Thursday, March 2, 2023

Erica Berry's "Wolfish"

Erica Berry is a writer based in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, where she was a College of Liberal Arts Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Yale Review, Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Atlantic, Guernica, and elsewhere. Winner of the Steinberg Essay Prize and the Kurt Brown Prize in Nonfiction, she has received fellowships and funding from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Tin House, the Ucross Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. A former Writer-in-Residence with the National Writers Series in Traverse City, Michigan, she is currently a Writer-in-the-Schools with Literary Arts in Portland.

Berry applied the "Page 99 Test" to Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, her first book, and reported the following:
This page comes toward the end of the second chapter, “Girl v. Wolf,” which reckons with the creation and legacy of that story about the girl in the red cape. Who gets to play predator and who gets to play prey, and how do the stories we carry around in our minds influence our perceptions of how the world will treat us?
In rehashing Little Red, Perrault and the Brothers Grimm codified the male Western imagination of female victim. She is the girl who so often dies in horror movies, adored and innocent but streaked with a coyness and curiosity so often made to be her downfall. Someone who needs to learn a lesson. This male-sewn archetype was, admitted Charles Dickens, his first love. “I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.”
I myself did not think about Little Red Riding Hood until one night when I was grabbed by a stranger on the street, and on this page, I acknowledge that even though my odds of being murdered by a stranger are low--I am likely “living one of the safest lives in history”—I went through a period of my early 20s were I could not stop catastrophizing such things, in part because of my proximity to another woman who had been murdered (who I reference on this page, but introduce earlier). “I never wanted to dwell on fear, but I was not sure how to stow it either,” I write. The thread of personal narrative in the book is in many ways the trajectory of my own relationship with fear as a young woman.

I think the Page 99 Test works! You get a sense that this is a book featuring wolves from literature and history (via cultural criticism about Little Red Riding Hood), but there’s also a reference to something that happened with real-life wolves in Alaska—alas, I’m purposely being coy—as well as a rootedness in my own life. There’s a quote from both Charles Dickens and the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife, which I think accurately speaks to the tapestry of sources I engage with. Wolfish is very much a weave of various modes of narrative (personal, historical, cultural, scientific) and this page shows that juncture. It also reveals the associative logic of the book--Little Red Riding Hood and Alaska might not be inherently connected, but because of x or y theme or occurrence, there’s a reason to tell these two stories together. I think reading a genre-crossing book like this requires a little bit of faith: the reader walks with me down a winding road into the forest, trusting they’ll be surprised and enlightened along the way.

Though this page appears right in the midst of the most specifically Little Red Riding Hood section, I return to the fairy-tale throughout the book. It was the folktale wolf story that hit closest to home for me, and, as I realized in the course of writing, that I had the hardest time abandoning entirely. I went into it wanting to free the wolf from the “big bad” label, and free Little Red from the ditzy victim label, then at some point realized that the thing that bothered me most about the story was that some amount of fear was useful to carry. A worker I met at a wolf sanctuary told me that young wolves are born fearful, that that’s what keeps them alive, and I began thinking about that in my own life too. Fairy tales are a way of teaching fear, and because I was skeptical of the narratives around the emotion I had inherited—fear is a political tool, it always benefits someone—I started looking for new cues of how to dose that emotion. Thinking about Little Red made me realize that I did not want to write about the symbolic wolf without writing about who he was supposed to be chasing…that the “symbolic girl” mattered too. The personal threads of this book unravel times when I’ve felt like prey, but also when I’ve perhaps been more of a predator. Wolves, like humans, are very capable of being both, but I try to separate the idea of being seen as a predator and actually having power. The stories we tell about wolves are a true window into our human psyches, and this is a book that seeks to peel back the truth about both the four-legged animal and our own two-legged kind.
Visit Erica Berry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue