Sunday, November 18, 2012

Isabel Huggan: "Celia Behind Me" and "Sorrows of the Flesh"

Read about the writers retreat run by Isabel Huggan

I've been thinking about what it means to captivate an audience.  To begin, there needs to be the space, the will to be captivated, such as when I'm driving the car, and Emerson and Lake and I are riding to school, and they've gotten in the habit of pleading "tell us a story."

Given the space, the storyteller must have some understanding of the listeners' moods and interests.  With little kids, my story had better involve physical adventure, bad guys, animals, parks or toys, and/or candy.

Then, given the space and some understanding of the audience, the storyteller creates a character to care about, and only then come the surprises of detail and event.  I'm able to keep Emerson and Lake interested with ongoing tales of a brother and sister, two invulnerable kids who believe they can take on the world.

With a literary short story, the space and the mood and interests can be taken for granted: we can assume that someone picking up a literary journal, or short story collection or anthology, carries the desire to be captivated, and the mood to be thoughtful and attentive.  So how do we create characters to care about?

Huggan models this for us.  We are adults, unlike Emerson and Lake, and one of the main struggles of being adult is knowing we are not perfect, and we are not invulnerable.  In "Celia Behind Me," a story with a straightforward structure, Elizabeth looks back on being a child whose meanness is matched by her awareness of own vulnerabilities.  Her vulnerability and fear creates our interest in the story, rather than what is going to happen to Celia.  We are captivated by someone willing to reveal the parts of herself that most of us struggle to keep hidden, even from ourselves.

In "Sorrows of the Flesh," a story with a more complex (I'll call it a two-part) structure, Elizabeth again exposes her own smallness, her hate for and feelings of violence toward her pet, a needy, stupid rabbit.  When she realizes that her idol, Mr. Wheeler, abuses his "sweet Mayruth," she can no more hate him than she can hate herself.

And that is one of many points about how literary fiction captivates us.  It's horrible, but we cannot really point fingers.  The characters who captivate us bear resemblance to us--we identify with their flaws and vulnerabilities--and so when trouble comes, we need to follow until the very last line.


  1. I found Isabel Huggan’s writing fascinating and another example of how unique all of these writers’ styles are. Both of these stories were written from different ages, giving us two different perspectives in what I believe is supposed to be the same person. Starting with “Celia Behind Me,” this story was about a very young girl in elementary school who teases a little girl named Celia. The narrator struggles with her feelings for Celia, hating her quite a bit, and slowly the narrator becomes a different version of Celia, and is made fun of. Imagining a little girl be violent to another little girl is slightly frightening, for we think children to be not so complex with their emotions like that. The thought process behind our narrator is extreme, which I think makes the story even more interesting.
    “Sorrows of the Flesh” seems way more realistic. The idea of the forbidden student and teacher relationship is disgusting and fascinating, and we’ve all read or heard about something like this. The idea of this teenage girl being obsessed over her high school makes me cringe. We connect this obsession with her obsession as a child to get a pet. Except, this teacher obsession may be a result of her parents not allowing her to have the type of pet she wanted. Reading about the rabbit made be slightly sad because I have two rabbits, but hey, this pet was not enough for the little girl. All in all, here are two fascinating stories about the changes of a person who is growing up and experiencing different stages of life. While some of these moments are sad and sort of disgusting, they also make up for the most interesting narrator which Huggan wrote extremely well.

  2. I enjoyed the character of Elizabeth in both of these stories. In both "Celia Behind", and "Sorrows of the Flesh", Huggan's uses the imagery of smashing heads. In "celia behind" she talks about the aunts heads exploding like watermelon, and than the character of Elizabeth again feels the need to stress the word head when she is grabbing her bunny in the story "sorrows of the flesh". I thought that was a bold and vivid portrait painted for the character of elizabeth. With that image I felt closer to her and also felt like I knew how she would react to things. It really created her temperament on the page. I also love how each story lingers on the line of being upset, or let down by someone. Elizabeth is not in control in either story, yet she desperately wants to be. She also thinks she can make herself happy by getting what she wants.
    Elizabeth doesn't have control of Celia, or Mr. Wheeling, she is continually disappointed as well by the images of the people she looks up to. In a way I think Huggan's is emphasizing the idea that a person isn't always what they portray themselves to be. Everyone struggles to survive.

  3. I really liked how Huggan was able to create such a believable and trustworthy narrator in both of these stories, even though the narrator had flaws. The thing that stood out to me in “Celia Behind Me” was how cruel the narrator was to Celia. However, since the narrator was honest about her thoughts, it was easy to trust her, and it also humanized her since she had flaws. In “Sorrows of the Flesh” I liked how the narrator’s previous fantasies about killing her pet rabbit made her unable to cast judgment on Mr. Wheeling when he abused his wife because she found herself identifying with him.
    I also liked how in both of these stories that the narrator was reflecting back on her childhood. This reflection allowed her to come to terms with the events that happened in her life. I found myself thinking how both of these stories would be different if they had been told in the present tense, and I think that it is important that they weren’t because the narrator has matured, and can better understand why she behaved in certain ways. I felt that she may not have understood her actions as well if the story had been told from her perspective as a child. I thought that both of these stories had a very personal feel to them, as if they could be taken from the narrator’s journal. I enjoyed the conversational tone of each.

  4. Both of Huggan's stories felt very conversational to me, which I enjoyed. The narrator is looking back at her childhood in both "Celia Behind Me" and "Sorrows of the Flesh." Both narrators felt very real to me, and I felt like I could at least trust them, if not empathize with them. Though Elizabeth is cruel to Celia in "Celia Behind Me," we get inside her head and understand the reasons for her cruelty so, though we don't necessarily believe or approve of her actions, we can understand where she is coming from. Huggan does the same thing in "Sorrows of the Flesh." The narrator is someone we can trust because we spend the entire story inside her head, listening to her reasons behind wanting to kill the rabbit and then not being able to blame Mr. Wheeler for beating his wife.

    I liked how Huggan's style was almost matter-of-fact just speaking to the reader. There didn't seem to be any winding metaphors or incomprehensible imagery. It was very conversational across both pieces. The narrators were speaking to the readers, telling their stories and sharing their thoughts. Overall, I enjoyed Huggan's writing very much.

  5. While I was reading these stories, I just kept being reminded of my own experiences in elementary through high school and the ways in which friends teased (sometimes brutally, like Elizabeth) others who just couldn’t seem to fit in when they wanted to. The scenes with Elizabeth and Mr. Wheeling made me picture my junior high dances where the gym would be all decorated, the lights turned off, and the teachers standing around the edges like soldiers. Huggan has a really neat way of making us connect to the characters where we can focus on who they are more than what they will do. In “Celia Behind Me,” Elizabeth seems like a really mean kid in some ways (396 when she screams at her in the pipe) but in others we feel sorry for how she’s stuck between trying to get away from Celia and help her. When Sandra tries to give Celia chocolate, Elizabeth says, “The duress under which I acted prompted my chin to quiver and a tear to start down my cheek before I could wipe it away” (395). In this moment we’re more focused on her feelings than on what the next scene will be.

    I don’t remember ever having a crush on a teacher, but Huggan seems to ignore that difference with me and instead focuses on the fact that Elizabeth was again caught between her home life and new interests—something I can relate to. But what really stuck out to me with this story was how when she referred to her parents, she quickly switched to an outside narrator and called them by their first names. On page 407 Huggan writes from Elizabeth’s perspective in first person, and then the next paragraph starts with “Frank Kessler looked at his life, his wife and his daughter…” I’m not sure if I related more to the characters because of this, but I do think that Huggan tries to keep me on my toes throughout her stories, making me always question her characters from different angles.

  6. After reading them, I felt that Isabel Huggan’s stories presented realistic struggles in life through the eyes of one life, the narrator Elizabeth. Reading the two stories separately was interesting in itself, but after reading the foreword and discovering that they’re both parts of the same chronicle of stories, I was amazed at how packed with struggle Elizabeth’s life was. Within Elizabeth’s story we can all find something that resonates with our lives either now or when we were growing up. When I first started “Celia Behind Me,” I hated Elizabeth, thinking her to be very cruel and malicious for such a young age. But there was one line on page 394 that gave me a different perspective of her: “For I knew, deep in my heart, that if it were not for Celia I was next in line for humiliation.” That line really resonated with me personally. I understand the feeling and mindset that if the other kids didn’t have so and so to pick on, they’d turn on you. They’d turn on you because you didn’t fit in. Because you were different. Because they were better than you.

    “Sorrows of the Flesh” presented another episode of pity for Elizabeth. Her father’s refusal to let her have a pet, her parents objecting to Mr. Wheelings’s teaching of sex ed., her feelings for Mr. Wheeling being destroyed when he’s arrested for beating his wife, all demonstrate struggle during a crucial time in her life—high school—and her inability to control any of it. Through her descriptions, Isabel Huggan creates a window in Elizabeth’s world and allows us to connect to the feelings of being lost and struggling during that time in life.

  7. Had we talked about “Celia Behind Me” earlier in the semester in class? I had one of those strange moments when I first started reading the story where I felt like I’d just read it or discussed it somewhere…I think it was the part about the heads like melons in the car crash that seemed most familiar. In any case, I thought both stories were really good. I love how Huggan focuses on her main character’s relationship to the ‘other’ character in the story; in both stories the ‘other’ character is someone who is both looked down upon and yet a little pitied if not also loved. Celia is the ‘outcast’ of the school because of her condition and Mr. Wheeling isn’t trusted or well-liked by the adults in the town completely (especially Elizabeth’s mother).
    The difference though between Celia and Mr. Wheeling is that Elizabeth (two separate Elizabeths I think though) hates one and loves the other, but both instances end with a major terrible event (beating Celia up, the death of the baby and the assault of Mrs. Wheeling) that result in Elizabeth being distanced from the other character. I just think that Huggan writes in such a fluid, gripping way that it’s hard to not get invested in Elizabeth’s personal relationship with Celia and Mr. Wheeling. Both stories also paint her parents in the same way…as judgmental and a bit harsh authority figures. There are secondary characters but Huggan really keeps the spotlight on Elizabeth’s relationship on the other character and the dependence of one person on the other, whether Celia’s insistence on not being left alone or Elizabeth’s obession with Mr. Wheeling.

  8. It's natural to become intrigued with characters like these (assuming these are two different “Elizabeths”). They are extreme in their flaws yet, perhaps shockingly, we can relate to them. They portray human nature in a dark form and what makes it so horrific is how real it is. As I read “Celia Behind Me,” I couldn't stop thinking about how accurate this is to real life and how many kids probably go through similar instances (not with the beating, but with the burden of being someone's friend who you don't like). Both of these stories show characters that are self-centered and set out to do what benefits them the most. The characters are greedy but they're also ignorant which, again, shows a common trait in people.
    While I'm not sure how much I love Huggan's writing, I do think she accomplishes this task of creating vivid characters well. It is true that we want to see these characters to the end because of how much we relate to them. It's not something we'd like to admit but we can't deny it. I've always thought that the most interesting characters are the ones you can sympathize with while also being able to note their flaws. As human beings, we are complex and far from perfect. We're expected to make mistakes yet cringe when we see how ugly the world can become.

  9. These two stories were really able to hold my attention. I think this is because of the way she builds her characters (Celia and Elizabeths). I felt very close to them. I think the entirety of both stories is told within the characters’ heads, making us feel much closer to Huggan’s characters.
    Huggan’s narration is also very simple (in style, not necessarily simple to do). She writes as if these narrators are talking with us in such a way that Huggans does not need to use complex language, yet we can all tell that this is still good writing. Huggans obviously cares a lot about her narratives in that her stories are vivid and kind of disturbing. She focuses a lot on the plots of these stories where so much happens and we, as readers, inevitably become immersed in it all because we do not have to stop and think about a metaphor or an intricate piece of imagery. I did like this conversational aspect of her writing, though. I feel like if an author wants me to be close to their characters, that is the way to do it.

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  11. I think that my favorite aspect of Huggan's writing is that it's the same character in all of the stories, and it makes it easier to get to know the character through her actions and interactions with other characters. In the first story, "Celia Behind Me," we see the immense pressures that kids put on each other. Elizabeth is telling her mother that all of the other kids are "playing," and she just wants to play, too. It also doesn't have an ending that I would have expected, with her never forgiving Celia, even after her death at such a young age. I love that Huggan takes the time to be so detailed in explaining her characters and being so vivid about the scenes. Even though both stories were written in first-person, I was able to fully submerge myself into the character and relate easily.

    It's not even that her language is difficult or complex; she just writes in a way that is easy for me to picture what she's saying. In "Sorrows of the Flesh," I love that it stayed in Elizabeth's point of view, but her character would give thoughts and feelings to the other characters, such as her father when deciding what to do about either moving or staying in Garten. Huggan's style is just another example of how different types of writing can work, as long as you know what you're doing.