A Q&A with Sonya Huber

By Kelly Davio

Sonya Huber is the author of four books and numerous essays, including “The Shadow Syllabus,” which goes viral every new school year. She teaches at Fairfield University.

Sonya Huber’s essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and other essays from a nervous system, is new from University of Nebraska Press as part of its American Lives series. In April of 2017, I spoke with Sonya about the her writing process, Pinterest, cupcakes, metaphor, and (of course) pain.

Kelly Davio

One of my favorite things about Pain Woman Takes Your Keys is that you’ve made your experience of chronic pain and rheumatoid arthritis incredibly relatable; it’s easy to see many women’s experiences reflected in these essays. One of the universal issues, to this reader, is what we might call “the yoga question.” You mention how many people have asked you whether you’ve tried yoga as a potential cure-all. What do you think lurks behind those interrogations?

Sonya Huber

I do think it comes from naive good intentions, and the desire for a condition to be fixable. Before I got sick I found the same kinds of questions escaping my lips. I think part of what motivates the suggestion, too, is an attempt to connect. But beneath those good intentions, I think, is discomfort. We are a fix-it-quick culture, and sickness and disability are still seen as signs of weakness. I think it’s deeply troubling for many people to contemplate that they themselves might one day have something major going on with their bodies that they can’t control. The “yoga” suggestion is really a story people tell themselves about how they will be able to fix anything that goes wrong for them, I think. Regardless of yoga’s roots, the role that yoga has come to play in our culture is complex. This is not to bash on yoga–I do yoga myself! Rather, it’s sometimes short-hand for a weirdly neo-Calvinist approach to health, which Heather Kirn Lanier describes beautifully in a recent essay in Vela as “mind-body fundamentalism.”

Kelly Davio

The vague and hard-to-pin-down feeling of guilt that comes along with chronic illness is another theme that many readers will recognize in themselves. In “Cupcakes,” you say that “when I berate myself for my mothering, it usually involves a vision of cupcakes,” when you don’t even like cupcakes (or baking, for that matter). Where does this kind of guilt come from, do you think?

Sonya Huber

Martha Stewart and Pinterest? Kidding–but kind of not! I am a slob. I don’t like to cook. But self-acceptance about these traits is a daily struggle–even though I identify as a feminist. I think it’s all a testament to how much I personally need feminism in my life and in my politics, to counteract sexism that we are all soaking in like Palmolive Dish Detergent (referencing a commercial from the 1970s in which a woman soaks her hand in blue dish soap like she’s at a spa). Also, I think it’s much harder to appreciate and take pictures of what good mothering might mean beyond baked goods. Good conversations, for example–I think I do a lot of that with my son, and yet I don’t appreciate it as much because I’ve been trained to see that as “easy” emotional labor. Oh my god, I am winding up into rant mode; that another skill that’s harder to appreciate because it’s free.

Kelly Davio

This collection is rich with personal language for pain that’s unique among anything that I’ve read—pain is “the thumb of God right on me” and “pain demands that you make eye contact with it and then sit utterly still” are among my favorites. Can you talk about the craft choices you’ve made in handling pain as though it’s a character in your personal story?

Sonya Huber

My goal was to try to describe pain’s effect in an emotional, intellectual, and spiritual sense, because as soon as I started to really pay attention to pain, I saw all kinds of interesting dynamics happening. I guess I made pain into a presence first in order to track my conversation with it, to move it away from a bad thing happening to me and toward a presence. Kids do this all the time, this transference and projection, and I needed to make it a being (or I guess many beings) to also get away from feeling trapped or victimized by it. I also wanted to watch what I did in reaction to pain, which became as interesting and important to me as to describe pain as a character. Pain messes with your head, leads you down rabbit holes that can get pretty bad, so I felt like I needed to see pain as a way to understand the shape I was making for it. Both of those phrases you mentioned came up when I was trying to watch how I was acting in the presence of pain while trying hard to stop freaking out about it. Pain–at least the kind of pain I have–sometimes seems to demand that I not move much, which is connected in my head with so many forms of spiritual practice. That doesn’t necessarily mean pain is “spiritual” but rather that there are interesting connections and resonances.

Kelly Davio

You can buy A Curious Land at your local bookstore, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

There are essays in this book, “Prayer to Pain,” for one example, when you write about pain with what feels like genuine compassion; you say that “Pain does not want to inflict itself. Its existence is probably its own greatest agony…Pain is more scared than you are; think of its existence.” How did you get to a place at which you could think of pain as something for which you could show empathy?

Sonya Huber

I think I was first reacting to the “battle” language that people sometimes use to describe illness or disability. I struggled for long time with self-judgment about so many other things in my life (and I still struggle), so I really needed to not fight with myself about a whole other thing. I needed to not have another reason to judge or criticize or resent my body or tell myself I’m not good enough, that I’m damaged and defective, and so on. I mean, this collection of organs and stuff is my home. And really, every single cell that feels pain and every single chemical reaction that creates pain is actually me. So I needed to feel empathy for pain as one part of the ongoing struggle to not be so ruthlessly hard on myself. The sick thing is that once I started to play with seeing pain as a character, it became easier to have empathy for it than it usually is for me to generate self-empathy. I was so relieved, actually, after the book came out and I heard other people describe pain as a kind of companion–and not a demonic one. Pain is something I hang out with all the time, and it’s much easier to bear it when I can say “Hi, pain” rather than “Oh my god I am such a loser, I’m in pain again.” (I do both, by the way).

Kelly Davio

In the title essay of the collection, you talk about Pain Woman as a kind of shadow author-self, or a shadow narrative voice, who despite being an unwelcome presence at your writing desk is still a powerful communicator. How do you celebrate the pain woman side of your writing and the unique gifts that it brings to the page without romanticizing suffering?

Sonya Huber

This is a huge concern for me. The assumption that any kind of extreme is naturally connected with insight and artistic vision is pretty dangerous for all kinds of reasons. Among others, it makes people go for those extremes instead of just writing where they are at. And it has a danger of letting someone think I might be “grateful” for my illness because of all the great writing Pain Woman gets to do. Gratitude is fine, but there’s the danger that suffering is okay as a result because it might make us better or purer (and thus we don’t really need to worry about helping those who suffer). I think the way to push against the romanticization is to also stay in touch with the shitty details. Like, it’s so glamorous that I’m lying here on the couch playing Two Dots instead of walking around at a farmer’s market. Or, I have to drive to Hartford in two hours and I’m suddenly scared that I’m not going to have the energy to drive there. Don’t you want my life?

Kelly Davio

Along similar lines, quite a few activists maintain that being disabled is simply another way of living in the world—not inherently good or bad, just different. You wrestle with that issue in “From Inside the Egg,” where you say that accepting pain is acquiescence to suffering, and that “in every case, it’s not okay.” How do you find a balance between advocating for better treatment and research while trying to destigmatize chronic pain?

Sonya Huber

This is another really hard issue for me–partly because I feel like I am slowly learning about disability and writing, disability rhetorics and communities and activism. Those communities and conversations have been key to my sanity. On the one hand, it’s necessary to push back against the impulse that many people have to “fix” my life, to accept myself and this incurable disease and say, you know what, I can still have a great life with whatever conditions I have, and my life is 100% as worthy and beautiful as the next person’s life. At the same time, I am scared of accepting chronic pain because I feel like, in one sense, “acceptance” can be taken to mean that we can be erased and ignored completely. And pain is a crisis; it’s one piece of our extended healthcare crisis in this country. People frame the “opioid crisis” as one of drug addiction, but I believe it’s also a symptom of our dysfunctional healthcare system. So I want to be a strong advocate for research and treatment. Many people with many disabilities have pain, and pain is a specific symptom that can often signal trouble. Everyone who is having trouble and pain deserves medical attention and care if they want and need it.

Kelly Davio

Speaking of stigma, this book makes no secret of the fact that colleagues have tried to steer you away from writing about pain and disability as though they were semi-scandalous topics that could somehow scuttle your career. What does a writer—especially one who’s a woman—risk by being open about her life?

Sonya Huber

I’ve tried in the book to connect to so many public debates, which I think for a male writer might be read as “universal” and “relevant” and for a female writer will be read as “personal” and “emotional.” Many people who write disability narratives are tagged as being self-involved, which is also a favorite epithet used against female writers of essays and memoir. At a personal level, I hope we stay on my husband’s healthcare plan because–given the current level of healthcare sadism–I’m now unavoidably and publicly linked to my pre-existing conditions. Finally, I think there’s the danger that I might be pigeon-holed as unable to do all the stuff I normally do, either at my job or as a writer in the world, because people now know about a condition I’ve had for a long time.

Kelly Davio

On the flip side, let’s talk about the rewards of being open. Your “Pain-Sex Anti-Manifesto” is one of the most relatable and even laugh-out-loud funny reflections on sex, relationships, and the ironic taboos on sex that spring from a sex-positive culture that I’ve ever read. Yet in the essay itself, you mention what a struggle it is to write so vulnerably. Was the essay worth the burden of its own creation?

Sonya Huber

This essay was worth it purely for the experience of going through the writing of it with my husband, who absolutely isn’t fazed by so many things that freak me out. I would not have written either the original magazine piece or the essay if he weren’t cool with them and if he hadn’t helped me try to find words for what I was struggling with. Those conversions were really good for us. Also, I feel like it’s pretty good practice for both writing and living to try to be as honest as I can be on the page, even if it’s cringe-worthy. I feel happy I wrote it, and now I never have to write it again!

 

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the poetry collections Burn This House (Red Hen, 2013) and the forthcoming The Book of the Unreal Woman (Salmon). Formerly the Senior Editor of Eyewear Publishing in London, she recently returned to the United States to live and write in the greater New York area.

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