Joyce Carol Oates on Trauma and Adolescence

American writer and critic reflects on themes in her work

The Arch Literary Journal interviews American writer and critic Joyce Carol Oates:
Jessica McCort: Some of your most memorable protagonists, at least for me, are young girls; (my interest is in girlhood and representations of girlhood): Karen (17) in With Shuddering Fall, Connie (15) in "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been," and particularly the child Norma Jeane in Blonde. I was wondering what place "the American girl" holds in your imagination, particularly as a figure "trapped in history"?

Joyce Carol Oates: I'm very drawn to adolescent visions, whether they are boys or girls actually. Obviously my predilection might be a little more for girls, since I was a girl. Adolescence is a frame of mind and a consciousness with which I feel somewhat familiar. But I'm also often writing about boys too, who see the world, I think, somewhat differently, and I find the differences very interesting. I'm not sure that one sex is more trapped than another in the gender because of the role-playing that gender seems to bring to us ... can be defining, and it also can be very entrapping and suffocating. And, I see the adolescent consciousness as probing and skeptical and wondering and inventing, often in a way that I think adult consciousness no longer is, so I'm kind of drawn to that. But in terms of the girls that you mention, the Marilyn Monroe role that Norma Jean takes on is just so conspicuously grand and historic compared to the others that it is difficult for me to talk about her with the others. The novel is meant to be a posthumous novel where she is thinking back; she is no longer alive. She goes back to her beginnings as a very small child and then moves to Marilyn, and then Marilyn becomes this iconic carapace that sort of suffocates her. So I see her girlhood not really so much in terms of my other fictitious characters, but more as part of this mural, a kind of historic phenomenon. You know, to wake up one day and find that you are an iconic personality in history, you would want to say, "But no, I'm myself," but people cannot see you as yourself any longer. So in that case, the girl is really swallowed up.


JRM: Sure. I guess one of the things I'm drawn to in your work is this notion of trauma to your characters - they often go through very traumatic experiences - and so male and female, how do you see that being a central component in you work, or do you?

Joyce Carol Oates: Well, I think because things happened in my own background, particularly my family background, more than in my own life.... My grandmother and my mother experienced what would be called traumas of a kind, and I am kind of fascinated with how people deal with that. You probably have not read my most recent novel, The Gravedigger's Daughter. That's about my grandmother. When she was fourteen, her father, who was a gravedigger, a Jewish immigrant, was going to kill the whole family. He had a shotgun. He didn't kill my grandmother, who was fourteen, but he injured his wife and then he killed himself with the shotgun. But my grandmother, who was Jewish, actually never acknowledged that she was Jewish. She moved away from that world and became almost like an anonymous person. So The Gravedigger's Daughter is about that person who becomes an American, generic female trying to fit in and conform. She changes her hairstyle, she changes her way of walking, and she becomes sort of a movie-actress type of pleasant woman. Not glamorous or very beautiful, but a pleasant, a pleasing woman. So I always thought I never knew my grandmother, because she never talked about any of that. It was a secret. And I thought it must have been the case for my grandmother that every day of her life, every hour, she would remember that she was almost meant to have died when she was fourteen, but she didn't. He didn't kill her. So it seems to me that there would be a feeling in your life when you look back that it could have gone that way - and I would be gone - but it actually went this way. And so there is a feeling of immense gratitude and wonder, but it is tied in with the trauma. If you had not had the trauma, you wouldn't have the wonder and that sense of preciousness. So, I often write about that sort of thing. I don't often write about violence per se in the novels, but usually the aftermath or the consequence of the violence for girls and women - and sometimes for men and for boys - because it's a testing ground. In my own life, relatively, I have been spared. I've been spared. I haven't had the experiences that people in my family have had. So I'm like a witness or a chronicler. We can assume that Shakespeare didn't have the experiences of Macbeth or Othello; he was a kind of witness seeing how things played out. I'm just very interested in the drama of a situation, in situations that have some dramatic potential and how they work out. [Read the interview]

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