Interviewed by Timothy Schirmer
In your essay, Dark Sky City, you recount a violent attack that you and your boyfriend suffered late one evening while crossing the street in your hometown, Flagstaff, Arizona. You use the second person perspective to strap the reader in for an immersive experience. In a technical sense, it has always seemed to me that the second person is like cilantro: people either like it, or they don’t. I personally like the second person, and the effect it has in Dark Sky City, and I wonder if it was an intellectual or more of an intuitive choice to tell the story from that vantage? Can you comment on how writing a long-form personal essay in the second person might have been challenging? Or liberating?
Because this experience was so difficult to revisit, I’d filed it away for years under the general label “That thing with the law.” Recently, though, I began feeling an unrelenting urge to tell the story. I knew I was ready but was having a hard time taking the first step. I joined a creative nonfiction workshop at the Attic (led by the phenomenal Brain Benson) in Portland, Oregon and procrastinated until I only had a few days before my draft was due for submission. Our suggested reading for that week was Jerald Walker’s “How to Make a Slave.” I remember getting the chills when I read it, because of the way the second person voice placed me inside the author’s shoes. By using second person, the author invited me into a complexity of experiences and emotions that I might otherwise have only perceived as a spectator.
Because my role in the story evokes immediate assumptions and connotations, I realized that writing in first person felt almost like I was trying to plead my case in the court of public opinion or tell my side when, sadly, this is essay is not only about my story, but that of many Americans who have had their lives upended or even ended by the same justice system that is supposed to protect them. The “you” voice felt right because it asks the reader to imagine themselves inside a scenario that many reasonably law-abiding, non-marginalized citizens have probably never imagined themselves inside of, just like I never fathomed it would happen to me until it did. Misuse of power is not someone else’s problem, far, far away, but something that threatens all of us, that we need to acknowledge and examine as a society.
Once I started writing in the second person, the story just flowed and within two writing sessions, my first draft was complete. I did try rewriting the beginning in first person, but it didn’t feel right, and I changed it back to the “you.” I like cilantro. As a creative writer, it’s liberating to know I can experiment with voice and form, and that there are many storytelling tools to choose from.
One of my favorite components of your story are the short and sporadic asides about the science of star formation deep in the cosmos. Taken out of context, these sections of text could be seen as educational, or informative, but spliced into the narrative, they assume some serious poetic muscle and shine. Are you especially interested in outer space as a subject? And how did you come to settle on the cosmos—and star formation specifically—as a thematic anchor for the essay?
While I’ve always loved looking up at the sky, I can’t say I understood much at all about star formation, or had even paid much attention to the workings of the cosmos, before this essay. It was only after I’d written the first draft and named the essay “Dark Sky City” that I thought about looking more deeply into the science of stars. The first text I read about star formation was a hair-raiser—all those descriptions of sudden implosions, violent collapse and energy sucked inward—the information could have just as easily been describing my personal experience. The more I learned, the more I saw that our connection to stars is both metaphorical and literal, that we really are, as Carl Sagan said, made of star stuff.
A provocative question is touched on near at end of Dark Sky City, and that is the issue of how—as human beings, and storytellers—we are to better understand our own experiences, including those which are painful to look at. At a healing ceremony in the desert, an elder who hears your boyfriend recount the attack tells him that it’s okay for him to stop retelling the story of that night, and to let it go silent inside him as a way of moving forward. At what point did you know that the alternative approach was true for you, and that you needed to put your story on paper? Did it occur to you early on, or after some time? Did writing this essay transform your relationship to the events?
As a storyteller, I’ve thought about this a lot. In the same way that we have choices with form and voice, there are also important questions of perspective and distance, especially when it comes to personal trauma. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer and there are times when a story absolutely needs to be told, and right away. But I think it comes down to the fact that we do have a choice, that we have ownership of our own stories.
In this specific case, my boyfriend was reliving all the toxic emotions every time he relayed the events. The wound was still wide open and by telling the story frequently, he was not giving space for it to heal. I remember when he told me about his conversation and the elder’s advice, I misinterpreted it at first as “You must never tell that story again,” when in fact he said something close, but monumentally different: “You never have to tell that story again.” The difference between “never tell it” and “the story is yours, you can choose whether, when, how, and to whom to tell it” is the difference between silencing and freedom.
While writing this story, I had to go through an old file of official reports and witness statements, taken at the time. It’s difficult even now, to revisit those events. I can only imagine how painful it must be for people who have to relive traumatic moments through their retelling in court, or for the loved ones of people like Ahmaud Arbury whose murder is replayed again and again on social media and yet who have no choice but to keep telling the story, because otherwise his case would just slip through the cracks of our prejudiced justice system. One personal way that this story has changed me is that I can no longer separate myself from the realities of injustice. I’m aware of living in a white wealth- privileging country with an ugly history that has not gone away but has instead been folded into institutional policies and the national psyche. Even now with Covid-19 threatening health and lives across the nation, the CDC reports that “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” While acknowledging these injustices can be difficult, ignoring or denying our reality is not an option if we do, as we say, value freedom.
In my case, I think this story had to be written now, years after the incident. Now, with more distance between myself and the immediate trauma, I can look back and see the bigger picture beyond my relatively small experience, now I can also see the large-scale failure of the justice system and the systematized class and race prejudices that are deeply ingrained in policy making. James Baldwin said, “It takes a long time to understand anything at all about what we call the past—and begin to be liberated from it.”
A piece written from the place of fresh pain would have been a different story, one that may have been unable to see beyond the immediate, the personal. Or in star terms, the story might have been too absorbed in its own fiery process and missed the perspective that comes with looking back from a distance and seeing the whole night sky.
There’s a line in the essay that expresses your confusion over the randomness of the attack and its subsequent events: “Because things like this just don’t happen to people who haven’t done anything.” At one point in the essay you share your experience of traveling to South America, where you took Ayahuasca with a shaman, and you were able to see how everything in the Universe is ordered, connected, and perhaps harmonious. Based on your experience, do you think plant medicines like Ayahuasca are helpful for healing old wounds?
Based on my personal experience, yes. However, once again, each experience is very personal and there is no right answer for everyone. My experiences with Ayahuasca were extremely intense and I’d recommend careful research and consideration for anyone interested in going that route. There’s also the matter of respect to indigenous cultures and that if we do ask for this gift, we must approach softly, with humility, willing to admit we know nothing, desirous to learn. My experience with Ayahuasca brought immense release, but first, I had to directly confront the slew of uncomfortable thoughts, memories, and feelings that resurfaced in my consciousness. To quote James Baldwin again, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Plant medicines or not, I think our whole society would benefit from stepping back and considering our connection to one another, to the sky, and to life. And to cilantro.