In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Teresa Carmody

by Nov 28, 2023

Scattered cards.

Your beautifully braided nonfiction piece, “Reading the Deck with Zora Neale Hurston,” speaks about the trauma of growing up in a house where you were not accepted. You deftly layer personal details and history lessons, weaving “Their Eyes Were Watching God” throughout. What was the spark that made you blend these together? How did this piece begin?

First, thank you for these questions and the opportunity to speak about this essay; I’m delighted that it’s included in Water-Stone Review, in the company of such fine writers and artists. 

“Reading the Deck” began with reflecting on who and where I was when I first read Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, which was the summer after high school graduation. I was a vibrating shell of unrecognized desire: I didn’t know myself as queer, or that I wanted to be a writer, or that feminism was even a thing. Instead, I had a lot of terrifying and guilt-inducing religious narratives, having been raised both Catholic and Evangelical, with all the spiritual trauma and household warring that implies. Yet I also sensed the world, including earth, as more than “dead” materials or resources, to be conquered and extracted, which is a narrative that serves capitalism and settler colonialism. I had, in other words, an intuition that took years to understand. To find the language for. 

Some of the questions I was thinking about more broadly: How do you open yourself to change? Who do you welcome in as teachers and guides? This essay is part of a larger collection that centers some of the writers and artists who showed me other narratives, other ways to be. 

I love the conversational nature with readers that you carry throughout the text. How did that voice develop?

I experience voice as frequency I tune into. With any piece of writing, my goal is to calibrate toward what is necessary and true, even as I consider writing as a kind of performance in language, with voice. I think of Djuna Barnes (another writer I focus on in this collection) who used to conduct interviews as “Pen Performer.” To me, this is a very exciting—and honest—nom de plume. 

Sometimes, a first sentence will come into my consciousness, as if someone else, or a different part of me, is speaking. This happened with “Reading the Deck,” but that did not mean the essay came easily. I initially drafted it by writing topics or words on a set of notecards, which I drew randomly, like tarot cards, as prompts for freewriting. The first draft was rough and problematic, in part because I wasn’t interrogating my distorted white gaze. A friend (and the wonderful poet), Vidhu Aggarwal, pointed this out, along with some structural issues. Two years and more revisions later, I brought a draft to my writing group, and their feedback and insights helped me to finally land the piece. What I’m suggesting is that the conversational tone may come, in part, from the conversations I was having, literally about and through the writing, for several years. As I like to tell my students: even if we are sitting by ourselves, we do not write alone.

Also, the essay is also about gossip, so maybe it should feel a bit talky!

Looking at your process for a piece of this magnitude, how does the creation, as well as the editing for all the layers, work for you?

This piece includes a lot of research—everything from one of my PhD topics (hello, gossip), to spending a week in Hurston’s archive at the University of Florida. I have taught Their Eyes Were Watching God repeatedly over the past many years, re-reading it every time I do (I also recommend the audio book, narrated by Ruby Dee). In some ways, I see writing itself as a process of layering, fueled by questions you are bringing to the work, and questions posed by the writing. What does the writing require of you? I am obsessed with the relationship between art and life, and much of my work is autotheoretical, so I also keep returning to ways in which the personal and the historical are always entwined. How every life is situated within a particular time and place, and just as political, social, and historical forces shape the physical landscapes we move through, so, too, with our internal landscapes, or imaginations. It is scary and wondrous to realize that our preferences and desires are malleable, even as each person is a unique expression of everything that makes them, from their grandmother’s oocytes to the food they eat and the media they consume. 

I’ve wandered away from your question, I realize, even as this is often how my writing emerges. Slant. 

While some of your deck interjections are based on writings of Butler and Hurston, what was your process in crafting the others?

I read tarot cards as part of a divinatory practice, but you don’t need a tarot deck to read cards. Many people have and do use regular playing cards, which are the cards referenced in Hurston’s song, or rhyme, that runs on the left-side of my essay. The right-side readings, or interjections, are some of my understandings of the cards—yes, in conversation with others, including Butler—but also in conversation with other tarot readers, like the writers Selah Saterstrom, Lou Florez, and Kristen Nelson. To me, cards don’t ‘predict the future’ as much as they signal questions and situations the querent is invited to consider. Today, for example, when I sat with your questions, I pulled the Queen of Swords, which corresponds to the Queen of Spades. I’ve learned the queens as mothers of the deck, the readers, the gate and the one who opens the gate. Swords for intellect, for the quality of air, for articulation. For attuning to intuitive logics set on your higher purpose, or reason of being. I think about adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: your evolution requires speaking yourself into existence, but also speaking your fears or bad programming into view. Which brings me to your next question…

I love how you talk about internalized misogyny and your story of being on a plane with a woman pilot; I had a very similar experience, and had to take a long look at my preconceived notions. How do you break down your misconceptions?

I think misconceptions, including fears, get stored in the body, which means the body is a great source for understanding the many social and cultural beliefs we’ve internalized, including the toxic ones. I mean, if you convince a woman she doesn’t matter and isn’t worth listening to, then she shuts herself up! And isn’t that convenient for white patriarchy?! 

I can know something intellectually, but still hold the lie of misogyny within my body. And it’s a blessing, really, when moments like my experience on the airplane bring such beliefs into awareness, because that’s when you can release or transmute them. One bit at a time. 

The philosopher George Yancy, who I reference in the essay, theorizes similarly around whiteness, which he describes as ‘insidious,’ rooting etymologically through the Latin insidiae, meaning “plot, snare, ambush.” As an antiracist white person, I’m perpetually caught within, and constituted by, the structural and material power of racial hierarchies. I’m paraphrasing Yancy here to note that those moments when my whiteness becomes visible, when I’m ambushed by my whiteness, are also profound moments for shifting misconceptions and harmful beliefs. 

Two more guides in addition to names already mentioned: bell hooks and Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings around non-violent communication. 

“Books are energies we draw to us when we are ready” is a line I absolutely love in here. What other authors, or their writing, bring you that inspiration? 

So many! This particular essay is part of a longer collection that also focuses on Clarice Lispector, Kathy Acker, Audre Lorde, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Tee Corinne, their work and their archives, official and unofficial. These are just some of the artists and writers who have nurtured my artistic, political, and emotional growth over the years. In queer community, we talk about chosen family, often because our bio families refuse us. To me, that chosen family includes friends and the people I read, living and dead. My chosen mothers, and I count Zora Neale Hurston as one of those. 

You have authored Maison Femme: a fiction and Reconception of Marie, among several other books, and your work appeared in numerous literary magazines. Where did your writing journey start?

I kept misreading this question as when, not where, and then resisting it, because I experience writing as beginning again and again, in a time of its own logic, outside of the Gregorian calendar (which I write about in The Reconception of Marie). I’m talking about writing generally, the way we are scripted and then, with grace and in dialogue with others, re-vision that script, repeatedly. And I’m also thinking about the experience of writing something specific, how a particular story or essay or novel unfolds in its own time, sometimes quickly, but sometimes over the course of many years.

To get to where: I was living in the Pacific Northwest, in Olympia, WA, when I gave myself, internally, to writing, deciding to study this art and to cultivate a writing practice, as more important than any day job. For me, the where of writing continues to be deeply internal, a site for the liberatory and radical work of reclaiming the imagination.

What writing are you doing now? What’s your next big project?

I’m finishing revisions on my next book: A Healthy Interest in the Lives of Others, forthcoming from Autofocus Books in 2024. It’s a novel-in-stories, or collection of autofictions, about Marie, the same-ish character in Maison Femme: a fiction and The Reconception of Marie. These three Maries share many qualities, friends, and background stories, but the form, tone or atmosphere, and even some of her specifics, shift from book to book, like how bodies change. To me, this is a question about auto-bio writing, what it means to “write a life.” 

I often think about the book as a body, with its spine and feet-notes and head-er. And then the experience of knowing one’s consciousness, in some kind of steady or familiar way, even as the body changes, ages, sprouts pubic hair and later, bags beneath the eyes. But there is still the five-year-old inside you, and you knew yourself then, and you know yourself now. Differently but the same.

I’m trying to write that. 


Teresa Carmody (she/they) is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, inter-arts collaborations, and hybrid forms. She is the author of three books: The Reconception of Marie (2020), Maison Femme: A Fiction (2015), and Requiem (2005). A collection of autofictions, A Healthy Interest in the Lives of Others, is forthcoming. Carmody is a co-founding director of Les Figues Press in Los Angeles. She teaches in the Writer’s Workshop and low-residency FMA program at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

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