“When she woke, she was Red. Not flushed, not sunburned, but the solid, declarative red of a stop sign. She saw her hands first. She held them in front of her eyes, squinting up at them. For a few seconds, shadowed by her eyelashes and backlit by the hard white light emanating from the ceiling, they appeared black […] She’d seen Reds many times before, of course, on the street and on the vid- but still, she wasn’t prepared for the sight of her own changed flesh. For the twenty –six years she’d been alive, her hands had been a honey-toned pink, deepening to golden brown in the summertime. Now, they were the colour of newly shed blood.”
Hillary Jordan is not afraid to shock her readers- a brave position to take up in an unseasoned author still finding her literary feet. Her first two novels have taken the hot-button issues of racism, abortion, sexual violence and state control and placed them at the very centre of her stories. The bravery of her efforts have paid off as her first two novels have been recognised as something special in the world of literary fiction.
Since writing her first novel, Mudbound ( which won the Bellwether Prize, an award given biennially to the best unpublished debut novel) Jordan has been inundated with literary awards for her fresh and compelling narrative voice. She has also attracted somewhat of a polarized reaction, accused of apeing literary giants like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Atwood- the latter in particular for her deeply dystopian, futuristic and feminist-oriented characters. Her visions of damaged landscapes are more often than not the backdrop to one or more characters in the midst of moral and (by association social) ambiguity.
Her second novel, When She Woke is in fact an overt nod to Hawthorne’s own Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter – a novel describing the fate of a similar woman having been made a pariah of society and forced to wear a scarlet letter around her neck (A for adulteress) and despised by the puritanical and zealous nature of 17th century Boston. There is also much of Margaret Atwood in the novel, however, as Jordan traces Hannah’s personal and introspective inquiry as to what constitutes a sin in relation to its punishment by society as a whole. Jordan’s feminist arc definitely echoes Atwood’s- especially in novels like The Handmaid’s Tale in which the position and indeed use of a woman is central to the narrative as well as her place in society.
When She Awoke , however, is more than a simple aping of other writers. It is a reflective, nuanced and well-written reflection of the nature of punishment- both personal and public. “I was struck by the many parallels between the world that Hawthorne described, the Puritan society of the late 1600s, and post-9/11 America, where we’d seen a climate of fear that led to the muddying of the line between church and state and the erosion of civil and reproductive rights”, Jordan explains in what inspired her to write the novel after so many years. She had in fact begun with When She Woke, which started as a fragment inspired by Hawthorne’s Hanna but left it in favour of starting Mudbound. Returning to where she began Hillary Jordan talks to TMO about crime, punishment and her fears for where American society is now.
When She Woke, from the central plot to the actual names of the characters, is an overt nod to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. What was it about this novel that peaked your inspiration?
I wrote the original story fragment of WSW in early 2000, when I was in grad school. I had four pages about a woman in a prison cell who’d been turned red for killing someone, and I didn’t know where to go with the story, so I wrote MUDBOUND instead. It wasn’t until six years later, when I was casting about for my second novel, that I returned to my red woman. Hester Prynne and her scarlet A popped into my mind, and I thought, huh, I should reread THE SCARLET LETTER, which I’d last read as an unappreciative 15-year-old [...]
The book grew out of my exploration of those (post 9/11 America) and other parallels.The scarlet letter that Hester Prynne wears became, in WSW, scarlet skin. The scaffold that Hester stood on in front of the entire community became a sinister form of reality TV where prisoners are televised. The popular minister Hester falls in love with became a mega-church preacher, and so on. And because of THE SCARLET LETTER, my future America ended up being not just cruel and repressive but also essentially a theocracy, as 17th century Boston was.
There is also much in your style that is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood – the plague blamed on promiscuity and the control of the religious right for instance are themes played out by both of you. Is this a fair comparison? How much of an influence was Atwood’s own bleak future for you?
I’ve always loved dystopian fiction, and I have no doubt that WSW was influenced by every such novel I’ve ever read, from 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD to CHILDREN OF MEN and THE HANDMAID’S TALE. But the main influence on the book was not anyone else’s bleak future, but our own troubling present. And I think that’s true of almost all dystopia: it’s written in response to current events or trends, extrapolates a grim vision of where they might lead us and asks, Do we really want to go there? Orwell was troubled by the rise of fascism; Huxley by the dehumanization caused by scientific progress. I, like Ms. Atwood, was and am concerned about the extreme agenda of the religious right and the intersection of faith and politics. But WSW is also a response to the trend towards punishment and stigmatization (and away from rehabilitation) in our criminal justice system; government incursions into the privacy of individuals in the name of national security; and environmental degradation, to name just a few things.
There seems to be quite a distance with regard to integrity between the female characters – nearly all of whom are strong and resilient in the face of adversity – and the men. Would it be fair to say that the women are the heroes of the novel where the men are comparatively weak?
I wouldn’t say so at all! WSW is full of good, strong male characters: Hannah’s father, John Payne; Paul/Vincent; Anthony; Hannah’s yellow rescuer at the juice station; and even Aidan Dale, who like most people is a mix of weakness and strength, but whose strength wins out at the end. There are also plenty of bad and unsympathetic female characters: Hannah’s cold and unforgiving mother, Samantha Payne; the self-righteous Bridget; and Mrs. Henley, who is arguably the nastiest piece of work I’ve ever created. I tried in any case to make all the characters (with the possible exception of Mrs. Henley) fully human; that is to say, a complex mix of good and bad, frailty and strength, selfishness and nobility.
Carolyn See in the Washington Post described the novel as the old plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne ‘dressed up in the techno future’, one which becomes ‘a lesbian, feminist road-trip thriller.’ How do feel about such a summation?
I fully expected this book to be polarizing, because of its subject matter and because the country is polarized. And as I foresaw, the people who don’t like it REALLY don’t like it. Fortunately, they’re in the minority. Most of my reviews from critics as well as readers have been very positive. I’ve been especially pleased that so many people have praised the book’s nuanced treatment of complex issues, because I tried really hard for nuance.
The novel emphasises a fairly bleak social landscape populated by fundamentalist Christian authorities and vigilantes together with almost impossibly puritanical innocents like Hannah who seems to be almost entirely ignorant of the ‘ways of the world’ so to speak. How much of the novel is fiction for you and how much of it is reflected in the world today?
Dystopian novels are by definition cautionary tales that use elements of the present to paint a grim portrait of the future. I wish WSW were 100% fiction, but if it were I wouldn’t have felt compelled to write it.
You thank many sources and people in your acknowledgments including Dr. Marc Heller who you say educated you on abortion. Did you feel you had to delve into other scientific material with regard to the medical aspects of the novel such as melachroming and the sinister enslavement drug Thrall?
There were a number of doctors and scientists who helped me created the scientific underpinnings of melachroming and fragmentation. My dermatologist suggested the original idea, a viral vector, and a geneticist named Lisa Susswein actually figured out how it could work, with the virus carrying two compounds: one that would alter the skin pigmentation and a second, piggybacked on the first, that would cause the personality disintegration. The scary thing is, Lisa said it was very likely possible to create such a virus—if not today then next year or in five years. Thrall was my own creepy invention, and once I had the slang name for it, the scientific one was easy.
Sexual politics and the relationship between the individual and the state play a major part in this novel. Would it be fair to say that Hanna’s problems reflect a kind of personal social crusade?
I’m a storyteller, not a crusader. And my views on issues like abortion and faith are very different from those of my characters— whose views are very different from each other’s. Hannah and her family are evangelical Christians, Reverend Easter is Episcopalian and Simone is non-traditional but still deeply religious; I’m something else I don’t have a name for that involves asking a lot of questions and searching for the divine spark—of compassion, of beauty, of transcendence—within myself and others. Hannah believes that abortion is a crime and an abomination; I believe it’s a necessary resort for some women given the society we live in, and that it should be legal, rare and left to each individual to decide for herself. The point is, these are extremely complex issues about which reasonable people can disagree, and I tried to show them from many sides; to fully inhabit my characters and convey their beliefs without imposing my own on them. And in the process of doing that, I was forced to question my own entrenched ideas and to really consider and respect other points of view. If I have a hope for the book, it’s that it will cause readers to do the same and to see the gray in these issues about which we’ve become so polarized.
When She Woke is your second novel after Mudbound, a work that has received many prestigious awards such as the Bellwether Prize for unpublished debut novelists. With such a successful start, did you feel a certain amount of pressure to emulate the success with When She Woke?
Oh, just a teeny bit.
Writing is by necessity an intense and personal activity and one which can make it difficult for the writer to see the wood from the trees. This is especially true when it comes to letting it go. When is a novel finished for you?
When my editor says, “We’re going to press now so you can’t make any more changes.” Otherwise I doubt I’d ever stop tweaking and trying to make it better.
You are also a reviewer of books and must, therefore engage with people’s work on a more critical and active level. What are the biggest narrative or stylistic turnoffs for you?
What I call elbow-ribbing, where the author wants to make ABSOLUTELY SURE I get her point. I have this tendency myself in early drafts, and part of rewriting for me is getting rid of the flashing neon signs so that the reader can come to her own conclusions.
Overwriting, meaning where the author’s showing off, saying “Aren’t I clever, and don’t I have a magnificent vocabulary?”
Sloppiness that could have been remedied by several more rewrites and a good editor.
I also rarely like novels or memoirs that purport to be written from a child’s POV; most are cutesy and/or implausible, and even when they’re not I get tired of the conceit very quickly.