'Virgin and Other Stories' Is a Brilliant Book About Sex and God in the South

We caught up with debut author April Ayers Lawson to talk about her beautifully disturbing new collection of stories.

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Nov 8 2016, 5:00am

Photo of April Ayers Lawson by Jason Ayers/courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I first met April Ayers Lawson in 2012. She was kind enough to write me about a story of mine that she had liked. This was especially flattering, considering that her own story, "Virgin," had won the Paris Review's prestigious Plimpton Prize. In her story, a young bride from a religious home insists on waiting until marriage to sleep with her non-religious fiancé. Her virginity first heightens his desire, then becomes nightmarish and threatening as her deeper issues and sexuality surface. Meanwhile another character, a cancer survivor, grows in importance, her mastectomy becoming a symbol of sexual and maternal power. I had never read anything quite like it: Strange, funny, beautifully disturbing, it felt completely alien yet completely true on some unconscious level. I became a fan, and have been awaiting her debut collection ever since.

Though I'd read some of these stories in earlier states, the finished book, Virgin and Other Stories (an excerpt from which appeared in VICE magazine), as a whole struck me as extraordinarily intense. She pins raw emotional truth to the page with the pressure of a style that is elegant, cool, hyper-intelligent, and witty. The stories are both more upsetting and funnier than I recalled. Over email, we recently discussed, God, trauma, childhood sexuality, the South, the importance of smell, desire, and the endless complexities of human connection.

VICE: Scent seems to be extremely important in this book. Nearly every story mentions it, while most writers rely on sight and sound.
April Ayers Lawson: I have pollen allergies and live in one of the worst places for that—North Carolina—and so half of the time I don't smell much of anything. But when I do, I think my sense of smell is pretty sensitive. As a writer, I think some moments need scent to come fully alive. Also, if we have normal sight, then we trust what we see the most. It's "real" if we can see it. Scent is more elusive, unstable, mysterious—when you're out, you can get a distinct whiff of something suddenly in passing and be like, What is that? And then it's gone before you figure it out.

Childhood sexual trauma, as well as other scenes of young people being sexually shamed, plays a role in several stories. Yet the innocent are often highly sexual beings themselves.
I think a fair number of people start becoming aware of sexual response at an early age. Some boys are born with erections, but they don't understand it—it's like a physiological thing. Kids want attention. This can be easily exploited by sick and selfish people. Even if the kid willingly participated, the kid doesn't understand the whole picture—it's not the kid's fault. But it's very easy to shame and fault an abused person. People who've been abused struggle with blaming themselves anyway, in part because it would make more sense if they'd deserved it.

And these kids are growing up in very religious backgrounds, which doesn't seem to help.
In a context in which people are highly religious but maybe not so self-aware or psychologically astute, there's the tendency to want to assert one's goodness by pointing out what seems identifiably "bad" in others. At, say, a conservative Christian college, you can walk in and catch someone drinking or in the act of fornicating, but you can't walk in and catch the condition of someone's heart. You can't very easily walk in on someone being self-righteous; you can't walk in on someone doing a good deed out of ego rather than compassion; or having racist or sexist thoughts. I think the extreme focus on sex—the privileging of this over other matters in some churches—might have more to do with an anxiety over contamination and loss of control than Christianity.

Like in the title story, "Virgin," where the character's virginity it almost a fetish.
Sexual purity continues to be something more associated with women than men, most especially in religion. The way it's still set up in some people's heads—there's such an emphasis on a woman's purity, implying that to lose it ruins her. But human beings get sexually abused and raped. Does that mean they've lost their spiritual purity? What is this purity we're talking about, then? It's targeted toward the female, and it does as much damage as what it portends to protect her from. Christ was a revolutionary who emphasized the condition of a person's heart, forgiveness, compassion. But from some people in the South today, you'd get the idea he must have been someone who went around scaring girls into equating their value with being virgins before marriage and stopping people from having alcohol and gay sex.

But I want to stress, too, that I don't think all churches and Christians in the South are like that. It's just those are often the pushiest and loudest and quickest to attempt to control others—and therefore draw more attention and are the ones people from other places hear about in the news. There are also true Christians in the South who do life-altering things for people out of loving hearts and don't resort to shaming to control.

"Sex with someone you don't know very well is dangerous."

The female characters also seem to often be preyed upon by the men and their victimization is made harrowingly real. Disturbingly, they also seem to be offering themselves as prey. Was this an intentional theme?
To say they offer themselves as prey would imply they aren't already easy to harm; that they are offering to become what they already are. For example, in the story "The Way You Must Play Always," Gretchen isn't fully cognizant of the big picture in regards to what's happening between her and Wesley. She's seeking the same intensity of attention she got from her cousin with an older man, who is pretty much the only guy she gets to talk to alone at this point in her life. She wants connection and intimacy—she wants to be wanted. Becoming an object for someone, even before touch, has a palpable quality. It's not love, but it's a form of attachment. I mean, she thinks she loves the guy. Maybe she does.

In "Vulnerability," the longest and most devastating story, the main character, an unhappily married artist, falls in love with two men over the phone. She arrives in New York and is brutally assaulted by one of them. Yet this barely scratches the surface of the manifold disturbing currents at work here. The narrator seduces men who resemble her molester into posing for her. This places her in jeopardy, yet she is the hunter. Similarly, she is drawn inexorably toward her abuser. Yet we learn that he is vulnerable, too. I wonder what you are thinking about in these cycles of mutual use and abuse.
Well, she wants to take advantage of them. I think maybe she thinks it balances things out in the way people taking advantage of other people often enough do until they realize that type of empowerment is cheap and short-lived. While I knew in advance what would happen, events-wise, I did not know how she would end up seeing it. The surprise to me as writer wasn't what happened, but how she sees herself going through it, her evolving recognition of the cycle you speak of. I believe people do come out of these kinds of cycles—that people grow and change, but I think it's often a very long and messy journey. Though at the end, I questioned myself, like, "Shouldn't I write something with a more obviously positive message for women who've been abused or are still going through it?" I couldn't.

"Vulnerability is learning what it means to be in a body."

And she keeps thinking of these volatile and immediate connections as "love."
Sex with someone you don't know very well is dangerous. Biological bonding stuff happens that can be very hard to wrest yourself from, physically and emotionally. Learning humility is maybe not fashionable now, but I think too the protagonist of "Vulnerability" is learning what it means to be in a body. And that's humbling.

In your stories, characters are frequently concerned with religious matters. Yet they live in a world that is not only secular, but I would say, often feverishly carnal and even deeply Freudian. Can you talk about the role religion plays in your work?
I believe there's a God—a conscious, omnipotent entity. I have felt it since childhood. Though my reasons for believing it as an adult have to do with more than just feeling and intuition. But I am in a state of question as to what that entails. I go to church, but there's always a tension for me in the sense that religion as a system is inevitably flawed, though I believe the potential good outweighs the potential bad. The church is people. People always have and cause problems. Fiction requires people having problems. Forgiveness, redemption, and that kind of thing—it means nothing outside of a carnal, material world. I am not interested in a Tupperware-container kind of faith in which I seal myself off from anything potentially challenging, messy. As for Freud—well, I think Freud is fun.

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