On an afternoon late last summer, Punctuate sat down with fiction writer Patricia Ann McNair to talk to her about her new collection of essays, And These Are the Good Times (Side Street Press) and to talk about fiction, nonfiction, and their respective realities.
Punctuate: Your title, And These are the Good Times, is a kind of leitmotif that pops up from time to time in the book. How would you like readers to read that clause?
McNair: Well that’s an interesting question. I think I mean, “and these are the good times.” That there’s a lot of good times in a life. But there are also other layers to the meaning of the title. Some of these times, when you read them you might think, “okay so she’s talking about when her brother died . . . That’s not such a good time.” But at the same time, to me, those are part of the good times of my life. Even those moments where things were uncomfortable, things were unhappy. They created some sort of an emotional response that’s good to have; whether or not it feels good. So I want people to be lured in; I want them to feel that all of this will be fun and a good time! But to also know that I mean “good time,” in a much broader way.
Punctuate: The essay “I’m Not Afraid” is a kind of occasional piece written after the presidential election of 2016. Can you describe your impulse, and the experience of writing that piece, and the emotions of the moment?
McNair: Sure. I actually wrote the original version of this before the election, when I was sure we were going to end up with Hilary Clinton as the president. So the last line wasn’t the last line as it stands now. It was something like, “I’m not afraid. And I vote.” But by the time this went into publication, it was clear my vote didn’t matter in the way that I hoped it would. The original emotional response was to write this immediately after all of the “Billy-Bushy” stuff. And we already knew that this presidential candidate was a sexist pig, but then we were once again taken into this dark, dark place of his. You know, total disrespect. All of it. And I started to see a bunch of things coming up online about people being afraid of his coming to office. That they were even afraid to walk down the street if he were to be there. And I think, “How horrible would that be to live your life afraid to walk down the street simply because you’re a woman, or a transgender person, or a person of color?” And even though I have some of these things that I carry with me, I mean, I’m a woman, and I might put myself in situations that are not necessarily safe, I cannot live afraid. I can’t be that person. I can’t live like that. So when I say “I’m not afraid,” I really mean it. Yet there are still things to be afraid of.
Around the time of the “Billy-Bushy” tape, I told my husband one of my stories. I think I told him the story about when I was working in the bars on Division Street and I was being groped. I told him that one and he asked, “Well have you ever had these situations? Another ‘grab you by the pussy’?” And I said, “Oh you mean this time?” And then I started to think about it. “Or did you mean this time? Or do you mean this time? Or do you mean this time when I was nine?” And it really started to kind of rack up. Things I haven’t really thought about over the years. But they make me who I am, right? They hadn’t paralyzed me, but, I think they’re important to acknowledge that they actually happened. And maybe for a time, I wasn’t acknowledging that they happened. But being put in this place in our life now, and the place of the world, I think we have to acknowledge that these things happen. We survive them, and that’s great. But they still happen, and that’s not great.
Punctuate: So was this a personal affirmation, or was it a message telling your audience not to be afraid? How would you characterize it?
McNair: Yes, and yes! I would say it’s a personal affirmation. You guys have tried to make me afraid, but I am not. I am a warrior. But also we can’t be afraid all the time. You know? You shouldn’t be stupid, but you can’t be afraid all the time. They—these sexist situations—may feel like they happen all the time, but they can’t be the only things that shape us. Let’s acknowledge that it happens. And perhaps acknowledging that it happens will help us move to change. But we can’t let it stop us from being who we are.