Emboldened to Ask: A Conversation with Natalie Singer


It was the cover that first piqued my interest in Natalie Singer’s debut memoir, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation. The wide, bright, concentric, circles in rainbow colors, the sans serif typography, and the subtitle promising “a self-interrogation.” But the first line hooked me, and I found myself tucking the book into my purse each morning before leaving for my commute, and carrying it to my bedside each night. I finished the book full of questions of my own, not the least of which was, How did she do that?

I grew up in California, sixth generation on my mother’s side. I always felt a certain smugness about my good fortune to be born there. I was sure that I’d heard all of California’s mythologies and metaphors, that I carried them in me like ancestral folklore, like blood. Yet Singer’s beautifully crafted interrogatories and lyric responses brought new stories of place I call home. I rethought my possessiveness of California, and examined my feelings of precedence. Borders, nationalism, and entitlement to land have brought our nation to a human rights crisis. There is no better or more urgent time to start interrogating ourselves.

Recently, Singer and I talked about interrogation, silences, and sexism.


The Rumpus: Reading California Calling, I was reminded of what I’ll call “the Jewish tradition of questioning.” Like, Passover questions, or the image I have of some scholarly old men sitting around asking a lot of questions about the Torah. Is your Judaism was connected to the questioning?

Natalie Singer: Definitely. There’s a bunch of us Gen X bad Jews, as I call myself. My parents were cultural Jews, and we didn’t go to synagogue. I grew up on the East Coast, and I felt very insecure about Judaism because of that. It was one of the ways of many that I felt myself on the outside of something. I hesitate to grab onto that identity because I feel like I haven’t earned it, or I’m not performing the tasks and rituals that would grant me the right to embrace my Jewish identity. But I think that one Jewish thing that I have always been allowed to do, because I am from a large family of neurotic, constantly questioning Jewish people, is feel emboldened to ask. I’m constantly asking myself questions. It’s a non-stop narration in my brain. So it was empowering to be able to embrace that, and use that in the book’s structure.

Rumpus: I was also thinking about the power dynamic in interrogation. And there’s a little bit of patriarchal violence, like a forced speaking happening.

Singer: There is a tension. I just had this flashback memory to this night when I was a newspaper reporter with the Seattle Times. I had a day beat, but all the reporters had to share the night and the weekend shifts. These were totally different from our regular jobs. We’d listen to the police scanner, waiting for something to happen. One night I was doing a weekend night shift, and there was a horrible car accident on a two-lane highway. And a high school senior had been killed. The editor on duty wanted me to call the kid’s mother. And anyone who’s been a newspaper reporter knows, you have to go up to people at a crime scene, and you have to approach people in moments of grief, and moments that should be very private. So, it wasn’t completely foreign, but something about this cold call, in the middle of the night. I remember sitting there at this desk and for the first time in my whole journalism career, I was like, I’m not gonna do what’s being asked of me. There’s no way that I can interrogate this mother who just lost her child. And I lied about it to the editor. I think that came to mind because you brought up the tension between trying to illuminate all the harmful ways that we are interrogated as humans, and taking on that identity of interrogator myself.

I tried to do that in a subversive way that enabled me to make a commentary about the harm that interrogation can cause. But also show that interrogating ourselves can be powerful. There’s tension there, and I still feel conflicted about the whole idea of interrogation, and especially with what’s happening right now in our country at our borders. The idea that we’re still using power and interrogation to silence people and withhold very basic human rights is so disturbing.

Rumpus: There’s so many layers in that story that you just told of interrogation, because there’s the questioning of the mother, there’s the questioning of the boss, there’s the boss questioning you. Interrogation is such a large, hidden paradigm. I love how you talked about that balance between becoming the interrogator, and being the interrogated, and having to integrate your trauma through the same process.

Singer: Yeah, and I mean, people often ask, and I have been guilty of this, too. I’ve asked people who’ve written personal narratives about something traumatic, “Oh, is that cathartic for you?” And I know a lot of us flinch. But, I’m willing to own up to the fact that there is something helpful in confronting trauma through writing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that trauma is solved or healed, but it’s helpful, and it was helpful for me.

And I was well into writing this book before I had the idea pop into my head that I had experienced trauma. I was nearly done with the book. And there’s grief associated with that. I don’t know why, but for decades I hadn’t allowed myself to frame it that way.

Rumpus: As I read it, the interrogator voice is yourself, but it’s also self-directed—it’s also an integrative process. I think all of those things are happening at once throughout the book. We see it as a catalyst for the silence, and we see you trying to reclaim that message, both through your fragments, and with the white space. I don’t think this could exist in a form other than book because of your use of white space.

Singer: The theme is silence; being silenced and self-silencing, and silence is a form of oppression or control, and then conversely silence is a path to self agency. That’s reflected in the form with all the white space and the reliance on fragments. I was really excited that Hawthorne, my publisher, was on board with that, and really believed that the white space was an important part of the story.

Rumpus: Did you write the questions first, or the answers?

Singer: Sometimes a question would come to me and it felt like that had to be the question in the section, or fragment, or vignette, whatever you want to call it, spun out of that. And other times it would be the reverse. I would write a section or a few sections, and then try to look at what am I trying to get at here, and what’s being said or what’s not being said. Sometimes the vignette answers the question directly. A lot of times it’s evasive, or it answers a completely different question that’s not the one that’s asked. And so in that space, or that disconnect, there’s text there too, and it’s a subtext.

Rumpus: In some places, where the questions fall apart, they’re not actually questions; they’re statements or fragments. Which I think allows the reader some interpretation in terms of what function these little headings are really serving.

Singer: There’s always a challenge when you’re writing a personal narrative or memoir, because you’re navigating that need to have the voice of experience or the voice of who we are now. Now I’m a forty-year-old woman, with the ability to look back over my life and see things in a more lucid way and with some remove. I’m also influenced by who I am now and my environment. So right now I’m actually very rageful and angry at the patriarchy and all of that. That is influencing my voice of experience, which I think comes in to some of those questions or statements or section headers. And then we have to balance that with telling the story with the voice that was our voice then.

It’s a tactic that I use to sometimes differentiate between the me now, who is able to look back, and look back critically on some of these things, and the me then… and it was really important to me to be with the me then, to be very vulnerable and transparent, and not shy away from telling some stories or showing some sides of myself that are really mortifying and embarrassing. But that’s part of who we are when we’re seventeen and twenty.

Rumpus: I have this note that’s not really a question: the tie between the Yosemite killings and interrogation, and police work, and the way we value women’s bodies, and reportage—do you want to take a swing at that?

Singer: The Yosemite story was in a very early version of this book years ago, and I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t let it go, but I couldn’t make the connection either. And that thread of connection that you just outlined so beautifully emerged for me. I have two daughters, they’re eleven and thirteen now. As I was writing this book in its more recent final format, I could see them moving from being little girls or kids to moving toward becoming young women, and getting closer to what I was writing about in the book: what happens when we move from girlhood to womanhood, and that space in between when suddenly we realize that the world is looking at us in a very particular way.

And that we don’t have control over how we’re perceived, how our bodies are perceived in the world. I could see my daughters inching closer to that. I was growing more and more panicked. Then pull the camera back: what is happening in our country? It was revving me up to a place where I felt angrier and angrier about the consequences of being a girl and a woman, and that helped me look at some of the events of my girlhood and see them in a new way.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I wasn’t able to look at an experience of being flashed alongside being groped by an older boy on a camping trip. These things seemed like individual incidents that hovered at the back of my consciousness. And it wasn’t until I was able to look at them through the eyes of a mother of a girl approaching her teenage years. Then I was able to see how those experiences are all connected. How that’s a story that so many of us have had written for us, and that we really can’t get away from. That became a very important connection. And then I saw where the brutal murders of these women in Yosemite fit. I started to think: those women can be any of us. They could have been me, and we’re all navigating this world benefiting from narrow misses. Narrow misses of being accosted, narrow misses of being breached, narrow misses of being murdered. And some of us don’t escape those acts of violence. So it seemed an important theme to call out because I think that affects the women that we become in very direct ways. Because living in fear is something that so many of us accept as part of our daily lives.

Rumpus: As children, we’re allowed a certain amount of voice and narrative and then so much of it gets overwritten, or taken away, or questioned out of us that we’re left like your original scene on the witness stand. Unable to find the words for what our experiences are.

Singer: Right, and it’s a very unfortunate kind of self-silencing. And I think we’ve all had similar experiences. Like I actually never told anybody about being flashed until I wrote this book, because it didn’t seem important. But then, as a parent, if I found out that someone did that to my daughter and she felt like she could never tell anyone or say anything, I would be beside myself with grief about that. That it happened to her, but even more that she silenced herself.

Rumpus: There’s a normalization happening, like the various “low grade” forms of sexual violence that we all have to get through. From catcalling when you’re really a child, to being flashed. You’re a passive recipient of constant sexual aggression. There’s something about that passive state that leaves you without words because it’s surprising, and it seems so normal. It seems not worth talking about because, Oh yeah, whatever. So that happened to me, but of course that happens to everyone so much that why would I talk about this?

Singer: One of the good outcomes of #MeToo is that we’re changing our frequency a little bit. We’re able to look at those incidents in a different way now, and talk about them in a different way. I don’t think it’s solved, but—

Rumpus: But we’re starting. We’re starting to pull the pattern together and say, Well, I guess getting flashed one time isn’t the worst thing that’s gonna happen to you, but it’s also like part of a string of these things. It’s these narrow misses that you’re talking about.

I love that you included Scott, the copy editor’s notes, and I need to know if Scott was your copy editor, and if those are his real notes.

Singer: They are. And yeah.

Rumpus: Did he agree that you could include them?

Singer: No. I cannot believe that my publisher let me keep those in. I feel like I pulled a fast one.

It was part of the experience. The way his questions were phrased and positioned felt like echoes of themes in the book. And my first instinct was exactly what we just talked about: to push it aside. But my awareness was heightened, and I wasn’t in a frame of mind to be questioned on my lived experiences. And, that’s what the tone and tenor felt like. It felt like it actually belonged in the story, and so it went in.

Rumpus: The thing that I love about it, aside from the fact that it made me laugh, was how it carried me forward from the coming of age version of you to the adult author, and it reminded me how we never stop being interrogated about our choices as women.

Singer: There’s a power and a comfort in being able to get to a place in our lives where we can call that out, and recognize it for what it is. I did a reading right after this book came out, and there was a man in the audience and he had my book in his hand, and during the question period, he stood up, and his question wasn’t a question, it was a comment. He had the book opened to the back flap, and he said, “Well you certainly don’t look in real life like you do in your author photo.”

I was horrified and very put on the spot, and had to quickly gather myself and move on to the next person. But it was also an affirmation that this shit is real, and this shit is happening to us all the time.

There’s something horrible in having to constantly exist through this. And there’s something weirdly affirming when it happens, too, because we’re so positioned to be discounted and doubted and questioned and, therefore, we’re cultured to doubt ourselves. Every time it happens, there’s something affirming: You see, you see what just happened?

Rumpus: You wish that the cycle would stop because it’s exhausting, and painful, and brutal, and if all of a sudden, sexism stopped tomorrow, would we all be walking around dazed and be like, Was that a dream? Did we all make that up? Were we all hysterical? You want it to stop, but you also need those continuing affirmations of like, Oh right, I’m not just sensitive, I’m not just crazy, this is actually the world that we live in.

What a fucker. Nothing makes me want to burn down the patriarchy more than hearing that story.

Singer: I know, seriously. I mean, I can’t even!

Rumpus: You’ve actually driven me to a point of silence.

Singer: Sorry.

Rumpus: No, it’s good. It’s the silent rage of female fury.

Marissa Korbel is managing editor at The Rumpus, and a critically acclaimed essayist. You can also find her writing at Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. She lives and works as a public interest attorney in Portland, Oregon. Marissa tweets @likethchampagne. More from this author →