Sarah Blackman - a novel about violence—the violence of the fist, of the womb, of the story. It is also a novel about language and how we use it to build a world when the one we find around us is irretrievably broken

Sarah Blackman, Hex, FC2, 2016.

Alice is a motherless child, born to a motherless child, and raised with neither care nor grace. Her response to this multiple abandonment is a lifelong obsession with her best friend Ingrid, or Thingy, as Alice calls her, and a sort of fantastic narcissism wherein she figures herself as the nexus of a supernatural world she understands through a blend of mountain lore, indigenous Cherokee legend, and the dangerous idiom of the fairy-tale girl who enters the forest despite being warned.
The novel is written in blended parts and is crafted as an address to Thingy’s daughter, Ingrid the Second, who is now in Alice’s care. Alice attempts to tell Ingrid the story of her life: her friendship with Thingy; her troubled relationships with her father, a small-town sexual troubadour; her stepmother, a hard-minded business woman who treats all interactions as commerce; her marriage to her husband Jacob, a silent figure of tremendous will; and her growing suspicion that Ingrid is another girl-child around whom disaster accumulates. Simultaneously, Alice tells the child the kind of bedtime stories she herself has used to make sense of her world. For Alice, and thus in Hex, the line between fantasy and reality is nonexistent, the mountain is older than its geology, and the world a limbo in which everything that has ever happened is coming around again.
Hex is a novel about violence—the violence of the fist, of the womb, of the story. It is also a novel about language and how we use it to build a world when the one we find around us is irretrievably broken.

Sarah Blackman, Mother Box and Other Tales, FC2, 2013.
read it at Google Books
excerpt (in Conjunctions)

The eleven stories and one novella of Mother Box, and Other Tales bring together everyday reality and something that is dramatically not in compelling narratives of new possibilities.
In language that is both barb and bauble, bitter and unbearably sweet, Sarah Blackman spins the threads of stories where everything is probable and nothing is constant. The stories in Mother Box, and Other Tales occur in an in-between world of outlandish possibility that has become irrefutable reality: a woman gives birth to seven babies and realizes at one of their weddings that they were foxes all along; a girl with irritating social quirks has been raised literally by cardboard boxes; a young woman throws a dinner party only to have her elaborate dessert upstaged by one of the guests who, as it turns out, is the moon. Love between mothers and children is a puzzling thrum that sounds at the very edge of hearing; a muted pulse that, nevertheless, beats and beats and beats.
In these tales, the prosaic details of everyday life—a half-eaten sandwich, an unopened pack of letters on a table—take on fevered significance as the characters blunder into revelations that occlude even as they unfold.

“These lucid stories hearken to the spiritual and cerebral fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Joy Williams.  They breathtakingly face what comes next in the world—whether terrible snout or beautiful child—hallucinating what is entirely real.”—Kate Bernheimer

“Sarah Blackman is a wizard at rendering the odd intricacies of the domestic sphere. Her insights are stunning, her eye is keen, and her sentences are unbudgeably right. An excellent debut.”—Noy Holland
“It is a triumph when a sentiment as banal as “One must travel around and pick things up and put them down again” nevertheless sounds profound; or when a sentiment as bizarre as “She would be a body and next, who knew?, a house” seems undeniable and even inevitable. This can only be a result of Blackman’s carefully measured prose. And when it comes to storytelling and the enrapture of her audience, Blackman again excels. Consider, for instance, the eerie “Many Things, Including This,” or “Conversation,” or “The Dinner Party,” all tales that kept this reader turning pages, eager to dispel the dread that hangs over them and to find out what happens next.” —Kenyon Review Online

Sarah Blackman's Mother Box and Other Tales, a collection of twelve short stories (one of them is billed as a novella) featuring an enigmatic cast of daughters, mothers, girls, women, spouses, and lovers, moves in and out of the familiar and never lets the reader get too comfortable. Her animalistic characters raise animals, sometimes turn out to be animals; they inhabit landscapes from corporate offices to suburban gardens to fairytale forests; they occasionally have names like Sylvia and Penny but often are just introduced to the reader as "the girl" or "the boy," nameless pronouns that nevertheless take on intensely passionate and perverse desires. The title along with the cover, which depicts a hen's head atop a topless female torso circumscribed by a box, set up an expectation for surreal fairy tales; and indeed, elements of myth and folklore thread through the stories, mixing with the prosaic to set scenes we're almost too afraid to admit we recognize.
The reader might be afraid, but Blackman isn't. Her characters are unapologetic; her imagery is aggressive but just avoids being too florid. I would be remiss if I didn't dwell on the sensual prose of Mother Box and Other Tales. Because some of the stories in this collection are sketches no more than a few pages long and with amorphous plotlines, they are carried primarily by the sound and rhythm of Blackman's sentences, which, as a poet, she arranges meticulously. And the effect is jolting, delightful: Blackman knows where and when to lay on thick the descriptive paint. Take, for instance, her treatment of the shadows cast by two women, Dannie and Sylvia, and Dannie's babies, during an afternoon stroll:
The wind flattened against them in a huge, coughing pant and it seemed to Sylvia as if their shadows danced around them. Her shadow and Dannie's shadow, the babies' hydra shadow craning out of their stroller and Steven's cast before him, so close now it pressed into their own. It was as if the light of the day were a bulb swinging loose from the sky, knocking around crazily, shining onto all sides of them at once.
Or take this saturated description of a repainted house in the story "A Category of Glamour":
In the morning it had been a chalky antacid kind of blue that faded into the blue morning shadows and was peeling in places to show its elemental brick. Blue with black shutters. Now, the house was a creamy peach with bright green shutters. It looked like the lovebird Penny had often admired in the pet store window in town... Penny thought there was something about the lovebird's peachy head and bright green mask that made it look like a baby, a poor baby all dressed up by some mother who had purchased too many cute hats.
The paragraph is cluttered with adjectives. It wanders. It is unapologetically gaudy. But in context -- the story follows a widow who lives with her mostly-grown son Max and develops a relationship with a shadowy man who visits her garden -- it manages to hold strange poignancy, especially for mothers who have smothered their children and children who have been smothered by their mothers.
The book is also filled with violent descriptions of sex. Blackman holds nothing back as she drives her female characters again and again into bad or undesirable situations, be it falling in and out of love, ambivalent pregnancies, fights with lovers, grave illnesses, upended dinner parties. In "A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs," a "wild girl" and a "tame boy" meet in fairytale fashion and make a life and grow old together in not-so-fairytale fashion:
...[T]he girl picked up the boy's stick and beat him about the head and torso. She cracked bloody knots in his shoulders, split open his eyebrow, burst his mouth like a plum... He said, "I love you," and she said, "Don't talk." In this fashion, they knew each other.
In "Listen," sex similarly turns savage: "She scoured him. She used her nails, her teeth... All over his body she left great welts, thready scratches beading with blood as if he had come through a forest of nettles." These stories, read in one sitting, can be a little trying; it's hard not to see redundancies.
Plenty of other nonsexual absurdities happen throughout the book as well, but it is the glimpses we get of domestic discord or mental instability that most of all dig deep into real insecurities, that recall uncomfortably real circumstances. In "The Cherry Tree," for instance, a woman clinically examines the landscape as a male colleague propositions and then assaults her:
That afternoon she stood in a reticulated lozenge of light in her office window and counted all the buds on the cherry tree. One hundred and sixty-two... [Anthony] put his hands on her hips to steady himself and worked harder, hurting her, really digging in. Behind them, on the other side of the two-way mirror, the children were being led in some sort of song... The children's laughter sounded spiny to her -- brittle, harsh with edges -- but perhaps it was only this way because of the quality of the light which today was even more than usually resplendent, falling as it did over her breasts and then beyond them, paying attention to all the details.
I wonder how many women have counted buds on a cherry tree, or turned their minds to something else just as mundane, in the above situation. I'm afraid to know. But Blackman boldly dwells on the moment.
Similarly, in "The Silent Woman," the longest and most fully-realized story in Blackman's collection, Mary recalls the period following childbirth with an eerie detachment that would make any new mother squirm. The fly she had accidentally swallowed and which was now flourishing in her chest cavity, and not her newborn, occupied her thoughts:
The baby, though intricate in its parts, was not absorbing. Rather, it absorbed and seemed perfectly content to hang at her breast grunting and rooting around with its puckered, puffy lips. The fly, on the other hand, was unique and her relationship with it required a sort of undivided attention to the experience she could not afford if she were to continue with her extant duties of the home.
In some ways, Mother Box and Other Tales is a weird book that demands too much patience from the reader -- sons turn out to be foxes, one-upping dinner guests turn out to be moons, mothers turn out to be cardboard boxes. It is best where it teeters on the edge of painful realities, blurring real people and places, blending with reader's own memories and histories. - Shan Wang

Sarah Blackman’s debut story collection Mother Box, and Other Tales is the winner of the FC2’s Roland Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize. When a book comes tagged with the label of “innovative fiction,” it can generally go in two directions: its prose will be inventive or its narratives will be wild. Blackman chooses to write clear, clean prose that makes the fabulist elements of the plot feel all the more strange. She catalogues ordinary details and then drops the moon, literally, into a dinner party. The overall effect of this style leaves the reader bewildered and grasping for more of the everyday details that once felt out of place but now are the only thing connecting the text to our world.
            It’s a double edged sword. Occasionally, the stories meander and turn back on themselves in a way that is delightful. A synthesis emerges between the reader and the characters in the stories. Each is trying to make sense of the world and doing everything he or she can to hold onto their sanity. At other times, the stories fall flat and the ambiguity overtakes any sense of meaning as in the title story when the communal point of view discovers the genealogy of the main character involves cardboard boxes. All in all, this is a collection that continually challenges the reader to meet Blackman halfway. At its best, the reader is given enough guidance and is able to scale the mountain. When this happens, the view is breathtaking. In the more uneven stories, the reader ends up in the same situation as the protagonist in “Many Things, Including This”: lost in the fog and struggling for answers.
   The stories in this collection vary in length from the almost-novella “The Silent Woman” to flash-fiction style pieces such as “The Cherry Tree.” Most of the stories are around ten pages long, and it is at this length where the balance between satisfied curiosity and pleasant ambiguity reaches an equilibrium.
   The two stars of this collection are “A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs” and “A Beautiful Girl, A Well Loved One.” Both of these stories lay a solid foundation of fairy tale before the characters are forced to move into a contemporary world. The juxtaposition between the fantastic and the common results in a tale that is richer than either could be on its own. A girl grows up in a cottage in the woods with her mother and grandmother before she eventually grows up and takes on a high-powered business position. Where Blackman is at her best is when she is able to use language to retain the familiar plot elements of fairy tale in a present-day setting. After the girl moves out of the cottage in the woods, she is unable to shake her fairy tale upbringing. In one of the many lovingly-detailed lists throughout the books, the narrator asks what a girl needs. Snuck in between mundane items such as bras and cigarettes are “razors for shaving the fur that grows in her creases” (136). Even when the world of the Brothers Grimm is abandoned, its effects reverberate through the characters until the end of their stories.            
  Blackman has an eye for detail and is able to turn the mundane into the significant. Her stories are ambitious, and with everything that takes risks, it occasionally doesn’t pay off. However, when it does, it reminds the reader why he or she turned to fiction in the first place. There is power in these stories, and when they are well-told, they lodge in the reader’s brain and fill their dreams with boxes, soldiers, balls of string, and babies. It’s the kind of thing that make stories worth reading.
- Jacob Euteneuer

The subtitle of Sarah Blackman’s Mother Box: and Other Tales—evoking as it does Arabian nights, anthropomorphic animals, and high seas adventures—promises that the twelve pieces collected therein will present something out of the ordinary. And, from the first page of the collection, it is clear that these tales will fulfill that promise: “Of course, she was the sort of person who had a lot of secrets. Her secrets were how she understood it was herself and not, say, a peanut or a broken-bottomed chair.” As that quote hints, however, these adventures will take place in unfamiliar internal spaces, rather than in dark woods or distant lands.
The word “tale” is related to the word “tell,” and was preferred—over the more widely used “story” or the Borgesian “fiction”—by Edgar Allan Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann, among others. “Tale” is Anglo-Saxon, and thus pagan, while both “story” and “fiction” are Latinate, reaching English along with Christianity. In English, there will always be that hint of barbarianism to the tale: whether it is a fairy tale or a tale of “the grotesque and arabesque,” as Poe’s were, the reader (or the listener) is, for the length of the telling, returned to the pagan world. One has only to think of the difference between Yule—with its log, goat, and boar—and Christmas—with its virgin birth—to understand that the pagan has a different connection to nature than does the Christian.
The “girl” of “A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs” sees this difference in the meeting of the forest, where she was born, and the town, where she now lives:
In the town, the layers of the observable world were stacked neatly atop each other. In the forest, they had been fanned in mossy overlap. In the town, to truly see, one had to decipher the logic by which the thing had been hidden. In the forest, like on the pages of her book, what was there was laid open in the moment of its working. Nothing was hidden, only unobserved. The forest didn’t care how it was apprehended, is what the girl finally concluded. The town hummed with the constant invention of its self.
It is tempting to think of this dichotomizing as a reinventing of the Hobbesian “noble savage,” or, more simply, as an argument against the artifice necessary to civilizing the human animal, but in context it is more sinister, as befits a tale. One of the things hidden by the logic of the town is the fact that this girl violently and repeatedly beats “the boy,” a behavior born in the forest, and that same logic dictates that she become a school-teacher, caring for small children by day and reducing her partner to a bloody mess by night. These are not fables, parables, or allegories, and these characters are not closer to nature for having a different relationship to it: Nothing here is so simple. The “mossy overlap” of Mother Box‘s forest is just as fraught as the neatly stacked layers of its towns.
That Blackman can “decipher the logic by which the thing had been hidden” is one of the most satisfying aspects of these tales, especially because the thing that has been hidden in Mother Box lies at the heart of what it means to be human. The body’s relationship to the idea of the self is often neglected by our philosophy, and this is where Blackman’s choice of subject—mothers—seems shrewdest, because that relationship is most evident when the body undergoes rapid change.
Everywhere in Mother Box there are bodies changing, bodies changed. The pregnant protagonist of “Listen,” for instance, comes to view her body as some kind of terrible golem: “She felt as if she was wearing herself—her wrist like a bracelet, her collarbone molded on her chest like a band of sculpted silver and somewhere beneath the jeweled pendant of her heart,” and “imagines her body going on and on without her . . . and she left alone in her dark room, incidental.” If the Cartesian soul exists for this character, it clearly isn’t worth exalting. She—all that makes her herself—is only “incidental” to her body, at best a byproduct of it, like the smells it gives off. In contrast, the narrator of “A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs” tells us: “As she was wild, her own body had never been a conveyance for her. She was her body and so incapable of imagining an alternative to what she had just done or what it was she might do next.” No dualism there. But this same character, so tied to her body, will have left it behind and become a bird by the end of the story. Which might seem like a fairy tale ending—a wild girl returned to the wild after living an artificially circumscribed life in the town—but if she is her body, she can’t be herself without it. Instead of feeling a sense of closure and resolution we feel uneasy with this ending, as with many of the endings in Mother Box. If Blackman’s characters are not becoming part of the nature that surrounds them (“A White Hat on His Head, Two Wooden Legs”), they are romancing it (“A Category of Glamour”), being overtaken by it (“Many Things, Including This”), running away from it (“Listen”), or being raised by it (“Mother Box”), all physical, even sensual, responses to that most fundamental of questions: What am I?
But I’m in danger, I think, of distorting one of the things I like best about this collection: these twelve tales are not cerebrations on these or any other topics, they are tales, attuned both to the sounds they make and to the attention they demand. It is a triumph when a sentiment as banal as “One must travel around and pick things up and put them down again” nevertheless sounds profound; or when a sentiment as bizarre as “She would be a body and next, who knew?, a house” seems undeniable and even inevitable. This can only be a result of Blackman’s carefully measured prose. And when it comes to storytelling and the enrapture of her audience, Blackman again excels. Consider, for instance, the eerie “Many Things, Including This,” or “Conversation,” or “The Dinner Party,” all tales that kept this reader turning pages, eager to dispel the dread that hangs over them and to find out what happens next.
Descartes’s division of the human into soul and body is seductive as an idea precisely because it replicates some essential aspect of the brain’s workings. Thought is removed from the world: a pang is appreciably different from a calculation, so, clearly, we think, one must come from one place, and the other from another. Our minds are all internal and integral, unknowable and inscrutable, while our bodies, like the natural world, can be observed and dissected. Thus, most investigations of the self start (and end) with this Cartesian soul—the body is not the same order of mystery as the mind for such thinkers, and so it simply doesn’t enter into their equations. But Mother Box starts its investigations from the other pole, reminding us that our bodies are also the sites where what we consider ourselves—whatever that might be—meets what we must consider not ourselves, whether we call that “the world” or “Nature” or something else. As one of Blackman’s characters puts it, “What keeps me in?” The answer is consonant with the definition of self. Yet things get much more complicated when we consider motherhood, the creation of new selves—there, as nowhere else, the line between self and other blurs. That Blackman chooses to investigate this through the form of the tale is only fitting: where the word “story” is derived from a Greek word meaning “knowing, erudition”—very clearly a cerebral product—”tale,” coming from “tell,” requires a body. If the body is changed, the story may remain the same, but the tale will renew itself. In the tales of Mother Box, the body is shown to be as worthy a conundrum as the mind or the soul. - Gabriel Blackwell

Sarah Blackman: New Myths for the Republic of Family Life

Sarah Blackman is a poet, fiction and creative non-fiction author originally from the Washington D.C. area. She graduated from Washington College, summa cum laude, with a BA in English, minor Creative Writing, and earned her MFA from the University of Alabama in 2007 with a primary concentration in fiction and a secondary concentration in poetry. Her poetry and prose has been published in a number of journals and magazines, including The Gettysburg
Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, Oxford American Magazine and The Missouri Review among others. She has been anthologized in the Poets Against the War Anthology, Best New American Voices, 2006, Metawritings; Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, and xoOrpheus: Fifty New Myths which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2014. Blackman is the co-fiction editor of DIAGRAM, the online journal of experimental prose, poetry and schematics and the second longest running online magazine in the country, and the founding editor of Crashtest, an online magazine for high school age writers which she edits alongside her students at the Fine Arts Center. Her story collection Mother Box was the winner of the 2011 Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Innovative Fiction Prize and was published by FC2 in 2013. Her novel, Hex, is forthcoming from FC2.