Research Notes · 08/02/2013


Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Catherine Gammon writes about Sorrow (Braddock Avenue Books).


After the fact.

Twenty years after the fact. More than twenty years.

Notes, right? Not endnotes. An origin story. Or notes for research to come.

There was the living in New York through the 1980s. (When the impulse at the election of Ronald Reagan had been to leave the country for good.) It was the era when the perpetual USAmerican war was being fought in Central America, and sometimes farther south.

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the US prepared to invade Iraq. Early in 1991 the US bombed Baghdad, while from New York we watched on TV. The now familiar, almost old-fashioned, green images of targets and bombs and flares of fire were new then, new to us.

In New York at that time I had been working as a volunteer with the New York Circus, a liberation-theology-based education group that ran a large program in Queens offering free English classes to immigrants and required no documents or proofs of identity. Together the volunteers studied Paolo Freire and made efforts to put his principles into action. Once a week I took the long subway ride out from midtown Manhattan, where my day job was, to Jamaica-Queens to practice English with the students in my class, and later back to Brooklyn where I lived. At class break times I practiced speaking in Spanish, and at community parties we ate foods from all over the hemisphere and the language students taught me to dance. Once or twice we gathered to hear stories of departures from home countries, journeys of escape.

The three corner stores in the Brooklyn neighborhood where I lived then were run by Palestinians, a single large family. Mostly the men worked in the stores. They were brothers and cousins. They had family still on the West Bank. They sent money to cousins and to Hamas. They told my partner this. He talked with them about politics and news.

I was a child in Los Angeles, the tar pits and rose garden were points on the map of my childhood landscape, along with beaches and bougainvillea and grassy backyards, sprinklers, and garden hoses.

There was a friend who lived in Hell’s Kitchen in the early 70s, a neighborhood people with little money could then afford. There was a day-long retreat at an Episcopal convent on the Upper West Side.

After 9/11, during my first years at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, I went weekly with others to San Quentin to sit zazen with the inmates, and in Pittsburgh years later I practiced with a group of volunteers offering Buddhist meditation and instruction at the Allegheny County Jail.

As a freshman in college I read Crime and Punishment for the first time. The opening book of The Idiot knocked me out, and if I still believed in favorites, The Brothers Karamazov would remain my favorite novel of all time. I’ve read and re-read all of these, other Dostoevsky as well, on each new reading discovering a changed book, each reading showing me change in the reader.

In New York in 1984 I stopped drinking. Not drinking changed my world. I think I am not that drinking person anymore. I have a daughter, who lived with me through those years, and that drinking person that I think I am not may live still in her psyche, just as the parents my parents no longer were lived their endless half-lives in mine. In 1985 I started therapy and began to uncover the daughter that I was, those ghosts of parents that I carried with me, as if they were myself.

So far, this is all just background, out there, with everything else, city violence and tabloid headlines and old neighborhoods torn down to make way for new. Waiting to come together, to mean something relative to the question at hand. Research. Notes. Research for Sorrow.

I have been a student and reader of philosophy and theory as well as of fiction, and in 1990, probably, I read somewhere a review of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun, her very intimate 1989 study of melancholia and depression. (A review in the Sunday NYT Book Review maybe, or maybe at The New York Review of Books, where I worked, maybe even picked up the book there, after the issue was closed, the fact-checking and copy-editing and proof-reading done). Something I read in the review had attracted me, something about mothers and daughters, some detail I no longer remember.

Mothers and daughters were an issue for me. My own mother. Myself and my mother. In this context of being an issue, a problem, I did not even see myself as mother to my daughter, although she was by then a young woman in graduate school. As if I had stepped outside the paradigm. (Maybe a mother cannot see herself as mother, not the way her daughter sees her. Poor mothers, I have taken to saying. But that would be another book.)

I read Black Sun.

Sorrow, the conception of Sorrow, was born, fully born, in the reading of Kristeva. I can see it now in the distance, approaching, as early as the second page: “I live a living death, my flesh is wounded, bleeding, cadaverized, my rhythm slowed down or interrupted, time has been erased or bloated, absorbed into sorrow…” (Julia Kristeva, Black Sun, Columbia University Press, 1989, p. 4)

The premise of Sorrow, Anita as character, her dilemma and her solution to it, all came to consciousness and crystallized as I read Kristeva’s early pages. By the time Kristeva discusses Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (“…crime is a defensive reaction against depression: murdering the other protects against suicide,” p. 196), the matter of the novel had long been visible.

Re-reading Crime and Punishment, I discovered Sorrow’s architecture, its shape.

Re-reading the King James Bible’s Book of Revelations, I found the mind of Jimmy Rivers.

I had hoped for this descent from Crime and Punishment to remain subtle and unrevealed, hoped rather for a recognition that might arise as a sort of aftertaste and Aha! — a hidden little gift for readers intimate with the older book. Alas. Revelation will out.

I had imagined readers would recognize the King James Bible. Alas again.

On another note, there were other sorts of research, research of the fact-checking kind. I talked with some lawyers to verify plausibilities related to the judicial system. I read books by and about women in U.S. prisons and read online the rules of jail and prison visits in New York State, studied photographs of Bedford Hills and Rose M. Singer. (Can a research note be complete without reference to Google and Wikipedia?)

At the Museum of Modern Art in the early 1990s, I saw a small Van Gogh lithograph called “Sorrow,” the figure of a naked woman with long, streaming black hair, seated, folded over herself in a position of abjection or simple exhaustion, not quite surrender. I bought a pack of postcards of this image. I knew it was related to this book, which I hadn’t yet written.

I don’t have the postcards anymore. But the image is easily found online.


Catherine Gammon is the author of the novel Isabel Out of the Rain and the story collection Beauty and the Beast. Her fiction has appeared in many literary magazines, including Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Other Voices, and The New England Review. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, among others. A Soto Zen priest, Catherine was ordained in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi by Tenshin Reb Anderson in 2005. She divides her time between Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California and Brooklyn, New York.