliness—with absolute intimacy. She calls on her theater background, crafting dialogue that is swift and proclamatory (“Cats make a house a home”), other times leaning into revelatory monologue (“It was a filthy gorgeous day. I mean really it was greedy of us.”). Bertino seems to be asking, What happens when we pursue our authentic self and how much will it hurt—and in what ways will we be better for it? Parakeet is that rarest of creatures, a funny novel about family and healing. Its truest display of magic is that it shows us how disruption can be an empathic act, forcing our discomfort so we can better understand ourselves and those we love.

Marie-Helene Bertino and I met in Philadelphia, where she grew up and where I live. We traded stories about rats, going out dancing on nights other people might have stayed home, her Philly accent (which came back during pandemic—“it knocked me back to my factory settings”), and weddings you love to hate.    

—Annie Liontas

THE BELIEVER: We’re constantly told that characters have to change in fiction. But you’ve defined change as something unseen at the start of a narrative that, by the end, becomes visible. Can you talk about how you experience that in your work?

MARIE-HELENE BERTINO: That came directly from learning that in the workshop and not being able to understand how that would tangibly fit into something I could use in practice. Somebody in the workshop would be like, “I just feel this character needs to change,” and I was like, “No, they don’t.”  I grew up here in Philadelphia—nobody changes in Philadelphia. Nobody. If you change in Philadelphia—

BLVR: You’re gone. 

MHB: Gone. Growing up here, I had family members and friends who held grudges to their death beds. Change is not easy here. And so, the change principle just didn’t fit what I see about actual human beings. I also wasn’t interested in writing the same story over and over again, I knew there had to be other shapes. I had to go and find them myself. I found them in other countries, I found them in other genres. Japan has been hugely influential for me—Yoko Ogawa’s work being number one. When I read Revenge, her collection of stories, I was just like, This is what I’ve been looking for. Every single protagonist, normally female, not only doesn’t change, they’re on the outskirts of society because of their unconventional decisions and lives. Instead of them changing, the world is revealed in a new way because of how honest someone like Ogawa is being about this character. 

I mostly started hammering this down when I started teaching and it was my job to explain what they were going to take as rote. And I was unwilling to teach them all the flimsy statements I heard repeated. 

BLVR: The idea of something unseen becoming visible really implicates the reader as an active participant—that what is catalytic and transformative isn’t just about what happens to the character, but to the reader as well. 

MHB: Exactly. How can you have a character change and assume that every reader will view that change in the same way? It doesn’t invite the reader in, and it doesn’t allow the reader to participate equally. It’s like, I’m going to show you something—I’m going to tell you the truth about it—and you can decide what is revealed. And that to me is more honest and it’s definitely more fun. And then I saw it was true for everything. 

BLVR: You’re saying you saw it elsewhere? Did this come up with other conventions you wanted to undermine as well? Notions of character, notions of structure—

MHB: Oh, everywhere. Plot, for example. Plotless novels are often frowned upon. Then you ask, “Well what is a plotless novel?”  It very often is a woman walking around thinking. I remember when Catherine Lacey came out with Nobody is Ever Missing. I read it and was like, this novel is not plotless, this woman’s mind is a plot. A plot is not what they said it was. A woman is not what they said she was. 

BLVR: Parakeet is feminist in its forced examination of trappings and cultural norms, particularly those related to women and weddings. (“What’s wrong with divorce? A marriage that furnished love and was relieved at the appropriate time so its participants could go on to love again, isn’t that more of a success?”) In a stunning series of passages at the end, particularly that last page, the novel even redefines what it means to be married. What are you hoping to make room for?

MHB: The novel was meant to be a deconstruction and then a rephrasing of these ideas. Marriage especially, weddings especially—they are untouchable, they are unassailable. You are not allowed to not like that institution no matter what your sexuality or identity is, you must fight for the right to do it. That triggers my little bratty, But why? Normally in the past, in heteronormative marriages, the woman doesn’t fare too well. The woman gets subsumed. And even now to be a woman who’s not interested in marriage, to be a woman uninterested in children, is still kind of radical. And that’s a shame. Marriage is another thing I was supposed to look at in a certain way—but I don’t trust what they have to say about marriage. People have said—unfairly—“Well, then Marie doesn’t respect marriage, Marie doesn’t respect love.”  And I had to sit with that until I realized that I respect it so much that I believe it shouldn’t be entered into without a great deal of thought and meaning. I think we should be thinking so much harder about how it can fit into our lives and how it can be shaped like us. 

What kind of love do I want to give and be a part of? What would that look like? That’s that last page and a half in Parakeet. Those were vows that she was making to her sister, to herself, and they were also vows I was making to the act of writing. This is me to me, this is me to her, this is me to my future writing, this is me to the reader, this is me directly addressing you. This past year, in the concrete box that was publishing, when people have emailed me, they’ve been kind enough to talk about that last page—and I feel that I’m wedded to them, too!  

BLVR: The last page is kind of a wedding, between the writer and the reader. [Laughs] As the reader, I accept.

MHB: [Laughs] My god, you just made me the happiest writer in the world.

BLVR: You enter other territories in Parakeet with the inquiry and rigor you approach marriage. Mother is one of those, I think, and inevitable when we think of weddings in heteronormative constructs. This particular mother is “an ice chip.”  During a surreal identity crisis, her perspective gets uniquely forced upon your character (“Mother, what do you go through?”) A lot of the novel’s mischief and doubling happens between mother and daughter. I think of these almost as small openings that allow for the unexpected to enter. How do such moments push your character towards empathy, to see others through new eyes, to see herself anew?

MHB: I think that’s the best thing fiction can do. Characters should never be painted with just one brush. I liked the idea of setting up a mother who, for all intents and purposes, was terrible, and then having the daughter understand what her mother was really going through after she literally inhabits her. Hopefully that’s what fiction does—inhabits a character you would think you’d hate, and by the end you feel you know them. What fiction can do is show you a world you don’t know, a character whose experience you don’t get, and challenge your expectations of what that person can be. 

BLVR: It feels less like likeability and more like intimacy. Do you prefer a first person point-of-view for that kind of work?

MHB: I think it would be hard to be in first person with someone I couldn’t stand. I would need to find an entrance that would be fun in some way. Close third is often a kindness you do for yourself and for others. The bride in Parakeet is in first person because there are things she’s not admitting to herself or anyone else, and the only one she can be honest with is the reader. The reader bears witness. 

BLVR: I’m wondering about your surreal predecessors, writers like Bruno Schulz, or Kafka, who was clearly an inspiration for the book.

MHB: I used the classic first line of “The Metamorphosis” except I ended it with “transformed in my bed into my mother.”  I was thinking how in “The Metamorphosis” Gregor Samsa never once asks himself what’s happening to him. If it were me, I would spend the whole day being like, Why is this happening to me? I’d be tweeting, Has anybody else woken up as a bug? 

BLVR: There is surrealism in time, too. In the wedding scene, time is elongated, time is stretched out. It takes almost the whole day to drive back to the wedding hall, when it should only take a few minutes. What does that allow you to do? 

MHB: To very literally represent trauma. The trauma is her injury, and the trauma is also the wedding. A wedding can be a traumatic event depending on how everyone feels about it. Time is arrested when we are in pain. Time is also arrested when we are in love. I really like bending and expanding and diminishing time on the page to show how humans experience emotions. 

BLVR: The narrator tells us, “The mean trick of trauma is that like a play it has no past tense. It is always happening.”  

MHB: The simultaneity of trauma. I hope you have no idea what I mean. I have experienced physical trauma and every time I think about it, it is as if my body is experiencing it again. So what is really the difference between what happened then and how I experience it again in the present tense? To be honest with you, I haven’t quite worked out how to hold these things in my past and not have them completely influence my present. I know I shouldn’t, I’ve read all the posters and the books that say, Don’t let your past affect your present. That’s wonderful when you’ve gone through nothing. But some of us have been through stuff that bleeds into the present tense, that has formed important systems in our lives. For example, I’m writing an essay on humor and how, growing up, the only way to survive was to get funny real fast. It got me to the next moment. The playground, the family, the neighborhood, whatever. George Saunders talks about that, how comebacks are a currency in Chicago, and it was the same in Philadelphia. You had to be quick. But now as an adult, consciously surrounding myself with kind people, I no longer have use for humor as a survival mechanism. And yet, my humor is still rooted in and has its origins in survival. What do you do with that now, in the present day, when you no longer have to fight or freeze or flee? If somebody compliments you on your sense of humor, aren’t they also complimenting you on all of the traumatic shit that’s happened to you? You know what I mean?

That’s the other thing I’m always writing towards—people tell you what you’re supposed to think about when it comes to family. I’m mostly Italian, and in Italian culture the central unit is the family. When you don’t have a good family, you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. You’re culturally wrong, you’re wrong in America. I’m always writing towards creating family out of something else—

BLVR: Chosen family.

MHB: Yes. Alternate ways of having family. Family in unexpected places. 

BLVR: That’s the story you keep rewriting. 

MHB: I think so. 

BLVR: But also friendship, too? Friendship can be one of the few anchors that root us in dark times. Friends remind us who we are, help us recreate ourselves, cheer us on as we claim our space in the world—unless they don’t. There’s Danny’s friends, who are unable to recognize him after his brain injury. But also, that passage about Rose is one of the most poignant descriptions I’ve ever read of what it means to lose your best friend. What do you think about when you write someone like Rose?

MHB: The biggest heartbreaks of my life have been losing friends. You’re certain you’ve done everything correctly, and someone still walks away from you. That could mean they literally walk away, or it could also mean they lie or ghost or in some way fail to be a friend.

I’ve thought about it a lot. Hopefully you get older and begin to think—Well, it must have been hard for them to deal with me in this moment. With Rose, I was trying to talk about it as a heartbreak on a friendship level. Just having to watch somebody fall out of love with you in real time. Yeah, Rose had problems, but it was probably also really hard to deal with the bride. You like to believe you’re a hundred percent right, but unfortunately that’s not really how it works. I was trying to acknowledge that complexity.

BLVR: I felt it as heartache, as intimate as a romantic partnership dissolving. She’s devoted to Rose even though that relationship can no longer exist in its prior iteration. That doesn’t mean they’re not wed for life. 

MHB: For some of us, the friendship is the marriage.

BLVR: What’s your favorite wedding movie? Or wedding in a novel?

MHB: I loved Melancholia. That was a wedding where I was like, See, her wedding’s messed up. She had sex with her boss during that wedding, and then the world ended. As far as fiction—I always loved “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”  In that story, the groom doesn’t show. It’s told from the point-of-view from the groom’s brother—this is the Glass family in Salinger—and he has to spend the whole day with the bride’s family fielding all of this anger, with no idea where his brother is. I love it because it upends the expectations of a wedding. I also love an absent person in a story: they who are not there. I would read anything where a person is developed in absentia. Bob Dylan does this with “Visions of Johanna,” and Johanna never shows. In Parakeet, I did that with Simone. 

BLVR: What about your darlings? Some read like rantings—the grandmother returning and talking about how, if she could do it over, she’d be a slut. I couldn’t help but think of George Saunders’ story “Sea Oak,” when Aunt Bernie comes back from the dead and talks about getting so many lovers and eating shrimp out of a cup.

MHB: The slut gene thing is from my family. Everything else is made up!  It was my cousin who told me, Every woman in this family has the slut gene, but it skipped your mother. Your grandmother, you, me, everybody—except your mother. And my mother was like, “You’re right, she’s right, it totally skipped me!” 

Sometimes you cut and paste your darling into another document and mine it for parts. But I also think there’s room for leaving things in for the sake of beauty. You can have a beautiful image or something that sounds right even if the words themselves are frivolous or unnecessary. You earn that by doing your work elsewhere. You buy yourself a moment of sheer beauty or transgression. 

BLVR: You’re saying beauty and I wonder if it’s also partly voice. Victor LaValle talks about voice as personality and voice as representation of ourselves on the page.

MHB: Victor LaValle is so magnetic. You read 250 pages in his voice. With this novel, I allowed her to have these sentences that comprised a full page because that was literally what she wasn’t allowing herself to do. The only place she could take up space was the page. And it was for me too. I had been using clipped, economical, sharp sentences and I was like, Why? Why am I like, “Oh excuse me, sorry, can I just tell you this story, I’ll keep it to five pages!”  I allowed myself to take up space, and I allowed her to do the same, and it was a congruent relationship.

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