The Dictator of Our Imagination: Karen Bender on Trump’s Exploitation of Conservatives’ Fears

Karen Bender

The writer Ursula LeGuin says: “The imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma.” This statement makes perfect sense—the imagination can take us out of ourselves to help us inhabit the world of another person, thus creating empathy. But after the spectacle of the Republican National Convention, and the unending and confounding popularity of Trump, I also think that bigotry can be a result of too much imagination—or imagination manipulated by a demagogue like Trump, settling in the fertile ground of fear.

As a writer, I am wary saying that we should be careful with our imaginations. For imagination is one place where we can, as individuals, be completely free, where we cannot and should not be censored. But the problem with imagination as manipulated by authority figures for power was clear to me during the RNC.

Imagination that resides within a person, controlled by oneself, is what makes us unique as humans—our own imaginations are a free entity, and yes, can lead to empathy, to innovation, to solution, to distraction, to comfort. But imagination directed by another, toward simplistic generalization, is something else. At the RNC, the Trump campaign only too happily directed the audience’s imaginations in ways that were intended to frighten, and could, with their vitriol, lead to harm.

An imagination in overdrive led to one of the eeriest moments during the  Republican convention, when grieving parents described the death of their children. As the parents spoke, a tag ran under their names that said: Victims of  Illegal Immigrants.” The children had indeed been killed by individuals who were illegal immigrants. But the focus of the label and the  imaginary threat were misleading. It was the first time I had ever seen someone speak on television in which a speaker was labeled as a victim of an entire group of people. I had seen descriptions of victims of say, a hurricane, or victims of a school shooting, or victims of a terrorist attack, but never as a victim of a group. The usual emphasis in this construct would be the action itself. In fact, the labels that would generally have been used in this situation would have been Victims of Drunk Driving or Victim of Gun Violence. But labeling a group had a different potential outcome. It gave the audience a specific group of people to worry about. This had the effect of demonizing all illegal immigrants, which, of course, sparked an unsubstantiated fear.

Then there was the moment in which the NRA President, Chris Cox, set out a scenario that is supposed to justify all gun ownership: the dreaded specter of home invasion. He talked about the mother at home alone with her child (of course), the “three-time loser released” because of a politician’s “empathy,” and, of course, the myth that a gun in this situation would save you. It was a story created solely for the purpose of promoting gun ownership and creating fear, and the audience loved it. The problem is that home invasion is not what the public should actually be worried about; gun ownership itself is more dangerous. According to Evan DeFillipis and Devin Hughes, writing in Slate, the per capita chance of death in a home invasion is 0.0000002 (basically, zero). Gun ownership doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide. Thinking based on reason, then, would point to not owning a gun. But Cox’s story used imagination to create fear of an unknown stranger coming to attack that trope of vulnerability, the mother alone with her child.

We live in a nation in which imagination and fear are acutely bound, in ways that are often deadly. Trayvon Martin, a young man, walking down a street, is killed by George Zimmerman, a man who imagines, for no reason other than his skin color, that Martin is a threat. Police officer Darren Wilson kills Michael Brown, describing him as a “demon.”Writer Claudia Rankine says, “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.” An imagination corroded by fear leads to the image of a transgender person assaulting a woman in a bathroom, which leads to a law like North Carolina’s recently-passed HB2. According to an article in Identities.mic, spokespeople from the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that “no statistical evidence of violence exists to warrant this (HB2) legislation.” (However, 70% of trans people had experienced harassment as they tried to use a restroom.)

Imagination can lead to deadly consequences when it is focused on defining a group. Trump delights in manipulating the nation’s imagination in this way. He declares Mexicans to be “murderers and rapists,” and calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., with the imaginary story that they are all terrorists. He declares himself (“I alone”) to be the one person who will save our country, inserting himself into our imaginations as an omnipotent father, a hero. Trump’s cronies jump in and carry out his work for him. David Duke, the former KKK leader, who traffics in hate fueled by the imaginary existence of Jewish world conspiracies, blamed Melania Trump’s plagiarism on Jewish speechwriters who sabotaged her. Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and Trump advisor, uses his imagination in a way that leads him to make a threat that he finds acceptable to share with the nation: “Hillary should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

On what Trump offers the Party, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham recently told ABC News that “he’s appealing to fear and prejudice, and there’s a market for that.” (Graham went on to say that this wasn’t good for the country, even though “a market for this” was in place.) I was struck by the idea of fear and the imagination being appropriated in a marketing scheme. One could say that Trump is combining fear and an overactive imagination in a diabolical marketing scheme, creating a narrative in which he sells the electorate stories of Muslims, Illegal Immigrants, and Crooked Hillary as the terrifying figures who will destroy them. Essentially, Trump wants us to purchase the idea of him as the savior, which is also relying on our imaginations—our vision of him–an ignorant, impulsive, inexperienced, often bankrupt businessman and reality show star–as somehow a solution. Our imaginations are his currency.

We need to access our rationality to combat Donald Trump’s abuse of our imaginations. During this election, right now, we need to be especially aware of the distinction between fiction and reason, and we need to stand up against bigotry and stereotype that is arising from the misuse of fiction. We need to vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate who respects science, the candidate of knowledge and a breadth of experience, who understands the importance of reason, of fact, in governing a nation. Let’s commit to the very real-world action of voting against the dictator of our imaginations, Donald Trump, in November.

Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story Prize. She is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker,Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize series. Bender is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University in North Carolina.

“Down into that deep and fearful well” — Pamela Erens on why she likes to read depressing books

Pamela Erens by Kathryn Huang  Eleven Hours

Pamela Erens is the author of The Virgins, The Understory, and the recently-released Eleven Hours (all published by Tin House Books). In this short essay, originally published on the We Heart Writing website in the UK, Erens explains the reasons behind her preference for reading “depressing” novels.

My novels have never been called cheerful, optimistic, or especially funny (I happen to think each has some chuckle-worthy bits, but only the rare commentator points these out.) Some readers find somberness a failing, in my work or in any work of fiction. They want to know why any author should expect them to suffer through something “downbeat” when life is already hard enough.

Reading tastes are subjective, certainly. I would never say that there are right and wrong reasons to read. Some readers want an experience assuring them that people can master their circumstances, that happy endings are possible. They don’t want unsoothed sadness. These readers are naturally irritated when they stumble unawares into a narrative that portrays certain kinds of hardship, particularly emotional hardship, as unremitting.

I am a different kind of reader….

Read the rest of the essay here.

We Heart Writing is produced by the team behind Chicklit Club, and is for people interested in writing, publishing, marketing and blogging. With a special focus on women’s fiction, the articles range from how-to’s that take you from concept to selling your product, to guest posts from authors as they share their tips, insights and personal journeys and features aimed at the burgeoning book blogging community. 

Author Brittani Sonnenberg debuts weekly comic strip on life as a “badass divorcee”

Brittani Sonnenberg by Alex Trebus closeup

In a departure from her usual work, Brittani Sonnenberg, whose powerful 2014 debut, Home Leave, made a deep impression on me and many other readers, is about to launch a weekly comic strip. Titled “The Bad-at-Coloring Book for Badass Divorcees,” the strip, which was inspired by Sonnenberg’s recent divorce and her experiences as a thirty-something woman, will be published every Wednesday on Maximum Middle Age, a feminist website.

According to Sonnenberg, “Each week will feature a different conundrum that the three divorcees — Anna, Thelma, and Patrice — tackle, with a final drawing prompt for the reader.” There will be a downloadable PDF at the bottom of the page, which readers can print out, draw on, then upload in the comments.

Sonnenberg, who lives in Austin after spending a few years in Berlin, has been working on the strip for the past few months, while continuing to work on her second novel.

“It’s been a really important and freeing thing for me to work on,” she said. “This is definitely one of the silliest things I’ve ever created, but it’s allowed me to reflect on what’s felt particularly difficult in the wake of my own divorce and life in my thirties. Even if you’ve never gone through a divorce, or if you’re a dude, I think there’s a lot to relate to. Okay, so the first week’s conundrum, freezing your eggs, might not be a burning topic for most men, but you can take it figuratively. Or draw something about saving your hair!”

She acknowledges that she is not a sophisticated artist. “My elementary school art teacher will be shocked to discover that I am launching a comic strip since she did not approve of my artwork in fourth grade and it basically looks the same now as it did then!” she noted.

But she hopes and believes that the strip’s content will resonate with many readers.

“I really hope it can free up some conversations about divorce, and shame, and aging. An even bigger hope is that it might make someone spit out what they’re drinking while they read it because they’re laughing, which seems like the penultimate comic strip achievement.”

You can view today’s debut strip here.

Read my review of Home Leave, my interview with Sonnenberg, and her guest post about life on a book tour.

Photo credit: Alex Trebus

Center for Fiction announces 2016 First Novel Prize longlist


The Center for Fiction in New York City has announced the longlist of nominees for the 2016 First Novel Prize.

Of the 25 debut novels, 15 are by women (in alphabetical order by author):

  • The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House)
  • The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter by Kia Corthron (Seven Stories Press)
  • Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Liveright)
  • The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni (Counterpoint)
  • We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin Books)
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Another Place You’ve Never Been by Rebecca Kauffman (Soft Skull Press)
  • How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee (Viking)
  • As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner (Lee Boudreaux Books)
  • Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss (Scout Press)
  • Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves (Scribner)
  • Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore (Hogarth)
  • The Longest Night by Andria Williams (Random House)
  • Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson (Harper)
  • Shelter by Jung Yun (Picador USA)

According to the Center for Fiction website, “The First Novel Prize is awarded to the best debut novel published between January 1 and December 31 of the award year. The author of the winning book is awarded $10,000 and each shortlisted author receives $1,000. The winner will be announced at our Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner on Tuesday, December 6 at The Metropolitan Club.”

The shortlist of seven finalists will be announced in September.

“Previous winners include Marisha Pessl, for Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Viking), Junot Díaz, for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead/Penguin), Hannah Tinti, for The Good Thief (The Dial Press), John Pipkin, for Woodsburner (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese), Karl Marlantes, for Matterhorn (Atlantic Monthly Press with El León Literary Arts), Bonnie Nadzam, for Lamb (Other Press), Ben Fountain, for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco/HarperCollins), Margaret Wrinkle, for Wash (Atlantic Monthly Press), Tiphanie Yanique, for Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead Books), and Viet Thanh Nguyen, for The Sympathizer (Grove Press).”

The other ten books (by male writers) are:

  • Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown)
  • The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales (Riverhead Books)
  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • The Alaskan Laundry by Brendan Jones (Mariner Books)
  • All Joe Knight by Kevin Morris (Grove Press)
  • Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser (Ecco)
  • Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor (Viking)
  • Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay (Melville House)
  • Hurt People by Cote Smith (FSG Originals)

“AmWriting” — Chrissy Kolaya talks with Christine Sneed and Alison Umminger about the challenges of the writing life

A huge thank you to Read Her Like an Open Book for giving me a chance to talk with two writers I deeply admire and think of as my literary big sisters, Alison Umminger and Christine Sneed. — Chrissy Kolaya


Chrissy Kolaya is a poet and fiction writer. Her work has been included in the anthologies New Sudden Fiction (Norton),  Fiction on a Stick (Milkweed Editions), and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems, as well as in a number of literary journals. She teaches writing at the University of Minnesota Morris, where she’s one of the co-founders of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival. Her first novel, Charmed Particles, was published by Dzanc Books in November 2015. [Read my review here.]


Alison Umminger is a professor of English at the University of West Georgia.  Her short fiction has won the Lawrence Foundation award from Prairie Schooner, and been published in numerous journals.  American Girls is her first novel.

Christine Sneed -- Adam Tinkham
Christine Sneed‘s stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Greensboro Review, Pleiades, and a number of other publications.  She is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. She lives in Evanston, Illinois and teaches for the graduate creative writing programs at Northwestern University and Regis University in Denver.

CK: Would you each tell us about your new book?

American Girls
Alison: American Girls is about a 15-year-old who steals her mom’s credit card and runs away to L.A., where she researches the Manson girls, hangs out on a television set with her sister’s boyfriend, and becomes a little less shitty than she was at the start of the novel. It’s low on plot and heavy on voice/atmosphere, and I originally conceived it as a kind of love letter to Los Angeles.

The Virginity of Famous Men

Christine: The Virginity of Famous Men, my forthcoming short story collection, will be out in mid-September. In “Beach Vacation,” a mother realizes that her popular and coddled teenaged son has become someone she has difficulty relating to, let alone loving with the same maternal fervor that once was second nature to her.

In “The Prettiest Girls,” a location scout for a Hollywood film studio falls in love with a young Mexican woman who is more in love with the idea of stardom than with this older American man who takes her with him back to California. “Clear Conscience” focuses on the themes of family loyalty, divorce, motherhood, and whether “doing the right thing” is, in fact, always the right thing to do. The title story, “The Virginity of Famous Men,” explores family and fortune and picks up a year and a half after Little Known Facts, my second book, left off.

CK: California looms large in both of these books! I’m curious about the idea of revisiting your own literary territory as Christine does in her title story. Christine, would you talk a bit about the experience of returning to these characters? What are some of the challenges and rewards?

Christine: It was a lot of fun to imagine my characters from Little Known Facts a year and a half after where that book ends. A few people had asked if I was going to write a sequel to this novel, and I don’t have plans to – other than this short story. I guess the challenge of writing about them now is whether or not I remain faithful to the tone of that novel and portray them in a believable way. I hope I succeeded. The reward was that I again had a good time writing about fame and its effects on the relatives of the famous.

CK: One of the things I find especially encouraging about the writing world is the work writers do to build and maintain vibrant and supportive literary communities, both in person and online. What are some of the most inspiring/creative things you’ve seen others do to build literary community?

Christine: I love that on Twitter there are hashtags devoted to reading picks, e.g. #fridayreads and #amreading, which I think can generate a lot of buzz for many authors.

In Chicago, where I live, there are more than 50 “live lit” series, one of which I used to help direct and curate, Sunday Salon Chicago. Due to the number of reading series in any given week here, so many writers are able to read new work, sell books, meet other writers, and in some cases, create lasting friendships and working relationships.

There’s a lot of support for writers in this city, in general, and also, quite a few independent bookstores with staff devoted to promoting the books of local authors. Much hand-selling goes on, and I think more and more writers and publishers see this as a key factor in a book’s success.

Alison: I think some of the online communities (the functional ones) are pretty amazing for sharing information and encouraging folks along the way. The NaNoWriMo is pretty awesome for getting folks motivated in the midst of their busy lives — and I love hearing about some of the mini-retreats that groups of writers arrange for working collectively, with a team atmosphere. Writing can be so lonely and isolating, and yet I think a certain amount of feedback along the way is essential.

CK: What are you most proud of doing to build and maintain literary community?

Christine: As mentioned above, I helped to organize Sunday Salon Chicago for two years, which was a labor of love for everyone involved. Like many recurring reading series, my co-organizers and I couldn’t pay our readers; we didn’t charge admission for the readings, in order to reach the widest audience possible, and we weren’t paid for our work either.

On my website, I also do Q and As with writer friends who are promoting new books. It’s a lot of fun, and it helps get the word out to a few more people who are likely to pick up these titles and share them with friends, too.

Alison: Well, I feel like I am part of a “little writing group that could” that includes Maggie Mitchell and one other member — three of us worked on novels together, and two have made their way into the world since our group’s inception. I also joined a group called the Sweet Sixteens this year, made up of hundreds of folks with debut YA and MG novels. I’m mid-way through reading sixteen debut novels, and that’s been a wonderful way for me to get to know other YA writers.

CK: Alison, did you always imagine yourself writing for a young adult audience or has your audience changed throughout your writing career?

My agent had been telling me for years to try YA, but I have a lot of trouble thinking of books in terms of genre. I happen to love writing books about younger characters, because adolescence is so intense and so many things happen for the first time. I feel like Anna’s story happily fits what YA is right now, and I’m thrilled to be part of the lively and diverse YA community.

CK: In the razzle-dazzle of book promotion, it can seem to readers and emerging writers as if you must be one of the lucky few who’ve won the talent-and-good-fortune lottery. What were some moments of struggle for you along the way, and what advice can you share with writers who find themselves reading this while in the midst of one of those challenging moments?

Alison: Well, the distance from my “I want to be a writer” moment to a hardback with my name on the spine was 23 years, so I’d say I’m a walking advertisement for persistence. I wrote a literary novel before this one that was rejected by at least 40 publishers, many of whom genuinely liked it but saw no larger market for the book. That still kind of breaks my heart, but the marketing aspect of books is very real, and I think writers need to be realistic about what that means. I’ve had students who are very talented, but very niche writers, and I encourage them to look for smaller presses and not be discouraged if agents aren’t lining up at their doors.

Christine: I think you have to learn to manage your expectations when it comes to a book’s sales and reviews – i.e., how many copies will sell and how positive the reviews will be (provided you get reviews, which certainly isn’t a given, especially with mass market periodicals).

You can never predict what will happen, as obvious as that sounds. I wish it were easier to earn a steady living from writing, but it’s extremely difficult, and I keep reminding myself of something my friend and fellow writer Karen Brown said recently: “The next book!” as in, the next book will be the one that breaks through in a way that will allow you to stop having to scramble so much for teaching work and other paying gigs and permit you to focus more on your writing.

CK: What advice would you give your younger writing self?

Alison: Your real life is pretty separate from and far more important than your work, so don’t put so much value on being a published writer. And enjoy the process of writing the book — that’s the real fun part.

Christine: As I said earlier, learn to manage your expectations. No book’s trajectory can be predicted. The writing has to be the focus, always.

CK: What’s next for each of you? 

Christine: I’m working on a new novel and a little bit of nonfiction and short fiction. In the fall, I’ll be doing some readings in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin to promote The Virginity of Famous Men.

Alison: I’m working on another YA novel, also a realistic contemporary piece. It’s very early in the drafting process, so I’m trying to stick with it even though the book isn’t exactly talking to me right now. Pants to the chair method, as my dissertation director so wisely once told me.

CK: I love to root for the underdog. What’s a book or author that you’d like to see more folks fall in love with?

Christine: Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling is an excellent book that I recently read that was published in May by an independent Chicago press, Curbside Splendor. I loved Alison’s book too – American Girls (UK: My Favorite Manson Girl). I hope it finds readers far and wide. And your novel, Chrissy, Charmed Particles.

Alison: In terms of YA, I just loved Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black, and I’m super excited for the brilliant Dana Johnson’s story collection, In the Not Quite Dark, which is out this month. She’s one of the best short story writers out there, and I hope this finds its way onto lots of reading lists this summer.

CK: Thanks so much, Alison and Christine! Thanks Bill, for hosting our Q&A and for all the work you’re doing to bring together readers and literary fiction by women!

Photo of Christine Sneed: Adam Tinkham

Psychotherapist Lisa Gornick’s LOUISA MEETS BEAR is a complex and memorable novel-in-stories

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick -- Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Picador: July 12, 2016

320 pages, $16.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

ELEVEN HOURS a vivid, potent depiction of labor, delivery, and two women’s lives

Eleven Hours  Pamela Erens by Kathryn Huang

Eleven Hours

By Pamela Erens

Tin House Books: May 3, 2016

$15.95, 165 pages

Childbirth is a contradictory experience. It is both indelibly etched in the mother’s mind and, with time, a blur of physical and emotional extremity. Some have compared it to war. Pamela Erens has done an impressive job of capturing one woman’s labor and delivery in her fever dream of a novel, Eleven Hours, which follows a 31-year-old New York City resident named Lore Tannenbaum from her admission to the hospital’s maternity ward through to the birth of her child.

Erens has also done readers everywhere a favor. Eleven Hours bears witness to the extraordinary efforts of mothers in bringing forth a child. It is a testament to the dedication and compassion of labor and delivery nurses. And for men it provides an opportunity to fully grasp the all-encompassing nature of the experience.

But her book is not a documentary, it is a story. And at its heart is Lore, a single mother still reeling from the traumatic ending of her relationship with her child’s father, Asa. She comes to the hospital one winter night utterly alone, something the nurse, Franckline, originally from Haiti, notices immediately. Lore has a birth plan detailing her exacting wishes in all potential situations. She is a daunting young woman who says little and keeps Franckline at arm’s length. But the latter is also pregnant and worried about her baby for reasons both universal and specific, and she is determined to help Lore make it through the crucible of labor and delivery.

Erens slowly reveals each woman’s story, all the while holding us close to Lore’s labor. She reminds us how amazing it is that complete strangers come together in the most intimate of experiences, all to bring a baby into the world. Lore and Franckline have led completely different lives, yet they are united in their womanhood and, ultimately, shared motherhood.

“Lore’s forehead is hot; her stomach churns threateningly. The sensation gradually passes, and her eyes flutter closed. In a couple of minutes she wakes, feeling calm. She turns her head. Franckline is sitting quietly by the bed, her hands folded. Lore fixes on the nurse’s cross, a small gold piece hanging from a gold chain. She again has the impulse to ask Franckline about herself but she is tired, she thinks she won’t be able to listen, and besides, stories are too hard, are almost always convoluted and do not tell the thing you really want to know. What she wants to know is what Franckline does in the moments when she despairs. Does she ever despair? Surely–that cross–she prays, and praying is something Lore does not believe in, or even know how to do.”

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Eleven Hours is the way Erens has captured the stream of consciousness of Lore, as she moves from the present to the past (a fraught childhood and a complex love triangle that led her to this moment) and the future (concern about her child and the possible lives they will have together). As the narrative moves along, no notice is given and no typographical aid indicates the shift in time and place. We are deep in Lore’s mind as she attempts to cope with a set of circumstances–past, present, and future–she never envisioned.

Of course, Erens vividly depicts labor. Although I have been present for the birth of my two sons, I watched it from the outside. My wife was not sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings in real time. Eleven Hours allowed me to get inside the physical experience of labor. Here are two examples of how Erens puts the reader directly in the moment.

“Another contraction. Though Lore focuses as usual on her voice, on expelling sound as the pain rises, she has the sensation this time of standing slightly outside of herself, and she is aware, now, of other sounds in the room: the speeded-up heartbeat the monitor broadcasts (lub-lub-lub-lub-lub-lub-lub), Franckline’s deep, heavy breathing as she presses hard into Lore’s back…

“The next contraction arrives, and once again she has no time to do anything but lie back and draw up her legs and bear down with the frightful pressure. It is no baby pressing now, but something else, alien and with damage on its mind. There is nothing proper to hold onto–not Franckline’s shoulder or back, not the pillows, which are at the end of the bed; she can only grip her own knees, infuriated, ignoring Franckline’s exhortations to draw in her breath and groan. Rebelliously, she screams, knowing that it will only waste her strength and rake her throat, knowing that screaming is for the weak and out of control, and that some other woman in another room will hear her and be frightened. When her breath comes back a bit she curses and bucks from side to side, protesting pain’s fingerprints on her body. Franckline leans over her, instructing quietly, ‘Try to stay still,’ and Lore shouts, ‘I need it to come out I need to push,’ and Franckline says, ‘Push then,’ and Lore pushes, her feet trembling, her fingers gouging into her knees. She strains with all her might until she genuinely expects to see a baby flop out on the sheet beneath her, until the pressure retreats enough to let her loosen her grip and lower her buttocks to the mattress.”

Lore’s labor progresses (fitfully and frustratingly) until it reaches the expected climax of delivery, and the climax of the novel. It is a heart-pounding, even frightening, moment because, like Lore and Franckline, we do not really know how things will turn out, for Lore or her baby.

Eleven Hours is a potent, life-affirming, and necessary novel about one of life’s most primal experiences. Reading it is an experience I recommend to everyone.

Photo of Pamela Erens: Kathryn Huang