Raja ne gami te raani
Chaana veenthi aane
Kya karega kaaji
My mother spouted these words during another one of our marriage talks, which seem to be the ultimate tangent in any family conversation now. As more of my friends tie the knot, younger generations of my family dive into romantic exploits, and I near 30, there seems no escaping it.
Roughly translated, the folk saying means:
A king makes a queen [of any who he fancies]
Even if she’s making cow pies
And what can the priests do
In it lies the implied sense of manhood’s rule over anyone he sets his eyes on, regardless of what his educated elders have to say about it. It’s a folksy saying, innocent and dated, but it cuts to the core of where I stand in the world: An Indian-American man, instilled with and expected to live up to societal duties to establish my castle and spread my seed.
The cultural disposition of just “going along” with these things to please the family — as a writer, it feels antithetical. Would I write something just to please the culture?
In speaking of the social role of literature, Indian writer Govardhanram Tripathi wrote in the preface to his novel Saraswatichandra, “Both women and the novel desire to be beautiful, but our fulfillment of this desire just be a means to achieve higher goals. Striving for mere aesthetic pleasure is not only understandable, it is futile — and indeed it could be harmful — to attain that step and not rise upwards.”
Tripathi’s belief was that the novel should project an ideal future, but should remain in-step with the quotidian, avoiding any real radical divergence. That’s not good for society. It’s not good for the family. Literature, like all art, becomes an avatar of the cultural identity, and in Indian publishing, the country’s complicated relationship with autonomous female narratives continues.
It is no secret that this idea lies at the root of a larger social ill in India today. The headlines are flush with stories that range from men whistling and pawing at women walking down the street, to, at their most vile, incidents like Delhi’s 2012 bus gang rape, or last New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru, where 1,500 police officers couldn’t control thousands of drunken revelers snatching at the clothing of women trying to get home.
I used to have an easy target: Bollywood. Entire plotlines of lovesick boys chasing their consorts through forests and mountains, their affections easily reciprocated after a song-and-dance number, have brainwashed generations into thinking that romance starts with lighthearted stalking, and flourishes through female obligation. But Bollywood, whose male stars are propelled to near-mythic status, revered as Gods walking the earth, gestures towards a deeper ritual of masculinity worship that is central to the Indian condition.
Many cultures are built on a similar patriarchal notions that codified into the social fabric in different ways. In India, many will claim that female equality had been the norm in Vedic times, citing principles like ardhangini, that men and women are complementary halves of a whole. They will point to the images of Goddesses, and professing an insult to wife or mother is unconscionable. Somewhere along the way — Muslim empires, British colonials — it all got messed up.
Literature however, preserves a record of women perhaps, yes, having a voice and role — but one dictated by the whims of men.
The uber-mensch is no doubt Krishna, who toyed with the bathing Gopis by stealing their clothes along the river bank. His love story with Radha is our Romeo and Juliet, without the familial strife. Krishna of course, is a supporting player in the epic The Mahabharata, chronicling the battle between the cousin clans of the domineering 100 Kauravas against the heroic five Pandavas.
The tale’s pivotal moment comes during a game of dice, where the Pandava King, Yudhishthira, is cheated out of his kingdom by his cousins. One by one, he stakes his own throne, then each of his brother’s estates, and finally their polyamorous wife, Draupadi. At this point, Draupadi is dragged by her hair into the main hall, and the Kauravas begin pulling at her clothes, crying that if she can be married to five men at once, what’s the point of covering up? As her linen is torn from her, she prays to Krishna, who blesses her with a never-ending strand of clothing so that she doesn’t experience the ultimate shame of nudity, and in doing so, seals her holiness in the annals of myth.
Now, it’s important to mention that Draupadi is revered across India as a goddess in her own right, and celebrated as a feminist figure. But what of the feckless Pandavas, her husbands, who sit by and watch, unable to act because they’ve “rightfully” lost her?
The Pandavas, we are told, are virtuous, stalwart, underdog heroes — but at every beat they seem to buck their superlatives. They give in to the cheating and hostile bureaucracy of their cousins. Throughout the epic, they all fall prey to various vices: Yudhishthira loves to gamble; Bhima is a bully with seemingly insatiable bloodlust, brutally dismembering, crushing, and decapitating several characters through the story. Arjuna famously has a crisis of faith and confidence moments before battle, prompting Krishna to recite the Bhagavad Gita (and only then fights because Krishna tells him to). And there’s poor pretty-boy Nakula and dutiful Sahadeva, victims of vanity and pride, who barely register in the tale.
Indian children are raised on similar tales of kings wandering the wilds and happening upon village nymphs, struck with cupid’s arrows and picking up new wives. These are our mythical heroes and role models. We’re told they act out of honor and passion; when their actions are questionable, it is waived by divine destiny.
Through time, the examples multiply: the poet Kālidāsa in the 5th century dramatized the story of Shakuntala, another forest nymph who ensnared King Dushyanta. Their offspring Bharata founds the dynasty leading to the Pandavas.
Upon the Muslim invaders, the culture ripens with more stories of star-crossed lovers: Leila and Majnun; Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (of the Taj); or the Hindu warrior Bajirao and his lover Mastani, who commits suicide upon hearing of his death in battle, an act of Sati, where Hindu widows are bidden to throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres. (Let’s add that Sati herself is a goddess, and first of two consorts to Shiva.)
The folk saying Raja Ne Game Te Raani is also the title of a popular contemporary Gujarati stage play, about a middle-aged couple whose three daughters run the household instead of learning wifely duties from their mother. It takes a strong-willed servant — male, of course — to show the daughters their rightful way and bring peace to the home.
Modern feminism in India has often been dictated by men, first by colonialists trying to tame “savage” rituals like Sati, and later by Gandhi and other reform leaders hoping to envelope women’s liberation as a component of Independence. Today as women wrestle control of their own narratives, men tax them by attacking their moral standing. When the women assaulted in Bengaluru reported to the police and caused a national uproar, the politicians were quick with stock answers — they shouldn’t have dressed immodestly, they should have known better, it was New Year’s — what did they expect? Karnataka State’s home minister G. Parameshwara remarked, “They try to copy westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing, so some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen.” #NotAllMen trended the next few days, as if India’s stalwart Pandavas threw their hands up and claimed, “Hey, don’t look at me.”
The lack of women’s agency in their own narratives was chronicled famously by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Madwoman in the Attic, examining writers like Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, and noting that even the most prominent women writers worked under the shadow of their male counterparts. They pose the question, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”
As in most cultures, the Indian woman writer has often been placed in the position of being reactive to male hegemony. For every Mirza Ghalib there is a Begum Zeb-un-Nisa; both prized Mughal-era poets, only one imprisoned the last 20 years of her life for being too freethinking. For every Munshi Premchand, an Ismat Chughtai; both crafting socio-realist fiction about female sexual identity, yet only one summoned to court on grounds of indecency.
In her autobiography My Story, the late writer Kamala Das characterizes her life living under a conservative father and later a conservative arranged husband. She tries to dutifully please both of them, but they fail to ignite any intellectual and emotional connection with her. Even after achieving literary prominence, she writes in the preface: “This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret writing it.”
There is no shortage of amazing writing coming out of India today. Novels about cultural displacement by authors of Indian descent like Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and their contemporaries have found global success. A diaspora bubble shifts the critical focus of diaspora writers away from gender, and makes it a battleground for class. In the eyes of India’s patriarchal culture wardens, their work is now Western, immoral, published by the big New York and London houses, printed for English-only eyes. It’s not Swadesi, not of this land. Their stories are dictated by a migration and divorce from a culture that then remains untouched, unchanged.
Meanwhile, writers like Arundhati Roy and the late Mahasweta Devi who remain in India are often perceived more as leftist activists than storytellers. It’s a longshot to assume their rich, nuanced works have any traction with India’s cricket-playing, paan-chewing working class. The current Hindu nationalist government staunchly opposes voices that threaten a particular religio-nationalist narrative (in one example from outside the country, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindu sexuality was banned in India). Writers like Anjum Hasan, Anita Hair, and Anuradha Roy battle for bookshelf space against the likes of Chetan Bhagat, whose simple prose about cricket and call centers flies off the shelves. They are competing with Shobhaa De, a former model and Mumbai socialite, dubbed the “Jackie Collins of India,” whose bestselling tawdry Sex-in-the-City-esque tales serve to titillate schoolboys as much as give a feigned sense of female success in books.
Recently Bollywood has trended toward women-centric stories. Films such as Pink, Queen, Gulaab Gang, and Piku have all been smash hits at the box office, yet come with the stamped approval of male directors, male co-stars, and plotlines circling around and back to the women defying fathers, marriage, rape, or ignorance. And again, we find that any directorial voice — say a Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta — looks to markets abroad to find a platform.
Admittedly, I am also covering here only the writers who have risen high enough in the Indian literary scene that I, as an American, can identify them. There’s much to be said of small presses like Zubaan and Women Unlimited, as well as authors writing in one of India’s many regional languages. But in an increasingly globalized country, the success of English-language publishing remains the most profitable benchmark, which only threatens to further limit Indian women’s narratives.
In speaking of literature from South Asia, I admit this is a cursory overview of a millennia-spanning history. But as an Ahmedabad-born immigrant in a growing diaspora, my identity remains its product — through literature, through film, through every custom.
We pray to the feminine image with ultimate, unreciprocated piety, but in practice it’s considered a two-way street. We elected a woman prime minister before it was common to do so, then brutally assassinated her at the gates of her own home. Bollywood’s current screen queen, Deepika Padukone, drew scorn for a Vogue short film by proclaiming sex was “my choice.” A woman with power is a woman unchecked. Woman is either heretically subversive or divinely transcendent; there is no middle ground.
In a workshop in my early 20s, my writing was torn down over one prevalent problem: All of my female characters were immaculately beautiful, endearingly personable, cherished by my protagonist — like a goddess, and were just as intangible. I resist marriage, not because I detest the prospect of a devoted relationship (or the lavish wedding party), but because I’m uncertain of my own place in it, suffering from what Harold Bloom dubbed, “the anxiety of influence.” How does one escape the ills of heritage without leaving it behind entirely?
When the conversation arises — and it does with growing frequency — my family talks as if it’s already a done deal. Just say the word and we’ll find the girl. Do it for us. You’re a great catch — you even know how to cook! Most Indian girls don’t bother to learn anymore.
I’ve stood in the corner of those banquet halls, watching grooms draped in dowries, riding in on stallions and carried to the mandap on shoulders of their brothers. It was nauseating.
As of now, even the best of us may have to settle with the fact that we are reserved Pandavas, and no more or less righteous.
The Disrobing of Draupadi, Wikimedia Commons
In 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?
Kate 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?
KZ: 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.
TM: 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.
New 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?
KZ: 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.
TM: 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?
KZ: 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.
I love the disturb-factor in classic literature. Once you’re out of the classroom, much fun can be had by viewing an older book with a contemporary gaze–analysis and history be damned. Pick up Pamela by Samuel Richardson, for instance: the eponymous heroine escapes the sexual advances of her employer, Mr. B., time and time again…only to fall in love with and marry him by the book’s end. Attempted rape: so hot. When a girl says no, she really means maybe. Too bad, though, that Pamela is so dull. I don’t think I could stand another go at it, even with all the life lessons therein.
I’m thinking of Pamela these days because I just finished re-reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё. Oh the Brontё sisters! I haven’t yet read Anne’s books, but based on this comic, I think I might like them. Charlotte and Emily, meanwhile, were deeply weird, and they (or, okay, their protagonists) were into some deeply weird men. They remind me of that friend–we all have that friend–maybe you are that friend–who consistently falls in love with assholes. Just dump him already, we think!
And, Mr. Rochester, if he isn’t an asshole, he’s a psychopath–or, simply creepy and duplicitous. I can’t believe he was voted most romantic literary character in a British poll last year. That’s messed up. Are they kinkier in England? (The Telegraph article on the subject, by the way, mentions that the results were revealed at a literary festival, where “guests were served pink champagne by scantily-clad waiters.” Oh dear.)
Let’s consider some points against old Edward, shall we?
1. We should just get the big one out of the way. Dude keeps his first wife locked up. He never lets her out, if he can help it. “Bitch is crazy!” he cries, but that is no excuse.
2. Not only does Mr. Rochester lock Bertha up, he keeps her a secret from everyone in town–including Jane! After the truth has come out (at the altar, no less, minutes before he’s about to marry–or “marry”–Jane), Rochester insists that he was planning to tell his new wife the truth after a year and a day of marriage. Sure you were, Edward, sure you were.
3. Adele, Mr. Rochester’s little French ward, might possibly his daughter, but, you know, her mom slept around, so he’s not entertaining that notion very seriously. He’ll be her benefactor, sure, but he will never ever be her dad.
4. When Mr. Rochester has the rich guests staying with him at his estate, he goes off to attend to some business or other, and in his absence, a gypsy fortune-teller comes to read the fortunes of the ladies. Jane goes to see said gypsy in the dark library, and remarks that the woman’s face “is a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks or rather jaws.” The gypsy talks mostly of Mr. Rochester, and, surprise, surprise, she IS Rochester. That’s right, Jane’s boss has dressed up in drag, and put on a little minstrel make-up, and asked the house’s governess to kneel before him. “I wonder with what feelings you came to me to-night,” she/he says. Why Jane doesn’t throw up in her mouth a little when she discovers his little game is beyond me.
5. When dressed as a gypsy, Mr. Rochester tells Jane that he’s engaged to be married to one of the women visiting, Blanche Ingram. Later, after Jane has confessed her love, he admits that his engagement to Miss Ingram was only a ruse to get Jane to react. He basically says, “I wasn’t really going to marry her! just wanted you to be jealous, little fairy of mine!” No matter how much of a pill Miss Ingram is, and she is a pill, this charade just seems cruel.
6. At the end of the book, Rochester is blind and maimed from the fire that ultimately destroyed Thornfield Hall and killed Bertha. (He does rescue the servants and tries to rescue his wife–I’ll give him that.) But once Jane has declared that her love for him still remains, he reveals that for the past year, he’s been wearing the pearl necklace (ahem) he had given her during their engagement. Some might call this romance, I call it a problem (by morton here). I wouldn’t be surprised if Rochester likes to wear Jane’s underwear, too. Or, let’s be honest: Bertha’s.
7. Mr. Rochester is ugly. Before you start to yell at me, let me say this: I love that the heroine of this novel isn’t good looking. That’s interesting, refreshing, and complicated. But, you know, if a man is ugly, he has to have one hell of a personality. And if he’s going to have a fake history and a secret wife, he needs to be smokin’ hot to get away with it. (Two words: Don. Draper.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Eyre. Its story–part Gothic tale, part romance, part first-person confession–is beguiling. Its heroine–independent yet innocent, obsessed with stories and weak to the power of them–is complex and believable. And the prose will have you underlining every other page:
I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication, for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”
He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the ax-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end…
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m ready to finally check out Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which I’m told gives the first Mrs. Rochester the humanity she deserves. I should also get to The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for I’m sure they can provide some context for and interpretations of this beloved classic. I’m curious what Mr. Rochester, and the abiding love readers have for him, means.