Christa Parravani On Being Honest and Raw and Real
By: Zoe Aslop
One afternoon this fall, Café MFA caught up with Christa Parravani to talk about moving on from photography and poetry, writing her first memoir in fiction workshops, and the challenges of an ambitious second memoir on abortion in West Virginia, to be published by Henry Holt in September 2020. Parravani, whose first book, Her: a Memoir, was the searing story of her relationship with her identical twin sister, Cara, and how she survived Cara’s struggles in the aftermath of rape and eventual death of an overdose at the age of 28. It is the kind of memoir that you pick up to read a few pages in the morning only to look up and find that night has fallen, there are all kinds of knots in your back and you are not the same person you were when you started. Before Cara died, both sisters worked to develop as artists – Cara was the writer, they told each other, and so Christa would be the photographer.
By the time Cara died Christa had gotten her MFA in visual arts and was teaching, well on her way to establishing a career. But it was in the writing of that first memoir that she would find a path out of her grief.
For her second memoir, Parravani has a chosen abortion: a topic as personal as twindom but infinitely more political. In our conversation Parravani talked about the taboo of writing about West Virginia, rigorous research, and finding license to write about issues that transcend the personal through a process she calls “radical empathy.”
You began your first book while getting your MFA in fiction at Rutgers but your path to that program was not a direct one. How did you get there?
I was a little bit older when I went to graduate school – I’d already gone to school to study visual arts and I was a professor at that point, 31 years old. I said to myself, I don’t want to take pictures anymore, what I really want to do is write. I had started writing poetry – I got my undergraduate degree in poetry and that was the way I constructed language at that point.
I went to UMass at Amherst, the same program that my sister went to.
Wow. Wasn’t that hard?
I had different professors. She had been in the fiction program and I was in poetry.
But you left that program.
Yes. I started getting frustrated with poetry, because I felt like I had a story that needed to take longer. I knew I would need to sustain a narrative and I didn’t know how. I had never written a story before; I’d never even written an essay. So I quit poetry.
I knew I really wanted to write a memoir. Jayne Anne Philips, who had been my neighbor, directed the program at Rutgers. I met her when I was teaching photography there and we had been there together working. I told her I wanted to write a book, and she invited me to come to the program at Rutgers. I got an MFA in fiction.
How did a fiction program help with memoir?
I wrote my book in fiction workshop even though everyone knew I was doing nonfiction. I learned some really interesting things about storytelling through fiction – dialogue, sequencing, pacing, so many things. My craft borrows a lot from fiction. I am intuitively a nonfiction writer, because I understand that you need to be vulnerable and to win the trust of readers in terms of telling the truth. But, story building I learned in my MFA program.
What was the biggest difference between writing the first book and the one you are working on now? The first book had such a relentless focus for memoir – everything is brought in and seen anew, for a reader, through this lens of your relationship to your twin sister, which also serves as a powerful frame. The subject matter for this next book seems sprawling by comparison — so exciting for that reason but also very challenging.
I am about a hundred pages in. One of the biggest differences is that, publishing a second book, you’re aware that there are people reading it. You understand that you are not just writing for yourself. That can derail you and I am trying not to think about it. You have to be honest and raw and real and, at the same time, you know that people are going to have opinions about it.
In my whole life as an adult, this is the first time I feel capable of lending a real opinion. I’m 42 and I still think, am I allowed to say that? Women do this. I buoy myself with large amounts of research. The book I wrote about my sister is a personal experience that doesn’t rely on statistics and figures. It’s a very focused book in the fact that it’s about twin-ship and, even as I was writing something very specific to my life, I hoped it had a universal resonance. The new book is a book about the country and I’m this little piece in a story that is really about our country.
How did this new memoir start?
You know when you know you have to write something. It’s just there, like the extra person in the room. I will say that no one thought it was a good idea.
In West Virginia we had something called Amendment 1 that was banning Medicaid funding for abortion, and that affects so many people in the state – the statistics for poverty are mind-bendingly bad, up to thirty percent in some towns.
Keats was born in June. The election was in November. Amendment 1 was coming down the pike and I had this story of being denied an abortion and nobody wanted to talk to me about it. Even pro-choice friends didn’t want to go there.
Within the news cycle there were so many stories about states rolling out laws to curtail abortion. But, while there was lots of journalism about abortion, I could not find a single story about being denied an abortion in our current political climate. The amendment passed and I had been writing [an essay for Guernica] that whole time. It was published in April.
No, you really don’t hear that story. I suppose it’s because, when the abortion has been denied, the baby is there and, well, it must be hard as a parent to think about how you explain this story to a child who exists, a child you love.
If you knew that denying women reproductive freedom directly hurts children and you could say something about that, you would. Had my son not had a traumatic birth experience and really poor care, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. I will tell him, this is about love, it’s not about not wanting you. I have two daughters. There’s no way any of my children will grow up and not know what happened to me in West Virginia. What are my daughters going to think of me if I don’t’ stand up for them in order to protect my son from something abstract?
Tell me about the structure for the Guernica story. I felt it took a lot of guts to write about your son, Keats, alongside the denial of the abortion. How did you come to make the story like that?
I wanted my reader to understand my son was alive and safe and I had him. I didn’t want it to be a story about sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and wondering whether I’m going to get an abortion and then fast forward and he’s there. That’s not the story I wanted to write. I wanted to start with a moment that is really rich with potential.
The first thing I talk about is the landscape of West Virginia because I thought it was important to show the place where this all happened.
The birth had an immediacy in me that I could not deny. What does it mean to have my son born on the [twelth anniversary of the] day my sister died? What does it mean to have him born on that day and have not wanted him? What does it mean for women? It was not only just personal it was a story about what happens to women and girls in this country.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
Writing it fast is really hard.
I’ve never written anything so chronologically but I don’t think I have an option because I don’t have time to massage different timelines. I’ve tried to figure out how to neatly lay out the time frame.
It’s very painful. Right now, I’m writing about when I was thinking about whether or not I could get a second trimester abortion because I would have to leave the state. The conversation around second trimester abortion is so limited – so many poor women of color aren’t able to get an abortion until the second trimester because they simply don’t have access to health care and they have to figure out how to get out of the state and then how to pay to access that process.
At that point the situation is more and more complicated because of what your body is going through and also because, when someone lays out a bunch laws in front of you, it makes you feel you are doing something wrong. I kept thinking, who am I to want to do this?
I was really impressed that you waded into the melee of the Guernica comments section with such poise. West Virginians are very sensitive to people writing about their state, and some were quite hostile to your essay. What was that experience like? The great irony is that you were writing about your own experience — the inside of your own body for goodness sake! — and the place where you had come to raise your children. Were you aware of how defensive and territorial people would be?
I knew they were coming. One of the harder things about the book is I know that I’m not liked in West Virginia, and it’s hard to understand for me, because I was trying to do something helpful not harmful. Strategically, I discussed my family history and what it was like having this experience. My students are beautiful and they were very supportive of me. Almost all of them are native West Virginians.
I am asking myself a lot just personally – what does it mean to be from a place? It’s a conversation not just about West Virginia, it’s a national conversation about immigrants, dreamers, supporting people. It’s about who has citizenship, not just legally, but morally. When does a story belong to us and when does it belong to a place?
I felt, as a woman giving birth in the state of West Virginia, and as a professor, that I was a citizen of West Virginia, that I was making a contribution and I had the right to write about it. Also, I had a transformative body experience in the place. I didn’t say anything untrue. What taboo am I up against? Why does it feel more taboo to write about West Virginia than to tell the world that I wanted the abortion? But I do feel that way. I feel as much of a responsibility to my son as I do to West Virginia, which is hard to explain. I feel a little bit exiled from West Virginia. I was raised in a family without money and that had profound amounts of suffering and I feel like West Virginia gets me in that way.
How did you manage to give yourself permission to write in spite of this or in spite of being in a new place?
The most exciting thing about nonfiction is that you don’t always have to write about yourself. One of the hardest things to teach is that we have permission to write outside of our own experience. So often students don’t feel they have the agency to write about politics. The key is to always exercise radical empathy: How do I understand the place so that I feel like I can render it so humanely that I don’t worry about my exploitation of it? You do this through extensive research and through knowing your own privilege is often a blind spot. I trust because I endeavor to be a good person in the world outside of my writing, I have to trust my intentions are good and, if I’m not doing a perfect job, I will correct it. I also have students [from West Virginia] read it and correct it. I don’t recommend self-censoring because sometimes you get rid of all the good stuff when you do that. I think it’s dangerous to assume right from the beginning that you can’t write about something because it doesn’t feel allowed. There’s always a way.
How long did you spend writing the first memoir? How long have you spent on this one? How does the passage of time serve your writing?
I waited five years to write about my sister dying and it took two or three years to write the book. I was close enough that it was still raw enough to feel like flammable truth, close enough that the reader could feel caught in the pain I had. First books — you want them to ignite in your hands. I wanted that but I also wanted to understand the story. This time there isn’t time for that. We’ll see what happens.
There are lots of reasons not to wait – I do feel like I’m living in a moment where I have the ability to change what’s happening in the world. I think research distances you no matter what – spending time sifting through information that has nothing to do with you. Keats is sixteen months old now. He is starting to speak and walk. What happened with the pregnancy is already two years ago.
Photo from Guernica.