Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections, The Babies & Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. For The Paris Review she writes a monthly column on fairytales and motherhood entitled HAPPILY. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia. You can read more about her at www.sabrinaorahmark.com.
Shannon Brady: First off, I want to say that I loved reading Wild Milk. Reading your collection was like meandering through magical hallways that curve into surprise patches of reality. Many of your stories capture the alienation of modern parenthood—the fears, the expectations, the unrealistic standards—in a way I’ve never read before. How did your collection begin?
Sabrina Orah Mark: It all began with the milk. Which is to say, it began with hunger. Hunger to have a child, and then the hunger of the child I was hungry for, and then the hunger for time, and dreams, and stories. And then the hunger that comes with being lost inside Motherhood.
SB: It is so easy to get lost inside of Motherhood. I especially sensed that in your title story, “Wild Milk.” In other stories, there were times when the mother’s identity was in question or unraveling. For me as a reader, Wild Milk seemed like a meditation on family, whether it be overwhelming or dissipating. What does the collection mean to you?
SOM: Ah, this is a beautiful question. What does Wild Milk mean to me? It’s a place for me to store my astonishment, those unknown places that live inside me.
SB: Your creative turns offer surprise and revelation to the reader, as well. Parenting roles and categories seem especially interesting and malleable in fiction. During my chat with Eleanor Kriseman about her novel and mothers in literature, as well as “bad mothers,” she mentioned gendered parenting and how there is so much expectation and advice projected toward mothers, much more so than of fathers, yet there is so little true assistance or support. Do you see any reflections of gendered parenting in your work?
SOM: Like the fathers in fairy tales, who often seem to be standing in a moonlit field with their mouths wide open (who are often weightless and blurry), most of the fathers/husbands in Wild Milk are half-asleep, maybe even living with one foot in another world (like the father in Bruno Schulz’s stories who seems to speak from behind the dust and the cobwebs). The mothers in my stories often work in sharp light. Maybe I am reinforcing stereotypes and old stories. But I hope I am doing what Angela Carter refers to when she writes about working with old stories: “I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode.”
SB: That’s a great quote! I can see the expansion in your stories. Beyond motherhood, your stories present humor and ache about family and favorites. Humor plays a fantastic role throughout your work. How intentional are you about humor? Or how do you arrive at humor in your writing?
SOM: I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating: No one in my family laughs out loud. When my mother and I, for example, are laughing, it’s this gigantic, breathless silence punctuated by sucking gasps. My son Noah says I laugh like Marge Simpson. To an onlooker, I imagine it’s an ugly scene. But inside, it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to something I can only describe as a beautiful truth. A good joke should take the breath away. I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny. As a child, I studied Talmud and one thing I was taught to understand is that there is no answer, or if there is an answer the answer is marked with an answerless-ness so vast it’s reminiscent of that place in laughter where you can hardly breathe. A good punchline leaves you off at a stop you never imagined existed. The end, in other words, is just the beginning. And whether you’ll be able to find your way home is anybody’s guess. And maybe that’s one essential key to Jewish humor: it gives us this breathlessness—this ha ha holocaust—of a wanderer, of a woman laughing and laughing, doubled over, and crying, Stop. I can’t breathe.
SB: You incorporate pain and humor so well in your stories and their nesting boxes of answers and laughter and breathlessness. It is refreshing for there to be journeys that don’t always tie up neatly or understandably. There was also much sad, harsh truth in “For the Safety of Our Country,” with the yellow bus of lost Presidents and so much forgetting. How does the political climate affect your writing?
SOM: I love thinking of stories as these little heroes, gathering slowly to make a beautiful army. A glowing resistance that is both personal and political. As the news grows woolier, crueler, I do believe stories and poems in all their shapes and sizes, colors, and accents can change the atmospheric pressure, complicate the human party, and nibble at the rope. It’s hard, of course, to know how or when or why a story might take hold and change the air, but if we don’t (at the very least) sharpen visions, and use their points to puncture the status quo we risk everything that is worth being human about.
SB: Your stories are incisive and poetic. I think they do open the possibility for readers to consider implications. As you’ve explored both poetry and fiction, do you have a particular routine or way you approach writing? Has it become easier or harder over the years?
SOM: Before I had children, I would write for long, long stretches. Begin and end a poem in 16 hours. My first two books are collections of prose poems. Each poem is a box. After I had children I could only write for two hours here or twenty minutes there. So I would go away and come back. Adding each time a little more. What happened was that the boxes began to open. The walls between the poems and the world began to thin. And then the wall grew thinner and thinner. And longer. Like a boy growing out of his pajamas. And when I looked again the poems has turned into stories.
SB: I am so glad that motherhood affected your writing as it did! I look forward to continuing to experience your work. Will you be continuing with your Happily column for The Paris Review? Are there other ways for readers to stay connected and follow your work? I know how sparse time is for you these days and so appreciate you sharing with us!
SOM: Yes! There are three more Happily’s on their way. And you can always find me at www.sabrinaorahmark.com.