Kate Braverman discovers the male voice at last
in ‘A Good Day for Seppuku’
By Lou Fancher
The nomadic, mostly Berkeley-based Kate Braverman, after more than four decades as a writer of short stories, novels and poetry, has discovered an astonishing new voice.
In “A Good Day for Seppuku” (City Lights Books, $15.95, 192 pages), a riveting collection of eight new short stories, Braverman proves masterful not only with the expected frame-busting female protagonists, but with male voices. Tommy Sutter, Sheriff Murphy and Jimbo emerge as characters with deep layers in the book’s title story; professors Bob and Malcolm believably spar or circumnavigate conflict while digging a car out of a snowbank and discussing the short story form as “a love affair that distills and sanctifies” in “The Professor’s Wife.”
“I’ve been wanting to write from a man’s point of view for decades,” says Braverman. “I couldn’t get there: It wouldn’t open for me. A story has to open up. It gives way, and the ordinary world disappears, and you’re one with the other. To inhabit men was a small triumph. It makes me a better human being: I know more. I don’t know if I have compassion for my characters, but now I have a larger repertoire.”
We are talking in the Berkeley home of Braverman’s friends, Janet White and Michael Clark, to whom the book is dedicated. Their long-term admiration for the 68-year-old writer’s style—humorous, fearless, insurrectionist, revelatory and laced with grave, dark themes and eccentric characters—dates back to her early works, including her best-known novel, “Lithium for Medea,” published in 1979.
Los Angeles native Braverman attended Berkley High School and holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from UC Berkeley and a master’s in English from Sonoma State University. A well-regarded writing teacher, she has unleashed scorching, vivid comments about the literary world that have been fueled by her own experiences. Those include growing up poor, embracing 1960s and ’70s counterculture, lengthy excursions into cocaine and other drugs, living for two years in Hawaii without electricity – and the more conventional patterns of marriage, motherhood, academia and earning awards and prizes.
In the process, she has developed some unorthodox opinions: People in today’s digital world, she insists, no longer listen or read well. “Everyone wants the bottom line so they can move on. The nuances and resonances are seen as irrelevant.”
She thinks that women writers are particularly constrained; their stories are often filled with good girls whose transgressions are trivial. Young writers are often “stained” by a lack of historical knowledge: The apocalyptic impact of post World War II, post-nuclear bomb “fall of family” escapes notice, for example. Handicapped by stigmas that allow male writers to express the weight of mourning or addictions, betrayals and other grand tragedies, women counterparts, she says, are accused of whining and as a result, “write small, lie—and are punished if they don’t.” Even worse, the overall culture encourages people to think they can be writers simply because they know the alphabet and how to put a period at the end of a sentence, she adds, with emphasis.
If it seems Braverman’s bluntness might keep her stories from having subterranean sensitivity or a teasing tone stretching from taut to tender, it doesn’t. Along with her character Megan Miller’s obstinacy in “Feeding in a Famine” comes profound sympathy for the pain of her failing to fall neatly into a family history. The critical mass of two women’s dysfunctional friendship in “Women of the Ports” is doled out between beautifully encapsulated descriptions: water in a garbage-filled bay is in need of CPR, mobile phones are “cockpits on our wrists.” A man writing in a journal about a swarm of birds writes “churched” instead of “churned,” a clever mistake that subtly parallels the story’s humor, truth, faith and irony.
“I write aloud. It’s tongue in cheek,” says Braverman. “You can’t pick out the hero or villain.” She held up her progress during her first five years of writing by focusing on completed stories that had little to do with her life. “It was extremely arduous. I would have been better off if someone had mentored me – told me to do exercises,” she says.
Exercises were undertaken to write the new stories. Writing rap versions, reading aloud instead of writing for the silent eye, intentionally disrupting standard beginning-middle-end arcs and more abstract techniques help a writer to avoid presuming any sentence beginning with a capital letter is truth. “After the obvious bones of structure, coloration, weight, you have to use your imagination,” she notes. Later, she adds, “There’s no such thing as writing the truth. Everything we know about the world has been written down and is fictionalized — transcendent of human condition, religion, history. They’re all elements of fiction written by people who deleted, compressed, elaborated, exaggerated.”
Critical to the process of writing, reading, critiquing and discussing books is putting the work aside, rereading favorite authors such as Sylvia Plath, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer. It is then, in the echoes created that Braverman says fear of “just pushing words around” ends and discovery begins. “Writing becomes dictation: Characters speak to you. One day, I started to hear men, and that’s a thrill. I write for the thrill.”