We were all girls, about the same size, no more than 5’3” and under 115 pounds, but that fall back on campus from study abroad we walked like we were men, nearly 6’1” and 200 pounds with a bum knee. Arms flexed and at our sides. We wanted to look like a stuffed gorilla won at a carnival by slinging little wooden balls as hard as you can at glass milk bottles. We walked as though we had sledgehammers affixed to our shoulders, and our names were Ricky.
You know, Ricky the mechanic. Ricky the prizefighter (or was that Rocky?). Ricky the uncle who belches the alphabet.
It was a joke. Sort of.
We met at a “survivors” group potluck where a bunch of female college students took dainty nervous bites of cupcakes and later cried as they told their stories. Except us. One after the other we left as a circle massage started to form, pretending we had to pee or had an emergency text. We met outside and called bullshit on “survival.” We didn’t even exchange names. We headed to the closest apartment and drank ourselves silly. Or should I say serious?
I hope it brings the reader into the text. This story is for you.
In my past life, I worked on immigration reform and legislative advocacy, so I’ve frequently written speeches that appeal to the individual to act, so it’s my nature to want to reach out to others and bring them into issues I care about. Of course, I in no way wanted my story to remind any reader of a political rally and a speaker with a microphone. I can’t say that I thought about any of this as I was writing. I just wrote. It was in revision that I worked carefully to be intentional about how the story moved from you to we and me. I definitely wanted something intimate. Sometimes I pictured the “you” as a new female friend that Rici is having coffee with. But I often thought of the “you” as Rici’s new lover, a good one, and the story as part of that endless conversation you have with someone where you bare all as you become partners. As I’m saying this, that all feels terribly intimate. I’m going to hide now.
There are a couple key moments in the story that point to the ways the Rickies think about their mothers, or the act of mothering. Early on the narrator says, “We got tattoos that said ‘Mom,’ and when they healed we used Sharpies to add ‘Never a,’ ‘Hate,’ and ‘Blame.’ Why was it our mothers’ faults? We couldn’t say exactly, but we knew we never wanted to be one. We vowed especially never to have daughters and, most of all, never to name them Lisa, Annabelle, Beth, or Claire.” And later on: “Two mothers called to ask when their daughters would be home for Christmas. They were sent to voice mail. Working on my senior thesis over break, Ricky texted. Ski trip with friends!! Barely a signal! wrote Ricki. The third mother did not call. She was on a cruise.”
Can you speak to the relationship between mothers and daughters in this piece? And how did your experience of being a new mother factor into the writing of this story?
This is a hard question. Being a mom has brought me more joy than I would have ever thought possible. It is a huge responsibility. We can do everything to protect our children and they will still get hurt and we don’t get to know how or when. That’s life. Raising a girl (though I want to be clear boys also experience sexual violence at rates that are unacceptable), a mom has the knowledge that the girl is going to deal with sexism and violence and we bring them into the world anyway. I think the Rickies get tattoos that say “Mom” because they are commiserating or acknowledging cross-generational trauma. But then they get mad because maybe they blame their moms for not doing more or talking about it. They say “Never a” because at this point in their life they aren’t going to be complicit in that. They aren’t joiners. They are troubled right now by any group—mothers included.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
Attending the PEN award ceremony and being in the room with other writers involved with PEN was incredibly inspiring. The room was filled with people who care about and tell stories about the urgent issues of the day. Before attending the MFA program at VCU, I was actually a social justice advocate in the immigrant rights movement and at times these two parts of myself have felt at odds. Winning the Dau allowed me to see that these parts can and should cohere. The other way winning the Dau has impacted me is that it’s given me permission and the breathing room to play the long game and not feel the immediate pressure to publish. I wrote a new story recently and I’ve tucked it away. I’m letting it breathe. I’m a writer. I’ve got time.
What are you working on now?
I am wrapping up (fingers crossed) a rewrite of a novel, The Bones of Stars, about a family in Kentucky whose daughter goes missing on the day the Challenger explodes. I’m also working on a new short story that is about fire walking, among other things. Teaching allows me to learn and play along with my students, so I also had a lot of fun recently turning a poem I wrote into an audio piece. I absolutely loved learning how to edit and add layers of sound and see writing come alive in a different way.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
I have a few writer friends who I’m thankful for because they usually discover the new writing and then tell me about it. I’m also religiously on the hunt for new books of stories that I can teach, and I find other English teachers can name off about twenty new books they love and that I’ve never heard of.