Sister Golden Hair: A Novel
(Tin House, 2014)
The notion of burning in hell doesn’t get as much play in our broader culture as it once did. Still, we all have our own version of hell, and we might spend more time there than we’d like. Maybe we relegate it to the past, or live in fear that we’ll be consigned there in the future, whether it takes the form of an afterlife inferno or a crowded waterpark. When author Darcey Steinke cites Dante’s Purgatorio as a model for her new novel Sister Golden Hair, she admits that “it sounds crazy to compare a ’70s teenager to Dante.” But anyone who has survived adolescence can see that the comparison makes perfect sense, even more so after spending time with Jesse, the appealing young character at the heart of Sister Golden Hair. Those who have read Steinke’s 2007 memoir, Easter Everywhere (Bloomsbury), might recognize certain features of the new novel. Without getting too finicky about genre, I’d like to start our conversation with a few questions about the intriguing overlap between the novel and the memoir.
Elizabeth Trundle (Rail): What drew you back to Roanoke, Virginia during the ’70s, and the imaginary and autobiographical well it represents? Did the inner life of the young narrator show itself differently when you approached it with the free hand of a novelist?
Darcey Steinke: In my memoir, Easter Everywhere, I do write some about the ’70s, but not much. That book is more broadly about my on-again, off-again interest in God, and how doubt has driven me through the years. Sister Golden Hair is set entirely in the ’70s. I have always felt that most of the ways that period is portrayed in the media are superficial and wrong. It was not all about smiley faces and bell bottoms. The social changes of the ’60s had finally made it to middle America. Once that tidal wave of change got to us, to my family, it destabilized us. Jesse is partly me, of course—but not all me—and while the book is informed by my own life none of the actual action is true. So I wanted to use what I had seen in the ’70s, the uncertainty and darkness of the time, how women’s roles were changing and confused, and see the effect that might have on a teenager. It was a very odd time to try to figure out how to be a woman.
Rail: Your faithfulness to Jesse’s adolescent point of view creates some powerful ironies. For example, she seems to believe that sexual slavery is waiting just on the other side of her 18th birthday. At points in the narrative, it looks like she might be right. Can you say more about this aspect of Jesse’s story? How does it fit into the context of your body of work as a whole?
Steinke: I was ambivalent about the bodily changes that happen during adolescence. I remember reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Yearling, 1970) by Judy Blume. While I connected with the frank talk about sex, I did not identify with the idea of really longing to become a woman. The women I saw—and I depict Jesse in a similar place—were stunted by their femininity. It was not an empowering thing. Well, it might have been empowering on the surface—in the sexual sense—but it was, to my mind, also a dead end. The south had pretty rigid gender roles. Men were men and women were women. Once you became a woman, unlike a girl or a child, your range of movement and thought was limited, or at least that’s how it appeared to me at the time. A woman was still defined mostly by her sexual appeal to men, her value accounted for by that. And I knew even then that this is a terrible thing.
As to my work as a whole, I do think the idea of sex as a way to define the self has been a part of my work from the beginning. I just reread my first novel Up Through The Water (Doubleday, 1989), and I was really surprised how much it had to do with a fear of male violence. The main character is a woman who has a very free and open sexual life, yet she lives in constant fear of violence from men. Writing it at the time, I did not understand my motivation, but now it seems so clear to me. I was afraid, like Emily the main character, that I could not have the life I wanted because of male desire and the subsequent violence that occurs when that desire is negated.
Rail: Jesse explores this complicated new identity, and her blossoming sexuality, by interacting with the other tenants in her low-income apartment complex, Bent Tree. She takes a scrap or two from the drunken dance teacher, the tough-boy neighbor, even the compassionate landlord, who might be the only responsible adult on the mountainside. Naturally, her most intense friendships are with the girls her own age, Shelia and Jill. I had a friend like Shelia in the sixth grade. She didn’t lock me in the closet and dress me as a Playboy bunny, but she did beat me up every time I went to her house. Of course, I still dream about her. What’s wrong with girls, anyway? Why does Jesse put up with it? And where did you get the inspiration for that relationship?
Steinke: Growing up, I knew many girls like Shelia. Girls that already seemed dead inside. In Shelia’s case, her father has come out of the closet and she and her mother have shunned him. They can’t really deal directly with what has happened to them. Also, her mother is a sort of desperate single mother. Coming up in the ’70s, I saw many mothers struggle. There was so much divorce, and most women had been raised to be mothers and wives. They were not ready to go into the workplace. I saw some serious financial struggling as these women tried to put their lives back together. It was often very bleak, bleaker I think than our culture has wanted to acknowledge. It was inspiring to me, though, to see women going back to school in an effort to stabilize themselves and their families. I do think this put a lot of pressure on the kids, and a strange thing often happened with the daughters. Even though the idea of marriage had not worked for the mothers, they often put even more pressure on their daughters to be sexually appealing, to search for the perfect man. This is what is happening with Shelia in my novel. She is under pressure to be appealing to men and thus the identification with the Playboy bunnies. I did have girls in my past that were really very cruel to me. I was a skinny, bookish kid and I had a terrible stutter. The alpha girls were often very cruel, though I also found some wonderful female friends along the outer edges.
Rail: Your character Jesse finds a friend like that in Jill, another Bent Tree neighbor. The two girls collaborate in the creation of a mutual fantasy world, safe from a reality that is, especially for Jill, truly dreadful. In fact, everyone in Bent Tree uses fantasy of one kind or another to survive. Is there an implied hierarchy inherent to how they cope? Maybe with sex, drugs, booze at the bottom, and Ralph Waldo Emerson at the top? And where does religion, specifically the cast-off trappings of Christianity, belong?
Steinke: I think fantasy is a way to plan. I don’t think of it as a distraction from reality, at least in my book, but as a sort of life raft you build that you hope to get on one day and float off into the life you really want. In the ’70s there was a lot of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. The general feeling of depression was very real in nearly every home I was in. So much had gone down: the rise of feminism, the lowered value of the family unit, and there was Vietnam, too, and just a questioning of what life was for. So I think all types of numbing were going on. Personal freedom, at that time, seemed more important than the family. I think religion, too, had been undermined. For the father in the book, who is a minister, religion has lost its usefulness. And so the family leaves the church world, the world of all-encompassing faith, and moves out into the secular world. This was an idea I was very interested in while writing the book. Outside a stricter faith community, how does one find grace? Do we need a thought system, whether it’s religion or gestalt, to have a meaningful life? Or can we just BE? I find this to be an open question even now and also one that I feel many, many people are struggling with. At one point Jesse talks about the idea of God being dead. For her, the hard thing is not that God is gone, but that now we have to do the hard work of recreating him/her/it.
Rail: I wonder if there’s any hope of finding him/her/it at the Tanglewood Mall, where Jesse spends a lot of her time. She is definitely searching for something in the French Quarter, a corner of the mall decorated with plaster replicas of Bourbon Street façades. I’m guessing you spent a few hours at a place like this when you were young? Is mall culture still the same now, do you think? Was it damaging to the soul, depressing, or just a neutral fact of life?
Steinke: In the old days, the young were socialized in town squares, but for me it was all about the mall and the Hop In and Pizza Hut parking lots, but particularly The French Quarter. The place, which was a real place, was like a bad high school play set, with its fake brick walls and small cottagey stores. I remember there was a wishing well, lumpy and odd, set up in front of the card shop. I had yearnings for a bigger, more culturally rich life, and there were not really many places for that hope to land. The French Quarter, with its darkened pathways and smell of fresh-roasted coffee, made me believe life could be different than the treeless street of red brick ranch houses roasting under the hot southern sun where I lived.
Are malls soul crushing? Maybe. I must admit I have not been inside one for years. And though malls pretend to be social spaces, they are ultimately commercial ones. I don’t believe a mall can have the long-term life of a town green or city center. And for a long time, I really hated the landscape of my childhood, the strip malls and subdivisions. But in writing the book, I remembered my love for it as well. For people of my time period, the mall was a glorious thing, even the center of culture. It was huge like a space station and filled with fake plants and waterfall fountains. It seemed glamorous to me. It sounds pathetic to admit it, but when I was in high school, all week I longed for Saturday when I could go to the mall.