Read Rainie Oet’s nonfiction piece, Blue Water

Sandy: “Blue Water” takes place in the hospital where your paternal grandfather is having surgery. “Footnotes to a Ghost Story (Baba Gayla, d. 2003),” published in Cosmonauts Avenue, was about your paternal grandmother’s death. Was writing about the loss of your grandparents difficult? Healing? Both?

Rainie: It was not as difficult as just living through loss. The writing part of it happened as a result of feelings that had built up over years and years. It needed to be written. My grandmother’s death shaped my childhood, and, especially as a young teen, I saw my grandfather’s fight against cancer as a manifestation of my grandmother’s ghost calling out of my childhood, asking to be remembered. Writing these pieces was healing in the sense that it allowed me to separate the ghost in my own head from the real memory of my grandparents and their love and lives.

Both “Blue Water” and “Footnotes to a Ghost Story” appear in different forms in Inside Ball Lightning, my first book of poetry, forthcoming from SEMO Press in 2020.

In a note at the end of “Blue Water,” you say your story “owes some of its lines, in full or in heart, to the paranormal guide at Spiritual Science Research Foundation and to the weed guide at Virginia Tech.” Could you tell us more about how these guides informed your story?

I discovered the Spiritual Research website by accident, and found the language and images beautiful and haunting. This whole piece started out as me copying the lines I loved best from that website and riffing off them. Somehow, I thought about my grandfather and my father, who were just together in the hospital. The idea of the energy of grief or fear or detachment from the past having an actual physical effect on the body really stuck with me.

At the same time, I was reading about grasses, and these sets of images together formed the basis for this essay. When I think about aquatic plants, there’s a feeling of both decay and growth, of mysterious underwater root-areas and visible above water leaves. Who knows what’s going on with those plants! I liked especially intersecting ghosts with aquatic plants.

“Blue Water” takes its title from a Yiddish hymn called “Blue Water,” and the story ends with a line from the song. Had you heard the song before that day in the hospital? If so, could you tell us more about the song and what it means to you?

As a child I conflated Jewishness and Russianness, seeing that my immigrant parents had both, and I wasn’t sure which one was the one that made me feel alienated in my American elementary school. So, Blue Water is a Russian children’s song I loved and still love, by a Jewish composer (Yuri Entin). It’s the piece of music that defines this essay for me. To me, it is a song about water returning to the sea, and a longing to be like that water, returning to something bigger and shapeless. Russian was my first language, but I lost it as a child. In doing so, I feel like I lost my connection to my childhood. This song and the others I listened to off the same CD hold my longing to connect with a part of my parents and grandparents that is like the sea to me, as well as that part in myself. I have a feeling that my parents and grandparents had the same relationship to their Jewishness that I have to my Russianness. Religion being suppressed and erased by the Soviet air. My grandfather, while in Connecticut, always played Yiddish a capella songs in his car. Yiddish was his first language, and he, too, lost much of it.

You recently won the Shirley Jackson Award for fiction. (Congratulations! That must have been so exciting!) Would you tell us about the piece that won, when/how you learned it had won, and what you did to celebrate that day/evening?

That was super exciting for me! The piece that won was actually a version of my poetry book Glorious Veils of Diane (forthcoming 2021, Carnegie Mellon University Press). I just took all the page breaks out and submitted it for the fiction prize. I think of what I do as longform narratives made of short fragments, so that win was very validating.

Book plug: in Glorious Veils of Diane, dream-space, childhood, and horror tropes intersect. Diane is an ever-changing archetype, a self-conscious child who’s seen too many campy horror movies, who’s discovering, for the first time, her own blood. Diane sees every person in her life as an extension of herself. Here, blood is an obsession, both a unifying and an alienating force. Among many other things, Glorious Veils of Diane is an exploration of the weirdnesses of childhood, the pits of obsession, the transformative power of seeing, the distances between family members.

The fiction award was announced at the Syracuse University MFA graduation last year, and I was around many of my friends. It felt great to share that moment of excitement with everyone around me!

With the prize money I bought a really great board game to play with my friends (Xia: Legends of a Drift System + expansion Embers of a Forsaken Star), and went out for a great meal with my partner. It’s a great game, but it is expensive, so I was happy to have the opportunity to buy it.

In the same way as the piece which won me the Shirley Jackson prize was a prose version of a book of poetry, my piece “Blue Water” originated as a long poem, and appears in that form in my other forthcoming book Inside Ball Lightning (SEMO Press, 2020). I wish it weren’t so, but I think there’s something about the poetry label which turns people off. I hope that by blurring genres, I can bring more attention and readers to poetry.