Now You Feel It Now You Don’t: Reflections on Divorce, Abortion, and Yoga in Kaleena Madruga’s Does it Hurt?
By Corinne Shearer
Out now with the independent press, Folly X.O., Kaleena Madruga’s Does It Hurt? is a collection of essays dealing with the female body through intimacy and alienation. “Does it hurt,” a question repeatedly asked of children, launches Madruga into an exploration of pain inside and out, emotional and physical. She is not only interested in fresh wounds, Madruga interrogates the gnarly scars of traumas past, anxious rashes that follow through life, and the psychological scabs we just can’t help but pick. In some ways this collection is the post-mortem of a marriage, but it is more than that; a divorce provides shape to a collection which is really about being a twenty-something woman, in the US, right now.
Like combing through knotty hair, it is with each consecutive essay that Madruga gradually untangles the facts of events from their effects. Often we move around the big things several times before we really get to the core of them. This is all part of Madruga’s plan; the collection itself is divided into five sections which begin with extremities, “The Heel” and “The Hands,” before truly penetrating further with “The Hymen,” followed by “The Heart,” and finally, “The Head.” This is the kind of collection which one could readily see being made into a television series à la Girls or the more recent Single Drunk Female. We follow a narrator who is relatable and open, who speaks to us as if we are in her confidence; she does not hide an iota of her shame, pettiness, or guilt from us. She lays it all on the table, maybe not even always for our sake, but rather her own as she is on a journey of reconnaissance into her own past, into her own body and the hurt it holds.
On the other side of the coin, these essays explore the sometimes inexplicable numbness we feel in relation to traumatic events– such as an abortion, a partner’s infidelity, the untangling of two lives through divorce. At a grocery store she sees a family that reminds her of the mother she might have been and Madruga writes “…they look happy I don’t feel sad but I do feel like I want to feel sad.” Madruga is consistently matter-of-fact about the numbness she sometimes experiences, providing an important contrast to conversations around pain which focus only on the firework emotions, not the feelings of quiet alienation that can also come and, sometimes, linger longer. The child of the collection’s first essay who, after injuring a pinky, is asked “does it hurt,” responds: “It feels weird.” Madruga fleshes out the profoundness of this common childhood experience in the rest of the collection. Sometimes “weird” is as close as we can get to naming pain, but it doesn’t make it any less necessary to try.
And try she does. Madruga writes about pain well, particularly female pain. Period pain, so often minimized, sanitized, and mocked in media and culture at large, is visceral in “Does It Hurt?” And beyond the physical, she goes into the various psychological effects of having a period– the havoc hormones wreak on one’s mind and self-perception, in addition to the learned societal shame and fear. This two-fold treatment of pain, an awareness of the interrelation between its psychological and physical aspects, leads Madruga through discussions of depression, addiction, body dysmorphia, anxiety, and other such conditions. The two aspects also often come together in her writing on yoga. A practitioner of the form, she emphasizes the difference between pain and discomfort. “Discomfort can manifest as an ache, an unfamiliar stretch, the expression of opening,” she writes. “You should welcome discomfort; it means you are growing. Pain, on the other hand, pain is sharp… Pain is a signifier that you have pushed your body beyond its boundaries.” Throughout the collection, Madruga grapples with this distinction between pain and discomfort, and certainly her own limits. The central question (“Does it hurt?”) becomes more and more complicated. Madruga is able to deal with complexity however. Despite being a teacher of the form, for example, she aptly skewers American yoga for its capitalistic structures, practices, and ideologies and its tendency towards canned spirituality– as she hilariously puts it, “sparkly, the-universe-is-in-my-favor enlightenment.” I found myself nodding along with Madruga’s conflicting emotions towards yoga: a broader appreciation for the practice and for the ways it can improve so much of one’s life with an awareness of its shortcomings, susceptibility towards cultishness or abuse, and so on. Do not fear if you’ve never stepped onto a mat, however, Madruga is good about making what could become insider information accessible to her reader, explaining the various principles and philosophies before launching into her own experiences and critiques.
The strength of this collection – Madruga’s willingness to lay bare her interior life – is also its weakness. Little effort is made by the speaker to look beyond herself. The navel does not get its own section, but a harsher critic might point out that the whole collection is focused there. It is always a fine line to walk when writing the personal essay. We, as readers, do have an undeniable, inexplicable appetite for the true story, for the tea (the more personal the better), but after so many pages there is a desire to have some sort of greater synthesis or move beyond the interior world of the speaker. We nearly get there; Madrgua explores the ways our pain sometimes lives outside of us – in other people or by watching ourselves move through the world, for example – but she limits herself. Big, philosophical questions are posed but shrugged away, attempts to understand the perspectives of other characters (particularly women) come off half-hearted and antagonistic, moments of interesting observation or sharp insight sometimes fall into word salad. “I used to think that I was going to make a novel,” Madruga writes, “but then I found out that I am a novel. Does that make sense?” It is a brash statement tempered by, what seems to be, a rhetorical question. But, really, does it make sense? The line comes in one of the more interesting, later essays entitled “Marked.” Madruga plays a bit with form throughout, particularly in her use of lists, but in the collection’s final section where this moment occurs, she really lets fragmentation take over. We might give her some poetic license given the delightful fever dream quality of this essay as the speaker allows her interior chaos to show itself on the page, yet we still must take words seriously. For the sake of the novel as form, we ought to push back: the “main character energy” she claims is valid only in the sense that we likely all see ourselves as protagonists and our lives as uniquely interesting. Is that enough to call oneself a novel? It is well-known that many novelists’ first books are semi-autobiographical, and I think any writer will agree that so much of yourself – in big ways and small – goes into the work, be it intentionally autobiographical or not, but no one can be a novel in the current parameters of the genre. However, one’s story can certainly be interesting enough as a testimony of a generation, of a moment in time, and Does it Hurt? does indeed meet this criteria.
Madruga’s stories of abortion are, unfortunately, very timely as we abruptly have become “post-Roe.” In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, stories like Madruga’s bring the human perspective back to the fore of an issue so hot, so polarizing that actors on both sides often become one-note caricatures to each other. Madruga hints that the collection is, perhaps, for the children she “wasn’t ready to keep.” She reminds of the enduring emotional complexities of choosing to terminate a pregnancy, and provides a strong counter to the supposed flippancy towards life that anti-choice advocates often pin on women who have received an abortion and those who support the right to choose. Madruga also importantly brings into this conversation generational differences regarding child-bearing. From parents to physicians, it is often taken for granted that a woman will want to become a mother and, further, there is the ever-present warning that a woman ought to beware waiting too long to do it– for biological reasons as well as for the sake of one’s (often specifically male) partner. Madruga gets into all of this with candor and a particularly endearing acknowledgment that she does not have all the answers.
Does it hurt? Yes and no it turns out, yet Madruga’s essays show that the absence of pain can be even more revealing of internal damage than its presence. By the collection’s final essay, much of the bad blood of traumas past seems to have been let and the speaker moves towards a place of healing. What does healing look like for her? A reconciliation with the past, with her own body, and with all the versions of herself who exist alongside one another within her. The collection’s end is also very much a beginning, a new speaker seems prepared to take over, and I look forward to hearing the story she has to tell.
Corinne Shearer is OyeDrum Magazine’s Book Review Editor and an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. She’s currently completing her MA in English Literature at The City College of New York. Corinne works predominantly in dance and theater as a performer, choreographer, and teaching artist. She’s been featured as an artist-in-residence at The Triple Nine Festival and named “Director’s Choice” at Spoke The Hub’s Winter Follies. She is also the founder and curator of Spitball, a performance series for artists of varying disciplines. She is currently accepting published or soon-to-be published books for review in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.