Thursday, August 11, 2011

Melanie Rae Thon: Catalytic Convergence

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Melanie Rae Thon, author of In This Light: New & Selected Stories (Graywolf Press) discusses "dreaming the lives of" others through the stories she writes.

Stories are catalytic convergences. Fears, obsessions, haunting images begin to leak from my subconscious mind into my waking experience. I lived in Boston for many years, worked as a waitress and then an adjunct instructor. My “apartment” was an attic room without insulation. I froze in winter, fried in summer. Still I knew how lucky I was to have shelter, food, a job, a doctor. I walked everywhere, miles and miles every day, through all parts of town, tame and dangerous, in all kinds of weather. I encountered the homeless, the poor, the extravagantly wealthy, the addicted, the recently immigrated, the excessively educated. 

One brutal winter, a storm surged up the coast every weekend. I lost power for days at a time. Pigeons flapped at my dark windows. I walked. And there they were: the kids, throwaways and runaways, the unloved and unlucky. The emaciated Haitian refugee shivered in Harvard Square, playing his guitar, trying to earn a few dollars. He was a brilliant musician, but his eyes were yellow where they should have been white.  I thought he would die soon. The man with no fingers slept in a doorway and could barely move; as I passed, he opened his bare palm and lurched toward me.

Cold and poor, yes, I was—but also ridiculously privileged.

Then I got sick, really sick, with a life-threatening illness that remained undiagnosed for over two years. I lost thirty pounds; my strong body withered, suddenly weak, feeding on its own muscle. My eyes bulged—yes, just like all the  “crazy street people.” I quivered all the time; my heart hammered so fast and hard I could see it thumping through my skin. I woke tangled in my sheets, drenched from night sweats.

Working became more and more challenging. By then I was an adjunct instructor teaching four classes a semester at three different schools. I couldn’t think. My skittery body mirrored my jagged mind. I was too fragile and weird to get a job as a waitress. I saw, I felt, I knew how easy it would be to lose everything. 

The lives of the people I saw on the street became vivid to me, intensely personal. I began to imagine how those children might survive, who they might love, why they were out there. I began composing  “Nobody’s Daughters,” dreaming the lives of Nadine and Emile. 

In all my stories, the lines between victims and perpetrators blur. The homeless kids in “Xmas, Jamaica Plain”  commit the crime of breaking and entering, but their survival on the streets of Boston depends on their acceptance of the fact that they must allow themselves to be exploited.   

Every piece in the collection can be traced backward into mystery: a rupture in my intimate life  (illness, injury, guilt, loss, transcendent love, exceptional mercy) compels me to imagine another person’s experience with greater curiosity and compassion and wonder. Anna Deavere Smith says she recognizes the gap between herself and the people she represents in her plays. The thrill of the experience for writer or actor, viewer or reader, is to move into that space, to become other than oneself while still acknowledging and respecting the infinite unknowable mystery of every other living being.

I love working in that space. I know I am not  “Nadine” or “Raymond” or “Margalit,” but the research I’ve done for every line of every story, the fever and joy of imaginative compassion, the search for each speaker’s particular poetry, the wild immersion in the sensuous magic and creative abundance of every environment and every experience has freed me from the limits of  myself.

There is no such thing as  “I.” 

Rumi says: “You become bewildered; then suddenly love comes saying, ‘I will deliver you this instant from yourself.’”

We are all capable of moving outside the boundaries of our isolated “identities.” Those identities are false constructions that inhibit our capacity for love. My work makes me less afraid, and for me this is its ultimate  “purpose.” Love pours through the fiction and rises out of it. I live differently in the world because of the stories I’ve told. This freedom is the adventure I find endlessly exhilarating.