A Conversation with BK Loren: from Quiddity XI

BK Loren is the award winning author of the novel Theft (Counterpoint Press, 2012) and the essay collection, Animal, Mineral, Radical (Counterpoint Press, 2013). Her short fiction and essays have garnered many national awards and have been published in The Best Spiritual Writing Anthologies (2004 and 2012), Parabola, Yoga International, Orion Magazine, and many others. She’s been a ranch hand, a cook for a gourmet catering service in NYC, a cook, also, in a cafe run by a reverend healer who cured people’s ailments with a pendulum and herbs. She was also an aide on a locked psych ward, a tenured college teacher, and a furniture builder. Theft has been optioned for film, and BK will be writing the screenplay.
Quiddity’s Prose Editor, Heather E. Goodman, interviewed BK Loren about childhood, gender, action, and awe in her novel and essays. The following is a transcription of the interview that has been edited for the journal.

Heather E. Goodman: In Theft, the natural world is tied intimately to childhood. The outdoors seem to be not only a link to childhood, but also a tie to history and genealogy characters might not even know. How did you come to this? How does this inform your work?

BK Loren: Great question. I think about two things often, and they seem at odds at first blush, but they are interrelated: solastalgia and philopatry. A philopatric animal is one that returns home, often to give birth or to nest. In contrast, solastagia is defined as a homesickness for home when you are still home: a longing for a home that no longer exists, even though you’re still in that same geographical place. Solastalgia implies that, because of the increase of commerce and development, there is no way to “return home,” at least not to the home you have known in the recent past.

I combine these with the notion that the earth, by its very nature, is a palimpsest that tells the story of our lives. The top layer of our experience most often obscures the layers beneath; but obscuring is not destroying. With attentive listening, one can retrieve parts of one’s past, and that attentive listening has everything to do with land. (It also has everything to do with the writing process, but I’ll address this later.) It’s meditative, not intellectual. I don’t mean that in an anti-intellectual way. I value intellect greatly. But its complement is also of value, and it requires a stillness, a silence, an attentiveness that relinquishes control and explanation.

For me, it’s important to acknowledge that the actual substance of earth, of land, holds memory and information that we may think is no longer accessible. Edward S. Casey speaking of place and memory, says, “a considerable portion of daily experience for human beings everywhere is mediated by what they see on screens—which can be construed as miniature and tightly framed micro-places that rivet viewers in the particular positions from which they are looking at these circumscribed visual fields. At the same time, the massive upsurge in forced migrations among millions of human beings—it has been estimated that fully 40 percent of humans are now on the move, most of them settling into urban slums—has reinforced an acute sensitivity to the loss of the place of origin: precipitating not just nostalgia but a deeply felt place- mourning.”

The earth as a palimpsest, and the palimpsest as both a place of loss and a place of potential recovery—these are storytelling elements for me. The complexity and contradictions the notion holds can only be expressed through human experience. The experience of a screen as a “place”; the experience of loss of geographical place by forced migrations or outside developers; the privilege and oppression implied in both of these, and in all experiences of place—these things preoccupy me, and I can’t speak of them with the complexity required unless I embody them in character. In character, their “explanation” is rendered in the fiber of the human heart and mind.

HEG: Gender (and therefore difference and equality) is examined in various ways in both of your books. In the gripping essay entitled “Learning Fear” from Animal Mineral Radical, you write, “Adam submitted because I was not really a girl—but could never be elevated to the power of a guy—so I was somewhere in between: a genderless monster.” The paragraph concludes: “I acted as if nothing had changed since we were all boys and girls playing four-square on the playground, all equal in power. I had not grown up.” This is a fascinating way of framing gender and power. Can you talk about this?

BKL: I think for every girl there is a time when they/we realize we’re separate from the mainstream of humanity. I’m not talking about this in any profound philosophical sense. I’m just saying that girls must change their behaviors in very specific ways when they reach a certain age. I think it’s Alison Bechdel who talks about this. She notes that the universal symbol, for instance, on bathroom doors, for a man is just the silhouette of a human being with two arms, two legs, and a head. But the female figure must be altered: she wears a skirt. The male figure could just as easily be altered. But the female is the one who must change in order to be recognized as female.

For girls who are more gender-normative, the transition is clearly marked, and they might even celebrate the transition. For girls who are not what we call typical girls— which I would argue is most females—it’s a hard transition. It’s especially hard if your gender expression is markedly different from your friends, or former friends, which is what they often become if you do not “fit in.” In any case, there is a very specific time (different for each individual) when girls feel their power, their equity with boys, slipping away. We are suddenly “other” in terms of what is most “valued.” We are asked to develop good arguments in academic papers, but if we are argumentative, we are strident, and so on and so forth. It’s an old, old story by now, and a quick look at the most recent election will show this. I’m not saying that Hillary lost the election due to sexism. There were no doubt many factors in that historical upset. But the election provided a stage that played out exactly what I’d hoped to get across in “Learning Fear.” Girls/women are taught to be afraid. A girl who is not afraid is foolish, a child, a law breaker, a freak, a loser. Submissiveness requires fear. And fear destroys the human spirit. And every girl knows exactly when she is supposed to become afraid— at what age—in order to become a “woman.”

Excuse my candor, but: fuck that.

Let me also say that boys are asked to lose their gracefulness at a certain age. They are asked to become people who can cause fear and submission in others. Fuck that, too.

“Learning Fear” is about this line in time, this exact line, that boys and girls are asked to cross. To stay true to oneself and go against the request creates a much harder— and more authentic—life.

HEG: In “Got Tape,” a funny and empowering essay about land you love and fight for in your neighborhood so that it won’t become a Target, you write, “Now I think community has little to do with like minds. It has to do with very differently minded people finding a way to get along because we all live in, are connected to, and share a sense of place.” Could you talk about that in light of the present political environment on a local and national level?

BKL: I like to celebrate the ways humans are “the same.” And yet, I also think we focus on this too much. True, at some very foundational level, we are all the same; however, we do not experience each other foundationally. We directly experience each other in an ontic, not an ontological way. Saying we’re all the same is a little like the old “melting pot” notion that begged the question, “who has to melt in order to be a part of this supposedly wonderful stew?” I choose to celebrate difference, to really look at the ways were are all different and to indulge in that and to say, yes, yes to every difference. Because there is no sameness unless someone defines the norm of the same. So there’s that “color-blindness” that so many people see as a virtue but that I tend to think of as part of the problem. That’s what I was trying to get at in this essay.

But to expand a bit from there: there’s a confluence of attitudes and outlooks that I think contribute to the explicit violence and racism we’re seeing today. We tend toward a conspiracy theory mindset these days. This, combined with a healthy “question authority” attitude born in the sixties, which has now become an “all authorities lie/fake news” mindset today, plus the fact that we have come to celebrate extremes—well, it’s a recipe for divisiveness, defensiveness, and maverick individualism run amok. The collective pride we seem to have in not compromising, not backing down is more prevalent than ever—on both sides of the political aisle. For instance, I received several angry letters from an environmental NGO that believed I had misrepresented mountain lions in Theft.My character calls the cougar a “predator,” which, I was informed, was not the right word because it carries a negative connotation. The new and improved term is “native carnivore,” which, I agree, is a very fine term for a mountain lion; it’s just not a choice my character would have made. I also tried to illuminate the fact that my character (Zeb) specifically did everything “wrong” in terms of interacting with a mountain lion, because Zeb embodies “the Old West”—man against nature, etc., and Willa embodies “the New West”—diversity, rewilding, caring for land and community, and so on. But we parted ways in disagreement—even though I thoroughly agreed with the NGO’s goals and actions overall.

The example I’ve given is a poor one, a weak one, when compared with the numerous examples of the extreme stances people are taking—apparently with pride— concerning racial, ethnic, economic, religious, gender identity, and sexual orientation differences. I would much prefer our collective MO to be one of building bridges rather than drawing lines. But we have dubbed any difference from the norm as “identity politics,” which then discounts anything that follows. If we embraced difference, instead of walking around with the fake happy faces of color-blindness, or difference-blindness, we might be able to also take responsibility for the violence of slavery and mass genocide that is a part of U.S. history. Because acknowledging difference allows for transformation. Blindness only allows for walking into walls.

HEG: One of the themes I most admire in your work is the complexity of finding awe. In “Plate Tectonics,” a surprising essay in which you write about living through an earthquake that destroyed your home but saved your life, I was particularly struck by the lines: “But when I felt the earth rumbling through the soles of my feet, I felt a power I could not comprehend, a wonderful, terrifying sense of awe that had been dampened by living in an over-explained world.” Can you talk about what you refer to as the problem with the “over-explained world” and how you maintain and cultivate awe?

BKL: I think we’re all kind of struggling to find our way in what feels like an over- explained world. The world is not over-explained, of course. There are plenty of mysteries: Where do rogue waves come from? What will the James Webb telescope reveal when it’s launched in 2018? Why do some supercell storms produce massively destructive tornadoes while others do not? And so on. But as much as we crave answers, we also balk against them. We love and need a sense of wonder in our lives, and answers can dampen that. Still, the more we reveal and even utilize the “secrets of the universe,” the more we feel awe slipping away.

The political right denies climate change, and at the root of their denial is, arguably, a desire to hold onto money and greed. But the political left also denies science, and much of that denial is, I think, founded in trying to hold onto a sense of awe. We often hark back to a time when things were more “natural.” We want things in their original state. We want to believe in a “nature” that is unaltered, Edenic, an unaltered world that will fill us with awe. But that possibility fell away with the fig leaves that covered our genitals.

This is a religious sense of awe that will backfire on us. This desire to return to nature, the original state, is what Mircea Eliade called the Myth of the Eternal Return. The problem with the myth of the eternal return is that the return to the “original state” requires the destruction of all that has come later—in other words, it requires the destruction of this world. This is a violence.

And so, I am passionate about finding a way to truly experience awe in the world as it is. At the risk of going on way too long, I’ll say that, to me, the ability to feel awe in the world as it is relies on an appreciation of process, which I think is being destroyed these days. But unlike “nature” or the original state of things, we can get back to process without destroying what is. In this way, I think writing and nature are related. They both rely on process; they both produce a sense of awe; the process of them both is being overlooked in our world today. As John Fowles has said in his brilliant essay “The Tree,” “The danger in both art and nature is that all emphasis is placed on the created, not the act of the creation.”

For me, awe is found most readily in two places: externally, it is any place that hints at nature, and internally, it is writing. I’d like to suggest that—regardless of content— the very process of writing is an act of environmental advocacy that can deepen our sense of awe. To somehow shift our readers’ focus from formulaic (predictable, and therefore less awe-inspiring) works to works that challenge audiences to appreciate process lays a foundation for the awe we are looking for in our external world. As Fowles says, “It is far less nature itself that is in danger than our attitude toward it,” and it is far less writing itself that is in danger than our attitude toward it.

The process of writing and the natural world share the foundation of awe: unknowability. We can take each of them apart, piece by piece, and we can analyze those pieces. But those analyses never render a complete understanding of how the works came to be. If we take a computer apart and put it back together again, we know exactly how it works. But ask a botanist how a tree grows from a seedling to a sixteen foot giant, and she can no more answer your question than Virginia Woolf—if she were still living—could tell you how the grace of a certain sentence fell to the page, or how a collection of those sentences came together to create To The Lighthouse. While some readers may be struck with awe by Woolf’s words, others are left alienated. They look for a purpose to those words, an immediate graspability, something tangible they can take away from the book: entertainment, information, distraction.

This sense of purpose is antithetical to a sense of wonder. As I’ve said, explanation is the thief of awe, and usability justifies destruction. As Fowles points out, “The modern version of hell is purposelessness.” And he reminds us that the subtlest of our alienations from nature, the most difficult to comprehend, is our need to use it in some way—to derive personal yield. We shall never fully understand nature (or ourselves), and certainly never respect it, until we dissociate the wild from the notion of usability—however innocent and harmless the use.

The content of books like Louise Erdrich’s LaRose; Per Paterson’s Out Stealing Horses, and others like them, raises our ecological consciousness. But equally as important, the language itself asks us to stand in awe of something sublime: the process of writing. These books ask us to be utterly present not only in the narrative arc, the story, but in the language itself, something that, like nature, is inexplicable in its beauty and always in process.

The degree to which prose or poetry is layered and therefore becomes something different upon each read is the degree to which the author has imbued the words with an authentic process that requires inner-action, not mere technique. In essence, this practice of honoring the process of writing and asking readers to envelop themselves in the ever-becoming lushness of language has the power to subtly shift our consciousness, to slow us down, to make us all better readers and better environmental advocates all in one brushstroke.

The ecopsychologist, Peter H. Kahn, speaks of rewilding the mind. Just as biologists seek to restore ecosystems by reintroducing lost species, rewilding the mind seeks to reintroduce the psyche to choices that are not limited by the parameters set by a culture that has gone beyond the domestic into something completely docile and unquestioning.

To stand enshrouded in the mist of a redwood forest and feel the salty air of the nearby ocean entering your nostrils; to let the bite of an arctic wind redden your face in a wintry wilderness— these are the same as entering a book and letting the language fall around you with awe. When you enter a book, when you are in the process of writing a book; when you enter the woods, and allow—simply allow—the beauty there to envelop you, this is a sense of awe that does not hark back to some inaccessible beginning, some pristine Eden. This is a sense of awe that is ever-forming, ever re-shaping, ever renewing. It’s a conversation between the internal and the external, not a conversation with trying to “get back,” but a conversation with the process that unfolds what is to come.

HEG: Last time we’d been in touch you were working on a screenplay for Theft. What are you working on currently?

BKL: Well, theoretically, I’m still working on the screenplay. Or teleplay. But

Hollywood moves at the speed of greed, which trying to remain art. I’m not holding my breath for that, but I am working diligently on it, and occasionally, there is some movement—though never a tectonic shift. I have no idea what will come of the script writing I’m doing.

Since we last spoke, I have completed one novel. But then November 8, 2016, occurred, and I had to change everything in that novel. So now I have two almost-completed novels. I’m taking a break from teaching to, hopefully, finish both before the next presidential election. Wait! I’m kidding about that last part. I hope to finish them this year, way before the next presidential election.

HEG: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Is there a big question or two I’ve missed asking?

BKL: These are among the best questions I’ve been asked about my work. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I love all animals, and I love wolves. But I am so grateful we did not have to talk about wolves in this interview, because they always seem to be the go-to topic, though there are so many other ideas I like to explore in Theft. Thank you again for honoring my work with your thoughtfulness, insight, and intelligence. It was a great pleasure to be a part of this interview.