“The Tunnel Just Goes on and Changes”: An Interview with Memoirist Emily Rapp Black

On April 6, 2017, UC Riverside Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Emily Rapp Black was named a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant awarded annually to applicants who show outstanding scholarly or creative abilities. She was recognized for her work in the category of general nonfiction, and is one of 173 fellows chosen from a pool of nearly 3,000 applicants. The Highlander recently sat down with Professor Rapp Black to discuss her future projects, writing career and personal history.  

Rapp Black said that she plans on using the funds awarded by the Guggenheim Foundation to conduct research abroad for a new book. She characterizes this latest undertaking — which she is working on alongside a novel and a book about Frida Kahlo — as a reexamination of resilience. The way in which the concept is usually deployed, she says, often implies that, “If you are resilient, then you somehow put behind you whatever trauma has come before.” But to Rapp Black, this is “a lie”: The word, she said, was originally “meant to incorporate the trauma,” not to abandon or “rise above” it. it’s meant to incorporate the trauma, it’s not meant to rise above it.

Rapp Black has detailed her own traumas in two memoirs. The first, “Poster Child,” narrates her upbringing in Nebraska and Wyoming from the time she was six, when her leg was amputated and she was chosen as the face of a campaign by the March of Dimes organization. Her second memoir, “The Still Point of the Turning World,” details her young son’s decline and eventual death at three years old from infantile Tay-Sachs disease, a genetic neurological disorder that progressively disrupts patients’ intellectual and motor abilities. Rapp Black now works with the National Tay-Sachs & Allied Diseases Association, where she helps parents navigate end-of-life plans for their children, and she remains an active voice in discussions surrounding pediatric hospice care and medical ethics.

The trajectory of Rapp Black’s life did not initially seem to point toward memoir writing. After graduating from St. Olaf College with a B.A. in religion and women’s studies, she earned a master’s in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she discovered that she couldn’t “really talk the way I want to talk about people and things in academic language.” She instead devoted herself to creative writing and soon earned a James A. Michener fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked toward her M.F.A. under author David Bradley. Bradley, whom Rapp Black describes as her best teacher, helped her realize how to write stories that weren’t “about (her), in some sense” — to instead put herself in a position from which she could simply try to “usher the material into its best form.” She also remembers Bradley telling her to “‘Keep it simple, stupid,’ which is actually really good advice.”

In her own work, Rapp Black’s experience with suffering and its pageantry intersect heavily with her views regarding resilience. Her time as a poster child for disability exposed her early to the kind of “rise above” conception of resilience she now objects to. “During that time, people would be like, ‘Oh, well, but she’s not ‘really’ disabled, ’cause she does all of these things,’” she said, “So my whole identity was sort of built on that narrative being sort of a given truth.” She believes that the “grief voyeurs” who subscribe to such narratives do so “because they think it means that it won’t happen to them.”

When her son’s health was failing, one of Rapp Black’s friends responded to her suffering in a way the writer said was much more truthful: “She just said this one word: She’d go, ‘Awful!’”

“People were like, ‘You can do it, you’re strong,’ and I was like, ‘Actually, that’s untrue,’” she continued. “I just actually wanted someone to, like, acknowledge the truth of the situation … It’s not that there’s not hope, but it’s not like a light at the end of the tunnel … The tunnel just goes on, and changes.”

Rapp Black arrived at UC Riverside in 2016 after teaching at Antioch University-Los Angeles, the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the University of New Mexico.

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