Professor Caspers Finds Language for Grief-Filled World in 'The Fifth Woman'
Creative Writing Professor and Chair Nona Caspers’ new novel The Fifth Woman (Sarabande Books, 2018) tells the story of love and loss and the beauty, as well as humor, within both. She is following something, a sound, a voice, a rhythmically evoked mood and emotion, while finding the language for a world of grief she had plummeted into two decades earlier.
“We all experience grief. We all experience tilted places that open to the worlds within or underneath the world,” she says. “These places are as real as the people in the alley outside her window. Or as the shadow of a dog that appears on her red table.”
At the center of The Fifth Woman is the death of the narrator’s partner in a bicycling accident. Each short chapter serves as a brief vignette of, or occasionally a magical-realist metaphor for, the grieving process. The unnamed narrator is the omnipresence that pushes the narrative forward.
“I had never written directly into the discoveries I brought back from this place,” Caspers says. In these stories and micro-stories, the narrator runs to rescue her lover when suddenly pillars of sunlight appear through the trees. In another story, a man who lives in the alley throws her a stuffed donkey.
Grieving, writing and hunting
One morning while struggling through what she calls her “Persephone period” in her home state of Minnesota, Caspers decided to go hunting.
“I followed the narrator into the woods. I took her seriously,” she says, describing her writing process. Her hunt was also a tribute to her late father, who was ill at the time. “My father was a deer hunter — dead deer hanging in the garage all fall, venison overflowing the freezer.” But Caspers’ father also loved being in the woods. It is apparent that both Caspers’ life and that of the narrator in the novel collide.
“I could feel the material was charged for me and a portal for something larger that frightened me, and so I stuck it into some corner when I got home and worked instead on a more traditional novel,” she says. “But over time, my imagination continued to step into this narrator. Grief altered her perspective of time and object and happenings. Her experience of beauty and comfort and connection with animals, people, nature in unexpected places needed language more ample than realism.
“Like the narrator, I lived in a one room apartment on the third floor of an apartment building,” adds Caspers (M.F.A., Creative Writing, ’96), who joined the San Francisco State faculty in 2002. “Like the narrator I wrote at a small red table by the window and read on a sofa. I felt the air more acutely, my senses attuned to light, color, sound, dust, furniture, cracks in the ceiling.”
The Fifth Woman has garnered rave reviews. Writer Jean L. Thompson describes the book as “a story of love, loss and carrying on, in language that is always precise and often transporting. There is sadness here but also acute observation and magical happenings. Nona Caspers is a true original.”
Kirkus Reviews reports: “Caspers’ writing is spare and deceptively straightforward, lending even her realist portraits the soft edges of a dream. ... Each vignette is short — some are only a page long — but poignant. … It’s the accumulation of grief that matters here, almost as much as the details of domesticity, a quiet but tender declaration of queer love lost in San Francisco.”
‘Buff up your writing muscles’
Caspers also offers advice for aspiring writers, although it does not involve gamey meat.
“Take hot baths, swim, walk, whatever you can do to keep the blood and oxygen restoring the sensation of life and the imagination,” she says. “Develop a practice of writing: a structure. Structured receptivity, for example. You might find a time period every day or every other day or Mondays and Saturdays to sit with language, to play with triggers, to turn your head toward your story/poem/play in progress.
“Stay generous and friendly with your writing. Every time you practice you buff up your writing muscles, your imagination muscles.”
— Ufuoma Umusu
Photo and video by Sreang Hok