Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Naomi Ulsted’s fiction piece, Birdsong
John: There is a wonderful sense of resilience in this story. Ava stands up to the nascent mean girls in her life, and we leave with the feeling that she’s probably going to be OK. It’s one of the things I really like about this story—that it goes counter to our expectations of the trajectory of this working-class girl. Is this what you set out to do, or did the story just develop that way?
Naomi: At work, my colleagues make fun of me for using the word “resilience” so often. They say it’s my favorite word. It’s true that resilience and the sense of optimism that comes with it is a core value of mine. I definitely knew where I wanted Ava to end up in this story. I wanted to explore the quiet and not-so-quiet judgment that is shown against the working class. I wanted Ava to feel that judgment and reject it in favor of what’s really valuable, which in this case is her relationship with her mother. The story couldn’t have gone any other way for me.
As a corollary, why do you think literary fiction is so often bleak, and should it be?
I think there is a need to represent the tough issues in our lives and society. Oftentimes, that bleak approach is required in order to hold up the mirror to ourselves. However, I do think it’s possible to reflect the dysfunction in a situation, but still show a sense of hope or optimism. I recently read Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder. It’s hard to find a subject bleaker than child abduction, but she manages to depict the darkness of that topic while still bringing out a ringing sense of optimism and healing. For me, I find it difficult to write material that doesn’t ultimately uncover an ability to overcome the challenges. I have a screenplay about a woman who survives an active shooting experience. It’s absolutely bleak. But the movie ends with hope and connection. I can’t write it any other way.
In spite of the material advantages, we leave this story thinking that Ava’s environment might be a lot better than McKenzie’s. Is McKenzie doomed?
It’s clearly the case that families and family environments are judged from the outside by material wealth. We, as a society, are more inclined to assume there is dysfunction in a family of less material wealth, when there is no reason to make that assumption. On the other side of the coin, children raised in dysfunctional families that also hold material wealth are often set up for failure. The signs that those children might need help aren’t seen because of our tendency to not look past material wealth. So, this is probably where the story is the bleakest – with McKenzie. She is living with a manipulative and overbearing mother. As she grows, she’s going to learn some survival skills that may or may not serve her well as an adult.
Ava’s mother’s dreams of being a singer have died, but she seems to have achieved a sense of equanimity around that. Are the dreams themselves the source of our unhappiness?
When I was a child, I had dreams of being a singer, like Ava’s mother did. I desperately wanted to do something special that let me stand out from the crowd, and I latched onto singing. We lived out in the woods in a shack while my parents were trying to build our house. I stood outside next to the goat pen and sang for at least 30 minutes a day. I actually do have a decent voice, but not the kind of voice that gets you famous. It was my dream though, and I held onto it for years. The sadness as I let go of that dream seeped through me slowly in my mid to late ‘20s, as it became impossible to ignore the fact that the dream wasn’t going to be realized, at least not the way I envisioned as a child.
I don’t think the dreams are the source of unhappiness. Dreams are where progress starts because they are the way we can envision a different world for ourselves. If we can’t envision it, then we can’t begin movement toward change. However, I also think that the way in which our society has embraced the idea of dreams and the message the media and the entertainment industry sends is unrealistic and damaging. Nearly every kids’ movie I see, and as a mom with two young boys, I see a lot, is about following your dreams despite the challenges. We all love the story of the individual who follows her dreams, despite all the naysayers telling her she can’t, despite the lack of means or whatever struggles. We hear these stories from a very early age and grow up with the sense that anything is possible if you work hard enough. And frankly, if you say anything otherwise, you’re sort of a jerk. Unfortunately, not anything is possible, sometimes no matter how much effort you throw at your dream.
I’ve worked in the education industry with underprivileged young adults for 16 years. I remember a student with whom I worked closely for a year. Her dream was to be a lawyer. She was an exceptionally hard worker. She also had a cognitive processing disorder that severely inhibited her ability to retain information. She talked to me often about her “dream” of attending law school. She said she was going to chase that dream, no matter what anyone said. She knew if she worked hard enough, she’d get there. In the meantime, she was learning simple division for the 12th time because information just didn’t stick. So, maybe this student could work in an office associated with law, but she was not going to be able to attend law school and it was through no fault of her own. But the message in our culture is that we can do anything we want, if we work hard enough. If we believe that, and we work really hard and don’t achieve the dream, then we feel like failures. Maybe the obstacles are too great and the resources too slim. I could have been singing out there to that goat for 7 hours a day and I still wouldn’t have become an opera star.
It’s to the point where I almost find it irresponsible of the media and the entertainment industry to continue perpetuating this myth. The dreams themselves don’t set people up for unhappiness, but the myth that anyone can do anything, regardless of their deficiencies or their lack of resources or their environment, that myth sets people up for a very rough landing.