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.