Joanne Rixon Interview: “The Complaint of All Living Things”

Michael: In the first of what will hopefully be many such interviews, editorial staffer Johannes Punkt and I worked together to come up with questions for Joanne Rixon about her Reckoning 2 story, “The Complaint of All Living Things”.

Johannes: What’s your own favourite national park, and why?

Joanne: I like this question, it’s unexpectedly tricky! It depends if you mean strictly National Parks only, or all public lands. My favorite National Park is Joshua Tree National Park in California. For one thing, I have an impossible fondness for deserts, probably due to reading The Blue Sword multiple times at an impressionable age, and Joshua Tree is quintessential desert. But also, it’s so close to LA, a major metropolitan area known for poor air quality—but there was a time when I was there, alone in the desert at night, and it was so quiet, and I looked at the sky and it felt like the very first time I’d ever seen stars.

If we’re talking all public lands, though, I’ve got to say my favorite is Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, in particular the southern, Snoqualmie end of it. It covers a lot of area, including some impressive mountains, but a lot of it looks like this. Which is to say, heartrendingly beautiful. I grew up on unceded Snoqualmie Indian Tribe land and most of my memories of childhood are set in the shadow of those mountains. In my family we’re all settlers/colonists, which makes it complicated for me to claim these forests as my home. I have no right to it, but I think it has a right to me.

Photo by Matt Antonioli on Unsplash

Johannes: Your story feels so searingly, hauntingly personal, and when I read it I am reminded of how the personal stories play a role in the very big stories of humanity vis-a-vis the earth. Is that what you set out to say, when you started writing this?

Joanne: Well I hope it doesn’t spoil the story to admit that that wasn’t what I was thinking about at all. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about how humans relate to the natural world, because I reject natural-unnatural dualism. Which, ha, sounds incredibly pretentious. All I mean is that I believe that all things are equally natural—smartphones made by humans are as natural as bird nests or termite towers. The human belief that we are separate from or superior to nature is an illusion that comes from certain religious beliefs that I don’t share. We ARE the earth. Which, okay, was partly what I was writing about.

My main artistic goal, though, when I started writing, was to interrogate the idea of recovery from injury. I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about how Western medicine encourages people to see the uninjured body as the pristine, default state we should always be striving to return to. In my experience that’s neither possible nor desirable—because it’s impossible, it just means living in denial and sometimes incurring further illness or injury. In some ways the sea star near the beginning of the story is the central image I was thinking of—the sea star has been almost bisected, and is regenerating into a much different creature than it was before. It isn’t recovering—it’s becoming something entirely new.

So if I have a message about environmentalism or whatever (and maybe I don’t?) it’s only that, yes, there is damage, and yes, we go forward. One way or another.

Johannes: Your protagonist-narrator feels so strikingly human, strong and weak at the same time, and I wonder: how do you decide what to tell explicitly and what to imply, of backstory and character and everything?

Joanne: Oh, I don’t know. To be perfectly honest, most of the time I guess at what will feel more dramatic, and then look back at what I’ve written and see if I like it? I’m not a very methodical writer, have no formal training, and go through many revisions of everything I write.

I will say, one thing I do is I try to find the one perfect detail that can be explained in a way that will evoke the feeling of the whole. In this story in particular details were very important tools, because the narrator has forgotten the larger whole. Only the feeling of it remains. The reader doesn’t know what’s true because the narrator herself largely doesn’t know.

This is a good technique when writing trauma, in particular, because it allows you to show, e.g., medical abuse right there on screen without actually traumatizing your reader. You just focus on the color of the nurse’s shoes, and that allows the reader to know—to feel—but also to not know. And this makes it bearable.

Michael: What happens when a story takes a deeply innate human process and magnifies it, the way you’ve done here with forgetting and pain? How does it work on the reader, how do you want it to work?

Joanne: I don’t know if I can say whether it works or doesn’t. I think each reader probably has a different experience? But I can tell you that what I was trying to do here was—maybe I would say, focus rather than magnification.

Pain is an interesting thing to write about because of the way our minds falter when processing it. A healthy human brain can never quite remember pain. You can remember the color of the blood, the feeling of overwhelming panic, but not the sensation of pain. Even if your brain is damaged by the long-term presence of unrelenting chronic pain, you don’t really remember pain the way you remember other things. You remember, say, how angry and humiliated you were when you couldn’t get up off the floor, but you can’t remember the body-feeling of the pain that pinned you on the ground. The closest I’ve come is trying to remember and instead inducing the pain in my body in the present moment—giving myself a headache trying to remember a headache.

I’ve been fascinated by this quirk of memory for a long time, perhaps morbidly fascinated. There’s this thing that happens when you have chronic pain, and pain is in every memory, but you can’t remember pain—your memory gets weird. I wanted to take that forgetting and reverse it, or duplicate it, or see the underside of it, both because I want to understand it better myself and because I want other people to also make an attempt at understanding.

Part of it is the technical challenge, you know: can I make people remember something it isn’t possible to remember? But also, many of my stories are about pain or memory or both, because I’m a very selfish writer. I like to write about myself, I like to force my readers to think like a person with chronic pain for a few minutes as they read. Ideally it might draw a person toward self-reflection or a small dab of enlightenment, but to be perfectly honest I’m also happy if my readers get a headache trying to remember a headache. I just don’t want to be alone in it.

I don’t know if this answers your question. Also, I should include the caveat (because my mother has the link to this story!) that that makes it sound like Complaint is autobiographical, but it definitely isn’t. It draws on my personal experiences with pain, but only in a general way. Except I have actually camped at Padre Island National Seashore, that part is true!

Michael: Joanne and Johannes, thank you both very much, this has been great.