Friday, April 20, 2012

Interview With Christine Stark--Writer, Artist, and Speaker

I recently had the opportunity to interview Christine Stark, who is the author of the book Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation. The book is a unique story of survival, that follows the character Little Miss So and So throughout her life and is told from her point of view. To read my full review of the book and to enter to win a copy, please follow this link. I wanted to know more about the author and the inspiration behind the book, so I sent Christine a few interview questions and she was kind enough to share her answers with me. 


What was your inspiration to write a novel about sexual abuse and dissociation?

I've been doing grass roots activism against sexual exploitation and other social justice issues since I was 21-years-old. One thing I saw repeatedly, no matter what "kind" of exploitation women and children experience, is that dissociation, to whatever degree is evident in the individual's life, is a key component to how people survive trauma, whether they get out, and how vulnerable they are to future exploitation. I think dissociation is misunderstood and therefore largely ignored by people doing this work. So that was one reason. Another reason is that I thought it would be an interesting challenge from a writer's perspective to capture the experience of a highly dissociative mind. But the "aha" moment occurred when someone said that Push, by Sapphire (a book I greatly admire) was the best portrayal of dissociation she had ever seen. I thought: I want to write a book about dissociation. So I did.  

Why did you choose to write the book in a lyrical style with prose poems, as opposed to the traditional route?

Using a traditional style would have greatly limited my ability to convey the experience of dissociation. The often intense associational logic kind of thinking that many dissociative people experience cannot be conveyed as immediately and authentically using a traditional style. I wanted to remove as many barriers separating Little Miss So And So from the reader as I possibly could. Using a lyrical, prose poems sets the reader inside the mind and though processes of the protagonist. Also, metaphors factor greatly in her thinking as both a means of survival and a way to create beauty in her world. A person can survive trauma, but she must also find a way to create and experience beauty, despite the terror and ugliness, or she will not be able to transcend the brutality. Metaphor is how Little Miss So And So creates beauty, and it also functions as a way for her to communicate her experiences with others, especially later in the novel. Also, it was tremendously freeing way to write, so I enjoyed writing the book. When I was a kid, I loved to write stories and did really well in school. My lowest grades were in grammar because I found it to be boring, restrictive, and I did not like rules in general. So I guess the writing style is also an extensive of my childhood interest in creating language without rules.

 The book is said to be a work of fiction, but it does provide a very insightful look into the mind of someone with dissociation. How were you able to tell the story so well?

 I have many friends who are dissociative to varying degrees and I also have my own experiences with dissociation and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. So I drew upon all that knowledge, and then tossed in some creative inspiration for good measure. Also, I created this character, met her in a sense, because for me writing is very much an experience of finding the characters and the story, and then going and getting it and bringing it back as whole as possible. So in a way the authenticity of the story and characters is number one, and the style of story telling is in service to the story and characters. Writing this story was like taking a tow rope up a ski hill. I had to put my hand out, find the rope, and hold it as long as I was able. Then when I came back to it the next day, I did the same thing.  

Why did you choose to use the name, Little Miss So and So, rather than an actual name for the main character in the book?

When the writing went beyond a couple of prose poems and I realized it would be a book, I had a moment where I thought what is this girl's name? And no name came to me. I thought: Sarah. Cindy. And after the second name it was clear to me that this girl, because of the way she is made invisible and viewed as crazy by her parents and many of the adults around her could not have an individual's name. She is not treated as an individual with respect, dignity, and sovereignty but rather as a receptacle for the abusers' shame, fear, rage, and inferiority. I also wanted her name to be vague and dismissive because the abuses directed at her are directed at so many. I wanted to invoke the way other writers and thinkers have used the idea of Everyman and Everywoman. Of course, one character cannot represent all abused girls, but I hope that readers will think about the similarities among abuse survivors, and the way girls are mistreated. Also, hostilities directed at children scapegoat them and therefore, have nothing whatsoever to do with the inherent value of the individual child. Instead, they are about the abusers' projections and the abusers' needs, and I would argue, society's projections such as portraying girls as inferior, weak, crybabies, vixens, and so on. Paradoxically, children feel as if the abuse they experience is entirely about them and their supposed shortcomings.

So and so is dismissive and that is what the girl must fight, live, grow, become against. Her name changes from Little Miss So And So to So And So because others perceive her to age out of the little miss, but in her mind she does not entirely grow up. Because of the abuse, parts of her do not grow up.  

How did you choose the girl's specific cultural background?

Her cultural background, being white and American Indian, is crucial to her ability to survive and then heal from the abuse, but for much of the novel she does not know what to do or how to identify herself. She is torn between the two backgrounds. She dissociates from her American Indian heritage yet is drawn to it and it remains important to her even if she must psychologically bury it most of the time. So her relationship to her racial identity mirrors her main coping strategy, her dissociation. She must hide the abuse in her home, and she must hide her mixed race identity as well.

What do you hope people learn or gain from this book? In the same sense, do you feel that everyone could learn from this book or that it is more directed at a specific group of people? 

First and foremost, this is a coming-of-age story. By that I mean that it is literature, and so the characters and story and writing are most important. Secondly, people interested in a wide variety of issues will be particularly interested in the book. Class, race, abuse, sexuality, girls' athletics, self discovery, and survival are all important components of the novel. The experience of dissociation is portrayed from the inside in a way that does not pathologize it, but rather shows what the character's experience of herself and the world is from a traumatized, yet spirited, girl and later young woman's point-of-view.

But again, this is one aspect of the story. This is a book most immediately for and about abuse survivors, but it should not be limited to that audience in the same way that, say, James Baldwin should not be limited to gay, African American readers. Everyone can relate to the protagonist because although some of her experiences are specific, there are universal themes in the book, including love and joy and play. A lot of writing and activist work around sexual exploitation wants to focus on just the miserable, abusive aspects of the victims/survivors' lives, but I feel that does a great disservice. It removes agency from those being hurt, and it can stereotype survivors, reducing them to one dimensional victims such that victim becomes everything about them, thus stripping them of their full humanity.

Nickels is an honest portrayal of someone who must fight like hell just to live, but also, at the same time, takes risk to love and be responsible for a mess that was not her own doing but that she cannot escape. That is one of the most unjust things about abuse, the abused must live with, to one degree or another, the ramifications of the abuser's actions. She cannot be absolved of responsibility, by spending X number of months in a prison, or visiting a religious leader, or doing penance in some other way. The aftereffects are always present, always causing tremendous pain and confusion and distancing, and often poverty, homelessness, depression, and more abuse. There is always hope, and many do get away and heal, but thanks to Post Traumatic Stress, the past becomes present, often at the most misopportune times. Characters and people do heal, so that the trauma lessens and becomes manageable, but it does not happen overnight. Healing occurs over years, and many of those years are very difficult and painful and confusing.

Christine Stark is an award-winning author, writer, and artist. You can learn more about her work at her website,
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