Steven Dunn interviews Lisa Birman

On Lisa Birman’s How To Walk Away:

This event was curated by Selah Saterstrom for the University of Denver English Department’s Coffee and Conversation Series.

After reading Lisa Birman’s How To Walk Away about six months before, I had the pleasure of talking with her about her process and the book itself.

Synopsis from the back of the book:

After three years in Afghanistan, Otis is adjusting to life back home. Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, he obsessively replays the traumas of war, cataloging the names of the dead. Cat, his wife, is a genealogist who makes maps of families in an attempt to understand her world. When a car accident takes Otis’s left arm, he is grateful to bear a physical loss that makes his damaged emotional self visible. As he recovers, he and Cat confront the silences upon which their marriage is built.

When I started reading the book, I wondered had other military members read it, and if so, what did they think? So for this event, I asked some people that I was in the military with if they’d be willing to read portions of the book and respond and/or ask Lisa questions if they wanted.

One veteran asked Lisa: If there were one thought/idea/theme that you would want your reader to take away from your book, what would it be?

Lisa thought for a bit and said: Compassion

Which is what hit me hard in her novel. The compassion is layered, hidden, and not easy to find. Cat and Otis are different people and the topography of their own emotional landscapes are constantly shifting. And with this, they have to work hard to be compassionate towards each other, and as a reader, I had to do the same. Otis’ compassion for Cat shows that PTSD does not solely belong to the military. Cat’s compassion for Otis shows that there is a constant negotiation of space and closeness: Allowing Otis to be his changed self, but also encouraging him to seek help, and being that help also.

We talk about how books work on us. I feel that How To Walk Away works on us by asking us to, with care, be willing to go to scary places, make our own maps, and collaborate and make maps, for the sake of finding compassion. Yes, map-making as way of finding compassion.

–Steven Dunn