The Assay Interview Project: Elizabeth Kadetsky
February 22, 2021
Elizabeth Kadetsky is author of the memoir First There is a Mountain, the short story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World. A professor of creative writing at Penn State and nonfiction editor at the New England Review, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Program, MacDowell Colony, and Vermont Studio Center.
About The Memory Eaters: Kadetsky’s newest memoir is motivated by her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. To read a book that has forgetting at its center is to find yourself lost in a whirlwind of yearning: When memory fails, what is left of the self? In looking for answers to such questions, Kadetsky assumes the roles of narrator, historian, and caretaker in these thirteen haunting and haunted family stories. She considers her mother’s early career as a model, her sister’s journey through addiction and recovery, and her childhood growing up in New York City. Fractured and nonlinear, The Memory Eaters collects these fragments of family memory and patchworks them together into a whole, attempting to build a home.
The result is a book as nostalgic as it is honest, as unflinching as it is lyrical.
Samantha Edmonds: Praise for this book has mentioned its “lushness of prose,” calling it at times lyrical, longing, and nostalgic. To me, lyricism is more about style on the sentence level than it is about shape or form, but when I think of how I would describe your book—wistful, like a spiral—I realize I’m talking more about structure than sentence. I’m wondering what the idea of “lyricism” means to you—how would you define it? In what ways do you see a “lyric memoir” differing from other kinds of memoirs in its goals, structures, approaches, and so forth?
Elizabeth Kadetsky: What a great question—definitions in creative nonfiction are so slippery, and they are relatively new given the newness of even the (still inadequate) term creative nonfiction. I enjoy thinking of my work as both a part of a tradition (or traditions) and its own organic, idiosyncratic amalgamation of styles. Back in 1997, Seneca Review offered a helpful definition of a form that they coined “lyric essay.” It wasn’t new, nor did they claim it to be. It seemed to me, in part, similar to my goals for my own work. Lyric essay, wrote the editors in manifesto-like style, was “‘poetic essays’ or ‘essayistic poems’ [that] give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.” The editors went on to characterize it by such qualities as “density,” “shapeliness,” “ideas,” “musicality of language,” “weight,” “facts,” “passion,” and the “imaginative.”
Interestingly, the definition didn’t say too much about the sentence aside from hitting the note of musicality—but that can apply to composition and shape as well. Lyric, though, does come from the poetic idea of musicality, coming from the word lyre. And, in poetry, it is usually opposed to narrative. I do find one crucial thing missing from the Seneca Review definition, and that is story--which, for me as either a reader or writer needs to come close to the top of the list. So, that is a longwinded way of noting that it’s interesting that lyric can apply to both form and sentence style.
I’m also very flattered and drawn to the idea of the spiral as describing either the composition or the sentences in The Memory Eaters. In my mind, I always connected it more to the form, seeing my sentences as coming out of the 80s tradition of Raymond Carver-esque minimalism (for better or worse). So, it’s good to hear that I might be representing a variety of styles! In the end, in choosing whether to call The Memory Eaters lyric memoir I felt that the essay-driven structure required a nod to the non-narrative. While I was very much concerned with story, I also enjoyed following a more patterned approach to structure in this book as I sought to mimic the workings of memory and the collapse of different timeframes in the imagination. Each essay strives to tell a story, but it often does so in a nonlinear manner that has more in common with the lyric essay than with a traditional, linear memoir such as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club, or Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.
Speaking of structure, I began to notice as I was reading that the chapters functioned more like individual essays in many ways. Do you consider these chapters linked but standalone essays or inseparable parts of a whole? The book doesn’t move chronologically, but instead weaves in and out of various timelines, so what were your primary considerations as you were putting the book in its final order?
It was a very difficult book to structure. I did write most of the pieces as standalone essays, though I also edited out several when it came time to collate the work into a book, and I revised and collapsed several of the essays in order to create a more coherent overall structure. Finally, I added in two, story-driven but nonlinear essays—hoping to fill in holes and reinforce an overall structure in which most of the essays, or chapters, shifted between past and present according to approximately the same rhythm. In their initial forms, most of the essays moved between present and past such that the transitions hinged on associative connections. At one point I did feel that this was asking a lot of the reader, and I tried to organize the material into a linear narrative that interspersed a chronological A narrative (the present) with flashbacks told as a chronological B narrative (the past). That version didn’t work at all. I’d removed the “hinges,” as it were, and moved from past to present in a more orderly but less spontaneous way. The initial sparks connecting event to memory were lost—the flow was disrupted, and the quality of discovery behind the associations was lost. So I scrapped it.
One of the challenges was that the book covers a period of almost ten years, and the present-day sections were composed in a diary-like style. I wrote the material as it was happening. I wanted the book to retain the essence of that traumatic, in-the-moment experience of navigating between crises. Shifting to a retrospective or historical voice in which the experiences were more integrated into consciousness would not be true to the fractured and traumatic way that my mind and memory processed the events. Since the topic is, itself, this inquiry into the workings of traumatic memory and experience, it seemed like this was something that I could add to the conversation out there about Alzheimer’s, nostalgia, and the possibilities for creative nonfiction. And yet to use a narrative “I” that shifts over ten years is really difficult, and definitely anathema to the more traditional idea of a fixed narrative stance told from a present moment. Since I already had not just one but several backstories, I was working with a lot of time frames, and yet this layering of time was at the heart of the project. To honor them broke some rules, but I went with it. I will say, though, that there are other structuring tools available to the writer to make a work that may initially seem to be incoherent ultimately more rational. One is to use story structure—to always be telling a story and to subtly include elements of rise and fall structure within each segment, chapter, or essay, in this case. And another is to use subtle thematic organizing principles. This idea was suggested to me by the wonderful writer Mira Bartok, who read an early draft of the manuscript. In the end, I organized the chapters around themes, such as nostalgia, drugs, trauma, and forgetting.
I want to bring up “Moths," which is written in the second person, while the rest of the book is in the first, mostly because second person isn’t a very common point of view, especially in nonfiction. I’m fascinated by the explicit distance resulting from a narrator who is clearly an “I” telling a story using the “you” voice. How did you come to write that essay in that perspective? Was there something specific about the events of that narrative that made the point of view shift feel natural?
That is a great question, and there is a funny story behind it. Basically, the essay came out in a flash. I didn’t plan it except to start with two images: the tiny, labyrinth-like, moth-eaten patterns in my mother’s decaying Oriental rugs, and the shapes that plaques and tangles make in the Alzheimer’s brain. I imagined both images as “runic.” So, going with the idea of the rune, I wrote seeking out a sort of secret or key that would make the two horrific realities—that the rugs were decaying in this grotesque pattern, and that my mother had died—more acceptable. The essay is really about grief. It came out in the second person without my really thinking about it—when I submitted it to a journal for publication, the editor commented on its unusual slide from second person to first at the end, and in fact I hadn’t realized until that point that it was in the second. The second person seemed an apt expression of my almost disembodied condition of grief at the time. When assembling the book I decided to keep the essay as it was because I wanted the book to showcase a variety of nonfiction forms. While most follow the rhythmic back and forth of present and past grounded by story, as I said, there were also flash pieces, this one in the second person, a few that were purely linear and reflective tellings of the past, and one polemic.
“Meditations on Survival,” the penultimate chapter in the book, is one of my favorites from the memoir. The narrator places memories of her attack, her mother’s death, and the birth of her son side by side, and I was struck as I went on how these events, vastly different, came together in really satisfying ways. How did you choose which unrelated events to braid together—if you see them as unrelated at all? Could you talk a little bit about what you see as the connective tissue of the memoir—what binds these memories together?
Thank you for saying so. At times I wondered if this essay made too much of a stretch, but I ultimately decided to stick to the way that the three threads felt intrinsically connected for me. I did draft the essay several times, honing in more and more on the connections between the three threads. One approach was to ground the narrative of the assault in my relationship with my mother. When I realized that one of the trauma therapists whom I met looked, to me, like not only Susan Sontag but my mother, I knew that I should push that association and own it—to acknowledge it as a projection, because the two events (my mother’s being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and the assault) were so linked in my mind.
The birth of my son came into the writing organically, and for a long time I tried to edit it out, because I wasn’t sure of the connection. But I remembered something that I heard the writer Amy Hempel say in a talk once, that she was moving away from condensation and toward exploration and expansion. Rather than cut what didn’t seem to fit, she advised, write into it, go deeper, and discover why you included it in the first place. In this case, the connection wound up being about my desire to be a better mother than the mother I’d had. I think this was important for the book because I also knew that the narrative sometimes idealized or romanticized the flawed character who was my mother. And finally, I wanted to write about my assault as more than a personal trauma. I knew that I was not alone in being an assault survivor, and I wanted to push that thread toward “What does my story mean for you, the reader,” rather than “What am I accomplishing toward my own healing” in writing about it. This is why the essay winds up taking on the structure of a polemic, questioning the notion of mass versus individual trauma and arguing for rape and violence against women as corollary to war trauma, as others have recently argued as well.
The concept of “home” is a big one in this narrative, and more than once the memoir uses examples of Greek mythology to introduce the subject of home—and specifically forgetting home. The book opens with an epigraph about the Lotus-eaters in The Odyssey and concludes with the image of Persephone drinking from the river Lethe, so that she forgets her mother Demeter and stays in the underworld. I’m interested in the ways that memories so often lend themselves to mythmaking. Even the title of the memoir, The Memory Eaters, feels mythical. Who are the Memory Eaters in this book? Do Memory Eaters devour memories—therefore causing a forgetting—or consume memories as sustenance, as an act of remembrance? Or do they have some other function entirely?
I love this. Mythmaking really fits my mother’s character, and certainly the cover image of her—arriving, like a goddess. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, she became more of a mythic figure to herself, someone who existed in broad strokes. She became her former model self, full of postures and dramatic gestures and expressions. This was what was left of her memory of herself, and she embraced it. Her modeling photo archive showed a person who looked a part that was not the real person at all. In my dreams around that time, she often appeared as a larger-than-life goddess.
The dual quality that you bring up, of Memory Eaters both devouring and being sustained by memories, is quite insightful and in keeping with with my idea to write about not just memory but forgetting. I grapple with the paradox that for my mother as well as my sister—as for Persephone at the River Lethe—forgetting is freedom. For my mother, forgetting was freedom from trauma, something that I intuitively grasped as an assault survivor. Just as my mother became a myth to herself, she was someone who had overcome those traumas by becoming a person who existed in broad and mythic outlines. Myth is something that at once encompasses the quality of holding on to and revering memory, and also allowing for it to morph and become something closer to fiction.
The book makes an inextricable connection between memory, home, and place. In the final essay, “The Memory Palace,” the narrator, under the guise of renting an apartment in the same building, returns to the home of her childhood. She is overcome by the familiar strangeness: the lobby’s décor, the children playing outside. “I had only ever heard those sounds here, and now I was hearing them again,” she said, adding, “I could come back.” But even as she thinks she might be able to return, she notices the differences: the store downstairs had been remodeled, the doorknobs seemed too low, the view from the window was slightly off. If “place acts as a stand-in for that vanished, desired moment,” as the narrator claims, what does it mean that places are always changing, or even disappearing? Is it true that if we could only reclaim a specific place, we might also reclaim the past?
Svetlana Boym defines nostalgia as a longing for a past that never existed, and in this essay I was trying to hone in on that irresolvable paradox. I read a lot of work by emigres, expats, and refugees that encapsulated the idea—for instance, Vladimir Nabokov, and Boym, an emigre from Russia. But at a certain point I realized that I had very little in common with those figures associated with the irrecoverability of the past—I was living in the same city I grew up in, in fact just two miles from my home. For Nabokov, there had been a revolution, and his family’s noble holdings had been seized by the government, and the family’s very nobility erased by the new regime’s ideology. Aciman grew up Jewish in Alexandria, Egypt, a place entirely transformed by Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of Wahabism in Egypt. Unlike those writers, I could easily revisit the site of my own past. And, since it was an apartment building, I could even enter it fairly easily or acquire a lease and move in. I’d spent a lot of time documenting how much the New York City of the present had changed since the highly documented, Woody-Allen-era of my memories. But when I finally took the First Avenue bus up to my old home, I found a time capsule. The paradoxes only multiplied, and I once more had to reexamine the nature of my longing for the past. In part it was a confrontation with mortality in light of my mother’s then-fatal condition. Perhaps it was really just a confrontation with mortality in light of my mother’s then-fatal condition.
Finally, my favorite passage of the book is from “The Memory Pavilion,” when the narrator spends the afternoon with her mother “seeing colors in a new way”: blue seems bluer and black becomes so black it’s more like silver. If you were to describe this book as a color—especially a new or re-seen color—what color would you choose?
When I found old family negatives and had them processed, the colors that came back were incredibly rich, more real than real. I’m drawn to the idea of the bluish tint of a noir film, but, really, when I think of this project of recovering old memories and grappling with them, I think of the bright red of my mittens on that snowy day—so rich and lush.
Samantha Edmonds is the author of the chapbooks Pretty to Think So (Selcouth Station Press, 2019) and The Space Poet (Split/Lip Press, 2020). Her fiction and nonfiction appear in The New York Times, Gay Magazine, Ninth Letter, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Rumpus, among others. A PhD student in creative writing at the University of Missouri, she currently lives in Columbia. Visit her online at www.samanthaedmonds.com.
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