You can tear a thing apart and tape it back together, and it will still be torn and whole. There is no other way. In her fiercely beautiful memoir, Jeannine Ouellette recollects fragments of her life and arranges them elliptically to witness each piece as torn and whole, as something more than itself. Caught between the dramatic landscapes of Lake Superior and Casper Mountain, between her stepfather’s groping and her mother’s erratic behavior, Ouellette lives for the day she can become a mother herself and create her own sheltering family. But she cannot know how the visceral reality of both birth and babies will pull her back into the body she long ago abandoned, revealing new layers of pain and desire, and forcing her to choose between her idealistic vision of perfect marriage and motherhood, and the birthright of her own awakening flesh, unruly and alive. The Part That Burns is a story about the tenacity of family roots, the formidable undertow of trauma, and the rebellious and persistent yearning of human beings for love from each other.
Jeannine Ouellette is also the author of the children’s book Mama Moon and several educational titles. She has worked as a writer and editor for regional and national magazines and has served as the nonfiction editor for Orison Books and reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, narrative journalism, and poetry have appeared in numerous publications. She is the recipient of a Curt Johnson Prose Award for Fiction, Proximity Personal Essay Award, Masters Review Chapbook Award for Emerging Writers, two recent Pushcart Prize nominations, as well as awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism. Her work has been praised by Joyce Carol Oates as “simply beautiful, precisely imagined, poetically structured, compelling, and vivid.” Jeannine serves as a mentor for the Association of Writers & Writing Program’s Writer-to-Writer Mentorship Program, teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and is the founder and director of Elephant Rock, an independent creative writing program in Minneapolis.
Her memoir, The Part That Burns, will be released in February 2021, and I am pleased to share this Q&A with her considering the book’s upcoming release.
Audrey Arnold: What motivated and inspired you to share your story?
Jeannine Ouellette: This is the story I have been writing all my life, the book that beat inside of me “like a second heart,” as Cheryl Strayed eloquently said about her first book. It was a great relief to finally complete this manuscript. In many ways, I was writing for myself, to make sense of certain early experiences that were beyond my control, and also to integrate my adult self with my girlhood self and all of the things that were done to her. That integration felt urgent, finally, after spending too long working hard to deny, escape, or erase my childhood. In other words, after spending so long a time hiding. Ultimately, though, we are “all the parts of ourselves,” including our past selves, and we carry all of those experiences in our bodies throughout our lives. There is a comfort in hiding, to a degree, and I think it’s necessary at different times in our lives when we need protection. But real freedom comes—again, only when it is safe—from not hiding, from being seen and known for the whole of who we are. That is a freedom I wish for anyone who has borne the weight of a heavy mask and shield. For me, having been a writer since early adulthood, narrative represented a portal to meaning. Also, a way to find and polish shards of beauty, even if they are embedded in hardship. I have found deep solace in books that excavate, illuminate, and transform painful experiences. I think of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which was one of the first books I read that showed me how to do that. Later, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. There are dozens more. Hundreds, probably. Such books are, for me, quiet beacons, shining their light out across the water to remind me that I am not alone in the night. If my book can send that kind of light toward anyone else, that means the world to me.
Audrey: It takes great courage to write about such personal stories. What was the experience of writing The Part That Burns like for you?
Jeannine: Yes, it is difficult, that’s true. And I also think it can, for some of us, take a great toll to not write such personal stories. For me, these stories were smoldering within forever, but it took me many years to find my way into them, to find a path for bringing them to the page. I began writing and publishing essays, articles, a children’s book, educational books, etc., in my early twenties, and continued writing and publishing consistently for the next twenty-five years, yet I never wrote about my childhood until I started writing these stories several years ago. I guess I started the first story in a memoir class in 2011, but I never did anything with it. Still, it was an important milestone, because I knew the story had “something,” and that felt like a breakthrough. By 2015, I had written “Tumbleweeds,” which is the second chapter of the book. I wrote it specifically to submit to some contests that spring, and I gave myself certain constraints to frame the story—things like, I had to include the mating and breeding habits of the Western Meadowlark, which is the state bird of Wyoming, where the narrator lives as a child. I had to include botanical information about tumbleweeds, and I had to incorporate elements of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration speech. Also, and importantly, I had to weave in the myth of the jackalope. So, these constraints made the writing of that piece into kind of a game, and that game allowed me to write about difficult experiences—especially my stepfather and his violence and abuse—that I had simply never been able to write about before. It was hard, because it was all very vivid, reliving that time in order to write about it. But it was also oddly invigorating, oddly pleasurable to work with the constraints I’d given myself, because it was like solving a puzzle. When I finished “Tumbleweeds,” I sent it off to a handful of writing contests and was truly shocked when I started getting emails—they came kind of all in a flurry—that it was moving on to the finalist stage in several. One of those contests, the Curt Johnson Prose Awards sponsored by the literary journal December, was judged by Joyce Carol Oates, and when she chose it as second place and praised it, I was overwhelmed. I really couldn’t believe it. But that’s when I knew I could keep going, even if it was hard. And it was hard. But it was also essential.
Audrey: What has been your favorite part of this journey of writing and publishing your memoir?
Jeannine: By far the most life-changing part of making this book has been the experience of reading or publishing excerpts and having people, usually women, approach me afterward to tell me what it meant to them, to describe how they found themselves in it, and how that mattered. That’s what Dorothy Allison’s work did for me when I most needed it—it showed me aspects of myself that were buried, and hinted at ways I might eventually reclaim all of myself. It feels amazing, truly, to think my work might do that for anyone else.
Audrey: In addition to your writing, you’re also a mentor and teacher to other writers. What lessons has the experience of writing and publishing your memoir taught you, and do you feel that it has helped you become an even better writing mentor?
Jeannine: I definitely think that completing this book has made me a better writing teacher and mentor. Not just because I’ve had to navigate the publication process, which is no easy feat! But for many other reasons, as well. I had to learn, through writing this book, how to explore personal trauma in ways that would be safe for both writer and reader. That’s very important to me, and part of the reason it took so long to complete. I wanted to find complexity in every character, including myself, and to—as I mentioned—find beauty, as well. To do that required a lot of experimentation, so it’s not surprising to me that the book’s structure ended up being so unconventional. In fact, structure itself was a major challenge with this book. It went from a sort of vignette-based, episodic structure to a more traditional narrative arc to its current, fragmented structure which includes longer and shorter chapters that overlap in time and that are, for the most part, fragmented in some way themselves. So now when I talk with writers about voice, including the dynamic relationship—and tension—between the voice of innocence and the voice of experience, I feel a deeper clarity. I think my students feel that, and I see it in their responsivity and in the way their work evolves, then, as well. And when I talk with writers about how structure amplifies content, underscores meaning, or about how writing is inefficient and messy by design, and how we can only lean into that messiness with some patience and equanimity, I feel like I am speaking from the depths of experience. Ultimately, I find it easier to be helpful, and to help in more precise ways.
Audrey: What do you hope readers take away from The Part That Burns?
Jeannine: Well, I hope they take away some lightness, despite that there is heaviness in the book, because there is also resilience, forgiveness, and a great deal of love. Most of all, though, I hope readers take away this sense of what it means that the part that burns is the part that glows. The narrator refers to herself at one point as floating above herself, saying she is “the part that burns.” Later, after her son’s birth, as she is coming more into her own, that’s when she says “the part that burns is the part that glows,” and there’s an implication there that she can be all the parts of herself, that she can be whole. There is also a section in the book that talks specifically about fire, it’s the section where the narrator is finally leaving her first husband, which is intensely painful but also necessary for her to become wholly herself. That was a hard section to write because this book isn’t really about that, but it had to be addressed at least briefly to get the narrative to the place in time where it ends, after the narrator is remarried with grown children.
So anyway, in that brief section about the divorce, there’s some sentences about fire, the stages of fire, and the effects of fire. I’m an Aries, a fire sign, and I gave birth three times in August—three fiery little Leo babies—and both my first husband and my current husband are also fire signs. So maybe this fire thing means more to me than to others, but the idea is that fire, as we all know, both harms and heals. I wanted to write about that in a way that was not too cliché, you know, the whole “phoenix rising from the ashes” kind of thing. And that’s hard to do, to write about fire in a way that avoids that. So, the narrator just eventually acknowledges that outright, saying, “The phoenix is just a cliché. But some organisms really do survive by fire. For example, fire lilies are coaxed open only by smoke—nothing else will trigger their blossoming.” And I guess that’s what I hope readers will take away: that we don’t necessarily have to overcome or shed past experience; in fact, I am not sure that is even possible. But we can integrate it, and over time perhaps recognize the ways in which past experience may have made it possible for us to become our whole selves. For me, there is deep healing in that.