From Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country and Other Stories
The title story in Chavisa Woods’s 2017 collection is a series of brief sketches or expressionistic tableaux illustrating its titular subject. Woods is based in Brooklyn, but grew up in rural Illinois, so it is unsurprising that the milieu she describes feels lived rather than imagined.
Woods’s first-person narrator is queer, Goth, casually blasphemous, and overtly sexual – all things that would make her stand out in conservative rural America. She is also brusquely humorous: Satanism is “so blasé and reactionary,” and she “would highly recommend being a homosexual” because “[r]ural Goth trash just reads better homo.”
The word “trash” is significant in context. The story’s narrator bandies about the pejorative with some glee, using it to describe herself and others. “There’s a girl I like to tell things to,” the narrator says, before clarifying that “[s]he looks like trash to me, and I like it.” The narrator describes all the ways she has tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to divest herself of her trashiness and claims that her friend signals similar attributes “even through her queerness.”
As an epithet, the term “white trash” has always been associated with the working class, usually in rural settings. What is interesting here is the insistence on the body as a locus to identify class or social rank. You can tell that someone is trash, the narrator implies, just by looking at them. “Trash gets into the body and forms it, moulds speech and jawlines. It scars the skin with acne kisses from too many greasy-fry dinners.” The narrator suggests that these class markers – the product of poor nutrition and hygiene – are visible on the body, like a latter-day mark of Cain. She points to her own “cow-shaped under-chin” and her stomach, which is “a dead giveaway.” What rescues her queer friend from succumbing to trashiness, the narrator suggests, is “the good sex, weird haircut, and interesting clothes.”
All those things, in other words, that mark her as different or an outsider in the town. If there is one characteristic of trash townsfolk that upsets the narrator more than any other it is that they are ordinary. Still, the fact that she claims to like her friend’s trashy undercurrent would seem also to suggest an unavoidable connection to the place that she otherwise spends her time trying to subvert.
If you are Goth in the country, the story suggests, you smoke cigarettes at the local bell tower, get high from aerosol cans of whipped cream, and cut yourself to make yourself feel. You read blood-soaked passages from Ezekiel when forced to present at Wednesday night Bible study in an attempt to provoke a “Southern Baptist exorcism.” (“It was the word of the Lord I was reading, and more importantly, it was the word of their Lord … through my horrible mouth.”) You wear a silver grille with upside-down crucifixes over your front teeth.
These teenaged rebellions are all performative and in their own way clichéd. But Woods underscores that beneath the boredom, religiosity, and conservatism of the town in which the narrator grew up, there is death – a lot of it. The town houses an Air Force base and the high school lunch room features recruiters eager to entice young townsfolk into service so that they can be shipped off to kill and die in the Middle East. The narrator relates an extended anecdote about a haunted bump on rural incline; the story itself has all the hallmarks of a local legend, but the cause of the supposed haunting – a drunk driver running into a stalled school bus and killing twenty children – is painfully real and tragic.
The narrator relates how her six-year-old cousin drowned a group of rabbits and recalls a litany of classmates who died in car wrecks or boating accidents. “All we kill is ourselves,” the narrator concludes balefully. This observation comes to her in the form of a spectral voice from a well that tells her as a child “the most important thing and the most difficult thing”: when surrounded by so much death, it is essential to have empathy.
Woods employs tropes out of Southern Gothic literature (no surprise, really), including Biblical language and a recourse to grotesque figures. The narrator comes across like a blasphemous version of one of Flannery O’Connor’s Christian malcontents or Faulkner’s rural n’e’er do wells imbued with a cutting fixation. Her narrator’s catalogue of resistance takes on a lyrical tone, with the language spilling out in chiaroscuro patterns of light and shadow.
“Do not take the sky for granted,” she says. “It falls all the time somewhere.” This is perhaps the most enduring lesson in Woods’s expressionistic story about feeling like an outcast in the place you were born.