Guest Post: Cris Mazza Discusses It's No Puzzle with Hannah Green
From Spuyten Duyvil, the publisher: In these linked essays, Cris Mazza probes questions of heritage, legacy, and identity. The result of collecting and preserving her parents' personal artifacts—letters and photos, newspaper clippings, school records, baby books, yearbooks, concert programs, etc.—was not a linear narrative of their lives. Instead, the artifacts exposed mysteries, obscurities, ambiguities, odd juxtapositions, and questions. The individual stories of experiences—theirs as well as the traces of the author's-are a scaffold to allow a closer glimpse at the culture in which her parents were forging their lives in 1940s and 50s Southern California. The postwar era is more complex, convoluted and iniquitous than the idealized "growth of the middle class." Using these artifacts, the questions and research they provoke, Mazza put together the few puzzle pieces, then contemplated possibilities for a complete(r) picture. In so doing, she altered her own notions of the world she was born into and how it made her.
1. You include images and photographs throughout , and in your other work. How would you explain how your words and images work together, and what would each lose without the other?
Since, for the most part, I don’t use photo captions, the photo placement beside, below or above certain paragraphs is a meaningful juxtaposition creating enhancement in different ways for different readers, depending on whether one looks at images first then reads, or approaches the two more simultaneously. In some cases, it was simply interesting to show rather than describe the scrap of paper my Mom doodled on 70 years ago, or the cartoon she saved for three-quarters of a century. In other cases the scans from 1940s yearbooks do speak for themselves, but my text adds a layering of the context(s) of viewing them, the questions being asked, the “mystery” being conjectured about. Later, as the photographs become images I’ve taken, they stress the franticness or anxiety of how we try to embrace or hold a moment by taking a photo, and then another and another. And then there were simply some aspects of the historical milieu that were more powerful when shown in the black-and-white of a 1930s newspaper column or advertisement than just my text quoting them with footnotes.
2. While first published individually, these essays form part of a continuous narrative thread evident in this book. Did you initially plan to write a collection, or how did these essays evolve into the parts this whole?
I knew pretty early there would be a semi-continuous narrative thread. “Ask The Depot Commander” (2nd essay in the book) was written before I visualized a book. Most of the other pieces came in a string, or an interlocking chain, four of them from the discovery of my Mom in a blackface photo. That one photo prompted backwards looks at the cultural milieu of Southern California in the 40s and 50s, the origins of the private school where my mother was teaching, and my mother’s experience in an all-girl’s physical education college that was not segregated (but did have race issues). One of the other people in the blackface photo – one who had apparently chosen not to apply color to her face – was in a tacitly admitted lesbian relationship and a faculty member of that private school (in the 40s-50s), so the same photo prompted a voyage of exploration into her experience. There just always seemed another question to explore, prompted by the archives, and since I couldn’t ask my parents any longer, I let myself conjecture based on what evidence I had or could find. My past as a novelist prepared me to not be frustrated by what I didn’t or couldn’t know, just let myself imagine.
3. With the rise of social media, reconstructing moments from images seems less of a challenge. Do you agree? What do you think we lose or gain on digital platforms, if anything?
Social media, as well as publicly placed cameras, have certainly increased the number of documented small, personal events, including crimes. Is there anything humans think, plan, dream or fear that isn’t documented by most people now? Maybe everyone will have better memories in 25 or 50 years if they can look back to the documented history of their lives (including some empty moments when they documented what they had for dinner or when they had a cold) on a social media platform. All this to say, while social media may stave off the deepest kind of isolation, I do think we are in danger of losing the ability to be alone with our thoughts and imaginations. And the way a social media post is many more times apt to be noticed if there’s an accompanying image? I did not consider that while building this book.
4. As a teacher of writing, students invariably ask you about your writing. How would you explain this book to them?
It’s a memoir where I didn’t have a singular main experience to structure a story like a novel, so instead I let the questions linger and the lack of answers send me on journeys I wouldn’t have taken if I’d had the answers in mind when I started.
To a student memoirist, I might also say that you can learn the most about your life, the world that made you, by setting out to know and understand people beyond their familial titles and how they directly affected you. It’s almost impossible for anyone to think about their parents with an identity that doesn’t centrally include “parent,” but trying to do this was a wealth of insight. In wanting our parents to know and appreciate us with an identity that isn’t wholly or only “offspring” or “child,” turning this around and seeking their identities beyond and before “parent” is another way of broadening our own views of ourselves.
5. If you don’t mind sharing, what project(s) are you working on now?
I have a new completed manuscript that is, in a lot of ways, a follow-up to It’s No Puzzle. It’s called The Decade of Letting Things Go, and it is more focused on my own experiences with love, longing, divorce, relationships with the world around me, sexual dysfunction, #MeToo, losing parents, seeing an esteemed mentor crumble, coming to terms with childhood scars … all post-menopausal when I’m supposed to be invisible.
Cris Mazza, one of the originators of the term chick-lit before it meant urban-girls-looking-for-love, is a novelist and memoirist with 20 published books. Her titles include, most recently, a novel, Yet to Come, a story of marital angst in California's Imperial County; and Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir. Mazza's first novel How to Leave a Country, won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction. She is also author of the critically acclaimed Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? Mazza is a native of Southern California and is a professor in and director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Hannah Green is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinios at Chicago.