Early in Jiordan Castle’s powerful YA memoir-in-verse, Disappearing Act (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), her father takes her to a magic show: “what I mean to conjure now / is the magic show. // But I can’t see it.” This small moment eloquently encapsulates the trajectory of the book. When Castle was twelve, her father went to prison, disappearing from her life. As a preteen, there is much Castle does not and cannot know: the particulars of the charges, what they mean for her family and their finances, how to talk with friends about something so often kept secret.
Castle’s life bifurcates: she moves into high school and all of its confusions and complications, including difficult romantic and platonic relationships, which she must navigate while the other strand of her life—dealing with her father’s imprisonment—contains a multitude of unknowns. Castle brilliantly represents this through form. There are cross-outs and monostitches; white space interrupts sentences and stanzas; fill-in-the-blank lines stand in for words and phrases. The gaps and blanks show how little control she has: “All we did was wait for someone else to decide our fate.”
As unprepared as the teenaged Castle feels—“I’m always not ready,” she writes, “for something to change”—she learns how to weave the strands together, to be present in her life, and to find hope. In her introduction, she describes her father’s arrest as “A black hole bloom[ing] in the center of my life and there seemed to be no escaping its pull.” But what enters a black hole does not disappear forever: “Given enough time and the right circumstances, a black hole has the potential to evaporate and explode, laying the foundation for a new generation of stars.” Castle’s gorgeous constellations of poetic language show how she laid the foundation of a life she makes firmly her own.
I recently connected with Castle via Zoom, where we spoke about the power of white space, how YA isn’t just for young adults, and how to take care of one’s self as a memoirist.
The Rumpus: You have an MFA in poetry, but you’ve also written prose. How and why did you choose to write this story in poetry?
Jiordan Castle: Poetry is sort of timeless and endless in the sense that every poem—and this is going to sound very poet of me—is in conversation with every other poem. In everything that I do, there’s a thread of not wanting to be alone, of wanting a better understanding of myself and other people, not just people I love but people in general. For me, I think this story needed to be told in poems because it’s just a piece of the conversation.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of formal variety in this book. Prose poems, free verse couplets, found forms. How did you decide what form to use when?
Castle: Some of it is gut feeling. Some of it is asking, “What does this poem feel like in my mind and in my mouth, on the page, whether it’s a corkscrew shape, whether it’s a prose poem, whether it has blanks. The oldest piece in this book was actually written about ten years ago, and that was the first prison visit. I wrote a very early version of that piece in college, and it was the first time I let myself write about any of this and share it with people. I remember thinking there’s something here, not for the glory of it but for the oddity of the fact that sharing this deeply personal thing that I used to feel shame about could now bring people together. I built a lot around that concept and that shape, and varieties in form helped me build a lot of pieces so the narrative felt as disjointed and fraught as living felt at the time.
Rumpus: I’m obsessed with the blanks. Can you talk about them more?
Castle: When I’m joking, I refer to them as trauma Mad Libs, which to some extent they are. On one hand, in the book, the reader knows the big picture of what’s going on. These blanks are a way of injecting freedom for the reader to say, “What do you think is going on?” especially a young reader who may be having this experience themselves. It’s also a way for me to process it as the young character of myself and the writer reliving this story. There are some things I’m never going to know or some things that I want to misremember out of safety. The truth is very painful, and the blanks are a way of saying, “I’m going to tell you the story, but I’m also going to take care of myself.” I don’t look at this as a trauma book. I look at it as a snapshot of a life. I’m hoping that if other people have similar experiences, those blanks allow them to see themselves in the book too.
Rumpus: You often use a lot of white space. I’m thinking of “There Was,” a monostitch: “no envelope left for my sisters or me.” How would you define white space? What do you think it does for a poem?
Castle: That poem was actually one of my favorites, dark as it is. White space does really important work for me because I want a moment to sit with it. We’re so quick to move past grief and shame and these uncomfortable feelings. When someone goes through something traumatic, whether it’s a death or a similarly hard experience, we get this grace period from society and then we have to put it away to proceed in the world. So much of that just isn’t real, especially for young people. The white space is a way of sitting and paying attention and not pretending all is okay to quickly move on.
Rumpus: Do you include white space in your drafts?
Castle: The white space is part of my own brain processing poems as individual pieces. Going back to the idea of being in conversation, I’m always giving myself some visible space before moving on to the next thing, knowing that the pieces work together. Poems are our own little islands. They’re our own topographic journey, you know?
Rumpus: How is a memoir-in-verse different from a book-length series of poems?
Castle: A version of this book as a traditional poetry collection exists somewhere secretly in Google Drive. That book will never make it out into the world. It doesn’t need to. I was getting into the idea of writing this story, but vaguely, through random scenes or images. That original manuscript is still sacred to me, but just as the foundational text for the book that ended up happening.
I think the difference between this type of memoir and a traditional collection of poems is that this long thread was largely linear. I could go back and forth in time a bit, but I was always getting somewhere specific. I was getting to the next plot island to make the story into a true narrative. If this had been the original traditional poetry collection, I could have grouped it by theme, or by time or character. There are a lot of ways it could have played out, which was not the journey for this book.
Rumpus: In your introduction, you mention “trying to protect, honor, and acknowledge those who lived this story. That includes my sisters [. . .] Their personal narratives, their true stories, belong only to them.” Can you talk a little about writing about family and how you chose what to include?
Castle: There are so many writers who have already done this and done it really tenderly. I had the benefit of learning from them along the way. A couple who come to mind immediately are Lilly Dancyger and Nina Renata Aron, who talk about family with these very fraught subjects like addiction, parenthood, and a litany of other things. For me, it’s always going to be a complicated question, and I hope that the answer shifts with me over time. It will be different once more people have access to Disappearing Act and decide it is XYZ to them. That’s the thing about putting a memoir out there: you’re saying, “It’s okay if not everyone understands me if this book helps them better understand themselves.”
I think it’s a similar process in writing it and thinking about family. There are family members who I don’t have a relationship with anymore, and there are people that I’m incredibly close with, and I want to honor them equally. We all have former friendships where we might not have those people in our lives, but they matter and we care about the time we had together. People might treat that differently in writing, but it still holds true. I shared the second draft with certain family members, not exactly to get permission—the book was happening, and it is my story to tell—but to see whether there were small details that I overlooked that might matter to someone else. Honoring those details and letting people know that I wasn’t writing the book at them was very important to me.
Rumpus: One of the things I love about this book is that it’s about the experience of your father going to prison, but it’s equally about the experience of adolescence and friendship. Why did you want to include both in the book?
Castle: I wanted to show the complexities, the beautiful nuances of these friendships, especially with girls at a certain age, when some of us have crushes, some of us do not have crushes, some of us are having body issues. . . . Some of us just want to be left alone to play video games. I wanted to show that this big thing—your father going to prison—doesn’t go away, but it’s also not your whole life. When I wasn’t waiting for the phone to ring and fearing that I’d get my seven minutes on the phone with my father and find out something terrible happened to him that day, I was at the mall with my friends or at the movies. I do believe that every young person has their version of that. Sometimes it’s harder, sometimes it’s easier, but I love the idea that those two things live together because that’s just how life is. It is always thorny. It’s just that the stakes change from time to time.
Rumpus: What does “YA” mean to you?
Castle: I think it’s a mirror and a window. We love the term “coming of age,” but we’re always coming of age. There’s always a different time. We pin it to young adult literature because we think “coming of age” means puberty—becoming an adult, whatever that means societally, physically, romantically, platonically—but honestly, getting into your thirties is a different thing. Becoming middle-aged is a very different thing. And so on. Yes, we are writing for an audience that is experiencing a lot of things for the first time and hopefully giving them a guide and to say, “I see you, I’ve been you, I’m with you,” but also for adults to go back and say, “You know, I’m still this person inside, in so many ways.” I think the older we get, we change, but we still love what we love. We still have the same little shames and little happies and all these things that make us us from when we first started becoming whoever we were going to be.
Rumpus: How do you approach writing for a younger audience differently, or do you approach it differently?
Castle: Because my story is a memoir, it doesn’t end. It’s not an adult memoir about a divorce or a death, even. It’s this theme in my life, this very fraught time. I don’t graduate from high school, I don’t get married. I don’t do anything like that. It’s a quiet ending because it’s not an ending for me personally. My editor said that in YA, we might try to end by being on the road to being okay, which isn’t to say everything gets tied up in a bow, but that hope matters. You have to not terrify young people into thinking that the end is coming, because it’s not. As young people, no matter how bad the situation is, we look to books to tell us that not only can it get better but that it can become stranger or more exciting and more fulfilling. For me, writing for a younger audience meant writing the truth, knowing that it was going to be complicated and sad and difficult like it was in my lived experience, but also thinking a young person is going to read this who might be having this experience right now. I would never drop them in the deep end and say, “I went through this. You just gotta do it too.” I want to help them swim.
Rumpus: How would the story be different if you wrote a book for adults?
Castle: If this were an adult memoir, I think it would be present-day Jiordan. One thing that’s very sad but interesting to note is that the events in this book happened twice in my life. What you read in the book—my father’s suicide attempt, him going to prison—both of those things happened again in my twenties. I don’t put that in the book, obviously, because that’s not the story of my teen self and not what the book is concerned with. If I did this book for adults . . . you know, I don’t think I could do that book. Then, the elements of hope would be so much more difficult to capture. I didn’t think this book would ever happen, and I think it only happened because I did it for young people, knowing there was a backdoor for adults to walk through.
Rumpus: What frightened you the most while you were writing this, and how did you deal with that?
Castle: I think the fear that I had about writing the book was, “Am I a monster?” I thought just the act of writing it made me a bad daughter, a bad friend, and a bad sister. I really believed that when I was starting it, and I would never say that to a friend working on the same project. I would say, “This is your story. You have earned it.” And that people could benefit from it.
Three of my closest friends from that time read it and they could not have been more generous. They were so helpful in making me feel like the act of writing it was valid and also that we could better understand each other as friends and as adult women, rehashing this stuff together. When I got some buy-in and some peace and some grace from those people, that’s when I could be afraid of the normal things involved with publishing a book.
Rumpus: A lot of the details are left out of the book, and some of them you had no way of knowing. How did you deal with writing about what you didn’t know?
Castle: With that, there’s the criminal component. There are the things about my father’s crimes where I did my research—I have a folder with that material. I requested a sensitivity read, and I had a legal read. For me, that was really important, especially dealing with the prison system and with memoir in general. I wanted to make sure that I checked as many boxes as I could. But the things that I don’t know, I think I had to use my poet brain to ask, “How can I use this as a creative tool or an advantage to the craft?” Part of my experience growing up was the not knowing and the wanting to know, so I think it’s important to show that.
Rumpus: What’s been the best thing about writing and publishing this book?
Castle: One really nice thing is getting recognition from people who work in libraries. Having their consideration has been such a warm surprise. I think everybody wants their book to sell, but access has been the most exciting thing for me. The idea that because this book is getting into libraries, young people will get access whether they have the financial means or not. And that hopefully they can see themselves in the story. I wrote this book because when I was that age, I didn’t have anything to look to. I had nothing that felt like the experience I was living, and I hope I’ve course-corrected that even a tiny bit for anyone who shares the experience of growing up in the shadow of the prison system.
Author photograph by Kelly Williams