Digging for Daylight
Dig Me Out, Amy Lee Lillard’s debut short story collection, is the zine of every woman who has felt like she’s taken on too much crap and is looking for the excuse to go full ham. In each of the ten tales, featuring riotous women of various backgrounds, Lillard presents protagonists who observe and are observed, who act and react, and who present themselves as someone who is ultimately beyond pigeonholing, all told through a riot grrrl and punk-esque quality.
The stories span decades, with several set in the early 20th century. In “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” the narrators are a group of immigrant women who serve an elderly bohemian socialite named Miss Wallace. Miss Wallace wears men’s tuxedos and hosts elegant salons for the outcasts of Prohibition America. She is a black woman who floats a non-binary life but also has a commanding, wise presence that her servants all look up to and admire. In “We Used to Wait,” set during World War II, Lillard writes about a woman who longs for another woman while her husband is off fighting, demonstrating the efforts the women left behind took in their desire for intimacy and relief from the struggles of war.
Lillard uses the historical pieces to illustrate what attitudes and beliefs resonate in the more present-day stories. Many tend to look at women at various stages of life and how their physical and mental health is challenged or reexamined in new circumstances. “Bang Bang” chronicles one woman’s life, framed by moments where she was in a car that hit an animal. As a girl, this event was slightly traumatic and concurrent with a conversation where her mother tried to talk to her about her sexuality, “the first blood,” in a sense. As an adult, it is one more random act of violence that follows a disappointing hookup. In both of these moments, Lillard contrasts the action with how a woman at different ages responds to the presence of death and how it affects maturity and growth.
Other modern pieces include “This Human Form Where I Was Born,” where a woman post-breakup examines her body in various ways, as the new loneliness gives her time to pay more attention to parts of herself. “Pretty Girls Make Graves” looks at a woman in the midst of a mental and physical breakdown, and how her attempts to wrestle control following the trauma of war leads to more violence.
Not all the selections in the collection are violent or dark but are still meaningful ruminations on life, death, and aging. “Head Like a Hole” looks at a couple in their twilight years as the loss of their youth leads to some emotional breakdowns, while “We’re Gonna Die” has a woman travel to Dublin and enter imagined conversations at various museums
and tourist spots as she thinks about people whose lives are at the same time familiar to and different from hers.
Because Lillard spends a lot of time examining the resounding elements of womanhood that have persisted throughout the ages, this also allows her to play with them in more fantastic accounts. The titular story is about a furniture saleswoman examining another female coworker and the enchantment this woman, who only speaks in Sleater-Kinney lyrics, possesses. “Double Dare Ya” presents three elderly women in a nursing home who have managed to transcend their current lot and, upon the examination of their lives and how they and their daughters and granddaughters are treated, seek to finally seize their power. Lastly, there’s “Bull in the Heather,” the most speculative piece in the collection, taking place in the future when human life is valued based on marital status and other demographic factors and one woman tries to argue for why she should be kept alive. These stories may be a bit out there, but part of the appeal is that, because we’re expecting the disobedience to emerge, Lillard is free to surprise us with how they bring about their turn.
In each of the tales, Lillard presents a female protagonist who observes and is observed, who acts and reacts, and who presents herself as someone who is ultimately beyond pigeonholing, all told through a riot grrrl and punk-esque quality.
Dig Me Out is a playlist of prose that asks the reader to be willing to break the furniture while reading. Lillard’s writing is intriguing and easy to get hooked by but also carries an intense amount of empathy for the characters within. In its various outbursts of insubordination, Dig Me Out seeks to present alternative ways of passing through life, and while many of them may be marred with violence and grimness, they each present points of view that leave a mark like a Sharpie note in a punk club bathroom stall.
Note: Because every story in this collection is named after a song or album, this reviewer felt it would be appropriate to make a Spotify playlist to listen to while writing this review. The playlist can be listened to here.
Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Alexandria, Virginia. He has edited and proofed the anthologies CREDO: An Anthology of Manifestos and Sourcebook for Creative Writing (C&R Press, 2018) and Her Plumage: An Anthology of Women’s Writings from Quail Bell Magazine (Quail Bell Press & Productions, 2019). He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Passionate Chic, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, Stories About Penises (Guts Publishing, 2019), Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear (Et Alia Press, 2020), and ImageOutWrite, Vol. 9. You can find his work at carriganak.wordpress.com.