On April 22nd, Awst Press will be releasing David Olimpio's memoir/essay collection This is Not a Confession. Though not for everyone, (there are quite a few graphic descriptions of sexual abuse- I want to make that clear) Olimpio's debut is both startling and accomplished. In brash and brutally honest form Olimpio delves into uncomfortable issues ranging from traumatic childhood events to coping with his mother's death to his somewhat unconventional adult life. In each of these essays, Olimpio explores both the facts and perceptions surrounding the incident with an uncompromising lens. This is Not a Confession goes beyond autobiography or memoir, however, as it also explores the relationship Olimpio has with memory and with the process of uncovering and crafting memory.
With this interview, David Olimpio digs even deeper as we discuss unreliable narrators, logic and existentialism through memory. Read on.
Steph Post: I'm going to jump right in with the title of your essay collection- This is Not a Confession. The theme of confessing, or rather, not confessing, comes up throughout the pieces as does your declaration that you can't be shamed. Yet at first glance, this book reads exactly like a confession, as it hallmarked by a painfully honest tone. Can you explain how it is not? Why is the concept of confessing so important to your work?
David Olimpio: I think I've always been enamored with unreliable narrators. And it turns out I am also most enamored with myself as narrator when I am somewhat unreliable. So I think, in part, the title has something to do with that. I like when somebody says one thing but means something else. Not in an untruthful sort of way, but in a knowing sort of way. As in, we all know what’s really being said. Because another word to describe "saying one thing but meaning something else" is that it’s a lie. But I've never been good at lying. I think I might be genetically incapable of it. Which has made my fiction-writing attempts a real pain in the ass.
So you're absolutely right: this book is definitely a confession. The line "this isn't a confession" comes out of one of the stories during a conversation with my wife. Confessions often connote an apology, though. And the act of confessing in that story, as well as in the other stories in this book, are not that. They are not apologies.
I spent most of my life feeling shame over a lot of the things I write about in the book. And I'm done with that. Part of the reason I'm done with it is because speaking about the things has made the shame over them disappear. That's one of the themes in the book: how voicing the things you're feeling shame about has a way of taking that shame away.
But one of the things I didn't want was for this to come across as any sort of apology for having done the things or for having been involved in the things. There is no regret or feelings of sorrow for the things having happened. Those things both are and aren't me and I wouldn't change any of them, even if I could. I hope that’s conveyed by the title.
By the way, this wasn’t my original idea for the title of the book. I had originally wanted to call it Shirts and Skins. Or These Not Quite Sleeping Dogs. I believe Tatiana Ryckman is the one who suggested This Is Not a Confession and the others at Awst Press thought that was the best one. They were right.
SP: The book is composed of four sections, each made up of several essays, many of which are broken down into further sections. Does this breaking down and compartmentalizing of the text have any relationship to how memory works or how an author must approach memory when writing autobiographically?
DO: The sections sort of evolved on their own and with the help of the editors at Awst Press. I wrote a whole blog post about how much their input helped shape the book.
I do think you might be on to something about that structure sort of mirroring how memory works. The book opens with stories about my mother and her death, which was something at the forefront of my mind for much of the last five years. The interesting thing about that is that my mother's death sparked the writing of most of the rest of the stories in the book. And so in that way it makes sense for this section to be first in the book. Because without her death, the stories might never have happened, either in real life, or on the page.
I might never have written stories about me being molested when I was five and six if my mother hadn't died. Because I never wanted to tell her about it. Partly because of my own shame, but partly because it would have broken her heart. So the story of that stuff happening to me as a child became wrapped up in the story of her death, which was a weird thing to have happen, but was also a very honest and truthful thing.
I've never been drawn to linear stories because memory doesn't work that way. At the same time, an author has to make the stories make some kind of sense—that’s the author's job in this whole writing game, especially in nonfiction. There is a lot of memoir out there that basically amounts to this: "Here are a bunch of things that happened to me, and well, ain't it some shit?" It isn't enough to do that. You have to tell the reader why it matters. You have to tell the reader what it means. If you haven't done that, then you've missed the whole point and you haven't done the hard work and you'd probably be better off selling cars or tending bar or something where you can at least make some money.
SP: Especially in the first section, many of the essays are riddled with references to time, numbers and physics. You mention Einstein a few times and also cite stories which have appeared on the science-oriented podcast Radiolab. Where does this science influence come from?
DO: In school I never really liked math. But the reason I didn't like math was not because I wasn't good at it. I could do math just fine. I got good grades in it. The thing I didn't like about math was that I never really understood why I was doing it. I didn't understand why it mattered.
In college I took an advanced math class that wasn't so much about memorizing and applying formulas; instead it was all conceptual. It was a class on symmetry and how symmetrical patterns were things that could be found everywhere in nature and maybe, just maybe, this held some sort of answer to life. This spoke to me. Here was a reason why math mattered. Numbers could be the answer. They could be the answer to everything.
I am also heavily into philosophy and people who like philosophy are usually people who like logic and numbers. I like Wittgenstein a lot because he takes logic problems and makes them, essentially, problems about language. All problems are really just problems of language. If we don't have an answer to them, it’s because we don't have the right words.
Juxtaposing the scientific with the personal is probably my way of trying to get at some deeper meaning that I feel is out there but can’t quite find, because I don’t have the language for it yet. I wish I had a better head for science because then I might be able to arrive at something truly important or groundbreaking. But I guess it's enough for me to just skip a rock over the ocean body of mysteries. It's all my brain is capable of.
SP: Without going into the details explicitly described in many of the essays, there is some tough material for readers to get through in This is Not a Confession. In many ways, your book has "trigger warning" written all over it and, to be honest, I had a rough time getting through the many personal accounts of your childhood sexual trauma and abuse. I very much admire the strength and candidness of your writing, but have you ever worried about either hurting or alienating readers?
DO: My main concern wasn't so much over the childhood sex stuff, as it was over some of the graphic sexual material from my adult life. I know there are probably members of my family, for instance, who will not want to read that shit. Not for the reasons you've mentioned, but simply because they will have absolutely no interest in reading graphic sex scenes, especially ones with me in them.
But I didn't write this for them. I would say that I didn't write it for anybody but me, but that's not really true. I think any writer who makes that kind of statement is either lying or deluded or both.
I wrote it for me, but I also know there is an audience for this book. There are people who will absolutely love this book. That feels cocky for me to say, but I don’t mean it in that way. I just know that there are things I write about in this book that somebody out there is dying to hear somebody talk about. There are people out there who would be interested to read an account of a man who has been raped by another man as a child, and who would be interested to know what that man thinks about it. You don't find that story written about very often. It's not a buzz topic on all the literary sites. Not because it doesn't happen, or because it isn’t an issue, but because men don't tend to talk about it.
Likewise, there are people out there who would love for somebody to write honestly about polyamory and making that work within the context of a long-term, committed relationship of 15+ years. And to approach that subject on the page in a way that goes beyond the low-hanging fruit of jealousy and breakup and divorce. To write a narrative about it that doesn’t try to pathologize it, or begin with the premise that it is a problem of some kind.
I think there are people who will relate to this book and who will say "fuck yes." I think it will resonate with a certain audience and my sincere hope is to find that audience.
I do worry that the book may alienate some of the people who have come to know me primarily through my dog photo blog. But I also know this: many of those people aren't going to read a book I write no matter what it's about. And so worrying about their reaction to it is a waste of time. And the fact of the matter is, they may read it and love it and never tell me about it. You just don’t know.
Still, if I’m being honest, I can think of dozens of people who, if I think too hard about them reading the book, it makes me cringe. I worry about their reaction to it, and I understand that I may in fact alienate those people. But in the end, I'm more excited over the prospect of the readers I might gain by writing a book like this than I am worried about the ones I'm going to alienate.
SP: At the end of your essay "The Big Bad Wolf," there are some lines that really struck me as being central to both this collection and your style. You write: "We create memories; they do not create us. And the more we remember a thing... The less we hide from it. The less power we give it to control us." How did you come to think about memory in this way? Why is it important to you both to share your memories and this philosophy with readers?
DO: I think the main reason I write at all is to try to find answers to the questions "Who Am I?" and "Why am I?" Writing, for me, will always be about trying to arrive at some sort of existential meaning, whether the narrative form is nonfiction, as it is in this book, or fiction. Regardless of which tact I take (fiction/nonfiction) I always will aim to do that.
I’m not a fan of the passive voice in personal narrative. Where there is a lot of talk of an “other” or of an event that happened to the person telling the story. ”Such and such happened to me." "So and so did this to me.”
No. I did this. I partook in this.
What I’ve found is that when I don’t talk about an important thing in my life, especially traumatic things, the thing holds a power over me. As soon as I work at remembering it and telling it, the thing becomes a lot less mysterious and abstract and powerful. You see it for what it is: just a thing that happened in a world full of things that happen. And it eventually turns into a less scary thing. That was probably the main point to “Big Bad Wolf.”
I don't want my memories to be “things that happened to me.” I want my memories to be exactly what they are: Things I make. There is science behind the notion that the act of remembering something is inherently an act of creation. I love that. I want to own my memories. I don’t want to hide from them or treat them as fucking precious things by either skirting around them or trying to uncover every single supposed fact about them.
This is one of the reasons I'm skeptical of any memoir that is very tied to the details of what happened, as if those details convey some kind of truth about the thing. There is no empirical truth to a thing that happened in our lives. There is only our truth to it. Except in regards to science and numbers and math. I suppose there can be truth in those things. (Ah! It’s all coming back to science, isn’t it?)
Life happens in those memories. Humanness happens in those memories. And we are all human and we are all a part of life. None of us are any more or less than human.
SP: I don't often read memoirs or personal essay collections, but I'm intrigued by the genre the way you write it. Who or what else would you recommend for readers interested in this style?
DO: I don't know if the books I'm about to mention are necessarily "in this style." If I were to suggest that my book was in the same playground or sandbox as these, I would probably be taken as egotistical at best or an outright liar at worst. But there are three that come to mind. When I read these, I didn't think of them so much as “nonfiction essay" or “memoir” as I did a story or set of stories which, among other things, didn't profess to be fiction. And I really liked that about them.
Maggie Nelson: Bluets
Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing
And because I can't seem to recommend anything without one of the things being a Martin Amis book, I'd say: Experience.
Many thanks to David Olimpio! As a reminder, This is Not a Confession drops on April 22nd. If you're in the Dallas area, be sure to hit up the launch party on the 23rd at Deep Vellum Books, 7pm. And, of course, if This is Not a Confession piques your interest, be sure to buy, read, review and recommend. Cheers!