Interviewed by Jennifer “Ana” Robbins
Read Stephanie Dickinson’s fiction piece, The Wild Orchid Napalm Forest
Ana: A common theme running through your piece is that of motherhood and what it has manifested itself as through the generations. What do you think motherhood looks like today? What do you think the next generation will rebel against and vilify in their teenage years and later on as parents themselves?
Stephanie: My generation was raised by mothers who had known deprivation and hard work, and while they loved their children and wanted a better life for us, they resented the privileges that accrued to us, our access to a much more variegated world, one of plenty and not privation. My mother worked her way through college and became a teacher. Issues of self-esteem and self-confidence were foreign and frivolous to generations whose world was monochrome. I call it the lack gift, a latent self-hatred mothers sometimes handed down to their daughters. Today, there seems much less emphasis on respect and strict obedience, and more on a friendship and intimacy between parents and children. In our more gender neutral or gender elastic culture of today, girls as well as boys are welcomed. Even so, the mother-daughter relationship is a complicated one and fraught with contradictions. We rebel against our mothers; if they are conservative we are progressive, if they are New Age we are more conventional. I have a poet/novelist friend who practices a marvelous bohemian lifestyle and her daughter, also a novelist, is a model of rectitude and loves to point out (brilliantly and humorously) her mother’s history of bad mothering.
What inspired you to write a story set in the protest scene of the sixties? How do you think the general public’s view of protesting has changed in the intervening years? Are they still seen as just as dangerous and subversive as your young protagonist’s mother sees her?
The Black Lives Matter global protests following the George Floyd murder was an outpouring the likes of which the globe hasn’t seen since the student anti-war protests of 1960s and 1970s. “Wild Orchid Napalm” is set in the early 1970s after Nixon’s mining of Hanoi’s harbors. It was the era where some of my own history is buried. Social justice movements sent down their roots and many flowered (women’s rights, disabled rights, LBGTQ rights, environmental rights) and some were violently suppressed, i.e. the Black Panther Movement. Another segment of the generation that took to the streets during the Vietnam war, took to making money after the war ended. During the anti-war protests the fissure between Americans based on class and race, blue collar vs. the elite, became violently visible. We live with the same rupture today, shockingly so. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were met with militarized police presence, mass arrests, and murder as in Wisconsin. The MAGA supporters that mobbed the Capitol on January 6th did not experience the same treatment. The level of danger confronting protestors seems to depend on the color of your skin, as the insurrection in the capitol illustrated. Here white demonstrators were shown out the door by police, there was no kettling, no police cordons entrapping protestor and arresting them. Protest is still subversive and often dangerous, although not in the same way, as in “Wild Orchid Napalm.” After a period of slumber we are again seeing massive street activism from the right and the left, whole families demonstrating together.
In many of your books and short stories, there are themes of both the body being subverted and the mind perceiving a skewed version of reality. In what ways do you see the body as affecting what we see outside of ourselves?
I am the survivor of a shotgun accident, as was the 18-year-old protagonist in “Wild Orchid Napalm.” My left arm is paralyzed and I live with intense neurological pain. The story is explicitly autobiographical and speaking/writing of bodily wounding/injury/the asymmetrical is something I have only now been able to do so long after the event. We are in a moment when closeted people of all stripes have stepped into the light, those things considered abnormal, freakish are more accepted as parts of identity and authenticity. I am now working on Age Eighteen, a memoir, about the year of my second birth. My older self is wishing the eighteen-year-old scar girl good luck. The world has not yet been set on fire, there are still four seasons, you can eat in a crowded restaurant. No one wants to hear how a girl could go looking for danger, for the thrill of tempting the fates. A smart girl made dumb by her hunger for attention and her desperation to stand out, even if her success was to collect dangerous experiences. I want to accompany her on this journey. My older self has not left the apartment in Manhattan without wearing a mask in seven months, I have ridden the subway thrice, I work remotely via computer, something my eighteen-year-old self could never have imagined. She could not have imagined me, so how can I pretend to understand her, to conjure her up as she hitchhikes, breathing in strangers, sharing tight spaces.
Currently, you are finishing a series of essays about the American correctional system. This story also features prison in a balanced light, choosing not to focus too overtly on the sleazier or sensationalized aspects. What first made you curious about the prison system and how it treats its inhabitants, specifically women?
I was struck by a 2006 New York Daily News headline in July of 2006 when Krystal Riordan’s face adorned the cover of the paper. SHE LET HER DIE the headline read. Two days prior the face of another girl had filled the same space. TEEN MISSING AFTER NIGHT OF CLUBBING. Like all of New York, I had been shaken by the murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Moore. I wrote a novel, Love Highway, based on the facts of the case. As I was finishing the manuscript I contacted Krystal, who is serving a 30-year sentence at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey. We’ve been friends now for years. Once you’ve befriended an inmate, the requests come at you, things that only someone on the outside can finesse. Please help me buy a toy for my daughter’s birthday from Kmart. You who can make duplicates of court documents, who can download welfare applications, who can xerox copies in full color of the nameless photographs that come in stacks. The photographs are so old, especially those of the outside: photos of three girls sticking out their tongues, arms thrown around each other. Some photos are of children and taped together so they stick to the glass of the Xerox machine and you feel the heft of something precious in your hands.