This week’s story, “Yogurt Days,” is about a middle-school girl named Anna. Her mother has been taking frozen yogurt to a sick boy whose family belongs to her church. We later learn that the story is being told decades later, from the perspective of the adult Anna. When did you first start thinking about this story? Did you know from the outset that you’d tell it from this vantage point?
“Yogurt Days” is part of a triptych of stories set in Arizona, narrated from Anna’s retrospective point of view. Though it comes second in the series, chronologically, it was the last story I wrote. So I was already working from this vantage point when I approached the material. I was also reading Mavis Gallant’s Linnet Muir stories, in which the first-person narrator is revisiting her childhood in Montreal, probing the “adult mysteries” she remembers during those years. The attempt to reckon with memories that feel somehow tinged with threat or danger, or even shame—I suppose this is the project of these Arizona stories.
As a literary device, the retrospective stance is complex. On the one hand, it gives you enormous freedom. You can make these giant leaps from the past to the future and back. But there has to be a present-day urgency compelling the return to the past. Retrospection is no good if a narrator is just saying, “Here’s this thing that happened back when I was a kid.” In “Yogurt Days,” Anna, in the present, is trying to come to terms with her complex feelings about her aging mother. The things she admired in her mother when she was a child have become the things that drive her crazy.
This is part of what I love about retrospection: the dual lens, or dual consciousness, it lends to a narrative. “Here’s what I thought then, here’s what I think now.” How do those two ways of seeing align? How are they incompatible? This is where unreliability can come in: the way memory betrays us, and we betray memory. One of my favorite Alice Munro stories is “What Is Remembered,” in which the protagonist, Meriel, looks back on a one-night stand she had as a young woman. After Meriel recalls the affair, she leaps decades into the future, to a conversation she had with her husband about that night; and then she moves even further beyond that, to the present time, when her husband is dead and she is alone, thinking back on the affair. And, though she’s replayed her memory of that night over and over, she now remembers a new detail: something her lover said after their night together. It’s a crucial line, and Meriel realizes that what the lover said—although she hasn’t remembered it till now—is actually the very thing that set her life on its particular path. Had she remembered that detail sooner, her life would have been different. It’s an incredible story.
Anna’s mother has an unquenchable desire to help others. She invites a woman to live with the family—a self-described prostitute named Nan, who leaves a few days later, having stolen silverware and whiskey on her way out. Is Anna’s mother’s faith ever challenged when this kind of thing happens?
I don’t think so. Not in this story, anyhow. Anna’s mother seems unshakable in her faith. Of course, we’re only getting Anna’s point of view. Were I to write from the perspective of Anna’s mother, I might discover that she was filled with doubt and uncertainty all along. I might learn that her acts of service were, or still are, an attempt to cover up her own feelings of doubt and self-loathing.
One day, Anna goes with her mother to see the sick boy, Benjamin. She’s shocked to discover he’s a grown man. Judging from the music Anna listens to, the story is set in 1983 or 1984 or so, and Anna realizes that Benjamin is suffering from AIDS. How aware is she of the AIDS crisis? Can you remember what the atmosphere was like in the nineteen-eighties when cases—and deaths—first started making headlines in the mainstream news?
I think Anna is more aware of the crisis than other children her age would have been at that time. Her father is a doctor who pays attention to the research and articles. And her mother, as we’ve seen, is not one to shy away from sickness and suffering. My own awareness came a bit later than Anna’s. I was a sheltered kid. My parents didn’t really talk to me about what was going on in the world. I spent most of my time alone, reading Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle and Tolkien. I do remember having a vague sense, in the early eighties, that something bad was happening in “faraway” places like New York and San Francisco. I was fifteen when Rock Hudson died, and that might have been the first time I really paid close attention to what was going on. My mother loved Rock Hudson. She cried when she told me he’d passed.
The story describes Anna’s response to the physical world around her—to the mountains that surround Phoenix, for example—but it also describes the way she sees bodies. Nan’s skinny body, for example, or Benjamin’s gaunt frame in the bath. How important is this aspect of the story?
There’s something in what Anna’s mother says about the mountain ranges surrounding Phoenix—safety versus threat, sunshine versus natural disaster—that resonates with the man in the tub, and with the dead toddler in the coffin, and the sex worker in the condemned house. Enclosures might be safeguards, but they’re also sites of suffering. The generations of body shame passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter to granddaughters add another layer to the way Anna perceives the body. The preteen and pubescent years are when you realize your body isn’t necessarily a safe space; it’s betraying you, changing in ways you can’t control. In “Yogurt Days,” Anna is beginning to see the body as a site of insecurity and contingency and threat.
Anna’s mother, Benjamin’s mother, and a third female friend of theirs have decided to baptize Benjamin. This is an action that only men are allowed to perform in their church. Why are they prepared to break this stricture?
Anna’s family belongs to a denomination stripped of creeds and ritual and images—I imagine their church is part of the Anabaptist tradition, in which the sacrament of baptism is valid only for people old enough to profess belief. Those types of churches tend to be patriarchal. Many of them still forbid the ordination of women; some don’t allow women to read Scripture or speak from the pulpit, or teach a Sunday-school class if there are men present.