I was grateful to get the chance to interview Shannon Cain, editor of the collection Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks — a collection of poetry and nonfiction by women currently serving, or who have served, in the military. Shannon had some great insights into what it was like to collect these stories and work with female soldiers/ sailors/ airmen, and I’m so happy she took the time!
1. MilSpouse Review: Your bio at the back of Powder mentions that you are “a lifelong activist for peace and social justice,” and that your first act of civil disobedience took place at a Vietnam War protest when you were ten. Was this a common sort of event in your family? How did your family view the military when you were growing up, and did it surprise them (and yourself) when you began working on a collection of writing by military women?
Shannon Cain: I was raised by a stridently pacifist mother. For that anti-Vietnam protest, she painted the sign I carried: War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things. Like most peace activists, though, my family never, ever taught me to disrespect soldiers. In my house the shaming of returning Vietnam vets was seen as shameful in itself. My uncle served in Vietnam, as did my father’s cousin, who died there. But still, as a solidly left-wing family, military life wasn’t very near our sphere of daily life. So yes, I was surprised to find myself working on this anthology. My co-editor and I realized very early on that as tempted as we might be to highlight the voices of women whose military experiences were mostly negative, we would be compromising the book’s integrity. In large part because Powder was–and as far as I know, remains–the only anthology of writing in English by military women, we felt the responsibility to represent all views equally. The book found its way to libraries from Berkeley to West Point, so I figure we did a pretty good job remaining editorially neutral.
2. MilSpouse Review: There’s been something of a surge, lately, in notable books by authors who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most lauded, thus far, have been by men. Do you know of any comparable novels by women with military backgrounds? Do you think women have something in particular to offer the narrative of wartime?
SC: This situation is indicative of the publishing industry as a whole. Take a look at The Count, compiled by a marvelous group called VIDA. It chronicles in plain numbers the shocking disparity between male and female writers when it comes to getting their work in print. Powder was published by Kore Press, which is an independent literary press that publishes women writers. Yes, absolutely, women have unique insights into what it means to go to war. I think publishing those insights, whether regarding the military or corporations or academia or social institutions or whatever, is critical if we want to live in a healthy culture.
3. Milspouse Review: Since the publication of Powder, women have been officially allowed into combat roles for the first time (though many female soldiers have been on the front lines in some form or another for a long time). Having read so much writing by women who’ve served, what are your thoughts on this?
SC: Oh dear, this may not be a popular venue to say this. But I’ve never been able to get too excited about advances in our rights that lead us to assimilate into, rather than resist, institutions that are inherently violent or exploitive. For example, I’m relieved to see more women as corporate CEOs but I’m disturbed that corporate culture still expects us to neglect our families in order to improve the bottom line. I’m relieved that we’re on our way to legalizing gay marriage, but disturbed this means so many gays are embracing a heterosexist institution. I’m relieved that we’ve created a society in which military women are allowed to do the same jobs as men, but I’m disturbed that the end result is that more women are sent out into the world armed to kill. My hope is that once women and gays have fully infiltrated these institutions, they will begin to change them from within.
4. MilSpouse Review: Powder contains such a wide range of pieces, and the quality of the writing is so consistent. Were you surprised to find such a pool of talent to choose from?
SC: We worked really hard to get good submissions. We did a lot of outreach, and in the beginning we got practically nothing, in part because we were looking only for writing from active duty servicemembers. Finally we got a polite note from a Marine telling us how hard it was, for reasons both official and unofficial, for a woman in active duty to tell the truth about her life. So we regrouped, opened our guidelines to anyone woman who has served in any conflict, and the submissions rolled in. And as they did, we began to see more submissions from women currently serving.
5. MilSpouse Review: In the book’s foreword, you mention that these pieces were “edited but not manipulated, selected but not filtered.” Can you explain what the editing process was like for such a variety of pieces? Were most of the writers accustomed to the rigors of editing, or was it new for some of them?
SC: While several of the contributors to Powder were trained writers, a few with MFAs in creative writing and/or previous publications, many were not. Several hadn’t written much before; they were soldiers with good stories, with sharp observational skills, with something to say. We edited considerably, both with the newbies and the more experienced writers.
6. MilSpouse Review: Which piece in the collection surprised you the most?
SC: For me, surprise is one of the key elements of a good poem or story. So this is like asking me to choose a favorite child. Can’t do it!
7. MilSpouse Review: I know that you are a writer yourself and that your recent collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, has had a very good critical reception (Publisher’s Weekly: “[the collection] sets the bar high for Cain’s next book”). What are you working on now?
SC: After five years as executive director, fiction editor and board member at Kore Press, I’ve stepped aside to work on other projects. I’m working on a collection of linked stories about a group of polyamorous Air Force pilots and their civilian lovers. Seriously. I think it’s going to be a pretty hot little book.
I’m grateful to Shannon Cain for taking the time to answer my questions, and I’ll admit I’m quite intrigued by this collection of stories about “polyamorous Air Force pilots and their civilian lovers.” (I’m assuming “polyamorous” is the scientific word for “sleeping around,” but if I’m wrong on that one let me know.) (p.s. I confirmed with Cain that one of the fictional AF pilots in the book is a woman — and she’s their CO! Not to condone irresponsible behavior here, but all’s fair in love and fiction, so…..I’ll admit to giving a little fist-pump when she said that.)
Cain’s response on women in combat was thought-provoking for me, too. I fully support women in combat roles (Jane Blair’s memoir Hesitation Kills provides a fascinating perspective on this issue — and an interview with her is forthcoming here on the MilSpouse Review, too!). I’ll admit that my main hesitation on the issue was only that women in such low female-to-male ratios sometimes suffer consequences from being such an extreme minority, but there has always got to be a minority at the beginning, and many women are more than capable of handling that burden.
While Cain’s response regarding “inherently violent and exploitative institutions” shows her views to be quite far to the left (with marriage included in these “exploitative institutions”), I saw her point. Women in combat do, out of necessity, serve the war machine. All of us in the military do. I was reminded of Laura Harrington’s wise essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War:”
Celebrating the male experience of war, intentionally or not, celebrates war, and is in the great literary tradition of glorifying the power of personal sacrifice in the theatre of war.
This is a can of worms far too great for me to tackle here, during my toddler’s naptime. As part of a military family — a family that will most likely give at least 20 years of our lives to the military, with all the moves and separations and, yes, benefits that come along with such an affiliation — we do celebrate the military, we cheer, “Go Navy!,” we wave when a big ship comes close enough that we can see the sailors standing on board. Our kids love the sailors and soldiers they see, without hesitation. We love this culture because, after so many years in it, we understand it.
There are hundreds of thousands of people in our military, serving in capacities too numerous to list: anti-drug trafficking, education, medicine,transportation, intelligence, machine operation, food service, infantry, humanitarian aid — and for me, denigrating the military for being nothing more than a war machine is akin to criticizing humanity in general. Where on earth would you start? (And if there are women in the military, all possible roles should be open to them providing they qualify. [My husband once countered the argument that no woman could meet the demands of being a Navy SEAL by saying, “Well, 99% of men couldn’t, either!”])
But Cain’s and Harrington’s words remind me to be careful, and honest — when I write fiction, when I discuss films or books that deal with military members and their families, or people who’ve encountered our military abroad in positive or negative ways. Being in the military is noble and brave and giving and thoughtful, or it can be. Glorifying violence for its own sake, tapping into jingoism or cultural misunderstanding, skimming over the scope of individual loss (and there has been way too much loss), is not okay. Without overstating my own role here, I hope I can take this responsibility with me, and remember the thousands of shades of experience people around the world have had in, and with, our military, and try my best to understand and honor all of them. I need to temper the knee-jerk reaction I inevitably have when the military comes under fire (my brain starts blurting: “I know so many people in the military and we are all so nice we would make great friends!”), and remember that as surely as our armed forces’s popularity rises during times of national stress, it will wane again. When I feel overwhelmed by what I read or watch about our military, I try to remember that my goal is to understand things as much as possible, in the same way I now, effortlessly, understand our own brand of Navy life. If we try to understand, compassion and honesty will follow, but if we don’t try to understand, then we are wasting what we could learn from what other people have experienced. And wasting what other people have been through is one of the worst things I can think of.