Ariel Gore’s ‘We Were Witches’ is literary resistance

we were witches novel culture shot ariel gore
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Night has fallen, and Ariel Gore tells her daughter Maia a bedtime story — but it’s certainly no fairytale. She reads to the infant from “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches” by Audre Lorde, an American feminist and author whose text has been assigned for her class. 

“What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say?” Ariel reads.

Different, right? And this intimate scene is just a glimpse of the offbeat spirit woven through Gore’s 2017 novel “We Were Witches.” 

Gore, a UC Berkeley alumna, crafts a meaningfully fragmented work that conveys her struggles as a teen mom, college student, aspiring writer and individual in poverty. The odds are stacked against and thrown upon her. 

Part novel and part memoir, the genre of the work itself isn’t so ordinary. It’s also composed of vignettes, many of which free-form. Gore breaks convention in every which way. 

One vignette in particular is titled “Things That Are Red Besides the Scarlet Letter.” The double-spaced list spans two pages and includes “Cherries,” “The devil,” “My mother’s fingernails,” “Seduction” and “Falling stock markets.” Here, she takes an emblem of shame and diversifies its meaning, while also constructing sharp-edged feminine strength. 

And on one of the novel’s last pages, after her graduation from Mills College in Oakland, California, Gore creates a vignette of nothing but a statement from her student loan account. It reads:

“Current Balance: $127,862

Original Loan Amount: $32,000

Interest Rate: 8.25%”

There is no accompanying text as she shows readers her financial struggle point-blank; an empty half-page stares back at the reader.

Resistance takes form not only in her unique stylistic choices, but also in the way that she integrates fairytales. Gore artfully strips the power from these traditional stories, as she employs them as pawns in her own. 

Using a recurring trope of Rapunzel in her tower, Gore repeatedly touches on the theme of female entrapment. Throughout the work, there are various instances in which Gore figuratively suggests that a particular set of circumstances are like that of a tower — that is, a set of circumstances a woman is stuck in and that she did not create. 

But perhaps most revolutionary of all is Gore’s explicit intent to invert Freytag’s Pyramid, a traditional story structure that includes a rising action and climax. This operates as a direct challenge to the framework she’s supposed to write within.

This feature of the novel is introduced as Gore is taking notes and her instructor draws the pyramid on the blackboard. Gore thinks to herself, “Was the illustration on the blackboard not obviously a penis?” In that moment, she decides for herself that her story will not follow this model.

And she holds herself to it. 

Gore’s novel is separated into four books: Invocations, Deepening Action, Resistance and the denouement titled Shame Theories. After the last page of the second book is a visual of an inverted pyramid. She writes that this point of her work is “perhaps not a culminating climax so much as potential space.” 

There is great power in this structural decision, as it effectively captures the messy and ingrained nature of the status quo. After all, she learns of this pyramid at graduate school — UC Berkeley in fact — a place that’s meant to expand her knowledge.

Gore tells readers the rejection from society she experiences, but also unpacks it. She probes the world around her and reaches the root that her rejection is born from, as a larger context increasingly unravels. 

There’s a saying in politics: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Gore has beautifully crafted self-expression in the truest sense of this idea, portraying her crises in a way that does them justice.

And of course, a dominant thread in “We Were Witches” is witchcraft. Whether it’s the spell kit she buys from the botanica or the local witch-turned-deer she interviews for an article, Gore lends witchcraft a powerful legitimacy. She pushes the boundaries of reality with her magic, which shapes up to grant her a very real strength. 

Broadly put, her crisis is Freytag’s Pyramid. Her crisis is a story structure derived from a realm that is not hers. And so, she dismantles it to create her own, hexing all expectations. This novel is scrappy, but in a whimsically intentional sort of way. 

This approach to art is so important, for one to think deeply about what they experience and feel, then authentically put forward just that. Creativity can only go so far when thinking outside of the box, but Gore, with her next-level literature-sorcery, turns the box over entirely and shapes it into something else. She creates this art, then, of course, leaves a space for us, too. 

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected].