On the Other Side of the Meditation: An Interview with Selah Saterstrom

Vulnerability, bathing suits, writing, ancestors, and co-opting academia as a meditation. Jennifer Denrow talks with Selah Saterstrom.

Selah Saterstrom, The Pink Institution

Jennifer Denrow: When did you begin writing?

Selah Saterstrom: I started writing as soon as I could write. My childhood plan was to: A. Be a nun, and if that didn’t work out to, B. to be a writer. Not long after this plan I discovered cigarettes and sex and was like well, I guess I’ll write.

The first story I actually remember writing was when I was seven, and it was a terrible rewriting of Cinderella, except Cinderella was called Irma and she lived with her evil cousins. I also happened to live with my cousins at the time (I have amazing cousins! I was just trying to work something out, no doubt…).

When I think back on that first story and what preempted the moment of writing for me—my mother was institutionalized for swaths of my childhood, and she was out on a weekend furlough at one point, and my dad had this efficiency apartment in Mississippi and she came there and she had this black trash bag and two “prizes” for me—God knows where she got them from—one was a yellow and white striped Izod bathing suit (there was a swimming pool at this apartment complex), and I was so excited because that was the cool brand though really it was a fake knockoff, a fact revealed to me after I very proudly put it on, and with all the kids there at the pool, jumped into the water and the bathing suit went completely transparent, so it was like being naked amplified. I fled the pool, humiliated, and returned to the efficiency and picked up the other “prize” my mother had given me: a beautiful blue book with fancy golden-edged, blank pages, and that was when I wrote my first story—this Cinderella knockoff.

I think writing began for me as a way to be in the world. It was about survival, but also thriving. It was like: this is how I survive my situation and question it, and this is how I stay in my body. The part about being naked, and having that be the thing that led me to writing, is a really important piece.

JD: Did you see your parents writing a lot?

SS: You know, my mom always kept a notebook, and her father kept notebooks, and in fact, when he died, over the antiques, over the paintings (he was a painter), over all the items that people wanted in the wake of his death, the notebooks were considered the most valuable. My mother’s family really believed in the notebook.

You know, when I read Jabès, and I feel such a resonance, it’s because of my grandfather, and I feel very close to him—he was my first teacher and class began at a very early age. He believed that the world was not outside of the book. He saw things in terms of this position – even painting. For example, he loved the Isenheim Altarpiece (painted and constructed by Matthias Grünewald around 1512 – 1516), and referred to this altar as a moving book. Incidentally, this was a book that we read constantly, this book of painting. So yes, there was a huge emphasis on reading and writing as both extraordinary and valuable events. Amidst poverty and tragedy and all types of other things, there was always story, and the subversive nature in story as a powerful and positive thing.

JD: Have you kept up with a daily notebook practice?

SS: For a majority of my life, I have kept a notebook practice. That daily practice is, for me, really about my commitment to being attuned to the world in certain ways. The notebook becomes a kind of zone which records divinatory traces that punctuate the flux.

JD: When did you begin actively studying writing and thinking about it as a potential means of livelihood?

SS: There are a few key moments. I think what sealed the deal for me—my grandfather, the notebook keeper, who was a marvelous storyteller from whom I learned about narrative and narrative structure, I mean that’s what you did: you sat in front of him all day and you listened to stories and you talked to him about art and literature and philosophy and it was thrilling as a child. We all worshipped him and so that is where you wanted to be—in the circle of his narrative. He committed suicide when I was twelve. He shot himself with a shotgun in the backyard.

I went into the backyard after his death and I had this moment, and I’ve had this moment since, it was probably half a second, but it was also this expanse, and I heard a voice, I don’t know where it was located, and I’m looking at the visceral traces of an extraordinary fragmentation, and my brain could not wrap itself around what I was seeing. So in this moment the voice says: now you can look at anything. So, it was this sense, this very serious sense, that having seen the unimaginable thing, that I had a sort of duty, as a writer, to trespass into these wilderness zones, the difficult territories, and come back with stories for the people. It felt like this ancestral, moral imperative. It was an important moment when writing radically deepened for me and I knew, even then, that I was supposed to write through this lifetime. So, there was this sense of obligation that I felt for many years. I still feel it, but I feel it differently now. It was an important initiation-into-language. It was this strangely positive experience amidst a traumatic break.

I didn’t study writing in college. I studied philosophy and religion. Eventually I went on to do a MA in Divinity. I started a PhD program and was four years into the program, had written my doctoral thesis, and this thing started happening where every time before I turned in critical work I had to write a short story. The Dean of the school of divinity, who was also my thesis adviser, a very smart priest, would be forced to read these horrific short stories about the misadventures of Jesus, and it was always Jesus getting blow jobs or Jesus doing coke in motel rooms in Vegas—putting this messianic figure in these narratives—and he very gracefully read them, but it was like, okay, I’m working something out.

I realized that the best way for me to engage with ontological concerns was through the creative, visionary arts, rather than the traditional academic path I was on, and so I took a leave of absence from my doctoral program and in that time I studied writing and wrote my first novel, The Pink Institution.

I just told a student this morning that the world rarely gives one permission to be a visionary—sometimes it does and that’s great, but you have to give yourself that permission, you have to create a community that supports that intention, and there is no blueprint for this life—we’re co-creating it with uncertainty.

JD: What is it like now that your career is connected to writing?

SS: I never thought I would be directing a PhD program! So now I’m on the other side of the meditation and it’s been very challenging: how does one sustain their relationships and make art and have a job with health benefits? I’m still figuring it out. My creative productivity really slowed down when I began teaching full time. This is, I hope, shifting, but what has helped me be in the academic institution, or what has made it possible for me to be in the institution, is that I’ve co-opted the experience as a meditation on spiritual values that deepen my visionary pursuits. If I did not co-opt this job as a meditation, for example on femininity and authority, I couldn’t do it.

JD: What are the questions you’re following now, in this space?

SS: My questions are probably the same, which are about seeking God. It’s about how to have a poignant relationship with uncertainty, and how to deal with the ancestors and be in conversation with the ancestors. Ancestors for me are past generations and future generations. How can I be energized by dissonance, rather than depleted by it? I don’t know that my questions have tremendously changed. Underlying all of it is a commitment to tell the stories (I think of stories as visitations) and do right by the visitations, which means making choices technically and creatively based on what the work necessitates and requests, which is hardly ever what I want or had hoped for.

Writing is not just this privatized event. It really is a path where you get to practice a lot of non-attachment, or release (releasing what you thought was happening through the medium). It’s almost always about how I try to negotiate my pain. What writing requires of me is a filterless engagement with feeling—it’s a willingness to be acutely uncomfortable.