Girlchild, Tupelo Hassman’s stunning debut novel, follows Rory Dawn Hendrix through a rough childhood in the Calle.
“Just north of Reno and just south of nowhere is a town full of trailers and the front doors of the dirtiest ones open onto the Calle. When the Calle De Flores trailer park was first under development on the rum-and-semen stained outskirts of Reno, all of its streets were going to glow with the green of new money and freshly trimmed hedges and Spanish names that evoked the romance of the Old West.”
Armed with her outdated Girl Scout Handbook, Rory tries to make sense of the world of the Calle. The epigraph of the book is, in fact, the Girl Scout Promise:On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law.
And if there is anything Rory does in this book, it is try. Try to figure out or fit in or escape the world she’s been born into. In short, dynamic chapters, the book moves between first-person narration, social worker reports, arrest records, letters, and Supreme Court opinions, and creates a fascinating, fragmented collage of Rory’s life. I fell in love with Girlchild the moment I began reading it, and I stayed up late to read it all at once. It’s been a long time since I did that with a book, and an even longer time since I read a book that was so heartbreaking, hopeful, and honest all at once.
I feel very lucky to call Tupelo a friend. Our paths crossed last year when we both worked at The Office of Letters and Light. She is warm, funny, engaging, and smart and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. We talked about how Girlchild came to be, escaping our destiny, the role of luck, and what it means for kids to be smart. And Girl Scouts!
The Rumpus: Girlchild tackles so many big issues: poverty, class (and classism), sexual abuse, the presumed role of women, the presumed role of men, the idea that you are born into a certain kind of world. Did you consciously think about these things as you were writing?
Tupelo Hassman: These are the things I think about all the time, which is kind of where my story and Rory’s story are the same. Those are the things I lug around with me. Early on, I did have this idea of writing about how people are trapped in their culture of origin and how―even if you get out―you can never feel at home somewhere else. Like a first-generation college student, how many of them fail because you’re nowhere, you can’t fit in, which I totally understand. Every time I graduated, my brothers would ask: why are you having another graduation? They don’t live in this world at all. So they wonder: didn’t we just do this?
The older I get the more I notice how many of those things I’d like to lose and just enjoy people that are from another class from me, and have had experiences that I shouldn’t judge as whatever I judge them as, but I don’t know how people get over it. The world is really unfair, so maybe getting over it is also wrong, but I minored in social work at USC, Children and Families in Rural America. Really, it is the minor of my life.
Rumpus: The options of the women in the book are so limited. So much of their lives revolve around getting pregnant or avoiding pregnancy, or having kids too early or too many kids―I suppose it’s one of the central issues of being a woman. How did you think about the role of women in this book?
Hassman: In my house growing up I knew everything about Roe V. Wade and my mom gave The Handmaid’s Tale to me when I was in elementary school. This was the politick in our house that was so commonly talked about, and I think she was right. Even though there have been times in my life when I wished she would have laid off, or been a little more normal, but I think she lived through that time and it’s so easily forgotten. Like right now. Right now, I talk to girlfriends that I’ve had forever and they’re saying these crazy things, and we’ve had these discussions where I’m saying: “Do you understand what you’re saying?” That wasn’t very long ago. I think it’s that historical memory, and I see it with my students too. Sometimes I’ll hear, “Racism was so long ago.” Or, “It’s been so long since the civil rights movement.” and I’m thinking man, I know you are so young and it feels like a long time ago, but it really wasn’t that long ago.
Rumpus: You touched on the idea of “getting out.” It feels like Rory is born into this world and there is this sense that she is fated to something. Or that we are all fated to a certain kind of life. We all have this destiny and it’s just the hand we’ve been dealt. But we always have a choice. Or do we?
Hassman: In our culture, we over-rely on the idea that we have a choice, and it’s incredibly frustrating to me. Sure, when people whine about what their parents did to them 30 years ago I also want them to shut the fuck up, but I dedicate the book to my cousin who lived there and lives there still. And there is no reason. I could find little reasons, but there is no real reason. She got great grades. She is beautiful. I don’t know. The question of my life is: why me? Why do I get to sit in your cute apartment? Why do we get to have this talk about my book? And my cousin didn’t have babies at a young age, so why doesn’t she get to do this? I don’t know, but I do think we over-rely on the idea of the American Dream and people suffer for it. So people can say you worked really hard, and that’s not the fucking truth. I mean it’s true but would I have worked as hard if I didn’t get some green lights in the beginning?
Rumpus: Plus a lot of people work really hard anyway, and they still don’t move forward. Or they can’t.
Hassman: Yeah, how many great authors do we know? How many people write beautifully, and I got this because of ten lucky things that happened. How many times I could have gotten arrested between when I was 15 and when I stopped getting arrested, just by whatever circumstance, and that could change everything. I did so many stupid things and I just got lucky.
Rumpus: In the book (and the culture) there is this dynamic of the insider vs. the outsider. If you’re in this world, your whole perspective is defined by a different set of rules, which we see a lot in the structure of the book. There are so many different types of prose, like Rory’s first-person narrative and then the social worker reports, coming in as a sort of outsider viewpoint. And it’s supposed to be objective, but it’s not objective; it’s really just a completely different subjectivity. How did these different voices emerge as you were writing the in the book?
Hassman: I think dialoging with the welfare file was the first thing that came and then other voices just got added on. But the welfare voice, pretending to be so objective and then totally not being, at all. There is so much judgment there.
Rumpus: Rory is such an observant narrator and she latches onto the idea of beauty, or being beautiful. Even in her younger moments, she is really aware of what beauty is and how it’s perceived, and not only beauty, but sexual objectification as well. There are these remarkable moments where she refers to her mother as beautiful, or compares herself to other girls in her class, all the while this sexual objectification (and sexual abuse) is looming in the background.
Hassman: That makes sense for Rory. In that culture, well in every layer of the culture, there are only so many roles a woman can fill, and I suppose with her mom leading the charge in that community, in that role, it would be on her mind. It’s maybe a question of what is she going to grow up to be? What else would you be? It sounds so terrible, so much sadder than I thought it would.
Rumpus: It is sad.
Hassman: But what else is there to do? The way to make money in all the service industry, but there especially―I mean the women at the casinos. It’s tough to walk around with fishnets and your ass showing. All night. Goddamn. I would be broke if people had to stare at my ass in order for me to make money.
And that makes Rory feel like more of an outsider, not whether she’s pretty or not, but if her true gifts are academic or intellectual, there is no place for that to be worth anything. It’s a dead end.
Rumpus: Rory being smart/academic is really interesting because on the one hand it alienates her more. She’s a loner and she can’t connect to the other students. On the other hand it’s a ticket out of the Calle. It’s a dual thing for her.
Hassman: Yeah and even the school administrators are mystified as to how to handle it. It is very much like holding a ticket, or a key―like this should fit into something, but what? Like a monkey with some kind of tool. Definitely. I think that happens all the time. And there is no way to talk about it, that isn’t alienating somehow. That smart children are “gifted.” I mean academically talented, I know they come up with those programs. Where you in those programs?
Rumpus: Yeah, I was.
Hassman: Yeah, we had GAT and SPECS, I have no idea what that stands for. But I hate the term gifted. I hate it.
Rumpus: Because it separates kids from everyone else. It puts this unnecessary weight on them.
Hassman: Yeah. It’s so narrow. When I was first put in one of those programs I was in second grade and I hated it. Until I dropped out, I hated going. I wanted to be with my friends. For a while they did a program one day a week where this whole bus came to my little suburb outside of Reno and picked me up. An entire bus picked me up, and took me to another school, where a bunch of other kids from other schools came and we would do a fun thing every day. In retrospect it was cool. We did live-storytelling, or we built models for architecture. Or all kinds of cool shit that amazes me that that happens. But I was miserable. I needed my friends in that community, and these kids were―I still remember this one boy who was so cute, and a phone rang and he said “Hark!” and I knew what hark meant but I thought: he comes from a totally different world than I do. No matter that we could read the same books and have the same vocabulary. He was obviously a total geek from a comfortable home. It was awful.
When I was in it, they had us typing on manual typewriters. So as a person who is so old, the thing that really paid off for me, when I dropped out at 15, I would type a hundred words a minute and that was so valuable. I got great jobs. The way I got out of school was that I went to the principal and said I need to work. My mom had just died horrifically and I tried to go to school for about a week, and I could remember I said, I want to get a job and I don’t want to be in school, and he said, you have to be in school. I stood up and said, no, I’m quitting. And I wasn’t bluffing. I was like fuck you, and he said, oh ok, your grades are good, but no one is going to hire you. So because of that SPECS class―whatever that stands for―the first place I went to apply for some answering service. I must have looked like such a twerp. She said, here’s your typing test. And then she said, ok when can you start? So yeah, the program really benefited me; it enabled me to drop out.
Rumpus: Rory being young has a lot to do with the group dynamic vs. being solitary. That’s so much more apparent when you’re younger. You’re in school and there are cliques, and if you are alone you are much more aware of it. As a child your aloneness is magnified in a way it’s not when you are an adult.
Hassman: Yeah, it really is. That is so weird. I think as a reader, when I read a kid alone, I think: where are her people? But that’s also the thing about growing up. We don’t. I saw some teenagers last night, kind of late, and I thought: I know how smart they think they are, and remember how smart they actually are. And it’s not that different. But it seems so different from this age. It’s something I try hard to hold on to. It’s almost impossible to look at such young faces and think: you can handle it. I could handle anything at that age; I was so tough. And not an idiot. And yet, they are so tiny. I look at kids that are my age when I did some things and I wonder, why didn’t the police pick me up? Which they did occasionally, but why didn’t they lock me up, til I was grown! It’s so weird. That’s interesting.
Rumpus: I love the Girl Scout aspect of this book. I was a Girl Scout, and it conjured up a lot of fond memories for me. I’ve never liked group things, but there was something about Girl Scout camp that I just loved. The counselors were amazing. Getting away from home, living in a cabin, being out in the middle of nowhere. The whole thing. It was totally formative experience for me each summer.
Hassman: Oh wow, that’s amazing! That was your culture. Did you know it’s the 100-year anniversary of the Girl Scouts?
Rumpus: I did. I just saw that!
Hassman: That’s so funny. The manual that Rory has is from 1947 (the same manual I have) and a lot of that is some pretty shitty gender advice. But some of it is just nice.
Rumpus: It gives Rory a structure. Rules to live by. It’s literally a guide for her.
Hassman: Yeah, but the dangerous side is that if you follow these rules, still most of the people in a certain strata of society are not going to give a shit about you. But that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. It’s like learning another language, even if you never get to speak it.
Rumpus: How did the Girl Scout Manual come to be part of the book?
Hassman: I inherited the manual when my dad died and I had a writing exercise that I did from it. The writing exercise was from Aimee Bender and it was “go home, go to the third shelf, the fifth green book over” or something like that, then turn to page whatever, and write two pages on it. Definitely worth assigning.
Rumpus: That’s a great assignment.
Hassman: It was great. I was lucky that I got this book. So then that page was bizarre. That’s one of the oldest sections in there. The one about the sanatoriums in France. It says that! There’s pictures of people in France laying in bed and they’re sick. It’s so bizarre! And I just kept working with it. Rory is so lonely without the Girl Scout Handbook. Not that I thought she needed companionship, but that she would have been terrible lonely without it. I don’t know what the solution would have been. But it’s rich. I think you could take anything from it and all those kinds of manuals. Encyclopedias of How To Be, of What A Thing Is. All those work so great. An Encyclopedia of anything. But having the companion text is nice. It’s a fun thing. Especially for a lonely person.
Rumpus: You spent a long time writing Girlchild. Some of the chapters date back to your years as an undergrad, and you continued working on it throughout your MFA and many years after that, all the while, you’ve been working at various jobs, and teaching. How did you stick with Rory for so long?
Hassman: Part of the reason Girlchild took so long―I don’t know how you’re supposed to write an extended piece while you’re teaching, when there are twenty or thirty other voices in your head. I couldn’t read books while I was doing that. Sometimes I thought I’d read nonfiction, but no. I’d absorb some voice and then start writing like that. When I think of the creative writing teachers I’ve had, how did they write anything?
If you don’t love it don’t do it. Why do we find the time or put other things off that we shouldn’t? Not that I don’t have a semester starting in 6 hours. But you have to love it. Or what are you waiting for? Inspiration will carry you through sometimes. Sometimes. It hasn’t happened to me that often. How many times have I gotten out of bed to write a story? Maybe one time, but only because I couldn’t sleep. If I could have fallen back asleep I would have. But when I think of all the generosity of my past teachers, or how much shit I gave them to read. Or how many letters of recommendations I asked for. And then you care. Maybe it’s just the caring.