From my first encounter with Sharma Shields’ work, I was awed by her gifts with character, plot, mythology, and the most meaningful expressions of the human condition. From her Autumn House Award winning collection of stories, Favorite Monster, to the psychological devastation of the inner life revealed in The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, and now to the uncommonly prescient novel, The Cassandra, Sharma Shields has generated a body of work attuned to the American psyche, with all our flaws and hopes. Shields is the winner of the Washington State Book Award and a true representative of the Evergreen State in her love for libraries, consistent development of opportunities for young people, and her role in founding and editing the independent firebrand Scablands Books. She is a writer of rare imagination, unique intellect, and arresting wisdom. I am honored to know her as a friend and fellow-writer, and to receive her influence in listening more closely to the undercurrents at work in the world.
In The Cassandra, Sharma reaches brave new vistas by grounding her work in the shadow of America’s nuclear harms against humanity, namely the production of nuclear weapons at the Hanford nuclear facility, and the forsaking of the world community through atomic warfare.
With rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, the New York Journal of Books, the Inlander, and the Spokesman Review, The Cassandra is gathering momentum as it launches toward a vast readership. Though the content is necessarily heavy at times, Sharma’s visionary prose and plot structure propel the reader into the complexities of hope and fate. Her attention to landscape, wildlife, and the dreams we dream ascends toward a powerful concluding apex, and left me with the feeling of greater sisterhood and brotherhood with those who seek a new understanding of peace. Sharma agreed to an interview, and her answers below, filled of honesty, appreciation for others, and discernment about the nature of power, provides another lens from which to more clearly see her courage as an author, a parent, and a person.
Shann Ray: Your vision as a writer is expansive, very powerful, and reminds me of the deep image poets. You go places symbolically and artistically, many artists fear to tread. What gives you courage as an artist, and how do you transcend times of discouragement?
Sharma Shields: It’s difficult for me to see my own writing as a courageous act, given how it’s done in private, ultimately without censorship or threat to my own personal safety. There are other writers in the world who don’t have that luxury (check out the powerful Artists At Risk website, https://artistsatriskconnection.org/, for more on this). I know some writers think of their audience as they write but I typically don’t—I usually feel very alone and safe in that solitude (even if I do obsess over other’s opinions before and after sitting down at the metaphorical writing desk). When I’m able to fully concentrate, I dissolve into the story itself, and I push myself to consider the darkest corners of my own life and the lives of those I see around me there, both because I want to question my/our behavior and because I have this (perhaps naïve) notion that if we examine ourselves closely and frankly, maybe we can evolve into a more compassionate species. I’ve always written about guilt and regret and moral responsibility, not because I exist on a higher ethical plane than anyone else, but because I know intimately my own shortcomings and, as George Saunders calls them, my own “lapses in kindness.” As I was writing The Cassandra, it became painfully obvious to me how our smallest intentional slights against one another are connected to our most egregious acts of violence and neglect: Nuclear warfare, refugee crises, slavery, genocide, rape. It all stems from a lack of empathy, from an abuse of power.
I’m really interested in other writers who explore their own darkness and the darkness in the world around us, and likely my interest in such writing started with fairy tales and Greek mythology when I was young. I get a lot of courage from reading literature that wanders into the most uncomfortable corridors of our behavior and our mortality (I love writers like Agota Kristof, Samanta Schweblin, Helen Phillips, Han Yujoo). I want to feel changed by the work as I’m reading, hopefully for the better. And, of course, there are other times when I just want to read HGTV Magazine and let my conscience goof off. But I do tend to gravitate to, well, gravity.
I really do venture into this dark territory with a lot of hope and love and adoration for certain aspects of this world. As an evolved, potentially educated species, I believe we can do better. This drives a lot of my work. How can I become a better person? How can we be better people?
Ray: In The Cassandra, you’ve leveled prophetic and wisdom-filled judgement on all things patriarchal in America and by extension, worldwide. Matriarchal harming capacity, also, does not go unscathed. You have complicated the current and historical connection between women and men. This prophetic deconstruction, necessary, life-giving even in its darker containment leaves us more grounded and more prepared to see humanity, our debts to one another and mother earth. In many ways, hearkening back to the ancient Cassandra, you’ve created a new vision. What is the new vision you see, having lived through Mildred’s eyes, and now trying to raise children and carry on beloved relationships in this ever-fractured world?
Shields: I set out in this book to write Mildred as a person who is both powerful and powerless, like each of us. She is brutalized; she brutalizes another. Whenever I think of human history I think of this unfolding line of paper dolls, bloodied and bitter and torn, but all connected. Patriarchy and dominance, colonialism, deep trauma. Women have typically been the most battered receptacles for this brutality. I’ve seen it in my own life and in the lives of the women I love, and I see it in the news every day, much as Mildred witnesses it in 1944.
But there is collective power in womanhood, and near the book’s end we see some of the most vitriolic characters practicing in their flawed way forgiveness and healing and acceptance of one another’s most grievous faults. There is a (literal) moving forward, however fragile those relationships are. There is self-knowledge. There is also this sense of what I call “murderous watchfulness.” We women are waiting with our eyes trained on the society around us: Will it finally lift us up? Will it protect us and our children? Who can we trust? Mildred wants to watch the world from a place of power, but that power is uncertain.
In the book’s acknowledgment, I wrote to my children that they—all children—deserve a better world. I envision a world that puts all children first; children in the Title 1 junior high where my husband works, indigenous children, refugee children, starving children, ill children, homeless children, children attacked by the very people who are supposed to protect them, and I imagine how the entire conversation would shift, how all of us would benefit, if such priorities were made. The current administration just committed $750 billion dollars to the defense budget (compare that to $1.4 billion for public schools, $68 billion for health care). There needs to be a major overhaul of our entire framework. It’s more than the whole “children are our future” idea, I believe children are our present, our conscience. Our darkest hubris in this country has harmed children, and harms them still, and it feels very urgent to me to fight to change this. I can’t help but think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s great ethical short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as I write this.
Ray: What do you do to stay buoyant as a writer, a thinker, a spouse, a parent, and an artist who is becoming renowned for fiercely illuminating the darker places of our individual and collective humanity?
Shields: On school nights, after the kids finish homework and dinner, we play games, Sorry or Sleeping Queens or Clue or Cacassonne, or we sit around the coffee table and have a drawing party. I read to them every night and for too long. On weekend mornings, my husband and I drink coffee in bed and discuss everything happening with us and the kids, and the depth of those conversations is really sustaining and inspiring for us both. When I’m not knocked down by fatigue (due to MS) I take long walks on the High Drive Bluff or around Lincoln Park. I go to gentle yoga with my mom. I listen to Cardi B on the elliptical machine at the YMCA. I take citalopram. I see my therapist. I read and write. I text close pals and we joke about everything from our uteruses to the worst shows we’ve seen on Netflix.
Ray: Mildred is among the most complex characters I’ve ever read: plain but carrying the beauty of the earth and river, the sky and stars; harassed, harmed, and discounted, and yet resilient and more powerful than all around her in so many ways; crazy, but infinitely wise. How did you name her? How does she still haunt you? How can we listen to her rather than silence her (and her embodiment) in the people we are graced to know in the world?
Shields: Mildred’s name means “gentle strength,” and her last name, “Groves,” was taken from General Leslie Groves, who directed the Manhattan Project and oversaw construction at Hanford. I wasn’t trying to pay homage to him, but the idea of a grove; complicated, shadowed, with deep roots and a dark, wavering canopy, stuck with me as I was researching the setting, and I stole it for Mildred.
The definition “gentle strength” belies Mildred’s behavior, as readers will realize. She may see herself as gentle, but this is part of her unreliability as a narrator.
Haunting-wise, I don’t feel that Mildred haunts me any more than I haunt myself. Maybe that means she haunts me a lot, haha. She is a figment of my imagination, born of some of my own best and worst qualities/memories and also born of other people and other literary characters who struck me as vulnerable and powerful, too. I hope people note both her unreliability and her humanity, and I hope people realize she was not created in a vacuum; almost every terrible vision she has and terrible trauma she endures is based on details researched or sculpted from the mud of my own life, or from the lives of those closest to me. I’ve felt such a high level of anxiety with the publication of this book and likely it’s because so much of this is personal. Some people will read it and toss it aside, or feel that it’s too much; those dismissals are normal and okay. I tend to go too far rather than be too subtle. But I hope for most it will render the question of how we treat others as necessary and urgent. The book for me is really an intense study in empathy.
Ray: What are some of the most disorienting truths Mildred and The Cassandra are speaking of with regard to rape culture, not only person to person, but in the context of the ongoing rape of the earth? Borrowing from the great feminist scholar bell hooks, this culture is capitalistic, militaristic, white, supremacist, patriarchal and industrial, and results in never-ending losses with regard to intimacy, love, and respect for one another across genders, orientations, economic status, educational level, privilege and power. The Cassandra is ultimately so multivalent, and so deeply engaged with current and historical ills with regard to the patriarchal regime hooks speaks of, I’m wondering at your influences and the truths or discernment you see revealed through art such as those found in this novel. I’m reminded of Audre Lorde as well: her “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and “each time you love, love as deeply as if it were forever / only, nothing is eternal.”
Shields: I agree fully with bell hooks, and this quote of Audre Lorde’s is spot on, too, that we’ll never be able to change by playing by patriarchy’s rules, which do always favor, as hooks states, the white and wealthy… We need to rethink, as I mentioned above, an entire social framework, a whole other set of priorities and power structures, and how do we do this when the white and wealthy seem to lord over all current instruments of change? Mildred, as a white woman in the book, fails to save anyone, and even when she thinks she’s doing good, behaves in particularly harmful ways. It’s been estimated that 47%-52% of white women voted for Trump. Even we progressive white women can be deeply problematic. This might be one of the disorienting truths you’re speaking of, but one I hope people will consider carefully.
Another disorienting truth is that a man gets away with a brutal rape… For us women, this is not a surprise. That’s long been the story. In an early draft, I had that man die. In a different draft, I had that man not be the rapist. But in the end, he needed to be both the rapist and the one who gets off scotch free, because, well, that’s the reality of the world we live in, and to question it fully, it needs to play out with as much unfairness and lack of justice as it does in the real world. And it parallels, frankly, the ways in which we’ve harmed others for the sake of blind nationalism. I read somewhere that the USA has been at war for 224 years of its 241 years of existence, and look how many of us, myself included, putter about our day without paying any proper attention to it.
There is a current reckoning happening now with the #MeToo movement, of course, and men are beginning to be called out for their behavior, but what a brief movement this is in the entire history of the world. My worry is that the reckoning will not continue, that it will be hushed or dismissed by the powers that be, much as women’s productive rights are starting to be reversed in certain states. As a mom to a sensitive, gentle boy and a sensitive, ferocious girl, I want the reckoning to continue for the sake of both of my children.
This blind nationalism, this ruinous greed, is playing out elsewhere, too, on the US/Mexico border (speaking of our history of harming children), of the careless, almost intentional, destruction of the very planet. There is an amazing recent poem by our nation’s Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, “The World is Your Beautiful Younger Sister,” in which she connects the rape of girls to the rape of our planet, driven by greed and power and domination, and our horrifying complicity in allowing such transgressions to take place to someone so close to us. “Those awful awful men,” it ends, “whose wealth is a kind of filth.” We’ve given power to the greediest among us, those demanding more wealth and more power and more dominance, and we’re all paying the price, and how do we stop it?
What happens if we begin to connect all of these grievances together, racism, war, poverty, greed, nationalism, individualism, misogyny, rape, dominance, industry, environmental decay? Is it possible we could begin to realize the full extent of our own horridness and begin to ask real questions about what is needed for deep and meaningful change?
Ray: What do you gain as a person from your children, so lovely and unique and brave for this world? And what do you hope you give them?
Shields: It’s hard for me to speak in an interview about how much these children mean to me, because it’s so zoetic and multitudinous and endlessly amplifying. I’ve been writing stories lately about how anxious of a parent I am, about how much I worry for them and want to do right by them, and I have to laugh at myself as I’m writing, because I’m fallible, we all are, and it’s important to remember how much I love them, and I can only fuck up so much as long as I make sure they know how unconditional this love is. They are loved for who they are. Even as flawed as I am, they are adored. We are fortunate to have one another. My husband teaches 7th and 8th grade students who have never heard from an adult the words, “I love you.” This breaks my heart. I love children, I really do. It probably means in some weird way I love adults, too, even though I walk around mad at all of us for the ways in which we are fucking up the world. It was such a blast doing storytimes for toddlers when I worked for Spokane County Library District, and my heart burst today when I walked through Franklin Elementary for my reading tutor gig, seeing all of those kids stomping around in their winter boots and banging their locker doors shut and chatting happily with one another. I love seeing these children learning together. It makes me feel that peace is possible. But we have a dark history in this country of letting children down—slavery, colonialism, separating children from parents—and it’s still happening. They just released an article this morning in the Spokesman Review about how minorities in Spokane are statistically the most punished children in school. This is not acceptable. We need to change.
Ray: Okay, last one. Thank you for your voice in American letters, Sharma! I’m not alone in saying how deeply inspiring you are, and how your influence is lasting, fearless, and a torch that leads so many of us forward. You speak across nations and cultures in this novel. This draws me closer to my own genocidal shadow (in my Czech and German heritage), and into the genocidal shadow faced by the hibakusha, the “people affected by the nuclear exposition.” Have you heard from Japanese readers yet? How have the hibakusha moved you? I can imagine this novel building authentic bridges between America and Japan. I think of Sadako Sasaki, the 12-year-old girl who died of leukemia in 1955 after completing her one-thousand origami paper cranes, and how her vision continues worldwide, even here, close to home, with her indelible image in the Seattle Peace Park.
Shields: Ah, Shann, it means a lot to me coming from you, these kind comments, can’t thank you enough.
I’ve only heard from a handful of readers so far, and no one with direct connections to the hibakusha. That story of Sadako Sasaki is so beautiful and sad, and another example of how the stories we keep alive can speak to real trauma and enact change. I’ve been thinking a lot of how these stories, these traumas, are passed down from generation to generation, how it lives in our DNA (Kim Barnes talks of this in an amazing interview she had with Propeller). I haven’t been to the Seattle Peace Park but now it’s a place I for sure will visit when I’m next on the West Side.
One of the most visceral scenes for me to write—Mildred’s last vision—involved a young girl probed by scientists in the fallout of Nagasaki. I read about her during some of my research and my stomach dropped. She survived only to be studied by American doctors like a rat. As I wrote the scene, I envisioned the girl trying to pull Mildred out of her own skin, almost trading places with her, because the loneliness, the dehumanization and grief, were too severe. It’s due to Mildred’s privilege that she’s allowed to pull back and shrug away from the girl in Japan and continue life in the Hanford Reach, poisoned though it is. In this way, I see myself, too, pulling back from a painful story I’ve written to live a relatively breezy life here in Spokane. Meanwhile, people elsewhere, nearby and afar, are suffering. I never want to take my comfort for granted. The truth is, at any moment, any one of us could be the hibakusha. Spokane is a similar town to Hiroshima, to Nagasaki. It only takes one action by “those awful, awful men,” (quoting Smith) for the next atrocity to hit us. We’re all complicit in it, and none of us are safe, and the damaged world and its children wait for us to wake up and act.
Shann Ray is the author of American Copper, American Masculine, and Balefire. He lives in Spokane, WA.