Woodshop Talk: Erica X Eisen
Erica X Eisen is the author of the short story “Collaboration Horizontale”
and winner of the Inkslinger Award in fiction for Issue No. 9.
Here we chat with her about her process and her art.
This is Woodshop Talk.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Collaboration Horizontale is of course more than a story title — the community-driven vengeance against women portrayed in your story actually did occur throughout post-Liberation France. How did you come to discover these incidents, and what about them most inspired you to retell their story in the form of historical fiction?
ERICA X EISEN: I’d read about these kinds of events in history books long before writing “Collaboration Horizontale,” but the immediate catalyst for the story was watching Hiroshima mon amour, a film made in 1959 by the French director Alain Resnais with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. If you haven’t seen it, I really cannot recommend it highly enough — it is one of those movies that stays with you. The film is very much about history, memory, and forgetting. The main female character is a French woman who goes to Japan and becomes obsessed with the story of Hiroshima’s wartime trauma; the first section of the film is a long interchange between her and her Japanese lover about the atomic bombing, about what she can authentically claim to understand about it. And as the film progresses, her own wartime past is revealed: she had a German lover who died at the end of the war, and after the town was liberated she was publically humiliated and her parents locked her her in their cellar because they were so ashamed of her.
The film — and her story in particular — captivated me. But Resnais and Duras focused on the before and the after of her shaming — the affair, and then her imprisonment following her affair coming to light. In this story, I wanted to fill in what happened in the middle. That’s not to say that my narrator is meant to be Emmanuelle Riva’s character from the film, per se. But that is where I got the inspiration to look into this topic. And I felt that the most effective (and emotionally affecting) way to recount these events would be to plant my narrator amongst the women who were being accused.
BA: Was there a research aspect to your writing process? If so, how did you negotiate your responsibility to the reader with a potential responsibility toward historical truth?
EXE: Most of the research I did actually took the form of examining archival photos from the period. There are a number of surviving photographs that document the treatment of so-called “sentimental collaborators” after the war. You see the women having their heads shaved. You see them being marched through the streets barefoot or being made to stand around in only their underclothes. And then of course you see the massive crowds of people around them. In some of the shots, the men who are restraining these women even mug for the camera. But more than anything else, I think that from studying these images you get a sense of the emotional tenor of these public shamings far better than you would if you just read a list of the events that occurred.
You ask about balancing my responsibility to the reader with a responsibility toward historical truth. I don’t see them as separate in this instance. If I thought my story stepped beyond the bounds of what was tenable based on the historical narrative, I wouldn’t have told it. Is this a blow-by-blow retelling of one real woman’s experiences after the war? No. But I tried to make it cleave closely to the experiences that real women did have. To me, this piece derives its power and interest from precisely the fact that it is so firmly rooted in historical events.
BA: These scenes present such a moment of darkness for the women involved, a sexual scapegoating that carries with it shockwaves of masochism, voyeurism and masturbatory punishment; a lashing-out at what should have been a time of tremendous patriotic celebration. It seems evident there is a message here about the gender politics of war. Can you elaborate? And what role did Françoise’s violent miscarriage play in the crafting of this message?
EXE: Looking at the photographs I mentioned above, it’s impossible to look past the pleasure that a lot of the onlookers seem to take in punishing these women. In my story, I try to weave in other forms of collaboration that go unpunished by the town, collaboration that some of these onlookers may themselves have taken part in. The narrator’s father, for instance, operated a café during the occupation and seemed happy enough serving German soldiers. And then there are a couple of allusions to the “deportation” of the town’s Jews, which none of the townspeople are in any way moved by. In fact, another of Alain Resnais’s films, the documentary Night and Fog, was censored for a long time because it showed French officials helping the Germans load Jews onto trains bound for the camps.
So one thing I wanted to touch on in my story is a certain level of hypocrisy or selective anger on the part of the townspeople. One reason so much public rage was directed towards these women, I feel, is because of a sense of ownership: the idea that these women in some way belonged to the men. I’m not trying to render my characters blameless — the narrator herself is deeply conflicted about her own motivations, about whether or not she was really just in it for the material benefits that being with a German soldier brought her. But I think there is an aspect of the town’s extreme outrage that transcends patriotism and goes into something else, something misogynistic.
The miscarriage — it is interesting you bring it up, because that is the scene that I have always been the most unsure of. On the one hand, it seems inevitable, like the conclusion that needs to proceed out of the story I’ve set up. It serves the purpose of breaking the spell, breaking the captors’ control, while also evading any sense of resolution. But on the other hand…I wonder if it’s not just too much. I’d be interested in hearing what readers think about it.
BA: As a university undergraduate, I believe you are one of (if not the) youngest writers we have yet featured. What brought you to the writing world? What’s making you stay?
EXE: Well, I’ve been interested in writing since I was a little kid. My dad told me that even before I knew how to write I would fill whole spiral-bound notebooks with pages and pages of scribbles, with a sticker here or there for decoration. But I think the second question you ask is more interesting; when you start sending your work out into the world you get rejection, rejection, rejection, so you need something to keep you from just giving up. And in fact, for the first couple of years of college I wasn’t doing any writing at all; I thought I wouldn’t be able to compete with the other student writers here. It was really only by chance that I got into it again: a little less than a year ago, I was searching on my computer for an old file and I happened to come across one of the stories I’d written in high school. I read it over again on a whim and thought, “Hey, this is pretty good.” So I decided it would be a waste to just give up completely, and that’s when I started really writing in earnest. Actually, this piece was one of the first stories I produced after getting back into writing again, so it’s wonderful to see it being published.
I’ve also had the good fortune to have friends, family, and mentors who are interested in and encouraging of my work. Last fall I was lucky enough to take a fiction workshop with Jamaica Kincaid, which was an absolutely extraordinary experience — I really cannot thank her enough. And I think there has been a change within myself as well that has allowed me to continue writing: as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to the realization that fearing criticism of my work is both silly and unproductive. Silly because criticism is inevitable and unproductive because any writer needs criticism to grow. Anyhow, criticism doesn’t automatically mean your piece is bad; you don’t have to just lie down and give up. Criticism should be engaged with critically. And if your work is challenged, it forces you to articulate precisely what it is you were going for, what it is you were trying to do. That’s actually an incredible gift, which is something I didn’t understand when I was younger.