I'm thrilled to have a guest post from Janice Eidus today. She's a novelist, short story writer, and essayist and not only that, she's twice won the O. Henry Prize, as well as a Pushcart Prize, a Redbook Prize, and many other awards. Thank you so much Janice for being here today!
WRITING ABOUT MY SISTER
Almost 20 years ago, my older sister, Alice, died of chondrosarcoma, a rare, disfiguring cancer, before I had the emotional strength to begin to fix our unhappy relationship. She often appears in my writing, however, as I continue to struggle to understand and repair our relationship.
In my essay called, “Her True Face,” published in “Arts & Letters,” I wrote as objectively as I could about her illness and my relationship with her – as objectively as I could, that is, about a sister whose face was disfigured past recognition and who’d once said to me, in a rage, “You will owe me forever, because Daddy has always loved you more than he loves me!” Writing that essay, I lingered on the way she dressed and acted prior to her illness: “In her diaphanous nightgown, her cigarette emitting a lacy trail of smoke, she’s the epitome of some long-ago glamour queen.” I also wrote of all the times when we were children, and “… she pummeled me with her fists, pulling my hair … telling me how much she despised me.”
In my comic novel, Urban Bliss, I transformed her. Rather than aim for objectivity, I took the qualities I’d most enjoyed in her and affectionately exaggerated them, including her adoration of all things traditionally feminine, such as diaphanous nightgowns and slim cigarette holders. Maya Bliss, the older sister of the novel’s protagonist, Babette Bliss, exclusively wears pink ruffled clothes and lives in an all-pink New York City apartment. Maya Bliss is also the loving, somewhat daffy, mother of a little girl she dresses (naturally) all in pink. Alice never had the chance to be a mother in life, and it felt reparative for me to imagine this wackier version of her taking on that role.
In my most autobiographical novel, The War of the Rosens, which takes place in the ‘60s in the Bronx, I wrote about Alice again, portraying her as an angry, deeply-religious child named May with brain cancer, as well as an obsessive crush on a blond, blue eyed boy in the neighborhood. In reality, Alice wasn’t super-religious as a child, although she became so as a young adult, nor did she have any painful, unrequited, obsessive crushes during her childhood as far as I knew (those came later). But making her alter-ego in the novel younger and grappling with a different kind of cancer allowed me to delve as deeply into the truth of our relationship as my nonfiction had – but with a different slant. In fiction, I was able to offer her, and myself, a redemptive ending that we never had in life. In this scene, toward the end of the novel, the younger daughter, Emma, witnesses the dying May at last being kissed by the boy for whom she has yearned: “Emma stands in the doorway, her heart stirred by the sight of May’s awkward body gathered in Marvin’s golden arms. They are kissing passionately, their bodies entwined, as if they will be together for eons and centuries to come, their love the stuff of poetry and dreams.”