Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel is stunning. Told in short bursts of chapters, using all kinds of materials — from a 1947 copy of the Girl Scout manual to the contents of a social worker’s reports to a poetic cocktail recipe — girlchild is the story of Rory Dawn Hendrix, a young girl growing up in Calle de los Flores, a trailer park “just north of Reno and just south of nowhere.” The book bluntly displays the multitude of ways in which the government fails communities like Rory’s, as it also explores the harrowing effects of trauma and sexual abuse. But it also brings us the voice of its indefatigable, imaginative, and utterly unique protagonist. Rory’s voice is solely her own, and it’s one that echoes once you’ve turned girlchild‘s final page. (We recommend it.)

Nika Knight talked to Hassman on the phone about Girl Scouts, feminism, relationships, the government, and marginalized communities.

Was girlchild ever hard for you to write, emotionally? I found it so intense to read.

Yeah, it was, definitely. There was a point when — this is embarrassing, but I think it’s funny — I would hate to sit down and write it, because I knew that I would be so emotionally riddled by it, that I started keeping little notes of how often I cried on each workday. Little hashmarks, like in prison. And I don’t mean to sound so dramatic about it — I would just cry, it was ridiculous. It was so ridiculous. That happened every day I worked on the book. And I don’t walk around crying all the time.

I mean, it’s a first novel, at first Rory’s and my story were pretty much the same, but it wasn’t long before Rory’s life was totally — she’s way more of a badass than me. She does things I never would have thought of. And yet it was still really sad, and really hard to dig into that.

It seemed like so much research went into the book — from the format and tone of social workers’ case files to the details of the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which declared forced sterilization to be constitutional in 1927 and has yet to be overturned. How did you go about your research?

I’m a first-generation college student, and I went to USC, from a community college. I didn’t even graduate high school, so going to USC was mind-blowing, really. …. When I got to USC, which I loved, and I love it, but it was a harsh conflict for me, and I became ultra-aware of class differences. I already had all this baggage, and then it was in my face. The disparity was so in my face on that campus. And then [I was] minoring in social work — it was the Children and Families in Urban America minor, and I took a class on race and gender and history, or race and gender and sexuality — something like that. That’s where I learned about the Bucks. And I was interested in them; it became easier to learn more about them.

I learned about a lot of things in that class — pretty basic things, like Tuskegee and all that stuff. You can fill in the blank. But the Bucks really spoke to me because they really — I’m, you know, three states away, or three years away from my family, personally, having been a candidate for forced sterilization. It just hit really close to home, and that made it easy to want to look into it and figure out why we keep making the same mistakes. Not that I figured anything out.

That was all really mindblowing — I’d never heard of Buck v. Bell, somehow.

People have never heard of it! You’re not alone. You’re totally not alone. I had never learned about it. I learned about it ten years ago, and I never shut up about it, and no one knows what I’m talking about. And no one can believe — not “no one,” that’s insulting — but no one can believe that the U.S. would participate in something that was lauded by the Nazi regime. There was a certificate given to the United States to commend the activity, when it was first done — that was before the war, and everything. It’s so hidden away and dark, and that’s what scares me, in that we don’t — it wasn’t that long ago, and how do we protect ourselves from ourselves, if we don’t look at what we’ve done?

In girlchild, the government just seems so useless to that community.

That’s a great word for it.

Do you feel that there’s anything we can do, to change the relationship between government and marginalized communities?

The question is how to make a government and a community useful to each other, when both sides — I’m being very generous, to the government — have worked so hard to ensure that they have no use to each other. But there has to be value in that relationship. And I certainly am not in charge of any of that; I have no idea how one goes about it, but there has to be a way for that relationship to have worth. It should never be a structure where it’s just about avoiding each other as much as possible. There’s so much there that’s unused, that goes to waste.

Do you think the Occupy movement and all this recent talk about economic inequality in our society has any effect on communities like Rory’s? Do you think there’s a possibility that it could? After reading about the Calle, in the book, it feels like these communities are just so invisible.

Yeah, I don’t know how that bridge is made. I don’t know how a kid from the Calle, say, makes it to an Occupy encampment. That seems like a heroic journey to me. …. Maybe if you see Occupy on TV, if you have CNN. Well, first you have to have cable! Right? And then you have to imagine yourself a part of that. It has to be relevant to you. It’s a question of relevance, right? How does that become relevant? Even to go to that — even if you’re just fucking off and you want to be part of something, there’s still so much empowerment in being able to decide, “I want to go down to that protest.” There’s so much empowerment there, and I don’t know how communities like the Calle, how those kids, with so much energy, can be made to do that.

Maybe that’s where art comes in. Maybe you hear a band and you identify, and you start saying ideas because you like the beat, and maybe something happens. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know how the seed gets planted there. Because it seems like, yeah, it has to be relevant and then there has to be one more step. So two things have to happen, and I don’t know — it mystifies me. That probably underlies the question of girlchild for me: if I started out a lot like Rory — now she and I are very, very different, but how did I get out? And why are people that I love still there? I don’t have a happy answer to that. I certainly don’t have an answer that I could describe to someone, like, “You know what? Do this!” Or that I would: “Make a lot of ballsy decisions and see what happens.” I also wouldn’t [say] that! It’s so much luck, and that’s what the drink recipe in there, in the book, is a lot about. It takes a lot of luck. I believe that, certainly, there is no American dream without luck, and I think people don’t talk about that enough. Because hard work is not enough. And I think we know that as writers, right? We know how many writers that should have success? And they just don’t, because they didn’t have luck. That’s totally unfair.

I feel like that’s the same thing — artists are marginalized, in our culture, and so I guess the parallel works — but for marginalized cultures, you have to have luck, and it just shouldn’t be like that. It shouldn’t be like that. I mean, how many writers do I know right now that should be talking to you, but they didn’t have the ten happy occurrences that had to happen for me to get here. I’m not saying I didn’t work hard, or whatever. But what’s more to the point is that they worked hard, too, and they are talented and writing gorgeous stuff, but the ten lucky things didn’t happen.

I know what you mean. 

I wish we knew the answer, I wish we could —

I wish we could come up with something right now, like, “here’s what needs to happen!”

And we’ll put it into action, you and me!

I think it’s at least useful to write about your experience, and places like the Calle. 

Who can say how much all the reading I did as a kid made me feel like I could step into other atmospheres, and give it a go. I don’t know. Or maybe it at least got me through the day. Or there was one day that I didn’t put myself in danger, because I had companionship with some kind of book. At the very least, I guess, that would be a help.

Most of the book is from Rory’s perspective, but there is a brief chapter written from the perspective of her abuser. Why did you choose to write from his perspective? 

I never thought about it, but I’ll guess: I don’t believe in the broad-stroke villain, right? No one believes in that. …. As a human, you know how important empathy is. One part would be, that guy is totally fucked up, but he’s not a monster. He might be a monster for Rory, but he’s not a monster. No one’s a monster, or no one thinks they are. That’s why we love a good villain, played by a good actor: because he’s not playing a monster, he’s playing a human who is doing the best they can. Which is weird to state in relation to the Hardware Man, but that’s how humans work. We think we’re doing what we have to do or need to do, so… to me that humanizes him. To me, that shows that he feels what he’s doing what he has to do, which is what I imagine is what many abusers feel — how could you feel any other way?

But also, there’s the voice of many abusers in this story, for Rory. The state, and the social worker — all these people have a weight or influence or an impact on her life, that is what they think they need to do and they think it’s the right thing, for them. …. I don’t know if you know Robert Towne — he wrote the script for Chinatown. You know, in Chinatown there’s the incest, and it’s so horrible, right? That’s what I think about when I think about that movie, and I’m totally creeped out every time. …. He says that the most horrendous act in that script is the rape of the land. That’s what, for him, is at the heart of it. And I can really appreciate that. Even though I remember the incest — I’m like, “what?” — for him, what was really pulling him was the rape of the land for the water. That, for him, was the most awful thing in that story. I think with girlchild, too — I think sexual abuse is bad, but… in a broad way, what’s more horrendous to me is how Rory has no choices.

A lot of girlchild seems to be about how few choices there are for women in a community like Rory’s. Did you come into the book thinking about feminisim?

When I was 11 my mom gave me The Handmaid’s Tale to read, so I don’t know that I’ve never not had a feminist mindset. It’s almost genetic. My mom was very vocal about that. I never remember her not talking about it. And Roe v. Wade was so fresh; it was the year I was born. I don’t know how you divorce that from anything. I’m certainly not heroic enough to do it. But I do see in my classroom now, sometimes — I’ve taught for six years, and it seems to go in phases where students will shy away from using the word “feminism,” completely not cop to it. They can’t be associated with it. Then there will be phases where it’s cool to talk about, and it’s acceptable, and no one is afraid of copping to it. Because it’s still a thing it has to be copped to, you know? I don’t know if that answers your question. I don’t know how to not be a woman in a culture and not think about these questions. I have no idea how it’s done, and maybe I don’t want to know.

With Rory’s character, there’s such a focus on night vs. day, light vs. dark. As a child, for example, she’s very explicit that “girlchild” is only her night name. Internally, she seems to divide realities easily. Why does she have these internal dichotomies? What does it do to her character to be so divided? 

Wow, that’s a great question. Well, with sexual abuse and all that, that’s pretty common. You compartmentalize. Trauma. Whatever trauma, you compartmentalize it. …. And she would have to make distinctions between her “good mom” and her “bad mom” — I’m making air quotes over here — her sober mom, and her drunk mom. So there’s that light switch.

There’s even her mom’s good ear, and her bad ear.

Yeah, whether she’s present or she’s not present. The ear really reflects that. I suppose in another way, at the school, where she doesn’t not enjoy excelling at academics, it separates her further from her mother, so there’s another way to compartmentalize. I suppose that — I’m not sure I’m answering your question, but I suppose there are so many divides. I guess the whole thing is about divides.

I mean, like anyone trying to leave that kind of community, you don’t get to stay. You don’t — like, of first-generation college students, a third or something drop out. I mean, my version of that is when you go home, people don’t understand what the hell you’re trying to do. It has no value, and so you have no support. So the divide goes on and on — you can’t stay, and if you want to better yourself, which, I don’t want to use the word “better.” I don’t know if I’m making sense.

I had a friend in college who was a first-generation college student, and I think she had a really similar experience. 

Yeah, I had to explain to my brothers every time I graduated: “Why are you graduating? Didn’t you just graduate? So what’s happening now?” Like, what are you doing? And they’re great, I love them to death — I have four brothers — but, you know, why would they know? And it can be very challenging for people who have no experience with such a culture to understand that. And this is where my story and Rory’s story is the same: no one went to college where I grew up. No one even had braces where I grew up. I mean, these are things you saw on television, and it doesn’t matter that you know they exist, they don’t exist for you. And you’re not even looking at them going, “why doesn’t that exist for me?” That’s how much it doesn’t exist. It’s so far away from what you’re experiencing… There’s no way to get from here to there. You know, when the guy says, “You can’t get there from here.” You can’t get there from here!

…I constantly feel like I’m passing, you know? I went to an Ivy League school and I feel like I don’t know where I am, personally. Totally personally, I still don’t know how I’m here and if I’m comfortable here.

Do you think that’s a common experience?

I think it is. My two best girlfriends and I say that we raised each other, because our parents certainly didn’t. And we all managed to go to college — we all dropped out of high school, we all went to college. I don’t know how — it must have been our power together, because I don’t know what else explains it. …. Here we are, and sometimes I see my friends and we talk about, “Oh, don’t you want to go back to that crappy apartment? Don’t you ever just see a trailer park and say, ‘Oh that looks relaxing, I’m just going to go live there and not aspire.’” Which, again, when I talk about “do you want to better yourself” or “you don’t want to aspire” — I feel like that’s bullshit, because it suggests that there’s only one way to better yourself; that there’s only one way to live your life. And I just don’t believe it’s true. But at the same time, there’s some verb that has to represent what we’re talking about. I don’t know what that verb is, that doesn’t reject a whole life.

I think I know what you mean.

Somehow it seems relaxing, just to — not to say “give up,” but — I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to do this, Nika. I don’t know how to have this interview. I’m sure I’m totally fucking it up, you know? I don’t know how to do so many things, but I know how to live in a trailer, and I can totally pull that off. That’s really comforting, sometimes.

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