Hollay Ghadery is an Iranian-Canadian writer living in Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Fuse, her memoir of mixed-race identity and mental health, was released by Guernica Editions (2021) and is a finalist for The Canadian Bookclub Awards. Her collection of poetry, Rebellion Box, came out Radiant Press in 2023 and her collection of short fiction, Widow Fantasies, is scheduled for release with Gordon Hill Press in fall 2024. Hollay is a poetry editor with long con magazine, and the Fiction Editor of untethered. She is also the Poet Laureate of Scugog Township.
Colleen Brown is known primarily as a sculptor. If you lie down in a field, she will find you there, is her first book. Colleen created visual artworks related to the book when she was the Artist in Residence at the Ranger Station Gallery. Colleen is one of the current Artists in Residence in Maple Ridge, BC.
Author and visual artist Colleen Brown’s memoir, If you lie down in a field, she will find you there (Radiant Press, 2023), is a stunning and shattering memoir of Brown’s mother’s life, which was brutally distorted by the spectacle of her murder by a serial killer. It is this desire to uncover her mother’s life that propels the narrative. Essays and memories from Brown’s siblings appear alongside spoken word anecdotes that contain the family’s oral history and tell us who her mother, Doris Brown, was.
In this interview, author and memoirist Hollay Ghadery (Fuse), talks with Colleen Brown about the experience of writing this book.
Hollay Ghadery: What you are doing in this book is, to me, unheard of, but so refreshing, since I’ve always felt unsettled by the sensationalism of true crime—though it wasn’t until I started reading your book that I could point out exactly why. You’re reclaiming your mother’s life from the shadow of her death, while also acknowledging that her death—how she died—is a large part of what makes this story so interesting, at least initially. I know your book was just released, but from your experience so far, are you finding this is a nuance that’s being grasped by readers and potential readers?
Colleen Brown: Murder is just one example of an event where the story keeps going, beyond a person’s control. The victim becomes a plot point in another story they have no agency in. Extreme events draw story around them and can obscure/reduce/dismantle a story about a whole person. News cycles and true crime are quick and thin. I am attempting to have a say and trying and say it thick.
The book is about how we construct meaning through narrative. I am interested in my mother’s life, my siblings and my own and hopeful my interest in the specifics of our experience propel readers into the book. Ultimately, I am inviting readers to my mother’s story as a way of thinking about narrative impulses that we all share and affect us deeply. The book is an example of re-routing a story around a disruption that, although compelling in its extremity, is useless as a tool for understanding.
We all need to impose structure on the passage of time, otherwise events would be a jumble in our minds. I think it is similar to how we structure information from our senses through pattern recognition. Humans are so good at it, hearing patterns in sound to understand music and organizing colour and light to see images. Our narrative drive might be like that, ordering and structuring our experience of time into a flow we can understand, remember and attach meaning to. Extreme events aggravate this narrative drive and we cluster stories around them.
HG: Your book wants to separate your mother from the murder, but the murder is included in the book. Tell me about walking that line.
CB: In the book I use the word cleaving. Other words might be separate, break, re-route. All of these concepts imply two sides.
Imagine you are carving a sculpture. As you place it on the wood, you attend to both sides of your chisel, the sculpture side and the part of the wood that is curling away, onto the floor.
Or Imagine you are cooking a cob of corn. One of the last steps is to break that nub of stalk off the corn. To do that you firmly grasp both the cob of corn and the nub and then SNAP and throw the nub away.
You found the book revolutionary, can you say more about that?
HG: I found it revolutionary because of what you are doing—you defy what I see as a common instinct to dive into the darkness. Moreover, you calmly and beautifully refuse to give people that darkness either, when that’s what so many people seem to want: the violence. The spectacle. And I say “calmly” but understand that your book’s smoothness is likely the result of practised art: the act of making art, and making a narrative. I imagine that the construction that led to this end narrative was not so smooth, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
CB: This project started as a visual art work. I was having difficulty expressing what I wanted in that medium and began writing at the same time. Eventually, this gave me the opportunity to write about the narratives of Feminism, economics and justice as larger themes that placed my mother’s story in history and culture. The structure of the book was a process of weaving together many voices and styles of writing.. The visual artwork is now a place I can explore texture, colour and landscape which is how I remember Mom.
The contemporary aspects of the writing come from the shared voice which I identify as coming from the relational aesthetics movement in visual art but have corollaries in literature.
HG: That’s interesting—this conversation, almost, between mediums. I love thinking about how they can exist separately, but also together. Is there a place or space where both can be experienced? The writing and visual artwork? Or will there be?
CB: No, at the moment there is not a place where the book and the art work can be seen at the same time. I need to battle the book out of the categories of true crime, murder, serial killers before it will make sense to readers and be interesting to curators. The only remedy I can think of is to speak to literary people as well as curators about the underlying themes of the book and eventually a confluence of interests will develop.
As an example, some of the artwork will be in a group exhibition about doubt and our strategies of living with it, early next year.
You and I can do some of the work needed to direct the book out of the erroneous category of true crime and into the literary non-fiction category right now if we delve into a theme in both of our books that is related to this curator’s interests.
The first cultural theme I introduce as a lens to know my mother as a real, full and rich person, is Feminism.
When I was a young woman, in my twenties, I was confused and, well, shamed, by my mother’s seeming embrace of a 1950’s withdrawal that so many women participated in at that time. After learning about both of my grandmother’s contributions to their families, businesses, institutions my mother’s choices seemed unfathomable. I knew my mother was intelligent because my brothers and sisters told me so and I believed them. And so, she was making choices that were motivated and those motivations might be knowable and through the choices she might be knowable. This problem of understanding in itself made her more of a person.
In the book I conclude that my mother’s choices may be unfathomable to me because her life was cut off before she finished making them. I only have access to all of the cultural influences at a distance but I can get an inclination from looking at some of my own.
HG: I do really hope you and I and other readers can battle this book out of the true crime category, which especially after actually reading the book, seems not only erroneous, but excruciatingly erroneous. I think of that section where your mom somehow got her car in the ditch, nose down, end up, and when your brother arrived to tow her out, you—who’d been with her when the accident happened—were picking flowers, seemingly unbothered: “as if nothing had happened.” I felt it there: how you were shrouded in a happy cocoon of a safe and well-loved childhood, and were focused—as you should have been—on childish things. But you never got to know your mother and this book is a touching tribute to her life. To have it mislabelled as anything else is, I feel, acutely and viscerally painful.
I’d like to end, if it’s alright with you, with a passage from your book that left me breathless with comprehension, and leaves no room for interpretation about what this narrative is not only trying to do, but the force it is fighting against:
“A violent death contains narrative dark matter. Bits that demand meaning to be attached to them because they are emotionally powerful, as though they exert a gravitational pull when their impact is more like a falling brick to the head. No more meaningful to a life story than the background motion of particles or the ever-present expansion of the universe, but the dark matter can suck every other aspect of the story, and crush it.” (pg 91)