You might think a small-press autobiographical novella called Women that features one transgender man and texts with one cisgender man would find its way into the hands of only so many people. In the case of Chloe Caldwell’s book, this has not been true. Perhaps because the story interacts with the reader, with The Narrator exposing her own fears, obsessions, and insecurities as we follow along. She tells us what she’s afraid we won’t understand, then exposes herself anyway with lines like, “I don’t know if I will be able to get you to see her the way I saw her. I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way that I did, then you will not be experiencing this book in the way I hope you will.”
Women has been publicly praised by writer Cheryl Strayed, Lena Dunham, and fashion model Elle Macpherson. Despite Caldwell’s long-standing mentoring relationship with Strayed, she had no connection to the other two women until after her book was published. She chalks up the sudden interest in her work to women wanting to help other women: “It’s so crazy to me when people say women are so hard to make friends with. I’m like, What? It’s happened for me so many times. It’s always been other women writers in my corner. I trust women and I value their opinions,” Caldwell says. As is the case in Strayed’s stunningly successful (and moving) memoir Wild, The Narrator has trouble relaying her intense level of grief to the people in her life. When someone mentions Finn’s name, she cries, leaves, goes to another bar, and drinks whiskey until she needs to call a cab to get home. When told she’s too hard, that she needs to be softer, she admits, “I don’t know what to grieve.”
When asked why the protagonist of her new novel, Women, has no name, Caldwell responds, “I wanted space for people to make themselves the narrator, and project themselves into the book. Especially anyone who was grieving really hard about losing someone else.” With The Narrator, Caldwell wanted to create a character who was raw in the post-breakup recovery process. “I wanted the narrator to be someone who was looking into the sun, and not shying away. This person was openly saying how am I going to grieve and self-destruct today.”
For Caldwell, who spoke with BuzzFeed over the phone, the best thing about the character is The Narrator’s willingness to accept her part in her own pain. “With heartbreak, at the end of the day, if you’re honest with yourself you know that it takes two people to break a heart. You need to understand that to grow.” After a huge fight via email, The Narrator’s ex-girlfriend, Finn, points to her for “throwing tantrums” and what she calls “manic behavior” as a cause for their dissolution. After reading this, The Narrator comes to the conclusion that, “It’s me that I hate. I know it’s me that has chosen this.”
This idea of learning compassion through owning your pain is a central theme in Women. Caldwell says, “I think sometimes we have to suffer and be our shittiest, neediest, ugliest selves and come out on the other side. I think that’s how we gain compassion for others when they’re suffering.” Unfortunately, a wealth of compassion — or maybe a delusion of empathy — backfires on the protagonist. Despite dealing with infidelity and possessiveness from her love interest, Finn, The Narrator continues to believe she won’t or can’t be hurt by her Finn. “She thinks because Finn is a woman she can trust her with her heart and soul, but she is still wronged by a woman. That’s something I wanted to get through — that women don’t and can’t date other women because women are safer to date in general. Finn hurt her too. Just like a man could.”
The brevity of Women allows for deep introspection, but forces The Narrator to act, move, and show the reader the urgency of her pain. The story follows her through her first intimate relationship with an older woman, subsequent heartbreak, and the inevitable deconstruction and reassembling of one’s life in the wake of devastating emotions. For The Narrator, this means finding her way back home emotionally, and geographically.
Caldwell admits she’s “uncomfortable” writing fiction. She considers nonfiction familiar if not slightly harrowing. “It’s a curse when you feel comfortable writing about yourself. A lot of people aren’t. Sometimes I wish I were good at something else, or I wish it wasn’t my thing, but it is my thing. I’m mostly happy about that, but it’s challenging.” To be fair, she calls her novel “mostly autobiographical.”
Even though she’s experienced her own romantic relationships with women, not unlike The Narrator’s relationship with Finn, Caldwell is still reluctant to identify her sexuality. “I still don’t know how to label myself and I’m still really confused about it. I feel embarrassed saying that. Part of me wants to have a label so bad because I’m actually also confused without them, but I’m still terrified by them.” After a beat she says, “I’m OK with bisexual.”
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