C.J. Hribal

"Do I Look Sick To You? (Notes on How to Make Love to a Cancer Patient)"

Winner of the Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, 2017
Selected by Ha Jin
Read the story here


What inspired you to write “Do I Look Sick To You”?

I was very much in love with someone who’d had a very rare form of cancer before I knew her. It came roaring back—very aggressive, very resistant to treatment—just as we were talking about marriage. I ended up taking two sets of notes. One set was just trying to keep track of the avalanche of information that was bombarding us—about the disease itself, about treatment protocols, about the drugs and their side effects and the drugs they were using to help alleviate the symptoms of the other drugs they were using. Another set of notes was my emotional response to what was happening to her, to me, to us.

Two things came out of that second set of notes. One was that cancer affects everything, every nook and cranny of your life, and I hadn’t seen a lot written about how it affects intimacy. The other was that there’s a weird counter-narrative out there. We use war and battle metaphors when talking about cancer—we “fight” it. And because we love happy endings, one narrative that’s out there unintentionally is that if you fight it and will it hard enough, you can beat cancer, and if cancer “wins,” then you weren’t fighting or trying hard enough. The first part of that narrative is understandable, even necessary. The second part is pernicious. There are many types of cancer, and some offer you essentially zero chance of survival. I’ve had friends and well-meaning people—cancer survivors—who’ve unintentionally conveyed that message, and part of what was behind this story was giving voice to the rage and to all the other complex emotions people feel when they are “fighting” and “losing” a “battle” they had no chance of “winning.” This doesn’t mean you don’t fight, but sometimes cancer does hold all the cards. Eventually what matters is that we treat each other with kindness and with tenderness.

This story has a careful balance of humor and heartbreak. Was this difficult to accomplish? How were you able to find the right balance?

Richard Russo once said something along the lines of fiction needing to appeal to the head, the heart, the gut, or the funny bone, and that the best fiction usually aims for more than one of those. Stories for me work best when two emotions are engaged simultaneously, which probably stems from my feeling that we rarely experience single emotions in isolation. Or at least I don’t.

So in my work, I usually try to create situations where the reader experiences two emotions at once. Humor has always been one of the ways we battle tribulations—whether it’s grief or horror or any of life’s darker moments, and I often find that the darkness is sharper if humor is part of the equation, and vice versa. Combining emotions throws each into relief—it’s like counterpoint in music. You experience each more sharply because of the other emotion’s presence. Depending on the story, of course, the blend shifts as necessary. In this story, the characters use humor, sometimes, to respond to disbelief at the unimaginable. When that no longer works, the story shifts more towards tenderness, which I hope is felt more strongly because of what preceded it. You want sentiment, not sentimentality. Humor gives you the necessary distance initially to eventually allow you to work in close, conveying deep emotion without being treacly. You’re laughing a little, then you go, “Oh.”

Why did the second person feel like the right voice for this story? Did you experiment with other styles while writing the piece?

In my notebooks, I have snippets of scenes written in first and third person as well as in second. But I kept coming back to second person because second person, when it’s done well (and I hope I’ve done it well), can do several things simultaneously—it invites the reader to directly enter the story as a character, and it can convey to the reader the feeling that the character him- or herself doesn’t quite want to be there, that they’re in a situation from which they’d like to be slightly distanced. It’s not happening to me, it’s happening to this other person, this “you.” For this story, I did want the reader to be in this particularly uncomfortable situation, to experience it as the character might, which includes his both wanting and not wanting to be there.

Second person often gets a bad rap—it’s gimmicky, it orders the reader around, etc. But it also has a long history—a lot of great poetry uses the second person form of address, and it’s been around in fiction for a long time. When we read things in first or third person, we’re often still putting ourselves in the shoes of the characters—after all, we’re not the “I” who’s speaking in a first-person story, nor are we the “he” or “she” in third person stories, yet when we experience the great joy of “empathetic imagination,” we find ourselves experiencing things as the character does, vicariously. Second person is just a more direct method of pulling the reader into the narrative. This is the first story I think I’ve written using second person exclusively, but like a lot of writers, I’ve used it in short bursts to briefly pull the reader (see some of my answers above) into a given character’s conflicted emotional state.

Which writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?

Listing the writers who’ve inspired me is pretty impossible—it would go on too long—but here’s a short list: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, William Maxwell, Richard Russo, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Graham Greene, Joan Silber, Lorrie Moore, Jane Smiley, Jane Hamilton, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Flannery O’Connor.

Right now I’m indulging in Alan Furst (as someone once observed, reading his work is like rediscovering Casablanca again for the first time), Gina Berriault’s collected stories Women in Their Beds, Tom Lux’s poetry, and travel guides to Ireland, in preparation for my first visit there.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

Besides the Richard Russo nugget offered above? From Raymond Carver: No tricks. From Flannery O’Connor: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. And the one piece I offer my own students, and which I try to live by in my own work (it’s my one major commandment of writing): Love everyone. Spare no one.