–Interview by Diana Clarke
In Amy Blakemore’s story “Exit Strategies,” a woman whose body is a paper bag begs outside a diner. Below, Blakemore names and claims desire, hunger, and the way trauma seeps past the edges of its occurrence and into our bodies, our lives.
1. You make such interesting use of juxtaposition: “Crispy bacon. She’s been on a diet since she was fourteen. It took me years to pop the question.” What do hunger, forbidden food, marriage, and fear have to do with one another?
This is a story, among others things, about suppressed appetites. I think it takes bravery to accept and fulfill our hungers. It requires us to accept that we are not always in control: that we are not always rational creatures. I wanted to write about two characters who, like most of us, had not accepted this—a girl who thought she could undo years of deprivation, a boy who thought he could help her without allowing his own desires to influence the texture of that “help.” Writing this story, at points, felt like a game of Whac-a-Mole: when a character pushed something down, a new and unexpected face appeared. Food became love, love became fear. When our desires are held down, for long enough, they start to shift and change—think of bones under pressure, and how they splinter.
2. The way the story makes a slow equation between the diet mentioned above and the way the narrator’s lover has been “misplacing her limbs” and even “losing [her]self,” before which time the sex they had together was great. But isn’t sex about losing yourself? Is dieting (if it’s because you hate yourself) as disfiguring as losing a limb?
There are so many ways we talk about “losing ourselves” and about loss in general. We could lose ourselves in great sex or a story or a song; we could lose control of something mundane, like a diet; we could “lose it” and become mad. Sex, and diets, and our choices for our bodies in general are whatever we make them, and sometimes they have nothing to do with loss at all. In this context, they did: Delaney’s diet disfigured her, and she began to displace parts of herself she had not anticipated. The mundane became malignant so discretely that she didn’t see the shift until something critical had already been lost. This is the center of her pain—or perhaps the centerlessness of her pain. As Cathy Caruth articulates in Unclaimed Experience, “trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in its…very unassimiliated nature” (4). Maybe at some point in time, Delaney’s relationship with food could have been salvaged, but I wanted to enter her story at a point where it could not.
3. The narrator tells how his lover used to write words that reminded her of him on napkins and other scraps of paper: “’How do you decide?’ I asked once. She cocked her head. ‘I don’t. The words do.’” What about your relationship with words, as a writer? Do you set intentions? Do the words just come, uncontrolled?
I’m an opportunist: I will chase a single beautiful sentence with an entire story, and I’ve found I’m more likely to surprise myself that way. I want be interrupted. I want to be painting a horrifically well-intended landscape when a face in the foreground jumps out at me. Creating the right conditions for that to happen, for me, means reading and writing constantly, and knowing when to step away from a story that I have begun to “expect” something of.
4. I loved the cross-conversation as the narrator and his former lover begin speaking again:
“How’s your bod—”
“How’s your mother?” She tosses me a smirk.
“Still glad we broke up.”
“Not my fault my nose ran off during dinner.”
Mothers being the ones who make our bodies, most of the time. How do we free ourselves from our creators? What of them do we carry in us, inescapably?
And our bodies have so many mothers! Our peers, our community, our culture—I used to think that agency was a hopeless thought, just considering the sheer volume of influence we receive on a daily basis. And truly, if we are talking about freedom, I am the first to admit that I have no idea if or how we have it. When I was returning to my body, in recovery, I stripped my choices: Why do I wear makeup? Why do I like skirts? Why does this alcohol taste so good? Am I my family? Am I an industry I detest? I was skeptical of my inclinations; they had wounded me before, so better not to trust myself—the logic was self-protective. But that scrutiny, I think—more than my world and my upbringing—that stripped my agency most violently: it sucked the fat out of my choices, even the smallest choices. It took me a long time to trust the things that pleasured me. To accept that I may never understand why they do. To allow myself pleasure without question. I identify as sex positive and body positive because I think the quest to free ourselves from our creators is ultimately equivalent to the quest to free ourselves from ourselves—and that is not the journey I would like to take with my body. I would like to promise it that it is impetuous, and mysterious, and I love it regardless—more: I love it because of. So yes: have some ice cream, cry a little watching horrible TV, get off, get off, get off, go for a run and stop when you’re done, scream because your throat needs unclogging. Experience anything and everything, and I will be there with you, your first friend.
5. Delaney scoffs at a guy at a bar who “was quite surprised when he smacked my ass and found I didn’t have one.” Even the narrator is shocked to feel the sack where her torso ought to be and find it empty (like a womb!). When the culture has so many narratives and expectations about how bodies can and should look and be, how do we escape them, besides just disappearing?
I’m thrilled you brought up this scene—it was important to me to include a moment like this. Female bodies are too often sexualized by default, even when they are dangerously thin. I remember when I was sick, different people—relatives, strangers, friends—would compliment me (“you look good in everything!”), or compare me to a “model.” I sharply remember going to get a pedicure when I was, quite literally, a fraction of myself, and the masseuse kept rubbing my legs, saying: like a model—you should model. Boys would pick me up and swing me around just because I was small enough. And then, at some point, everyone got nervous. It stopped being cute. There’s an endorsement for thinness…until there is not. To survive, I had to learn this: my body is a narrative in and of itself. And whatever the appearance, whatever the reaction, its story is also mine—and it is the story I should value most highly.
6. Of course “Eat” is the narrator’s love word. How many people in our lives try to feed us only to set off some internal alarm, or to give us something delicious that doesn’t nourish. What foods make you feel most present? What bodily rituals? What texts?
I love foods with aggressive flavors. Black coffee, ripe fruit, dark chocolate, sharp cheese, chipotle anything. Sitting outside with a cup of hot coffee and a brand new book—that’s my favorite ritual. That nourishes me. I’m not a religious person, but I can meditate on a single line for hours, just close my eyes and digest it. I think of certain sentences when I go for a run, or walk the dog, or dance absurdly around the house. The words are like water. They run through everything I do. And I’m so thankful to be here, to have a claim on an “everything.”