Sunday, June 23, 2013

Karen Shepard

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of the novels An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, Don’t I Know You?, and the newly released The Celestials. Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, and Ploughshares, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe, among others. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, where she lives with her husband, novelist Jim Shepard, and their three children.

Recently I asked Shepard about what she was reading. Her reply:
Lisa Shea
W.W. Norton, 1994

The epigraph of Lisa Shea’s celebrated, but now neglected, first and only novel is from a Jorie Graham poem: “Nothing will catch you. /Nothing will let you go.”

In its ambiguity, it’s the perfect introduction to the slim volume that follows. “Nothing will catch you”: is that comfort or torment? “Nothing will let you go”: is that to be celebrated or lamented? A source of solace or fear? Hula concerns itself with two sisters in Virginia over the course of two summers in the 60s, and it’s the kind of book that reminds us of the possibilities of the unknown even as it depicts its often terrible consequences.

This is a novel that I return to again and again.

A daughter describes two summers in her life with her older sister, her largely absent mother, her tormented father. One of the challenges of writing from a child’s point of view is the problem of rendering the variety and depths of a child’s emotional understanding despite the limitations of her descriptive abilities. Hula’s unnamed narrator offers us almost no introspection at all. In its place, she gives us what children can: sharp and evocative perceptions. She does not, cannot, tell us what all these perceptions mean. That’s up to us, her only audience, the people responsible for the most attention this girl gets.

It’s a book that suggests in clear ways why, despite its many obvious potential pitfalls, so many writers return to childhood in their work. Childhood is a strange and mysterious place. It’s an ambiguous place, and the ambiguous is always a useful place for literature to settle itself. It’s a place of lush imagination and stark fears. The strange becomes the everyday. The routine becomes oddly disorienting.

The writer Steven Millhauser has said, “I want fiction to exhilarate me, to unbind my eyes, to murder and resurrect me, to harm me in some fruitful way.”

I think of this when I think of how our childhoods continue to work on us. I think of this when I read Hula and how it continues, year after year, to work on me. “Nothing will catch you. /Nothing will let you go.” Equal parts murder and resurrection. Lucky us.
Visit Karen Shepard's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue