Tupelo Hassman’s Literary Death Match début was made in 2012 with a reading from her first novel, Girlchild. LDM is renowned for boisterous crowds who spend the whole night Instagramming glasses of wine and comparing their braying media-luvvie-laffs.
After watching her fellow contestants drowned out by the audience, Hassman did the improbable. She stepped in to the spotlight and shut the whole room up.
It’s an odious habit of literary journalists to discuss a female writer’s presentation before they get to her prose, but the contrast between Hassman’s gentle voice and the biting anger of her words cannot be overstated.
I was (and still am) also enraged that it is such a hidden bit of historyGirlchild is a ground-glass-in-treacle novel; where the author’s rage seeps out of every page wrapped in the hauntingly beautiful words of a lost soul. There aren’t many things that can quiet a Shoreditch Twitterati crowd but Hassman and her protagonist, Rory Hendrix, are worth making time for.
Rory Hendrix is the only member of her Reno park trailer Girl Scout troop. Always prepared for the worst and hoping for the best, Rory and her Mama have been condemned by the state as a “generation [of] bastards surely on the road to whoredom.”
While her good-time ill-used Mama is pouring herself in and out of Reno bars and trailer parks, Rory submits to the Hardware Man on pages of blacked out sentences and heart breaking silences.
Girlchild is based on the US court case of Buck vs. Bell – a state statute permitting “compulsory sterilization of the unfit” which saw the sterilisation of a Carrie Buck due to unfounded fears that her daughter, Vivian, was “feeble-minded”.
In Girlchild, Rory’s only friend is the ghostly Vivian Buck; Rory’s past and possible future wrapped up in grubby gingham. Hassman cites Buck vs. Bell as the main inspiration for Girlchild, and displays some of that quiet outrage when she explains:
“I was inspired, positively, by Vivian’s achievement in elementary school. Here was an orphaned child [Vivian was adopted after her mother’s sterilization] and she was excelling. [But] despite Vivian’s achievement, science and government continued to forge ahead with this bogus procedure.
I was (and still am) also enraged that it is such a hidden bit of history… At Girlchild events I’ll sometimes ask if anyone had heard of eugenics before reading the book and almost no one responds that they have. How can we avoid repeating such mistakes if we don’t know we’ve made them?”
America, the class-free society, has a notoriously conflicted relationship with the poverty-stricken residents of its trailer parks. Hassman’s own experience of this silent snobbery has left her feeling antagonized.
“This likely boils down to the antagonism inherent in having dual citizenship (that is, the trailer park and the ivy league), the basic stresses of switching code constantly,” she says.
This antagonism breathes life into Rory and her Mama, these women irk the residents and government of their country. They prickle and bristle and yet still maintain their heart-aching optimism.
Hassman’s own compelling hopefulness isn’t restricted to her writing. Discussing her use of Facebook and Twitter to interact with her readers offers up a haunting insight on her motivations for writing.
“None of this [social media] matters at all aside from the work,” she says. “It’s the work that’s there when the night is scary… But there is still the human connection that is made and that’s the best part. That’s why I’m here. That’s my hope.”
When asked about her decision to barricade Rory’s abuse with censorship black bars (“I don’t think of those as censor bars, only as Rory’s memory”) Hassman demonstrates the all-consuming nature of Girlchild.
She says, “I was having a stoop sale in Brooklyn one weekend, trying to write that scene, trying to pay my rent, and I couldn’t find the true way that Rory would tell that part of her story, not that made readerly sense. No one (that I know of) inventories the horrifics of their trauma, no one itemizes it, or discusses its mechanics.”
Emma Donoghue’s notorious Room is another contemporary novel to investigate the way in which society processes its own appetite for accounts of child abuse. In Room the protagonist (and by extension, the reader) is protected from his mother’s abuse by being locked in a cupboard. Hassman’s black bars offer a similar refuge for the reader while harnessing pop culture’s obsession with abuse to fill in the blanks.
The toll this scrutiny can take upon survivors of child abuse is acknowledge by Hassman. “I’m not returning to Rory. People have asked, but I’m happy to give her some privacy to do her thing, she’s earned it,” she says.
The suggestion that Hassman has invested in her characters enough to give them a life beyond Girlchild is both thrilling and relieving for the reader.
Rory Hendrix has a buoyant cynicism that is rarely seen in contemporary literature but the novel ends with her once again facing an uncertain future. Will she make it to 16 without becoming a mother? Has she truly escaped the Hardware Man?
The ability to ensnare the reader (with the rather unpromising combination of trailer parks, girl scouts and child abuse) and to leave them craving more is fantastic to see in a début novelist.
When she’s asked about the future, specifically her previously stated desire to write in a “less linear-fashion,” Hassman is suitably picturesque while keeping her cards close to her chest. “I did talk about writing in a more linear fashion! What a fool I was to think I could straighten up and fly right suddenly with the same winged gear I’ve always had,” she says.
If Hassman was a man she’d be on all the to-watch, to-read lists going. As a woman writer writing about poverty and injustice, her journey may be rockier, and we can’t wait to see how high she flies.
Beulah Maud Devaney