In the spacious Gasson 100, the Dean’s Colloquium on Thursday, Sept. 13 featured novelist and professor Suzanne Matson in a presentation of her new novel Ultraviolet, a fictional tale based on the real stories of her family, spanning three generations.
Ultraviolet features Matson’s own family members as the main characters, detailing a story that focuses on the character Kathryn, based on her mother. Kathryn’s mother Elsie was a missionary in India, and Kathryn spent most of her childhood in India, attending boarding school. Returning to the United States as a teenager, Kathryn feels isolated and alienated in her own country as well as her father’s Mennonite culture. When her mother passes away from a surprise stroke, Kathryn tries to escape the discontent she feels in the American Midwest by going to Oregon, where she tries to find her identity. Kathryn begins her new life in Oregon by supporting herself as a waitress and trying to live out her dreams of becoming a writer.
Trying to shed her Mennonite past, Kathryn eventually marries Carl, a construction worker 16 years older, whose carefree manner is a welcome contrast. Kathryn, however, feels trapped in her marriage with her hopes and dreams thwarted. Their daughter, Samantha, based on Matson herself, grows up knowing her mother’s discontent, and builds a happy family of her own.
The novel is a tale about growth, identity, and the lives of three generations of women, all trying to find their place in the world. Before the reading of the novel, Matson shared photographs of her family, from which she took inspiration. Her grandmother had detailed photo albums during her time in India, where little pictures depicting family and scenery were captioned with little notes written in silver ink against the black paper. She then showed pictures from her father’s side.
“My father had two Nicaraguan wives—common law wives, as it turns out,” Matson said. She explained that her father didn’t mention his other wives when he courted her mother.
In her reading, Matson shared a story about the character Kathryn’s voyage to Oregon from her home, on which she meets a soldier named Mitch. They spend an afternoon together in Chicago while both of them await their transfers. Kathryn is eager to break out from her Mennonite background and has her first experience going to the movies and kissing a boy, but their time together is short. Described as “awkwardly between worlds” and “invisibly foreign,” the struggle of Kathryn to find her identity is sympathetic and relatable to the reader. Little asides into the mind of Kathryn bring her to life—hearing her vulnerabilities and thoughts make her much more real.
When asked about the name of the work, Matson shared that the inspiration came from the beginning of the novel, in a scene where Kathryn and Elsie had to get ultraviolet treatment for the eczema on Kathryn’s skin in India. Kathryn had to shield her eyes from the ultraviolet treatment, which acts as a metaphor for the whole novel, where characters would choose to turn a blind eye to issues that they did not want to deal with.
Matson commented that though she had written three novels before completely from scratch, writing a story based on her own family was actually harder. Almost 95 percent of the novel was actually fiction, as Matson argued that people’s memories usually consist of individual stories that they repeatedly tell, and that she had to fill in the blanks and imagine what would have happened in between those encounters. Matson’s mother Kathryn only lived to read the first couple parts of the book. Matson remembers her mother reading a story then commenting, “None of this happened,” prompting Matson to ask whether to change the name of the characters, given that the story was mostly fiction. With her mother’s reassurance and blessing, however, Matson decided to stay with her mother’s name for the character of Kathryn.
Featured Image by Sam Zhai / Height Staff