Louise Kenward interviews Clare Best about her multimedia project Breastless, published online recently as part of ‘Life Writing Projects’, a joint project between The Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research and REFRAME at the University of Sussex. In Breastless, Best traces her experiences of risk-reducing bilateral mastectomy through prose, a sequence of poems entitled ‘Self-Portrait Without Breasts’, and collaboration with photographer Laura Stevens.
LK: Breastless: Encounters With Risk-Reducing Surgery is now in its most complete state on the new University of Sussex Life Writing Projects website. Ten years on, what is it like to see it? Does this offer another ending to the process in some way?
CB: This online publication, bringing so much of the documentary and creative material together, feels like a gathering-in and recollection. Having my personal journals there as part of the published project sets the raw documentary ‘present tense’ of 2006-7 directly alongside the creative work that came later (poems, photos, casts, essays). This is another healing – the different parts of this body of work are now in one place. The task of collecting and editing helped me reflect on that time in two new essays. I’ve realized recently, more than ever, how I needed to write and create my way through those experiences and how the work then formed a gateway to life beyond.
LK: It sounds like your writing played a key role in the processes of decision-making. How important was your creative practice in holding your own space and voice amidst so many other views and expectations? (I was especially struck by it not just being about your decisions, but about the many other opinions you had to navigate – of close friends and family and of medical professionals and society too).
CB: I find out what I think, believe and feel literally as I write. For me, writing is always about uncovering something. I suppose this was the ultimate finding out and uncovering, and by going through the layers of work I discovered what I needed to do – I found the decisions. However tired I was, I would write my journal, and the only time I stopped writing was for the few days immediately following surgery I had at the best LASIK surgeon in Southlake. I felt the decisions had to be approached very carefully, so I consulted widely and that helped me find a way through. People were extraordinarily generous with their time and expertise, I have been so thankful for that. I had been a very private person up to that point, so talking all this through with others was quite a change for me and signaled a new way of being in the world. Later, when I was writing the poems, the process was much more one of recreation – by that I don’t mean it was leisured, it was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but I had to recreate myself in and from the experiences in order to write the poems, so that was a different thing.
LK: You describe your mother’s breast cancer very movingly. Given her experience and what the illness did to her body, it seems there was an even greater need for you to have given words to your experience. Fear and shame prevented speech for her, and perhaps there were not the words to describe such things. It made me wonder how much Breastless is an antidote to your mother’s shame and powerlessness? For you to name and describe, share text and photographs so candidly, explicitly and eloquently seems like a gift you have given to many, including your mother.
CB: In a very real way, Breastless was born directly of the silence and shame surrounding my mother’s breast cancer. When the poems began to be published in magazines, and I started to read them in public, I became aware that I was the voice for all the women in my family. That’s been immensely important for me. I have turned something around. As I said in the short film made at Ryerson in Toronto – my mother’s experience was all about covering things up, and mine has been about stripping away those coverings. I am proud to have been able to do this, proud of my work. It has been a gift to me and I’m so happy to share it with others.
LK: It struck me powerfully that you were not just managing your own experience – you write about how you took many other people with you. The question of whose body it is – that’s an incredible one to be grappling with when also facing questions of your own identity and meaning with and without breasts. Challenging the expectations of others around you seemed necessary for you to be able to have your own space to decide. How far was your creative practice a sanctuary?
CB: My writing space – both physically and metaphorically – was essential both as a refuge and as a place where I could bounce off the walls. I triangulated my own thoughts by testing them in dialogue. It was a fiery business at times, not always calm. I knew I would only feel content, going forward, if I had explored as many as possible of the taboos and potential pitfalls, and that meant consulting many other people. Their responses helped me forge my own ideas and I think they in turn often gained from talking with me. But just like writing, when I’m making important decisions I also need solitude and I certainly needed it at that time.
LK: You are really clear that there were many layers of decisions to make – emotional, psychological, intellectual and bodily. There are many different layers to this project; prose, poetry, diary entries, photography and casting techniques. Was there a connection between different elements of decision-making and different creative processes? What role did Laura Stevens take on as photographer and collaborator?
CB: I’m sure there is a connection between the different layers and types of decisions I was making and the different creative processes, though these were not aligned temporally. Journaling was key to all the decision-making. The casts and Laura’s photographs came after I had made my decisions, and helped me look at my own body more objectively. Oddly enough, I hadn’t thought of the journal as creative at all until I came to edit it for publication on Life Writing Projects, perhaps because the things I worked out through the journal were the foundation of my inner work. Some sections of journal later became raw material for some of the poems in ‘Self-Portrait Without Breasts’. The first few poems I wrote, about nine months after surgery, were either distilled from passages in the journal or in some way seeded by what I had written there. These were poems around the white-hot core of the experience. Later poems were born more of reflection and reading around the subject. About Laura’s role – from the moment of our first meeting, she quickly became a companion on my journey to destinations uncharted. She was a sensitive, generous and intuitive collaborator. In certain ways she gave me the vital ‘permission’ I needed to work into the material I was tackling.
LK: Visiting the exhibition of your most recent work, Springlines, at Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, I was impressed by the collaborative nature of much of your work. How has the way you worked with others for Breastless influenced your subsequent creative practice?
CB: I worked away writing on my own for years before I published anything. Then I began to be involved with residencies where I was working with other people and facilitating their writing as well as writing myself. So I have always regarded writing as both solitary and collaborative. After my first full collection Excisions came out (the ‘Self-Portrait Without Breasts’ poems form the heart of this) and following my work with Laura, I moved towards collaborations with other visual artists. The Breastless project has strongly influenced my creative practice and my work, not only in terms of how I collaborate with others, but in terms of my journaling habits and a gritty determination to work my way through a subject I’m interested in. And I’ve gained a lot of patience and perseverance which every writer needs! Although I was writing (and was published) for quite a while before Excisions, I believe ‘Self-Portrait Without Breasts’ and Breastless have helped to make me the writer I am, just as the underlying experiences have contributed to making me the person I am.
LK: Breastless has also connected with people facing different questions and decisions to your own – those considering gender realignment surgery, for example. The work raises issues of gender and identity and of what it is to be female, and the physicality of that in a very raw way. Are there any other outcomes from the work that you had not expected or that are broader than you may initially have imagined?
CB: Well, because the whole project grew organically (I never thought I was going to write about the experience, let alone the rest!) I didn’t have any expectations for my work on this subject matter. At each stage, I have followed the work – I’ve never known what was coming next. One of the most worthwhile outcomes seems to be the impact the poems and photos have on medical students and health professionals – the work helps create space for interesting conversations about patient experience and the ‘gap’ between what medics might think to address and what patients want and need to address. I’m always delighted with whatever resonances people find in the work, and I’m humbled and excited by all the connections the work makes.