No Unnecessary Touching: A Conversation with C. Kubasta

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A family remodeling their home who discover unsettling things in the walls. A woman haunted by an ex-boyfriend’s dying mother. Strategies for living with loneliness, shame, and how to remove a tick. Women who mutate from animals and changelings to “reverse-ghost-women” who “bleed for days but never die.” These are some of the themes in C. Kubasta’s slow-burning new collection, Abjectification: Stories & Truths.

In Kubasta’s fiction, the moon transforms into an almost-perfect communion wafer, inviting the reader into a moral world where romance and redemption are inextricably linked. She is equally adept describing the eyelashes of roadkill fawn and the whistle of wind turbines. While her work grapples with many common themes in contemporary fiction—women’s bodies and the men who don’t quite understand them—her work is not didactic. It’s clear she’s sat for a long time with this material. Reading her work, you are drawn into the kind of concentration needed when you’re wondering what will happen next, and are a little bit scared to find out.

A Wisconsin native, Kubasta experiments with hybrid forms, excerpted text, and shifting voices—her poetry has been called claustrophobic and unflinching. Her most recent book of poetry is Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press, 2017) and her fiction includes the novella Girling (Brain Mill Press, 2017) and This Business of the Flesh (Apprentice House, 2018), both of which explore the stories of girls and women growing up in small towns. She teaches writing, literature, and cultural studies at Marian University and serves as assistant poetry editor at Brain Mill Press.

Kubasta and I discussed blood, holes, doors, pain, what it means to write fiction in 2020, and giving her characters the Bechdel test.

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The Rumpus: Tell me about the value of writing fiction in 2020. Maybe I’m biased, but I suspect this era will be remembered through its fiction, not our quarantine diaries.

C. Kubasta: Rereading Abjectification this spring, while we were all in our homes, I noticed how isolated my characters are—even when they have families, and friends, and significant others. I guess what I’m noticing is that even when we weren’t intentionally distancing, most of my characters were already keeping people at bay. What do we mean by intimacy, anyway?

Rumpus: What were some of your influences while writing this collection?

Kubasta: I was really inspired by the story collections of Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) and Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds). Both of these books explore gender, general creepiness, and the erotic in really interesting ways. In Machado’s story “The Husband Stitch,” there’s this: “He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt.” I was thinking about this when working on some of the men in my stories, when there were distances and disappointments between them and the various women in their lives. It’s important to me that my characters all pass a version of the Bechdel test—that there aren’t villains, but rather people all doing the best they can. It’s just that sometimes, maybe often, their good-enough isn’t good enough.

Rumpus: That’s interesting. You gave the Bechdel test—a measure that asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man—to your male characters.

Kubasta: As writers, we have a responsibility to write well—which I think means we have a responsibility to the humanity of our characters, and to the humanity of our readers. We should endeavor to do our best. It’s a kind of ethics of writing: to show the reality, the flaws, the realness of what is. The criteria of the Bechdel test is pretty simple, and quite strict, but it speaks more broadly to representation in narrative. Unless a creator is working within a very short space, or an intentionally closed narrative (with only a few characters), I think it would be really difficult not to pass that test. We’d have to imagine a character, a woman, who has no interests beyond her romantic interest. I don’t know any women like that. That kind of writing seems either myopic, or intentionally reductive—as if the author wants to strip their characters of having a full life. It’s a failure of imagination, or someone who doesn’t know much about the kind of people they’re writing about, doesn’t research, or doesn’t utilize a reader to help them find the holes in their stories. It’s not as simple as gender. I was talking to a writer friend, a man, and we were talking about childbirth; I would absolutely employ a beta reader if I wrote a childbirth scene. It’s something I don’t have any experience with. Sure, I’d do some research, and I’d interview people about their experiences, but I’d still reach out for readers to see how it read afterward.

When I think of my characters, I want to make sure that they have interior lives, backstories, a narrative arc that is more than just a brief intersection with the other characters. Importantly, even in a story that does center around an intimate relationship, their lives shouldn’t only be about that intimate relationship. There has to be something else going on. I also didn’t want, when the conflict is between a woman and a man, for it to just be about that intimate relationship. I didn’t want to be able to sort people into “good guys” and “bad guys.” I shared “Shedding” with a reader early on, and they pointed out that the wife came across as a type—the nagging wife. So I made some changes, because that wasn’t how I saw her, and I didn’t want her to read that way.

Rumpus: You don’t really intrude on your character’s lives. As much as I get the sense of an author in control when I read your work, I don’t get the impression you’re telling your characters what to do.

Kubasta: I appreciate being an observer, and trying to “discern” (to use a word with some religious connotations) as I’m reading. One of the things I find most disappointing about some contemporary fiction is when everything is explained in the end. Novels I admire, like Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel or John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, leave ends open for the reader. As an author I try to plant some moments, some images, but leave the discovery to the reader. Maybe I see the author’s role as leaving a trail, with a nudge here or there, rather than anything more explicit, and definitely no unnecessary touching. If an image like the father in “Shedding,” watching through the slim crack between the door and the frame, is fitting for how a reader feels reading my work, I’ll take it.

Rumpus: I found “How It Was for Him” one of the sadder stories in the collection. I suspected it wasn’t going to work out for Hal and Les, but I didn’t expect the story to descend into the realm it did. After Les is repulsed by the “hole” in Hal’s bedroom wall, you write: “He’d kind of forgotten about the hole—it had been there so long, it was just part of the room.” You don’t normally forget about the hole in your bedroom wall.

Kubasta: I find the “you” in your question fascinating—the idea that there is a “you,” or a general or common reader. It depends on how we construct the reader—all the aspects of their identity and community belonging: class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, education level, disability, and so much more. One of the things I’ve become more conscious of is that I’m a rural writer. My characters are country people (one of my colleagues calls me “country mouse”). The things that matter in my life, in the lives of my characters, are different from what I read in some other books. How people know each other, their church life or bar life (which in small towns, is what we mean by “social life”), how jobs are few because there are few big employers—unless you’re willing to drive more than an hour for work (and here, we measure distances in time, but an hour is sixty miles). One of the things I’ve discovered is that class is really present in my work, and I’d never thought about it consciously, but those differences are ever present. In college (when much of the material from “How It Was for Him” is drawn from) I became conscious of class because I needed to be for the first time, and now, working at a small university, I notice it in other ways.

Because you bring up holes, now I’m noticing them in many other stories in this collection—although maybe I’d use the language of tears, or scars, or seams. There are lost things, covered-up things, memories and losses barely scabbed over. In “Freak Show,” Jeff worries about being consumed; he recognizes that the women in his life make things, and he feels apart from that. In “Shedding,” there are holes in the house—a tunnel between houses, flying squirrel-holes, and communication gaps between the couple that allow them to hide things from each other: secrets and motivations and fears. In “Bluebeard’s Wife,” a door—open or closed—is a kind of hole, and the woman who desires finally admits what she wants. Maybe, despite Freud, a hole is never just a hole.

Rumpus: “Bluebeard’s Wife” is a story about a married woman deciding whether or not to have an affair at a professional conference. The story has this killer line, after the woman realizes they have adjoining rooms: “You don’t believe in signs, but you do believe in desire.” She has to decide if she’s going to open that door.

Kubasta: “Bluebeard” is my favorite fairy tale—one of the few that occurs after marriage; a story that hasn’t survived visibly in our contemporary canon like some others. Maybe because it’s not child-friendly. But it has deeply informed our cultural consciousness. One can discern a clear line from that story to slasher movies, as well as how we talk about dangers within relationships and the dangers of desire. It’s the nameless wife who compels our interest. She’s Eve, Pandora, and so many other women who are pivotal to human history. Her crime? A desire to know. In my story, she’s still unnamed, and the second-person point of view is designed to invoke an everywoman—any woman who has imagined/dreamed/desired something else, but also known (on some level) that maybe that wouldn’t be enough to satisfy her anyway. “Even your fantasies are a disappointment in the end, like thick-lensed glasses that obscure the truth.”

But the wife has a past, and it sustains her in some way, through memory. And she has a future that also sustains her, through the work of imagination. As long as the desire remains desire, un-acted, she cannot be disappointed. “But you hope he’ll ask you what you want, and for the first time in years you’ll say it.” The tense of those verbs are important—the potentiality of it, the maybe, the I will-ness. The existence of the door, but not yet the opening of the door. The opening of the door will ruin the possibility of what’s behind the door.

Rumpus: Many of your stories are about characters who are deceiving themselves and their bodies, pushing themselves to limits that might not be in their best interest overall. I’m thinking about Meghan in “Freak Show,” who compulsively tattoos herself and “doesn’t want to be touched or bothered during the healing.” Can you talk about the origin of that story? I’m assuming it’s an important one for you as it’s also reflected in the cover photo.

Kubasta: First, I’m interested in your reading of Meghan. I don’t think of her behavior as compulsive. I think she’s remaking herself. What interests me about that story—and this is probably the inception of it—is the way Jeff becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Meghan’s transformation. Despite how she offers him understanding and forgiveness, sex and pleasure, and they seem to be on the same page about the future, he feels some-kind-of-way as she makes choices about her own body. He cannot possess her, because she resists possession. He imagines the woman tattoo artist touching her, he resents that there are parts of her body he cannot see, he worries he’s going to be swallowed up. When I think of “Freak Show,” I think of it as a fairy tale about transformation; Meghan is becoming a version of herself designed by herself. She appalls because of that. Meghan’s mistake is trusting Jeff to see her as she is and still love her. It’s too much to ask. If I’m being honest, that’s probably my greatest fear, and also what I believe. That’s why I wrote the story.

Rumpus: Tell me about your use of blood in this collection. Can you also touch on some of the things that brought you to frame the stories through Kristeva’s theories of abjection?

Kubasta: Several important moments for me, in both writing individual stories, and structuring the collection, occurred as I was engaging with horror theory, specifically the work of Barbara Creed, Carol J. Clover, and Linda Williams. At the time, I was also lucky to be teaching horror with several of my colleagues, and they engaged me with conversations about the ideas that underlie the horrific: definitions of community, as well as categorical impurity. In particular, the idea of categorical impurity—that which is monstrous is something that exists in some in-between state—it cannot be easily defined, understood, or sorted. The audience recoils in horror: repulsed. We become quivering flesh, mirroring the quivering (and often undefinable) flesh we encounter. Depending on audience, reader, gaze, understanding of categories, that “impurity” could mean all sorts of things. I wanted to play with gender, and women’s bodies, but also perspective. So much of horror is playful, comic in a porny way, that the transformation of “objectification” made sense to me.

A number of the stories contain blood—but it’s not slasher-movie blood, it’s blood from a woman’s body, completely normal, but horrific outside the company of women. For me, this connects to the idea of blood crossing a boundary that (symbolically) separates our understanding between the living and dead, as well as between human and meat. And of course, that blood is central to defining women-as-mothers. If they bleed (as Jeff’s father in “Freak Show” tells him) they can’t be trusted. I just can’t stop thinking about that on so many levels—the bad-jokeness of it, but also, a woman who can be trusted is one who doesn’t bleed. She’s pregnant, as a woman should be. And if she bleeds, she better be dying. Or dead.

Some of my characters are so matter-of-fact, seemingly numb to pain or trauma, but that’s only because they’re accustomed to it—to needing to survive, and measure their responses. There are a lot of mothers in the book: actual mothers, would-be mothers, can’t-be mothers, and dead mothers. In Kristeva’s theory of abjection, the mother both attracts and repels; symbolically, this psychological wrestling loops out to encompass all other relationships and social institutions, including the church (which shows up far more than I thought it would), those holes you mentioned, the swallowing or withholding women, and even the natural environment in the final story “Boundaries,” where things are either living or dead, depending on which side of the perimeter you stand on.

Rumpus: Why did you make the move from publishing poetry to fiction? Do you still write poetry?

Kubasta: I do still write poetry, and I think I will always think of myself as a poet first and foremost. My poetry tends to interact with many of the same concerns as my fiction: growing up rural, bodies, memory, intimacy, and trauma. In particular, the poem “Aftermath“ utilizes some of the same material I used in “Freak Show.” Talking about horror, a colleague asked me if I’d ever heard the saying, “You can’t trust a woman because she bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.” I hadn’t; it kinda freaked me out. But I started asking people if they had, and one of my friends was surprised I hadn’t, given that our backgrounds are similar. She told me both her dad and stepdad had said it to her, when she was a teenager. I used that story for both the poem, and the story in Abjectification.

I was inspired to try writing fiction when I was teaching some Bonnie Jo Campbell in a literature class. My students, many of them who said they weren’t “book people,” really responded to Campbell. They also responded to Dorothy Allison. What struck me about those writers, and their work, is that they were reaching students who weren’t big readers, who thought literature wasn’t for them. Both Campbell and Allison write about their people, living rural lives, with families and relationships that might look different than what we see in other kinds of books. They are also brutally beautiful writers telling the truth. If that kind of work cuts through all the potential barriers my students may have built up, then that was an opportunity for me to learn.

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Photograph of C. Kubasta by Hannabarger Photography.


Stuart Ross is a writer from Queens living in Chicago. He is the author of Jenny in Corona (Tortoise Books, 2019). Find him at stuartmross.com and follow him at @myskypager. More from this author →