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Lee Upton on humiliation, epiphany, growth, and selfies

20140922LNI_Upton In a recent Late Night Library interview by Joanna Kenyon, author Lee Upton talks about her new short story collection, The Tao of Humiliation, as well as her use of humiliation as a shot at redemption, literary epiphany, the body, and why we take so many selfies. “It’s as if humiliation teaches us how to be human among other humans," says Lee, "—that is, humiliation can teach us a humbling awareness of our flaws. Our idealized self is crushed in a moment of humiliation—as if humiliation is a ‘way’ of sorts, a way toward or through experience, a kind of stripping down as the social self isn't accepted or is derided or held in contempt. We can’t be humiliated alone; it takes other people.” The forms which humiliation takes in her stories force Upton's characters to "stand outside themselves and see what others see." And, that instead of a superficial embarrassment, it's really an opportunity for redemption: "Humiliation may even turn them against solipsism. They are forced to move outside themselves, to be shocked into a recognition." This shocking and sudden recognition, is a lot like literary epiphany, a topic on which she also lights: “The nature of an epiphany in actual life—at least as I’ve experienced epiphanies myself—is transitory and fragile, a fleeting experience that eventually has to be rediscovered and reclaimed. Not all of my characters experience epiphanies, but when they don’t I always hope that the reader will. . . . Even epiphanies are only partial. As in most experiences, there’s always something more to discover beyond what’s been revealed.” Kenyon perceptively recognizes the motif of body, saying that Upton’s “characters often long for the physical, even as they feel disconnected from or discontent with physicality.” As featured in these stories, the body (much like the epiphany) is always a process. Recalling Yeats’ famous line about humans being “fastened to a dying animal,” and relating to the epiphany—itself a brief moment of relief in an ultimately transitory or continually shifting life, where upsets and adjustments are the proper mode of being—Lee makes more connections than expected. “I can’t help but think of bodies as mysterious. It’s as if the body, which is always with us, is elusive. You learn to walk, and before you know it you hit puberty and can hardly recognize yourself. Every decade—it’s like slow motion surgery. . . . Our bodies are time stamped, and we don’t ever get entirely used to them, given the rate at which they surprise us. . . . Maybe that’s why people take so many selfies. There’s the repeated and always dashed hope that maybe we’ll at last capture our own physical image.” Click here to read the full Late Night Library interview with Lee Upton. The Tao of Humiliation can be purchased online at the BOA Bookstore.
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