The Millions Interview: Kate Zambreno

August 26, 2010 | 10 books mentioned 4 16 min read

coverIn a recently published interview, Mary Gaitskill described Kim Gordon’s voice as having “a poignant, vulnerable quality, but there’s also something feisty that’s going to keep pushing.” The same could be said of Kate Zambreno’s authorial voice on her blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, which she began the last day of 2009, heralding in the new year with a literary cri de coeur. The third quality I’d add to the mix is a fierce intelligence with which she dishes regularly and knowingly on literature, art, theater, and the avant-garde, ranging from Cixous, Artaud, Joan of Arc, and Jane Bowles to True Blood. Zambreno’s first novel O Fallen Angel was published earlier this year and reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Lily Hoang said of the book, “O Fallen Angel examines the suburban family with ruthless elegance. Here is a novel, done and undone, a brazen mirror reflecting the 21st century.” Zambreno is also an editor at Nightboat books, and the author of a forthcoming book of essays from Semiotext(e), borne of her posts on Frances Farmer Is My Sister.

The Millions: Your first post on Frances Farmer Is My Sister, entitled “My Vomitous Blog Manifesto,” aligns your blog with Eileen Myles’s “Everyday Barf” and Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto“–two essays that inspired you to step away from objective criticism to write a more intimate form of narrative. You describe Bellamy’s “Barf Mainfesto” as a call “for writing that is vomitous, that is chaotic,” where Bellamy “is decrying the ‘oppressiveness’ of the essay form,” a form that you find ill-suited to your writing inclinations. More than six months have passed since. Has your writing been liberated, how has it changed?

coverKate Zambreno: Yes, definitely. So, yeah, in Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto,” she performs this personal ecstatic reading of Eileen Myles’s essay “Everyday Barf,” in the context of her self in the world and her friendship with Myles, which upon reading it liberated for me what an essay could perform, what criticism could be. I was feeling at the time a weird sense of stuckness… I had just moved to Akron, Ohio from Chicago because my partner got a job and I had recently torpedoed an essay I was supposed to write for the Poetry Foundation on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Dictee. It was the first time I had ever totally bombed a deadline, almost like I was performing hara-kiri on my dutiful deadline-oriented journalist girl-self. I couldn’t bear to write an essay without including what I felt reading Dictee, this quite pivotal work for me, a work about mothers and Cha to me was a literary mother in a way, and I was experiencing both anxiety of authorship and influence to be all Gilbert/Gubar about it… and I was worried that I would sound unscholarly and illiterate, basically, that the Poetry Foundation and its poetics-versed readership wouldn’t be interested in my weird wanderings.

I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.

TM: Despite your definitively pro-vomit stance, you apologized for your “vomit” twice during the first month of the blog’s existence. Your self-consciousness made me think of advice Diane Williams gave in a writing workshop about how, as writers, we had to learn to smear ourselves on the page. Have you grown more accustomed to writing pieces that are less contained and more revealing, ie, smearing yourself, ie embracing the vomit?

coverKZ: Oh I love that! Smearing ourselves on the page. Perhaps as young girls we are taught to be polite, to not make a mess (we cannot have ungroomed or undisciplined bodies or texts), to not talk about ourselves too much, so there is some residual ambivalence and anxiety there. I think I was so self-conscious originally (and still am on the blog, in such a public forum) because of a sense of guilt that writing is supposed to be perfectly manicured and neat and clean, and often I have typos galore and sometimes I will refuse capitalization and will generally commit hostile crimes against the English language. Also this fear of madness always, that some will think that my meanderings are the work of a manic girl of a madwoman of a depressed person and not of a writer, being a novelty not a novelist. Why Virginia Woolf channeled her insane rhythms into Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, so readers wouldn’t think it was too close to the self, how she was often so close to the fire. So I apologize for fear of seeming like Artaud’s glossolalia, although often I channel that. Very ambivalent. But I am glad I think that I am so self-conscious in the blog, I think to wipe away that uncertainty and anxiety is in a way whitewashing the unsure self from the process of criticism, for I think we all worry, especially those of us so outside of the institutions, those of us who don’t use the institutionalized language of criticism.

Your last question—am I more accustomed to writing pieces that are more revealing?—is quite interesting. When I began the blog, I included less of the self, of the body, or at least of my quotidian, and then that began to seep in, the memoir, and now the essay collection is about half memoir. It’s taken a while to really make my criticism include an embodied self—that was a process, is still a process. Now I’m in a period where I fear I am writing too much of the self, not enough criticism.

coverTM: You classify texts as either inherently anorexic or bulimic, an idea that takes the barf essays into account as well as Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia, which proposes anorexia as a form of empowerment through rejection of the body and the cultural imperative to eat. The anorexic text is concerned with the paucity of language, about silences and “the impossibility of speech” whereas the bulimic text purges, “screams, insists on being heard, on externalizing this internal violence.” Is there room for middle ground, for a robust text that’s confident and hearty? Or is the writer’s impulse (or specifically the female writer’s impulse) inherently diseased–either purging what’s within or grasping at, gasping for words?

KZ: I really try to unwrap this in the essay collection, my ideas about this anorexic versus bulimic aesthetic, and I know that in a way I’m playing with fire, reclaiming types of feminine self-destruction as radical aesthetic strategies. I don’t think all texts are inherently anorexic or bulimic, but locate both of these as potential radical modes, both potential forms of resistance, while also wondering why in contemporary poetics and the world of small-press experimental literature the most dominant form appears to me to be anorexic. And wondering why bulimic texts by women are rarely published in the margins or in the marketplace, wondering why they are less written, and why, when so many of the so-called “genius” contemporary male writers are given permission to write what could be classified as bulimic (from Henry Miller to the system novelists, Pynchon, Gass, Gaddis, DFW, etc. etc. to all of the current crop of prodigies named Jonathan with their doorstop tomes). Actually Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia doesn’t really have much to do with my notion of an anorexic aesthetic. I do write about the work in the same online essay however, I think, as I place Chris Kraus’s work in this sort of fictocriticism or New Narrative movement.

coverNew Narrative is decidedly bulimic, which I also classify as having the aesthetic not only of purging but privileging the verbal, and having something in common not only with l’ecriture feminine, this idea of writing the body and voice and taboo, but also the Surrealist mode of automatic writing. Even though Chris’s work does look at anorexia and Simone Weil’s philosophy of decreation as a possibly radical and reactionary act of expression, her writing is so much about writing the abject body and the relentless self, as opposed to writing that enacts the disappearance of the self, such as, say, Danielle Collobert’s notebooks. I love your last comment – the female writer’s impulse as being inherently diseased, Anne Sexton’s infected sentence that Gilbert and Gubar write to in their essay on Victorian women writers in Madwomen in the Attic (they also write about the anorexia of the Victorian women writer but don’t tie that into an aesthetic strategy). I really celebrate and welcome writing that is about externalizing and vomiting out violence as opposed to internalizing it, although am fascinated and compelled by both forms of expression.

TM: In Hillel Schwartz’s Never Satisfied, a cultural history of dieting, weight, and fantasies, Schwartz aligns a culture’s perception of fat with its attitude towards dieting: “Why people choose to diet, when they diet, how they go about dieting–these are determined by prevailing fantasies about the body, its weight and its fat.” He goes on to say that in societies (like ours) where fatness is “active, itinerant, and individual,” dieters persevere in battles against fat. Keeping this in mind, would you care to divine what the prevalent attitudes towards both bulimic and anorexic texts mirror in our contemporary culture?

coverKZ: Well, to look at this from a feminist perspective, I think that a fear of fat in our culture is a buried disgust and fear of the female body. So perhaps a female writer’s impulse to carve away one’s language as much as possible reflects this social construct that women are supposed to take up as little space as possible. However, I do think a sort of extreme abbreviation, like Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life or the works of Jenny Boully, is a radical act as well, and a possible means of resistance to the marketplace-mandated forms of narrative, character, story, plot, etc. I will say that my 70-page novel, O Fallen Angel, was published after I sent it out to one place, Chiasmus Press, while I have 200-page-plus manuscripts that I have had an unbearable time getting published. There’s an urge for manuscripts to be more economical, an economy of expression, but I think this is linked to economics, to the costs required for small presses to publish larger books, but also perhaps tied into something insidious in our culture relating to the female body and our disgust of women who are too mouthy, too brash, too unwieldy, too angry, too confrontational, too, yes, fat.

TM: You recently finished a book-length manuscript based on the blog that will be published by Semiotext(e) next year. Has the experience of turning your blog into a book affected your vision of the blog? And where would you place your blog in the continuum of your written work, which includes literary criticism, a novel, this forthcoming book, and other unpublished manuscripts?

KZ: You’re asking me these questions at this time when I’m having a total identity crisis with the blog, with this very public and intimate form of expression, and wondering how much it’s affecting the necessary private and internal space I have to access and allow myself to be in in order to write book projects. I’m not the first blogger of this sort who muses over whether or not to take a hiatus or suicide the blog, but it’s very omnipresent right now, this concern. Also, yes, when I began the blog I had no plan for any of the essays to be a book, and now that they have formed the basis for the book, part of me wonders whether I should continue or in what way I should continue the blog.

I think that the blog and the essay collection–which go hand in hand, as the blog is in a way a notebook or a draft of the essay collection–will function as an explanation and defense of my other writing, and the writing that I revere, and my particular aesthetic. So it all feeds into each other. I often write in the blog about my creative works, the ones that are unpublished and this one slim lonely one that has been published, and a lot of my obsessions that I write about critically and passionately in the blog I also write to in my, what do I call them…creative projects? Well that’s not correct because I think my criticism is creative and I think my creative projects are critical. It’s all in the same messy, disordered, frantic body, the body of work. Although really I feel this is all a major preparation, a preparing of the body, a cleaning and waxing of the body to become someday a lyric essayist. I am really a lyric essayist I feel, very deeply, trapped in the body of a messy, disordered, bulimic writer. To me that is the writing I cannot perform, I cannot manage to clean myself or my texts, and perhaps this is all draft and baggage for the one singular work that will be like a page of the most magical important potent language.

coverTM: I’d like to hear more about the inspiration for your novel, O Fallen Angel, and specifically the inspiration you derived from Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which he based on a scene from The Oresteia. Of his painting, Bacon said, “I tried to create an image of the effect it [The Oresteia] produced inside me.” One connection that came to mind is that it seems you attempt to recreate the effect that mainstream suburban, Midwestern culture produces within you. Reading the novel with Bacon in mind made me think of his screaming popes via the religious oppression, the psychiatric disturbances, and the authorial vitriol and scorn doled throughout. Were they somewhere in the back of your mind while writing too?

coverKZ: With Bacon, yes, I was trying to channel the effect that his paintings produced within me… I am really interested in what Deleuze has to say about Bacon’s figures, how Bacon is painting these chaotic nervous systems, and in a way with a book like OFA I thought of myself as a portraitist I guess, but with language, exorcising both Bacon’s triptych as well as the portraits of Marlene Dumas, and trying in a way to paint not characters but nervous systems, flayed and flawed and committing desperate acts of self-immolation. I lived for a bit in London and I became obsessed with the Bacon room at the Tate Britain, his orange paintings especially filled me with such a delirious violence, and I think I am always trying to write to them, write to his diseased mouths and paralyzed figures. The scream in general fascinates me, those who have had their language stolen from them, how to reproduce that on the page—Munch’s Scream and Helene Weigel’s grotesque mouth wide open in Mother Courage—and especially with this project I was interested in writing these figures—I keep on calling them figures! but that’s what they are to me, or grotesques, grotesques I care for, not characters—that are completely inarticulate or stricken with a sort of wordless riot, as my Maggie character is, my modern hysterical Dora-daughter, or my Malachi prophet, my homeless Septimus Smith from Mrs. Dalloway, and yes Mommy too. Mommy is deeply, deeply unhappy but she lacks any way to articulate this, to express any individual expression, she is a member of Kant’s minority, who just wants to be a cutesy cow grazing on Snax Mix.

Through all this I am channeling my own feelings of impotence, of alienation, of desperation the feeling sometimes that most are mute and deaf and dumb to all of the horrors of existence, preferring to exist in their banal languages and worlds, in many ways in terms of an exercise in language I was trying to write to the banality of cliches, how they mold our minds, and of the banality of the exclamation point, the emoticon. Everyone who reads it gets that this is a novel set in Midwestia, in suburbia, and it is, sure, that’s where the impulse began, my environment, but it’s just as much to me a novel about liberals in cities who easily accept the status quo and would rather discuss American Idol or some shit than gay rights or rights for women or the environment and really really about a country at war and pretending not to be at war. It’s an extremely political novel, a novel screeching against the war and the banality of evil. A friend said to me: Mommy is the Bush Administration. And yes! Yes that’s true. I really loved that. But it’s not just the Bush Administration. It’s not just the convenient enemies I was trying to write to in this book, and failing, and I will always try to write to, again and again. Not just the Red States and Midwestia but the society at large.

And it’s great you bring up The Oresteia because besides Mrs. Dalloway it’s the other text I’m trying to rewrite in O Fallen Angel, not just Bacon purging the Furies and the scream of Clytaemestra and Cassandra in many of his triptychs, but also that, in many ways I frame the book like a Greek tragedy, with choruses, and I will always try to rewrite The Oresteia in any work of this type, in all of my political work. And I love Bacon’s screaming popes, all of his patriarch paintings, his blue businessmen. I think Mommy is the real patriarch in this novel, so she’s not a screaming pope, she uses manipulation and sweet expressions and not brute force, along with the furniture and her statues she will try to rearrange her children’s minds.

TM: To a review in The Rumpus that criticized your lack of empathy for your characters, you responded: “If anything it’s a novel about ALIENATION, and I am in many ways alienating my readers, drawing from theater–Brecht‘s A-effect, Artaud’s notion of the plague, Karen Finley. But I think it’s a disappointing conventional read to expect all novels to be about characters, a novel in which character and relationships are privileged, and I think of that as a sort of MFA-itis.” I understand this to mean that you believe MFA programs are overly influential and at their worst, a homogenizing force in the way they shape their students’ narrative expectations. Javier Marías once said that if he were ever to start a writing school, translation would be its touchstone. What would a writing program designed by Kate Zambreno look like?

KZ: Yes, I think MFA programs can be homogenizing forces and churn out literature that is hygenic and functional. But of course not all MFA programs are like this. I think my main problem is how many MFA programs for fiction are structured, and who is hired in most of these programs, who does the hiring, and how hybridity or dancing along genres is really discouraged in many programs, in my totally limited observation because I neither have an MFA nor did I study creative writing as an undergraduate. But it seems the focus of most creative writing fiction programs is still realism, still a traditional focus on character and plot, and a focus on the story that is about the human heart (an idea I’m stealing from the writer Steve Tomasula). So I think at least in fiction programs works that are engaging with philosophy or with theory or are queer or feminist or radical or about the body and trauma and abjectness or are totally weirdo-schizo-whatever, you know, fucking with form, trying to invent new forms, any textual transgressions, any beautiful little monsters, are probably shredded in workshop.

A review of O Fallen Angel said that if the novel had been workshopped, that the teacher would freak out, basically. And I think it would have been savaged in most MFA fiction programs and any rawness or rough edges or anything instinctual about it would be sort of smoothed away to attempt to reach approval by committee, both in the workshop and then in some sort of thesis situation. So I think in my writing program I would really try to steer away from the notion of a piece “working” or “functioning” because a text is not supposed to work, lawnmowers are supposed to work and cut grass, a text is supposed to make you explode, agitated, or at least feel something, feel and then think, think and then feel, act, not just pat the pretty language or sigh and feel a little wistful or a little good about yourself or whatever. So I would want my writing program to be a radical laboratory,  it would be about changing society through the text.

As Camus has said, if you want to be a philosopher, write novels. Some of the most exciting urgent public intellectuals and philosophers are creative writers. In my totally hypothetical writing program I would encourage students to be completely promiscuous in their reading, to read philosophy and theory and become obsessed with art and film, to become obsessed with something outside of their craft, like I don’t know, a different religion or anything outside of themselves, but then to burrow deep inside of themselves too, to learn new languages and read anything but the obvious books, then maybe read the obvious ones again,  read in translation, engage with the world and have experiences. Fuck up a lot. Write about it. Go on weird travels. Always bring books with you. Write about the travels and the books that you’re carrying with you. And as opposed to the workshop process there will be readings and mentor relationships set up and others will rigorously engage with your work but never offer prescriptions, only guidance. A program that is what Woolf has called a writing apprenticeship, to learn how to inhabit the necessary private space of a writer, to be a writer, not just how to get a story published in X, Y,  or Z publication. But I would also want activism to be a prominent feature.  Not that I consider myself any authority to head such a writing program. I would want to be in such a program. There will be no teachers! Everyone will be students! No degrees! No diplomas! Just writing books and learning how to be a citizen of the world.

TM: You reviewed your novel, O Fallen Angel, for the blog We Who Are About to Die. It’s an insightful and entertaining introduction to the book. In it you claim:  “My characters don’t touch each other, but they want to connect and they’re all suffocating in their cells. It is a stupid, terrible book, about the stupid and the terrible.” While this statement is simultaneously ironic and earnest, self-conscious and comic (if all four qualities can coexist at once), it demands the question, why write a stupid and terrible book about the stupid and the terrible?

KZ: Well, for the first statement, the book being stupid and terrible, I think in many ways for this project I was interested in really bad writing, I guess this is how I’m influenced by Acker, in cliches, in the smiley face Maggie uses to sign her suicide note, there’s a line ending a Maggie section “The first cut is the deepest,” which I’m totally quoting from that Cat Stevens song, tunneling inside Maggie’s head, and at this moment of total self-annihilation over an ex-lover Maggie is really trying to be deep and poetic but she’s just a photocopy, a profound but then ultimately banal photocopy of a pop song, and I’m interested in all that, how our brains are colonized with well-tread language, yet we’re convinced we’re terribly profound and individual. When I read that line at readings people always are kind of silent, but I find it so funny—like look! look how bad and awful this is! this is really bad writing! but people are silent because I think they’re a bit embarrassed for me, which I love. And look how mean I’m being, how cruel! It’s a terrible, terrible book!

My view of humanity at least in this novel is cruel and caricatured, I am playing with these grotesques, and when you think of Bakhtin on Rabelais and the grotesque, the grotesque is cruel and mean and just completely destructive humor.  I am more interested in this book and my political writing in general at this moment in the destruction, the total annihilation, as opposed to finding a sort of corrective or moment of optimism. So it’s a terrible book, it’s about terrible things, and it says terrible things.

But besides this authorial act of spraying acid, the family I write about in the book are grotesques, they are caricatures, and they seem innocent and normal and average, but I am saying that amidst all of this banality there’s something really dangerous in terms of how we swallow horrible things happening because they make us uncomfortable and ignore all the fucked-up-ness and like let’s talk about The Bachelor as opposed to Haiti and as a society we’re still totally totally repressed, as represented in this book by the Mommy character. Everything’s airbrushed but underneath everything’s shit. It’s one view of the world, it’s not the only one, it’s certainly a pretty dystopic and scathing one.

I’m circling back to that Rumpus reviewer’s critiquing me for not being empathetic—I think being political is being empathetic, by calling attention to who is actually silenced and oppressed, and how the family functions as the oppressor as well as other oedipal structures, other mommies and daddies—government, religion, etc. But it’s funny the idea that I’m not empathetic to the people doing the normalizing and oppressing and silencing. Fuck it. I’m not. When the British modernist Anna Kavan started writing her tripped-out dystopic works after, you know, being institutionalized and then living through the bombings in England and seeing the effects of war, she said to her publisher, Peter Owen, “That’s just how I see the world now.” And I always think about that.

is the author of the novel, The Enhancers, forthcoming in fall 2022 from Meekling Press. She’s published two poetry chapbooks, and her stories and essays have appeared in Fence, New York Tyrant, Tin House, and Make Lit, among other publications. Read more of her work here:

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