Dewaine Farria’s story “The Tap Cascade” appears in Southern Humanities Review issue 53.1. The story is but one chapter from Farria's forthcoming novel Revolutions of All Colors, winner of the 2019 Syracuse University Press’s Veterans Writing Award. In the following interview, Farria and SHR’s assistant managing editor, Laura Mulqueen, discuss characterization, MMA, and the veteran experience.
Laura Mulqueen: “The Tap Cascade” opens in scene with a MMA match. There’s heat and aggression and arresting second-person narration. The minimalism reads as affirmation and directive. Simon is wholly consumed in what seems, to me, an experience that is both out-of-body and intensely grounded. Why was it important to open the story in this moment? What is attractive to Simon about MMA?
Dewaine Farria: Flannery O’Connor said, “…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take to eternity with him.” Fighting invites what most humans try their best to avoid—chaos, pain, humiliation, defeat. As opposed to the other great American pastimes—football, baseball, basketball—one does not “play” MMA. The sport is a flesh-and-blood demolition derby, so much so that at times it can be difficult to watch. In all of sports, there is nothing more fiercely contested than a five-minute round of MMA. I opened the story in the arena in order to convey this specific and brutal physicality and mindset. The second-person point of view (POV) “assigns” Simon’s physicality and mindset to the reader.
When second-person narratives come up in literary circles, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City tends to be the only novel discussed. But tossing this narrative device into the literary scrap heap of oddities and gimmicks is a mistake. Take for instance this passage from Robert O’Connor’s (hugely underrated) Buffalo Soldiers:
You watch as the brown mixture soaks into the swab. You place the tip of the needle deep into the swab to draw the scag through the cotton. Then you force the air bubbles out, pointing the needle up in the air like a tiny missile. Simmons takes out the adjustable tourniquet with Velcro clasps and begins to tie off.
We’re not just watching the narrator cook heroin or listening to him tell someone else about it, we’re helping. This sensation—that the reader is the narrator—is the hallmark of a true second-person narrative. Another hallmark of this POV is the implication of the reader in actions and thoughts of which the narrator is either proud or ashamed. As Lorrie Moore brilliantly demonstrates in “How to Become a Writer,” these actions and thoughts need not be as extreme as the preparation of hard drugs for intravenous injection:
You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling. Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend. You are said to be self-mutilating and losing weight, but you continue writing. The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen. You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius. Understand what you must do. Switch majors. The kids in your nursery project will be disappointed, but you have a calling, an urge, a delusion, an unfortunate habit. You have, as your mother would say, fallen in with a bad crowd.
Moore “assigns” her narrator’s characteristics and reactions to the reader. In this sense “How to Become a Writer” reads like an embarrassed confessional—"the shameful I”—in sharp contrast to O’Connor’s narrator—“the arrogant I”—who is clearly proud of his heroin cooking prowess. Writing in the second person achieves remarkably close authorial distance for the right kind of arrogant or ashamed narrators. This POV works especially well in “The Tap Cascade,” because Simon is both ashamed of the fact that he has fathered a child with a woman he doesn’t love, and intensely proud of his method of overcompensation—a maniacal devotion to the fighter’s life, manifested in the form of “The Fight God.” When writing this story, I kept thinking of something MMA mainstay, Joe Rogan, once said, “Greatness and madness are next door neighbors; and they borrow each other’s sugar.”
LM: Do you personally see the physicality of activities like mixed martial arts, or any fitness regime, as an outlet for quieting the mind, or is this something specific to Simon’s character? How did this become part of Simon’s characterization?
DF: In addition to quieting the mind, hard physical training callouses it. The toughest people I know are also the most tranquil. As a former high school athlete and Special Operator, Simon has—since an early age—had a very functional idea of fitness. I didn’t develop a similar mindset until I joined the Marine Corps. But, as a forty-three-year-old with a bad back and worse knees, I stick to yoga and calisthenics nowadays!
LM: I’m drawn to Simon’s devotion to “The Fight God.” He says, “The Fight God doled out that same sublime, single-minded clarity of purpose you found in war. But while no one really won on the battlefield, victory in the ring was clean and pure.” The characters in the story seem to grapple with their own sense of consciousness and the knowledge that our values are subjective, and yet there seems to be a need to attach oneself to some system of morality—Simon with his devotion to training, Michael’s intellectualism, Chris’s nutrition and fitness regime. Do you see this type of internal tension emerging often as you form characters? If you feel comfortable, can you relate this to your own experience as a veteran?
DF: Some of the most memorable characters (in both fiction and real life) are those trying to figure out how to survive their personalities.
Every black American veteran has, at some point, had to reconcile our country’s high moral ambition with its capacity for hypocrisy. So many black people have suffered so much brutality in the United States that, by default, the black veteran’s patriotism is layered, our allegiance plural. The character in my novel who most directly confronts this conflict is Frank. In an earlier chapter of Revolutions of All Colors, Frank recounts:
When I was Simon and Michael’s age, almost everyone I knew was black. Lieutenant Nic Voivodeanu, the 3rd platoon commander, had been my first white friend. Well, as much as a 2nd Lieutenant could be a PFC’s friend anyway.
One time in the mess hall in An Khe, Nic spotted me in the middle of scratching out a letter home.
“Who’re you writing to, Mathis?” Nic asked.
“My mom, sir.”
I returned to my letter, but felt the LT still there, examining the top of my head.
“Sir?” I asked, looking up.
“How old are you, Mathis?”
Nic grinned. “I bet your parents are proud.”
I didn’t say how, before leaving for boot camp, my mom made a point of telling me about the battered, castrated body of a black WWII vet, swinging from a yellow poplar in her neighborhood back in Tennessee.
“They’d stripped off his uniform before stringing him up,” my mom said. She talked about the racism of those days—the everyday terror—without bitterness or self-pity. That’s just the way things were.
Nah, I didn’t tell my West Point educated lieutenant that. Instead I nodded and returned the LT’s smile. But you best believe I told my boys about that lynching. In the basement that day, I told them boys to love their country. It’s the only one we got. You better love it, try to make it better. But don’t ever get caught acting like it can’t happen. It did. It does.
LM: How does “The Tap Cascade” fit into your forthcoming novel?
DF: “The Tap Cascade” is the second to last chapter in the book. Revolutions of All Colors stitches together myriad points of view and overlapping timelines to tell a story of evolving masculinity and friendship amid racial and sexual politics, fatherhood, and war. Both of Simon’s chapters are told in the second person POV.
LM: Michael seems to be a conscience for Simon (though he often ignores his advice). How does their shared history, and Michael’s intimate knowledge of life on the margins of society due to his sexuality and race, give him access to Simon’s detachment from emotional bonds while not excusing him from it?
DF: Michael is braver than Simon, and Simon knows it. More than his identity though, the length and depth of Michael’s friendship with Simon is what allows him to hold his friend accountable. Michael knows the story of Simon’s absentee father, his former Black Panther mother, his relationship with Frank, why he enlisted, the names of the friends he lost in Afghanistan and Somalia, and—ultimately—the cowardice that has landed him in the world of MMA.
LM: Speaking of the relationships between characters, I'm reminded of another story of yours that I’m fond of, “The Knife Intifada,” in which we see a tender friendship between two characters whose backgrounds couldn’t be more varied. Keren and Yaccoub’s friendship is wrought with tension, and yet the characters connect through a mutual search of safety and structure. What forces drive the connections your characters make with each other and the world around them?
DF: Thank you!
The inspiration for the character Yaccoub came from a friend I worked with in Jerusalem. But it was the friendships I formed in the Marine Corps that inspired the relationship between the two paramedics in the story. I have a lot of friends who voted for Trump. In “The Knife Intifada” I wanted to explore the strains that politics places on such friendships. I also wanted to show how friendships formed out of mutual respect, admiration, and trust can sometimes supersede politics.
LM: I won’t ask you to be too specific, but I’m wondering if you can share a little of what you’re working on now. Do you ever find yourself in a lull between projects? If so, how do you handle that?
DF: I’m a little over halfway done with a collection of short stories. Last year, CRAFT published, “The Knife Intifada,” the first story from the collection. After I finish up these eight short stories, I plan to begin work on a collection of linked essays.
LM: Do you have any advice for emerging writers, particularly those who may be coming to writing from non-academic backgrounds or later in life?
DF: Carve out time to write and guard it jealously. That and never stop thinking of yourself as an “emerging writer.” Keep grinding.
LM: What do you feel your work adds to the current literary canon?
DF: It’s hard to answer this question without sounding like an asshole. That said, I hope the Tap Cascade can elbow its way onto the shelf with some of my favorite literary fiction dealing with fighters and fighting.
On the non-fiction side, here are some of my favorites:
Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing is the best non-fiction book on fighting that I’ve ever read. Yep. She’s a fight fan.
Kerry Howley’s Thrown
“Where Meat Comes From” in Chuck Palahniuk’s Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories.
F.X. Toole’s Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner is the best fiction book on fighting that I’ve ever read.
“The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones
“Fifty Grand” by Ernest Hemingway
DEWAINE FARRIA’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, CRAFT, Outpost Magazine, the Rumpus, and Afropunk. He co-edits the Maine Review’s weekly “Embody” Column and is a frequent contributor to the Mantle. As a U.S. Marine, Dewaine served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Dewaine spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an M.A. in International and Area Studies from the University of Oklahoma. Tobias Wolff selected Dewaine’s novel, Revolutions of All Colors, as the winner of Syracuse University’s 2019 Veterans Writing Contest. Syracuse University Press will release the book in the fall of 2020. Dewaine lives in the Philippines with his wife, three children, two cats, and a dog. Find him on Instagram at: dewainefarria and Twitter at: @dewaine_farria.