Emily Stern interview, with Meg Tuite
When Doves Cry is one of those rare memoirs that is gripping, brilliantly written, and unforgettable. Stern blasts the reader into an earlier time and place through music and art that keep her alive and the onset of the awareness of AIDS and its horrifying impact on her life. Here are a few quotes from the prologue that Connotation Press has published:
“Like most Saturdays, I was digging for a movie to make me cry, a redemption story that titillated both tear ducts, and if I were lucky, my covert investigation of how to one day be physically anorexic without the perfectionist or Type-A personality component, which I’m incapable of because I like to eat with my fingers and prefer to store my clothes on the floor rather than in my closet.”
“Circling through all the stations several times, I finally stopped when I saw a distorted image of what I hoped were people crying. Loud operatic music filled the room while I adjusted the coat-hanger-covered-in-tinfoil antenna until the squiggly lines on the screen faded, revealing a man in coke-bottle lensed glasses wiping away tears amidst a sea of people with sun-visored mullets, thick moustaches, and high-wasted denim.”
“I’d hated Nancy since sometime in 1981 when a Chicago radio program said that her solution to the budget crisis was to cut vegetables out of the public school’s free meals programs because kids could eat ketchup instead.”
Emily, I cannot thank you enough for letting me read your memoir! It truly is one of those heartbreaking and heartfelt beauties that will stay with me in a universe filled with books that are read and sadly forgotten. Tell me, in whatever capacity you can, how it was to write this memoir and how long it took you?
Oh, well, it has been a grueling and profound three and a half years. Unearthing and crafting the somatic and visceral layers of trauma and silver linings is a possession of sorts. In the end, I had to surrender—sometimes kicking and screaming and crying—sometimes barfing…to an honest exploration. I’m not so sure it was particularly cathartic; it was more like being in labor for like—the last thirty years—and finally giving birth to acquiescence and transformation. Or maybe a circa the TV show Dallas hostile takeover of my truth.
There are pieces of my past that needed this untherapeutic yet thorough excavation. They needed to be under a microscope, or shaken and cracked open like a warm can of soda in the backseat of a car. Writing my book illuminated the ancestral possessions, and writing them down was a catalyst for conscious liberation.
I am a true fan of first person narrative and this young Emily pulled me right in to her world, her traumas that she lived through, and her unending power and grit even when facing a suicide attempt. How was it to delve into that adolescent and teenager’s mind again?
Hilarious is the first word that comes to mind. Humor and sarcasm were probably at the center of my strategy for survival, and it was lovely to remember all of the nuances that kept me afloat. Sometimes the most realistic thing one can do in the face of powerlessness is laugh at the absurdity, and it’s always a miracle when you find friends who can laugh with you.
Beyond that-or beneath that-it was fascinating. It was like examining the blueprints of the roads that led me here-to this moment-at 3:30am on a red couch in a backyard-with my own child asleep in her room. Am I the only one who hears David Byrne in their head constantly asking them how they got here? It was, of course, heartbreaking- in both gut wrenching, and bittersweet ways. It was satisfying to see everything on paper, and even more satisfying to have the opportunity to craft my experiences into art.
You have an older brother and a younger sister and yet they seem so far from the reality you lived in. What were their reactions to your memoir? Did they read it?
They’ve had myriad responses. I think that my brother can relate to my longing to document my mother’s life, and our lives in relationship to her. He was in school for photography when she was first diagnosed (with HIV), and she was the subject of much of his senior thesis work. His photographs have been such a gift to my sister and me over the last 22 years. He’s always been supportive of my writing—in general, and particularly of my memoir, though he hasn’t read it in its entirety yet. I’ve read chapters and excerpts to him, and we both cried. I’ve called him, and my sister, to help me stir the memory pot, and they’ve both been game—for the most part.
It’s true that they were, in many ways, distant from my reality when I was growing up. My brother is ten years older than I am, and had moved out to begin his life. My sister and I had vastly different experiences while living under the same roof. Now that we’re older, and have stopped bothering to try to talk about religion and politics, I think that we have finally started to really see each other. She is such a gentle and loving person who really wants the best for people. As kids, we were rivals. I saw her as my mother’s favorite, and assumed it was because my sister never said anything about our fucked up world. After she read an earlier draft of my book, she said, “You know, Emily, I always thought that you and Mom were so much closer than she and I were.” I was shocked. I asked why, and she said that while it was true that she and Mom got along, it was me that she was constantly fighting with, and that even though it shitty attention, it was still attention. It was pivotal for me. We all carry so much, and survive the best that we can.
I am always intrigued by the fine line between fiction and creative non-fiction. Do you have any thoughts on this?
It’s nature of memory to ride that line. In an earlier draft, I wrote about a scene that took place in Mexico when I was very young- about four-years-old. In it, I remembered a huge hotel ballroom party, with my father in the center of the room playing the piano. My mother was wearing a white 70’s macramé dress and a flower in her hair, and seemed to float through the room with a smile that rivaled the sunset. I read the chapter to my father, and he said, “Honey—that’s a beautiful scene, but that’s not what happened at all. We’d been walking on the beach in our bathing suits, and someone had to use the bathroom, so we’d snuck into that hotel and I saw a piano in an empty banquet room, and sat down and began playing.”
I’d remembered it so clearly, though the memory had always been pretty ethereal. It was a memory that had defined how beautiful my mother was, and now, I think that it was probably a sleepy kid dream. But that’s still memoir. It was mine.
I know you are an amazing teacher, as well. Can you share some of the classes you’re teaching and how they impact your students? I would guess that your deep empathy and experiences would envelop a deeper trust and openness with the students. Has that been the case?
Thank you. I strive to be an amazing teacher. Teaching is soul food, and even when I’m overworked and exhausted, which is often, I’m grateful. I do think that my experiences have made me a better teacher. It’s been a long road of hard work and self-acceptance to recognize the tenacity and will that I was so fortunate enough to have had coursing through me, and if my experiences can ever help to empower or inspire or validate others to recognize their own, we all benefit from the humanity in the room. There’s also something to loving someone like my mother-or anyone really-warts and all-that allows what some may see as flaws, to simply be the complexity of trying to survive, and that is nothing more or less than the human condition.
On the first day of nearly every class that I teach, we have some real talk. I invite students to tell the truth about who they are and where they come from; I ask them if they checked the mirror to see if they looked smart enough to go to college, and what “smart enough” means; I ask them if they did or didn’t have good experiences in school; I ask them to consciously invite their true history, and their ancestors, into every classroom they enter.
Favorite classes I’ve taught have been “The Art of Activism,” where students studied various sociopolitical movements, and the activist art that accompanied them; “We Are So Much More Than That; the deconstruction of the media and the resurrection of the self,” which used personal narrative and argumentative writing to explore the question “How can artists assert a unique perspective in a saturated world?” “Creative Writing and Grammar,” which was one part grammar, and one part grammar as device; and, an English class where we used the global AIDS epidemic as a lens to examine sociopolitical issues and oppression.
Who, whether musicians, writers, artists, film-makers, characters in film, family or friends, have been your biggest influences in writing your memoir?
Yikes. This could be a long list. I mean, shit. There was a lady at a bus stop in Seattle in the mid 90’s that told me her life story when I asked, “How’s it going?” and ended up hanging out with—and on every word—for several hours. The people in my self-defense classes over the years who tell their stories, often eeking them out in snippets, and bravely finding their voices. Alice Walker and The Color Purple. Oprah Winfrey, who was a woman who looked like she could be from my neighborhood, saying on TV, on AM Chicago in the early 80’s, that she’d been physically and sexually abused; she gave me, and I can only imagine so many more, permission to recognize and potentially survive their realities. Same with Alice Walker. I love Rebecca Brown’s book An Encyclopedia of a Family Medical Dictionary for it’s empty space, layers, and concise storytelling. I’m fond of Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body for exquisite sentences, and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and Anna Joy Springer’s The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir for their innovation and candor. Sarah Schulman for her tireless and masterful writing about AIDS, ACT UP, gentrification, and the work she’s doing now with Jewish Voices for Peace. Jackie Wang’s writing about prisons. Mattilda Berstien Sycamore for her radical brazenness. And the only other memoir (that I know of) about a parent that died from complications of AIDS—a book called Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, for paving the road. Oh- and Jackie Collins. Reading Chances when you’re eleven can make anything feel normal, and the female protagonist was a total badass.
Music was Pat Benetar, and Prince, Bauhaus and The Cure, U2, REM, Nina Simone, Judas Priest—really, this list could blow your server, but it’s the folks that talk about being strong and broken, the complexities of sexuality, politics, and how ugly things—feelings, people, wars, governments—can also house and manifest great beauty simultaneously. Or just play ridiculous metal riffs and scream a lot. That’s good stuff.
And then there’s John Waters, Divine, Roseanne, The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, David Bowie, and Diana Ross in the made for TV movie Mahogany.
What would you like to convey to a young artist or writer just starting to send their work out in the world or share it in a classroom?
Your story is essential to the conversation. No one else can tell it but you.
Because music is such a huge part of this memoir, can you share a link to a song that really took you there and still does?
These are the first two that come to mind:
Who are you reading at this time?
I’m in that beginning of the semester skimming phase right now. I’m reading Charlotte’ Web and The Phantom Tollbooth with my seven-year-old daughter, and re-reading Before Night Falls for a class I’m teaching on critical theory.
Is there a quote that speaks to you as a writer and a being?
Again- there’re so many…
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them- Albert Einstein
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere- Martin Luther King Jr
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up- Anne Lamott
Don’t shit where you eat- my grandma
I love your grandma! Thank you so much, Emily, for being our featured writer at Connotation Press for the month of September! You are a true inspiration to so many!
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