Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Steven Dunn

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Steven Dunn, author of Water and Power.

Julia Cohen’s and Abby Hagler’s Original Obsessions

An Interview with Steven Dunn

Original Obsessions seeks to discover the origins of writerly curiosity — the gestation and development of these imaginings — focusing on early fixations that burrowed into an author’s psyche and that reappear in their current book. In this installment, Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler interview Steven Dunn, author of Water and Power.

Steven Dunn opens Water and Power (Tarpaulin Sky, 2018) with a question: “I am interested in the submersion of individuals within the military. I am also interested in the breach. Q: How do you write about something so large, but largely invisible?” Though it may seem like an impossible task, Dunn shows the reader how it can be done using a stunning array of documentary techniques. The question he asks could also be: How do we remember who we really are? Or, what happens when we return “home” after we’ve been irrecoverably changed by what we left for? In all of our lives, there is a self that is lost to schoolrooms. A self lost to family barbeques and teenage basement parties that recur in dreams. Our selves can be lost to relationships and institutions — where we work, where we accrue debt, where we try to build a life. In Dunn’s writing, there is a self lost at sea. A self left in a museum of taxidermy. A self buried in the hardened heart of a Naval commander.

To Dunn, it seems, the self can certainly be recovered through collecting. This book is thus a collection of personal interviews, diagrams, memories, confessions, advertisements, and movies that present a logic outside of learned patriotism and military machismo.  The reader is collaged into a reckoning with the damages the military industrial complex creates for those who serve and the often-ignored repercussions of their footprints in foreign countries, which makes the process of reading itself a necessary awakening.

Brief Excerpt from section “Subject Interview #00083”:

I loved her. I think. I’m not so sure about that word. I mean, I love love, in theory. Theory is beautiful, but love in the real world is something else. I’m at work every day with people who love their country, love god, love ice cream, love getting fucked up. I think it’s wonderful that one can use the same word of affection for country and ice cream. But the thing with ice cream is, when your tastes change, you can say you love this new flavor of ice cream better than you loved that old disgusting butterscotch. You can’t do that with a country.

…Anyway, [my wife]’d try to cope, write it all out: journals, pros and cons, and optimistic analogies. I had just returned from back-to-back 12 month deployments (I came back for a week between the two). She was sitting on the floor in our bedroom upstairs with that lovely red hair all wild like it was reaching out to me. I walked in and she said, I’ve been working on these analogies for two years, making progress. Maybe you can help. I said, Great, I’ll be right back, I gotta go get a drink first, then call my Chief, something hilarious happened.

I came back and she was gone. Just gone. The only things left were a powdery burgundy residue in the shape of her butt and crossed legs where she’d been sitting, and her notebook, with optimistic analogies:

My husband being in the Navy is like my husband being in the Navy. Deployments are to deployments as deployments are to deployments. Love is to country as love is to ice cream. (46)


TS: On the first page of Water & Power, you pose a disembodied Q & A:

Q: How do you write about something so large, but largely invisible?

A: Something that large must have cracks.
Q. Write from the cracks?”


The inquiry above—including the empty space following the last “A”—seems like an essential mission that drives the project as a whole. This book illuminates the way in/visibility is constructed within various systems, cultures, history, and societies in America as well as cities visited by our troops. Your “Field Notes,” “Subject Interviews,” and “Participation” sections consistently bring to the forefront individuals who have previously been rendered invisible, like closeted soldiers under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy; isolated military spouses who don’t share the same penchant for gossip or flagrant patriotism as their peers; and service members raped while serving in the army. What surfaces are the aspects of identity that we usually hide from others under threat of penalization (social, financial, etc) and what we are actively encouraged to not see: our more authentic selves as well as deadly and destructive US military actions toward its own people and civilians in foreign nations. Yet, invisibility is a force that can be destructive as well as potentially freeing. For instance, it can act more like a superpower if you’re a kid. Do you remember how you felt about invisibility when you were young, or when the idea/recognition of it first impacted you? Was there a particular aspect of your personality or identity that felt invisible in certain social situations?

SD: First of all, thank you so much for noting that the book “illuminates the way invisibility is constructed within various systems.” So, a part of my personality or identity that felt invisible: I had a crush on damn near every girl in my classes—I don’t think it was always romantic, but just like these huge impossible feelings of love for everyone, even the boys. I was so impressed and enamored by everyone: their jokes, smartness, hair-length, fingernails, handwriting, knocked out teeth, athleticism, smells, shyness, loudness, and names. I had some friends named Shamella and Shereilla (who weren’t related), and I thought their names, and the fact they rhymed, was the coolest shit in the world. And they both ran faster than all the boys. And my other thing that was invisible was that I hated my name because I thought it was a white name, when almost everybody else had good-ass black names like Jamaal, LaVar, LaToya, Andre, Shameka, Tameka, Shamella, and Shereilla. I wanted to change my name to Tre Jamaal X when I was in 5th grade. Steven was such a weak-ass name.

TS: Bringing up your name, to me, is a reminder that, while your feelings may have been invisible at that time, your name was not. So much identity surrounds a name: identity that you struggle with, identity that you wish to own, identity that owns you. The downside of visibility can also be the lack of control that comes with how we’re read by others, which puts identity we don’t want on us. This seems to connect with the double-edged in/visibility of the military. For instance, when the narrator returns home on leave, some people read him as selling out, saying, “I ain’t joinin some white man’s military, ain’t nothing but poor folks dyin for rich white folks” (pg. 55), while others from his neighborhood read it as this positive escape they’re either slightly jealous or proud of. He also has different experiences asking for his military discount (pg. 57):

“I asked a man at the strip club for a military discount. He said, Anything

for a hero. I asked a woman at the movie theater for a military discount.

She said, What the fuck for? I think about not going back. Where else could I go? It doesn’t matter. I can’t go anywhere.”

One subject in this novel goes so far as to hide his previous service experience. The main narrator reflects: “he didn’t relate to a lot of the guys he was in the army with, and now that he’s out, he doesn’t want people to think he’s like that…” (pg. 60). Can you talk about your choice to write through the complex ways the military erases individual identity in the process of shaping a (forced) collective identity? How did you realize a hybrid form spoke to your goal when writing this book?

SD: Oh my god I’m loving the hell out of y’all’s questions! Thank y’all, cuz I get really excited to talk about this shit. My choice to write through the complex ways the military aggressively erases individual identity is because most military movies and literature usually only give us the completed/desired images that serve the meta-narratives—they don’t talk about what/how these patriotic images/people are created, because they are created, but the military and its marketers want these images to seem like it’s a natural part of our lives, like we are just born patriotic or whatever. Which made me realize that a lot of experience-based military literature isn’t critical of itself or the military. On the other hand, a lot of critical/scholarly military literature is missing experience-based narratives. I wanted to combine those two, and have a book that showed how it was being created, while being critical of itself and the military, while also having multi-vocal experience narratives because they highlight individuality. It feels like a hybrid form was necessary to contain and acknowledge all of that mess.

TS: While your book is situated as a hybrid “novel,” I also read it as a stunning expansion of documentary poetics in the vein of CD Wright’s One Big Self, Langston Hughes’ “Johannesburg Mines,” Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, and Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Like a reversal of the dominance of military indoctrination, you have relinquished authorial ownership to let these different voices and perspectives reverberate off of each other. What bubbles up is a lot of trauma surrounding this ideal of patriotism, which, you’re exactly right: no one is born with. It is learned. Or, more than learned. Your book shows the various ways of enforcement, which is bound up in hybridity. Another element of docu-po that also stands out in reflecting the conflict within the actual experience of being enlisted is your use of collage. It is executed not only through a multitude of voices telling their own stories, but also through inclusion of diagrams, an investigation of military advertisements, lists of civilian casualties, and even observed collage taken from real life. One really arresting example of the latter is in “Field Notes,” (pg 101) in which the narrator describes a room where a TV’s sitcom laugh track in the background provides a direct, chilling contrast to what’s going on in the Vietnam War footage playing on his laptop, creating a snapshot of two sides of American society at odds:

Soldiers hop out of a helicopter ducking as they run off

Soldier burying infant

Shooting Viet Cong prisoner in the head

In your own vision, how do moments of collage speak to trauma?

SD: Documentary poetics, yes yes! While writing this book I often re-visited Brenda Coultas’ A Handmade Museum, Eleni Sikelianos’ The Golden Greek, and Myung Mi Kim’s Commons. And the biggest collage-documentary-poetics influence was Ari Folman’s animated film Waltz With Bashir, about Folman’s experience as a soldier when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. It’s this very real thing about Folman going around asking his friends what happened because trauma made him suppress his memories, but what fucked me up is that it’s animated (considered not real), and because this real thing is collaged with animation (including dream sequences and recurring images), it felt honest and vulnerable to me, and terrifying. So for me, it’s similar: moments of collage speak to trauma because there’s the “real event” + the sort of animated responses (bodily, emotionally, hard documents, memory) to that event + unintended real life shit that’s counter and/or complementary to that event and your responses = sets of competing/complementary images that constantly disrupt and continue each other, which makes the meanings keep changing because the way the images are read keeps changing.

TS: I love that art was enlightening to your experience and to your emotions both in an out of the military, as the narrative of the book highlights. Was there an early childhood interest in art or an artist that seemed in opposition to what you were supposed to be doing or how you were supposed to be acting? Or a kind of art (visual, music, writing) that helped you see that you didn’t have to buy into a system or a particular notion of conformity? I’m thinking of this quote from the text where a superior officer reprimands new members, “I’ve been noticing a lack of morale…and a serious lack of appreciation for the sacrifices made by the brave men and women that have come before you” (pg 67). Was there an earlier, formative time when art helped you explore the pressure to conform or enable you to question boundaries and expectations?

SD: I definitely had an early childhood interest in art, I drew stuff and painted since elementary school (and had a few art shows as an adult). And funny you ask about a formative time when art enabled me to question boundaries and expectations, because I just posted about that on Facebook a few days ago. My post was in response to a fb friend messaging me about using too much profanity, which made me think of when my 4th grade teacher caught me drawing a comic of his turds in a toilet bowl saying, “I couldn’t wait to get out of that motherfucker.” My teacher was mad that one of the good students was laughing, so he made me draw it on the chalkboard in front of the class like I was supposed to be embarrassed or something. Then he got madder because I actually wrote motherfucker on the chalkboard. Of course I didn’t know it was formative at the time, but I remember being excited about the disruption, and that this forbidden word “motherfucker” existed on a paper in a class, and on the chalkboard. And when my teacher took me to the office to call my mom, he said, “This little muthafucka here…” and it made me so happy. Now this word was in three places in school because I drew something. That shit blew my lil dumb-ass mind.

So visual art is something I carried from childhood to adulthood and eventually led me to writing. I had an art show when I was 26, which took me about a year to prepare for, but something didn’t feel right during that year, but I did the show anyway because I thought I was a painter. I had twelve large paintings, and at the opening, my wife (then girlfriend) asked me if I noticed how many words I had on my paintings. I didn’t. And I didn’t realize that’s what didn’t feel right: I was failing visually and substituting with words. That’s when I figured I should be writing instead.

TS: You so easily conjure and remember yourself as a child, which I think is important to creative work. What comes through in your response is taking joy in your child-self for being transgressive. For an artist, part of the desire to disrupt is in the eagerness to find out what’s next, what breaks open, and to feel comfortable with this exploration whatever the consequences may be. Yet, as a dad you’re now someone who has authority, sets boundaries, and articulates expectations. How do you also encourage your kids to question these in healthy ways through art/creating? Or, how does your natural impulse to disrupt still translate into the ways you encourage your kids to explore?

SD: I really appreciate this question, being a parent is what I do most of the time, and that aspect of writers seems to be left out often (maybe I’m wrong about that). My daughter is 18, and my son is 4. When my daughter was in elementary, whenever she got home I always asked her, “What kinda hell you raise today?” Also, we’d have open conversations about what she thought didn’t make sense about school, or home, or whatever. One time she wrote a smooth-ass two-page letter about why she shouldn’t have to do her own laundry. So I guess, just being open and letting them know rules can change, and being transparent about our reasons for things, and allowing them to have reasonable agency over themselves and letting them contribute to the household space. Oh, and also listening to them for real, which my daughter taught me when she was 11. She came to me with an issue, and I went into problem-solving mode, but she said, “I don’t need a lecture right now, I just need you to listen.” Since then I’ve learned to shut the fuck up and only offer advice when asked for it, and trust her to do what she needs to do. And I always try to remember what it was like to be a child so I can stay as close as possible to their experiences. For me, a lot of parenting is me constantly comparing my child-self to my children, and I’m in such a juicy time right now because I can recall myself as a teenager, and also recall myself as a parent when my daughter was 4 like my son is.