How They Spend Their Sundays
by Courtney McDermott
Whitepoint Press, 2013
Courtney McDermott’s first book, a collection of stories set in South Africa and Lesotho, comes in three sections: Part One contains story-length pieces of mostly straightforward narrative that focuses on experiences (work, love, education, racism, biological ties). Part Two contains flash fiction revealing a moment or a feeling, and Part Three is what I thought of as the genre section. Although all three sections are strong, I enjoyed the longer pieces more. The shorter pieces are not poorly written; it’s that the long pieces were places of escape that fully immersed me elsewhere. Appearing throughout are unfamiliar words, perhaps Sesotho, though I am not always certain. In some cases, the words appear to be defined just after the italicized foreign word, though this isn’t always the case, and it’s not always clear. Regardless, the use of the language strengthens the collection as a whole, increasing the ethos of the author.
There are stories that you read and then there are stories that transport you outside of your body; McDermott writes the latter. It’s entirely possible to forget you’re in public or how long you’ve been sitting while reading this collection. Part of it has to do with the way McDermott doesn’t overly focus on the setting, with which, I would take a chance and argue, most readers will be unfamiliar. Select images and items from the setting are described briefly, just enough to place the reader somewhere solid. These images and details represent a larger picture. For instance, whether or not someone has boiled water, a rusted-out car with a steering wheel made of wire, or shaved heads of children to dissuade lice. Instead, the focus is on the people and the way attitudes differ between characters. Although there is shared human experience, I would also argue that McDermott’s collection doesn’t try to argue that everyone is the same, either. There is a respect for the fact that humans do differ in their experiences and that those differences are of value. A few times it is noted that the ability to drive as a major life accomplishment, one that does not mean freedom to travel and visit friends, as it does in the U.S., but a successful life. In the first story, though, a group of friends, all of whom but one are gay or lesbian, gather secretly for a party, a fear that translates to other people, cultures, countries.
McDermott’s style is mostly straightforward storytelling, though she incorporates unusual images at times that show, yes, this is a Courtney McDermott piece. The beginning of “The Secrets of Mothers and Daughters” contains one such instance:
“There he was: a peeled apart version of the man simply known as my father. He was a man knocked apart and carelessly rebuilt. First it has stripped his appetite, leaving the skin in rows of dried petals sewn onto the bones that had been gnawed away. These bones (they had carried my brothers and sisters, had worked in fields, driven cattle) had been twisted apart from the joints, the blood drained from his face, his gums gored and left weeping blood.”
As the father dies, he comes apart like the organic matter he is, emphasized by words that could describe a dying plant, like “petals” and “twisted.”
There is much happiness in McDermott’s collection. A young woman makes love for the first time, knowing that disease, like AIDS, is a constant threat. It is worth it, though, for the experience: “As he reaches for her, she cries–out of happiness in love–but out of sadness too. That this may be her last time, as well as her first. But nonetheless a brilliant time, when her eyes are stars and he calls her name.” This is a strength of the collection: a good balance between the life experiences worth taking risks for and the reality of the situation. Children may live in desperate poverty, but they will find ways of enjoying each other’s company. Mothers may live in fear of human predators, but understand that all humans have needs that must be met.
McDermott’s collection is full of surprises, rich storytelling, and hard-to-forget characters. Her real talent is in respect for observation, and for that reason, I expect to see more books from her soon.
Interview with Courtney McDermott
Did you journal a lot while in the Peace Corps? If so, what did that journal look like? (notes, sketches, full stories?)
Journaling is practically an essential part of surviving Peace Corps. Most Volunteers I know journal at some point during their service. I wrote in my journal most days.The journals I kept contained a series of vignettes, notes about people and places I didn’t want to forget, and ideas for stories that I wanted to write. Sometimes my journal entries were rants or doodles, depending on my mood. But mostly they were snippets of (personal) stories.
What made you decide to write genre pieces (Part 3 of your collection)?
“Genre” is a misleading term. Technically, “literary fiction” is also a genre. I didn’t set out to write pieces that qualify as “genre.” Rather, as with most everything I write, I start out with character and a set of questions. So for “Evenings With Hilda” I asked: how might someone deal with the AIDS epidemic in a complicated moral or “humane” way? Or for “An Apocalyptic Search for Water,” I was inspired by my rural isolation in the village where I lived. At times, I felt like the last person on earth, and that got me wondering: what would it be like to be the last person on earth in a place which often already seems desolate? Because I read a variety of literature, and I enjoy fairytales and horror stories as much as the Classics, I am influenced by that range and I wanted to demonstrate that range within the collection.
What was your approach to including non-English words in your stories? Did you want them italicized, not italicized, explained, vague, etc?
Originally, I didn’t want any of the non-English words to be italicized. If my characters were native Sesotho speakers, then why would those words be italicized? Ultimately, I made decisions based on the narrative–whose perspective is relaying the story and would these words be familiar to them or not.
Has anyone ever challenged your “right” to write about South Africa and Lesotho culture as a white woman from the United States? I’m thinking of issues of representation and who gets to create the stories of whom.
No one ever has challenged me. Should people challenge me if I’m writing about a man? Or an 18th-century aristocrat? Or an American mother of two on welfare? I’m not a man, I’m not dead, I’m neither a mother nor poor, and yet few people would challenge me to write about these characters’ experiences. I write about people. I wrote a book about southern Africa because it is part of my life experience, and with any life experience, I write about it to understand it. The core component to making any story effective, in my opinion, is to have a rich imagination that allows you to fully empathize with people. My capacity for empathy enables me to write about the range of characters that are in my book. And I think part of the reason people don’t challenge me, is because they feel for my characters, see a sliver of themselves within them. My characters bear difficulties, fall in love, face their fears, experience boredom, dream, eat, have sex, laugh–and not because they are African or from a particular culture that is “Other” than mine, but because they are human. At the end of the day, I’m attempting to tell a good story. Period.
Are you working on any new projects?
Yes, I am! I’m finishing up two projects right now. The first is a novel set in rural Iowa, where I’m originally from. It’s a coming-of-age novel that tackles some of the pressing social issues of small-town America–everything from gay marriage to immigration to the role of organized religion. The second is a more experimental novella about a failed mathematician on a downward spiral. I’m currently writing it in a day planner, which has created the structure of the piece. It includes many word and number patterns and math formulas built into the text, which has been a fun and creative way of writing.
*Courtney McDermott and I attended the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame together in 2009-2010. Therefore, I’m sure unintentional bias exists in my review as a result of me wanting my peer to do well in her writing endeavors.