Read A F*cking Book Club: Talking with Ariel Gore About “We Were Witches”

Last month I told you to read We Were Witches and promised it would leave you spellbound.

Well? What did you think? Was I right? Did you devour the whole book in one sitting? Did you laugh out loud sometimes? And did you cry? Were you angry? And what about Maia?! She was my favorite character – who was yours?

On Wednesday night I held an IRL book club in my living room and seven queer humans showed up and we made a fire and ate snacks and talked about this book together and it was dreamy – we all took so many different things away from this downright magical novel. Let’s recreate that vibe and discuss everything in the comments together today. Tell me what you loved, what you’re still processing, what made you sad, and what made you grab a pencil for underlining purposes.

IRL Read A F*cking Book Club: Julia, Marine, Ashley, Allyson, Alley, Nikki, Angela // photo by Vanessa

But first, a special treat – Ariel Gore was kind enough to chat with me about genre, memoir and fiction and where we find Truth with a capital T, feminist texts, magic, and so much more. Enjoy the Ariel Gore Autostraddle Interview and then dive into the comments to get this book club started! I’ve got a pot of tea and a plate of cookies – I could sit and chat with you about this book, my favorite one of the year I think! – all damn day.

We Were Witches is such a great mixture of memoir, fiction, and magical realism. Was that genre-defying combination premeditated, or a natural result of the story you’re telling?

It came together that way. I started with a few more traditional memoir vignettes, but then I got interested in this idea of inverting Freytag’s Pyramid. As a young, single mom, I was handed one narrative. As a queer woman I was handed one narrative. So my life, and this book, are kind of parallel literary tricks I’m using to write myself different stories. One trick is being a working writer. The other trick is the book itself.

Most of us have something in our lives that we’ve been handed a limiting or singular narrative about, and we have to be pushy and creative and ambitious and playful if we want to write ourselves a different story.

Ariel seems to be both you but also not-you. What did that approach — fiction and/or memoir, but only sometimes — allow you to explore that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to?

What’s true in the book is that it expresses exactly what it’s like to be in my head and in my body. So the character is me — the nervousness I feel when I interact with other people sometimes, the sense of being simultaneously enraged and introverted, the shock of experiences that became actual scars, the depth of my love and respect for my kid. But I re-dreamed so many of the scenes — and the chronology — and the other characters — I let it be a novel.

Michelle Tea’s Black Wave came out when I was finishing the first draft of We Were Witches, and she explores the self-as-protagonist-in-fiction question in really interesting ways in that book. I’d read Anna Joy Springer’s The Vicious Red Relic, Love, a couple of years earlier and I was inspired by the idea of “A Fabulist’s Memoir.” Then of course there was Audre Lorde’s original 1982 classic Zami, which she called “biomythography.” Someone sent me that book when I was pregnant and it became a dream to make something like that. Jorge Luis Borges has a trope in some of his stories where he clearly meets himself at a different age. So this is a style many writers — particularly queer and POC writers — have been working with for a long time. Maybe for always. Re-dreaming the self.

I think there’s more mainstream acceptance of this kind of hybridity in poetry and the visual arts. When we read a book of poetry or go see a series of paintings an artist has lined up, we’re not really invited to worry about whether the images are “true” in a journalistic way. Prose is funny because it shares a medium with legal documents, so immediately we wonder if this is testimony or art.

The magical realist elements in the book sometimes serve to push the hybridity further, to show emotional truths or to creatively disrupt society’s attempt to impose “normal” onto Ariel and Maia’s little family. In those moments, I was looking for ways to show a deeper, or quicker, or more impactful truth.

Magical realism kind of grew up in post-colonial Latin America and Africa and India and among Native American writers. It’s been explored in feminist literature worldwide — magical feminism. It asks and seeks answers to the question: How do we escape this minefield of white supremacist misogynist rape-culture colonial capitalism and nurture new and radical life? It disrupts the traditional narrative to explore answers.

Several times, you explicitly point out that pieces of the book are not “true” or rather, are not straight memoir. I found it very compelling to do that, and a good reminder that there are ways to tell the truth about something beyond simply saying exactly what happened. Why did you choose to spell things out in that way, and what were you hoping to show?

Along with being interested in inverting Freytag’s pyramid, I got interested in this idea that if we could rewrite fairytales — which was very big in the 90s — then we could rewrite our lives. I wondered, What if the book could become the version of my life in which I didn’t lose my agency? What if I could turn the hard things into art? What if, at least, I could go back as the writer and paint the walls red? I was looking to go back into some of those experiences and retrieve the power I left there.

And I wanted to be transparent about all that. I didn’t know if the genre would be noted on the cover of the book, or what genre we would call it when it all came together, but I wanted to be clear about what I was doing.

In the past, I’ve written memoirs and nonfiction books and short stories and essays and one traditional novel, but now the only genre I want to write is this We Were Witches magical memoirist’s novel genre. Maybe it’s the way Freytag felt when he discovered his phallic pyramid! Like, Aha! At last I have found a way to describe everything in terms of my own orgasm! But for me here now it’s that I’ve found a genre that can hold all my hurts and humiliations and desires and awkwardness and intentions and humor and rage and shame and pleasure and instead of a pyramid, create a kind of active cauldron that can transform all that into power.

In the chapter “Gender Trouble,” you write about wanting to blame men for violence but having to face the fact that the men in your life were not the only violent ones. Can you elaborate on those thoughts?

There was a lot of talk in the early 90s in the circles I moved in about women being the gentler sex. At the same time, there was a complete revolution when it came to public awareness and understanding of domestic violence, but that consciousness was focused on male violence in straight marriages. So a lot of people had this fantasy that if we got rid of men, we’d get rid of violence. And, sure, privilege brings with it a certain kind of training in violence — straight male privilege, white privilege, there’s a social training in both interpersonal and structural violence there. It’s how the power structure is maintained. But it was my mother who first taught me violence. In the tradition of the nuclear family, it’s often the women’s job to pass down and enforce shame. I’d experience violence from women, but I’d also felt violence in my own body — that impulse, when I wasn’t in control of my days, to hit someone. I’ve felt the instinct to shame my children, too, in some twisted effort to protect them from a larger world I worry will be even harsher to them.

If you think of violence as the way we inscribe our power onto another person’s body, we have to acknowledge that women do that, too.

Nonviolence didn’t come to me naturally. I had to make it intentional, like a practice. I had to learn to save my violence for self-preservation, or for protecting the vulnerable, not fall into the urge to lash out at my kids and allies.

Something that has expanded tremendously since the 90s is that more of us see the whole binary gender system as form of violence, so the question becomes not, What do we do about men? But something more like, What would it look like to broadly question the violence of power? Feminism becomes less and less about personal traits we associate with particular genitalia, and more about questioning structural violence and questioning unearned privilege and tending to the shamed and injured parts of each other and ourselves.

One of my favorite chapters is “White-Lady Feminism 101” and I laughed out loud when I got to that page. The single sentence chapter — “Bring a mirror.” — is so loaded and can be read in a variety of ways. How were you hoping readers would interpret it?

Ha, I’m glad you laughed! That’s what I was hoping.

I was talking to a couple of other writers one night and I was like, How am I going to address “white lady feminism?” And Michelle Gonzales cracked up and said, “Call it that!” So I went home and I wrote “White Lady Feminism 101” across the top of a page, probably thinking I would make a grand list, but the first three words I wrote seemed to sum it up pretty well, so I went to bed, laughing and feeling productive at having written a whole chapter.

The mirror is a self-exam mirror, but it might also be a vanity mirror. It’s a tool of self-knowledge and self-care, but also of narcissism. It’s probably even a reference to Snow White now that I think about it. Part of the excitement I felt writing this book was that a lot of these symbols are so much a part of my body that I didn’t have to stop and judge their meaning. Some of the excitement readers share with me if they connect with the book is this sense of their own metaphors being activated. As I wrote, the book itself seemed to have a kind of intrinsic humor to it. I’d write through something traumatic or humiliating or something I was having trouble making sense of, and then, a few lines later or pages later, I’d crack myself up and — poof — that broke the spell.

Feminists get a lot of flack for being humorless, but that’s just because we don’t think brutality is funny. Feminists are hella funny.

You use the word “fat” in a very positive manner in the story, but not in the 2017 body positivity way — rather, it usually has to do with wealth and health. In the chapter “A Closet with a Window in It,” you end with an incantation for you and your daughter: “Let us grow fat.” Can you speak to what the word fat means to you, and why you chose to use it to symbolize wealth and health?

It made me sad when I wasn’t eating because I couldn’t afford food that people would say, “You look great!”

They say that when you’re dying, too.

“Fat” is what we call women who have enough to eat, and I wanted that. I wanted to eat dinner every night. And I wanted to let go of my own internalized idea that femme beauty should suggest the brink of starvation.

Animal imagery is very strong throughout the book. Have you always thought of people as having animal representations, and how did you choose which character would take on which animal?

I think some people have specific animal representations they walk around with. Other people might shift into something to deliver a particular message. And some animals and magical beings that talk to us aren’t people at all.

I felt like Roberta in the book was probably not always possum in her essence, but she was trying to tell Ariel how to survive by laying low.

The red-winged blackbird, on the other hand, I didn’t think of as having a human form at all.

When Adrienne Rich begins to turn into a bird, that felt more specific, like, yes, Adrienne Rich is and was always a bird woman.

But all those scenes are open for interpretation.

Mary TallMountain, a poet-character in the book who was in reality my friend and neighbor in Petaluma in the early 90s, shares a poem with the advice to “interpret signs.” I wanted to show my character, Ariel, trying to take Mary’s advice and interpreting the signs and symbols that surround her. Mainstream storyline says, You’re a high school dropout and teenage welfare mother — that’s it for you, climb this mountain or live a pathetic life. So my character Ariel has to find a magical passageway through a symbolic realm where mainstream logic had no dominion.

You deliberately weave so many different feminist voices into your text in a way that reminds me of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Why was this important to you, and how did you choose what passages to include?

Sometimes when I hear people talk about feminism or the history of feminism, they’re talking about corporate feminism and career-centered feminism, and that wasn’t the feminism I came of age in. I wanted this book to be a nod to my feminist foremothers — the artists and the anti-racists–people who, of course they believed in equity in the workplace, but more than that they were anti-capitalists. They were queer. They were critical of the institutions of marriage and motherhood. They questioned assimilation at every turn. To write some of the chapters in We Were Witches, I’d re-read Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich or an essay in The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader or Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks — all classic nonfiction feminist texts — and I’d write a chapter of my own as a kind of a biomythological letter to that author. Like, I don’t know if this is what you meant, Adrienne or Gloria or bell, but this is what I got from your essay and this is what I found applicable and useful in my life. My previous book, The End of Eve, dug into some of the hard times I had with my biological mother. In joyful contrast, the chapters in We Were Witches became little altars to the foremothers who didn’t shame me.

Is the book itself a spell? What does it conjure? 

Yes! The intention is that it activates the precise metaphors each reader needs activated at the moment of their reading.

What does it release?

You tell me.

Vanessa is a queer feminist writer and photographer currently based in New York. She really misses Portland. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 295 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. I loved this book and it reminded me of The Argonauts, too! Lola is my favorite character. I was happy to see that the protagonist found a community at Mills College. I guess I wouldn’t just assume that any college was a very welcoming place for mothers, even a lesbian college.

  2. This interview is fantastic. It confirms the sense I got from the book that Ariel is a super smart rad lady with a great sense of humor.

    I loved this book so so much. It made me want to pass it around to everyone I know, which is a very specific and rare (and wonderful) feeling for a book to create. It definitely reminded me of both Zami and The Argonauts, and I love that you and Ariel named both of them in this interview. I don’t know if there’s a genre title for books like this and The Argonauts that are sort of a loving homage to the “foremothers”/”many-gendered mothers of my heart” who shaped the feminist-writer into who she is today, but I definitely want to read every book in this genre, whether there’s a name for it or not. I especially appreciated that there was a reading list at the end, and you better believe I immediately bought at least half the books on there that I didn’t already have.

    • yes!! i LOVE that there is a reading list at the end! my IRL book club and i agreed that we want to keep meeting and keep reading books like this one, so we chose a book from the list to meet about in january — we’ll be reader sister outsider by audre lorde together.

      and i agree with you — the genre you’re discussing, while i don’t know what it’s called or if it has a name, is absolutely my favorite genre of all time.

      i’m so glad you liked the book and the interview. it was a JOY to interview Ariel — what an incredible writer and human she is.

  3. I LOVED THIS BOOK (shouty capitals intentional)I’ve already given it to my wife and my best friend. I want every woman I know and love to read this book. Thank you for recommending it. This mattered to me.

    It was exactly what I needed to pull myself out of the “Oh god, he’s been president for a year” depression I found myself in.

    There were so many moments… “Bring a mirror” absolute perfection.

    And it wasn’t until I read “Why They’re Called Spells” at the end of the book, that I realized Maia had been playing with a Speak and Spell throughout the entire book. It would ask her to spell something – she would spell it her own way – the machine would tell her she was wrong – she would laugh. She felt no shame in spelling it her way.

    Thanks again – this was magical.

    • I ALSO LOVED THIS BOOK (and i welcome your shouty all caps!)!!!

      and yes, i had the same reaction re: why they’re called spells/the speak and spell — i didn’t fully realize how perfect it was until the end, and when i did i felt so much joy. fuck shame. bless maia. amen.

    • Ah, nice comment re Speak & Spell. For me, that will always make me think of the Depeche Mode album, and also brings to mind the funny voice it had. So I guess a musical and comedy element?

      And now I’m thinking about why it is we look to machines to validate ourselves… and how Maia knew not to play that game. Great stuff.

  4. This book was so good. I wish I’d copied the reading list before I took it back to the library–anyone know if it’s available online somewhere?

    I read it the week after daylight savings when I was dealing with the beginning of my usual WINTER’S THE WORST feelings. Reading about the way Ariel uses magic and ritual to cope with things gave me the idea to do that for the winter. Have decided this is the year I embrace candles. I love fire, and there’s something especially magical about a candle in the winter.

    Great interview–it made me appreciate parts of the book even more. And resolve to read more like it.

    • I missed this because I was out of town, but I read the book and my copy is due back at the library today. So it feels ordained by the universe that I saw your comment in time to post the reading list before I returned the book. Here you go!

      Ariel by Sylvia Plath
      “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
      The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou
      for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
      Jambalaya by Luisah Teish
      The Book of Sand by Jorge Juis Borges
      Silences by Tillie Olsen
      Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
      Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
      Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich
      Children’s and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm
      Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris by Asti Hustvedt
      The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer
      A Quick Brush of Wings by Mary TallMountain
      Susie Sexpert’s Lesbian Sex World by Susie Bright
      Macho Sluts by Pat Califa
      The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
      Witchcraze: A New History of European Witch Hunts by Anne Llewellyn Barstow
      Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault
      Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria E. Anzaldua
      This Bridge Called My Back by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldua
      The Gloria Anzaldua Reader edited by AnaLouise Keating
      Sun, Moon, and Talia by Giambattista Basile
      Gender Trouble by Judith Butler
      Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks
      Revolutionary Letters by Diane di Prima
      This Kind of Bird Flies Backward by Diane di Prima
      The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
      Naming Our Destiny by June Jordan
      Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
      Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange
      The Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
      The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
      Introduction to Magick by School of Life Design
      Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker
      If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics by Marilyn Waring
      Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
      Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson

    • Yes, I got a similar encouragement to practice my own magic. I mean, I’ve been doing that anyway, so it’s timely in that sense, but all encouragement is welcome for things that don’t follow the standard script.

      Thinking about it, I probably loved the references to magic most of all.

  5. I finished the book yesterday, and I loved it a lot. I really enjoyed the interview as well, and I’m glad I saved it for afterwards: I didn’t want my interpretation to become skewed, and at the same time I’m glad that I arrived more or less at the same place myself.

    I’m chronic for not thinking about structure, or even language, while I read a story, so having it brought up in this one several times really added something. I came out feeling that maybe I could also construct a new mythology for myself, and that maybe I can stop shying away from anything that isn’t strictly a “factual”, journalistic retelling of events. What if I could construct a story like a magick ritual? So there is a lot in here about reclaiming, authorship, the self as artist, which was both articulated and also demonstrated.

    Maia was probably my favourite character too, the way she said just the right thing at the right time was a delight. I cried about this book on public transport, and I laughed out loud too – Feminism 101 made me guffaw for a good five minutes. I can’t think of much higher praise than “this book made me feel things I couldn’t contain”. Oh, except one: I want to re-read it almost right away.

    Thank you Vanessa for a great choice of book and author, and for the interview as well.

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