Megan Ross is a writer, journalist and poet from the Eastern Cape. Her work has appeared in New Coin, New Contrast, Prufrock, Aerodrome, Itch and in several award-winning collections and anthologies. She is the winner of the Brittle Paper Literary Award for Fiction, and also the second runner up of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize, for her short story, ‘Farang’. She is a Miles Morland Writing Scholarship shortlistee. In 2016 she travelled to Reykjavik as the first-ever winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. Megan is most herself when she is in the Indian Ocean. Her debut poetry collection, Milk Fever, is forthcoming from uHlanga. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and Megan recently discussed ‘Eye Teeth’, the body as memory, and subverting the patriarchy.
‘Megan Ross’s ‘Eye Teeth’ is a lyrical psalm of recovery written from the worst type of betrayal. This story reminds one that abuse all too frequently takes place in the home, by those we know and love. At a deeper level, this story is a rewriting of a trauma narrative by a narrator who reclaims the geography of her body, effecting both a re-imaging and a re-imagining of her past.’
You planted a question (or several questions) at the heart of your commended story ‘Eye Teeth’: how to speak the unspeakable? Did clarity come with the writing? Or did you have an idea of how you’d proceed?
I think because my process in life and in writing is rushing straight to the heart of things, which I think I do unapologetically, because it’s so personal, and so urgent a task for me, that clarity did arrive, eventually, mostly because it had to. Something cannot be spoken if it is unspeakable, but perhaps it can be shown, in another way, find life in new forms. I think this was where the tattoos came in. They are not just images: she specifically used motifs and scenes from her past that came to symbolize the horror she couldn’t verbalise, a private language she wrote across her body, with care and love. No matter how difficult it is to confront, my protagonist finds release, and nourishment, in realizing what has really happened to her, what her father has been doing, all these years, which has been blanketed by the gauze of denial, and of course, a life of being gaslit. I wrote the germ of this story years ago, and returned to it just last year, when the series of vignettes became known to me.
The story, about abuse so very much in the news, is also a reflection on memory. Can you tell us a little more about your understanding of memory, and concepts of time, ways in which memory is recreated as words, or images, and how memory is central to this story?
The idea of dipping into and out of the past came naturally to me because I find that time is most days, more circular than linear. The past is always very much disrupting and interacting with the present, which impacts on the future. I wanted to explore the idea of memory being its own entity, a ghost almost, but more living than that, something embodied, in the way that we carry our memories with us, our pasts are always present, in our bodies, in our minds, we take our emotional and psychic baggage along with us into every relationship, into every exchange with people. We also know that childhood trauma impacts the memory quite significantly, and anyone with PTSD will understand how a traumatic event is not returned to us as a flashback, as it is explained, but that the traumatic event is very much relived.
So there is this idea, for me at least, that until something is properly dealt with, which I am not sure is actually possible, by the way, that it will return, again and again, not as a reminder, but as itself. I myself have given birth only once, but I have relived its scariest moments many times: in the bank, in bed, in restaurants, in moments when I’d rather be doing anything but having a PTSD flashback. And during those moments it is not a flashback, perhaps that would be a comfort for people who experience them. No, it’s very much the moment, the hour, the day itself being reborn. So, for my protagonist at least, there is this sense of legitimizing her own passages of time, as circuitous as they are, with signposts and symbols personal to her, that form part of her own mental and emotional constellations.
You talk of the body’s memory too, ‘memory lives in the bloodstream’. Do you believe that memory is stored in the cells?
I think that if one has experienced a traumatic event, and has or has had PTSD, then we can really agree that memory is a very physical thing, at times. Certainly an experience can be lived countless times over a lifetime, simply because the body refuses to forget something that perhaps someone would rather not confront. But that’s the nature of abuse, and of being abused: there is sadly no escape. At some point, no matter how deeply trauma is buried, it will arrive, and demand to be felt and acknowledged. I was speaking to a friend who is a neuroscientist, and he was explaining how every single thing someone does, feels, thinks, believes, can be brought back to neuroscience, to the brain.
We know that events that occur at certain points in a baby or child’s life can impact their psychological health later on, perhaps precipitating a predisposition to being on the schizophrenic or mood disorder or autism spectrums. So in terms of memory being stored in the cells – there is definitely evidence to prove how memories both positive and negative will affect the chemistry, and makeup of some of the body’s most important cells, which is difficult for some people to understand because we still view so much of emotional and mental health as being these ethereal concepts quite detached from the body. Which they really aren’t. Serotonin and dopamine are physical, depression is physical: these are all events that take place within the body.
You talk of the body as an archive, of writing experience, over the experience already stored in the body’s memory. What do you mean by that?
The body already has its scars: its pains. It doesn’t lie. For instance, if you’re around someone who you don’t trust, you might tell yourself you’re being silly but you may experience a really visceral reaction to them – an aversion to their touch, a need to cross one’s arms over one’s body when they move closer. So, there is this intimate, instinctual knowledge that our bodies possess, an intuition that we should heed more often than not, and so writing the body is really narrating what is already playing out in the form of physical sensations; acknowledging that yes, this person gives me the grils, here I am, writing to that, and yes, this person hurt me, here lies my hurt, in the belly ache I get when I know I’m going to see them, in the inexplicable headaches I have before this meeting. Here I am, honouring that, by giving it verbal and written expression, by articulating it. I think great relief and catharsis comes from finally listening to one’s body.
My own experience with self-harm has taught me that sometimes inflicting physical pain on one’s self, and leaving a scar, creating a physical site for emotional trauma, is powerful, and addictive, because it feels healing somehow. In the same way that a tombstone can be a site for mourning, a place to locate and cement one’s grief, probably because, as I said in a prior answer, we still view so much of our emotional lives as being nebulous and untethered from the body. I don’t want to link tattoos to self-harm in any way, but I think what is interesting about creating a permanent web of images on one’s body, is that they are a private and wholly personal superstructure that command one’s body, that change its appearance and perhaps create for someone a stronger tie to their body, to their experience of it. Perhaps externalizing values and beliefs and memories that might not otherwise be known to anybody else, were they not plainly visible.
“I use writing to make sense of my life, and my past. The body is an archive, of writing experience, over the experience already stored in the body’s memory.”
The protagonist remaps her body with tattoos in order to tell her story and to reimagine her past. The reader is treated to a masterful insight into the artistry inherent in the process of creating tattoos. Do you have tattoos? Did the experience of having tattoos etched under skin influence the writing of this story?
Funnily enough, I don’t have a single tattoo, but my boyfriend is a tattoo model, and so I’ve watched as his body has become this incredible expression of his life over the last decade. He is also the father of my child and so the experience of his body is intrinsic to how I have experienced my own body; perhaps this is why tattoos interest me so much. Maybe if I had my own I wouldn’t be as fascinated by them, but being a voyeur in this instance, of his and my sister’s tattoos, and what they have meant to both these very significant people in my life, who have shaped me so much, influenced the way I wrote the story, and how I knew I might create these homing beacons for my character, who feels lost in her own histories, and needs some kind of lighthouse to guide her back to her sanity, to her sense of self. Which is not to define tattoos in this single light, far from it; but rather, I thought it an interesting way, and perhaps a method of creating understanding, and initiating healing, that I could get on board with, being a visual person who also very much admires the artistry of tattooing and the beauty of permanently altering one’s appearance.
In what way is this a process of reclamation? Is it possible to reclaim the body from trauma?
Tattoos, for my protagonist, are a way of making her body her own, and changing how it looks, as well, transforming it from the naked naiveté of its childhood incarnations to this vessel that is more in line with her spirit, using images from her past that are so vivid, and immediate to her, that they become this comforting armour when she wraps them around her body. Talismanic, in a way. Certainly I think she feels that she has taken steps to reclaiming her body from her father, whose distortion of her childhood, and body, and sexuality cannot be erased, but, perhaps, can be set apart from her. She steals her body back from his gaze: I think she manages to view her body away from his terrible, powerful gaze, and begin working against its distortions. The tattoos are another skin, a new body, as if she shed the old one to which so much happened, growing into this new, albeit scarred body, in terms of its history, that gives her confidence.
I think one of the most terrible things about being abused or hurt is that one loses one’s sense of self; it’s either distorted or simply lost, and a lot of people spend years trying to figure out who they are, why they have been hurt, if they are deserving of love, how to treat people with kindness when you have not always received it yourself, and it means that knowing what you want, what you like, your ambitions, your dreams, your goals, your talent, it all takes a back seat, because you’re just trying to survive. Knowing that you can choose, that you can have likes and dislikes and interests, that you can create a life very different to the one thrust upon you, takes a long time to understand, and accept.
Can you comment about feminism in your work in general, and the way women articulate pain?
My feminism and my writing cannot be separated. I believe that in writing – in bringing my subjective experience into the world – I am subverting the patriarchy. Writing is resisting silencing, and writing about the things that I want to: girlhood, womanhood, motherhood, the body, themes that are considered to be ‘domestic’ when written by women, are my own particular stake in the fight against the male gaze, in fighting for my right to express myself and to articulate freedoms and beauty and pain and wonder that are particular to me, to young girls, to women, to mothers. I feel fortunate to write and have my work recognised without having to use a male pseudonym, and in that way I am always amazed by the way in which women artists articulate pain: there is always such inventiveness, and creativity, and almost cruel incisiveness. Women have largely not had the luxury of articulating pain without being pathologised for it. And I still feel that now, very much. But I think that things are changing, and looking at the crop of young writers and visual artists that are rising to the fore on this continent, there is certainly not only a wealth of talent amongst women and non-binary artists, but an ambition, and single-mindedness, and sense of community that is making it possible for many, many more people to create.
What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?
I’m just going to drop one of the old clichés which has served me well the last two years, which is: persist. Through every heartbreak, through every shitty story, shitty rejection, shitty everything, persist. Keep writing. Never stop. If you want this, then you’re going to get your heart broken a couple times and it does every writer good to grow as thick a skin as humanly possible and keep focused on the end goal. Which is personal to every writer. Persist through trying times with your notebook in hand, and write all the junk out of your system, keep writing and writing and don’t feel like you have to publish everything you write because some of it is just the starter and you have to get to the main course, to the dessert, because that’s where the goodness lies, that’s where story is.
So, if you end up with an entire book, be it a novel or short story collection or collection of poetry, and you don’t like it, it’s not the end of you. You’ve just been writing out all the gunk, cleaning house. Write to the end of yourself and you will see that you too are round and the world doesn’t end at the horizon: you can keep sailing and writing and you will eventually, always, reach new land, discover new stories, articulate new truth, find a new way to describe something. It is the most exciting part of writing, this pushing-through, and part of it is being okay with failure, because it’s only by getting through each let down and rejection that we can get to the heart of what it is we’re trying to say, and improve and evolve as artists.