Today we bring you a selection of conversations from the Portland Book Festival. OPB’s Tiffany Camhi spoke with Aminder Dhaliwal about her book “Cyclopedia Exotica.” OPB’s Jenn Chavez spoke with Qian Julie Wang about her book “Beautiful Country.” And OPB’s Crystal Ligori spoke with Rivka Galchen, author of “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch,” and A.K. Blakemore, author of “The Manningtree Witches.”
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Today, we’re bringing you a series of conversations recorded at the recent Portland Book Festival. OPB’s Tiffany Camhi spoke with Aminder Dhaliwal. Dhaliwal is an animator and TV writer who has worked for Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. She’s also the author of two books, “Woman World” and her latest, “Cyclopedia Exotica.”
Tiffany Camhi: Don’t let the name fool you, it’s not an encyclopedia, it’s way more fun and way more thoughtful than that. It’s a comic series that she started on Instagram and it follows the lives of Cyclops, or one-eyed people, that are just trying to navigate through a two-eyed world and it’s really hilarious, super thought provoking and it looks at microaggressions, that marginalized or other people face every day. Let’s start with how you built this world, the ‘Cyclops in Two-eyed World.’ Can you describe how you put it together?
Aminder Dhaliwal: The world just kind of created itself from the initial idea. I really enjoyed exploring how the world would have to adapt if there was this entire portion of people who had one eye and had been ostracized for all this time, but now had emerged and were claiming their space and were suddenly entering the marketplace and how the world truly adapts to when they find a new audience. In figuring that out, I then got to build on top of that, like what products would be used in this world, what places these people go, what does an optometrist look like? So it kind of builds itself all from this initial idea, I think of it as just like a quick brainstorm that stems from this one idea, and I get to go along with it and find little nuggets to work some jokes into.
Camhi: So why did you choose a Cyclops and not some other kind of humanoid monster?
Dhaliwal: My answer would be that there was some hope that I would have a lot less to draw, but that’s not true. It’s actually a lot harder to draw expressions when you have just one eye. If I could go back in time I would tell myself not to do that. The creature archetype is fascinating to me. I love it as a metaphor, I think it’s a fascinating way to kind of hide the baggage of when you want to talk about race and bring in this creature that’s fresh, doesn’t have that baggage attached, and also get to, through the Daily Strip style, get to use this comedy as this kind of trojan horse to get into these deeper storylines about these characters. Ultimately the Cyclops really stemmed from the fact that they’re fun to draw, that they’re just almost close enough to the two eyes, but there’s that one very, very visible difference.
Camhi: The first comic strip in your book, it centers around Aetna, and she is a Cyclops who broke barriers for her kind by posing naked on the cover of a magazine that is not unlike Playboy, and I’m wondering why did you have this sexualization of Cyclops be the thing that actually was able to break barriers for them?
Dhaliwal: I’ve always found it fascinating that to be sexualized is this form of acceptance in society. That if you’re good enough to want to have someone want to date you, then you’re good enough to be accepted and you can switch ‘dated’ with another word there. There’s something fascinating about that because it’s not quite being accepted for who you are, but what you look like, but at the same time, it’s also some form of acceptance. You also can’t bash it as a way to get in, it’s kind of the bare minimum, but it’s something. So I thought it was a great way in, because it’s again very visual from a visual medium, but also wreaks havoc later in the story about how each of them has this relationship to the Playclops cover.
Camhi: So, like I said, we mentioned a bunch of microaggressions abound in this book. Did some of these stories come from real life experiences that either you experienced or people you know experienced?
Dhaliwal: Oh yeah. The best place to mine is your own experiences. So there are some in there which are picked right from my memories, except I usually change the ending and make it a little sweeter for me. It’s your chance to rewrite history, and then I love mining my friends for their stories and asking them to use others in the book as well. It’s kind of strange to read it now and know that so much of these are from my life, but also to feel like they’re so different and so far away from me now, as well. It’s kind of given me this kind of nice closure on some things.
Camhi: You hinted at this before, but do you think these microaggressions that you write about, do you think they’re more relatable when you remove things like race and gender because there are things happening to Cyclops, not things happening to Black people or Indigenous people?
Dhaliwal: I think removing that baggage allows for this kind of simplification of seeing exactly what’s wrong with a microaggression. I also kind of get to put my kind of twist on it, with making it about the Cyclops of one eyes versus a two eyes, so it feels so silly, which then kind of is the reflection of real microaggressions, kind of the silliness of it all. I had started with microaggressions because I thought with a daily strip style comic, one of the things I got to do is give a tiny minute little story about the world, hey, a daily strip is made for that. And I thought all these microaggressions, they’ll come into the book and you get to see all of them. But I never expected until I made the book itself that when you start adding up all those microaggressions, page by page by page, by the end of it, when you read the whole thing, it’s not micro anymore, that’s macro aggression. So there’s this unexpected twist to getting to tell the story about Cyclops that I’m like, hey it’s all silly, there’s no baggage, it’s all fair game and then being like, wow, that was quite heavy.
Camhi: Yes, reading it, it’s hilarious and funny, but it also feels like an assault on marginalized people because it’s like, ‘Wow, I have experienced a lot of these things that have happened.’ So you began writing and drawing these comics in 2018, how do you feel about this book coming out now – amid, you know, the racial reckoning, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, things like the debate over critical race theory.
Dhaliwal: Well, first I want to say the fact that you read it and you saw so much of yourself in there; I’ve had that moment with readers, where someone comes up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, this part, like, this has happened to me,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, cool.’ And then, ‘Oh, darn okay, that’s a bummer.’ So, glad you related to it, and I’m also sad. Coming out this year, “Woman World” came out during ‘Me Too,’ so I seem to have this ‘finger on the pulse,’ maybe you could say, but it’s really just all based off of my life. So, you know, ‘Life reflects Art.’ It was strange because there’s always some part of me that’s like, ‘We’re over this, right? This isn’t going to hit. No one wants to read this, someone’s going to read this and be like, ‘that should be from the 1930s.’ And then, everything happens. And I’m reminded that no, we’re not past this. This book is surprisingly relevant. It still was quite a shock to send everyone else to see that the way then it was packaged to the world was this book is about Asian hate because to me this book was my experience, that’s all it was. But I got to…suddenly I was doing interviews where the giant headline was all about Asian hate and I was like okay, it is that, but I just want to make sure that it’s not why I made the book. It’s just unfortunate that the timing hit that way. I’m also glad that it did because it’s relevant. It’s given me mixed feelings I suppose, at the end of the day, it’s sad that it still is so relatable.
Camhi: Your comic “Woman World” was released amid the ‘Me Too’ movement. You mentioned that “Cyclopedia Exotica” is released right now during the racial and social justice movement. My question for you is, what are you working on right now and what are your predictions for the next movement that it will be released in?
Dhaliwal: [Laughing] You mean my book about the world coming to an end? I’m working on my newest Instagram comic, which is one of my favorite formats of doing something. I get to Beta Test it. It’s about witches, it’s called, ‘Witches’ Guide to Burning,’ and it’s all an allegory to burn out.
Camhi: Hey, we all know about that one, I think.
Miller: That was Aminder Dhaliwal, in conversation with our All Things Considered Host Tiffany Camhi. Coming up after a break, we’ll listen to a conversation between OPB’s Jen Chavez and the author Qian Julie Wang from the Gert Boyle Studio OPB.
This is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. In 1994, when Qian Julie Wang was seven years old, she left her home in Northern China with her mother to join her father in Meiguo, which translates literally to beautiful country meaning the United States. Wang writes, ‘My parents and I would spend the next five years in the furtive shadows of New York City, pushing past hunger pains to labor at menial jobs with no rights, no access to medical care, no hope of legality.’ Wang chronicles her immigration story and those five years of her childhood in her debut Memoir, “Beautiful Country.”
OPB’s Jenn Chavez spoke with Wang at the recent Portland Book Festival.
Jenn Chavez: Could you start by telling us what are some of the first things you remember most viscerally about your first days in the United States?
Julie Wang: I remembered it as a very clear, ‘before and after’ in my life. Before we left China there was really nothing exceptional, I guess about me. I lived a very average life. I was pretty privileged. I looked like everyone around me and I never questioned whether I would fit in or go hungry. Pretty much the minute that we got off the plane at JFK, I noticed that my parents had changed from joyful, happy people who love to play pranks on each other and sing songs and make jokes, to people who constantly were looking over their shoulders as if waiting for boots to kick down a door. It took me a while to understand why that was. I also remember almost immediately hearing racial slurs thrown at us whenever we were in public and seeing the way that Asian Americans in particular, and Chinese Americans were portrayed in the media gave me a very early sense and understanding that there was something wrong with the way we looked and something wrong with the race that we were assigned. I also remember finding such refuge in books. I had been taken from my extended family and friends, but when I discovered the public library, I realized that here was a new world of family and friends who would show me the right way around navigating America.
Chavez: I loved what you wrote about reading and I think, we may have grown up around similar times because I recall reading “The Babysitter’s Club” and “Sweet Valley High” as well. Thank you for speaking to that. You wrote that you saw your race through the white gaze. What was that like to see yourself through the lens of whiteness for the first time?
Wang: I was extremely confused. I had never seen people who look like me portrayed that way, with eyes slanted and small. I actually remember being very surprised that there were people in the world with green eyes and blue eyes because up until that point, how I looked was normal and that was strange and I figured that blue eyes were just in cartoons and not in real life. When I saw the Asian race depicted that way, especially in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ I happened upon, I remember going to the mirror and pulling at my eyes and wondering what was so wrong with them. It was something that I internalized I think growing up, especially in my teenage years and it’s something that I have had to work to dig up and externalize and disown for most of my life since.
Chavez: You started writing this memoir in 2016 and that was after you became a citizen. And in the midst of the deeply anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric of the 2016 election and its aftermath. You had also started working on revisiting your past in therapy around this time. How did those things all happening together bring you to the point of being ready to write this book?
Wang: I became a citizen in May 2016, 22 years after I first stepped foot in New York City. I remember walking into the federal courthouse where I argued many cases already and on the video screen was the image of President Barack Obama greeting all of us in that room as fellow Americans. In that moment I felt something get dislodged in me, something that had been lodged for way too long. I let myself recognize how long I had been American, how long I had wanted to be called American and how long no one would ever ascribe that term to me, much less the President of the United States. Walking out of that room, I remember feeling a profound sense of privilege and thus responsibility to speak up for immigrants and undocumented immigrants who had no idea whether they would ever see the inside of that room. I told myself as I stepped through that door, never forget this privilege and never take it for granted. And I shockingly have not, and every day I wake up and I am grateful to be called American and to be safe here when so many millions cannot say that. So when the election happened and I saw so many of the people that I identify as my community, my family, reduced to political talking points, really demonized words, I knew that it was my responsibility to then speak up because I had the choice to do so and so many did not.
Chavez: The dialogue and the writing style of this book changes as you grow up. The early chapters feel like they’re written by a young child and from a young child’s perspective and the language reflects that and then you get older and the writing reflects that as well. Can you speak to how you were able to access your childhood voice and not only that, but follow it as it changes as you’re aging in the book?
Wang: Because I lived in great books when I moved here. I was very inspired by “Harriet the Spy.” I had many journals and diaries where I noted down extremely mundane details of everything around me, hoping that I would solve some sort of mystery. No mystery came to pass, but it did help me reconstruct what it was like to be in that little girl’s body. And it wasn’t always that I was a reliable narrator, I guess none of us ever can claim to be. But there would be entries where I said, oh my classmate, she’s awful, she buys a strawberry shortcake popsicle every day after class, I hate her. And it allowed me to get into that mindset of why is this little girl so focused on that detail? Oh, because she was hungry, because she wanted to fit in. So it was really a transformative experience of going back and reading those entries and putting myself back in that headspace and allowing myself to feel some feelings that I did not feel safe to in the past.
Chavez: Just talking about accessing your childhood voice. You’re writing about your childhood trauma in the beginning of this book. You say that you came to see that quote, ‘The thread of trauma was woven into every fiber of your family, your childhood.’
What did writing about your childhood trauma show you about the role of generational trauma in your family, in your life.
Wang: I saw it firsthand in myself as I was excavating these buried hurts and wounds that were still very much raw. I realized that so much of my adult life was still being dictated by these wounds from decades past. And it dawned on me that early in life we get these blueprints and patterns of how we engage with others and how we engage with the world. It can be near impossible to break out of those patterns without conscious thought and confrontation of those past traumas. So as I was revisiting my childhood events and seeing my parents both through my childhood eyes, but also as an adult who now understands that fact, I was able to so much better understand why they made the decisions that they did, why they reacted in certain ways. And I saw that the persecution of my father’s childhood, in the cultural revolution, he being from a dissident family, really built this pattern and blueprint for him to find persecution. And it’s not to say that it was his fault,
but that because he resisted the Chinese government, he very much wanted to find a place that was safer and offered more freedom of speech. But here under undocumented status, he continued to feel and live under that fear and threat of the government and its perpetual eyes. This understanding really allowed me to see my parents with more empathy and love and really appreciate how much they were able to achieve while not having had the privileges of mental health resources for instance, that I have since had.
Chavez: You say it’s changed your understanding of your parents and given you more empathy for your choices. Has writing this book changed your relationship with your parents?
Wang: Absolutely. I never forgot when I was writing this book that my parents were around the same age I was at the time of writing, and now I’m older than they were. Everything happened and I keep thinking how I would function in a new country where I didn’t speak the language, where I didn’t have the necessary documents, with a young child. The act of really putting the story out there, a story that all three of us associated with shame and secrecy, has I think, liberated all of us from the binds of the past and given us permission in many ways to build a new future untethered to the past that we never let see the light of day. I was incredibly moved when I finally found the courage to allow my parents to read the book. My father said that he felt healed by every page and that there was nothing we are now afraid of.
Chavez: So good to hear that your father said he felt healed by every page. That’s beautiful. One of the things I notice in this book is you’re taught pretty early on in your time in America to trust no one, not anyone in uniform or in a position of authority who might be there to deport you, not men, not people who weren’t Chinese, not even many other Chinese people you encountered. You also learn not to trust yourself, your own intuition. And I’m wondering how did you learn to trust again, like other people and also yourself?
Wang: It’s a continuing endeavor, as I said earlier. Once you get these rules and blueprints early in life, it’s hard to entirely shake them. Especially because it wasn’t until my late 20′s that I realized that I was living them. But the goodness of people continues to shock me sometimes, but really win me over. Even in those years, my third grade teacher really saw me, and gave me the gift of my very first book, “Charlotte’s Web.” So many community librarians give me that safety and that nest to go out and explore books and stories and teach myself English on them. The strength and kindness and joys of my parents, despite everything that we saw, have been an endless inspiration to me. I think it was really that those close early bonds, especially with my parents, that deep love, that unrelenting faith and loyalty that gave me the map for building true intimacy going forward. For a while that was hard because there was this seminal moment in my life where I became undocumented that I couldn’t share, and it didn’t feel safe to share with anyone. And it created this block to trust and intimacy. But now tearing down that wall has allowed me to see anew that I can be my true and full self with those around me. And even if they don’t have the same experiences, there’s so many moments in my childhood that seem shockingly to be universal. I’ve heard from readers who have never moved at all, who say, ‘Oh, I had this experience in class and I had this love for this book. And I also longed for ‘Tomagachi’ or ‘Polly Pocket ,’ and that just gives me so much faith that humanity is more alike than it is different.
Chavez: We do have a few audience questions: ‘Are there any books, films and or art that inspired you while telling this story?’
Wang: It’s funny because I don’t actually read much nonfiction. I mostly read novels and I love Victorian novels. I’m actually in the middle of rereading “Middlemarch” for the sixth time. My book is entirely different from the books that I consume. But again, I think that understanding of the universality of human experience, that it can translate from Victorian England to now is something that gave me faith that despite the singularity and specific circumstances of my story, that the American public in general might be able to relate to it. I loved “Angela’s Ashes.” I loved “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and I particularly enjoy their focus on the details and their focus on early life as a key to unlocking those experiences that speak so deeply and voluminously of the human experience. So of those, my north star was definitely “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”
Chavez: Another question from the audience: ‘Will you ever write a novel?’ And then after that it says, ‘Please?’
Wang: I’m so pleased to hear that because I am in the middle of writing a novel. I started it earlier this year about women of color, navigating the elite world of big law firms.
Chavez: Oh, really?
Wang: Something that I’m experienced with, and I’m finding the same self doubt is coming up, as when I started my memoir, these voices that say you think you can write a book, what makes you think you can write a book? Except now they say you think you can write a novel? Who do you think you are, a Lauren Groff?
Wang: So I try my best, keep going, keep plugging despite those voices.
Chavez: Have one more audience question, which I love actually. ‘Where do you find confidence?’
Wang: I found my voice really in the courtroom, being often the only woman, the only person of color in this fancy majestic room full of authority. A room I never would have felt safe in as a child and being able to stand up at the podium and speak loudly, the truth of my clients. Over time, it taught me to internalize that message, which I repeat to my parents, my clients, and my parents actually, which is, ‘You’re entitled to have your story be heard. You are entitled to shine light on your truth, this is your moment and no one can take your voice away from you.’ You can’t say that many times without starting to believe in it yourself. It was really through advocating for others that I learned to advocate for myself. It was really through finding the rights and standing up for the rights of other children that I realized that there was an inner child in me who probably had many rights deprived for far too long.
Dave Miller: That was Qian Julie Wang, the Author of “Beautiful Country” in conversation with Jenn Chavez. Coming up after a break, we’ll hear OPB’s Crystal Ligori talking with two authors about witches.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Authors A.K. Blakemore and Rivka Galchen each have new books out that explore the witch trials of the 17th century, but their approaches to this same subject and the characters at the center of each story are very different. OPB’s Crystal Ligori sat down with the pair to discuss the process of basing fiction on historical events, how personal experiences can be wrapped up in global circumstances and what it really means to be a witch.
Crystal Ligori: I want to start off with a big overarching question for you both. What is a witch? Both in how it’s popularly defined in the time period of your book, and what your own definition is?
A.K. Blakemore: It’s obviously quite difficult. I think one of the reasons we feel at such a remove from kind of the witch crazes of the 17th century now, and why we almost fetishize them in terms of the sort of aesthetics, is because what they believed a witch was in the broadest sense, is something the vast majority of people would now find it impossible to believe in. In the sense of it was someone who had commerce with the devil, and if you don’t believe in the devil, which like I say, the vast majority of people now don’t,
Blakemore: … that it is a ridiculous accusation to level against someone. At this time in England, so my book is set in the 1640s, which was during the English Civil War. The sense of observation and judgment by God, the sense that the devil moved through the world intentionally trying to corrupt people was very real in people’s lives. That was something I found incredibly fascinating from a psychological point of view. What would it have been like to have lived your life with the idea that the devil was almost a real person, an active force in your life. He could appear in your dreams, he could appear as a man, you wouldn’t know where he was or what he was trying to do. What a witch now is- a friend of mine, the writer Rebecca Thomas who’s done a lot of research on witchcraft, witches are her area of study, has a really neat way of putting it that I somewhat sort of paraphrase in my book, which is that a witch is someone who makes things happen by saying them. Obviously that’s a much broader definition, but one I quite like, and in a fairly self regarding way, I guess a lot of writers would quite like.
Rivka Galchen: I think the other side of it is what makes someone a witch and also I know something we were both kind of thinking through in words and on the page is kind of what makes someone see witches, which is kind of the other side. What is it that generates the vision like that? And one of the offshoots that I thought was interesting when I was reading, it’s just that how upsetting it is to see power located somewhere where one doesn’t want to see it. I feel like that might be part of why, again and again, it wasn’t only women who were burned for commerce with the devil, but it was mostly women, or overwhelmingly women. And then you sort of see that there is kind of irreducible sexual power and sexual aversion that can’t be taken away from women. It’s disturbing to see it. With all of the vaccine talk; I was reading about how, basically all these people who worked with cows, all these dairy maids wouldn’t get smallpox and it was just seen as kind of devilish. Their health was seen as devilish and it wasn’t understood. They were incidentally inoculated from cowpox in a way that people eventually learned how to get on top of, but seeing that health and not understanding it, not understanding why it was happening to this lower class group of people and not to other people. And just how disturbing it is to see power located somewhere that seems unsettling to the perceiver.
Blakemore: I think the point about power is a really interesting one because with British witch hunts, there’s power and powerlessness at work. Very often something people say about witch hunts is, ‘Oh, it could’ve happened to anyone.’ And after researching it for a little while, you sort of think, well, no, that wasn’t the case. Power, and the fact that very often these women were women who were living without male protection for whatever reason.
Ligori: I was totally thinking about that when I was reading both of these books, that the women who are accused of being witches are often poor. They’re widows, they’re single women, they’re folks who are vulnerable, who don’t have anyone to quote unquote, ‘defend them,’ or they live outside of acceptable social norms of the time. They’re not owned, they’re not claimed per se. I feel like that sort of element also leaves it open for, you mentioned temptation and sexual desire and how were you thinking about, A.K., the desire and the policing of it? I feel like your main character, because she is a younger woman, whereas Rivka, yours is a widow and an older woman in her 70s, I believe, and so I think that it’s a little bit of a different dynamic in each book.
Blakemore: One of the starting points is my main antagonist, the witch finder general, a real person, was responsible for the persecution and death of at least 200 women and men in about a five-year period. He wrote “The Discovery of Witches,” his own guide to witch hunting. I became really fascinated by this book, because there is such a sensual charge to his language. It kind of connects to what Rivka was saying about women having kind of an irreducible sexuality or propulsion, that can’t be controlled or taken away from them. His obsession with, witches definitely had this really powerful sexual element to it. It’s strange because I almost came away from writing it and from my research thinking God yeah, obviously it was much harder to be a woman, but it must have been incredibly difficult psychologically to be a puritan man as well. You have to sublimate natural sexual desires into something very much ‘other.’
Ligori: I feel like both Rebecca and Katarina… what’s interesting is I feel like they both wrestle with this idea at points in each of your books where they’re like, maybe I am a witch.
Galchen: I think you’ve gotten it that strange kind of satiny quality to seeing the world in terms of good and bad or even power and powerlessness that those are, on the one hand, legitimate frameworks, but also unstable and shifting. With Katarina, one thing I thought was interesting about an older woman versus a younger woman or in her case in particular, is a lot of the testimony showed that the people who found her to be ‘witchy’ were basically people who had neglected to help her. So again, you come across these situations in which someone was saying, ‘Well I had a cart, and she didn’t have a cart, and she asked if she could borrow my cart to carry out her hay, and I said ‘no’, and then terrible things happened to me.’ You see the psychological narrative being written and then you see the light switching. So it’s interesting to see the way that both of our central characters themselves are not excluded from this kind of shifting of the moral valence on the story just so that they can understand things in a new way.
Ligori: Rivka, you mentioned trials and obviously both you and A.K.’s books are focused on trials throughout the story. Do you think that the legal system and the idea of justice is actually making the situations worse for the characters in your book?
Blakemore: So it’s particularly interesting, I think, in terms of the English witch trials, because there were lots of very kind of key differences between how things tended to play out in England and on the Continent. The key one, which is reflected in our books, is that traditional torture methods, the rack, thumbscrews, things like that have been outlawed in England since the reign of Queen Elizabeth. So you couldn’t torture people to confession. You would think that being the case, there would be far fewer confessions from alleged witches in England, but still the majority of people who were hung as witches had confessed. The 1640s, when the civil war was raging, it was known as the ‘upside down time,’ this time of legal and political chaos. People didn’t necessarily know who was in charge of the country or who had the authority to put you in prison on any given day. There’s a lot of historical debate around whether or not someone like the ‘witch finder general’ would have been able to do what he did at any other time.
Ligori: These books have so much in common, but the tone is really different. Rivka, you chose almost this modern, ironic tone for your book. It reminded me a little bit of, not reality tv- and that’s not a diss because I love reality, but the idea, it was so salacious and gossipy and very, like it was tongue in cheek. Where did you come up with that? How did you decide to go for that in the writing of “Everyone Knows Your Mother’s a Witch?”
Galchen: You know, it’s sort of absurd. But the one thing I felt really confident about when I was writing this book was the voice, the voice came quite clearly to me. One, I wanted to write a modern book. I knew I was writing a modern book, it was a translation in language and time and space and for me that was the way it was going to work. And it was very specifically in my mind, Johannes Kepler’s Mother, it wasn’t just anyone, and I really associate that mathematical mind and he did sort of identify with her much more than with his father. There’s a lot of indications she wasn’t educated obviously, but that she had a very, what I like to think of as this mathematical mind, which I think of as someone who is very sensitive to patterns and takes great pleasure in rupturing the pattern. And that’s a comic mind on some level, that was how her voice came to me with this kind of conviction.
Ligori: A.K., your book is much more somber in tone. How did you go about finding Rebecca’s voice? Because just the introduction page of her describing her mom, I was like, ‘Ooh that cuts;’ so she does have a very sharp tongue.
Blakemore: Yeah, another thing that I knew straightaway going into writing it was that I didn’t want any of the witches – when I say ‘witches,’ I mean shorthand for ‘women accused of being witches’ for clarity. I didn’t want them to be necessarily good people, because you don’t need to be a good person to deserve sympathy when horrible things happen to you. In the trial documents I was working with, you get the sense that these women, they were troublemakers, they were interfering. They did have sharp tongues. There’s a brilliant bit. I didn’t manage to work it into the book. But Mother Clarke – Elizabeth Bedingfield was her real name – after she’s confessed to being a witch and she says that she was visited by the devil in the shape of a man, a man in a coat with black tips, I believe it is. And John Stearne, one of the interrogators, gestures to the ‘witch finder general’ and says ‘a man like this?’ and she says, ‘No, no, no, way better looking than him. It’s quite hard to interpret, but it just seems so much like a ‘subtweet,’ a mean joke that you could see someone making on Twitter today. And it’s hard not to read it as this gesture of defiance from a woman in a very desperate situation. So I knew that I didn’t want them to be helpless.
Ligori: I think in both these books, the time spent waiting for the trial to happen feels especially important to call out. I don’t know if because some of this may have been crafted during the pandemic, if that seeped into these novels, kind of the unknowing of our fate.
Galchen: I think that there’s really nothing more excruciating than suspense. I can’t even read certain kinds of suspense. I find them too painful and I felt that I had to manage not letting the book be sort of a pornography of suffering. Then the waiting was part of it and I felt like yes, they both do. There is a lot of waiting, but I remember in the actual historical record with Katarina for example, she actually waits six years. The whole family is in a state of suspended crisis for six years and I didn’t change it but I did kind of wave my hands to condense it so that it was humanly relatable. I actually almost couldn’t relate to six years of that kind of suspense.
Blakemore: I had the same problem. In fact, like possibly, an even worse problem, which was that all of my main characters ended up in prison and I visited the cell where they were kept under Colchester Castle. It is literally a very small cell completely underground with no windows, and the only light they would have had was a candle and they were kept there for about a year and a half. So I also had to do the waving of the hands and the condensing of time.
Ligori: I just wanted to end on this question of what do you think that we can learn today from these stories of women accused of witchcraft? Rivka?
Galchen: There is something to me that was quite, in retrospect overwhelming, and maybe drew me to the story in terms of why it felt urgent to me in the present day. Was just being so up close with how inconsequential truth and reasoning were, because that felt very contemporary to me to be kind of shocked by that.
Blakemore: For me, it’s maybe something not uniquely English. I think something we’ve seen here, perhaps in a more subtle way than it’s happened in America, is a sort of disintegration of solidarity between communities and across communities and particularly along class lines. And that was something that is reflected in these stories, I think, as Rivka said earlier, this idea of who has given help and who has denied help in a very insular community, and particularly when religious justification or religious drives towards charity collapse, people find ways to justify withdrawing charity and withdrawing solidarity from other people around them. So that was something I thought was very relevant in kind of a conservative England, where we’ve had decades of the demonization of people receiving social support from the government. And that part of that was also to do with the process of ‘othering,’ how you have to make someone not a human being anymore before you do horrible things to them, and how that was part of what happened to these women. They weren’t women anymore. They were witches. And that could justify the sleep deprivation torture they endured, throwing them in prison, hanging them eventually. That’s something that we very much see now in England, it’s most obviously directed towards refugees, and I’ve never really had time for this, ‘We are the daughters of the witches you could not burn,’’ thing, it sort of leaves me a bit cold because I’ve often thought the women who were actually accused of witchcraft and hung as witches, probably have less in common with a white middle class woman now and more in common with, as I say, a refugee.
Ligori: AK, Rivka, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I really appreciate it and I loved both “Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” and “The Manningtree Witches.” Thanks for taking the time to chat.
Galchen, Blakemore: Thank you very much.
Miller: You just heard the Authors A.K. Blakemore and Rivka Galchen in conversation with OPB Host, Crystal Ligori at the Portland Book Festival. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.
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