Paperback : 25 Mar 2011
Read an extract from: Tiger, Tiger
I still think about Peter, the man I loved most in the world, all the time.
At two in the afternoon, when he would come and pick me up and take me for rides; at five, when I would read to him, head on his chest; in the despair at seven p.m., when he would hold me and rub my belly for an hour; in the despair again at nine p.m. when we would go for a night ride, down to the Royal Cliffs Diner in Englewood Cliffs where I would buy a cup of coffee with precisely seven sugars and a lot of cream. We were friends, soul mates and lovers.
I was seven. He was fifty-one.
You begin Tiger, Tiger saying you began to write it the summer after Peter died. What did the writing of it offer you?
I’ve written all my life and before I could literally form words, I drew pictures that told stories. This is my identity. Most writers find that their first work is very personal. They may choose to tell the story as memoir or fictionalize it, but most writers seem to have the drive to write some form of autobiography. Even people who don’t write have an overwhelming human need to tell their stories. Some tell it through dance or they paint, or they are musicians. One’s experiences and their art are undeniably fused. Who knows what would have happened if I had no outlet? I don’t think I would be who I am today. Maybe I wouldn’t even be alive if I hadn’t expressed it; experiences like mine are toxic if you hold them inside.
Anyway, I hope readers will feel the difference between the prologue and the afterword. The prologue is my mental state right after Peter’s death. When I’m twenty-two, I’m still grieving and I’m being honest to my reader about missing him back then. It isn’t my voice now; it is so far from what feel in this current moment. Sometimes I have a dream that I am with him again and all I feel is great horror. The afterword is my voice now.
It's self-evidently a personal book and powerful and moving in its openness. Was there a tension between what the book told you about your childhood and what you wanted it to convey to others? What do you hope readers will think and feel as they read? What do you hope they will take away with them?
Reading has to be a fearless act; it’s like deep-sea diving. My ideal reader understands that these kinds of stories have been told since the beginning of time. Even through fairy tales. The kind of readers I hope for don’t judge me and they are not afraid to see with me. Privacy that maintains integrity is the only kind of privacy that’s worth maintaining. Secrets like the ones Peter had me keep don’t belong to me. I refuse to keep secrets that aren’t my burden. Maybe I’m overly optimistic but my greatest wish would be that somebody who is about to do what Peter did reads the book, and decides not to do it.
As for sensitive readers, they may need to skip sections. I always tell my friends that the ‘Nina’ chapter is the roughest because it’s the hardest for me as a reader. But I do think it’s important for parents to read the hardest scenes and if they are disturbed, to work through it either in therapy or in another way. My reasoning is because every child is vulnerable to abuse—it can happen to anyone—and if you can’t read the depiction in a book, then you cannot listen to your child’s account if it happens. And children sense what they can and can’t tell parents. They know your vulnerabilities, believe me. My mother never dealt with her own abuse and that’s partly why this catastrophe happened.
There are so many people I’ve talked to who are still protecting their parents from knowledge of sexual abuse and by doing so, carrying the burden alone. Send the message to kids that you’re tough, you can handle anything as a parent and no matter what it is—I love you, we can deal with it.
While yourself and Peter are strong characters in the book, your parents are both strongly drawn, and your home life is always present. Was this surprising to you?
I strove to balance the narrative between my home life and Peter’s world and to present each character with fairness and empathy. I present my own self as flawed because I don’t believe a memoir writer should try to be the hero or heroine. Of course the writer is the protagonist, but if you are going to portray others as three-dimensional people, it’s important that you do the same with yourself. A lot of the book takes place during my adolescence so I’m as confused and self-centered as any other teenager.
I particularly sought to give Poppa his due; to me nearly every word out of his mouth is poetry. He could be absolutely cruel or completely wonderful, but he always had a creative, compelling way of speaking. My mother had her own unique way of interacting and being too, and it’s more subtle, but I hope I capture it.
Finally, Tiger, Tiger is a work of literature; what makes it literature for you, and how straightforward was that to achieve? Which authors and books acted as inspirations?
I’m a big fan of George Eliot; especially The Mill on the Floss. She captures childhood and its beauty but also the terror of going through everything for the first time.
I love Anna Karenina. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is a masterwork. I think Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is genius. I really adore Dorothy Allison. James Baldwin gets to the heart like nobody does and the first time I read Faulkner I swear the world went Technicolor. I was influenced by my mentor John Vernon’s memoir A Book of Reasons because he writes quite a bit about sense perceptions. He makes a stroll through Walmart seem equivalent to landing on Mars.
I think books should let readers take from them what they need to. Kafka said, “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea with us.” Readers are resourceful and they find what they need to take away from a book without that author becoming didactic. Most of the works of art I admire take great risks; the authors have put away their fear of being judged. They have nerve. The world can’t change if it remains frozen. We can’t just have the same ideas circulating over and over. I think works of art inherently contain social value. You can’t separate art from our existence as social beings.
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 336
Published : 25 Mar 2011
Publisher : Penguin
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