Susan Tepper: Marcus, just recently I wrote to you on Facebook that I was a little afraid to read your story “Le Sucre Brun,” as I have a problem with violence at the level of genocide. Yet I did read it and was captivated. What prompted you to write such a timely story?
Marcus Speh: I understand your hesitation because, frankly, I feel the same. A couple of months ago I took a wrong turn on my way home and ended up almost right in front of the former site of a concentration camp near Berlin, now an impressive memorial site, Sachsenhausen. I spent an entire morning walking around the site. When I came home, I had found a topic for a longer piece that I’ve been working on ever since, centering on a camp. The immediate prompt for this very short flash story was the photo by my friend Oleuanna from Scotland. It exudes a vulnerability and a strength that, in connection with the subject of camps, directly prompted me to write “Le Sucre Brun.” (Oleuanna also provided the title).
ST: Isn’t it interesting how the environment often factors into our decision to write a particular story, or from a certain perspective. “Le Sucre Brun” takes place in a camp far from Berlin. Your opening line: “This is what I heard, okay?” sets up a personal tone that pulled me in immediately. What made you open this way?
MS: You describe it well – “a personal tone.” I felt that the horror, both explicit and implicit in the story, needed a filter, a dampening of the fall into a cruel reality. At the same time, the narrator indirectly refers to the fact that many people’s reaction to deeds of evil are disbelief – probably as a matter of protecting themselves. By integrating this disbelief into the story, I help suspension of disbelief along, which I also need later in the story.
I strongly resonate with your remark on the environment – in this case, intuition led me to the site of the former camp exactly at the time when I was looking for a subject. But I’m equally comfortable with the more spiritual view that the field around us helped me find it so that the story could be brought to life. I relate to the view that others have held that the story finds us, not the other way around.
ST: Oh, yes, the story finds us! I also love your two views about intuition leading you to a specific place, and your other point regarding the spiritual view of the “field around us.” This is a beautiful phrasing: “the field around us.” Would you talk more about that please?
MS: “The field” is actually an established concept in two disciplines that are dear to me: psychology and physics. In physics, the theory of quantum fields, and in psychology, the Lewin’s field theory, constitute frameworks to pose difficult material or behavioral questions. Some systemic therapists and coaches (like myself) believe that there is another field, the so-called “Knowing Field“, which may or may not be rooted in quantum theory, which our unconscious accesses all the time to tap into memories or even facts. The idea is akin to Jung’s collective unconscious, which postulates that some “truths” or cultural facts, or memes (whatever name you prefer) exist between and not just inside people. I happen to believe that and when I’m dreaming lucidly or when I’m writing, I am usually aware of being in touch with more than just my sorry little brain. Some serious channeling going on there, I think, for all of us who create.
When Coleridge was upset about “the person from Porlock“, he was angry at the guy having severed Coleridge’s connection with the field, if you wish.
ST: Wonderful, these extra insights and facts. To talk more about your story, what made you choose a “woman” as central? You made your female character delicate. Do you think a woman is more vulnerable to torture and insult to the spirit, the life-force, than say a man would be? Are women more vulnerable to the insanity of the world?
MS: That is a question as delicate as its subject. Interestingly, the camp in my novella is an all-male affair – women are spectral, they’re almost unreal, a little like in the prison world of Jean Genet. I was surprised myself at making that choice since I like to write about female characters. The immediate choice to write about a woman came with the sentence “The camp hadn’t been built for women like her”, which was the first fully formed sentence of the piece from which all the rest flowed. I don’t think women are more vulnerable to torture or “insult to the spirit, the life-force” (well put!) than a man: if anything, I think the opposite. I think women come equipped with more of that magical life-force, they carry it. My heroine clearly shows, in the end, what powers she carries and will use when forced to. Men, if I may extend the thought, probably need to work harder for that kind of power. You can kind of see this in the works of the great male writers – and of the lesser ones (who don’t get there). I know I’m on slippery ground here – but I did see my wife bear a child, which comes closest to a first-hand experience of divinity. (And like in all divine acts, there’s light and darkness at once).
ST: Your ending comes as a shock. I still don’t quite understand it, but I felt much better after reading the ending. I found myself thinking: well there is some justice, after all. Even if only in stories. The Darfur genocides go on, as do others. Do you see an end to this violence as the world evolves? Or do you think it’s the same play performed over and over and over into time?
MS: I can see that. It shocked me, too — I didn’t plan on it. But even before that fully formed sentence, the magical act at the end came to me right after waking up as a wordless image on the morning when I wrote the story. It was most certainly not inserted after the fact to make anyone feel better. Rather the other way around – the beginning is an excuse to celebrate the ending.
You’re asking the most serious of questions here. I don’t know if I’m the person to answer it. With Gardner, who has taken a lot of heat for this view, I do believe that fiction ought to be moral. Perhaps there’s no a priori reason why we carry this gift of writing but if we don’t throw our weight behind life, decency and humanity, we’re nothing but word clowns.
As for the future, I do believe that where there’s light there must be shadow. “Shadow” being another one of C G Jung’s favorite archetypical concepts: just like we cannot rid ourselves of our personal shadow (the part of ourselves that lies in the shade, that we don’t like and don’t enjoy looking at), I cannot conceive of a world without the political shadows — be they torture, war, racism or sexism, as much as I’d like to. Good and evil, hard to resist when facing wonderful or horrible deeds, really are too simple to describe all that’s going on between heaven and earth.
Having said that, I am someone who, by genetic condition, sees the glass as half-full no matter how full my eye says it is. This vision you mention, of a play being performed over and over, seems to underlie the work of the great minimalists and the artists of the absurd, like Beckett. And yet — the bleaker the picture they draw, the more they seem to write about hope, too. About the fullness of the human experience rather than about the struggle of good and evil. I guess that is my position: yes, the madness will go on and on forever, but there’s so much hope and we must give hope a strong voice – for example by writing about the shadow, too — even if it upsets the bigots.
Read “Le Sucre Brun” by Marcus Speh
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.