On Diverse Storytelling: Blown to Bits An interview with Steven Dunn by Tanner Haughn
Shortlisted for Granta magazine’s “Best of Young American Novelists,” Steven Dunn is the author of two novels from Tarpaulin Sky Press: water & power(2018) and Potted Meat (2016), which was co-winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize and finalist for a Colorado Book Award. Steven was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from University of Denver. He is currently an MFA candidate at Goddard College. Visit his author page here.
TH: What was your original motivation for writing water & power? Only two years have passed since your first novel, Potted Meat, was published. In what ways (if at all) did this first novel influence the making of your second?
SD: I’d been in the navy for ten years, and out for five years, but all of these images and memories kept surfacing, plus conversations I’d been having with people I was in the navy with, plus reading critical essays about various aspects of the military put it in new perspectives for me, so I felt like I needed to synthesize all of these various bits and pieces. Another part was that I don’t like a lot of military literature because it feels like it’s in service to perpetuating an image that we’re familiar with, so I wanted to slow down and stretch out some of the automatic ways we think about the military and its members.
The way my first novel influenced the making of the second one was an inversion of tone, geography, and narration. Potted Meat was confined to a small town, a single narrator, and full of warmth. But water & power is cold and industrial, and opens up to multiple states, countries, and voices. But a big similarity was mainly listening to the book and letting it be whatever shape it needed to be.
TH: I like what you said about “military literature [being] in service to perpetuating an image that we’re familiar with.” In my experience, military culture is most often painted with heroic hues in literature, but you also explore themes of fear and vulnerability in water & power. Would you say that the form of the novel reflects these complicated themes?
SD: Definitely! I think it does because the failed ethnographic form allows for different voices to collide and/or agree with each other, and then those voices also collide and/or agree with the documents and the various critical lenses. The “how” (multi-vocal and multi-textured) of telling these stories was important, because sometimes even anti-war novels are still in the service of being “painted with heroic hues,” because of their singularity through a single protagonist, who is often a white male, who tells the story (often phallic-shaped) in a way that suggests they are the only victims of the military. Although there is a narrator in water & power, I think the form didn’t allow for there to be a singular protagonist or antagonist.
The form was influenced by Ari Folman’s 2008 animated film Waltz with Bashir, which was the narrator [Folman] interviewing the people he was with when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. At that point, I hadn’t read or seen much military literature where the narrator implicates themselves in the telling (content and form). Form is political as fuck. I also learned from the film’s poster art—it didn’t use standard military aesthetics likes camo, boots, bloody stenciled font, etc. There is a gun in the background though, but mainly the poster is orange-glow-flares above three shirtless men who look depressed and emaciated, waist-high in water at the edge of a city. It speaks to fear, vulnerability, and scarcity—and none of those things are usually associated with military heroism like the other things I named above.
TH: I’m interested in hearing more about how the mainstream narrative in a war or anti-war novel follows the traumatic story of one stereotypical protagonist. In what ways does water & power attempt specifically to operate on a new front in its diversity of form?
SD: Because of the amount of interviews from multiple people, those voices become the center of attention for that moment, which accumulates throughout the book so that the narrator isn’t a sole protagonist. There are 20 interviews versus 12 stories from the narrator, and the narrator rarely speaks in the interviews. There are also documents and brief histories, so all of those elements combined have a lot more weight than the narrator. What I was also saying about anti-war novels/memoirs still being singular, is that they often end with how badly the military treated them as a U.S. person. I think endings are statements and/or questions, and I interpret those ending statements as: U.S. military members’ (often white male) pain is more important than the pain we have caused others, inside of the military and outside of it. With that said, I didn’t want water & power to make that type of statement, so towards the end, there’s a shift where U.S. military members fade out, and the pain and trauma we’ve caused foreign civilians come to the front and end the book.
I want to be clear here and say that I have not read/seen every single military novel, play, poem memoir, art installation, or film, but I have read/seen and watched a lot, prior to writing water & power, and while doing research for it, and that singularity pattern in pro and anti-war literature was hard to ignore. I also want to be clear that I’m not asserting that water & power is the only book that ends by focusing on the “other”, but it is in conversation with the books that do, and some of those include Lisa Birman’s How To Walk Away, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, and Myung Mi Kim’s Commons.
TH: I’ve read other interviews (like with Heavy Feather Review) where you mention Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir – I’m going to have to watch that. As for the ending of water & power, I was definitely struck by that shift toward the suffering of foreign civilians. I noticed in some of their stories that you don’t punctuate the end of the paragraph, like in the following example:
“Subhan’s three children, wife, and aging parents were killed in the air strikes meant to target military installations and Al Qaeda’s training camps. ‘On the one hand, America is dropping bombs on us and on the other hand it is dropping food packets. We will die of hunger but never accept this food,’ Subhan said” (146)
As far as I can tell, that ‘end-less’ story – from the standpoint of punctuation – doesn’t really happen until we get to the voices housing the pain and trauma of foreign civilians. What’s the statement (if any) being made there?
SD: Yes! You are totally right about that. I thought it may have been too small too notice, but yes, I didn’t end any of those stories from foreign civilians towards the end with periods to show that it was/is endless. I really appreciate your close reading. Also, the beginning of the pieces aren’t capitalized. I was hoping to not show a clear “beginning” to go along with no periods at the end.
TH: I love that: storytelling through punctuation / capitalization. Now I’m curious – are there other intentional choices that you made like these, which tell a story around the stories being told?
SD: Oh yes, sometimes a story calls for some formatting and punctuation choices to help the words communicate a bit more. The story about getting on a submarine is written in one narrow column with no periods, and only one comma. I think it feels and looks claustrophobic and breathless. Towards the end of the book, the phrase “blown to bits” is the only thing on a page, but it’s spread out and the letters vary in size surrounded by scattered periods.
Oh, and this is not quite about punctuation, but in a story about drones I have some untranslated Urdu text, which reads right to left, so the visual justification of the text is noticeable. The Urdu was written by my friend Masroor Hussain (I didn’t tell him what to write, he chose what to write in response to the English). Urdu is his first language.
TH: The move with the submarine story is fantastic. Breathlessness through run-ons is one of my favorite readerly experiences. There’s also a rush that comes from being disconnected with a story because it’s written in another language or oriented / displayed in a disruptive way. How would you describe the function of pictorial visuals, like the recruiting posters (pp. 15-21) or the comic (pp. 28-31), in water & power?
SD: Thank you! I think (hope) the pictorial visuals function in a way that feels like how it felt to come across some of these documents in real life. The comic book used to train us on how to report gay people—the way it’s created (the art and the story) and presented is so casual and childish. It’s a quality better seen than described by words. Same with the PowerPoint presentation about teaching what sexual assault is. It uses clip art traffic lights to show us what sexual assault is. Another childish presentation to discuss a serious issue.
About the recruiting posters: I mentioned in Heavy Feather Review that professional marketing companies designed recruiting slogans and posters for the military throughout the decades, and water & power takes the posters out of their usual context, where instead of us seeing these posters from a glory perspective we see them from a “targeted” (see predatory) marketing perspective.
TH: Do you have other works-in-progress right now?
SD: I’m currently working on a novel (which is kicking my ass!) that centers black women’s variety of labors. It also celebrates black joy and connection, and how we keep and cultivate black joy when we’re often surrounded by the (un)intentional harm of whiteness. I need to be a better person in order to write this book, so in addition to listening deeply to the friend who is telling me this story, I’m also reading a lot of novels, feminist scholars, and poetry from black women. I’m listening to my mother, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers, and friends. I’m trying!