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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Contributor Spotlight: Sarah Marshall

Notre Dame des Patates,” my story in the current issue of HFR, was born, as all my stories seem to me, out of a mishmash of experiences that converged long enough for me to see their commonalities, and stayed still long enough for me to write about them.

Two years ago, while an undergraduate at Portland State University, I took a class on Medieval literature in which hagiographies—narratives of saints’ lives and martyrdoms, with special attention paid to all their trials—figured prominently. I had signed up for the class in hopes of reading about courtly love and knights errant, but instead found myself captivated by stories of women, many of them very young, who refused to be defined either as lucrative properties or as objects of sexual fulfillment for powerful men.

I also became fascinated by the bodily phenomena that so often appear in saints’ lives. Saint Agnes of Rome, condemned to death for refusing to marry a prefect’s son, was dragged naked through the streets to a brothel so she could be raped before her death, as Roman law forbade the execution of virgins. She prayed to God to hide her nudity, and God obeyed, her hair growing instantly and miraculously long enough to cover her entire body. Saint Christina the Astonishing was chained up by her family, who feared her ecstasies and levitations, and escaped into the forest, where she survived on her own breast milk despite being a virgin. In some versions of her story, Saint Lucy heard a suitor admiring her eyes and in response plucked them out and hands them to him. (Somehow, I find it unsurprising that she is the patron saint of writers.)

The summer after I became interested in saints’ lives, I went on a trip to Montréal, where I was lucky enough to stumble across the tomb of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, Canada’s first female saint. Though the tomb itself reportedly bleeds from time to time, I was only there long enough to see the pale marble surrounding her remains and the offerings of flowers and candles brought to her by supplicants.

Visiting churches—especially Catholic churches—always makes me feel a little bit slippery. I’m not religious and never have been, and so in a way it makes sense for me to study religious literature, as my view of it can’t be colored by my own past experiences in the Church; but it also makes me feel, on occasion, somewhat like an imposter. My mother grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, the daughter of a woman from a society family with no particular religious inclinations and a jeweler descended from German-Jewish immigrants. As far as I know my grandfather had no religious inclinations either, but being ethnically Jewish in 1950’s Iowa caused a different and less deliberate kind of religious identification, for him and for my mother, and eventually for me.

There is something uniquely strange about identifying most strongly with the part of your heritage that, by its own admission, wants nothing to do with you: Judaism is passed on, after all, through the mother’s side, which makes both me and my mother nothing. It’s enough to make me feel too Jewish to go into a Catholic church, but not Jewish enough to into a synagogue. Or, as the narrator says (far more succinctly) in Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, “I’d never met anyone half Jewish before, and for some reason it excited me: a peculiar but benign hybrid is what I felt like, and it seemed fantastic to know of someone else freakishly, well, neutered in exactly this same way.”

Montréal is, above all else, a city of surprising combinations. It’s the city that made Leonard Cohen and William Shatner classmates during the brief period when they both attended McGill University (a historical footnote that might warrant a story all its own), a city where you can get the best pastrami sandwich north of West 86th street and kneel at a saint’s bleeding tomb half a mile away. It’s a city whose province has been trying to absent itself from Canada for almost as long as it had a country to try to absent itself from, and which is to a certain extent defined more constantly by its state of flux than by any other of its attributes.

And—perhaps most significantly—it’s a city whose signature food, poutine, is composed of disparate elements that have no right to not go horribly together: french fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. But rest assured that my initial dubiousness did not stop me from eating poutine during every day of my trip, and sometimes twice a day for good measure. And maybe I can attribute the gravy hangover I carried back home to Portland with me for inspiring “Notre Dame des Patates,” a story about saints, Catholics, Jews, language barriers, fasting, and poutine. Suddenly all the things I had been thinking about for the previous few months converged, and stayed still long enough for me to write about them. I also gained eight pounds in the process, but it was all in the service of literature.

Sarah Marshall recommends the poutine at Resto la Banquise to all potential visitors to Montréal. She is currently a student in the MFA Fiction and MA English programs at Portland State University, where she also serves as an undergraduate writing instructor and as editor of The Portland Review. Her poetry has recently appeared in alice blue, The Roanoke Review, Haggard & Halloo, elimae, and MAYDAY. Her nonfiction has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from The Hairpin, The Awl, and The Montreal Review. She is currently at work on a novel, and blogs here.

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