Thursday, April 30, 2015

Watchlist Countdown, Day 11: “Sleeping Where Jean Seberg Slept” by Katherine Karlin

     But Jean was a woman. A woman who had ideas. An attractive woman who had ideas, and this is why she had to be neutralized.

       from “Sleeping Where Jean Seberg Slept” by Katherine Karlin

A lot of characters in the Watchlist anthology are monitored, followed, interrogated, and harassed, but perhaps none meet as sad an end as Jean Seberg, the gamine, too-sexy-for-her-own good movie star of the mid-twentieth century. In Katherine Karlin’s short story, Seberg is an oblique character--seen only as an object of fascination to the story's narrator, Odile Dahlqust, a 38-year-old who returns to her hometown of Edna, Iowa--a small, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place just down the road from Marshalltown, Seberg’s birthplace. Odile naturally has a geographic connection to the long-dead movie star, but as the story progresses, she starts to feel a deeper kinship as well.

In today’s guest blog post, Katherine Karlin talks about the “story behind the story.” Here’s her account of how she came to write “Sleeping Where Jean Seberg Slept.”

I moved from Los Angeles to Kansas in the summer of 2009, just after the Iowa Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in that state. For me, it was a good sign: I was leaving California with the bitter taste of the passage of the anti-gay Proposition 8, and the confused, at times racist, backlash (I actually attended a rancorous gay rights march where participants were loudly blaming black voters, who turned out heavily to elect Obama, for the proposition’s ratification). The Midwest struck me for a moment as a quiet haven for civility and progress.

Of course, the reality is more complicated, and history unfolded with startling speed. Same-sex marriage is legal in so many states—even Kansas, now—that we have forgotten Iowa’s brief distinction as the Midwestern beacon for human rights. Still, the Midwest keeps asserting its political relevance. It was a group of indomitable, loosely-organized, and tireless Missourians who exposed the truth about police brutality and forced the issue to the center of a national discussion, where it has remained. The Midwest is a surprising place. That’s the lesson I keep learning over and over, living here. Every time I am dispirited by assertion of some state legislator that, say, dinosaurs walked the earth with people, I am cheered by the sheer ballsiness of the response, of the ragtag group of kids who have set up shop across the street from the Westboro Baptist Church, of the “Dreamers” who confront local politicians on their anti-immigrant measures, of the black college students who conduct a die-in on the floor of the union amid racist taunts. Let me tell you, you have never experienced a Gay Pride march until you’ve frolicked with drag queens in a small town in Kansas.

The film actress Jean Seberg came to represent, for me, the push and pull that exist in the Midwest, the alternating impulses of decency and despair. Seberg’s no longer a household name, and to orient those unfamiliar with her work I would compare her to the more famous and extant Jane Fonda. The two women were born within a year of each other; both had a period as free-spirited, blonde ingénues; both married older, Svengali-like Frenchmen (Fonda, the film director Roger Vadim, and Seberg, the author and diplomat Romain Gary). Seberg was a bigger film star in France than she ever was in the United States, and she never had the kind of breakout Hollywood parts that Fonda had in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Klute.

But what the two women shared above all was the ruthless and determined persecution by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program. Hoover’s extralegal counterintelligence project was meant to “neutralize” the influence of leftists, and was aimed not only at political figures like Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael, but at celebrities who used their fame to support radical causes. Male artists like John Lennon and Leonard Bernstein were scrutinized by the FBI, but the agency reserved a special venom for women who dared to be outspoken, and few were more outspoken than Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg.

Here, though, their stories diverge. Jane Fonda, a fixture in the movement against the war in Southeast Asia, not only withstood the dirty tricks of COINTELPRO but parlayed her notoriety to gain even greater fame, reinventing herself again and again. Seberg, a supporter of the black struggle, was not so lucky. Pregnant with her second child, she withered under the whisper campaign, initiated by Hoover, that the child’s father was a Black Panther. After a troubled pregnancy, Seberg lost the baby, and spiraled into a ten-year vortex of despondency that ended with her suicide.

I traveled to Marshalltown, Iowa, where Jean Seberg grew up in the 1950s. Like many towns in this region, Marshalltown has undergone profound demographic changes in the last thirty years. A Swift pork processing plant dominates the community, and like the rest of the meatpacking industry it has facilitated speed-ups and wage cuts by recruiting immigrant workers, mostly from Mexico. Marshalltown was the site of the most massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid in U.S. history, in 2006, which resulted in the arrest of 90 workers. The arrest and deportation of these workers left some school children stranded, and the town, particularly the Catholic Church, scurried to identify the affected children and guarantee their care.

Like so much of the Midwest, Marshalltown is a bundle of contradictory political legacies. Before the ICE raid it was hailed as a model of community relations, embracing its new Latino residents and offering services to hasten their assimilation. These efforts were not without resistance, though, and Marshalltown remains polarized. Of course, these sweeping changes in the meatpacking industry occurred long after Jean Seberg’s childhood; she grew up the daughter of a pharmacist and his wife, decent and loving parents, in a town that was mostly Anglo. But like so many American teen-agers, awakening to her surroundings, Jean was alert to the poor treatment of the town’s black residents. At fourteen she mail-ordered her membership to the NAACP.

I looked for Jean everywhere in Marshalltown: in her father’s old pharmacy, now a sandwich shop; outside the Swift plants where truckers hauling live hogs line up at the gate; in the microfiche of the local newspaper that followed, with breathless excitement, her ascendancy to stardom; under the willows in the quiet cemetery where Jean’s parents, Ed and Dorothy, are buried, as is her infant daughter. What was it about this town that gave rise to her stubbornness, her willingness to risk everything for a cause, and what young girls are being formed there now, what reserves of strength will they have to speak out when they are warned to shut up? In the Marshalltown library I see them, mostly Mexican-American girls, bending over their books, swarming out the front steps, these daughters of the Midwest who come out of towns like this with their imaginative powers intact and their desire to be right. They make me hopeful.

Katherine Karlin’s recent stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cincinnati Review, [PANK], Triquarterly, and Kenyon Review. Her work has been selected for the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South, and her 2011 story collection, Send Me Work, won the Balcones Fiction Prize. She lives in Manhattan, Kansas.

Watchlist: 32 Short Stories by Persons of Interest, edited by Bryan Hurt, will be published by O/R Books on May 21.  The “persons of interest” contributing short stories to the anthology include Etgar Keret, Robert Coover, Aimee Bender, Jim Shepard, Alissa Nutting, Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, David Abrams, Randa Jarrar, Katherine Karlin, Miracle Jones, Mark Irwin, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Dale Peck, Bonnie Nadzam, Lucy Corin, Chika Unigwe, Paul Di Filippo, Lincoln Michel, Dana Johnson, Mark Chiusano, Juan Pablo Villalobos, Chanelle Benz, Sean Bernard, Kelly Luce, Zhang Ran, Miles Klee, Carmen Maria Machado, Steven Hayward, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Alexis Landau and Bryan Hurt.

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