We Are All Unreliable Narrators

An interview with “The Cassandra” author Sharma Shields.

  • October 22, 2019
  • |
  • 5 Questions
  • |
  • By Jefferson Robbins

Published this year, Sharma Shields’s most recent novel is The Cassandra, about a small-town woman working on the top-secret Hanford nuclear project in 1944, and plagued by visions—or delusions—about the future to come. Now she’s joining Humanities Washington to read an original story as part of the nonprofit’s Bedtime Stories fundraiser in 2019, along with fellow Spokane writers Jess Walter and Ben Goldfarb. This year’s theme of “Man in the Moon” reminds her of her grandmother Itha Anderson, who first pointed out the lunar phenomenon when she was a little girl, and to whom The Cassandra is dedicated.

“I’ve come out with some wonderful stories that I’ve ended up publishing in other places from Bedtime Stories, so I always appreciate prompt—and a deadline,” Shields says. “I think both things can sort of center my imagination.”

Humanities Washington: A lot of your characters are working through supernatural conflicts that might just as easily be figments of imagination, or of mental disturbance. What is it about the unreliable narrator that appeals to you?

Sharma Shields: I really like unreliable narrators, because I believe we all walk through life with blinders on about ourselves. A lot of my stories are about characters finally learning some truths about themselves that they have been in denial about for much of their life. I think this all comes down to the way I move about the world: I try to be as clear-eyed as possible about the things I’ve done, even the wrong things I’ve done. I try to face them with a sense of responsibility and growth. I think my characters have those same desires, and kind of a wish to explain away some of their faults. I like to write stories where they have to face those faults directly, and either change, or more fully abandon their moral compass. I find unreliable narrators the most realistic—how much of our own stories that we tell ourselves can harm the stories of other people? I think a lot about that, about how we’re in these partnerships with other people our whole life.

What scares you the most right now?

I’m thinking about children on the border, children in public schools, the ways we’re letting down the environment—that is going to have a giant impact on our kids as they’re aging. All of these things are kind of hitting me pretty hard as I’m writing. In my twenties, I used to write stories that were very funny, and now I tend to write stories that have this deadpan fairy-tale tone to them, and are very much allegories for how frightening our world has become—or how our world has always been, in ways I’m just waking up to as I’ve aged. The stories I’m writing now just want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them awake, and have them see in an urgent way. I feel like nowadays I’m just kind of writing with my heart in my throat, thinking so much about my kids who are seven and nine, and their friends. Because I love them so much, I’m thinking about kids around the world and all the different ways that adults are letting children down. I think this is why stories are so important—sharing and reading widely, and finding age-appropriate books for them, can be really eye-opening, and can help kids be aware of the world. And by sharing stories with them and reading to them, we can let them know that we’re there for them too.

Spokane’s public schools recently eliminated their librarian positions. You’ve worked in libraries; what’s it mean for kids and communities when librarians disappear?

That has been a very grave mistake. A lot of parents, myself included, have written to the school board and superintendent. I’ve even been writing to the Governor and senators and everything, just trying to reinstate our librarians, because this is a very ignorant move that’s going to rob children of those very stories that I was just talking about. All of these different books in the libraries, all the different ways librarians are trained as a readers’ advisory to put stories in the hands of kids—all that is being threatened now, because you won’t have these library stewards in the schools anymore. The teachers are stuck with their curriculum, and are not trained in library science, and what you’re going to end up creating is a very disorganized library. It’s also going to really limit what children are reading and what they’re exposed to. That’s going to end up harming all of us, on an interpersonal level and on a global level as well. Similarly, they cut art teachers, and I find this movement away from the humanities is going to really harm our kids. All of these other organizations are talking about stepping up and trying to be there for the kids, but I feel like this should be part of their daily curriculum in the classroom. It’s really limiting when people say we need the arts so children will be well-rounded, when the arts and humanities benefit us in a lot more ways than just being well-rounded. If they can think creatively, they’re going to be much more able. I’m a giant library supporter in town, and I’ve worked really hard for the libraries here. We have an amazing local author here, Stephanie Oakes, who was a school librarian and ended up leaving the district because of this. I just find there are so many ways we are letting children down in this country.

What are you reading right now?

I just read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, which I just think is so beautiful—clearly a book written by a poet. It examines our country and immigrants here, and examines that topic beautifully. I’ve also been reading the graphic novel Good Talk, by Mira Jacob, which also examines our country and the ways it can let down its citizens. I was really moved by Ocean Vuong, because he talks about the militant way that men talk to one another. If someone’s done well, he’s “killed it,” or he’s told “You’re the bomb”—using these militant descriptors to place admiration on something. He’s saying that when we use that language, we’re supporting this militant system. Because I’d just written this novel that was questioning militancy, that really struck me hard.

Is there hope to be found in frightening stories? If we visit a shocking piece of fiction, are we hoping just to be scared, or to gain something else?

I think there is hope to be found. I immediately think of Ursula LeGuin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” in which you have a community that is a very blissful place to live, but where all are required to descend at one particular time into this basement to see the child who is suffering, and they’re all complicit in this. Some of them are of course shocked, some of them are happy to be complicit, and as the title suggests, there are those who walk away, who can’t handle it and go off searching for something better. As dark as that story is, at the end, surely there must be a more compassionate and better way. I think of Toni Morrison, or Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”—these stories that have very disturbing elements about society, mob mentality, and racism, and I think about how they all in a way are filled with hope, because they are telling the story and asking us to examine it and ask us, will we walk away? Or will we make it better? I think that’s a beautiful and hopeful thing. I really do.

Shields is reading an original short story as part of Bedtime Stories Spokane, Humanities Washington’s annual literary fundraiser. More>

Humanities Washington

Get the latest news and event information from Humanities Washington, including updates on Think & Drink and Speakers Bureau events.