In her latest acclaimed novel, Little Nothing, Marisa Silver compels us to look, and look deeply, at how hatred distorts not only those we fear, but ourselves. She shows what it takes to transform this fear and undergo a metamorphosis so luminous that nothing remains but what is stirred in the heart. An excerpt and conversation with Haunting Bombay author and fiction editor Shilpa Agarwal examining the meaning of “other” within and without this extraordinary work.
After that night, Pavla’s performance changes. When Danilo removes the cape, instead of simpering and pretending to be ashamed and then roaring for effect, she simply stands motionless, looking out at the audience. She waits out the horrified shrieks, the gasps, the catcalls, and stoning until that dangerous energy is spent. At that point, the audience, no longer allowed to engage with her as an act, must come to different terms with the fact that she is a living truth, no more fantasy than those who look upon her. Her stillness, her unwillingness to prance and perform, become a different sort of confrontation that makes them feel less superior, vulnerable even, as if their own masks have been violently ripped away and now the truth of their ugliness and their distorted desires are on display for Pavla to see. Each night, as the women drop their hands from their eyes, as the men stop leaning into one another to tell their nasty jokes, Pavla sees in their faces not ghoulish pleasure but confusion. Why is she staring at them? What horror does she see? She watches as even the most obstreperous of them wither; their shoulders turn inward, their eyes cast about for reassurance. They grab one another’s hands. People leave as quietly as they do the confessional. And then they buy a ticket for the next show.
Excerpt from Little Nothing published with permission by the author.
Shilpa Agarwal: Little Nothing is a stunning meditation on otherness, on what it means to be “other,” to endure society’s cruelty, fear, suspicion and derision. Little Pavla – a dwarf, wolf-girl, circus freak, wolf and eventually prisoner – always resides in the margins of society, and yet there are moments when she does belong. Can you speak these fleeting instants? How do we belong?
Marisa Silver: I think the ways in which Pavla belongs have to do with love. She belongs to her family. Her parents, after their initial shock and disappointment that she is not born a more typical child, fall deeply in love with her and protect her, although that protection takes a very dark turn. The fact that, as a wolf, she makes her way back to them is evidence of this bond. And, although she and Danilo never manage to realize a romantic relationship, his love for her offers her a kind of belonging. She occupies a primary place in his heart. She becomes the reason for his every action. She is paramount in his thoughts. So, in this way, she belongs to the person who adores her. Once she makes her final transformation, and once Danilo tells Markus her story, she belongs to the boy and to everyone else who will ever hear this story. Stories are a way of belonging. Once we read them or are told them, they belong to us, they are part of our lives.
SA: Pavla’s parents struggle with what to do with their dwarf daughter. They love her, yet they yearn to normalize her, and it is this – this inability to accept who she is – that impels her internal rupture, which you externalize on that stretching rack, when she transforms into a wolf-girl. When we aren’t accepted for who we are, when we’re forced to contort ourselves to society’s will and expectation, there’s a part of us that breaks. Is there a way back to wholeness?
MS: I think this question turns on how we define “wholeness.” I think no matter what is taken from us, we are still whole. It is only that our character reforms itself around the absence, or around parts of us that are unseen or defiled either literally or spiritually. During the course of the novel, Pavla’s identity is stripped from her bit by bit. By the time we encounter her in the prison, she does not know who she is or how she got there. And yet, strangely, when she allows herself to disappear, she has the strongest effect on the other prisoners, the guards, and on Danilo and her child. She becomes more elementally who she is. The power of her being, her effect on the world and on others around her is undeniable. They are transformed by her.
SA: So much of your story is about violence inflicted upon female bodies, how they’re controlled, manipulated, hunted, humiliated. You write of Pavla that, “She is, after all, the synthesis of two things men have a need to routinely destroy: animals and women.” Can you speak to the broader issues that influenced you while you were writing?
MS: During the time I was writing this novel the Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, an Afghan woman was stoned to death because she committed adultery, in many areas of the world, girls were denied education. In our country, the abortion wars raged. These sorts of crimes against women and this suppression of the feminine are, unfortunately, nothing new. When I write, I don’t concern myself with what the book will be about, or its larger themes and so I was not explicitly thinking about these issues or trying to address them directly. But when I write, I am not only living in my imagination but I am living in the world I occupy, and what I ultimately produce is affected and influenced by both.
SA: One of the most beautiful passages in the book is when Pavla’s mother, Agáta, is reunited with her daughter in her wolf incarnation. Human language always seems to stumble and falter, but there exists in your story, and in life, a non-language that speaks so powerfully. What is this language? How can we access it?
MS: This is such a great question and I don’t know that I have the answer! Something I think about a lot is the differential between what we say and how we behave. Oftentimes, as you say, we stumble and falter with language, or we outright lie, or we say things that express a particular mythology that we want to put forth about ourselves. But our actions can sometimes cut across our language and convey the very opposite of what our words say. I’m interested in the intersection of language and behavior. I think this might be the place where character resides.
Writing the wolf sections of the book allowed me the opportunity to try to identify a relationship beyond dialogue, at least on the part of Pavla in her wolf form. I spent a lot of time reading and learning about wolf behavior and, of course, there is an extraordinary kind of communication that goes on among wolves in a pack. I tried to create the character of Pavla, the wolf, through her actions and behavior as a wolf, without anthropomorphizing her too much. I didn’t want her to be any wolf. I wanted her to be a specific wolf and I tried to find ways in which she might move and behave that would be as identifying as dialogue might be. I think that this specificity allows Agáta to sense something uncanny about the wolf. She recognizes something in the wolf, something that draws out a maternal quality that she had put away long ago.
SA: Pavla’s father doesn’t recognize her in her wolf incarnation and is about to shoot her, but he puts his gun down and trusts the man who says she’s not a threat. Your book is about metamorphosis of all kinds. What does it take to transform fear?
MS: Empathy. The recognition of how we are alike and not how we differ. The ability to look at difference not as a threat but as a chance for us to widen out our appreciation of what it means to be living on the planet. It sounds simple but it’s incredibly difficult to embrace difference, to recognize that what is not like us will enhance us.
SA: Danilo loves Pavla with such painful intensity yet lacks to the courage to tell her, to cross the lines that society has set up as unbreachable – lines about what is normal and acceptable and loveable – and in doing so, loses so much in his life. This is vital to understand today, that there is a great loss in towing the line, in going against the heart and allowing angry voices and old ways of thinking to hold sway. Is there redemption for Danilo? For any of us?
MS: I think there is redemption for Danilo. He is a rather callow and naive young man at the novel’s outset. He’s unworldly and utterly unschooled. As the novel progresses, he begins to have a more thoughtful and philosophical understanding about his life and life in general. Once his own awareness widens, he stops caring what others think and he devotes his every action to the pursuit of this woman who he loves. Against all logic, he believes she exists no matter what incarnation she inhabits and he does everything in his power to save her life when she is endangered. He stands up for her, for himself and for the idea of unwarranted faith in the people he loves, no matter their size or shape and no matter the danger that belief puts him in.
Marisa Silver is the author, most recently, of the novel, Little Nothing. Her other novels include Mary Coin, a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Award for Fiction, The God of War, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, and No Direction Home. Her first collection of short stories, “Babe in Paradise” was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. When her second collection, Alone With You, was published, The New York Times called her “one of California’s most celebrated contemporary writers.” Silver made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine’s first “Debut Fiction” issue. Winner of the O. Henry Prize, her fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories and other anthologies.