Storyological 2.01 - The Importance of Celine Dion (transcript)

(listen to the episode)


EG: [00:00:07] Um. I really don't remember what his name is.

CK: [00:00:10] God bless sentences. I just love them. They do a lot of the work for you.

EG: [00:00:13] Yeah.

CK: [00:00:14] Do you wanna do the frog face. (ridiculous sounds)

EG: [00:00:19] You're so weird.

CK: [00:00:19] Yes that's the line you end on and you go into the show.

EG: [00:00:23] This is Storyological. A podcast about amazing stories…

CK: [00:00:27] …that we kind of like. I'm Chris Kammerud.

EG: [00:00:29] And I'm E.G. Cosh.


EG: [00:00:31] Readers. Welcome to a whole brand new season of Storyological.

CK: [00:00:35] All new.

EG: [00:00:36] All new.

CK: [00:00:36] Totally new.

EG: [00:00:37] No rewinds, repeats, rehashes.

CK: [00:00:41] Reupholstering.

EG: [00:00:42] Definitely zero of that.

CK: [00:00:44] No no.

EG: [00:00:46] Yeah we didn't abandon you. We came back for more of the same. And also more different.

CK: [00:00:50] Yeah more of the same. More different. Secret. Special You know. I mean we're withholding all the good stuff from you.

EG: [00:00:57] It's true.

CK: [00:00:57] So we will keep you in tow. Keep you in tow.

EG: [00:00:59] Keep you excited.

CK: [00:01:02] Yeah. Yeah. Excited. Mm hmm. Yeah. Speaking of abusive relationships. Oh segue.

EG: [00:01:11] My pick for this week is Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar. You may remember we spoke about one of Amal's stories last season and we kind of made a semi-rule for ourselves not to pick the same writer twice in the same season but.

CK: [00:01:26] All of our rules are semi-rules.

EG: [00:01:28] Right. I mean there's no such thing as a hard and fast rule for this stuff.

CK: [00:01:31] No no.

EG: [00:01:32] So when I read this before Christmas I was like oh I can get it in there. I can be the first pick one of Amal's stories this season.

CK: [00:01:40] According to our semi-rule the only one to pick one of Amal's stories.

EG: [00:01:44] Exactly. So this is I found it in the Starlit Wood collection.

CK: [00:01:50] Wait. Starwood?

EG: [00:01:50] Starlit Wood.

CK: [00:01:51] Oh. Starlit Wood.

EG: [00:01:53] Which I'm now thinking could easily be a Chuck Tingle book, but it's not. It's an amazing collection put out. An amazing anthology put out by Saga Press.

CK: [00:02:03] I just got that. Yeah.

EG: [00:02:04] And then also. Uncanny published this story. So even if you don't get the collect--the anthology which you should but if you don't know you can read at Uncanny's...

CK: [00:02:13] And we have already....

EG: [00:02:14]

CK: [00:02:15] Now at this very moment discussed two of the stories from that collection.

EG: [00:02:20] It's totally on my on my nomination lists this year. I mean not all of the prizes have an anthology slot.

CK: [00:02:28] That's true. Related work?

EG: [00:02:30] Well. I think there's definitely one and I don't know.

CK: [00:02:32] Hardbound. Erm?

EG: [00:02:32] Emm hmm.

CK: [00:02:33] I never really thought about hardbound. It'sa good word. Readers it's a good word. This comes in hardbound or looseleaf.

EG: [00:02:46] Readers you can't see I am actually straining my eyes rolling them so hard. So the story is a tale of two women...two women stuck living fairy tale punishments. One is in isolation on the top of a glass hill, theoretically to protect all of the princes and the neighboring kingdoms from destroying each other. Should one actually manage to marry her. And the other is trying to wear her way through seven pairs of iron shoes which she is trying to do as punishment for breaking a promise to her husband who is half man half bear. But the beauty of this story is these two women come together to heal each other and runaway together.

CK: [00:03:25] You remember how the other day we were talking about about that thing we often talk about about how a lot of stories described as literary stories tend to have more loose resolutions perhaps less of a clear bullet of satisfaction directed at your heart. And that is genre's stories--sci-fi, fantasy, romance--sometime seem to have a clear aim at some satisfaction either because it's a satisfying resolution or because it's aimed at a specific emotion that it wants to create in you and that emotion tends not to be confusion. It's the thing I love is a literary story that has the language and the troops of sci-fi yanked into it.

CK: [00:04:09] So I get a wonderful rush of those two things and the story that Amal wrote here. It felt like it was doing something similar, but it's not like it's crushing in a literary style with a fairy tale style per se it felt more like it was bringing in the fairy tale language and tropes but then bringing in two other things one was a kind of a feminist allegory with romance. It's aimed towards a happy ending that you're...that has a bit of a bump in the middle which we'll talk about. I love that bump in the middle. But you get to the point where they're going to go off together and be happy and I love that in that collision--this thing happened where you were right like fairy tale punishments. Most of the fairy tales we read Cinderella, The Frog Prince somehow the romance itself is full of pain like that the pursuit of romance is one that is a fraught, painful process. And.

EG: [00:05:08] Whereas in this one...

CK: [00:05:09] The romance itself is about letting go of the pain that has accumulated in your past. The romance is not about accumulating more pain.

EG: [00:05:19] I think the feminist angle of this story is what keeps me reading and rereading it. So obviously sentence to sentence. It's very beautiful and lyrical and easy to feel engaged in the characters and what they're doing. But when you realize that the paths of these two women going across and the punishments that they're living are going to in some way...they are so different and yet so similar that they will be able to open each other's eyes to the way that they have absorbed the terrible messages...the blaming and the shaming from the men in their lives. And these two women will be able to help each other see how ridiculous that is and break free of it. I thought, I don't think I've ever seen anything that so directly and so elegantly explains what it is to have to grow up in either a racist or sexist culture and to absorb that culture into yourself and to accept blame for something that really isn't your fault.

CK: [00:06:21] Yeah it is. It is all about what it is speaking to that I love. In some ways that the language that you describe as lyrical is lyrical but for me I don't find as much satisfaction in this story as in Pockets with with the language. What pulls me in is the clarity of these ideas and yet ideas delivered so clearly--in these images of these two women that have imprisoned themselves, have burdened themselves with punishment and pain--can be seen through more than one lens. It feels so rich inside of it's clarity. And you see the feminist angle in the fact that both of these women are carrying with them a limitation, a confinement of themselves to a punishment that has both been given to them by men but also accepted by them, chosen by them because they desire the love from that other person. And it reminded me of a lot of kind of Freudian discussions which is you know often scattered about discussions of fairytales about how the way we are wounded as children, the moments that we are wounded, those wounds that we tend to carry with us are the ones that we built up as a way to both survive the pain of loving someone but also to earn the love of that person that is giving us pain. And it tends to be really hard to let those kind of cages go. Because we built them to catch love but we just ended up imprisoning ourselves.

EG: [00:08:04] Yeah absolutely.

EG: [00:08:06] She manages to do it at the at the meta level but also at the micro level so things like when Tabitha makes it to the top of the hill and Amira asks her what she's doing there and she kind of goes...oh I don't know I just sort of came here. I'm passing through. Came here by accident really. Whether this deliberately or not it reminded me of the way that ambition and intent is so often squashed in women and you know it is not rewarded to sort of set your sights on a goal and then go out and achieve it. And so many successful women I hear talking about how they got there and they talk about how lucky they are or they talk about how fortunate they've been. Not that they knuckled down and worked their butts off to get where they are. And so just having this tiny little exchange that reflected what I kind of see how women talk about what they want to do or what they are doing. I found it just so smart.

CK: [00:09:05] What I loved about that is that they're different. I mean Tabitha who has these ridiculous shoes that she's going through seems entirely a person that believes that they're putting forth good work. That they are striving to get somewhere. It's just the place they're striving is to get to the love that they want rather than to be queen or something. And that's like what you were saying how they're different enough to rub against each other. In the way that romance is often about trying to create a whole person out of yourself with someone else. These two women complement each other. One literally locked in a glass cage separate from life. The other is walking across the entire world. One is making an art of stillness and the other one is moving forwards in the hopes of going back to where they came from.

CK: [00:09:54] It made me wonder in my wonder brain if it was a different story how it would look, you know, two years from now if the ways they complemented each other how they might have needed to navigate being re-inflicted by those wounds.

EG: [00:10:09] Oh, do you mean like what are they doing two years after they ran away from the hill?

CK: [00:10:15] Not specifically, just that one way of looking at romance is we turn to to find someone that feels like they complete us. But in fact one of the ways they complete us is that they share a lot of similar pain and struggle and that over time that pain and struggle doesn't go away. And there's a wonderful complicated moment in this story where glass lady Amira tells Tabitha the only way I'm going to marry you is if you leave those shoes behind, if you leave that aspect, if you leave that pain, if you leave that definition of yourself behind. And then the story that happens and they go off and in my imagination I wonder what happens when maybe it's not so easy for Tabitha to really just leave that pain behind.

CK: [00:11:02] I understand that in the story metaphorically.

EG: [00:11:05] They're both leaving their pain right. They're leaving the glass hill and the iron slippers.

CK: [00:11:09] Yes yes. So what I'm saying about Tabitha is the same for Amira. I wonder if for both of them it will be so easy to leave that pain, that vision of themselves behind.

EG: [00:11:19] They will probably end up exacting the same pain on each other in some way or trying to extract it from each other that is the damage that abuse can do.

CK: [00:11:31] And ultimately that wonder is a different story. That's why this story ends here, right? I mean that can be a different story and a different struggle and I did like.

EG: [00:11:39] Abuse ever-after. It's just not got the same ring to it?

CK: [00:11:42] Just because they face that conflict in the future doesn't mean it's an inevitable loss. It would just be a different, a different hill to climb, a different glass cage to escape.

CK: [00:11:52] I really love that there was a bit of...Amal walked us up to that conflict where they were going to see each other's pain in a way where it was both: you're crazy for thinking that you deserved it. But also those people were horrible to you.

EG: [00:12:09] Part of my...I'm in two minds when thinking about it. Partly I think it's so perfectly judged so perfectly balanced. I bet it was really hard to come up with. And then the other part of me is like nope. Those things are around us everywhere. And I bet she had a million examples to draw on from her own life and the lives of her friends to construct that kind of paradox of the punishment and the accepting of the punishment. So yeah I kind of feel like maybe sadly it was way too easy as well.


CK: [00:12:41] My pick for this week is What is Lost by Su-Yee Lin, which was in Interfictions in spring of 2014 and in a kind of mirror image to the story we just talked about--which was a story about letting go of the pain of your past and moving forward in a loving relationship---this story is in the category of story I would say is like a eulogy. I often think that every story is an attempt to bring the dead to life. And some stories more than others feel literally like somebody is standing in front of a church giving a eulogy to this case dead country.

CK: [00:13:19] The first line of this story is: I was 10 years old the last time I traveled to China. God, God bless sentences. I just love them.

[00:13:28] They do a lot of the work for you. You've got a person. I. You've got the time. 10 years old. You got the verb traveled to China. And the fact that it was there last time it already is like--all right well I guess we're not going back there I'm going to pay a little more attention to what you tell me now. And that is the simple structure of the story. It is a recounting of the narrator's time in China.

CK: [00:13:54] So we get what is in a sense just a series of moments incredibly clearly described with beautiful image after beautiful image particularly delicious ice cream. There's a lot of ice cream in this story. I liked how in giving us a sense of what this narrator had lost each section of the story was introduced by a little bit of Chinese myth, a little bit of language, words and images from an older China that has itself been lost.

EG: [00:14:28] For me those bits got in the way I didn't take to them at all but the descriptions of China...I was just eyes glazed in love with.

EG: [00:14:40] She really manages to paint the image of where this young girl, or where she went when she was a young girl, so carefully so elegantly. She doesn't spend time trying to tell us what to feel or what to think. She just spends time describing what happened and how she felt and she gets the child's perspective so beautifully. And the way a child has very urgent, very immediate feelings that they haven't yet learned to deny in themselves. Like the envy of the teddy bear. The jealousy that she feels. The fear of the hippopotamus and how she imagines like the hippo could eat a whole man, and so she clings to her grandfather. That is something that could feel very brittle and difficult to engage with I think in another way his hands, but she manages to do it in such a way that really draws us in.

CK: [00:15:42] Yeah it felt delicate and incredibly strong to me. I had this sense the power that she had evoked was each image felt like a leaf on a tree in the autumn where some of the beauty of that leaf is in the sure knowledge that winter is coming and it's going to blow away. And one of the things I loved is in the litanies of those details are things that were gloriously surprising. I'm talking about the importance of Celine Dion.

CK: [00:16:08] The second line of the story is about how Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go on was a top 40 hit and the narrator's cousin carried the cassette with him throughout the trip. And things like that came up.

CK: [00:16:21] I love that because you know you said the myth bits just got in the way to you, but to me having those myth bits and helped engage with the idea of history and nostalgia. About how those myths speak to some older form of China that somehow fuel scrubbed clean of detail. They're evoking some history of I don't even know what to say. I mean that's what myth is. It's a kind of scrubbed clean of detail timeless thing. And I loved having them because that is the face of China to a lot of people, to an idea this is what China is.

CK: [00:17:01] And I loved having that there in counterpoint to what is not scrubbed clean at all. In her prose and in her memory.

CK: [00:17:11] And so it felt more like to me--because in the way that that China is lost to time--it reinforced the idea that this story's conflict is in part is that age old conflict with time. That you are...It's like an act of resistance to recall, to bring to life to bring back...not just a sense of where you've been but those specific moments. Trying to hold on to those details that often get lost in the way that we mythologize our childhood. The way nostalgia itself can turn our childhood into a myth rather than the stuff of this story.

EG: [00:17:46] And she talks about that at the end of the story she says how she kept a diary...her mom asked it to keep a diary and she did. But she describes it as being devoid of emotion. And I think even if the kid's diary in the story was devoid of emotion this story is not. It's in all the lists of things that she does. It's warm and embracing and part of that warmth comes from: a) Yes that kind of nostalgia that you're talking about. The sense that it's a story that takes place in time but in a time line that persists. So she talks about things that come later like looking after her grandma when she's sick. Like being given the flared straw that she covets. And these all don't take place during that trip that she's describing. And then the other thing that gives it the warmth is the people that she talks about right? She sees China not as a tourist sees it, but she sees it through the eyes of her family. Through the grandparents that she lives with. And the courtyard that they share with the neighbors. Through the grandpa that they visit who cannot speak anything but Mandarin which the young girl doesn't speak. The cousin who comes to fetch know all of these different people that she spends time with. It's their warmth and their generosity to her that really fills the story out like like a wind in a sail.

CK: [00:19:11] Part of the poignancy of the story is that. In referencing that she kept a diary of a kid but when she looked back at it, it was devoid of emotion, it captures that sense that--while you were talking about the immediacy of the emotion that a child may experience--often when you go back and look at diaries there isn't you know for me when I look at what I wrote as a kid there wasn't much sophisticated expression of what those motions were.

EG: [00:19:37] You don't have either the vocabulary or the ability to necessarily pick one out from another.

CK: [00:19:44] Right yeah and I don't know that you always necessarily have the ability to put it in context of the people around you or history and so it feels like the story in some ways is a gift to her as a child in the same way that the emotionaless diary--I mean as devoid of emotion as those diaries might have been--they were a gift from the child to the woman now. And the magic of the stories be able to connect those things, being able to recall these details and imbue them with life and emotion.

CK: [00:20:15] When we reach the end of the story there's a gesture to the fact that something, a disaster has happened to China and she, the narrator, has come back to the US and now lives in a place where people look at them and see the disaster and then the narrator's begun to feel like they have to suppress where they came from because the people just see them as a reminder of some horror that has happened and so in that way too--I've often heard people speak about remembering, about telling the stories of where you came from as itself a kind of rebellion. And I love the force that I gives to this story, that ending.

EG: [00:20:52] Yeah, absolutely. It's like it's trying to convey I think, and successfully does convey, that the pain and the conflict in being an immigrant. That you come to a new land because it is, well in this story it is safe. Right? Old China is gone destroyed but you carry it with you in your skin and your face. And that's what everybody in a new country sees in you. And in this story what they see is pain and disease and oh my god what have they..what has this person got on then that I might accidentally catch. And yeah.

EG: [00:21:29] And the crushing of that identity is literalized in the way that everything stamped Made in China is destroyed in this society. Oh when I read that I just you know I felt it so strongly as what it represented to that person and their identity.

CK: [00:21:46] And in giving us the story. She gives us everything that is inside of that skin. Everything about what China is.

CK: [00:21:56] You know what this story reminded me of.

EG: [00:21:57] Pet Milk? That's now my to for anything nostalgic.

CK: [00:22:02] No I mean I use the word nostalgia but it was in a sense of something that I felt like in a lot of ways this story wasn't. Because to me at least the negative connotation of nostalgia is sentimentality about infusing a kind of sentiment into a memory that erases the specifics of the reality and that's not here.

CK: [00:22:25] But what the story reminded me of was where the narrator says the things that I carry which called back to me a story by Tim O'Brien called The Things They Carried which is about soldiers in Vietnam and the physical stuff that they carried with them and in giving us the lists of the things that those soldiers carried conjures them to us, because we know they all died. And I love that little bit of, whether or not, I took it to be a deliberate reference. I love that little seeping of another story about loss coming into it and it reminded me of one part of the narrative in Station Eleven where you capture that sense of the world before the apocalypse.

CK: [00:23:06] Thanks for this new readers.

EG: [00:23:07] We hope you've had a good time.

CK: [00:23:11] Who can say you can say we don't we don't remember how to do this.

EG: [00:23:14] We probably haven't talked about all of the stories that you found over the Christmas break.

CK: [00:23:21] Nor did we say all of the things one could probably say about the two stories that we did talk about.

EG: [00:23:26] So if you'd like to let us know your thoughts you can hit us up on Twitter we are @Storyological.

CK: [00:23:31] And how do you spell Storyological.

EG: [00:23:33] Just like it sounds.

EG: [00:23:36] Which is story.

CK: [00:23:37] Like the word.

EG: [00:23:38] O...

CK: [00:23:39] Like oxygen, no like the letter.

EG: [00:23:41] And logical.

CK: [00:23:42] Like, is it Aristotle? Like Aristotle.

EG: [00:23:45] You can follow him on Twitter @Cuvols.

CK: [00:23:48] And you can follow him on Twitter at E.G. Cosh.

CK: [00:23:51] You can find and like us on the Facebook at That's Storyological spelled the way that we spelled a few seconds ago.

EG: [00:24:01] And for everything else, for links gifs us of an appropriate and inappropriate nature you can find us at our home on the web.

CK: [00:24:07]

EG: [00:24:09] Thanks for listening.

CK: [00:24:11] Happy reading.

CK: [00:24:14] No. It's a bit like Pittsboro. I mean you just see it and you think it should be pronounced a certain way.

EG: [00:24:18] You said you weren't going to bring that up.

CK: [00:24:20] Oh I mean for...Oh you mean you didn't...deliberately you were saying don't bring it up for the podcast.

EG: [00:24:25] I just meant in general.

CK: [00:24:27] Oh, well. For the podcast that's not in general. That's with our close personal friend.

EG: [00:24:30] Readers it's very hard for me to look at the word Pittsburgh and pronounce at Pittsburgh because my brain wants to read it like Edinburgh.

CK: [00:24:38] Much like at the King's Cross Station where I don't know for the first time in my life I saw Edinburgh spelled. I don't know.

CK: [00:24:47] Emma kept telling me that train goes to Edinburgh and I kept looking at all the signs and I was like saying I can't see the Edinburgh train. I mean there's the Edinburgggg train. And then I was like oh. Emma. Are you saying that word there. That's what Edinburgh looks like. Oh oh man.

CK: [00:25:05] I mean to be fair readers I've read a lot of books but it's amazing the things you just don't pick up in books or TV until you actually know what they're referring to. So really that's a message to all you kids go out there and have sex and then you'll know what the books are about.

[00:25:18] I thought you were going to say read the book and watch the TV show.

CK: [00:25:22] No read the book and live your damn life.

EG: [00:25:26] OK.

CK: [00:25:29] Three and a two and three, two, one.