If you’re literary, you’ve already heard about Tupelo Hassman. Reviewed in the New York Times, featured on NPR’s Fresh Air, given a starred and boxed review by Publisher’s Weekly and deemed “most likely to go viral” by the Boston Globe, this debut author is poised to enjoy a well-deserved bit of good fortune.
Her novel girlchild, released in February, tells the tale of a Rory Dawn Hendrix, a young girl growing up in a trailer park outside Reno. Prey to all the horrendous side effects of poverty, Rory undergoes sexual abuse, neglect, humiliation at the hand of her peers and perhaps worst of all, self-sabotage. “They’ll send me on to the next level, and the next level will take me farther away, in dresses I don’t have, on days off Mama won’t get. Wrong is my ticket home, and I’m cashing it in,” she says after deliberately throwing the statewide spelling bee.
Despite the atrocious catalogue of Rory’s tragedies — and there’s another big one to come — the book is never sentimental. There’s a sheen and shine to Rory’s first-person narration that doesn’t permit tears, even for those who cry at the drop of a hat (guilty!); it wouldn’t be respectful to the fierce earnestness that is Rory.
When Rory describes being raped by an adult, the lines are blacked-out, as if Rory herself took a Sharpie to them. Other typesetting wonders adorn this book: the depressing typewriter font from the social worker who visited Rory’s mother decades earlier, graphics of the Girl Scout badges Rory could earn if only her town had a troop.
Although the story is built so supremely convincingly out of the aluminum siding of reality, one illusory character flits in and out. I won’t spoil any surprises, but the book’s ongoing motif is one of eugenics and the idea that some people are predisposed to be smarter and better.
Recently, I met the 38-year-old Oakland author at a café for an interview. Wearing a vintage lime-green parka and matching rainboots (for good reason; it was raining), Hassman exuded a fragile hipster vibe. Under the parka was a sweater with an appliquéd cat sitting in a basket; the flirtatious barrista delighted in its kitschy charm.
Wondering if Rory might ever wear such a sweater, I asked Hassman whether Rory’s character is a little like her, or a lot. “It’s the first novel trap,” she says. “I started writing about what I know. Over the years, Rory began doing her own thing.”
girlchild began as Hassman’s graduate school thesis at Columbia, where she earned an MFA in fiction. These impressive laurels become even more impressive when you realize Hassman began her academic career by dropping out of high school — because her mother had died. Her father was “laissez faire about parenting,” so she took a breather before acing the high school proficiency exam and, many years later, beginning community college classes.
Her family found her success, leaping to USC and then Columbia, “confusing,” she says. “They’d go, ‘Why are you graduating? You just graduated!’ ” She’s the first in her family to attend college, and her background still haunts her. “There were no Girl Scouts, no braces. I’m always surprised and aware of the differences in perspective when people talk so casually about such an expensive thing.”
Looking across the table at this attractive woman with dusty-fringed dirty blonde hair, blue eyes and a nose ring, I’m struck by how moving her story is. She made it. One wants to pump a fist.
She humbly says of her publication success, “I got really lucky.” But when a literary agent gets multiple offers from publishers two days after submitting a book, that’s not luck. That’s talent. Accept it.
Right now her biggest problem seems to be how to balance getting married in the same year her novel launches. She worries about a brother in assisted living, and about her students’ plagiarism (she now teaches online where she attended, Santa Monica College in L.A.).
Her cousin, close to her age, still lives in the real-life equivalent of Rory’s trailer park, and Hassman says of her, “She’s beautiful, she got A’s and B’s … why is she still there while I’m sitting in this café with you?” Hassman clearly struggles with the old-as-time problem of why some people’s lives go well and others don’t. It’s impossible to rig this untuneable project called living — and hard to overcome mistaken assumptions about who deserves what. After all, why shouldn’t a girl from a trailer park be the best speller in Nevada?