The delicious space that is longing

Mesha Maren’s debut novel Sugar Run (Algonquin, 2019) has it all — all being to my mind both desire and longing and all the way these modes of yearning tie us to the land, each other, and everything set to get in our way. The novel takes place in 2007 in West Virginia and follows Jodi, recently released from prison after serving a eighteen-year sentence for manslaughter, as she attempts to reconnect with family land and maybe experience love again with another lost woman named Miranda, around whom "Black Velvet" seems to croon on loop. In preparation for Maren’s reading at Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday, March 7, we had a conversation about queer desire, longing, and possibility.

How would you define desire? How would you define longing? What is Jodi and Miranda’s relationship to each?

I heard this thing on the radio yesterday about the physiological reason that we crave sweets when we are feeling stressed out or very emotional. The report was saying that our brains use up over half the calories that our bodies take in each day. When you are feeling really sad or stressed your brain is working harder in certain ways, so it sends signals that it needs fuel fast, and sweet carbohydrates are the quickest fix. Listening to that story made me think about how we as human beings are shaped by desire from the most basic level — craving is built into us.

I see desire as a specific incarnation of longing — like longing is this kind of shapeless shroud of craving, and desire is a sharpened, specific form of that craving, when the general yearning gets pointed towards something, or someone, specific. And I think that certain people, and places, are more bent toward longing than others. Some of us like to reside in that nearly painful, kind of delicious space that is longing.

In the novel, Jodi is thinking about her grandmother Effie’s land in West Virginia and she says “Even when she’d been there, on the farm with Effie alive, Jodi had been bending in her mind towards the memories of before, the time when her parents had lived there too. Maybe, she thought, she’d been like that since birth, filled up with a backwards yearning.” And this comes up in various other places in the book too, this affinity that Jodi has for the past or for something that can never be recaptured. She has a tremendous capacity for empathy, and she’s always looking at not just what is there but what is below the surface or what was once there, and in that looking she taps into a deep and continuous form of longing.

For Miranda, I think her longing and desire manifest in different ways. She is deeply unsettled and overwhelmed by her longings, and unlike Jodi, who gets some sort of pleasure out of sinking into that “backward yearning,” Miranda wants desperately to be more tethered to the present moment. When she recalls her pregnancies, she says “It was only in pregnancy that things got simple again and she was nothing more than a collection of sensations. Cold now, warm later, hungry then full, horny, sated. The pills, if she balanced them out right, did something similar but not the same.” It seems to me that for Miranda, longing is this tsunami that is constantly threatening to wash her away, whereas for Jodi, desire is this sweet-sad song that she likes to turn the volume up on.

No matter where Jodi travels, the land is most alive in West Virginia. Can you talk about how you go about deciding when it is most useful for land to come alive as a character?

I think that all land can come alive — even the most commonplace looking sidewalk in suburban America has a great story to tell but it all depends on relationships, which landscapes sync up with which characters’ internal soundtracks. For Jodi, and for me, the land in West Virginia speaks to that deep and abiding sense of yearning. I really think West Virginia is a place of longing, and I’ve been trying to figure out for a while why that is. Ever since white people set eyes on what is now West Virginia there was this sense of desire, people breaking the British law and crossing the Proclamation Line of 1763 to settle in the mountains, and one early colonizer wrote, “It was a pleasing tho’ dreadful sight to see mountains and hills as if piled one upon another.” I think this quote gets at something that is a part of the longing that is woven into West Virginia, the fact that the mountains are so simultaneously beautiful and impassive. It is not a place that loves you back very easily. You can work hard and scratch out a small life on a piece of land, and then the river rises and in an instant it is all gone. There is always a tenuousness to life in West Virginia, but for some of us that just makes us love it even more, like how sometimes you feel stronger emotions for a person who is hard to love than you do for someone who gives back readily.

This book is full of the queer desire for the natural world: the home we find deep within someone else’s body and the home in caves you can literally climb into as you wait for your eyes to adjust. How do you see queer desire or longing at work in your characters' relationship to each other and West Virginia?

In a review for Bustle, Katie Smith said while Sugar Run is a novel about “queer relationships in the South,” it also “asks readers to consider other types of love — specifically, love of a place and love of oneself, in all their deeply melancholy and complicated forms.” When I read this, I felt the most incredible tingling happiness — that otherworldly sensation of having someone see and understand what you are trying to talk about. I felt like if that was what Smith took from Sugar Run, then I had succeeded, because on a certain level that is what the novel is about to me: all the different types of queer love — the ways in which desire changes you and takes you outside of yourself, the way that it feels if that desire is not reciprocated or if that desire is condemned by the people around you.

Queer desire takes on many forms in Sugar Run. For both Jodi and Miranda, their first “romances” were with the land they grew up on, not with people. For Jodi specifically, the land provided friendship and solace, but it eventually became a sort of trap because it isolated her. I see the whole novel as a journey that Jodi is on to learn to love herself, as cheesy as that sounds, she has to learn to prioritize herself over the mountain land, over these women she loves.

When Jodi denies her relationship with Miranda “the word coming out before she had time to think […] the scent of self-hatred as ripe and familiar as her own shit.” I came out in the South, and I don’t know if I have felt, anywhere else, both the strength of community in the queer South but also all the ways in which claiming this identity is a kind of privilege in itself.

I agree entirely, coming out is a privilege, especially in the South. Jodi is extremely vulnerable and very reliant on her relationships to her family and neighbors and she knows that those relationships might change in irreconcilable ways if she talks openly about her sexual orientation. What Jodi prefers is to just not put words on her relationships — but when you don’t put words on something, it can become invisible. When she was younger, in her relationship with Paula, Jodi thought “If she could push back the words — dyke, queer — then everything would make sense and turn out all right. Sometimes though, the terror of it grips her, the knowledge that she is not seen at all, or seen only backwards and out of focus. It is a feeling she is sure will crush her someday.”

I think Jodi is continually struggling with how to balance the power of words: the dark and violent power of homophobic epithets (“the bitter drawl” of Jodi’s brother’s voice when he says “I heard you turned queer”), the power that words have to include or exclude a person (when she’s in prison, Jodi receives letters from “lesbians everywhere, all of them acting like they knew her just because she and Paula were lovers. Alone in her cell, she’d felt so far from their talk of solidarity, so far outside their supposed community”), and the power that words have to free you from guilt and self-doubt (towards the end of the novel Jodi decides to "own up to it, tell anyone who cared to know that she loved Miranda”).

Outside of her hometown, Jodi mentions her accent is “a strange left over burden, something that only made sense here.” What have been some of the greatest challenges or surprises with traveling this novel around to places and readers that may fetishize or miss the nuances of the characters and locations of this book?

People have preconceived notions about almost everything. but certain places, like West Virginia or Appalachia, seem to heavily attract this kind of thinking. As a whole, I think Americans have gotten a lot better about questioning stereotypes, but the interesting thing is that I think that can sometimes result in an almost equally damaging line of thinking — where people say “I know that poverty, violence, and drugs are stereotypes about West Virginia, so I want to see something else, something not stereotypical.” I’ve had people ask me why some of the characters in my novel act in what they think of as “stereotypical” ways (doing drugs, shooting guns, etc.), and I have to say that it’s not that black and white. In order to write truthfully about the West Virginia that I know and love, I have to write about drugs and guns and poverty and violence as well as queer sex, beautiful mountains, and close-knit communities.

Jodi can’t seem to get away from the threat of incarceration. She has a probation officer who sees her as less than human, which is a continuation to how she was treated in prison, and a wealthy environmental activist who pities her perhaps not unlike how she felt pitied by her counselor while incarcerated. At what point in the writing did you realize Jodi’s relationship to limited choices and options, and how did this inform your narrative?

When I started writing this novel I was just writing the pre-prison sections. This was back in 2010, when I very first started drafting scenes, and they were these short little vignettes with Jodi and Paula. I pretty quickly realized that something was going to happen in Jodi’s life that would forever change it, that would mark it as “before” and “after,” but I wasn’t sure what that was at first. I just knew that something would happen that would keep her away from West Virginia for a long time.

When it occurred to me that the change, that the thing that kept her away, would be prison, I started to research narratives about life after prison. My father worked for a nonprofit that sent him into prisons, and when I was a kid I would go along with him, and I can still remember him talking to women about their fears and desires in regards to “life on the outside.” At some point in my research, I stumbled across an article about a program in Colorado, called the Long-Term Offender Program, that was set up to help people who had been sentenced to twenty-plus years. The article was about “life after ‘life’ ” and how difficult even the smallest things, like ordering food from a menu, can be. When I read that, it broke something open in my brain, like that detail about how overwhelming it can be to order from a menu after not having choices like that for twenty or thirty years. It served as the lens I needed to understand just how colossally difficult it is to navigate life after prison. If something that small is so overwhelming, the big life decisions would be so big that you wouldn’t even really be able to fit your mind around them.

Fracking seems to be the height of the societal conflict, a particularly brilliant move considering the amount of change that a place would undergo in the time that Jodi was away. How do you see societal conflicts as playing a role in your fiction? What has your relationship been to fracking as someone from the area and as someone who translated it into fiction?

One of the interesting things about writing a book about a place that you know and love is that sometimes real life plays out alongside the fiction. When I first started drafting Sugar Run, there was no fracking in my area of West Virginia, and most of the research that I did was about fracking in Pennsylvania. I even wondered if it was realistic to put fracking in southern West Virginia. Then, before the book was published, fracking arrived in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. There is now active construction on a pipeline (the Mountain Valley Pipeline) less than ten miles from my hometown.

Part of the reason that I chose to include fracking in the book is because it is fascinating to me how extractive industries can affect communities. On the one hand, we know that fracking (and coal mining and the timber industry, etc.) is super damaging to the environment. But fracking can also provide high-paying jobs (although often local people do not get those jobs), and it also brings money into the area. The men who have those jobs are making a lot of money and spending it in the local economy. In my hometown there are signs that local residents have put up to protest the pipeline, but the downtown motel also has a huge “Welcome Frackers” sign, and I don’t blame them — all these guys in town spending money is good for their business. Of course, the frackers will leave as soon as the pipeline is built, but for the moment they are spending more money than anyone else. In many ways the pros and cons are short-term versus long-term decisions, and sometimes for areas with such limited options, the short-term pros can gleam very brightly, despite the catastrophic long-term results.

It is really not unlike the short-term versus long-term decisions that Jodi is faced with in her own personal life — do I run with what is right in front of me now or do I hold off and maybe end up empty handed?