Spr/Sum 04

An Exploration of Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution


Deep within Selah Saterstrom’s first novel, The Pink Institution (Coffee House Press 2004) we are silently greeted by a distant little girl who appears to be just over one hundred years old. In a reproduction of an ovular old photograph, this little girl stands with her back to us in a crisp white dress with puffed sleeves, her small slippered feet and her long hair in shadow. There is a hush around this image, and a dark invocation of history. We develop an immediate if rather hesitant relationship with the girl. Her position suggests that she is unaware of being looked at, her size that she is vulnerable, the age of her photograph that she is a memory to which we must pay attention. Her presence is a whispering from long ago. Her presence is a beckoning, an invitation.

The reader who accepts the invitation to enter The Pink Institution should do so with care. She should enter with her wits intact. She should enter with her courage summoned. She should enter with her skirts lifted and with her intellect polished shiny as a “sterling tea service predating the Civil War.” The reader should take along her smelling salts. In Saterstrom’s first novel, a surreal southern gentility dangles from each delicately placed word. Suspiciously polite attention laces every deftly crafted phrase. Around each relentless image, gracious regard grows like a voracious weed, and layers of charm and hospitality flake away like dead skin to reveal what lives behind, beneath and within four generations of a Mississippi family. What lives there is made of heat, history, ghosts, and gin, and seems to emerge by a sort of black magic from an orchestration of image, sound and empty space.

The photograph of the little girl and other photographic images throughout the book function not as decoration or addenda, but as integral, revelatory moments in the unfolding atmosphere of the story. There is something both magnetizing and spooky about very old photographs. We do not understand the photographic subjects’ blank, staid expressions. We do not understand their clothes. We do not understand their stiff postures or their houses or the way they touch each other or do not. And, perhaps most painfully, we do not understand how it can be that we are looking at the image of something that was once alive and that is now, and for a long time, dead. But we want to understand. This is, perhaps, why we look. And here in The Pink Institution, looking is doctrine. We look again and again and again. We look even when looking is difficult or shocking or possibly grotesque. We keep on looking.

Saterstrom has, at moments in the book, done us the eerily gracious favor of categorizing what we look at. The three smaller sections within section ii of the book are introduced with long, narrow lists of single words. These lists are entitled “childhood objects,” “maidenhood objects,” and “motherhood objects.” The lists serve as a sort of collection of poems or as an offering of images, though they also function as tables of contents for the sections and as markers of passing time.

From childhood objects:


The brevity of the pieces in section ii suggests a quick and fragmented compilation of memory. As soon as we are through with one story, it is time to move on to the next. We are never allowed to relax. The mini-stories in this section are shaped like building blocks, a visual emblem of their function. In furious bursts, we collect from the mosaic of stories a wider picture of the household and a larger sense of its atmosphere. Saterstrom’s language here is even and unflinching while its content is intimately revealing. What we glean is something fragrant and rancid, wrapped in airtight, sterile packaging.

From maidenhood objects:


The empty space remaining around the blocks of text in section ii speaks perhaps almost as loudly as the text itself. In a vast field of whiteness, the text in its tight square appears crowded and clenched. This visual tension augments the tension created by Saterstrom’s polished, direct sentences, by the staccato nature of the series of mini-stories, and by, of course, the very telling of this family’s bruised and brutal history.

As the story marches forward in time, it drags along its own past like a heavy, necessary and inescapable chain. Saterstrom’s words become feverish and fantastical as sound and image work together to approach and finally uncover, a heated and at times nightmarish present. This present lifts slowly from its past the way a photograph submerged in a chemical bath floats from the material to which it has been, for decades, mounted.

From PSALTER: (Birth Interim):



These are some of the sounds by which we are escorted through the transition of birth and into the haunted world of the living. The arrangement of words, space and breath in this section of the book creates a sensory, almost hallucinatory experience. The literal information we receive is necessary to proceed into the final sections of the novel, but this information is delivered secondarily to sensuality and atmosphere. We receive the literal information almost without our awareness. We are extremely aware, instead, of the surreal dreamscape that Saterstrom has created through her cleanly designed chaos of utterance and prayer.

Selah Saterstrom’s distinct composition of image, sound, silence, and vacant spaces creates a song that comes from a searching place of isolation, mourning, and a whispered hope for redemption. The story is delivered, however, with no hint of sentimentality and with no indulgence in tragedy or martyrdom. It asks nothing of us. Humbly conjured and gracefully composed, the story moves consistently forward into an increasing homage to sound. In this book, language is not placed on top of story. Story, instead, is born of language. Ultimately, one does not feel as if she has read The Pink Institution. Instead, one feels in its aftermath, as if she may have dreamt it.





Julianna Spallholz lives in upstate New York. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cranky, Folio, House Taken Over, andTarpaulin Sky V1n1.

Selah Saterstrom was born and raised in Mississippi and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. Her fiction has appeared in 3rd Bed, Web Conjunctions, Monkey Puzzle, Tarpaulin Sky V1n4, and Experimental Theology, published by the Seattle Research Insitute.