Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Natasha Burge’s fiction piece, The Leavings of Mouths
John: I love the carnality of the mouth—her determinedly carnivorous diet, her ravenous sexuality. The narrator finds some sense of salvation in this, in re-embracing the carnal. What can we still learn from our bodies in this increasingly ephemeral age?
Natasha: I think we can learn so much from our bodies and, in fact, we risk losing an essential aspect of ourselves when we ignore the wisdom our body has to offer. In many instances, at an instinctual, visceral level our body sends us signals about how we are truly feeling and what we honestly want that we ignore to our detriment. At the end of the day, we are still animals, with all the inexplicable instincts and urges that come with having these bodies that have yet to adapt to our lives of computer desks, fluorescent lights, endless meetings, and non-stop busyness. A re-embrace of the carnal, as you say, does offer the narrator a sense of salvation because it realigns her with what she actually desires, something she hasn’t let herself experience in a long time—if ever. I think it can do the same for many of us.
It can sometimes seem as if life is a long exercise in losing one’s self. All of the things that we identify with—our youth, our certainty, our health, eventually our lives—are slowly stripped away. Certainly the narrator seems to find that motherhood has taken away. What are we to do with this situation?
I think, like so many of us, the narrator lost herself because too much had been added to her that wasn’t her. Leaving her husband and her newborn child is a radical, salt-the-earth attempt to free herself from those things. To build on your first question, it was a decision that was less logical or analytical and more animalistic, like a prey animal driven into a corner doing anything they can to survive. We all take on identities that are built out of the expectations of others and in so doing we suffocate ourselves under an increasingly thick layer of masks. So much human misery arises because we make decisions because we think we are supposed to make them or that we should do this, even huge things like getting married or having children. We roll along on autopilot and never stop to think if this is something we truly want. In this way it becomes very easy to wake up one day and realize we’ve lived an entire life that we didn’t even want. It is frightening but also liberatory to remember that at the end of the day none of us are in totality any one of those things—our youth, our health, not even our family.
Mrs. Park sees the protagonist as a sum of social constructs—her wedding ring implies a certain set of relationships and behaviors. Is it possible to define ourselves in ways that do not reference other people? What are the benefits and costs of doing this?
All of the ways we define ourselves are constructed in reference to others; no social identity can exist without a frame of reference. Human beings are the most social of all animals, so much so that we hardly exist as individuals, more like webs of wider connection. We deeply care about other people and need social connection to be healthy, which makes negotiating these social constructs necessary. Certainly the narrator finds herself in a position where she is having to reevaluate these social constructs and her position within them in a way that she can live in with more integrity that she was able to do before.
As the old song lyric says, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Would that be the position of the narrator? How do you feel about it? And if that’s true, why do we seem to yearn for it?
I think we yearn for this kind of ‘nothing left to lose’ freedom because in our fantasies we don’t really have to face how terrifying it is—something the narrator is grappling with. We imagine the thrill and the potential but we maybe don’t see the loneliness or exhaustion or regret. And yes, it is absolutely the position of the narrator. While this freedom is something she—I was going to say ‘yearned for,’ but that’s not quite accurate. While this freedom is something she needed in order to survive, it is still so overwhelming that it is on the verge of destroying her. It goes back to the animal wisdom of her body—as ‘the mouth’ says, she got this freedom like an animal escaping from a trap, not rationally or logically but with a blind animal instinct—and in the space she is in now, she has to wait for her rational mind to catch up with the wisdom of the body. But, of course, guilt and fear is standing in her way and threatens to put her in yet another prison. She is a character that showed up nearly fully formed in my mind when I first conceived of this story and yet she still remains something of a mystery to me, which I think is fitting as in many ways she is still a mystery to herself.