Go Forth: Indelible in the Hippocampus edited by Shelly Oria

by Robert Lopez
September 30th, 2019
Go Forth is a series that offers a look at contemporary literature and publishing, started by Brandon Hobson and Nicolle Elizabeth in 2012.

Indelible in the Hippocampus collects stories, poems, and essays on the #MeToo movement, and gets its title from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to the US Congress on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The contributors include Melissa Febos, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Elissa Schappell, Samantha Hunt and many others. The breadth of this anthology from diverse voices is as impressive as its hard-hitting commentary. It’s an important book, coming out at an important time.

—Robert Lopez

THE BELIEVER: How did this book come about?  In the foreword you write about having recently written a short story that deals with sexual harassment, which almost coincided with the first publicized case of the #MeToo movement. Did you ever consider writing a group of stories about this subject matter yourself or did you conceive of it from the get-go as an anthology?

SHELLY ORIA: The book came about when I emailed Kristina Kearns—then Executive Director of McSweeney’s—asking if she’d like to publish a short story I’d just finished. This was October 2017, soon after Harvey. To be honest, I never imagined #MeToo would become the global movement it’s become; I assumed the conversation and revived hashtag would stay in the news for a week at most. That story I’d written, “But We Will Win,” is told from the PoV of a woman whose ex-girlfriend ran into traffic to escape sexual street harassment. The narrator began murdering men on occasion after that as a way of coping with her grief and rage. I emailed Kristina thinking I should try to publish this timely story of mine as soon as I could. My email started an exchange between us; pretty soon we were talking about a book, and soon after that Kristina asked if I’d be the editor.

I never considered writing a collection of my own about this topic, no. I don’t think I even realized I’m often writing about various types of sexual violence against women; I only noticed that recently, because through my work on Indelible I’ve become so practiced in viewing texts through that lens. Apparently, about half of what will one day be my next collection are “#MeToo” stories. But that’s not dissimilar from the experience I had with my first book where in the early stages my agent said, “Most of your stories explore how sexuality and nationality interact,” and I said “They do?” and then realized they absolutely did, almost without exception.

BLVR: What were some of the challenges of editing such an anthology? How does the experience differ from putting together one’s own book and how is it similar?

SO: One huge challenge was achieving everything I wanted—to show different aspects of women’s #MeToo experiences as well as different aspects of the movement, to represent a big range of voices and backgrounds, to feature multiple genres—in only twenty-three pieces. Twenty-three sounds like a lot and turns out to be so very little.

Another challenge was the sensitivity of the topic—in the early days of this project it seemed impossible to reject a piece, impossible to send “notes.” Those things aren’t easy to do when someone is writing about, say, sexual trauma. But I learned that people often find this type of exchange helpful, even healing. I think the process can be an act of integration: inviting your writer self and your traumatized or hurt self to a room where they can hang out together. And of course many of the pieces in Indelible, pre any editorial feedback already contained such complexity of thought, and often had these surprising, funny moments, which to me signaled great openness on the writer’s part.

Working on Indelible was mostly different from the experience of working on my first book—it called upon curatorial, editorial, and interpersonal skills that New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 never demanded. And on the flip side, I had twenty-two incredible co-writers collaborating with me on this manuscript, which makes the writing part move a lot faster! But one thing that’s similar, I’m noticing, is how protective I feel of this baby. I’m scared of how the big wild world will treat it, I’m avoiding reviews as I did with my first book (knowing the effect even a rave review can have on my mood and creativity). Perhaps the topic plays a part here, too, and perhaps I’m feeling a (somewhat ridiculous) sense of responsibility toward the contributors. It’s sort of like I invited them to a party and the thought of anyone having a bad experience at the party is excruciating. So you’d think there’s less anguish involved in this type of book, since most of the words in it aren’t mine, but no! Same amount of anguish! And same amount of joy, too. Though differently textured, in both cases.

BLVR: So, you have these twenty-two incredible co-writers and I know you can’t pick favorites, but which pieces surprised you the most, took your breath away, made you want to go sit down at your own desk? Who did you know you had to solicit going into this project? If you had to recommend one representative story, essay, poem from the book, which would they be and why? Feel free to obfuscate or massage this into any kind of answer you like, including answering other questions entirely.

SO: Oh there were so many people I wanted to solicit for this book! At one point in the early days of the project, my list had over a hundred names. As you know, I hosted a reading series for five years in the East Village, co-directed the Writers’ Forum at Pratt for seven, so in part I suppose this number reflects the fact that I’ve gotten to know so many writers this past decade, in settings that required I get quite familiar with their work. When I think of people whose work has inspired me, has made me feel, has made me see something in a new light…. many, many names come to mind. Not that I’m unique in that experience by any means—I think writers tend to know other writers, like doctors tend to know other doctors. But so my point is, people have been asking me how I put the list together, whether it was hard, and really the challenge was narrowing it down by so much.

And, you know, many of the writers I reached out to were already at work on pieces on this topic, or percolating, or processing personal experiences—which I knew, which is why they came to mind. But also the disturbing truth is: I knew I could ask any woman writer and she’d have some #MeToo story to tell. Whether she’d want to do so and publish it, what artistic form the work would take, would this anthology be a good home for it—those were all open questions. But I didn’t have to curate the solicitation list as carefully as maybe I would have for a different anthology. The magnitude of this sickness is truly overwhelming.

A piece that surprised me would be Elissa Schappell’s, just because we went back and forth quite a bit—Elissa was working on an essay for us initially and then decided to change course and try to figure out a story she’d been grappling with for some time. It was fascinating to be privy to her process and to witness that work—”Re: Your Rape Story”—come into itself.

BLVR: That’s interesting, being involved with Elissa’s piece to this extent. How much editing did you provide for your writers? Did you enjoy that process? How was it similar/different when editing/revising your own work?

SO: Each piece had a different process. There are a few that had already been published—Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale: A Gloss,” Hossannah Asuncion’s poem, Lynn Melnick’s poems—so on those of course I did no editing at all. The rest really varied, based on what the writer wanted or needed (to work on her own or work together) and on how far along in the process a given work was when we first received it. Elissa’s certainly isn’t the only one in which I was extensively and intimately involved, just the one where the work involved some surprise turns (like the aforementioned switch I mentioned earlier from the essay to the story) and I found the process fascinating and thrilling.

An important note in this context is that the team at McSweeney’s, and especially Daniel Levin Becker, did a whole lot of the actual editing—the bulk of it, really. I approved each round of edits, at times jumped on a doc and made some tweaks and changes, and with some pieces took the lead on big-picture notes, but being an “editor” on this type of project both extends considerably beyond the parameters that the job title suggests (i.e., I’ve acted as curator, publicist, event planner, activist, and on and on) and doesn’t actually involve a ton of actual editing. Luckily for me and for Indelible, Daniel is an extraordinary editor.

BLVR: Can you talk a bit about your own story, “But We Will Win”?

SO: I really hope people don’t read “But We Will Win” as some sort of call to women to murder men, or anything remotely in that realm. I touch on that briefly in the foreword, but a couple times so far I’ve gotten questions on this, and even if it is only a few readers, it kind of makes me want to scream. Of course, as you and I both know well, once we put work out there, it’s no longer fully ours; each reader will experience and interpret a story, and that experience and interpenetration are her reality. And I think there’s possibly a unique way in which fiction runs a heightened risk of being misread when it’s published alongside nonfiction, which has been super interesting for me to think about. But so more to the point: the story is making a statement about women’s anger, how much rage we’ve had to swallow and keep inside us over the years, rage which I’m personally highly aware of almost every time I’m sexually harassed in the streets of New York, which is—as it is for most women in most American cities—several times a day on a good day.

The murders—and this is perhaps getting too specific or prescriptive—are also a metaphor for this core idea of radical feminism that we can’t really fix anything within the given structure, that we sort of have to dismantle much of what is to create or make room for what might be.

BLVR: Finally, this book like all anthologies feels like a collaborative effort and I know you are a writer that enjoys collaboration. What do you have to say about collaboration, particularly since writers don’t often do such things.

SO: You know, it’s one big collaboration, really—editing an anthology. For me, that was one of the most exciting aspects of the work. I’d been exploring the idea of artistic and writerly collaboration in many different ways these past few few years—I wrote a collaborative digital novella with Alice Sola Kim (CLEAN, commissioned by WeTransfer and McSweeney’s) and at the same time started writing a linked story collection with Nelly Reifler, and these two projects sort of marked a new fixation in my writing life. I started to think about the unique possibilities inherent in such endeavors, about the fact that they yield works that neither writer would have made on her own, and also about how much fun they are. And there are so many different models you can create, infinite ways to do it. Each collaborative project I’m at work on (six at the moment) employs “collaboration” in a different way.

Indelible started about a year into this obsession, so naturally that’s how I conceptualized it: a new collaboration! I didn’t even know back then just how true that was going to be. This goes to my earlier point about what being an editor on such a project actually entails: I’ve been collaborating with so many people! The writers, of course, and the team at McSweeney’s, and the publicist, but also many people across the country who agreed to read in one of our events or volunteered to organize a reading. I find collaborative setups extremely inspiring—working with other writers and artists toward a common goal gives me a creative charge like nothing else. And at the risk of sounding sentimental, it also gives me hope.

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