Night Bloom : Writing Memoir

“Mary Cappello’s NIGHT BLOOM affirms the memoir’s radical potential.”

Edvige Giunta, Italian Americana

Memoir is about memory and its vicissitudes, and the reason I read other people’s memoirs is that I long to know how other people have marshaled the resources at their disposal to re-invent the relationship between past and present… I think that there are special narrative challenges that gay and lesbian, bi and transgender writers face that have to do with this imperative to disclose, and I think the discourse of disclosure, so to speak, limits the ways in which we can talk about our sexuality, or, if you will, “remember” it. Memoir makes sense to me as a form for queer writers because I think we are very much engaged in a collective remembering, and the kind of remembering we’re doing, which goes against the grain of dominant ideology, requires new forms.

“On Writing a Memoir,”
Mary Cappello for Dickinson Magazine, Winter 1999

How did you become interested in writing?

My mother, Rosemary Cappello, is a deep reader and a poet, and I was greatly influenced by her and by her father, a shoemaker who was also a closeted writer and who taught me how to play mandolin. I was aware of the power and beauty of my mother’s voice from a very early age, and beyond that, of the role that reading and writing played quite literally in her survival. A certain relation to language, a reverence for the power of words, a love of the transformative potential of literature was bequeathed me by people like my mother and grandfather. But I was also lucky to have special teachers like Eileen and Jerry Spinelli. Eileen, a friend of my mother’s who lived in the same neighborhood, used to organize poetry writing sessions for children totally out of the generosity of her heart. Those sessions with Eileen in quiet meditation, with her special guidance and patience were invaluable in fostering the idea of the writer in me. Her husband (though he wasn’t her husband at the time), Jerry, took a special interest in me and encouraged me to write as well. He helped me to understand myself as both an athlete and an artist–he helped me to see that those identities weren’t antithetical. Eileen and Jerry went on to become award-winning authors of children’s and adolescent fiction.

When did you become interested in writing a memoir?

For much of my career as an academic, I produced scholarly articles with my poetry writing always happening “on the side,” so to speak. At a certain point, about eight years ago, I realized that poetry and scholarly writing needn’t be mutually exclusive entities, activities, or discourses. In fact, a problem within academic writing became more and more clear to me and it was this: that within my field, epistemological shifts were taking place but without a concomitant shift or radical change in form. When we look in the direction of the history of art or at theories of social change, we can’t help but see that formal changes occur simultaneous with changes in epistemological regimes. But in my discipline, though the questions we ask about literature are not the same questions we were asking ten years ago, or even two years ago, the essays that we write to express those ideas and secure our position within the institution haven’t really changed a wink. If we haven’t changed our mode of address, I asked myself, can we really claim to have new ideas? Can we really claim to have achieved all of the undermining of humanistic assumptions that we hope to? I began, then, to try to tempt the form of the scholarly essay into different permutations which basically meant for me trying to create polyphonic rather than univocal texts, and trying to bring different knowledges into play with each other. The synthesis that emerged for me was a newfound interest in working in what is now being called “creative non-fiction.” Ideally in this kind of writing (for me) the scholarly and the poetic voice are not antithetical (as they are imagined to be in an anti-intellectual culture such as ours). They enable one another, do battle with one another, and make possible a new voice in the space between. Prior to writing the memoir, I had in mind a collection of multi-genre essays. Several editors at both academic and mainstream presses saw in the essay collection the seeds of a memoir, or a memoir in the making. I liked the challenge that the memoir could pose for me. It helped me to see that what I had in mind didn’t have to be conceived as discrete parts but more like a highly orchestrated narrative song. The resulting book, Night Bloom, which was guided over time in dialogues with a very talented editor at Beacon, Deb Chasman, is, I like to think, a long poem.

Why memoir and not a fictionalized account of your life?

The lines between fiction and memoir I think are very thin. It’s a subject for much debate. To my mind, the memoir is a fiction but with a very specific theme — memory itself. For me, the memoir is a story about memory. Memoir is about memory and its vicissitudes, and the reason I read other people’s memoirs is that I long to know how other people have marshaled the resources at their disposal to re-invent the relationship between past and present.

The other important consideration though for choosing right now between writing fiction or memoir is that (right now) memoir as a form is poised to reach a wider readership. And one of the reasons for this is not a very good one — it’s that we live in an anti-intellectual culture and we live in a Talk Show culture. People may be more likely to read memoirs than fiction right now because they think they won’t be challenged as much by a memoir, and because there is a collective craving for gathering as spectators at the site of other people’s traumas that readers hope for memoir to fulfill. This might be just enough of a reason for a serious writer to write a memoir. It’s an opportunity to crash a popular genre, and to bend it to do things that it is not supposed (in its popular manifestation) to do. How else can I put this? Consider how little is actually said or shared about the labors and machinations of our inner lives in a culture dominated by the confessional mode of the Talk, Talk, Talk Show. Perhaps the contemporary memoir, as antidote to the Talk Show, needs to dislocate what’s come to be thought of as the ‘personal’ precisely so that we can begin to speak to each other. Recently, a friend of mine who is a first generation Sicilian/american made a trip back to Sicily for the first time in eight years. Her daughter, who is eight years old, made the journey with her. The eight year old American had two things to say about her experience of Sicily when asked: “I got squooshed a lot,” she said, meaning everyone she came into contact with her hugged her, and “It’s the largest country in the world. There are more people there than anywhere in the world.” What I think the child observed was a crucial difference between Sicily and the US: perhaps people in Sicily connect, talk in the marketplace, meet, whereas in the US, people mall, meander in the mall, but ultimately know very little about their fellow mallers. Thus in the US, you can be in a densely populated place and still feel as though there are not people there. Perhaps the memoir at its best can treat this condition: what ails the social body.

Another very important reason for my decision to work with memoir right now has to do with my being a lesbian. Or, to put it differently, has to do with an acute realization of the oppressive uses (for both straight and gay identified people) to which sexual definitions are put in modern culture. Because memoir in its contemporary incarnation tends to reify the confessional mode, it’s important for queer memoirists to try to write anti-confessional memoirs. If any memoir needs to resist the confessional mode it is the queer memoir, for the discourse of sexuality and the confessional work hand in hand in our culture, and, as such, the confessional prevents us from saying what might need to be said about our sexuality. Submitting one’s story to a confessional mode also makes it more likely for a reader to diagnose one’s story’s subject. Queer memoirs should refuse to confess. There is nothing to confess. As a lapsed Catholic, I try daily at least to exit the confessional if I cannot burn it to the ground. So the memoir poses very important questions and narrative challenges to me as a lesbian narrator: Is it possible to narrate sexuality, especially when that sexuality is a prohibited one, without reproducing a discourse of disclosure, causality, or defensiveness against pathologization? Is it possible for the memoir to be the vehicle for the grieving in the age of AIDS, the grief that our culture daily denies? How does one write of those one has lost without losing them again to the vortex of sentimentality, the flat trap of obituary, the stationary enclosure of eulogy?

I think that there are special narrative challenges that gay and lesbian, bi and transgender writers face that have to do with this imperative to disclose, and I think the discourse of disclosure, so to speak, limits the ways in which we can talk about our sexuality, or, if you will, “remember” it. Memoir makes sense to me as a form for queer writers because I think we are very much engaged in a collective remembering, and the kind of remembering we’re doing, which goes against the grain of dominant ideology, requires new forms.

One way I tried to tackle the question of disclosure in my memoir was to resist telling a “coming out” story. Rather than treat sexuality as a dirty secret, I constructed sexuality as a series of identifications capable of creating new forms of love. Lesbianism then in these terms is actually something I learned from my presumably straight family; I imitated their models of love.

I have to say that my thinking on the matter of how to represent sexual identity has also been influenced by the films of independent filmmaker Todd Haynes, and in particular, his most recent film, Safe, because what’s groundbreaking about that film, to my mind, is that rather than try to make a “mimetic” or “representational” depiction of , in this case, a person afflicted with AIDS, he’s made a film about the narrative templates that a person with AIDS is offered for telling and therefore “being” who s/he is. According to this film, the narrative options offered by this culture (narratives of safety, protection, and disclosure that pretend to immunize some people and not others) are quite impoverished ones, to say the least. To give another example of what I have in mind: when I was asked once to write an essay about being a lesbian of Italo-american descent, I chose to organize the essay around the lines of the prayer recited in the Catholic confessional because I knew that if I contemplated that prayer and the ways in which it continued to narrate who I was (even though I was no longer a practicing Cathlolic), this would give a truer depiction of the contours of my ethnic/sexual identity than a coming out story would. On a practical level, what this approach demands of a memoirist is that, instead of turning in the direction of the “self,” we turn in the direction of the discourses that comprise the self, in order to expose, exploit, and hopefully, revise those narratives.

What is the focus of your memoir? Is it the memoir of a childhood, or a sort of memoir of a family?

My memoir is not a chronological account of a life. It’s not so much a memoir of a “time,” though periodicity and temporality do play a part–they must. It’s not a linear narrative because I wanted to resist the notions of determinism (always ideologically driven) that come along with linearity.

It’s a memoir of a family, the family’s dreamspaces (their gardens) and a memoir of the emergence of the family’s witness, the person poised both inside and outside the family to “read” it. I was very interested in the idea of what our families (metaphorically) bequeath us, what we take from them, what we want to take, what they gave without their knowing it, the things my family gave and made but failed to value, or whose value was refused by a foreign culture: musical compositions and aphorisms, night-flowering cacti and rosaries, letters, decorated gourds, conversation, home movies. But, and I think this is really important, the memoir isn’t meant to stay within the confines of my family or something like an impenetrable personal space. At its best, my memoir is a memoir of class, class mobility, and the violence created by class distinction.

It’s a memoir of a set of questions like: In what sense can we claim our memories as our own? Why are some family members more than others bequeathed a family’s traumatic reminiscence? How do forms of making aid in the process of mourning?

Last but not least, as a telling of unsung lives, it’s a memoir driven by the desire to make the life of my grandfather, a self-described “obscure cobbler,” matter, literarily and politically.

You are using your grandfather’s journals and your mother’s poetry in your memoir. How does the use of their words affect the telling of the story?

In the acknowledgements to Night Bloom, I say: The rhythms of my mother’s poems, which I, from an early age, memorized, are the heartbeat of the sentences herein. I use the work of my grandfather and mother to orchestrate three generations of voices that are exquisitely in tune and horrifyingly dissonant at the same time.Working with my grandfather’s journals posed a special problem because they are bi-lingual and I don’t read Italian. Reading them I was ever encountering this great cultural loss. But the positive upshot was that that forced me to share his work with others who could translate and that led to a dialogue on the work with people not in the family. I use my grandfather’s work in some ways to understand the conditions of my mother’s life. The way that their words affect the telling of the story is in the timbre of the voices and in the nature of what they observe. I was struck by how some trying aspects of the life my grandfather describes haven’t changed in four generations, but I was also trying to learn to see in the visions that both my mother and grandfather create. The voice of the book is maybe an amalgam of these voices: I’m trying to hear their voices with as much clarity as possible at the same time that I’m trying to create a new unheard, unspoken voice. A
voice of what generations could not say.

How did you come to be a student at Dickinson College?

My path to Dickinson was pretty much carved out of two distinct influences: inspiration and material conditions. Not many people in the working class suburb of Philadelphia where I grew up went to college, and I was more or less clueless about where I might apply, though I knew that I wanted to go to college. One day I asked my most inspiring High School English teacher where she went to school–she had a wonderful openness about her, she was a bit of an iconoclast, and she treated her students like people with vast, vast potential of mind and soul. Of course I wanted to emulate her. Her name was Anne Devenney; she was a Dickinson grad. She was the primary reason that I applied to Dickinson. Dickinson also generously offered me a number of scholarships, and I was accepted into the Nisbet Scholars program as a freshman which really appealed to me. In some ways, my memoir answers the question of how I came to be a student at Dickinson insofar as it tries to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t, no one in my neighborhood was expected, to enter higher education.

Did you write while you were at Dickinson? And, were there any professors here who worked with you on your writing?

I wrote my heart out while I was at Dickinson. Mostly I wrote poetry–at least one poem a day, sometimes more. I was introduced to the personal/critical essay by a visiting professor named Masud Farzan. In my memoir, I say this about him: “My favorite English professor was an Arab Sufist who, rather than order books for the class, told us to sit silently, then wait for a door to open.”

I also learned a great deal from Kerry Keyes, who at that time was an adjunct creative writing teacher at Dickinson. I wasn’t mature enough, not really ready yet to take criticism about my poetry so I actually never took a course with Kerry, but I learned from him informally and he became an important guide and friend. I would also say that I certainly learned to write from the reading that I did with the great professors of literature at Dickinson. There is no such thing as a writer who isn’t a reader, and writers learn to write as much from reading as they do from the practice of writing and re-writing. Professor David Kranz’ class on psychoanalytic approaches to Shakespeare influenced my development as a writer as much as any writing class did because it opened me to a way of thinking and imagining that continues to play a profound role in my own art-making, as well as in the cultural criticism that I write.

For that matter, I don’t think that learning to write is restricted to what happens in writing courses. I believe that my development as a writer was influenced as much by chemistry courses, art history courses, and certainly courses in other languages. The professors from whom I learned in such courses at Dickinson were all outstanding.