Cassie Gonzales: ‘There are so many beautiful dead girls’
This interview was conducted and written by Bryony Taylor, an MA graduate from the University of Nottingham’s creative writing programme, while she was studying here. We’re publishing it now, on the far side of a global pandemic, with Bryony’s permission. Bryony is currently working towards a PhD in creative writing, back at the University of Nottingham.
An interview with Gonzales on the portrayal of women in fairy tales, popular culture, and most importantly of all, how to write real women: by ‘believing that they are real people.’
Cassie Gonzales, a self-defined ‘Hemingway reincarnated as a 36-year-old Latina is now living in Stockholm.’ She has been Pushcart-nominated and has had prose published by Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares, Gonzales graduated from the University of Oxford with a master’s degree in Creative Writing and is now doing a PhD in Creative/Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. She is currently working on a novel about women in the American Southwest.
To kick off our conversation about the ways women are written in fairy tales, we discussed the story of ‘Snow White’. The female protagonist, Snow White, is the most beautiful woman in the land, but Gonzales tells me that, ‘most importantly, she doesn’t know she’s beautiful.’ The evil stepmother is described as the second most beautiful, however she is aware of the beauty she possesses. Gonzales points out that her understanding of her own beauty and the power it holds is where her corruption stems from. If Snow White learnt of her beauty and power, she would no longer be considered ‘good.’
Gonzales discusses that good women in fairy tales mustn’t know their own beauty — it’s meant to be gazed at by an outsider, not by themselves. ‘Good women are beautiful women who are seen, but never seeing, who are sexualized, but without sexual agency. They are objectified — and if they even resist that objectification, then they are villainized.’ Gonzales pointed out how this constraint can be seen constantly in storytelling, but that it is particularly noticeable in the 2011 One Direction song ‘Beautiful.’ The chorus lyrics state: ‘Right now, I’m looking at you and I can’t believe, you don’t know, oh oh, you don’t know you’re beautiful, oh oh, that’s what makes you beautiful.’ It makes you wonder, that if we were to start looking for this familiar trope in our everyday lives, how much of it we’d find embedded deep within popular culture.
Gonzales brought up another important character, whom I had overlooked, which is perhaps testament to the familiarity and acceptance of this fairy tale trope — the dead mother. Usually, the only thing we know about this character is that she’s dead. Later, if we do learn anything about her, ‘she’s usually some version of these two things: one, she was so beautiful, and two, she was a selfless mother’. Gonzales pointed out that the cause of death is usually childbirth. ‘Through her death, midst-maternal act, the dead mother becomes the model of womanhood,’ and this path of the dead mother’s fate seems to be the only possible path available to Snow White — there are, of course: ‘no other kinds of women in her world.’ Gonzales finds herself constantly questioning how these fairy tale women have influenced writers, which somehow override our own relationships with complex women in the real world. With exasperation, she told me how she’s read and watched the portrayals of: ‘so many beautiful dead girls.’
Having taught creative writing to undergrads and postgrads, Gonzales has therefore worked with many writers in their first few years of practice. She often finds that the women in their stories are usually ‘thin, stereotypical, and in service of the male character’s storyline.’ Most of the protagonists are men, whilst the women are usually characterised by their relationship to that male character, for instance: girlfriend, mother, or grandmother. The women often receive fewer lines of dialogue, and they are so commonly introduced into the narrative by how their bodies are seen: ‘breasts, hips, hands, hair,’ and not by their actions.
Repeatedly, she also hears about women washing the dishes, and I’m relieved to think back to my latest story and remember my female character leaving the scene with no mention of her having done any dishes. Gonzales asks: ‘Where are the women guitar players? Geologists? Equestrians?’
These one-dimensional women aren’t the kinds of women that she grew up with, and they certainly aren’t the kind that I grew up with either. I’m sure we can all name at least one woman with expertise that we know, which begs the question: why aren’t these women present in more fiction? Gonzales asks: ‘Where are the women who are obsessed by Native American History, the flute, 1940’s radio plays, all-wood sail boats?’ When asked about what tips she could share on writing compelling female characters, she said that most fiction does not actually believe in the humanity of women. ‘I believe that women, like other kinds of people, are complex, interesting, and compelling — and therefore worthy of fiction. Women are not plot devices. They are not eye-candy. They are not a combination of body parts moving from the bedroom to the kitchen sink.’
One exercise Gonzales does with her students is to ask everyone to say one true sentence about a Grandmother they know. She asks them to tell her something about a grandmother that isn’t ‘warm, cosy, or domestic,’ and that’s all. She was pleased to then learn of a woman who had taken the fall for racketeering charges, and another whose prized possession was a ’76 Camaro. These Grandmothers sound far more exciting and interesting to read about. She told me how some of her students still struggle with this prompt, and fall into talking about her cooking, or the number of grandchildren she had — ‘That’s how strong these meta-narratives about women are.’
Gonzales told me about where her interest in fiction originated. There were always lots of books to be found around the house she grew up in. Her mum was a great reader, and there were never any restrictions on what she was allowed to read. She skipped the period of reading teen/YA fiction that most of us transition through, so she was ‘lucky to start reading some really great adult fiction when [she] was still a kid.’ Her mum returned to college to finish her bachelor’s degree, where she enrolled in many literature and creative writing classes. Whenever Gonzales stayed home ‘sick’ from school — ‘I was often sick’ — her mum would drag her along to her classes. She found herself doing a lot of the assigned reading set during these, which was when she realised that fiction could be studied, and ‘that it could be made by regular people.’
When I asked Gonzales about what has motivated her to write about women in the southwest in her current novel, she told me that Latinas are both the women that she knows and grew up with. She also wants to write about them because they’ve been largely erased from both fiction and the history of the American southwest. The region is ‘so much more than white men on horses.’ There have been plenty of studies and arguments made about how Latinas are one of the most underrepresented groups in American fiction. However, Gonzales isn’t interested in engaging in those debates. ‘I don’t write fiction for some kind of “greater good.” I want to write full, complex, compelling people, and I happen to believe that Latinas of the American southwest are all of those things.’