Rarely are older women centered as protagonists in American fiction, a fact that mirrors their marginalized role in society. In If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, her new collection of stories, author Robin Black pushes back against this trend. Black's bright and nuanced tales make protagonists of those who, in life as well as in art, are more often caricatures. We meet a 70-year-old artist who grieves the end of a romance while painting a dying man's portrait, a woman in her mid-60s who makes an unexpected connection with a stranger in Italy, and another older woman who lies about her recent stroke while coming to terms with her daughter's marital infidelity.
Black talked with TAP about feminism, the political implications of narratives in which older women play central roles, whether social change can be instigated by art, and what it means to her to be a widely heralded debut author in her 40s.
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This is unusual in that it features so many protagonists who are women in their 60s and 70s. What drew you to these characters' stories?
I've spent a lot of time with older women. When I was 10, my 72- year-old grandmother moved into our home. She was widowed and bedridden, and she was both admirable in her strength and difficult in her judgmental nature. She was an early, dramatic education for me, as was my father, in the idea that people needn't be perfect for us to love them and for them to deserve that love, and that understanding is certainly at the heart of much of my work.
She also had six sisters, all of whom were frequent visitors over the decade that she lived with us until her death. They each seemed to have lived about a dozen lives. Not because they had lived even a remotely glamorous existence but because of the richness of it all, the layers, the sense of passed time as an almost physical characteristic. As I think about it now, it makes sense that when I began to write, I found myself drawn to characters with similarly layered, complicated lives.
Is writing about these older women a political, feminist act? What are the social implications of narratives where older women matter?
I'm reminded of a story about Grace Paley. Essentially, someone asked her why she didn't write political fiction and she said, "I do. I write about women." I've always understood that to mean that throwing a light on lives otherwise not represented, the lives of too often overlooked people, is an inherently political act.
And when depicting older women, you're also combating widespread stereotypes. These tend to fall into two strains. These women are either simplified beyond belief into monolithically generous and nurturing beings -- the grandmothers who exist only to dote on others -- or they become the naughty nanas of sitcoms whose sexuality and other passions are played for laughs. And of course both versions are premised on the idea that a qualitative change occurs in women as they age so that normal human desires and complexities are absurd phenomena. I'm a big fan of
The Golden Girls, but when I watch it now, there are moments at which I cringe at the degree to which mature female sexual desire is played for laughs. Ultimately, the show is better than that. Those characters are far from cartoons. And there's a kind of subversive awareness at work that in order for these women to continue to be fully alive and as complex as all people are, they have to play along within the cultural norms of old ladies -- meaning that as complex characters, they have to fly under the radar of allowing themselves to be viewed as only funny.
Can concrete change in social norms and public policy be instigated by art?
I was raised on the idea that it can, and I believe that. My father, the late Charles L. Black Jr., was a legal scholar who played a role in writing the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's brief for Brown v. Board of Education. He was also a white Southerner, a Texan born in 1915. In the early 1930s while still a teenager, he saw Louis Armstrong perform at the Driskill Hotel in Austin and was stunned, altered, by the experience of encountering genius for the first time in the form of a black man. As he wrote far more eloquently than I will here, it became evident that everything he'd been told, every assumption woven into the society that surrounded him, was wrong. For him, the moment of insight came in the context of what he called genius, but more generally, I take his experience to be about the realization that a group of people who had been defined for him in very specific, profoundly limited ways, might indeed exist within the full range of human possibility.
Art doesn't feed anyone, usually not even the artists, so in that way it isn't of concrete help. But what art can and should do is encourage compassion and shore up those aspects of us that are capable of imagining that someone else is as real as we ourselves are.
You yourself are a widely heralded debut author who doesn't fit into the trope of the mid-20s MFA grad. You sold your first book when you were 46. You have written elsewhere about how this fact often ignites surprise and tearful joy in those who learn it. Why do you think that is?
Yes, I wrote about that on my blog, in the context of my own weeping at the Susan Boyle video, over and over again. I think it's impossible to exaggerate the degree to which women are given the steady message of marginalization as they age. And I'm not talking octogenarians here. I'm talking about what happens to women as soon they begin to shift outside the societal visions of what sexy is -- to put it rather crudely since in truth it is all rather stunningly crude.
Those tears come from a place of deep, deep discouragement and doubt about the possibility of anyone listening. It's inherently moving to us all, I think, to have a glimpse at the chance that who you are really may triumph over the prejudice with which you are viewed.