Books In Conversation
SHEILA O'CONNOR with Brache James
Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions
(Rose Metal Press, 2019)
Minnesota-based author Sheila O’Connor uses flash fiction, recently unsealed state records and archives, and historical documents to begin answering questions about her maternal grandmother’s mysterious coming-of-age in her latest novel, inspired by true—but hard to unearth—events. She introduces readers to a talented 15-year-old singer who finds her way into the world of nightclub entertainment in 1930s Minneapolis. We come to know her as V, for the vivacious way she chases her career; for the misguided visceral relationship that develops between her and her much older “manager”; and for the unexpected pregnancy that leads to a life-changing verdict, a six-year-sentence at Minnesota Home School for Girls at Sauk Centre for “immorality.” Far from depicting her grandmother as voiceless victim, however, O’Connor’s own deftly rendered fiction sheds light on this dark and varied past, carefully crafting a narrative of V’s life up to her vanishing, but also weaving in how she begins to reappear in O’Connor’s and her mother’s life. This story creates a vehicle for discussion about the ways in which society continues to demoralize women, to discredit their personal trauma, and to devalue their bodies. By amplifying this once invisible voice, O’Connor takes us beyond the verge of vulnerability and encourages readers to think about how individual pasts that are forced to be kept private can affect the public in the future. If the so-called reformers had had their way, then the sound of V would be only silence, but thanks to this brief and biting novel, the sound of her outcry echoes. O’Connor constructs a vexing narrative that not only begins to answer questions about her own family’s background, but that also allows readers to start asking deeper, more haunting questions about the lasting effects of historical injustice.
Brache James (Rail): V’s tale arises from nonfictional fragments unearthed from research that you and your mother did, but consists mostly of deeply imagined flash fictions you created from what you both discovered. How did you approach organizing the fictional elements in relation to the nonfictional ones?
O’Connor: I didn’t think in terms of genre when the book began; I was just trying to write the pieces as they came to me. There was so much that had to be imagined—the entirety of V’s story—that the fiction naturally shaped the book. The evidence, the clues I tracked in the form of historical research—I wanted those to appear unfiltered, to speak for themselves, so the reader could encounter the facts without a mediator. In part it’s the juxtaposition of fact and fiction that asks the reader to reconsider “the truth” of historical documentation.
Rail: How did the writing of this novel challenge you as a writer? Did the stylistic choices come to you naturally or through experimentation?
O'Connor: The flash fiction, the fragments, the disregard for “traditional” genre boundaries, the inclusion of archival “evidence”—all of that came naturally. I’d lived with this material for a long time, and for many years—decades actually—I intended to tell it as a kind of epic, intergenerational novel, but it was always a story of absence, of negative space. Fracture and fragments. It wasn’t until I surrendered to that reality that I was able to write it.
Rail: Did writing V’s story inspire more family narratives that you’d like to write? Do you have other projects in mind or in development?
O'Connor: While V began as a family story, it ultimately became the story of thousands of girls forced to serve shockingly long sentences for nothing more than “immorality” which wasn’t actually a crime. That was the story I felt most compelled to tell. Within that story is my own family story, but we are only one family. I have a dream of a project that includes the voices of many descendants and survivors.
Rail: What advice might you have for those who are interested in writing about their own families and their history?
O'Connor: Like any writing advice of value, I’d say that depends entirely on the writer, the history, and the family. What’s known or unknown? What can be told? What needs to be told? Books on any subject require tremendous dedication and time, and so my advice to writers is fairly consistent: Be brave. Keep the faith.
Rail: The most prominent men in V’s life, such as Mr. C, Ray, and Dr. Taft, have all-too-familiar predatory undertones that are currently being called out in our modern-day society through movements such as Time’s Up and Me Too. Were these real-life concerns ones that you wanted to raise to your audience, even though these are flash fiction accounts? And were you ever worried that the intensity of the situations V finds herself in might be too dark or too challenging for readers?
O'Connor: I was deep into this book before either of those movements consumed the headlines, but of course the past is present, and sexual and physical abuse against women and girls continues. Unfortunately, V is in the company of millions of women who have been victimized. The important thing for me is to say it and say it again. I think the darkness rests in silence, not in truth telling.
Rail: What are some books—or who are some writers that you think, as you say, bring the darkness out of the silence and tell the truth about difficult and hard to hear subjects?
O'Connor: Oh, I admire so many writers who do this work. Toni Morrison. Ann Pancake. Justin Torres. Nami Mun. Edward P. Jones. Nick Flynn. Bao Phi. Dorothy Allison. Josie Sigler Sibarra. Far too many to name, but I am grateful to every writer whose courageous work gave me courage.
Rail: V is a poignant damsel cheated of a destiny—of respect, of fame, and of autonomy—that she desperately fought for, and reading the book feels like watching you capture her spirit and give her justice. Do you have different expectations for the reception of this novel based on the gender of the reader?
O'Connor: I’m so pleased her spirit was present in the book, but I’m not sure I’d use the word “damsel” to describe V. It brings to mind the trope of the passive young virgin tied to the railroad tracks waiting for a man to save her, and that’s definitely not V. She’s a strong young woman, determined to save herself, by whatever means are necessary, and those means are difficult as girls and women in dire circumstances often discover. In terms of readers, I’m always hoping for an empathetic reader, a reader willing to be moved by the power of the story.
Rail: In addition to the inherently exploitative male authority in V’s life, the lack of female unity and sisterhood on the part of her family makes it much harder for her to fight for baby June. What was the importance of showing these two opposing forces and how neither seemed interested in truly helping V?
O'Connor: Regardless of family loyalty, there is little that family can do to change the daily reality for an inmate. Life continues on the outside, and the gap between V’s life and the lives of her sisters is immense. How will that ever be bridged? The family’s decision to keep the baby, rather than placing it for adoption with a stranger, would have been a significant choice at that time. Courageous. There was unity in that. At the same time, everyone has their own motives, their own desires, and even among sisters, those are often at odds.
Rail: Related to that, how did you decide to actually show some sisterhood within the harsh institution of Sauk Centre itself, and what do you hope that reveals about the lives of these incarcerated girls?
O'Connor: Sisterhood among women and girls is familiar to me both within a family system, and among female friends because so often our very survival depends upon it. Intuitively, I knew the girls at the institution would have bonded, and the relationships they formed would have been essential to survival. I knew that based on my own experience as a girl and also as someone who has experienced adversity and benefited from the support of incredibly fierce and enduring female friendships. Later, when I came upon the work of other researchers, the relationships I’d imagined between the girls turned out to be echoed elsewhere.
Rail: What are some questions that you hope the reader will ask—of themselves or others—after being introduced to V, including themes of morality versus immorality, perseverance, and so forth?
O'Connor: That’s a terrific question. Thank you. I guess I’m hoping readers will ask themselves what has changed for girls and women? What’s happening in the juvenile justice system today? What’s happening in the institutions where girls are detained? Women? What’s the cost of keeping these stories sealed? Adoption records sealed? What’s the cost of our cultural ignorance around this history? What happened to these girls? What happened to their children, and their children? What secrets have my family kept, and how have those secrets harmed me? What secrets am I keeping? In what ways is the past shaping our present?
Rail: Now that Evidence of V is getting out into the world, what are you working on next?
O'Connor: I have several projects underway. Or maybe “mid-way” would be the better word. A novel. A short story collection. I have a serious desire to find a space for the survivors of the Minnesota Home School for Girls and their descendents to tell their stories so a much larger truth can be spoken and heard. There are literally thousands of descendants, many of whom don’t know that they’re descendants because the records remain sealed, whose lives have been shaped by the incarceration of their mothers, grandmothers, or great-grandmothers. I’m already hearing from descendants hungry for information.