An Illustration, an Illusion: The Millions Interviews Carla Zaccagnini


Written during the pandemic and released on the occasion of her concurrent solo exhibition at the Amant art campus in Brooklyn, Cuentos de cuentas (co-published in April 2022 by Amant Foundation and K.Verlag) artist and writer Carla Zaccagnini, who grew up in Brazil and Argentina during the turbulent decades of the 1970s and ‘80s, scrutinizes inflation, status, family, political and social uncertainty, under the guise of memory.

Cuentos de cuentas mixes English and Spanish to examine the complicated and unstable economy of memory in five vignettes. Peering through the often-distorted lens of photographic collage, ephemera, and appropriated stories, Zaccagnini asks of the reader: what is real and unreal? Here she defies genres in an artful mingling of history and memory, text and image, dollars and cents.

The book itself is a rich object, punctuated by vibrant pages of solid color, scattered images of the author’s drawings, archival clippings, ticket stubs, and other ephemera. It is at once a literary masterpiece and visual pocketbook. Its written investigations pair perfectly with Zaccagnini’s art installations, but they resonate far beyond the gallery, serving as a dialogue—a guide—to her visual work. Cuentos de cuentas invites readers into Zaccagnini’s kaleidoscopic realm of imagination, where she fuses domestic to historical, episodic to timeless, in effort to understand our individualized—and imperfect—perceptions of the past.

Leslie Lindsay: At the café where I read Cuentos de cuentas, I found myself eavesdropping. It was located in an affluent area, and conversations ranged from the economics of an upcoming “celebration of life” to the ethics of silencing notifications; they were a tangle of hope and hype: vein clinics, star smiles, and eyebrow threading. As I listened, I encountered this line: “Look, I brought you an idea.” My mind immediately morphed ‘brought’ into ‘bought.’ Are wants insatiable? Can ideas be bought?

Carla Zaccagnini: This is a beautiful way to start talking about this book, through words that are not in it, but were floating around it while you read. There is a passage in the Spanish version of the first chapter that couldn’t be translated. I mistyped the word “blanco” (white) for “blando” (soft) when describing a scene in which I fell down the white—or soft—marble stairs of my childhood home. I kept the typo, which is somehow like a faux pas, a misplaced step, a (Freudian) slip that can make one roll down the stairs. But it can also reveal how the hardness of stone is impermanent; challenged by the flexibility of a body in movement; corroded by memory. Any Lacanian psychoanalyst—like my mother—would say that desire is, by its very nature, insatiable. I am not sure ideas can be bought, but they can most certainly be sold. What do people really get when they think they are buying ideas? Probably something unable to satiate their desire of possessing those ideas: a timid reflection, a tortuous refraction, an illustration, an illusion.

LL: What makes a person want so much? What gives things the power to enchant? Is there a limit to the desire for more?

CZ: One thing is the structure of desire; another is the logic of capitalism. Desire for the other, and for the other’s desire, desire for difference, for the unachievable, is the motor that can make us move beyond what we know. Nothing good can be said about the logic of capitalism, the compulsive craving for excess and all the misery and destruction it creates.

LL: The same could be said about creativity. Some fear their creativity will be “all used up,” the well will run dry. In fact, the more one creates—or is around those who create—more ideas flow. This circles back to the consumerism of ideas, is there ever a “collapse of market”?

CZ: The well might be a good metaphor. A well is not an impermeable vessel, containing a limited amount of liquid that can be administrated to last as needed. Water does not belong to the well. A well is nothing but a passage. A well is the extraction of earth, an opening, an emptied space that gives access to aquifers, which extend beyond borders and are part of the continuous water cycle. The economy of ideas is similar. We are not born with a limited amount of ideas to have, and our ideas are not isolated in impermeable brains.

LL: In terms of art, might it be presumptuous to suggest artists get out of the studio and onto the streets? For example, viewing art in a gallery is one thing, but in Cuentos de cuentas, one can experience art as text, anywhere, as I did in a café. In that sense, you shifted the way people normally see things; maybe you shattered the optical subconsciousness by offering a dialogue. Perhaps you intended something else?

CZ: On different occasions and using different strategies, I have been attempting to establish with the readers of my work the same kind of relationship that literature has with its readers. Something parallel to the fact that you can bring a book with you, to the café or the park; that you can force the letters to shake with the subway or make the pages grow thicker with rain. The fact that places end up being imprinted in a book: the smell of sunscreen accompanied by a few grains of sand hidden between pages; the metallic smell of house keys in a book that has been in a purse for long; the receipt from a restaurant or a bus ticket marking a page with a passage that we cannot recognize; the alien underlined words that are like a present in a book from the library. The fact that you can read faster and without pause when you need the story to develop; or you can close the book and make the characters wait. You can go back some pages, re-read a paragraph, skip a passage, abandon the book altogether. The fact that you lend the printed words your voice, your accent, your rhythm.

LL: Punctuated throughout Cuentos de cuentas are color plates, like paint chips, which speak to the artistic quality of your work. Color theory combines context and harmony with the color wheel. Broken into elements, this might apply to the larger construct of your overall message: the context of consumerism, world citizens of all colors operating in harmony, and the gears of capitalism. Was that your intention with the blocks of color?

CZ: The color plates in the book are a printed approximation of how I remember the shades mentioned in the text, a reaffirmation or a correction in relation to the color each reader envisions when reading the words “army green,” “raw cement,” or “French flag”.

When Anna-Sophie Springer, editor at K. Verlag, read the first chapters of the book, she noticed the recurrent presence of color in the narrative. These stories, witnessed from the perspective of a child and recalled after decades, have a shallow depth of field: some details are in sharp focus, a lot of it is blurred. Some colors are focal points, as vivid as some smells. Around them are the “permissible circles of confusion,” as photographers call the areas of the image perceived by the human eye as being in focus. These colors are condensation points of whatever substance memories are made of. At least for me, memory matter becomes thicker as the abstract density of colors than as lines and scale.

I Write to Find Out: The Millions Interviews Marie Myung-Ok Lee


Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s novel The Evening Hero, publishing May 24 from Simon & Schuster, centers on Dr. Yungman Kwak, an obstetrician living and working in the fictional town of Horse’s Breath, in rural Minnesota, near the Iron Range. Yungman, whose Korean name translates to “Evening Hero,” often feels trapped between two worlds, unwilling to return to his ancestral—near-imaginary—land of Korea, yet somehow yearning for it. Now, a father and grandfather in the twilight of his life, Yungman has less time ahead of him than behind him. And when a letter arrives that threatens to the life he has worked so long to build, everything changes. Keenly felt and deeply observed, this sweeping sociopolitical historical saga bears witness to the medical institution and the immigrant experience. 

The Evening Hero is Lee’s second novel, after her 1992 debut Finding My Voice, hailed as one of the first contemporary Asian-American YA novels to explore hometown bigotry. Lee is one of a handful of American journalists granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War and was the first Fulbright Scholar sent to Korea for creative writing.

I spoke with Lee about how she brought The Evening Hero, and Yungman’s story, to life. 

Leslie Lindsay You grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota, a predominately white community. What was your experience like growing up in Northern Minnesota as a Korean-American? It’s an isolating area in itself, but perhaps you endured additional challenges? 

Marie Myung-Ok Lee: We were for most of my childhood the only family of color in our community. The area we lived in was predominantly white, and, at the time, the whole of Minnesota was more than 90% white. We talk a lot about physical violence against Asians today, but my first experience getting punched in the face and called the c-word was when I was four or five years old. But even though I was aware of racism at a young age, because everyone else was white, that made me feel white as well. I was born in Hibbing just like all my white friends. My parents wanted to be really “patriotic” and kind of disavowed Korea and never talked about it, so I grew up not really knowing who I was and how I fit into the grand scheme of things. I think figuring out who I am is why I write—to find out!

LL: There continues to be a good deal of anti-Asian racism, even in settings far more diverse and metropolitan than Hibbing. How do you confront this in your daily life?

MML: Non-Asian allies are so important. I’ve seen several cases in New York City where when people intervene, it can defuse a situation. I think the more some people step up, more other people will step up as opposed to everyone being afraid of the bully. I believe the work I do both in fiction and nonfiction is to make the experiences of Asian Americans legible. I think the more stories and voices we have, the less chance there is for racism and stereotypes to seep into that vacuum. As you know, reading builds empathy.

LL: One of the things I was particularly keen to as I read The Evening Hero was your use of color: the white and black, that woodland gray-green, made from the iron in the clay, celadon. We see it in ginseng, grasses, the family tree. Celadon originated in China, was brought to the Goryeo region in Korea. In a sense, celadon is a bit like an “immigrant color.”

MML: I love the celadon color and was happy the book designer, who is Korean, chose to use it.

LL: In the book you pay special attention to the color white. Minnesota is not just “white” in terms of people, but landscape, too. Snow, ice, even farmhouses are sun-bleached. And there’s the medical aspect as well. White lab coats, white shoes. At one point in the novel, Yungman is proud of purchasing white shoes in Korea. Combine that with the lab coat, white collar—he thought he was as close to a white American as possible. And in Korea—white rice, white ramie fabric, white “powders” and substances falling from planes during the war. What was the intention there?

MML: I’m glad you caught on to that. I wanted to point out how in the U.S. and the West in general, “white” has positive connotations, including racially. In Korea, white is a frequent motif—Koreans are called “the white-clad people,” and the flag is predominantly white, a color of peace. So it’s all about context—in the U.S., a white flag doesn’t mean peace but surrender. Or how in Korea, Korean faces can be “white” but no one in Horse’s Breath would describe Yungman’s wife, Young-ae, with her fair complexion, as “white.” 

LL: Ancestors also play a pivotal role in The Evening Hero. Like the use of color throughout the narrative, I find this elegant. There’s a section about trees and saplings, family burials, keeping bodies intact, rather than cremation, about honoring the dead. Can you expand on these? 

MML: My grandfather died during the Korean war and we moved his body in 1996 to a better place. It took forever to disinter him and my father explained that they had to find all the pieces. They laid out a tarp and we watched them reassemble everything—it was very moving and I could see how sad my father was. As a matter of accuracy, I also studied anthropological books on Korean funeral rites when I was writing the book.

LL: The idea of “what’s in a name” becomes apparent in the end of the book. Kwan translates to “Evening Hero” in Korean, which takes on extra significance seeing as Yungman is in the twilight of his life. We get the sense he might die soon, but his legacy will continue. 

MML: In my mind “evening” refers to the time period when Yungman muses that he’s lived more life than he’s going to live. He can just coast into the end of his life, or he could do something with it—but then does he have enough time? He doesn’t have that luxury anymore.