As part of Canisia Lubrin’s (Dis)Order: The Single Question Series, Simone Dalton answers a single question about her work.
Q: Writing converges different forms of knowing in ways that allow for the possibilities of knowledge to become particularly expansive because this seems to require listening for what is unknown to us. There exists a vitality that moves a thing from language to idea to fully-realized act. We mostly call such a thing vision, which implies form—whether poetry, fiction, stage play, etc.—and an amalgamation of copious other factors. What does this convergence mean for you as a memoirist—particularly in the context of your publication “Undersigned” in The Unpublished City anthology?
I had to re-read “Undersigned” to properly consider this convergence. At first, I felt exposed, having to move through each line in this new present, while trying to hold on to what I thought were my original perceptions. I realized that it’s as much a story about love as it is about failure. The protagonist, Sa’nia, fails at the task of writing her mother a letter about her new lover. Her vision goes unrealized, if you will.
That was the easy part to write. I know that failure intimately, what it feels like, sounds like, looks like. It even has a taste—it’s the sort of salty-but-sweet bite of tears that puddle at the corners of your mouth when you are both afraid and sad. It’s actually interesting to read the word “memoirist” within the context of “Undersigned.” I want to call it autobiographical fiction, which is how I describe most of my non-memoir writing, but, in the piece, the lines of genre are not just blurred. They bleed into each other.
It was hard to write the parts of Sa’nia that demonstrated her failure to try and make sense of her situation. Therefore, I think the free-flowing nature of much of the piece was my attempt at making meaning of the parts of her life that break open failure’s radical teachings. This is maybe where the convergence happens. Or is it more of an amalgamation? With Sa’nia, the readers go from the mundane to the meditative; from the hot cup of coffee to her fear that her mother will reject her for loving a woman. Establishing the setting felt like the most natural place to start the journey because sometimes you have to look at something else to see what you actually need or want to find. So, I closed my eyes and sat with Sa’nia in the coffee shop. I needed to feel the chair she chose to sit in, to feel her fingers nervously drum the coffee cup, to see the empty page of her notebook. And while my eyes were closed, so, too, were hers as she remembered her first date with D, the first time they made love. These are things I imagine a playwright might do. You are often taught about the importance of a memoirist’s use of fictional techniques, such as the vividness of character, powerful dialogue, and scene work. All three of those can be summed up as drama. In this way, the process is sometimes like writing a play for me.
I know that failure intimately, what it feels like, sounds like, looks like. It even has a taste—it’s the sort of salty-but-sweet bite of tears that puddle at the corners of your mouth when you are both afraid and sad.
I was constantly trying to push my capacity to think about Sa’nia’s interaction with the physical things in her present. It gave me a way into her world and how she saw her life within it. Looking at the physical, emotional, and even spiritual, enabled me to layer meaning.
Ultimately, I hoped that readers might see and feel something for her, or within themselves, that went beyond the words on the page.
The last thing I’ll say is that I’m learning, as a memoirist, how to linger: how to get comfortable with my vulnerabilities, so that I can write about them. Whether I’m working on fiction that leans toward the autobiographical or a true-to-life story, I’m writing about being human. It’s a disclosure of self. Failure is a big part of that. So, too, is love.