Hybrid Interview: Gayle Brandeis
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. —CRAFT
“We want you to know how we lived. That we lived. That we were girls
before we were game. That we were alive.”
Essay by Melissa Benton Barker •
Gayle Brandeis’s recent novel-in-verse, Many Restless Concerns (a testimony): The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus, is narrated collectively by the hundreds of working-class girls and women who were murdered by the wealthy, powerful countess Erzebet Bathory over the course of thirty years in sixteenth-century Hungary. In the quote above, the collective narrator refers to herself as game, a double entendre referencing both the girls’ fate as quarry at the hands of the Countess, as well as the age-old “game”—any form of entertainment that uses the bodies of girls and women as objects to be mutilated and murdered in ever-fantastical ways. Throughout Many Restless Concerns, Brandeis refutes this trope by demanding that her reader squarely examine the legacy of violence and disappearance, repeatedly insisting that between the covers of this book, reading is an act of witness rather than entertainment.
Grounded by the specificity of particular lives, and the deaths that silenced them, the novel works on two levels, like the excerpt quoted above. Brandeis’s craft choices—especially her use of the collective voice—allow the story to serve as a liberating proxy voice for centuries of girls and women, including contemporary girls and women, who have been silenced by violence. Brandeis’s experimentation with narrative form enables her to reclaim agency for the untold girls and women who have long been objectified and erased—in this case, literally, by the murdering Countess.
Contemporary pop culture has a hunger for flattening trauma into entertainment, our media rife with titillating and gratuitous stories of women’s suffering, objectification, and death. In contrast, Brandeis’s use of the collective point-of-view returns voice to the silenced. In her recent essay, “There’s Nothing Thrilling About Trauma,” Ingrid Rojas Contreras notes the “source of exhilaration” required by the thriller, arguing powerfully that the thriller, as an easily digestible narrative form, is an inappropriate and ineffective container for traumatic experience. Exhilaration—by definition a feeling of excitement, happiness, elation—cancels empathy, and the legacy of trauma cannot be contained by traditional narrative arc. Empathetic writing calls for innovative narrative forms. Brandeis’s chosen form—prose in verse, collective voice—allows her to delve into traumatic material without flattening it by avoiding a neat and predictable pattern of climax and reconciliation. Many Restless Concerns challenges the performance of women’s bodies as consumable, disposable, and ultimately, destructible objects by creating a space for the reader to act as witness. Bound by a scaffolding of deeply researched period detail and grounded in rich sensory experience, Many Restless Concerns is a guidepost for writers who seek to write about trauma in new ways, an example of the potential of form as experimental terrain, opening space for the subjectivity of the formerly objectified.
We would be mothers
If we were still alive,
(some of us great.)
We would have lived
upon this sweet
would have been
Verse represents the voices of the dead escaped, enabling Brandeis to use visual effects to illustrate the emotional and/or (dis)embodied state of the speaker(s). At times the text moves across the page split into gasps of typeface amidst blank space; other times passages of prose poetry, words packed tightly like a dirge, gather momentum, plowing over the reader. Over the course of the text, the voice centers and merges, growing fierce and strong, until collectivity enables the birth of a new kind of power:
Our edges have gone porous—we find ourselves knowing things we hadn’t before,
pulling from one another’s memory, from the memory of the land below us—
Had we the nerve and unity we now share, we could have used those tools to rise up/against her.
In her January 2020 essay “We Too,” Gayle Brandeis illuminates the power of writing in the collective voice: “We want to give voice to silenced stories, want to expand the idea of what a story can be and who can tell it.” The collective voice that narrates Many Restless Concerns speaks directly to the reader, at times encouraging, pleading, demanding that the reader not turn away from the task of witnessing:
We know this is rough. But you can take it,
It’s only words, yes?
Words can be hard to bear, we know.
Even if you haven’t lived them,
Some words can be hard to bear.
But you can do it.
Other times the voice instructs the reader how they wish to be heard, not as entertaining objects, but as real lost lives:
We will tell you
(it’s part of who we are, part of how we are)
but if that’s all you want to know, don’t waste our time. Leave now.
Take your bloodlust elsewhere.
Here, the collective voice never lets the reader off the hook, insists that the reader maintain the position of witness rather than consumer. By writing about trauma in a way that avoids reproducing it for the readers’ consumption and entertainment, Gayle Brandeis forges an unconventional way to speak that which has previously gone unspoken.
We want you to bear witness.
We want this to be an epitaph
Over all our unmarked graves.
In these pages, the murdered girls narrating Many Restless Concerns speak for themselves. They take up space together. The previously fetishized object regains her subjectivity. A new voice breaks from the void.
I spoke with Gayle Brandeis by phone on February 3, 2020, eager to learn more about her journey of forging a path of light through unimaginable darkness. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
Melissa Benton Barker: Many Restless Concerns is the account of the hundreds of victims, all girls and women, of the sixteenth-century Hungarian serial killer, the Countess Bathory. I had never heard of these crimes before reading your book. What brought you to this subject?
Gayle Brandeis: I hadn’t heard about her either until ten years ago when I was pregnant with my [youngest] son. My daughter, who was a teenager at the time, was really fascinated by notorious women in history…. She would ask for these books that were compilations of stories about notorious women in history and I found myself fascinated too as a result. I started thumbing through some of the books she had asked me to buy her, and I lit upon this chapter about Countess Bathory, who I had never heard of before, and as I learned about all of these girls and women she killed—not really learning about them but just hearing about their numbers, because there really wasn’t anything about them at all—I found myself haunted by them, and I started to wonder: who were these girls and women who were silenced by this powerful woman who was taking their lives? I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I started doing some research about her. There’s a lot written about her, there’s barely anything written about her victims…. They were essentially erased from the story, just as she had erased them from life.
I started writing these poems in their collective voice, not really imagining it would lead to something novel-like. I thought maybe it was going to be a small cycle of persona poems in their voice, but they wouldn’t leave me alone, as characters sometimes do…. At some point, being pregnant, it just didn’t feel right to be reading about so much torture and murder—like maybe this isn’t something I should be absorbing while I’m creating new life—so I put the project aside. Then I gave birth, and then my mom took her own life one week later, and that was all I could think about. I started working on my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis, about her suicide and our relationship, because that was what was most urgent for me to write about. I just needed to figure out who [my mother] was, and I needed to try to make peace with her death in some way, or make sense of it if I could. I didn’t really think about these ghost voices for a while because I was dealing with my own ghosts. After I finished writing my memoir, I felt completely at sea as a writer. I felt really lost. I never thought I’d be able to write something meaningful again because the memoir felt like the book I was meant to write…. But then I started to remember this project I had set aside years before. I opened up the files and they grabbed me all over again and I found myself so grateful to be immersed in the story of these girls and women whose loss was so much bigger quantitatively than my own.
Once I started to remember their story I felt like: Oh, this is the next best thing to write, because it’s bigger than my story. It’s a historical grief that I can take on, a grief bigger than my own. I felt like writing my memoir gave me a lot of courage as a writer…having grappled with that story, I felt like I could address this historical story with more courage than I had started it with, and so I was able to go to the harder places within their story, [places] I had been avoiding when I first started the project. It started to feel very urgent, even though it’s a historical story and of course these words are not going to bring these girls and women back. It still felt like bringing them justice in a way. It just felt like the right time to give them voice through my voice.
MBB: You started this and then put it down for several years. I think that’s something a lot of writers wonder about, especially [early in their careers]. It’s interesting to hear you talk about a process of writing the right thing at the right time, and just having faith that you could come back to something later.
GB: I feel like nothing we write is ever wasted even if we don’t come back to it, because it takes us where we need to go as a writer, even if we need to just throw the project away. I’m grateful that [this] project came back to me and I didn’t have to throw it away, but even if I never returned to it, I’m sure it would have opened something inside of me that was useful. I’ve thrown so much work away, but I know that it opened new doors within me or taught me something about myself as a writer, or helped me feel more capable, so none of it’s ever wasted at all. There are some projects that just have to tell you when the right time is to fully tackle them. I started a novel maybe fifteen years ago that I set aside because other projects muscled their way to the front, but [it] has been whispering to me again and I hope I’ll heed those whispers because I’m curious to see where it wants to go all these years later.
MBB: The novel is written in verse and mostly from the first-person plural point-of-view. How did you know that this was the form and perspective you needed to take in order to tell this story?
GB: That was the voice that rose up from the very start. I think because there were so many victims…I knew I wanted to get some specific voices at some point, but it started off as a collective voice. I felt like if I were to tell it that way, you could feel the magnitude of it. These voices would rise up in a chorus that could be so loud it could almost be deafening, even though it’s kind of quiet on the page because there’s so much white space around each word. I just wanted there to be the sense of collectivity, community, and I also wanted these voices to grow in power together, even though each murder is such a unique, specific, individual thing that took individual lives. I never wanted to lose sight of the fact that these were individual voices and bodies and lives that were silenced but somehow I felt like if they came together they could find some power and agency. I didn’t really know where that would take them. Eventually they did develop real agency together, but that sense of a choral voice was there with me from the beginning…. I [published] a piece recently about first person plural in Gay Mag. As I was working on this book, I don’t think I had read a lot that was written in the first-person plural yet. I know I had read The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis, which I loved, and maybe that seeped in subconsciously, I’m not sure; but it’s been interesting to see how the form has been rising up more in the last few years. I remember when the second person started being used more in the eighties and nineties, and how that felt like such a fresh new way of telling a story. It’s really cool to see how [contemporary] writers are utilizing the power of the collective voice.
MBB: The use of the first-person plural point of view opens the possibility for the narrative voice to directly engage the reader, repeatedly questioning whether the reader is still listening, still paying attention. What was your intention here?
GB: It’s funny—this kind of confrontational voice rose up with [Many Restless Concerns] but also with this other series of poems I’m writing that’s very, very different. I feel like it was the voice speaking to me and telling me not to look away. As a kid, I used to run away from hard stories. I remember running out of a classroom when there was a film strip being shown about Holocaust victims and I just couldn’t handle it…. I felt like I was going to pass out, and hard stories were just very, very difficult for me to look at head on for so long. I think that my mom’s death forced me to look at painful truths in a new way and made me realize I can’t look away, that we have to look at hard things if we want the world to change. If we want to work for justice, we have to be able to look at injustice head on. I feel like these voices were reminding me of that, reminding me not to look away, and at the same time they’re asking that of the reader, but it was very much some part of me directing another part of me to keep my eyes open.
MBB: I found [Many Restless Concerns] to be a difficult read and I think there might be a lot of readers who respond to it that way. There were times when I had to put the book down for a little bit and then come back to it and even steel myself to come back to it. That made me wonder how you took care of yourself while you were working with this very difficult material.
GB: I’m not sure I always did a great job of taking care of myself in the midst of it. I know that the voices and the stories definitely haunted me even when I wasn’t writing. I think just [reminding] myself to just check in with my body, being in the moment, taking a few deep breaths and remembering where I am right here, right now, that has definitely been helpful to me, both in the writing of my memoir which took me to painful places, and the writing of [Many Restless Concerns]…. When it started to feel overwhelming, coming back to my body and the breath or looking at the beautiful pine trees outside, things like that are always helpful and grounding. There’s a part of me that feels guilty for subjecting readers to this painful stuff because I’m someone who tends to be a very conciliatory, people-pleasing person, and throwing all this painful work into the world, there’s a part of me that feels a little nervous and almost guilty about that. At the same time, I think it is so important for us to look at pain, to look at these hard stories again, so we can confront the reality, so we can try to make things better for the present and the future.
MBB: Absolutely, and I would imagine that to bring yourself to look so closely and to ask the reader to look closely, you had to be very grounded in your conviction in the importance of [the work]. This brings me to another question, because you’re dealing with murdered girls and women here, which is often a topic that’s fetishized in our contemporary pop culture. This book does not shy away from, at times, graphically depicting the violence endured by women and girls. I was wondering if you could talk about how you knew this was necessary. How did you walk the line between depicting this traumatic material without wading into gratuitous violence?
GB: I ended up cutting out quite a few scenes that felt unnecessary, that were graphic but didn’t necessarily add anything new to the book. That was a huge concern of mine. I did not want to fetishize this violence in any way and I tried to address that situation head on through the narrative itself by telling the reader that they needed to take their bloodlust elsewhere if they’re here just to see the pain. When the girls are saying: Are we making this too pretty? I was asking myself, to be sure I’m not trying to fetishize this violence, but to shed light upon it so we can see it starkly and clearly, to feel the full impact of it, the full devastation of it. My hope is to use this story, which is historical, to shed light on the continuing violence against girls and women, especially in indigenous communities. I think it’s easy just to look at numbers and see that this is happening…but if we don’t allow ourselves to confront the full, painful devastation acted on the bodies of girls and women, then we won’t be outraged enough to act [against] it. I felt like I should not shy away from depictions of violence, but I also didn’t want to overwhelm the reader too much with too many of them, so it was a question of trying to find the right balance, which hopefully I was able to do. I’m sure some readers will be really upset by what I’ve chosen to include, and I respect that.
MBB: Unfortunately, in our culture we are exposed to so much gratuitous violence against women in our media…. [Many Restless Concerns demands that the reader] look closely when we have a real reason to do so. There is real conviction in your writing, and…because you wove in the narrative voice, telling the reader to look away if they are here for their own bloodlust…I felt like you were doing something different, indirectly pointing out the fact that we are exposed to so much of this material for no good reason.
GB: It did feel necessary. Often depictions of violence in the media are so much from the outside that we don’t really understand the subjectivity of that pain. I think that sharing it from the perspective of the people who experience the pain becomes a very different experience than just watching it.
MBB: I loved Terry Wolverton’s quote, when she blurbed this book. She wrote: “If all the women and girls who have been murdered, tortured, abused, and disappeared were to raise their voices, they would create a song that would drown the world.” I thought that spoke to the urgency of this book. It felt very urgent, despite the fact that the events described took place hundreds of years ago. Is there anything you would want to add about how [the book relates to] present-day concerns?
GB: I’ve been so moved by women’s voices rising together through the #MeToo movement and other similar movements and of course there’ve been women rising up together to use their voices throughout history, so it’s not a brand-new thing. When I first started writing this book it was prior to the #MeToo movement, but when I returned to the book it felt connected to the movement in a way that helped bring a new sense of urgency to the project. I’m so moved by the outpouring of women’s voices saying we have a shared experience, we want to change this, and it felt as if this book was doing something similar that I hoped would resonate with current day upwellings of women’s voices.
MBB: I think of you as a writer whose work is filled with hope. Even in this difficult book, where you reveal some of the most troubled corners of human experience, there is an insistence that we, as humans, can and will do better. In this quote, the narrative voice speaks to the reader, and perhaps to the writer as well:
You opened the door/and peered inside/and we knew why/we were still here//It was so we could speak to you.
How did you find hope as you wrote through this trauma? Do you believe there is something inherently hopeful about giving voice, telling stories?
GB: I think that I’m perhaps an obnoxiously hopeful person. In my life, I tend to skew toward hope for sure, and as painful as this story was, I did feel like moving toward hope, even when I wasn’t sure exactly how that was going to happen. I do feel like the telling of stories is such a hopeful thing, even painful stories, or maybe especially painful stories, because breaking a silence, although it can be very fraught, is the reclaiming of power. Silence can lead to so much shame, and it can lead to continual silence over generations. When we break a silence, we create space for more people to break their silence about their own experience. I found that so much with my memoir. Suicide loss is a kind of grief that traditionally has been kept in the shadows, hasn’t been talked about a lot. I’ve met so many suicide-loss survivors whose families told them not to talk about the suicide in their family because it would bring shame upon their family, because it was embarrassing, and they were told never to talk about it out loud. There were several people who reached out to me and said that because they read my book and they saw that I was telling the truth about this kind of loss, they felt like they could finally start to do so themselves.
We see this with movements like #MeToo, where once someone starts to tell a story of abuse or violence or some other trauma, it does create a space for people to share their own stories. If those stories aren’t shared, then the pain that causes those stories can be perpetuated so much more easily under the cloak of the silence. It’s harder for abuse to continue when it’s being spoken about. So I think these voices of these ghosts and women just needed to be heard. Telling one’s story is definitely a hopeful thing, because it is a claiming or reclaiming of power, and opening the door for more people to share their stories.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis and the novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns. Earlier books include the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body, the craft book Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement judged by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published in such places as The New York Times, The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, The Rumpus, Salon, Longreads, and more, and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2016 and 2019, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award and the 2018 Multi Genre Maverick Writer Award. She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and currently teaches at Sierra Nevada University and Antioch University Los Angeles.
MELISSA BENTON BARKER’s writing appears in Moon City Review, Longleaf Review, jmww, and elsewhere. She lives in Ohio with her family, and she recently completed her first collection of short fiction.