Candice Baxter’s piece of flash fiction, “In Public,” has just been published on The Fertile Source. Here, I talk with her about that piece, writing, and her own personal journey.
In “In Public,” your piece of flash fiction, I love the way you characterize women’s ambivalent feelings about breasts-how they are a source of life but also a source of sexual pleasure and objectification. Was there an incident that sparked this piece for you?
I watched a documentary on Joe Francis, the creator of the Girls Gone Wild video series, and it affected me so much that I decided to dress up like a girl gone wild for Halloween. I wore jeans, a nude body-suit (drawn on belly button and butterfly tattoo), a child’s football jersey pulled above my boobs, and a printed black and white sign pinned across my chest. CENSORED. The reactions I got prompted me to think about men’s attitude toward breasts, especially college girls’ [breasts], before motherhood takes its toll. And it’s not just men. From a young age, girls learn from peer reactions that big breasts equal sexy. Fashion promotes a nice rack.
But women’s bodies change so much during and after pregnancy. The wonderful process of a mother’s body producing milk to nurture her young is amazing, a personal mixture of nutrients for her baby, but sometimes the “sexy” goes away. Breasts are for feeding. After the nursing period is over, women want to reclaim their sexuality. Add in media promotion of cleavage in commercials selling everything from website domain names to gel deodorant. Thousands of us buy growth pills, chicken cutlet bra inserts, push-ups, under-wires and posture shaping straps. We try to make them like they were before, but for most women, perky breasts are the first in a long list of motherhood sacrifices. This piece draws a definite line, focusing more on function and less on appeal.
What process did you use in writing this piece?
Before I sat down to write, I transcribed pages of Gertrude Stein’s “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them.” In her style of repetition, after all, she is the one who said, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” But is it? Each time a word or image is repeated, especially in a short work, it resonates meaning. In my piece, the first mention of milk refers to an engorged pain inside the mother’s body, an internal image of suffering. The next occurrence shows an external image of milk, not one of nurturing a child, but of wasted milk that never reaches the lips of the baby. It represents the many involuntary sacrifices mother’s make for children, however indirect or unnoticed. The third “milk” refers to the actual liquid, which is now a metaphoric image with more meaning than if I had only presented breast milk once in the whole piece.
Another word repeated in the piece is “creation” or some variation thereof. This technique of repetition does not so much depend on a metaphor as it is applied to the sounds of language, like a stanza. I make a word sandwich: (bread) I mention “plump,” “perky,” and “round.” (meat, tofu, cheese, whatever your pleasure) I use “creation” thrice in two lines for poetic impact. I liked the long vowel sounds packed together in the word-the turn of your voice in the middle when you say it out loud. (bread) I immediately follow up with another “plump, perky, or round.”
Only once in the next paragraph, after all the milk repetitions and images and metaphors, does the word “creation” appear again. It refers to the mother’s belly button, a sign that she herself was once a baby.
It sounds as though, in this short piece, you pay as much attention to the sounds of language as any poet. Can you talk about the similarities (as well as perhaps the differences) between poetry and flash fiction?
Flash fiction develops a sympathetic character and some sort of narrative. Working to do both of these things in such a tight space, each word has to count. Utilizing an element of poetry adds another layer, another connection to reach the reader through sound. But you still have to tell a story and set a scene. With access to the vast amount of words in the English language, if a specific word gets repeated in a short piece, there better be a good reason.
I’m wondering if you’d tell us what it was like to have a teen pregnancy in the deep South in the heart of the Bible belt. How did that shape you as a person and as an artist? Do you now focus on writing issues related to the female body in part because of your early experiences?
Truth is, teenage pregnancy was truly hard and filled with struggles I would never wish on my child, but with modern society’s programs, it wasn’t so terrible. I attended high school in the general population, went to prom, and graduated with honors. Because every decision I made was based on what was best for my daughter, life was not woe-is-me horrible. I worked three jobs, was on food stamps and welfare, got a Pell grant for college, earned a degree, and built a corporate career. Young single motherhood was just a part of everyday life. The hardest times came when my daughter turned ten and asked to live with her father in the small town where it all began. I was afraid, not for her, but for myself. She was born on my 18th birthday. I had never been an adult without being a full-time mother. And I let her go.