Books In Conversation
AMBER SPARKS with Nancy Hightower
And I Do Not Forgive You
Amber Sparks’s new short story collection, And I Do Not Forgive You, complements other recently published novels that reframe myth and folklore to challenge our 21st century pre-apocalyptic mindset. I could easily see Sparks’ stories being taught alongside Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife or Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (2017) in the college classroom. With sharp, lyrical wit, Sparks lays bare the inherited violence and misogyny our culture levels at female bodies. While magic ebbs and flows—sometimes working in tandem with technology—no power seems strong enough to put the families and lovers back in their proper place anymore. Perhaps “proper” was only a myth in the first place, and so Sparks continually asks us “where does forgiveness belong in a world so broken?” The answer seems to lie in metamorphosis as girls turn into donkeys, flying creatures, and renegade stars in order to escape fates worse than death. Perhaps these stories are asking us to see that such hybridity can be as transformative and freeing a process, that perhaps it’s in such fluidity of identity that we can approach anything even close to redemption.
Nancy Hightower (Rail): At a time where the rhetoric of “cancel culture” and the “need for redemption,” is being tossed about on Twitter as well as in op-eds, articles, and essays, what made you title your book And I Do Not Forgive You?
Amber Sparks: It’s funny—I actually wrote the story the title is taken from well before cancel culture was this mainstream thing. It’s the last line of the story “We Destroy the Moon,” and it’s an absolute refutation of the idea of the need for redemption, or for forgiveness. So much is our need for a complete arc, a full narrative arc, that our society seems bent on labeling those who don’t seek closure or issue forgiveness as angry, deviant, troubled. The protagonist of the story is still angry, and she owns her anger, allows it to transform her, to give her momentum. And I thought that the same is true of so many of the protagonists of these stories—anger is good and transformational for them, too.
Rail In these stories, you reframe myths and fairy tales such as The Rape of the Sabine Women or “Donkeyskin” (1969) that use violence against women as a narrative framework. What do you hope to accomplish in these retellings? I’m interested because in film we’ve seen reboots of so many older movies, but I think you are going for something different here, along the lines of Anne Sexton’s Transformations (1971).
Sparks: I’ve read and listened to fairy tales and myth since before I can remember. My mother, who was such a huge influence on my reading, was feeding me these stories at the same time she was feeding me “Free to Be… You and Me” (1972) and other feminist tales. So for me they’re inextricably linked, and I’m always thinking about how fairy tales were really warnings mothers gave to their daughters, back before they were cleaned up and civilized. Fairy tales may not be feminist, but I think they’re about women’s liberation all the same, and that’s something that fascinates me. What is necessary for women in order to survive? What do we sacrifice for that?
Rail: The gothic element in your work complicates genre expectations. For instance, in “Mildly Happy, with Moments of Joy,” I found myself constantly referring back to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) and wondering what would have happened if the police had just walked out. In a culture haunted by technological “ghosting” is the macabre and gothic to be discovered in the ordinary and mundane?
Sparks: Love this question! At heart I’m a little goth writer and I think a lot about the ghost in the machine. The more machine our society becomes, to me the more gothic tones it takes on—since so much more becomes unseen. In some ways, the internet is bringing back the candlelight and shadows to an otherwise too-bright world. The internet has multiplied the ghost world. So much is under the surface in modern personal interactions, too—I think the macabre is always waiting between humans in love or in hate. That thin line between love and hate, between obsession and possession—that’s quite dark, quite dramatic—very gothic, in fact.
Rail: I love teaching flash fiction and short fiction in the college classroom even more than I do novels. Yet novels still seem to get all the glory, hype, and awards. Your collection is comprised of both flash fiction and very short stories, so much so that Carmen Maria Machado’s blurb about your work being “a burst of fire and light” seems spot on. What kind of power can a flash story wield that might not be as effective in a novella or novel?
Sparks: I try hard not to take the novel thing too personally, though of course it’s difficult not to. The forms are so different! I can’t believe how many people will say things like “this story is short, the writer just didn’t even finish it.” But I think a short-short, a flash, can wield tremendous power. Much like a poem, a flash piece can bend time, can compress massively, can zero in on a single person or emotion or incident, or the entire span of history, in a way that can be lightning. The writer of the flash or the poem has, to my mind, no responsibility for anything except producing lightning.
Rail: The women in your stories try to survive a society that sees them as either sacrificial or disposable or perhaps does not see them at all. Reading your work, I was reminded how in Greek myths, women had to transform (or were transformed) into gods, monsters, or became part of nature to escape their predators. Could it be that our definitions of all things related to women—feminism, femininity, "female," etc.,—must undergo a similar transformation so that at first we might not even recognize it, or say, "hey, that's not the 'happily ever after' we were looking for." But perhaps, given the current administration we are living under, such morphings are what we need to survive.
Sparks: I think that’s absolutely a big part of what’s happening in this book. Happy endings aren’t always possible, but freedom can be. Relief can be. And so I’m very interested in exploring the wild freedom that escape or disappearing gives the heroines of these tales, and yes, how actual transformation can be the means to that wild freedom, perhaps the only means in some cases. Hera was forever turning the women Zeus raped into animals and things—and sometimes I think, what if she wasn’t punishing them? What if she was saving them?