Set in South L.A. amid the shadows of grief, longing, and obsession, each section of Ivy Pochoda’s fourth novel, These Women, focuses on the point of view of a different woman — five in all. I wasn’t familiar with Pochoda’s writing when I picked up her book. It was the description of her characters’ lives and the kaleidoscopic structure that pulled me in.
I had the opportunity to speak with her about the voices of groups too often overlooked, storytelling through a multi-dimensional lens, and seeing herself in one of her characters.
Your most recent novel gives readers a peek into the lives of five different women on the south side of L.A. Their lives are different, but they share many of the same emotions, observations, and connections. For you, what is it about the title of the book that so effectively describes these characters?
Well, you know, it’s a phrase I sometimes find myself guilty of using as a collective toss off — a lazy and careless summation of an entire group of people. And before I had the title, it was something I found myself saying in describing my book — “it’s about these women.” The truth is, each woman in this story (and everywhere) is a unique and important individual. There is no these women. But as a society, we are prone to dangerous and dismissive generalizations, especially when it comes to certain classes of society and to women in particular. It’s easy to categorize and discard than to acknowledge and understand. So the title is meant to empower the powerless and demand that people sit up and pay attention to these women because not only are they worthy of it, but it is essential.
Your other books share common themes of grief, longing, chasing ghosts, survival. Was the experience of writing These Women different for you?
When I start off each new book I feel as if I’m rewriting exactly the one that came before. This was particularly true in writing Dorian’s chapter, which initially opened These Women. So much of her character is comprised of exactly what you mentioned above. And I was tempted to rely more on ghosts and haunting in a more visible way in her section. But I pulled back on this — I’ve been down that road already and while I love it, I think grief functions in the exact same way that a ghost might. Our ghosts are inside us always—they don’t need to actually appear. After I redirected myself from the familiar path, I discovered that writing this book was a little different from its predecessors. From the outset, I had a strong narrative through-line which is unusual for me. And since I knew where I was going from the get-go, I was able to bore into the things that interested me more than the brass tacks of the story — primarily listening to voices underserved and ignored too often in fiction. And when you listen to those voices, what commonly comes through is grief, longing, and survival. It’s a universal chorus. And in the narrative of These Women, it sounded loud and clear.
The opening scene of a woman in a hospital bed demanding to be heard becomes a major theme throughout the book as the characters run into situations where they are dismissed, laughed at, and overlooked often because of their gender, class, ethnicity, and line of work. Why do you believe it’s important to highlight how backgrounds and identities have such a vital role in how the women are seen, heard, and treated?
I think #Metoo, which is essential and important (do not get me wrong on this) has not penetrated as deeply across class and race lines as it should and hopefully will. Of course, privilege often allows people of a certain class and race access to various platforms to get their message across. And as important as this is, the same opportunity must be provided for all women. I teach creative writing in Skid Row in Los Angeles and I am continually confronted by how often the women in my workshop do not have anyone who has listened to them whether they are talking about their trauma, their dreams, their creativity and ambition. I cannot tell you how often I hear the women in my workshop clamoring for recognition and acceptance or simply acknowledgment.
These Women is set in LA, but one of your main characters, Feelia, has roots in Louisiana. Her flashback of the muddy riverbed of her childhood is so stunning and it arrives during a vital moment. Why did you choose that childhood memory, in particular, to describe what was happening to Feelia?
The simple answer is that I was in New Iberia, Louisiana, and saw what I thought was a dead dog in the bayou and when it floated closer, I discovered it was a pig. The image really stuck with me — this horrifying transformation from something recognizable to something monstrous. Feelia is drawn back to this memory because, although it was troubling, it was also a moment of beauty and innocence — a childhood prank in what I imagine she thinks is a more peaceful setting that where she finds herself. Somehow, I think this trip from Arkansas to Louisiana was one of the more peaceful moments in her youth. And when things are dire, she holds onto it. There’s a bit more to this though — I’m interested and conscious of how the African-American southern diaspora has shaped South L.A. in particular. Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels are a perfect chronicle of this — and essential reading for anyone who wants to understand this evolution. I felt that it was important to nod to the influx of people from the South to Los Angeles and the idea that the Southern California dream wasn’t accessible to all, especially women like Feelia.
I connected to all of your characters, but especially Julianna — her growing passion for photography and the desire to peek into what could become a new life for herself. At one point, instead of living her life split into Julianna/Jujubee, she temporarily “crosses over” and seems to naturally fit in just by being her complete and total self. Is this how you see Julianna and is there a particular character in These Women that you connect with?
It’s is exactly how I see her. The problem is the world sees her differently. Because of her job as an exotic dancer, it is impossible for others to imagine she has an interior life that is worthy and important. She is striving for something just out of reach — something even she doesn’t imagine is attainable. Nevertheless, this interest, in her case in art, is undeniable. Art is how she sees and processes the world. It’s not just an escape, it’s a function of her existence. It’s funny that you mention Julianna in a question about a character I connect with the most because she is the one. She is the woman most neatly divided in half. And this is something I see in myself. I was a professional athlete for many years and there was a sense that an athlete cannot also be an artist. It was incomprehensible to many. I’m a mother now, and unbelievably to me in 2020, I still get questions about how I can write and parent as if these are unreconcilable interests. Furthermore, and this is kinda hard to admit, but screw it, when I was a bit younger, I had a lot of “boyfriends,” shall we say. And I took a lot of flack for it. People said some really nasty things about me. They even said these things to my parents! But you know, for the most part, I felt entirely in control of my decisions regarding men and what I did and how I existed in the world. Nevertheless, people are quick to label and denigrate women for their choices — me, Julianna, whomever. And with that denigration comes the assumption that you are not a serious, viable, or profound person.
Visual art (documentary photography, painted murals) plays a very powerful role in this book. I’m interested in other ways art has informed or continues to inform your writing.
Ha! I actually know very little about art. But I’m constantly aware of my own attempts to process and understand the world — reshape it with words and stories, transforming memories and ideas into prose. When I look at art I’m searching for the same striving and struggle that is present in my own work. And I used art in this book, in particular, to dramatize my characters’ inner lives and demonstrate their worth beyond the labels the world has placed upon them. That said, I do tend to see my books visually — panoramas, murals, and even sculptures. I can picture a visual, three-dimensional representation of the plot. In the case of These Women that was a series of cubes stacked upon each other. For Wonder Valley, it was a double helix. So while art per se doesn’t directly influence my work, visual media sure does and helps me realize and express something that until I am able to picture it visually proves elusive.
Are there any other projects or upcoming events you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about them.
I’m not done with writing about Los Angeles. But my vision of Los Angeles is growing darker. Hard to imagine, right? I’m circling an idea for a novel that reflects my obsession with a city on the verge of total disintegration without plunging into something speculative or apocalyptic. However, since the COVID-19 lockdown, accessing even the most basic creative thought seems impossible. There are characters from my last two novels — Blake from Wonder Valley and Essie from These Women in particular — who are not done with me. And I often think about where I shall run into them next.
PUBLISHED MAY 19, 2020