Over five novels and a highly acclaimed memoir, Darcey Steinke has made an art of considering the truths to be found in spiritual rootlessness. In her new novel Sister Golden Hair, the narrator is a teenager, Jesse, whose father used to be a pastor and whose mother was once a beauty queen. Adrift in the ’70s, Jessie’s parents have brought their family to live in a Virginia housing development they loathe but can’t afford to leave. As the family’s years in the housing development go on, the adolescent Jesse finds solace in Cher and Emily Dickinson but also in the company of neighbors who are as bewildered as her parents are at the adults they have become. As in all of Steinke’s books, she attends “patiently and reverently to the truth” of this world, as Steven Metcalf wrote in the New York Times’s Book Review of her memoir, Easter Everywhere, her last work before the recent release of Sister Golden Hair.
I’ve had the delightful luck to be in a carpool with Steinke for several years. We commute together to Princeton, where we both teach, and often devote our travel time to discussions of fiction and innovation and how exciting it is to read a book that moves the genre of the novel forward in some way. Sister Golden Hair is that kind of genre-enhancing novel. Below are some questions I discussed with Steinke via email about the radical elements at work in her new, luminous book.
The Rumpus: In Sister Golden Hair, the protagonist, like many adolescent girls, is lured into performing roles that benefit others but not necessarily herself. Even friendships are rarely the havens they initially seem to be. Reading the book, I kept thinking about Adrienne Rich’s poem “Diving into the Wreck” when she declares: I came to see the damage that was done/and the treasures that prevail. What treasures prevailed for you as a writer after so vividly capturing the wreckage Jesse encounters in Sister Golden Hair?
Darcey Steinke: I grew up in Roanoke, Virginia in the ’70s, a small city in the Blue Ridge Mountains that, while physically beautiful, still had very rigid ideas about gender roles. The Southern cult of femininity was strong, almost to the point of insanity. I remember at times seeing suburban women who looked so “female” they looked unstable. I always think of that story Dolly Parton tells about going to town when she was a little girl and seeing a beautiful dressed-up prostitute. She asks her mother what she is and her mother says trash. Parton then wants to be trash.
I had the opposite reaction. Extreme femininity seemed insane to me and sad. As I moved into my teenage years I was ambivalent about becoming a woman. The women I saw around me in conventional marriages seemed unhappy and it was clear to me that in entering womanhood I would be much more limited in my movements, thoughts and creativity then I had been as a child. I think friendship, as you say, was so important because of the pressures of the greater culture. In writing the book, going back into the period of my own adolescence and working with composites of characters I knew, I remembered how raw, fragile and delightful many of my relationships were then. The silliness and the joy flooded up through the lines as I wrote and remembered the girls I knew. I think the people you come of age with you never really get over. You have complicated and unresolved feelings about them for the rest of your life.
Rumpus: The novel ends with Jesse still in her adolescence, but the reader leaves the book with a deep sense of which relationships will haunt her for years to come. You accomplish this with such subtlety and without any explicit foreshadowing. How aware were you while writing the novel of embedding suggestions about what might haunt Jesse well after the book ended?
Steinke: When we think of novels, we often think of chunks of time and the action during those periods. But when I think of time, my teenage years particularly, I think of relationships. Like 13-15, that was when my best friend was Alicia and we watched soap operas and sang along to John Denver songs. It’s the relationship that demarcates time for me. In adolescence, I was still unsure of what it was to be treated well and I was unsure too if I deserved to be treated well so I had a lot of relationships that had odd power dynamics and often I was treated cruelly. When I think about this now I can’t figure out why I put up with it. I think in the book I moved Jesse through some of those types of relationships to try to answer my own question, how does one learn one deserves love. It seems like it would be easy but it’s not. Often the relationships, before you realize you deserve love, are fascinating and complicated as well as painful. And they can mark you.
I like your idea that the relationships in the book are the ones Jesse takes into adulthood with her and I think you are right actually. The way one uses one’s history has always fascinated me. How your relationship to your own memory is always changing. My interpretation of past scenes of my life shifts constantly and I like to think that will be true for Jesse as well.
Rumpus: Toward the end of the novel, Jesse’s doubts about her relationships start to bleed into her doubts about her relationship to God, or perhaps it’s the spiritual doubt that starts to bleed into her doubts about the people she trusts and if they are taking advantage of her. I love the moment toward the end of the book when she describes prayer as yelling into a hole and imagines shouting into it: Do I really have to bare my womanhood? Do you think American girls feel less pressure to pose that question now? Or maybe it’s just the notion of God that’s changed and the pressure now is to perform the question for the ever-present Internet instead of some God who might be listening at the bottom of a hole?
Steinke: Jesus! Idra, this is a fantastic question. In some ways, the question that appears in the novel “Do I have to show my womanhood?” is the main one to ask of God. As in, Do I have to perform or can I be myself. This is the ultimate question. It has to do with the True and the False self. I know its one you’ve thought about a lot as it’s a key theme in the Lispector novel, The Passion According to G. H., which you translated, and it’s a theme I also see in many of your poems and in your forthcoming novel.
I think the answer should be no, you can keep yourself for yourself. You shouldn’t have to expose yourself; particularly, you shouldn’t feel like you have to create a false self to expose. But, the self, particularly for young girls, is an unformed and confusing thing. I have an eighteen-year-old daughter and she does not seem to feel the male gaze the way I did. She does not seem to bend to it as much. She wears the clothes girls of her age do, the shorts and black tights and maybe I am kidding myself or overly hopeful, but I do think she feels her body and her life is for her, not for others. If this is true this is a great and good thing and means we have had some progress. Not that she’s not on Facebook and Instagram, carefully curating her life for social media; she is! I think the need to be seen is very profound. To be seen as your raw and true self, its an sacred and holy thing that kind of seeing. And I do think social media takes advantage of this longing in each of us.
Rumpus: In Porochista Khakpour’s review of Sister Golden Hair in the Los Angeles Times, she calls the novel a “defiantly quiet book” and daring for being “deliberately small” in what it takes on. I also found it radical and refreshing to read a contemporary American novel that was so at ease taking on the story of one adolescent girl and telling it with intimacy. Did you deliberately set out to write a book that would feel quiet in this way?
Steinke: I did. I love so many contemporary novels but I also feel many books have too much plot. Either too picaresque or madcap or too set up. Novels that seem more thought out than emotionally true. If too much goes on in a story without emotional context I feel alienated, unable to reach the soft inside of the tale. I think the current interest in the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, who I adore, is with the rush of life that her novels give, they never seem cleverly plotted out or overly intellectual. Their focus is small and tight. They aren’t about life, they are life, with all its messiness, vulnerability and despair. I very much disagree with what much of the publishing world thinks of as a “big important” novel. I wish more books were raw and intimate. My friend, the writer Barry Hannah, use to tell me “what I want on the page is living tissue” and I agree with that.
Rumpus: I can’t get enough of Elena Ferrante’s fiction either. The Italian media has made much of the rumor that she uses a pseudonym and refuses to make public appearances because she is a man, which reveals something about how significant an author’s gender continues to be in the conversation around his or her work. Do you think you would have written Sister Golden Hair differently if you were writing, as George Eliot did, under a male pseudonym? Or if, like Elena Ferrante, people liked to speculate that you might actually be a man?
Steinke: I have to say it would pain me some to find out Elena Ferrante is a man. And it would surprise me too as the work seems so true to what I know of female emotion. But, if that is the case, it would be a lesson to me as well. Not to cling to the gender of the author, to enjoy the work for itself. Having said that, I find it annoying that the press wants to make her a man. As if a women could not write such monumental works. That makes me sad. Think about it, a female writer gains international fame and the literary press wants to say she is a man. I think even the impulse shows how much harder it is for a woman to gain that sort of wide reaching reputation that more male writers enjoy. I don’t think I would write anything different if the world thought I was a male writer. Would it be more freeing for me as a writer? I don’t think so. I think it might make reviewers take me more seriously though, which is why George Eliot did what she did. I have had female writer friends joke about pretending to be male novelists in order to be taken more seriously. What is sort of cool about the Ferrante mystery is that it is the other way around.
Rumpus: On the subject of mysteries, I’d like to end with a question about a line in your essay in the new issue of Granta. You say your friend Barry Hannah once remarked all your novels are about motherlessness, which is certainly true of Sister Golden Hair, as it is of so many great works of fiction. Why do you think the mystery of what happens emotionally in the absence of a mother is so riveting to novelists?
Steinke: I think there are many reasons that motherlessness is so powerful. The lack of essential early love, first and fore most, makes humans into wounded, desperate and searching souls. When I think about motherlessness I always think of Wuthering Heights, a favorite novel of mine. In that book, there are no mothers at all. And it shows, I think, when that first strong love and connection are missing, how people are turned into hurt animals. How they become wild. Not just uncivilized, which can happen too, but wild in their heart for that missing love and connection. When you have a character that feels that you have much to write into and explore, both with the darkly complex interior but also in the actions that can be, like Kathy and Heathcliff, intense and self-destructive. A motherless person may try to get that first intense connection from a lover. I wrote about this in my novel Suicide Blonde. But I also think the younger Jesse in my new book (which is a sort of soft prequel to SB) tries for this connection with her friends, tries to slam into them to get the solid and firm connection she could not get from her mother. So there is a desperation. But it is also very freeing to have been poorly mothered. You create yourself in a way that well-parented people can’t and this, while scary and maybe not ideal, is also very exciting.
Feature photo of author © Jenny Gorman.