Past the Unreliable :: An Interview with Selah Saterstrom


Slab (small title continued: “On That Hallelujah Day When Tiger & Preacher Meet”) is one of those novels that hits you fast and hard, that you finish in one sitting, gulping down like an ice-cold glass of water, yet fail to be able to fully recall or explain the experience even moments after it ends. What’s for sure is this: the story of Slab centers around Tiger, a woman named for the color of her hair, a dancer, a dreamer, a girl fully rooted in the post-Katrina South, who may or may not be narrating the entirety of her story to Miss Barbara Walters. It’s little use trying to quickly describe Slab or its character Tiger, who is, after all, only as complex and fascinating as the author of the beast, Selah Saterstrom. In our brief interview, Saterstrom explores religion and its possible “anti-heroes,” Southern roots (and holds), even the heroisms of Nancy Drew. If you enjoy even a piece of this interview, go, fast, and pick up Saterstrom’s Slab (and all her other works).

Kati Heng: The setting of Mississippi seems to hold such a prominence in the story of Slab. Could this story have taken place anywhere else? What would it have looked like elsewhere?

Selah Saterstorm: The de-categorizing hand of the disaster doesn’t mind manners or borders. In this sense, the story could have taken place anywhere. Capitalism and politics, however, are sickly-bloated with border-fetish. In this sense, the disaster that was FEMA very much locates the story in Mississippi and Louisiana.

If this story were to be elsewhere, it would reflect different regional nuances on the sensual level. For example, it might not include a recipe for Andouille and Chaudin (yummmm!).

KH: Given the recent trend to call flawed human female characters “anti-heroes,” it’s not hard to imagine some seeing your protagonist Tiger as such. Do you see her as an “anti-hero”? How do you feel about that term?

SS: Is this a trend? My god! Is my central female character “flawed”? Ha ha ha! Well, Tiger does have her proclivities. Though I suppose I feel these as creative survival strategies that are more visionary than what the contemporary, Western meaning of flawed might entertain. Tiger is like a lot of women that influenced me when I was growing up; she possesses Skillful Will: she worked with what she had to create the most poignant results.

My basic understanding of the “anti-hero” is that the term refers to a character lacking in conventional heroic attributes. But what defines conventional in this sort of heroic?

Heroes have been on my mind. Two days ago the Holy Father [Pope Francis] canonized Junípero Serra, establishing Serra as a holy hero. In his homily, Pope Francis said, “[Serra] was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life.”

Serra’s campaign to convert Native Americans in (what we now call) California resulted in eradicating 90 – 95% of the Native American population in that region. The missions Serra established had two clear goals: conversion and land management. These two goals, in union, create hell.

I’ve been dumbfounded by the Pope’s decision to canonize Serra during a time of insane indigenous and anti-Mexican and other forms of xenophobia. I ask myself: is Serra a flawed anti-hero? To say “yes” feels, to me, like the violence he generated slips into a sort of romanticism, which serves to aid death-monger regimes in furthering their agendas.

The etymological tendrils of the word “conventional” drift through the body politic, the polis: a place indigenous people, people of color, gay people, trans people, women, immigrants, migrants, and refugees, and other marginalized people are often excluded from.

A contemporary example: that women in the United States aren’t in control of their healthcare choices insomuch as women’s bodies are fodder/material for a mostly male body politic and its gaze, the Congress. To be in Congress with. Well, ladies: there we (still) are.

All of which is to say: I’m not sure if the “conventional” should determine much since it seems an inaccurate model at onset (but originally I misspoke and instead of saying onset I said onslaught).

KH: One of my favorite pieces of the novel is when Tiger performs strip/pole dances as inspiring women from history–how did you come up with this idea?

SS: I knew Tiger was a dancer, and I knew she eventually needed to do her job, to use Dickinson’s term, slant.

I did not mean this as a judgment concerning exotic dancing, which is a no-joke job, requiring diverse skills that go unacknowledged as such because, whether true or not, exotic dancing, or stripping, is often considered sex work, and sex work is invisible labor in this country and in this world.

When Tiger performs as Florence Nightingale, for example, what I’m trying to realize is a sense of how gender is performed. I had this desire to expose my girlhood-feminine-moral-examples in a more accurate way: a more sophisticated, complex way.

I know that the result might be humorous, but for me, what was driving this choice, was a secret hope that the more complex version of these feminine examples would break through the props signifying the performances of gender. A hope that the performances would be a portal, and/or sites of transfiguration, of waking.

Slab by Selah Saterstrom

Slab by Selah Saterstrom

KH: Similar to Mississippi, religion plays a significant role in the story–the book seems to see religion as almost more of a setting than an activity or practice. What’s your relationship with religion? Is it simply an environmental attitude in the place this book is set?

SS: Flannery O’Connor said, “People in the South still conceive of humanity in theological terms. While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” This has long resonated with me, and perhaps points to my complicated relationship with religion. The shift from centered to haunted in O’Connor’s sentiment–that feels like familiar territory to me.

KH: It’s almost hard to tell throughout the book–is our narrator unreliable? Is Tiger really being interviewed by Barbara Walters? Are we ever supposed to know?

SS: I feel that Tiger is between living and dying.

Does being in such a way make one unreliable? I hope so. What is past the unreliable?

That is the place I want to explore.

KH: What do you miss most about Mississippi now that you’re teaching in Denver?

SS: I miss most family, friends, ghosts, places, food.

I miss that, at one time, even if psychically, this place–Mississippi–was a nuanced basket that collected my fragments. Since my parents died last year, I’m not sure if or how this is still possible, or if so, how it now works. I’m waiting for my ability to understand to catch up to my current situation.

KH: Finally, What are your bookshelves like? How do you sort books? Do you alphabetize? Where all do you keep books? What books have you had since you were 13? What books are you constantly rereading? What books are next to your bed?

SS: I now live with my girlfriend, and she is a book designer, so I find that our bookshelves are very well organized! Our books are alphabetically ordered, and there is a sane, but not overly rigid organization-by-genre thing happening.

On any given day, from this point forward in this incarnation, it is safe to say I’m also-always re-reading some text by Rebecca Brown, James Baldwin, Edmond Jabès, Etel Adnan, Joan Fiset, Fred Moten, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Robert Glück, Toni Morrison, Anne Carson, C. D. Wright, Kafka, or Hélène Cixous.

Books I’ve had since I was 13? My mother was a glorious reader and played a strong hand in shaping me and my sister’s reading life from an early age. Books I had then and still have include: The Biography of Joan of Arc, The Diary of Anne Frank, any book by Judy Blume, and because my mother was a spiritually ravenous woman: Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, The Collected Works of Kahil Gibran, any tome from the Edgar Cayce Library, and fairy tales.

I was also inspired by my sister who made reading seem cool. Together we also loved Nancy Drew. My sister, a natural detective, was good at sorting the mysteries early on in the books. I was consumed with how, though only a teenager, Nancy was granted such tremendous independence. She was one of the first “adventurous prudes” I loved (a genre/cult my sister and I made up).

Nancy always debunked the mystery as a hoax, and I’m not going to lie, that really bummed me out. But then I comforted myself, too. I felt a deeper truth not bound by my disappointment through the act of reading what wasn’t there: that Nancy was going to dump boring Ned, that Nancy was going to get in her roadster and never come back to that god-forsaken River Heights, that the clue in the diary was that, all along, Nancy had been its author.

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