By the end of Margaret Kasimatis’ debut novel, Not Pink, protagonist Mae is acting out left and right, rebelling against her life as a Midwestern housewife in the 1980s. She drunkenly humiliates herself at a tame neighborhood Christmas party and shocks unassuming neighbors with some highly offensive—if rather funny—Yuletide decorations. Mae’s situation overall, however, is no laughing matter.
For Kasimatis, who has more than 30 years of experience as a psychologist, Mae’s slow plunge into alcohol and drug abuse and self-harm represents the trajectory of a woman with abandonment issues, insecurities, and the inability to express her emotions. She is a wounded person who has been long trapped by both society and family. In short, as Kasimatis says, “Mae is struggling with how she’s going to be a woman.”
Kasimatis has worked primarily in academia as a professor of psychology, but she also spent several years in alcohol rehab units and counseling centers. As a naturally empathetic person, she appreciated the work. During the last 12 years, Kasimatis dedicated her limited spare time to her passion for writing, drawing from her work as a counselor to fine-tune Mae’s story and character. “I think those experiences allowed me to see how complicated people’s lives are,” Kasimatis says. “I saw the pain that often underlies what seems like poor behavior. I think that’s part of what’s coming through in my writing now.”
Kasimatis layers the entire book with this complex view on “bad behavior.” When Mae’s husband surprises her with a new house, for example, she does not for one second consider the generosity or goodwill of his actions:
It hurt to look at his face, pulled tight, eyes flat with exhaustion. Mae closed her eyes. What about me? Me? She turned her face away. Her throat would barely let air through, much less words.
As described in the Kirkus review of Not Pink, Kasimatis “generally portrays Mae’s anguished point of view delicately while also showing its limitations, such as self-pity and a lack of appreciation for how others have also faced reduced choices.” It’s in this level of nuance that Kasimatis’ deep knowledge of the psyche shines through. She simultaneously portrays Mae as petulant and selfish but also contextualizes these reactions so readers can still sympathize with Mae’s frustration, seeing her ultimately as human, even relatable.
To follow Mae from adolescence into adulthood, Kasimatis drew on her time as a professor, and she used this insight to craft this awkward young girl constantly second-guessing herself. A teenager’s insecurity is “nothing new under the sun,” as Kasimatis puts it, but she throws very daunting challenges at Mae from the first page. Young Mae is shipped off to boarding school by her imposing, wealthy uncle and later forced to break off an engagement to a guy she loves—leading to her unintended pregnancy and, in turn, her unwanted marriage.
Throughout each incident, it’s increasingly others—men, in particular—who make Mae’s choices for her. For these ideas, Kasimatis looked to her own family history. She wanted to honor two very important women in her life: her mother and grandmother. Like Mae, her grandmother had been sent to boarding school at a young age and was marked by the experience, and Kasimatis’s mother also gave in to family and religious pressure, eventually ending an engagement she’d had in college.
Kasimatis always respected the way that her mother and grandmother still carved out meaningful paths for themselves despite the pressure and constraint they had felt in their lives as women. With Mae, however, she decided to explore the other potential effects of these events. “When I was first developing this story,” Kasimatis says, “I thought, ‘What if both of these things happened to the same person? And that person really wasn’t allowed to express her frustration and anger, but she just tries to muddle her way through it in a very insecure way?’ ”
In reflecting on such a path, Kasimatis knew that the time period when this woman lived would be important. For her, women throughout history, and especially in her own family, have dealt with conflicting layers of expectations tied to their generation. She chose to set Mae’s story from the 1960s through the early ’80s not because she wanted to write historical fiction—although Kasimatis was surprised by early feedback that her novel fit that category thanks to her strong characterization of those decades—but because she was interested in placing an unstable young woman at the confluence of second-wave feminism and drug counterculture.
“I thought, if there was ever a period where women could feel not supported in their choices no matter what their choices were, it would be in the ’70s and the early ’80s,” Kasimatis says. In her own life, she had seen how difficult this particular lack of support could be when she decided to work part time and spend more time with her two daughters: “Many of my professional friends asked, ‘Why did you bother to go to school then?’ And many moms asked, ‘Why aren’t you fully committed to staying at home?’ I was neither fish nor fowl.”
Through Mae, Kasimatis was able to explore what would happen to a person living in this dilemma but who couldn’t properly process it. “Mae is attracted to drugs because she’s limited in her personal coping abilities,” Kasimatis explains, “becoming dependent on drugs just magnifies her deficits and puts her at risk of acting out in even more dangerous ways.”
Kasimatis had finished Mae’s story before the #MeToo movement, but she did write it thinking of her own two 20-something daughters and the questions they still face despite improvements since the ’60s. For Kasimatis, Mae’s struggle against expectations and for self-determination will resonate with female readers young and old. “I don’t think things were settled for the next generation,” Kasimatis says of Mae’s particular time period, “I think some of these same issues are still in play for young adult women, and these things are circling back to be revisited.”
Rhett Morgan is a writerand translator based in Paris.