April 2014

Rebecca Silber


An Interview with Peggy Shinner

Peggy Shinner, a lifelong Chicagoan who teaches in the MFA program at Northwestern University, has been published in numerous esteemed reviews and quarterlies over the years. Shinner's first book, You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body, has recently been published by University of Chicago Press. It is a collection of twelve essays covering a variety of topics as vast as the many parts of the human body -- as vast as Shinner's many identities and interests.

In You Feel So Mortal, Shinner takes the reader on a captivating quest beyond her own body's experiences as she attempts to find her personal place among the experiences that we all share as humans, and have shared throughout history. Shinner expertly, poignantly, and humorously writes of particular moments in her own personal history and successfully combines those moments with captivating and fascinating findings from her historical research. The result is a collection of honest essays that beautifully tie together many common human complexities.

You Feel So Mortal is described by your publisher as being "a collection of searing and witty essays about the body." These essays are about the human body, not solely about your own body, but at times you do write very specifically and honestly about your body -- your feet, your posture, your breasts, your nose... What made you want to write, or how did you muster up the courage, to write so frankly and intimately about your own body?

Personal details are, for me, points of departure. So when writing about feet, for instance, I was interested in the place of collision between my personal experience and the larger world. My feet are flat; my father's feet are flat. Fine, okay. What do flat feet suggest? What does history and culture have to say about them? We'll, it turns out that history often associates flat feet, misshapen feet with Jews. And that led me to consider the racialized Jewish body, which is a fraught and highly charged subject.

Similarly, when I started wrestling with the issue of posture, I wanted to go beyond my own slouchiness. By itself, that didn't much interest me, and I suspected it probably wouldn't interest anyone else. But when I found a context in which to frame it -- the figure of debutante slouch, whose sinuous posture came to embody a kind of social rebellion; the rise of the posture queen in mid-twentieth century America; the meaning of supplicatory postures like bowing and begging -- then I could examine the tension between the intimate and the cultural. Those connections really excite me.

You talk about finding a context in which to frame the issue of posture -- and really all of the essays are as you say, "a place of collision between your personal experience and the larger world." The historical information and the way it is interspersed into your personal anecdotes is something that I found quite captivating as I read You Feel So Mortal. Can you talk a little bit about your research process? Is there one place where you did most of your research? How did you go about finding the perfect connections to your personal details?

Certain questions propel the research, but that doesn't mean I'm always going to find the answers, nor do I have to. The essays seem, in part, to be a conversation between what I'm asking and what I find. I don't remember what propelled me to read Milton Berle's autobiography -- I think I came across a reference to his nose job -- but when I found out that he gave nose jobs as presents to friends who then dubbed him Santa Schnozo, a dialogue started to happen. A Jew giving other Jews nose jobs; the aptly coined Santa Schnozo. That's so wonderfully layered and irresistible, and says so much about the intersections between body, self-image, and American culture.

Unexpectedly, the act of research itself can become part of an essay. I was at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership -- in the library -- poking around about various burial practices, when I saw a sign above the copy machine admonishing patrons not to throw away any papers that might be considered sacred or holy. Papers that had the name of God. Instead these had to be collected and buried in a Jewish cemetery. Well, this was shortly after I discovered that my partner, not Jewish, was unwelcome in a particular Jewish cemetery. The papers could be buried there, had to be buried there, but she couldn't be. I was incredulous, and outraged. This anger became a driving force in "Intimate Possession."

In reading this collection of essays, being Jewish has presented you with quite a few challenges throughout your life -- running the gamut from having flat feet to your nose job to your search for burial plots in Jewish cemeteries. People unfamiliar with Judaism may find this odd, that a religion can affect a person so much, especially if this person isn't especially religious (e.g., taking Rosh Hashanah off work and eating sausage at Manny's rather than going to temple -- one of my favorite parts!). Would you say that being Jewish can be so all encompassing because Judaism is a cultural experience, and a huge identifier even (especially) outside of the synagogue?

Being Jewish has given me a certain set of eyes. It is, and has been, hugely formative. My parents were the children of Russian immigrants. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. My grammar school classmates were all Jewish. It has also, I might add, given me a certain set of preconceptions, which I attempt to peel back or at least expose in the book. Jews don't drink. Jewish men don't beat their wives. Jews aren't organ donors. Post-Holocaust, Jews are the ultimate victim-survivors. In Israel, the word "survivor" only means a Holocaust survivor. Linguistically, a woman can't be a survivor of sexual assault. What is this tribal trumpeting?

But we're multiple beings, and the borders are slippery between these multiplicities. As a young woman I shoplifted once. Historically, shoplifting in women has been linked to hysteria, and hysteria to sexual yearning. What does all this mean? What does it mean that in certain cultures certain hairstyles denote marital status? That the Japanese have a proverb, "Hair is women's life"?

I think that it is interesting that through your writing, you are trying to peel back, or expose, those preconceptions in this book. And I think you are quite successful in doing so. Was that exposure a goal you had from the outset, or was it something that formulated on its own over time?

Part of the task of the essayist is to interrogate her own assumptions, to hold herself up to questioning. Brett Lott, in his essay "Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction," talks about this when he refers to "the self as the inquisitor of the self." Those are tough words -- interrogate, inquisitor; maybe another way to think about it is dispassionate scrutiny. We have to apply a lens of dispassionate scrutiny to our work. We all have our own blinders; I try, sometimes more successfully than others, to take them off or at least to acknowledge them.

People reading this interview, even if they haven't yet read You Feel So Mortal, can certainly tell by our conversation that you cover a wide range of topics in this essay collection. Your writing style from essay to essay is also diverse. For example, "Mood Medicine," an essay about an elderly woman and her antidepressants, is written in the second person. Yet, based on the context of your other essays, I assume the characters in this essay are your aunt and yourself. I am interested to hear about why you chose this viewpoint for this essay.

My great-aunt was still alive when I wrote that essay. I was her primary caregiver or, more accurately, the family member in charge of her care. I was, as I say in the essay, often burdened by and resentful of this responsibility, even as I loved her and recognized the honor inherent in helping to usher her out of this world. When I sat down to write the piece, the second person seemed to choose me. I'm not sure I even thought about it. It was a point of view I needed in order to write the essay and say the things that needed saying about caring for a someone, someone difficult and charming and funny and maddening and severely depressed, at the end of a very long life. This viewpoint afforded me some distance, yes, but it was also a way to engage in a dialogue with her. The second person was a form of address and homage.

This collection of essays covers a huge time span, from your youth up to the recent past. I think that referring to this book as a memoir would be selling it short. As we have discussed, there is so much research, history, and self-discovery to your writing. But, I could see it being mistakenly (and too hastily) labeled as such. Do you consider You Feel So Mortal a memoir? How do you describe these essays to someone who asks you what your book is about?

The book takes on particular moments in my life -- the discovery of my mother's letter from Nathan Leopold, my father's autopsy, learning to use a knife in my martial arts practice -- and in that way it might resemble memoir, but I think of it more as a series of encounters with the world. The idea of collision that I mentioned before. The charged place where personal experience runs up against the culture and the mass of complication and distortion culture brings with it. Various thematic threads connect the essays. The body as proxy for the soul, the body as trangressive and transgressed. The body as a physical experience, of course, but also as a social, cultural, and historical transcript, if you will. How has it been read in the past and how do I read it now? I read it as a woman, a Jew, a lesbian, a martial artist, a daughter, all of those.