Blood, unruly emotions, and intense relationships are at the heart of work by both the US author Chloe Caldwell and Ecuadorian writer Gabriela Ponce. Blood, especially when in the context of menstruation, has historically been such a taboo in society and literature (though this certainly is changing in recent decades), so the explicit literary focus on it is delightfully radical. More so, the depictions of blood are never meant to shock, rather they are in service of a larger emotional context.
Caldwell’s The Red Zone: A Love Story is a memoir about her experience with PMDD, or Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which is a severe form of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Throughout the book, she documents how her hormones and periods affect her moods and start to dominate her life, impacting her relationships—romantic, familial, and platonic. She also beautifully engages with the voices of other women who have had similar experiences, thus opening up conversations that are often had in whispers behind closed doors.
Ponce’s Blood Red (tr. Sarah Booker) is also a novel united by blood, by its abundance as well as its absence. In a narrative that reflects a theatrical monologue, the Quiteña protagonist-narrator explores the tensions between pleasure and pain as she recounts the end of her marriage, heartbreak, subsequent amorous relationships, depression and anxiety, friendship, and an unplanned pregnancy. The novel explores how desire and loss, pain and pleasure, all revolve around blood.
Because of Caldwell and Ponce’s shared interests, I brought them together in conversation to talk about their writing practices, relationships with their bodies, and reading interests.
Chloe Caldwell (CC): I received your book in the mail a few days before I knew I’d be getting a divorce. How incredible it felt to be experiencing periods and separation and divorce and chaos in real time along with my narrator. Can you speak about how you were able to capture this disorienting and destabilizing tone consistently through the book? I often give my writing students the prompt, “Write From An Altered State.” These states can be subtle or extreme, for example, uncaffeinated, under a migraine, during a break up, jetlagged.
Did you ever have to be in an altered state to write it? Or was there anything you used, like music, to attain the tone and voice you wrote in?
Gabriela Ponce (GP): Not really. By going into a specific memory or particular image, by putting myself in contact with material that awakens emotions in me, my body immediately prepares to write; the rhythm and tone attune to those sensations, which in the case of Blood Red were quite radical. I think a breakup implies a ripping that I was interested in capturing, especially in all its corporal dimension, how that sensation becomes rhythm and transforms into language. I don’t think this alteration comes from outside but from the rawness with which I want to transmit that experience I viscerally, personally felt. Blood Red’s narrator goes through a divorce and at the same time is experiencing a romantic relationship and a dynamic chaos she submits to: she’s on two skates in a dizzying fugue and at the same time is looking for some kind of salvation. It’s urgency, that state of ecstasy in which something ends and inevitably something else is emerging. I was trying to move the tone into that environment.
Perhaps music is an important stimulant at the time of writing. Now that I think about it, from your question, what I do have is a series of rituals I do before starting a day of writing. I select the kind of music I need as it’s rare that I write in silence. Perhaps there is a photo or two that’s meaningful for what I’m writing. I surround myself with certain books or objects, sometimes I light candles. I create a space for what I consider a time in something sacred, something extraordinary.
I’m really struck by the way you tackle menstruation. When I was writing Blood Red, I could identify how the story of my life was marked by the relationship I had with my body’s cycles and with my blood, how it was always a different relationship, a continuous learning: how to be a woman. I’d like to know where the need to write about this theme comes from for you? How did this need grow in you until you decided to translate that need to your writing and even include testimonies from other women to achieve a cultural perspective of the matter? How did you connect the testimonial nature of the project with literature?
CC: We have that in common—not writing in silence. I don’t think I’ve ever written without music playing. I’ve heard many writers say that it is crazy; to listen to music with lyrics while writing words. Does the music you listen to have lyrics? Sometimes I loop the same song all day while working on a book and I always wonder if that tone of the song ends up affecting the tone of the part I am working on and how a different song could possibly have me writing different words.
I like what you said about transforming a rupture into language.
Thanks for what you said about tackling menstruation. My menstruation cycle was something I’d dismissed in my twenties, and in my thirties it started to strike me as something to be curious about. Once I began paying attention, I began to see the world around me differently and couldn’t unsee it. It began as one essay only, without a plan to write a book, but after I published that piece in Longreads, I realized that was only the beginning. I wanted something new to write about; I had written so much about relationships and breakups and drugs that I wanted the challenge of writing the cycle, writing the body. And it was challenging and sometimes now I think I would have written it differently.
I recently was asked a question during a q & a with Leora Fridman, the author of Static Place. The person asked us about where our limits are in terms of sharing the gore of the body. I think they were implying that all of the blood clots and diarrhea and wetness in our books was sort of gross. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I actually hadn’t considered it when I wrote. I knew my friends and I texted and spoke of menstruation using words like “gushing blood” for example. So I carried that language over to my book.
I love this section in your novel where the narrator describes their period starting:
“I really bled solid. Pieces of me that had solidified in ways I couldn’t understand, chunks of entrails that left the sensation of a hole inside me. It seemed like nothing was left after each period, but then it would come back the following month and dismember me with pieces that sometimes became dust, sometimes those pieces were dry red dust that I watched accumulate like a mountain of sand on my white pads.”
How would you respond if a reader had asked you that question—do you have any limits in terms of writing the gore of the body? Do you think of your reader at all while doing so?
GP: I agree with you. When you start to become aware of your body, a new writing dimension opens up. In this sense, and to respond to your question, there are no limits to that which you want to name, because everything related to the body involves you, so modesty does not fit in this sense. For example, when sex—which implies an intensification of the body—appears in my writing, I’m specifically interested in going after that which cannot be named, exhausting the words to be able to approach that sensation of contact, or of pleasure, or of emptying that can mean the meeting with another body. For me there is no possible censorship when writing and describing the body and its states; it is precisely when I cross the limits of “the correct” that I enter a territory that really interests me because for me it is strange, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. I situate my writing in the discomfort so that I can reveal myself in its strangeness, in that which I am not able to fully recognize as a place of security, a place of my own.
On the other hand, in your response you say something that really interests me: “writing the cycle, writing the body.” I’d like to know how this condition of the cycle manifests, precisely in its incessant repetition or in its difference, in your writing. Do you think it permeates the text you are writing? How does it affect the language or the structure of your text?
CC: Really drawn toward what you said about entering an unfamiliar territory and that there’s no possible censorship. Situating writing in discomfort is brilliant and that is why I wish I’d written my book while experiencing the extreme PMS symptoms I was having back then—severe paranoia and rage specifically. While experiencing them, though, sitting to write felt too proper and organized. I regret not pushing myself to do it though.
Your thoughts on incessant repetition—at first when I went to approach your question I was going to say writing the cycle / writing the body was a structural thing I did for The Red Zone—some chapters were zoomed in on a period and others it became minor or happened off the page. But as I thought about your question, I realized the more books I write the more I see the same things cycling—my relationship to sexuality and identity—I was writing about my relationship to them in 2012 and here I am still exploring the same themes and my books are beginning to feel cyclical in theme. It seems I keep circling back to the same topics—I know all writers do that and it has been said we all write the same book over and over.
When you reach that place on non security—how do you stay in that space? I mean, are you able to access that same space the following week if you’re still working on that section? Or, when you reach it, do you have to write it all in that space?
GP: That place of non-security opens up all the time. For me, writing is an exercise of radical honesty and exposition. Just as I find the image, theme, memory that inspires me to write, I let it manifest all the drifting that writing drives me toward. It’s quite a raw material, frequently violent and abundant. While I write, I suffer from it. I think it’s my way of writing, I couldn’t tackle writing in any other way because for me it’s always tied to my life and my emotional memory, even to the most primitive parts of my experience. It’s like having learned to follow myself, listen to myself, and give all the space to that voice that later, in a long process of revision and editing, I adjust. In a second moment, I read out loud all the material, I pay attention to the rhythm, and that’s where work with the language comes in to give shape to that raw material. I take a long time in this process of correcting and editing the material without that essential element that triggered it.
Something else I think we share in our writing is the personal nature; memory is fundamental in our writing. Remembering is an exercise of reconstruction that often leads us to face the trauma, for example I’m thinking about when you tackle the subject of divorce. I’d like to know how you approach working with memory and with trauma.
CC: I used to read aloud and then listen to the recording as I took a walk. By the end of my walk I’d be almost running back to the page to change the writing.
Thanks for asking about tackling divorce, it’s almost a wonderful topic to write about since it is universal but also specific and nuanced and blurry and has so many different perspectives from the people who were involved. As I was writing The Red Zone, I began to look at divorce not only through my lens but also my parents and stepdaughter’s experiences. My own memories and traumas begin to arise or skew while reading the work of other people, so reading is an enormous part of my writing process, even if it is just having some books next to me and writing through osmosis. I like to consider who my book’s cousins are. Sometimes I just flip open to a sentence and use it as a thought prompt. What do you read while you write? What are you working on now?
GP: At the moment, I’m working on a novel that deals with sensual discovery in adolescence, or perhaps it would be more precise to say a novel that is about the end of childhood. I’m also working on some theatrical projects, one of which is the staging of The Bacchae by Euripedes. There are some readings that accompany me at the moment; what I read is always important for what I write. I’d say that writing is in this, and in other senses, always rewriting. Right now I’m reading Glass, Irony, and God by Anne Carson, L’amour la mer by Pascal Quignard, and Unquiet by Linn Ullmann, and an essay by May Sarton, Writings on Writing. What about you?
CC: May Sarton was important to me for many years as well as The Glass Essay by Anne Carson. Currently I am reading The Woman Destroyed by Simone de Beauvoir (translated by Patrick O’Brian) and We Are Too Many by Hannah Pittard. My next book explores a body in time trying to get pregnant and is a book about irresolution and nature vs. technology. I’ve just purchased Anne Garrete’s book, Not One Day (translated by Emma Ramadan)—I am always intrigued by her work; it feels like a genre of its own.
Chloé Caldwell is the author of four books: the essay collection I’ll Tell You in Person, the critically acclaimed novella, WOMEN, Legs Get Led Astray, and The Red Zone: A Love Story. Chloe's next book, TRYING, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2025. WOMEN will be reissued by Harper Perennial in June 2024. Chloe’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, New York Magazine’s The Cut, Nylon and many more. She lives in Hudson, NY. www.chloesimonne.com @chloeeeecaldwell
Gabriela Ponce Padilla (Quito, 1977)
Narradora y dramaturga. Docente investigadora de artes escénicas en la Universidad San Francisco de Quito. En 2015 publicó su primer libro de cuentos Antropofaguitas, premiado por el Ministerio de Cultura del Ecuador. Publicó en 2019 la novela Sanguínea (Severo Editorial) que, en 2020, se editó en España bajo el sello de Editorial Candaya y que ganó el premio Joaquín Gallegos Lara 2021 otorgado por el Municipio de Quito. En 2020 publicó también Solo hay un jardín: en el fondo de todo hay un jardín, (La Caída editorial)que reúne algunas de sus obras de teatro. Es parte del colectivo Mitómana/artes escénicas con quienes ha escenificado varios montajes teatrales entre los cuales se destacan Me·de·as(2022); Tazas rosas de Té (2017) ganadora del premio Francisco Tobar a mejor producción teatral del año, otorgado por el Municipio de Quito y Esas putas asesinas, adaptación libre del cuento de Roberto Bolaño(2015). Es cofundadora de Casa Mitómana, invernadero cultural y forma parte del consejo editorial de la revista digital Sycorax.
Gabriela Ponce (Quito, 1977) is a fiction writer, playwright and theater director, as well as a professor of performing arts at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. In 2015, she published her first book Antropofaguitas, which was considered the best book of short stories by the Ministry of Culture. In 2019, she published the novel Sanguínea (Severo Editorial) also published in Spain by Editorial Candaya and awarded the Gallegos Lara prize by the Municipality of Quito for best novel of the year. In 2020, she published Solo hay un jardín: en el fondo de todo hay un jardín (La Caída editorial) that compiles a few of her plays. She is part of Mitómana, performing arts collective and co-founder of the cultural venue Casa Mitómana. She is in the editorial board of Sycorax magazine.