Our New Voices series continues with Lauren Holmes and her story ‘How Am I Supposed to Talk to You’, about family reunions, coming out and panty smuggling. She talks to Louise Scothern about female sexuality, the modern coming-of-age tale and mothers and daughters.
LS: The centre of your story, ‘How Am I Supposed to Talk to You?’ is the complex relationship between the narrator, Lala, and her mother. There is a large distance – both physical and emotional – between them, and the mother often does not seem (stereo)typically ‘maternal’, yet there exists an instinctual quality in their interactions and in the mother’s care. How did you develop these characters and their relationship, and what were you trying to say about maternal bonds in general and particularly the mother-daughter relationship?
LH: In 2004 I lived with a family in Mexico for a couple of months, and the daughter had this idea that if I sent her Victoria’s Secret underwear, she could sell it to her friends for a lot of money. We never did get involved in panty smuggling, but I couldn’t forget that idea. And as a starting place for a story, it got my wheels turning. Who was going to bring the underwear to whom? What was their relationship? So Lala and her mom somehow came out of that.
Also, my mom would probably appreciate it if I said on the record that Lala’s mom is nothing like my mom, and their relationship is nothing like ours. And neither of us can speak Spanish for shit. I read part of this story at my graduate reading, and my mom was like, ‘Everyone knows you’re in the fiction programme, right?’ So, yes, this story is fiction. I did borrow one thing and only one thing from my relationship with my mom, and that is that she used to trace the swirl on my forehead when I was a kid.
When Lala finally comes out to her mother, her reaction is confusing: she seems jealous that her ex-husband, Lala’s father, knew before her. This very personal revelation ends up contributing to the already dysfunctional family dynamic. Despite the specificity of this family set-up it seems to speak to the claustrophobia and expectations inherent in all family relations. To what extent can any of the characters escape the confines of the family, even with physical distance between them?
Maybe no one can escape the confines of his or her family. I don’t think physical distance helps with that. Even if you move to the other side of the world, and even if you don’t speak for years or decades, your family is always going to be a part of you. So for Lala, in her fictional universe, this is probably something she’ll struggle with for the rest of her life – how to have or not have a relationship with her mother. And as for the mother, maybe she’s better at living without Lala than Lala is at living without her, but ultimately she can’t escape either – she can’t escape her daughter and she can’t escape her parents.
At one point in the exchange where Lala comes out to her mother, she says ‘Lala, you are breaking my heart’. There is so much that can’t be expressed between them and this clichéd term, the only thing that her mother can manage, seems to be standing in for that. There is a desire for closeness but no words to express it. Do we always break each other’s hearts in a family? The story is an emotional one but your style is incredibly pared down and unsentimental. Is this something you developed to mirror Lala’s particular voice, did you find it adaptable to the ranging feelings and voices in the piece, or would you say you have a naturally spare writing style?
I don’t think we always break each other’s hearts in a family. I hope that’s not true. But in Lala’s universe, maybe it is. There are big heartbreaks, little heartbreaks and the heartbreak of no heartbreak at all – of not being close enough for anything to matter that much.
As for my writing style, I guess it’s naturally spare. It’s not much of a choice – it’s the way I think and the way I talk. Also, I don’t know any big words except for ‘exacerbate’, so there’s that.
Your protagonist, Lala, initially feels she can’t be herself as her mother doesn’t know she’s gay. Alongside this, her mother has invented a simple backstory to explain her life in Mexico: ‘My mom didn’t want Martin to know that she spoke English and went to Berkeley and lived in California for fourteen years and drove a Mercedes and then a Range Rover, so she told him she lived in Mexico City the whole time and drove her old VW the whole time, and I went to live with my dad in the States so that I could go to a good school.’ There is a strong sense of place in the story but also a feeling that no one quite fits in and that everyone is playing a role. Is performance integral to these characters? Are they searching for acceptance or for something less easy to define?
That’s a great way to put it, that everyone is playing a role. I think this goes back to the idea of escaping your family – Lala’s mother can’t actually cut herself off, but it’s part of her performance to pretend that she has, or that her family never existed in the first place. I don’t think Lala is performing in that same way, but I do think she’s trying out some roles – trying to be closer to her mom, trying to help her mom be a better mom. Maybe what she’s searching for is harder to define – something that goes along with being stuck with your family, but not having a comfortable place in it.
Lala hopes her temporarily repressed sexuality will be ‘outed’ by her choice of grey, sturdy underwear, contrasted with the Mexican girls buying marked up Victoria’s Secret knickers on the beach from Lala’s mother. Another of the stories from your collection, ‘Barbara the Slut’, features a striking depiction of a high school girl in absolute control of her sexual experiences with men. Are you particularly interested in exploring a female-centric sexuality through your writing and characters?
No, not really.
Just kidding, yes, it’s one of my obsessions. Sexuality is infinitely complex, and that complexity lends itself to the page (and to every other medium). And maybe we always think that things are more complicated for us than they were for past generations, but I think it’s a pretty crazy time for sexuality. Women are allowed to like sex now, but there’s a fine line between liking it and liking it too much. When we cross that line we’re sluts or sex addicts (mostly just sluts – the more honourable and blameless term ‘sex addict’ seems to be reserved for men). There’s all this ground breaking research saying women actually do want sex for sex. Who knew? But if women do have casual sex with men, they shouldn’t expect to have an orgasm or have their partner be especially concerned with their pleasure, according to a recent article in the New York Times. And now there are all of these ways in which we define our gender and our sexuality, but then there are so many ways in which we’re limited – limited by our families, our communities, our cultural laws and our actual laws. This makes defining ourselves complicated at best, and devastating at worst. All of these aspects of sexuality and gender make the modern coming-of-age story enormously compelling to me.
The story hints at a major disruption in the family’s past which has resulted in Lala’s mother returning to Mexico. Though we are given clues at various points in the story about what may have happened, it remains a mystery. I kept expecting there to be a ‘grand reveal’ where it all became clear, but was so pleased you didn’t allow us that easy resolution. Is there a right answer or a conclusion we should come to?
I guess I had something in mind, but I’m afraid to give you the ‘grand reveal’ now, in case it’s not nearly as grand as you imagined.
What are you currently reading?
I’m rereading my friend Phil Klay’s collection of stories, Redeployment (the title story originally appeared in Granta in 2011). I had the honour of reading the stories in draft form, but the book came out last week and I just started reading it from the beginning. It’s incredible. The stories are so beautiful and so important, and it’s one of those books that blows a whole world open – in this case the world of young American soldiers and veterans. This sounds like a shameless plug, but it’s what I’m actually reading. I’m on page 213. And you’ll thank me when you read it.
Name a book you think you should have read but haven’t?
Anna Karenina. Every time someone’s like, ‘Well, think about the plot of Anna Karenina,’ I’m like, ‘Exactly.’ But I have no idea what happens in that book. It’s been on my shelf forever.
What besides other writers influences your work?
How about writers of nonfiction? I love reading about worlds I don’t know – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family, Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. I also love reading psychology books and business books. I love research that tells us about who we are and how we work. I try to keep up with current events, but I’m always most interested in the quieter stories and opinion pieces. Maybe this isn’t the best example of quiet, but I loved the story by Dan P. Lee in New York Magazine about Travis the chimp, who brutally attacked his owner’s friend. It was beautifully told. And speaking of New York Magazine, and speaking of sexuality and the many ways in which we’re limited, recently there was a great story by Gene Stone about his relationship with Tiger, a female sex surrogate he worked with as part of his gay-conversion therapy in the 1980s.
If you didn’t want to be a writer, what would you want to be?
If I didn’t want to be a writer, I would have to start all over. I guess I could try to turn one of my hobbies into a career and be a dog trainer, a baker, an interior decorator, or maybe a therapist or some kind of professional listener of other people’s problems.