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Rediscovering Karen Lee Boren’s “Seeing Red”

Oct 31 2014

I could not have anticipated what a pleasure it would be to read through past issues of The Dominion Review and rediscover Karen Lee Boren’s short story “Seeing Red,” first published in our thirteenth volume as the 1995 prize winner for best fiction. We set out hoping to spotlight exemplary work from our publication’s history, but Boren’s work is more than just exemplary. She has given us a gift – a story that turns heartbreak into an affirmation of the artistic impulse towards expression. We owe a special thanks to Karen and the editors of New Rivers Press for granting us permission to reprint this story in advance of its appearance in her forthcoming collection, Mother Tongue.

“Seeing Red” begins and ends with the jilted heroine, Charlie, scrawling a public message aimed at her cheating ex-boyfriend. The first is an angry slur on the wall of bar bathroom, the second a kiss on the corner of his lipsticked windshield. In the space between these two acts, the story explores Charlie’s history with sexuality, the breadth of her ex’s infidelities, and her attempts to salvage or invent a new identity for herself, something she can live by. Boren understands how rejection and heartbreak affect us – how such pain can sever the ties to who we thought we were, force us to question our own value and shed the illusions that prop us up – but her story transcends this pain through the discovery of expression: the title refers both to Charlie’s anger and the climactic moment when she looks at the smear of lipstick on her ex’s windshield and recognizes herself in the mess. “Seeing Red” is about, among many things, the value of artistic gesture.

Throughout the story Charlie struggles with her lost sense of identity. Walking listless and depressed through a crowded street she finds that even at eye-level most people prove indistinguishable from one another. She marvels at the few that appear “more realized, more present” like leaves on a tree that “have caught the sun and turned themselves deeper green than the others.” She envies their individualism, even as she thinks of herself as too subdued to share in it. Boren is fearlessly attuned to the emotions of her characters and has enough assurance in her story-telling to foreground these feelings and keep Charlie wrestling them on every page. It’s a tightrope act – exploring the facets of Charlie’s grief and anger and letting them guide the narrative without shirking plot, and it speaks to the depths of empathy within Boren’s writing. She charges even the smallest gestures with revealing attitudes, be it how a character hides inside a pair of sweatpants or throws away a condom. As she writes of one character’s smile: “It represented the whole man to her, like a seashell carried home from the shore and placed on a shelf as a remembrance of the entire ocean.” The same can be said of Boren’s talent for writing small but significant actions that hint at her characters’ inner lives. She gives readers seashells that suggest oceans.

The morning after Charlie slurs her ex on the walls of the pub bathroom she visits a Metro stall and finds the name of a previous woman etched under the toilet paper holder. The signature inspires her to add her own name to stall, shucking the pettiness of the night before until only the underlying earnestness remains. It’s this earnestness the story plumbs, her need to reclaim her name. Identity is expressive, oftentimes in a way that must transcend language, and art, even in its most simplified form, can be a mode of self-discovery. The content of the message pales in comparison to the gesture itself: “No date, no heart, nothing that will mean anything to anyone else who might bother to take notice, except that Charlie was here and declared her presence.” It’s the act of writing that awakens her.

You can read “Seeing Red” in its entirety as part of our Fall 2014 Issue here.

- Michael Alessi, Managing Editor

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