The stories of Elle Nash’s second book, Nudes—following the deliciously titled debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other—emerge from the dark side of life, as though they have been written by a femme fatale turned narrator, in the way that echoes how vampires have slowly evolved from villains to protagonists. Nash has an impeccable eye, and the language to capture the perfect simile.
It’s been suggested that our literary era is an anodyne one. Elle Nash is anything but anodyne. I was introduced to her through a friend, read her novel, and—halfway through this new, notably diverse collection of pieces that I’ll agree to call “stories” simply because there’s no better term for them—wrote her a one-line email: “Your book is a wild fucking ride.” Admittedly, wine may have had something to do with that. But the sentiment was true.
I was thinking of the subject matter—about which I intended to pose a question or two—but more important is that Nash’s stories often hinge on a moment of crystalline reflection. In a sense, they are like Joyce stories, without the epiphanies. These are people for whom epiphanies are part of another world, one in which they appear to have little interest.
The Millions: So I want to start with a question that was once asked of me in an interview—albeit under slightly different circumstances. Nudes has a lot of suicide, bulimia, hospital stays, borderline disorder, Satanism, thigh gap, guns, snuff films, pregnancy, drugs, a lot of alcohol, anal beads, and porn. My question is this—are you okay?
Elle Nash: I mean, are any of us okay ever? Life is hard. This past year has been especially brutal. I enjoy that you describe Nudes has having a lot of thigh gap.
TM: That’s almost exactly the answer I gave! Well, mostly. Could I ask you to unpack the first part, a bit? Is it literature’s job, do you think, to give us a place to explore our okayness, or lack thereof, as it were?
EN: Oh god—that word, unpack! Of course, I say it with my students all the time. That is a good question, though. I don’t know if literature really has a job overall. I couldn’t assume that it even serves a specific purpose. I’m sure some would say it does…like preserving canon or whatever. But it’s like the big overarching question about art: Why art? Why write? I honestly don’t know. But what I do know is when I read a novel and feel completely entrenched in the story, it fills me with something, and I enjoy that. I enjoy the escape, I enjoy experiencing the pain and pleasure of another life, even if it’s a made up one. There’s not ever another time, for example, I’d be transported to early 2000s Paris to be an actress, explore new edges of the heart, or to, for example, process pain in a way that feels poetic rather than miserable, or to experience birth and death. It’s like a song…words can pull at you, the way an arrangement of sounds make a melody. I don’t know why it does, but it does, so I go to books, searching for work like that.
TM: Close to the end of the first story, “Ideation,” the main character thinks, “Death was a reminder that choice was a luxury.” It feels like this could have been the prompt for the whole story. And there is a lot of this kind of thing in the book. Sometimes, it seems like entire stories have grown out of axioms that appear late in them, usually at the climactic moment. That’s probably not what happened at all, but can you talk a little about the genesis of a story for you?
EN: It’s funny you say that, because it was actually the last line I added to the story. In fact, I had written it, finished it, or thought I finished it, and then when I was about to perform it at a reading, I felt the pacing wasn’t quite right at the end. It was just missing something. I have this document in my Notes app just filled with random one-off lines I think of, things I might save, as you said, for building stories around. This line had been there for a while, I wasn’t sure where to put it. So I took it and fit it into the story. Sometimes, though, stories do grow from these one-off lines. Most of the time a story for me starts with a series of images that run through my head, that I end up copying down and expanding on, trying to turn them into scenes, and then into narratives.
TM: You’re a little like Henry James in that you seem wholly uninterested in creating a sense of place, a sense of atmosphere. It’s all about the interiority—we listen in on characters’ lives rather than really participating with them. Is this intentional? Are you as suspicious of plot at James was? If not, what do you think really drives your work?
EN: Fascinating you mention this—I feel like interiority is my atmosphere. Maybe that’s because I spend so much time living inside my head. It is intentional that I want readers to observe. A lot of times I work to remove judgment from my narrators, or from third person narrators. I want the moments to stand on their own, for readers to come to their own conclusions about how to feel about something. In that way, I think it invites deeper emotional connection.
I am not necessarily suspicious of plot. Quite the opposite—I actually think even in plotless work, plot exists. Which I think the plotless crowd would hate to hear me say. Plot is simply the collection of moments strung together. Humans naturally attempt to derive pattern from events in order to create meaning. I don’t know why we do that—maybe pattern recognition was how we began to form memory and learn to trust and form communities, or something. Plot is just pattern, I think. But I do think heavy plot-driven works, which focus more on events than the observation of character, kind of lose something—they feel more like they’re written for entertainment, in a way. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. I just like to learn and be more involved with characters in a work.
TM: Some stories more like prose poems, some actually play around typographically on the page. Some stories are suspiciously essay-like, and some are more like vignettes or fragments. What constitutes a “story” for you? Or do you even care?
EN: Interesting question…I mean, a story really can be any arrangement of words on a page. It can be a long sentence, even. I guess I just think: is there movement? Does something reveal itself to me? Is it going to encourage me to reflect? A story is how we share, and how we go other places we might not otherwise go. If it does that, then it’s a story.
TM: Can I push back a bit? Because I can imagine the head of a poet or essayist exploding at the suggestion that only stories move, reveal, share, or go other places. I know it’s an impossible task to define story, but I think it can be useful to at least attempt to answer those unanswerable questions. So, again, what is a story? Or is such a definition only useful for libraries and bookstores?
EN: Why would they explode? Stories are basically how we share, and humans are driven to share because we are social; our brains are wired to find pattern and contract meaning out of it. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles says, “As long as man keeps hearing words / He’s sure that there’s a meaning somewhere.” So in terms of what it is…A story is just a means by which we pass information, whether it’s real, made-up, emotional, terrifying, euphoric, or banal. It’s evidence of our desire to connect.
TM: Sometimes it feels like the world of traditional values and concerns lingers in the background of your work—as something the characters sometimes want, but for some reason can’t get, or live by. How do you see your stories addressing values or morality, because it doesn’t seem like it’s just nihilism to me.
EN: Fiction can be a place to change and examine society’s morals and values. It can be a place where we can examine whether or not said values are suffocating, where we can debate what morality actually is, we can play with it, we can break and bend social mores. Literature is a place outside of real life, which makes it a place where we can experiment. Nihilism posits that life has no intrinsic value (this is debatable, though)…or that there are no morals at all because morals differ so much between groups of people…but in a way, that argument is kind of moot. A social construct—an illusion—removes autonomy, causes the self to suffer. I like to examine desire, especially as the root of suffering. I’m really into the idea of how suffering can end, into examining the origination of suffering in the human mind, on an individual level. The place of the self in society constructed via culture, economics, individual will, physics…it’s kind of a miraculous act, all of these systems—tradition—that both benefit and harm the person. It kind of strings the person up in a way, especially the person who struggles to enjoy or benefit from life in said system.
TM: Are you a reboot of Kerouac or Bukowski for millennials? How is our time different?
EN: I don’t know if I would say that. When I was a teen I really loved Bukowski for his crassness, what felt like raw candor I didn’t experience in my high school reading list. It was a snapshot of grit I think at the time I was too young to really “get.” I certainly feel as though millennials are struggling a lot—especially financially—right now, which seems similar to Bukowski’s experience through both the Great Depression and WWII, just with more useless mass-produced decadence. There is a lot less freedom to just get up and go. You can’t just show up somewhere and find a job, for example, without having an ID or a place to live; everything is monitored; healthcare costs are prohibitive as hell and dependent on having a job; mental healthcare, especially in this country, is not accessible at all. It is similar, really—Bukowski wasn’t a boomer, he was older than that. He was working class all his life. On top of the hegemony of the 24-hour news cycle, I think it’s really tough to just be a person today. We’re exposed to so much information, much less insulated. It has its benefits, but burnout is widespread—especially from tragedy. I don’t think anyone would care about what Bukowski had to say if he were to be publishing today—admittedly, it was the same when he was alive, anyway. We see so much suffering, are much more aware of it. I do fear the millennial generation will be the first to have more deaths from suicide and overdose than any other before it—in that way, it’s a little different.
TM: Talk about the organization of the book. A lot of thought goes into story orders, but I actually rarely read them in order. I did yours. What were you trying to achieve in organizing these into subcategories of stories?
EN: Admittedly, I knew I wanted to start with “Ideation” and end with “Room Service”—that was really all I had in mind. For the rest, I created the subcategories as a nod to “nudes” as a concept—an argument about what makes art obscene or pornographic—and tried to fit the stories into them based on their themes. As an example, “Moneyshot” takes the pop shot in porn as metaphor—the whole point of the pop shot scene is that it’s the reason all the money’s been spent, it’s the cinematic climax; the whole point of the characters’ arc in the stories in that section is getting the paycheck, the climax of their struggle.
TM: Last, kind of coming back around to the start, how would you feel about a reader viewing this book as a stand-in for autobiography, rather than a put-yourself-in-their-shoes kind of project?
EN: Readers can take whatever they’d like from my writing, or experience however it feels best. If something feels authentic enough that it’s assumed to be real, then I suppose I’ve done my job. But at the end of the day, it is fiction. If I wanted to write solely about myself, I’d be writing essays.
The stories of Elle Nash’s second book, Nudes—following the deliciously titled debut novel, Animals Eat Each Other—emerge from the dark side of life, as though they have been written by a femme fatale turned narrator, in the way that echoes how vampires have slowly evolved from villains to protagonists. Nash has an impeccable eye, and the language to capture the perfect simile.
Melissa Febos is one of those authors that writes at the sonic level. Each sentence seems to be crafted with notes instead of syllables, many of which occupy a person’s mind like an earworm of a song. Since releasing her first two critically acclaimed memoirs, Whip Smart and Abandon Me, the Lambda Literary Award and Publishing Triangle Award finalist has continued to command the literary landscape with her trademark lyricism.
Febos has always possessed a strong sense of self. In her new collection of essays, Girlhood, out now from Bloomsbury, she revisits her youth and examines how her definition of self changed alongside her body. Over time, Febos has continued to question the influence of growing up in a world that relegates the personal safety, happiness, and freedom of girls and women to the orbit of men’s feelings, pride, and power. Girlhood sets out to prove the nefariousness of the patriarchy and reframes the values and beliefs that women have long been taught to refute. It is, above all, a rejection of expectation and an acceptance of unfiltered selfhood.
Girlhood is searing and poignant, inviting complexity and allowing room for the bevy of emotions women have been conditioned to suppress. And while it is an anthem for generations of women, it is required reading for all.
The Millions: Tell me about how the idea for this collection came to be. Was the concept always simmering under the surface, or did it come together in pieces?
Melissa Febos: I had no idea that I was writing it for a long time. I like to trick myself into writing books this way. I would have resisted the idea of the book if it had occurred to me before I was already waist-deep in it, because I thought I had already written about girlhood. There was a voice in me that would have piped up: “Who cares?!” But I had never really faced my own girlhood, and that voice isn’t mine. It’s an internalized mechanism installed by the patriarchy that wants to keep me quiet about the ways our society might change. So, I wrote a bunch of essays that felt very autonomous, that just happened to be about my adolescence, and then suddenly, I saw that I was writing a book and it was too late to turn back.
TM: What was it like to face your own girlhood in this book as opposed to when you’d previously written about it?
MF: Well, it was analogous to, say, reading the SparkNotes and then reading the book, except the book has a drastically different plot than you thought. Not my best analogy, but you get the idea. It was full of surprises—the kind that often made me sick to my stomach, but that also were thrilling to uncover. Admitting the truth to myself has always been both painful and immediately liberating. It’s such a relief to put down the invisible weight of a narrative that is hiding the truer story.
TM: I can tell that every syllable is intentional. I mean, the sentences in this book! It’s like a record where every song could be a smash hit. I approach writing comedy this way; sometimes it feels more like I’m composing a melody. The sound of a sentence is just as important as its intent. What goes through your head when you’re putting together a sentence?
MF: Thank you. That’s honestly so satisfying to hear, because I labor intensely on my sentences. They are my greatest pleasure in writing, the work that I long to lose myself in. I try to wait until I have a draft before I get out my little watchmaker tools and go to town on the sentences, because otherwise I’d never finish anything.
I don’t think much goes through my head when I’m doing that close work; that’s part of why I love it. It’s all about relying on an intelligence that doesn’t think about what I’m doing so much as it listens. I’m just whispering to myself and tapping my knee, sometimes even rocking in my chair a little. It isn’t something I can do in public. I love that you used the analogy of songwriting! I suspect that a composer would absolutely understand that state.
TM: Oh my god, are you telling me you’re a fellow writer who can’t write in public? I can’t be one of those writers on their laptop at a café, ever. I like to pace, use my arms, sound things out. I chew on my sentences like they’re tobacco!
MF: Honestly, I’m really sad about it, because I used to love writing in cafés. I wrote huge sections of my first two books in Brooklyn coffee shops. But I have gotten more eccentric with every passing year, and have yielded more and more to the tics of my process, leaning in to the music. Ultimately I’m grateful for that progression, but it has had the unfortunate side effect of requiring isolation. I do also love to write in airports and on airplanes and that I won’t ever stop, because it actually sort of works as a deterrent for any talky seatmates. I mean, when airports are a place I go to again.
TM: In Abandon Me, it was pretty clear—at least to me, as the reader—that you possessed a strong sense of self as a kid. What was it like mining those memories when interrogating girlhood in this book?
MF: It’s interesting because I absolutely did. I was very much myself: confident but secretive, independent, extremely verbal, hyper-emotional, funny, a kind of physical tornado. It was actually pretty heartbreaking to go back and closely examine the ways that I fought to suppress and tame and erase the most essential parts of me, and to what degree I succeeded at that project. In a way, writing this book was like running through the evil lab and unlocking all the cages, letting all my little feral past selves free.
TM: Another thing you interrogate, besides girlhood, in this book is language. Trauma, self-destruction, even deconstructing the word “slut” in “The Mirror Test.” Do you think language is moving to a place that is more inclusive of people’s experiences, especially when some of these terms don’t fit neatly into one box or another?
MF: I do. Language is so plastic! We like to pretend it isn’t, but it’s like identity or personality, just a set of many moving parts that are always changing and reacting to its circumstances. I love messing with words, pulling them apart to see the history packed into them, re-visioning them to hold different kinds of meaning. I think it’s important to look at where a word has been, to see what it carries, and just as important to repurpose words, or invent them to name the parts of us and our experience that have previously been unspeakable.
TM: Yes! I don’t think it’s ever meant to stop changing, because we’re never meant to stop changing.
MF: Exactly! We love to dig our heels into things and say that there is a correct way to speak/act/be/write when actually these conventions are always fluctuating and evolving and thank goddess! Imagine if they weren’t.
TM: Speaking of language, I want to discuss the term empty consent, which is something you write about in detail in “Thank You for Taking Care of Yourself.” It wasn’t until I read about it in your book that I realized how many times I had given empty consent to a number of previous sexual partners, all of whom were cisgender men. I realized I prioritized my partners’ desires before mine; I didn’t want to disappoint them. My selfhood was filtered through their eyes. It just goes to show how pervasive patriarchy is—an invisible and odorless gas not unlike carbon monoxide. What are some things you would like to hear discussed in more detail when it comes to patriarchy affecting spaces outside the cisheteronormative dynamic?
MF: Ugh, I know! I’m so glad it occurred to me to name that experience, because as soon as I did, I had so much to say about it. I hadn’t realized that my whole life was a timeline of consenting to forms of touch I didn’t want, or felt ambivalent about—with men, with women, it didn’t matter. There was a way I felt I owed my body to anyone who wanted it. Filtering our selfhood through other eyes is such an essential part of the experience of living as any kind of marginalized identity—we are conditioned to identify with the dominant group, to subjugate the parts of us that don’t fit its ideals, and prioritize its needs over our own.
I love that analogy of patriarchy as an invisible gas. It’s impossible not to be breathing it constantly. I think we basically have to be talking about it every day, cultivating an awareness of how it’s affecting us—otherwise we internalize it and can’t tell its voice from our own. I’d love to see a more nuanced conversation about consent, for sure. I’d like to see more conversations about how patriarchal dynamics can function within queer relationships, how abuse can easily go unseen because the perpetrator doesn’t look like a straight white cis-man. I’d like to talk about fatphobia for real, which seems to me to be one of the last places it’s generally okay to act/talk like a bigot, even among folks who are really careful about their language when it comes to gender, race, and ability.
TM: As a kid—and there’s been research done on this—we know who we are at a very young age. For example, I knew I was gay for as long as I can remember—since utero, as I like to say. It wasn’t until I started picking up on societal cues that I realized that my desire to kiss a boy in my third-grade class named Chris was deemed weird at best, an abomination at worst. I thought about this—self-awareness at such a young age before we’re exposed to the culture around us—when I read the line, “Before I learned about beauty, I delighted in my body.”
MF: I’m so grateful for that grace period, if we are lucky enough to have one. I was. I discovered my queerness and my sexuality before it was totally defined by society at large and that really gave me a space to build a relationship to it. I write about this in Girlhood, but, like, even when I hated my body and hated all the early sexual experiences I was having, I still loved masturbating and never felt shame or anything bad about it. It amazes me, now. When it came to being seen or touched by other people, there was so much interference—other people’s wants, cultural messaging, etc.—but no one ever said anything about (female) masturbation (a big problem with the sex ed. curriculum, actually) and so I was free to experience pleasure in total privacy. I’m so glad that my queerness was never an issue with my family, too, because that gave me a lot of space to get comfortable in my own identity before my self-esteem was decimated by the culture at large.
TM: As someone who lives with chronic pain as a result of a series of traumas, there were a number of sentences—especially in the last essay, “Les Calanques”—and including the line, “It’s better to choose your pain than to let it choose us,” that captured so many of the feelings I’ve been contending with for years surrounding my chronic pain. I wanted to burst into tears. And even though the context in which it’s written is different from how I applied it to my own life, there still seems to be an overlap when it comes to co-existing with an unruly body. It reminds me of a concept I’ve been learning in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): radical acceptance. Have you come across this practice, and, if so, have you tried applying it to your own life?
MF: I haven’t come across that practice, but I’m going to look into it immediately! My heart just squeezed so hard for you. The physical experience that I described in that essay ended up being just a prologue to a much longer relationship to chronic pain. I’ve been through a lot more of it since then and it has really changed me. Mostly for the better, because the kind of humility and strength required to live with pain is way beyond what I asked of myself before it. There is definitely an analogy between the kind of acceptance I’ve come to with my body in terms of its other unruly aspects, but pain is also different. There isn’t an option to exile it, to starve it, to argue with it. Fighting only makes it worse! I haven’t always met it with grace, but it has taught me so much about the nature of acceptance, how healing it can be, what mercy there is in yielding to that which I cannot change.
TM: I love to ask authors this question, but I’m particularly excited to hear your answer: what is one thing you learned about yourself while writing this book?
MF: That I have the power to change my own thinking. There are so many ways to get free.
—My Body Is Mine
On the surface, Maria Kuznetsova’s second novel Something Unbelievable (Random House, April 13) and Sanjena Sathian’s debut Gold Diggers (Penguin Press, April 6) might not have much in common. Kuznetsova’s is a story about a Ukrainian-American actress living in Brooklyn who puts on a play based on her grandmother’s experiences during World War II. Sathian’s is about a slacker-stoner Indian American teenager struggling his way through an American high school (and later graduate school), until he finds relief in a magical potion made from stolen gold.
But these two novels— and their authors, who became friends at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—share some sensibilities: an interest in the American immigrant story, an aesthetic sensibility that involves a mix of comedy and seriousness, and a tendency to write about slightly badly behaved immigrants.
They discussed their two books, comedy, and the challenges of writing the “Old World” vs. the “New World” earlier this year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sanjena Sathian: Your book alternates between the story of Natasha, the actress, and Larissa, her grandmother, as Natasha wheedles Larissa into recounting her experiences of the war.
As a second-generation immigrant, I always struggled with feeling a need to write “the Old World” because I don’t know 20th-century India all that well. But you manage to pull off a sensitive, funny, precise, and warm rendering of Larissa’s life that feels so lived in, while also giving us a contemporary story to relate to with Natasha. How did you strike that balance between writing about the motherland versus the new country, in your career, and in this book?
Maria Kuznetsova: I came to America from Kiev, Ukraine, when I was six and spoke Russian at home, so the “Old World” was very much a part of my daily life. When I was younger, I wrote either coming-of-age stories or stories about my family’s life in Soviet Russia, and I was convinced that their history was much more important—and worthy of fiction—than my own, which was colorful, but felt pretty low stakes compared to the things my family went through—struggling in ESL wasn’t exactly starving in the Ural Mountains during the war. But as I kept writing and living, I saw that I did have my own story to tell, and that these Soviet ancestors hovering in the background were part of my story.
Something Unbelievable started with just Larissa’s point of view—it came from a story I wrote for Ethan Canin’s workshop at Iowa—with a frame of Natasha, Larissa’s granddaughter, receiving her story. But as I kept going, I saw there wasn’t enough book there. When I put the piece up for workshop, my classmates said I either ditch the modern frame or develop it. A second point of view would add meaning to the first and give people a modern character to care about, and would also give the book a sense of continuity and history.
How about you? The prologue of your book opens in 1980s Bombay with a scene of one of the characters brewing a magical potion, but most of it takes place in 21st-century Georgia and California, where the golden potion is still being made but is a little different. That prologue closes with the line, “the old recipes are never quite the same on this side of the world.” How did you find that balance between old and new?
SS: You’re about half a generation closer to that old world than I am, because I was born here, and I didn’t grow up speaking an Indian language. My book is mostly new world, as you say. Gold Diggers is half-set in a suburban American high school in 2006, where the kids are dancing to Usher songs and obsessed with SAT prep, and half in 2016 Silicon Valley during the tech boom. And the main conceit is contemporary—Neil, the narrator, and neighbor-slash-crush Anita become addicted to a potion made of stolen gold that helps them steal the ambition of other Indian Americans.
But once I had the new world laid out, I did a ton of research into old world alchemical traditions, following alchemy from China to India to Europe, just to have more material to work with around gold’s mythology and history. And then I found passages from Vedic and Hindu texts about rituals that involved ingesting or consuming gold in some form. I thought I’d made this thing up, and it turned out to be real!
MK: And then you also had an American angle, too. Your narrator, Neil, becomes obsessed with the California gold rush. Why did you decide to weave that in?
SS: It seemed too obvious not to include. Gold has an incredibly powerful history everywhere in the world, but especially in my two cultures—Indian and American. So I had the Hindu history down, and now I wanted to braid in an American history, too.
I met with a similar coincidence there, too—my characters were already gold thieves when I found a story in a 19th-century German travelogue of an Indian man accused of being a gold thief during the California gold rush. Neil then writes about this story. If I weren’t so cynical and secular, I would say it’s synchronicity. But I’ll settle for calling it a cool coincidence.
It’s funny we both found ways to slip in history this way. I had my narrator be a historian and you had yours be writing a play.
It’s also interesting—Natasha, the actress in Something Unbelievable, is a new mother, which is what inspires her to insist on her grandmother telling her story. You were a relatively new mother when you wrote this, and I know you said some of these anecdotes are inspired by your own grandmother’s WWII stories. Did you get more interested in her family history because of being a new mom?
MK: Definitely—after becoming a mom, I thought a lot more about how I would pass these stories down to my daughter instead of how they affected me. Natasha is at a desperate point in her life—she felt like all her life revolves around this creature, and she’s so used to being an artist, so this was her way of bringing the story to life, and feeling like she was contributing something. So maybe it was my way of doing the same thing, honoring my grandmother in a convoluted way.
I was thinking of autobiographical writing when I was reading your novel, which feels autobiographical in some ways—the narrator’s parents immigrated to America from India; like you, he grew up in a competitive Georgia suburb and lived in the Bay Area for a while, and so on. A lot of debut novels, like mine, tend to cover autobiographical territory, but I can’t think of one that does so from the perspective of another gender. How did telling the story from Neil’s perspective come to you?
SS: I wrote from Anita’s perspective at first. She’s closest to the gold thefts, since her mother is the one initiating them. But everything was so somber and serious and un-fun when I wrote her. In fact, I workshopped a short story in which she was the narrator, and it didn’t land. But there was a male character in her periphery who intrigued me.
Then I started thinking about one of my best friends in high school, though, my male debate partner, and the side of me that came out when I hung out with him and my guy friends. I was funnier, lighter, goofier, and more bumbling. So I hopped heads, out of Anita and into her neighbor, Neil, and then, suddenly, I had a voice that I knew I could live in for hundreds of pages. Neil is both me and not me.
Voice is so tough, though! I grew up with books like The God of Small Things, which I love and is set in Kerala, where half my family comes from. And I always though that’s what my work was supposed to look like, as a brown writer—lush and serious and Indian. I didn’t have much of a voice until I started being comfortable writing contemporary America. Like you, I had to realize that my contemporary experience was as legitimate to write as, say, a serious post-Partition novel.
Did you feel any of this, as someone also tagged a “funny female writer?”
MK: I hear what you’re saying. I didn’t know many Soviet immigrant writers growing up, so I read writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Chang-Rae Lee, who I love, but they—understandably—leaned more on how hard immigration was, how challenging the nostalgia and attempt to understand American culture could be, so I sensed that there was no room for the immigration narrative that I experienced–sure, my family struggled a lot, but one of my family’s favorite activities was telling hilarious early immigration stories—like how my grandmother threw the trash out in the mail for our first month in America, for example. I didn’t think there was a place for stories like that in fiction.
SS: Yeah, it’s hard to see comedy as a legitimate aesthetic for what it means to tell an immigrant story. I got that from White Teeth and The Buddha of Suburbia. I do think there’s this burden to tell a noble story of sacrifice, but I was just a kid dicking around in the suburbs, on AIM all the time.
MK: Same! I feel like a lot of immigrant lit was serious, but especially lit by women. Men like Gary Shteyngart, they can have more fun. I think some women—not all women, obviously—have this pressure to be more serious.
SS: How did you find your sense of humor? You’ve told me before you’d written a novel about Chernobyl that wasn’t very funny.
MK: I worked on it for five, six years. I wrote, like, 50 drafts of that book, and had an agent who couldn’t sell it, and thank God, because it was really bad. It’s hard to make Chernobyl jokes—I mean, there are a lot of them in the Soviet Union—but I wasn’t yet able to write in a way that sounded like me. It felt super mournful and nostalgic, and I’m just not as interested in that as much anymore.
But also, Oksana, Behave!, my first book, to me, is a profoundly sad book—it just has a comic tone. And your book, too, goes both ways. The ending has a melancholy feeling, in a really good way, even though there’s a hilarious jewelry heist leading up to that.
SS: One of the challenges of being irreverent in telling a story about a minority community, though, is knowing that your world might be underrepresented, and knowing people might get upset.
You do something really cool with representation in Something Unbelievable, though: Natasha belongs to the Borsch Babies, a group of other Soviet American actresses who compete for the same roles, like a lot of Russian prostitutes.
This is why I thought the contemporary frame was so rich in terms of commenting on the rest of the story. In workshop, people say a story teaches you how to read it, and your novel, I think, also teaches someone who’s completely unfamiliar with Soviet or Russian American history why it’s important to have this kind of story—almost like the prologue of There There. Natasha tells us all the jobs she can get are talking in Russian in the background of the show The Americans. And now The Americans isn’t on TV anymore, so all the jobs are gone. And I’m curious how conscious that was to include commentary on the state of how Americans see, like a Soviet story.
MK: I came to America in 1991 as a Jewish refugee, and my dad was a Cold War physicist for the other side. I didn’t get that this was why people called me a Commie. I was like, I thought we left the Soviet Union to escape the communists?
I went through a phase of watching a lot of action movies where the Soviets were the evil bad guys, like Air Force One. But you know, my friend who’s a Jewish actress and immigrant from Ukraine like me, told me there were way more Russian parts in the Trump era, because we became the enemy again. That made me think about whether I have an obligation to tell a certain story about Russians, or if I should just create human characters who happen to be Russian. Natasha isn’t the typical Soviet immigrant because she didn’t go to college. She pursued the arts.
SS: It’s really interesting that you didn’t even grow up knowing about the fact that Russians were always the villains in American pop culture.
I grew up brown in the south in the post 9/11 era, like my characters, so I was there in the heat of history, whereas when you got here like Cold War stuff was technically abating but it was just this lingering hangover.
MK: Speaking of where your characters grew up, it sounds like we went to the same high school. Large, public, lots of immigrants, competitive.
SS: Neil in Gold Diggers goes to that kind of high school, set in this fictionalized Georgia ur-suburb—an amalgam of the ones that flipped the state blue this year!—but his crush and neighbor, Anita, goes to a very white, conservative Christian high school, which is actually where I went. I lived this double life—I spent all this time in the suburbs, hanging out with competitive Asian nerds from high school debate, and then attending this school full of white Republicans.
But, yeah, Gold Diggers is about those competitive immigrant bubbles, which Natasha in your book sort of rejects, becoming an actress and dropping out of college.
MK: You and I both did some traditionally “correct” things as immigrant children—we went to good colleges. But then we didn’t totally emulate our parents and pursue “practical” careers. What do you think made you not follow the more expected path of having a socially acceptable career?
SS: I don’t know if you feel like this. It just didn’t ever feel like that was totally a choice. I always think of this sort of pretentious Bukowski quote about how no one should be a writer “unless being still would / drive you to madness or / suicide or murder,” which I heard in college. It’s a good message: don’t be a writer if you literally can’t function in any other corners of society.
I think both of us can passively function in other corners of society. We had these Silicon Valley gigs—me at a media startup, and you at WikiHow—but we couldn’t keep going in those jobs. Neil, in Gold Diggers, flails in a similar way when he moves to Silicon Valley in adulthood. He just can’t handle it there, which is sometimes how I felt. That work took something too great out of me. It didn’t leave space for art.
MK: The dream of being a writer is as absurd as wanting to be a rock star. I don’t think it’s easier, right? I thought that if you just worked hard at it, like being a lawyer, and it would happen. I guess it took a level of bravery I don’t have at 35.
SS: Maybe more than bravery. I think it’s megalomania. Or maybe it’s just a really desperate need to prove something. What could be more immigrant than that?
Few debut story collections feel as accomplished as Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas from 2015. “I’m lucky to know a lot of really good, generous people, but they don’t fall into any of those standard narratives of saintly lives,” Quade has said. “They’re people who just keep on trucking and being good in the face of a lot of injustice and ingratitude.” Night at the Fiestas tells the stories of those everyday saints, whose encounters with faith, doubt, and grace feel absolutely authentic.
I’m not the only one who was thrilled to hear that Quade decided to turn one of the stories into a novel. It is a significant feat, but Quade is uniquely positioned to make the shift in genre and form. Her stories teem with a generous sensibility; a recognition that each life is deeply, mysteriously complex.
Quade won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. She was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The New York Times. Quade is an assistant professor at Princeton.
We spoke about how bodies are essential to fiction, the ways myth and folklore sustain her writing, and the challenges and revelations of reimagining a short story as a novel.
The Millions: The Five Wounds begins during Holy Week—the climax of the most dramatic liturgical season of the year. What does Lent conjure for you as a storyteller?
Kirstin Valdez Quade: Lent is a season of introspection and penance and making amends, which are all themes in The Five Wounds. My novel is about healing from the wounds of the past, and part of that healing requires looking closely at oneself and one’s place in the world and the hurts we have caused.
Amadeo discovers early on that making amends for the way he’s failed the people in his life cannot happen in a single gesture—it has to happen over and over, incrementally, and it can’t be performative.
I’ve always been interested in engaging with myth and folklore in my fiction. When I started writing, Angela Carter’s feminist reimaginings of fairy tales were real inspirations. When I think about the stories from the Old and New Testaments, it’s always been the human conflicts that interest me most. In those wonderful crowded Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion, I’m always drawn to the characters in the crowd who are going about their own business, holding a falcon or chasing a dog or looking wistfully at a friend.
TM: Last year we talked about your wonderful story collection, Night at the Fiestas, which includes a story that evolved into this novel. Among the great things you said that day, I often come back to one line in particular: “You can’t write your own story without fictionalizing it.” In a related way, I believe that we become the stories we tell—even the ones that are fiction, especially ones that we live with for years. You’ve lived with Amadeo and Angel for some time now, so: in what ways do you inhabit their story yourself?
KQ: I think you’re exactly right that we become the stories we tell. The short story “The Five Wounds” was published in 2009, so these characters have been with me a very long time. I am in every single one of the characters to varying degrees. I’ve felt Angel’s impatience with the members of her family, and her hopefulness and idealism, too. I’ve felt Amadeo’s longing to be a part of something important and his delusions of grandeur. I’ve definitely been nerdy, bookish Lily in the corner, judging everybody from behind her fat novel.
TM: You write so exquisitely about bodies: bodies in pain, penance, love, longing, and in fear. There’s a great moment when Amadeo is waiting for Angel, his daughter, to have her child. You describe his body perfectly: he is “filled with an electric jangling fear that doesn’t expend itself.” He prays to Jesus, who seems inadequate to understand Amadeo’s situation. Then he prays to God, but can’t picture him “except as a wooly jovial guy.” Finally, he prays to Mary, who gets it, “having had a kid herself and having had to watch that kid go through big troubles.” In this novel, as well as your stories, there is a Marian sensibility—which is of course distinctly Catholic, but also cultural. How does Mary exist in this story, in the lives and imaginations of these characters?
KQ: Bodies are so essential to fiction; I can tell when I’m not fully immersed in the writing, because I’ve somehow forgotten that my characters have bodies—they become just these floating consciousnesses. Paying attention to the physicality of the characters anchors me in the scene and makes the fictional world more vivid.
Mary’s story is, as much as her son’s, so much about the body. I imagine her shock at finding out that, without any say in the matter, she was suddenly pregnant. And sure, even if she thought it was an honor to be impregnated by God, I’ve got to think it was a complicated moment for her. I always focus on the book in her hands in paintings of the Annunciation. Who knows what other plans she had for her life?
The focus on Mary in the Catholicism I grew up with made a lot of sense to me. My family is absolutely a matriarchy; all the women are incredibly strong-willed and competent. They are the ones who hold the family together and get things done.
Likewise, Yolanda is the head of the Padilla family, the center around whom everyone circles, the person they go to for everything they need: allowance, affirmation, comfort. And she’s also completely taken for granted by her offspring. Her illness, then, comes as a shock, and they’re forced to grow up in a way they’ve managed to avoid.
TM: “Saint Amadeo. It has a dignified, archaic ring to it.” Amadeo dismisses the droning priest at Mass and his abstractions, and instead wishes that people would appreciate Amadeo’s own visceral passion: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion.” You’re great at mining the dual ambitions and anxieties of your characters—their desires to be saints while accepting their lives as sinners, as humans. If you had to choose a character from this book to be a saint, who would it be, and why?
KQ: Oh, wow, I don’t think I’d wish sainthood on any of them! Amadeo certainly has a penchant for extremes. I suppose I’d say that Angel has the most promise, since she’s most able to consistently think about other people’s needs and experiences. I like the name Saint Angel. Plus, we could use more lesbian saints!
TM: What did you discover about yourself as a writer—and perhaps in general as a storyteller—in the shift from the structure and style of short fiction to the expanse of a novel? What can a novel accomplish that a story might struggle to achieve?
KQ: The short story ends with an epiphany: Amadeo, who longs so deeply to transform his life, is on the cross, looking down at his pregnant daughter. In that moment, he truly sees her for the first time, and he understands that any hope for transformation will depend on his showing up for the people who need him.
That kind of epiphany works for a short story, but the question kept arising for me: What next? What happens the next morning when he wakes up in the same cramped bed in his childhood bedroom? What will Amadeo do with his new understanding? And I suspected that Amadeo, like many of us, might require more than that one epiphany to actually change his life. The novel grew out of my wanting to see what happens to these characters the next day, and the day after that.
As I expanded the story, the more I cared about the characters: Amadeo, whose efforts are so misplaced; vibrant, forceful, funny Angel who is trying so hard to give her son a good life and who falls so completely in love; and Yolanda, who, after devoting herself to her family, now finds that she must to attend to her own life. I didn’t know how they’d navigate the first year of Angel’s baby’s life, and I wrote to find out.
In his new collection of essays, Homo Irrealis, André Aciman contends with the state of mind we spend most of our lives in: the irrealis mood. Aciman defines this mood as “a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen”—that is, “the might-be and the might-have-been.” It is a mood sometimes called fantasizing, or nostalgia, but it is really more multifaceted, informing our experience of art, desire, and even our own mortality.
The Millions spoke with Aciman about the collection and how it blends the autobiographical with artistic criticism—all while circling around this particular mood.
The Millions: Do you think that writers, in particular, contend with the irrealis mood?
André Aciman: I do think that writers can focus on it more. It doesn’t mean that they suffer from it more. I used to work on Wall Street for a while, and people on Wall Street follow those ticker tapes—they’re very much in the present. But you mention the irrealis mood to them and they will say, “Oh, yeah, of course, I live there.”
There’s no way you can avoid it, but it’s not a negative at all. It’s a way of basically adding a dimension that we don’t normally know how to speak about. We call it fantasizing, but how about, “What might happen that already did happen once, or could have happened once, but never did? But would it happen again? Would I know how to seize that opportunity once it comes back, if it ever comes back?” These are questions that we have every single day in varied guises.
For example, I was sent to write an article on a particular square in Paris. But it was only in coming back to New York that I could write about what Paris was for me. And I captured something about Paris in that piece that people say to me, “Oh yeah, that was really Paris. You captured Paris.” No, I captured my memory and my fantasy of Paris. I always write in the past.
TM: So living and writing from the irrealis mood extends our sense of time and each experience?
AA: Perhaps. But eventually, whatever you write can sometimes displace what actually happened. And that happened to me. I was writing about a scene in Egypt when I was a boy. Eventually, I went back to Egypt and wanted to walk down that street, which I describe very accurately in my book. I couldn’t remember if I actually made up that street, and I can no longer know. Writing has a way of overwriting the “document” of our lives.
Maybe that’s why we write. Life may start making sense as you write, but it’s an artificial construct. Your real life does not necessarily make sense, if you think of it. Your career makes sense. Your parents make sense. Your love life makes sense. But the life itself, as it has been organized, is just a series of fluke incidents. Plus, even if you swear to every god you know that what you’re writing is exactly as it happened, the fact that you use a particular adverb—God, you’ve already colored everything! So in writing truth, the act of writing already changes things, even if you swear the story is factually true.
TM: As you write in Homo Irrealis, “It’s a mirage of the world that artists long to hold.”
AA: Every work of art is also implying something that it cannot quite get itself to say. The critic’s job is to see what that implication is and to let it speak, even if it’s taking a risk. Even if it is very, very specific to me, good criticism has to address somebody else. In good criticism, I must make space in my sentence for somebody else to sort of slip in and find their own voice in my voice.
TM: Do you think writers fear death more? And that’s why they have to get that “organized” version of life down?
AA: I just think writers talk about it more. But nobody really believes that death is part of life. Have you ever heard that one? “Death is a part of life, you’ve got to accept that. You know, it happens.” No. That is a big, big, huge, erroneous, shameful mistake. It’s a mistake that God didn’t even foresee. Look what you did, God—we’re going to die! It’s a terrible thing.
The worst part of death, as I write in one of the essays, is that you will forget the people you love, which is the worst thing that could happen. I’m going to forget my children. That’s what happens when you die. They may remember you, but you will forget them. That’s almost like a crime in itself. And every day that passes by means that you’re closer to the rendezvous.
Art is a way of saying, “Carry this, don’t lose it. It has me in it. It’s better than me.” Writing can sometimes allow us to organize our lives and to give ourselves the kind of chronicle that our real lives cannot have. You can’t put the pieces together in real life—they just don’t fit. But on paper they can. The paper does things to life. It kind of argues for you—for a better version of your life.
TM: Yet even once you’ve done that, you might find yourself returning to revise that version of your life later on.
AA: On one hand, I like to say to people, “Don’t bother me about my adolescence and my childhood. It’s out in paperback now.” That resolved it. Guess what? A week or two later, the same themes just resurface again.
If you’ve ever suffered from obsession, such as obsessing over someone, at some point, you say, “Okay, it’s over and done with. I found out who this person really is—a disgusting human being. I have no respect for them.” Then, two weeks later, you start fantasizing about them again. What’s going on? You wrote a story about it. You put it out in paperback. And now it’s back. That’s the story of my life. The same things come back constantly.
If you look at the stuff I’ve written in my life, it’s all very much the same. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, like, one song they kept composing and recomposing every single time in a different way. But it’s the same song. That’s all great writers, I think, and all great composers. They are composing one or two ditties and that’s it. The rest is just variations—profound variations.
—Writing Isn’t a Career, It’s a Mission: An Interview with André Aciman
—Bridge Life: On André Aciman’s ‘Enigma Variations’
—In Search of Lost Dream Time: Two New Books by André Aciman
—Ivy League from the Outside: Andre Aciman’s ‘Harvard Square’
—Journeys to the Past: André Aciman’s ‘Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere’
The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
In 2017, the French publisher Don Quichotte éditions published Véronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes), a slim powerhouse of a novel telling the story of West Africa’s Ebola crisis from the perspectives of a wide variety of its survivors and victims: doctors and nurses and patients and family members, but also government officials and undertakers, bats and trees, and even the virus itself.
In late February, a little more than a year after the first case of Covid-19 in the United States was confirmed, Other Press published an English-language edition of Tadjo’s novel.
The Millions spoke with Tadjo about putting out this novel during a global pandemic, the storytelling traditions behind its structure, and more.
The Millions: This book was originally published only a year after the Ebola outbreak ended. Now, its English-language edition is out in the midst of another pandemic. Has your perspective on this book changed since its original publication? How?
Véronique Tadjo: When I first wrote the book in French in 2017, Covid-19 was not in anybody’s mind. The two situations are not comparable. However, while doing research at the time of the Ebola crisis, I came to realize that many aspects of our lives were connected: the degradation of the environment, climate change, and our health. Reading medical experts “reports,” it was easy to see that the threat of more epidemics to come was real unless structural changes were carried out in Africa and in the world in general. I am struck by how close to the bone some of the themes I develop in the book are to the situation we are in at the moment: the isolation and the loneliness; the tearing apart of family ties; the issue of trust in government; the violence and resistance at times; the heavy burden on the medical profession; the economic crisis; and so on.
The big issue today is vaccine equity. Because we are in a pandemic, a global solution needs to be found. Therefore a campaign for vaccines against Covid-19 needs to be put in place and recognized as a global public good. After a period during which vaccine nationalism took over and many governments from rich countries pre-ordered or ordered far too many vaccines for their populations, a system is gradually taking shape. The Covax international system aims to get coronavirus vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that have been cut out of the vaccine race. Let’s hope that it will be a successful attempt at redressing an imbalance that puts the whole world at risk.
TM: The novel is told from a multitude of voices. How did you come to realize that the novel required so many perspectives? Why did you choose this method of storytelling?
VT: In a way, I have always written in this style. Right from my first novel, As the Crow Flies (Heinemann, 2001), first published in French, I have adopted a non-linear approach. I find that it is closer to the way we live. We always have multiple stories in our minds. A soldier can be aiming at an enemy but at the same time wondering when he will ever go back home or if he will ever see his wife and children again. I also believe that we are what we are because of others. So you are never alone when you tell a story. Many voices interact.
TM: The novel, at times, almost reads as if it is made up of first-person, nonfiction accounts of experiencing the Ebola pandemic. What sort of research did you conduct in order to flesh out the details of each character’s experiences?
VT: I read a lot in French and in English. I also looked for testimonies of Ebola survivors and medical staff involved in the fight against the disease. I watched television documentaries. I also discussed with doctors as much as I could and went to conferences. I became more and more interested in the social dimension of the epidemic. People had been affected in many different ways and each time I researched one aspect, it led me to another one. It was important for me to get as close as possible to what had happened on the ground. But I had one restriction: it had to be done through the medium of literature.
TM: Some of your characters are not human—the Baobab tree most prominently, but also a bat and even the virus itself. Why did you choose to include these chapters? How did you need to think differently as an author when writing those sections? Were they challenging to get right?
VT: I have been raised in the oral African tradition in which the storyteller can call on many different genres, from poetry, historical narratives, songs, myths to political language. Animals and nature connect with human characters on an equal basis. In many folktales nature speaks. So you could say that it wasn’t that much out of the ordinary for me to make non humans speak. It also suited my purpose very well because I wanted to show human beings as part of nature and not above nature. This way of looking at the world has also appeared in the works of a number of Western authors who influenced me. Jean de La Fontaine, one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century comes to my mind. I read his book of fables when I was young and I remember one in particular entitled “The Animals Stricken by the Plague” (les animaux frappés par la lèpre). I admit that in the case of the virus, it was a bit tricky because I did not want it to be the villain of the story. On the other hand, I wanted him to tell a few truths so I had to get the balance right. The bat attracted me because of its dual nature, mammal and bird. For me she is the symbol of complexity and the diversity of nature.
TM: This novel is very attentive to the intersections of human development and the natural world, and the way human encroachment on nature leads to viral outbreaks. What’s an example or two of something you learned while researching what humans can do to avoid, and be prepared for, pandemics that were particularly interesting or surprising for you?
VT: Through my research I learnt how important communication was. Science alone cannot work. People have to feel empowered to fight against diseases. They hold a big part of the solution in their hands. But for this to happen they need to have confidence in their leaders. They need to trust the system. If they feel marginalized or if they do not have a good grasp of what is happening, they may retreat in false beliefs. Without adequate communication there can be resistance and protest.
I was also surprised by the importance that traditional medicine still holds. In fact, the majority of the Africans in rural areas and in many popular areas in big cities still consult a healer. This is because conventional medicine has failed. Big dilapidated hospitals are considered as places where people die. Added to this, medicine is expensive so most of the time people can’t afford the prescriptions they are given. Once scientists observed habits, they were able to seek the collaboration of healers. They trained them so they could influence their patients. They became active actors in the fight to eradicate the disease.
TM: Which was the most difficult chapter for you to write from a technique perspective? From an emotional perspective?
VT: From a technical point of view, the difficulty was to condense information that spanned the three affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I wanted to create a spaceless and timeless territory because viruses know no borders. Emotionally, it was the chapter on the dying mother because it was about religious faith in the face of death. Where was God? The other difficult chapter was the one about the lovers because I had the choice of “saving” the fiancée or not. After reflection I decided that a happy ending would not be appropriate. At times love cannot make miracles. But it certainly makes us more human.
TM: Science and anthropology both inform this book significantly, but so does myth and folklore and music. What do you hope readers take away from the inclusion of oral storytelling and songs in a novel about a contemporary crisis?
VT: Oral storytelling is ancestral and common to all the cultures of the world. This form of narration has the added advantage of touching several generations. For example, most folktales can be understood at different levels of complexity. A young person may grasp only one aspect of a tale whereas a more experienced person will be able to decipher the symbolism behind the story. It is very comforting for a writer to work from the premise of a universal genre. Tales are timeless therefore it is left to the storyteller to adapt them for a new audience. Also human beings’ survival on Earth remains a contemporary theme for literature.
TM: Did any of your own lived experience influence this book? Can you share how?
VT: I was born in Paris and raised in Abidjan. I am familiar with the West African region. It was a miracle that Ebola did not spread to Côte d’Ivoire as the country shares borders with Guinea and Liberia where I have travelled to many times. All the health restrictions were in place and everybody was on high alert. I have friends who are doctors and they were following events closely. We had long discussions. The health systems are more or less in the same dire state in the region. On one of my visits to Abidjan (I was based in Johannesburg at the time), I went to one of the Ebola centers that had been quickly built in the eventuality of an epidemic. It was located within the perimeter of a hospital in a popular area. There was a huge tree casting its shade over the building. I thought to myself, if Ebola had come to this city, what would the tree have witnessed? This is how the idea of Baobab was conceived.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.
If you set your novel in interior Maine, there’s a better chance that a moose will stray into your narrative than, say, if you situated the story in Nevada. Still, it’s a rare writer who’d be so accommodating to the moose’s sudden appearance, and only a truly daring and inventive one who would allow the animal multiple point-of-view chapters. Nor, in Marcia Butler’s Oslo, Maine, is doing so a gimmick. You think there’s nothing going on in a moose’s brain? You think there’s neither love, nor pain, nor loss in her heart? Think again.
I’ve known Marcia Butler for a good decade now and my admiration for her has grown to something closer to envy. As a young man I used to play guitar and sing semi-professionally (I was paid, but not much). When I decided to become a writer, I put the guitar in the closet and never took it out again, convinced that I would only have enough creative energy for storytelling. Butler—a first chair oboist, novelist, and documentary filmmaker—proves that we needn’t make such choices, needn’t reject gifts. All we need to be is fearless and devoted to craft. That Marcia is all that and more will become evident in our conversation below.
Richard Russo: You have more than a tourist’s knowledge of Maine, where your fictional town of Oslo is set. How did you come by that?
Marcia Butler: When I was a professional oboist, and for many summers, I performed at a music festival in central Maine. We musicians were housed with local residents who graciously opened their homes to us. My host was an older widowed woman who happened to be a gifted storyteller. It was through her that I learned about the town’s doings and human dramas. Celebrations and illnesses. Who’d given birth, who’d passed away. Those who separated and then reconciled. All the profound and minor aspects of life in rural Maine. Weirdly, I never met any of these people yet found myself becoming emotionally invested—and increasingly so with each passing summer.
I also heard lots of stories about moose which I soon became obsessed with, especially because for years I didn’t see one. I’d hear about a sighting on the other side of Bridgeton and race to the location. Of course, the moose was no longer there. But I kept at it, jumping at the vaguest mention of the animal, till finally I was rewarded. A moose cow with her calf. What a day that was, and particularly sweet because it happened to be the final year of my tenure at the festival, and, in fact, my career as an oboist. I retired from music but never forgot that moose or the Mainers, one or two of whom serve as archetypes in my novel.
RR: The novel has several point-of-view characters, the most unusual of which is a moose. In the hands of another writer this device might have come across as a gimmick. How did you avoid that pitfall?
MB: Indeed, this was daunting to consider. A few author friends suggested I read other novels with animal points-of-view, but I didn’t want to be influenced in any way—sort of like not listening to another oboist’s version of the Mozart Concerto. And I felt somewhat (naively) qualified because my obsession with moose has continued past my Maine years. I’ve probably YouTubed every video of a moose in existence and spent a lot of time researching the way they manage their world—all before I ever became a writer. Moose are stunning animals: efficient, intuitive, a miracle of survival. They’re born knowing that the only place they can get a vital nutrient is at the bottom of a lake and they’ll dive twenty feet to access that plant. During the winter they eat up to seventy pounds of leafless twigs a day to survive the season. Just two of many jaw-dropping factoids. My moose, and what happens to her, is the lynchpin of Oslo, Maine because though she remains a background character, almost all human action flows from this animal’s presence. Specific to her point-of-view, I needed to convey what she observed in a manner that was both understood by the reader and still remained animal-like. I made decisions along the way that straddled those imperatives, achieving what I felt was believable anthropomorphism. She also, at times, contributes dramatic irony in that through her point-of-view the reader is clued into events that human characters have no awareness of. My moose is probably the most sympathetic character in the book because she operates purely and without guile. A thing to behold and something humans might aspire to but will never achieve.
RR: Some of the characters in this novel do some pretty reprehensible things, but you seem remarkably non-judgmental toward them. You appear to suggest that just as the moose is going about its business of being a moose, your characters are simply human and doing what comes naturally. It’s their nature to be violent and venal, but also to be kind and generous. Can you source this non-judgmental tone in the book? It seems pretty remarkable given the age we live in, where social media judgment is swift and vicious.
MB: Big topic. Yes, my characters are messy. But life is messy—beautiful, ugly, painful, blissful, and filled with people mostly doing their best while failing miserably. This is the world I grew up in and it is the world we all continue to live in. This bandwidth of human nature is what I am interested in exploring through my novels; to draw complex, interesting, and unknown people. To place them in situations where the human stakes are high, yet their solutions may not seem ideal or even good enough. In other art forms such as music, there are certain norms that one adheres to, such as always, always make a beautiful sound. I believe that one of the reasons I was so drawn to contemporary music is because the thrust and difficulty of that type of composition demand priorities other than a pretty sound. I ended up making lots of beautiful and unusual noises on the oboe!
So as a writer, when a character shows up and he/she behaves not so pretty, I am curious as to where this person will end up and I loosen the reins in order to find out. It is a necessary process of discovery that my novel deserves. Then, if that character remains through many drafts, I keep in mind that someone loved this person despite their bad acts. Which brings me back to the source of the nonjudgmental tone in my novels. I know firsthand about bad acts and that most people don’t set out in life to commit them. I try very hard to give people, and my characters, a pass.
Regarding the current treacherous territory of writing unattractive or controversial people in fiction, I am aware that as I write these words I am also considering censoring myself. Right now. And that’s a shame. The truth is, I’m all for likable and relatable protagonists, but I don’t ever want to feel that I must tamp down (or gussy up) my characters in order to appeal to a certain readership who might be put off or to avoid a backlash on social media. I strongly believe that with any creative endeavor real art, and perhaps ultimately important art, will emerge from the freedom to defy some of the rules—and, if necessary, break every single one. As writers, we are naturally limited by the personal prism through which we see the world. We fight this every day and when we break through, this is how imagination takes flight. It is tragic that we might allow someone else’s limits to constrict what we write!
So, in this current “cancel culture” environment, defying popular talking points takes bravery. I always seem to go back to music, but when Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913 it was met with near riots in the audience and was deemed nothing less than demonic: “a barbaric and puerile barbarity”. Clearly, popular culture was less than happy. Yet, there is no doubt that this one composition changed the course of music for the next century. I shudder to think what might have happened if Stravinsky censored his creativity because he was afraid of offending popular tastes. So yes, I occasionally made a strange sound on the oboe and I’ll create a father who, despite loving his child deeply, hurts him. And yes, we must break all the boxes we possibly can. Because when things fall apart, how we decide to reassemble might help people understand each other.
RR: One of my favorite characters in the novel is a boy named Pierre who, after a head injury that wrecks his ability to form short term memories, is saved by music. I know that music has been a vital presence in your own life, but did it save you? How about writing?
MB: The beauty of a prepubescent kid who’s not yet become jaded can spot irony without even knowing what it is, and notices the absurdity in the adults around him, well, that sort of kid captures my heart. Pierre, indeed, finds relief from his injury and those who fail him through his violin. I relate very much to how learning an instrument demands a focus we rarely achieve during our everyday lives. Music itself creates a space and time where the past and future are suspended—it anchors your entire being to the now. There is no doubt that if I’d not discovered music at age four my life would have played out very differently. Music served as my only friend while navigating a bad childhood. Then, throughout subsequent difficult adult years, my mantra became “as long as I can play the oboe, I’ll be okay.” Now as a writer I’ve discovered a different freedom of expression, one that feels more interior, more personal. And while writing is not performative, I do lose myself to the process every day and for many hours. I feel lucky to be able to “go there”. In many ways, the introvert in me finds making up worlds preferable to real life.
RR: Your novel shows great reverence for teachers, which suggests you must’ve had a few pretty good ones yourself?
MB: Oh, yes. I believe teachers are boots on the ground first responders – saviors, really. They are, after parents, the adults who shape children’s minds, sometimes without the child knowing the full impact until years later. When I was in seventh grade my history teacher taught the Roman Empire through the love affair between Antony and Cleopatra. Though it was embarrassing to listen to (I wasn’t even sure what a love affair was) I’ve never forgotten how absorbed I became with a subject that otherwise would surely have been dry and tedious. I couldn’t wait for class to find out what happened next; the teacher was a master storyteller.
While in music conservatory, my oboe teacher was the primary source for the musician I became. He encouraged me to step up and dedicate myself to a profession where the odds of success were slim. Most valuable was emulating his strict sense of discipline, which continues to serve me to this day. He did all these things and then went farther. During my first year, I was experiencing emotional turmoil such that it impacted my ability to progress on the oboe. He found a benefactor to pay for a shrink. I believe his insight and this pure act of kindness, in large part, cemented my future in music. He cared and he saved me. Then, years later after I sold my first book, which is non-fiction, I made my first ever stab at a novel and was accepted into a weeklong workshop with a well-known author. My pages were filled with point-of-view problems and terrible dialogue, but he gently brought me through all the mistakes and ended the session by advising me to take heart. The craft stuff was easily fixed. But the best news was that the story premise was “golden.” That word meant everything, and those nascent horrible pages turned into my first published novel. Ah, pedagogues: to lead the child of any age!
RR: What’s next? Have you started a new book? Some other project?
MB: I don’t know what I’d do with my day if I wasn’t writing, so, yes, I’m well into my third novel. As of this morning, it involves a twenty-year-old woman of Northern Irish extraction, a financier from Belarus, a washed-up British rock star. And a plumber.
—A Year in Reading: Richard Russo
Short story writers Te-Ping Chen and Brenda Peynado recently met when speaking at an author event about their books debuting this year, Land of Big Numbers and The Rock Eaters. Although both collections are set in different locales — Chen’s stories mostly take place in China, Peynado’s in the U.S. — they each share a palette of magic, violence, and themes of transnational identity and class differences.
Chen’s collection was published in early February (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, and Granta, among others. Peynado’s collection (Penguin Books) will be released in May with stories from the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, the O. Henry Award, and the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.
The following conversation took place at the start of the new year.
Te-Ping Chen: One thing that strikes me is how hard it is to write in a compelling way about the current American political moment. The Rock Eater’s first story addresses gun violence. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to address that topic through fiction, and what that process was like?
Brenda Peynado: When I write political fiction, it’s less often that I want to write about something on the scale of national politics, but more out of a sense of bafflement of the particulars, something that seems so contradictory, so bizarre to me, it’s bordering on the magical or science fictional. My most political stories often use various techniques of the unreal because that’s the way I can communicate my bafflement, the ordinary magic of our contradictions. People who chant rhythmically at humanoid birds to be spared the world’s violence but are determined to do nothing about it, an autocrat that disappears people’s body parts for his own benefit, flying prodigals, all of these are my attempts to represent how utterly baffling — wondrous, rage-inducing, worth weeping over — I find the world.
When I started that first story, it was very recently after Hurricane Maria, and that became entangled with the near constant school shooting news. When Maria moved away from Florida, my mother said her prayers had been answered, without acknowledging that it had hit Puerto Rico devastatingly, even though we have a ton of family in Puerto Rico. I kept wondering if she thought more people in Florida had prayed than had in Puerto Rico. Did she think my siblings and I survived school without being shot simply because she was at home praying for us and the victims of the Parkland school shootings had said eight novenas instead of her nine? When people hear about school shootings and natural disasters, they’re always saying things like they’re sending over their thoughts and prayers. But those are just easy absolutions from true action. And yet, I have to remember that most people have a wholehearted conviction that their actions come from love, will make the world a better place, and they may never realize if they’ve made things worse for the very ones they’re trying to love. Out of that contradiction came the image of a family performing oblations to these bird-angels and the plot of a salvation march led by an armed Instagram prayer group.
Speaking of political writing, I am so thrilled I got to read Land of Big Numbers. Your stories capture a political frustration with bureaucracy, the Chinese political system, globalization, yet they do so through such specific and vivid characters and they resist easy answers. “Lulu,” the first story in the collection, is such a poignant example of this. The main character chronicles his status quo life versus his dissident twin sister’s radicalization. I kept hoping the narrator would come to an understanding about his sister, and yet it was more haunting that he didn’t despite his love for her. It’s too tempting to think that had we been any of those characters, we would have been the dissident, throwing our lives after a cause we believed was just. But I think most of us are the brother. How did you negotiate between your own position as a writer who perhaps wanted these characters to realize an essential truth, and resisting that easy impulse?
TC: Throughout Land of Big Numbers, though there’s a lot of playful use of the surreal and magical realism in the collection, I wanted the stories to feel true to life, and because of that I think the story had to end the way it did — with the sister, who’d spoken out, being punished by the state, and her apolitical brother, by contrast, getting feted as a professional video gamer, simply because of the political realities on the ground in China. I could — and did! — endow fruit with supernatural properties, and I could make a group of Beijing commuters get stuck underground in a subway tunnel for months, but I did not feel like I could change the fundamental rules of how politics work in China, even in fiction.
Perhaps this is a reflex I have as a journalist, but as a fiction writer, too, I also find myself instinctively recoiling from a feeling of judgement, or the idea that characters should ideally evolve or act in a certain way. Would it have been better for the brother to end up sympathizing with what his sister had done? And if so, better for whom? It might make a reader feel better, I suppose, but it would likely make his own life harder. He’d spent so much time learning to compartmentalize his understanding of the world — a skill he and so many others around him rely on.
“Lulu” actually makes me think of one of the stories in your collection, “Yaiza,” which traces the relationship between two girls from different sides of the tracks, the intense competition they have on the tennis courts and the way their lives fork. That story, along with stories like “The Whitest Girl,” are very much engaged in questions of race and class. Can you share a little about how you’ve tried to approach those themes in your writing?
BP: Authenticity was a real struggle for me until I graduated my MFA, just figuring out how my many hybrid identities could all exist on the same page in ways that felt honest. Growing up Latina and writing stories about girlhood and womanhood meant grappling with those hybrid identities, dealing with being white-passing in a culture steeped in colorism and classism, engaging with religious and political convictions that rubbed against solidarity in my communities. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of the ways all of that was playing out. So growing into authenticity as a writer meant trying to accurately capture the way these characters were steeped in all of these conflicts without always being able to see their way out of them.They’re not yet listening to what the world is trying to tell them. How often, really, do we hear what the world is trying to tell us, without catastrophe forcing it? I wanted the reader to see, through these surreal or exaggerated conceits, what the main characters often cannot.
Speaking of hybrid identities, we both went back on Fulbright grants to live in the countries that our families emigrated. I’d love to hear about how you navigated that hybrid psychology of feeling like you’re both inside and outside the culture you’re writing about.
TC: I’d grown up in Oakland, Calif. as an American of ethnic Chinese descent, in a family whose traditions were more particular to southern China, and whose forebearers had largely left the country before the Communist takeover. From the first time I arrived in Beijing as a student in 2006, and later as a Fulbright fellow, many of my early experiences in the country were about learning all the ways it was different and in many ways unrecognizable from the time my grandparents had lived there. It was dislocating, but also really spurred me as a reporter and a writer to try and understand and learn as much about the country and how it worked as I possibly could.
And eventually, working as a reporter there, the fact that I was Chinese honestly felt nearly beside the point. It made it easier at times to blend in and do the work, but for me I mostly felt occupied with trying to capture this world around me, and wanting to share it.
I was also conscious of the ways my being foreign was useful in China — as one of my Chinese colleagues once observed, it meant that I was often curious and interested in details of life that locals might take more for granted, but to an outsider seemed so vital, surprising, and significant.
What about you? You mentioned feeling like you had many hybrid identities — what were they exactly, and how were they in conflict? And what you mentioned about how your MFA helped you deal with questions of authenticity is so fascinating! Could you share more?
BP: That’s great that being an outsider gave you that distance to find things striking. I had to go both directions. I had a similar experience of being dislocated from contemporary Dominican culture because of stories from my parents that in many ways were outdated. But I also spent so many summers there, being shocked and fascinated by the difference between my summer life and my school year life, often longing for one or the other. In order to write the stories in The Rock Eaters, I had to both forget whatever “insider knowledge” I thought I had, but also normalize what felt strange to me about both my American and Dominican experiences while calling attention to what I really wanted to investigate. That’s probably where a lot of the magical realism comes in, as a way of magnifying psychology or particular issues while normalizing other things that would have otherwise been surprising.
I don’t think I could have done this as a younger writer, which goes back to what you were asking about authenticity. As a younger writer, I was sucked into other people’s sense of what kinds of things I should write about, what should have been shocking based on previous media representations — what Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”. I loved Junot Diaz’s stories, and he was a mentor of mine in my undergrad. I unsuccessfully spent much of my MFA years trying to pull myself away from his experience of being Dominican American. My suburban, Floridian, Catholic school experience was just so wildly different from the lives of his stories. In trying to understand my own experience, I forced my stories to represent that confusion. I wrote long, sprawling, very unfocused stories. But I had to flounder through all of that before I was able to handle my own perspective. It wasn’t until after my MFA that I was able to piece together that my stories weren’t about being Dominican American, they were about girlhood and love and death and grief and privilege. They were about Latinidad insofar as we can’t escape ourselves and the histories that surround us, and I had to thread that line between the individual and the history. I had to understand how to contain all of that bigness in a small space without making the stories themselves small.
Your stories pack a tremendous wallop in small spaces, taking on large time scales, whole towns, whole relationships, weighty topics — basically, whole novels. Can you talk about how you handle the bigness of your stories and compression? How do you make stories feel important enough to spend time with?
TC: I sometimes think about the Tralfamadorian sense of time (from Slaughterhouse Five), and the idea that the universe is just so vast, with all events happening simultaneously or having happened, and the lack of linearity of it all. In some ways when you’re faced with such a sense of bigness, you don’t have any choice but to narrow in on one moment, or one gesture or person or scene to try and find meaning and make sense of it. That was absolutely how I felt about China, and in writing these stories — trying to identify those moments and scenes for readers that could unfold a whole world.
And I also really loved getting to play with different styles and genres in one book, almost like making a mixtape. When writing about a country as sprawling and diverse as China, it made sense to me to write a collection of shorter pieces, and also was really fun.
What about you? How did you arrive at short stories? What was the genesis for The Rock Eaters, and why short stories?
BP: I love reading short stories, the swiftness with which they wallop you with a whole life, a swift punch. I also love the way that surreality and exaggeration can work in short stories in ways that they don’t often in novels. The wilder the conceit, the harder it is to sustain, like it’s rocket fuel. Surreal novels tend to be on the shorter side too, like Laurie Foos’ Ex Utero, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, and Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion. Even longer magical realist novels function, in some ways, like connected short stories, or have such long time scales because they’re running through so many generations of myths and stories, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The House of the Spirits. So, because I love exaggeration, wonder, and the absurd, I often write explosions rather than slow burns, and each of the stories in The Rock Eaters started with an image so vibrant to me that only a wild ride would honor them — ghosts, angels falling from the sky, alien arrivals, virtual reality pregnancies, a tennis rivalry between two girls, the greatest recluse in Santo Domingo. Right now I’m writing a novel about a girl who can see all possible futures in the 1965 Dominican civil war and American invasion, and each of those futures allows me to write like I’m handling rocket fuel, with conceits like a housewife who can bring people back to life, the strongest man in the world, and a marine who can trade places with his shadow. But my first love will always be short stories. And especially during Covid quarantine, I have more attention span for quick bursts of reading than long hours, something to break up each day.
Your stories have so many electric pops of image that feel like rocket fuel. I will never forget the house on stilts in the middle of a landfill sending a bucket down for food in “Field Notes on a Marriage”. I want to ask you about what that image represented, a gulf that seems inexorable between even people who love each other in many of your stories. Do you feel like literature can bring people closer together—whether characters or readers—or only illuminate a gulf?
TC: It’s one of the most striking images you’ll see in China—so-called dingzihu, homes where people have refused to move, even when a developer has come in and torn up everything around them, and there’s road being poured on either side of their house and rubble everywhere but they still won’t go. They’re cinematic scenes of resistance and love and stubbornness and attachment, which is so much of what Land of Big Numbers is dealing with, those human passions taking place against a much grander backdrop of power and control and plans with a capital P.
I do think literature can change how we relate to each other, enlarging our sense of the world and identity, almost in the way that travel can, the ability to sit in a busy plaza in a city in another country and look around and be reminded, all these people, all these stories, a million lives happening at any given time, always. Or just the chance to engage with a mind that’s not yours, characters who aren’t your family or coworkers, who speak in their own tongues and have their own histories and experiences. That ability to pick up a book and get lost in its pages is something I’ve been especially grateful for of late, in a time when so many of us are feeling so relentlessly stuck in place. If we can find refuge in each other’s stories, I think we can be reminded of our commonalities, yes — but also, importantly, be struck by our differences. To me that’s part of a book’s promise, too, that it will remind us that our perspective is not the only one that exists (and what a relief that is).
When I read Katherine Angel’s first book, Unmastered, I badly craved the experience she described: A feminist enamored with a dominant man, analyzing the power dynamic and its eroticism from multiple angles. I was astounded by Angel’s brain and how clearly she articulated nuances of desire I understood so acutely, but hadn’t yet experienced outside my own fantasies. Years later, I find myself on the other end of a similarly gendered relationship, having also written a book about the experience.
So clearly, Angel’s work has had a big influence on me. And that impact continues with her new and very important book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Mar., Verso). This nonfiction tour-de-force is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring themes of consent, power, sex, and the Me Too movement.. This is the kind of book that seeks not to create dichotomous binaries, but to complicate the narrative.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again certainly merits further conversation, and I was lucky to be able to have one with the author herself.
The Millions: Why do you think the current discourse around consent is shortchanging many of us, perhaps especially women?
Katherine Angel: Well, first of all, let me just say I’m a supporter of consent education. It’s obviously completely crucial that consent is respected and is taught as part of education starting from a young age. But I feel very disturbed by the way in which in some of that consent rhetoric, the onus is placed yet again on women to embody a certain kind of behavior, and a certain kind of personality —somebody who’s explored their sexuality and found out what they want, and is able then to communicate that without fail to sexual partners. But it can be very difficult to speak confidently and clearly about your sexual desire. Expression of sexual desire gets used against women, especially women of color, in courts of law.
The implication of some of the consent rhetoric is that we can only be safe from violence if we know what we want. And the truth is, we don’t always know what we want — not least because a misogynistic culture makes that difficult. Self-knowledge is something we like to insist we have in our culture. But the fact is, we don’t. And my worry is that in insisting on it, we make women’s safety a condition of their own states. And I think that’s a sort of a strategy for risk management — but I think we should name it for what it is. It’s risk management. It’s not sexual violence prevention.
TM: The way we’re thinking about consent mostly in these very legalistic terms of, “You either gave it or you didn’t” also reinforces, I think you’re saying, this very contractual idea of sex. That it’s a scarce resource women are withholding, and men are asking for, right?
KA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, contractual sexual relationships can be very important. For sex workers or for BDSM sex— there are all kinds of contexts in which the idea of a contract is actually what protects people. However, my worry is with the way in which a legal concept has come to sort of stand-in for what I think is a much wider kind of ethical conversation about not just sexual interactions between people, but interactions in general, where we have to contend with power dynamics. We have to contend with the “otherness” of the other person who might want something different from us and we have to negotiate our own desire in relation to another person’s desire.
There is sex that is bad and not strictly assault, but that’s not a reason to handwave that away, as I think some critics do. On the contrary, it’s a reason to say, “Okay. What is it that makes sex bad? Why do so many, women especially, experience depressing, painful sex? And why is that something that the culture seems so resigned to? So, I want to acknowledge the importance of the legal conversations, but to say that conversation must not take the place of something much wider and deeper in terms of our cultural preoccupations.
TM: As you say, any sexual relationship is really about power. And any power relationship is really about sex.
KA: Right. There’s no sexual relationship in which individuals aren’t dealing in the excitement of feeling one’s own power, and the power of the other — feeling one’s self vulnerable. And that is also true for men. I think a lot of the harm that’s done in the world is done through men’s denial of their vulnerability — and also women’s collusion with that denial. I mean, women can hurt men during sex too, if we want to. Genitals are very hypersensitive parts of their bodies, and it’s also very easy to hurt men psychologically and emotionally. Men undeniably commit the majority of violence. But we all sometimes collude in this kind of denial of men’s own vulnerability. And I think that denial is often at the heart of men’s own sadistic feelings towards women.
My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we wouldn’t have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our own desires or very inflexible contracts, or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, and unfortunately, it’s also what makes it very risky.
TM: I love your utopian vision. Of course, I can see the critique that is a privileged one, right?
KA: Yes. It’s obviously really important to acknowledge that very, very few people have the luck and the privilege to be able to kind of experience that vulnerability, even fleetingly. Because the reality is that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately subject to sexual violence. Men worldwide are punished for not being masculine enough, and that’s not even to mention the violence and discrimination trans people face.
So, all those things are in the mix, such that for most people, touching that vulnerability is just not an option. But I suppose the thrust of my book is that I really want us not to give up on that hope anyway, and I want our feminist rhetoric not to collude with resignation. And that’s why writing about this kind of stuff is really frightening, because you’re unleashing something very subtle into a really unsteady terrain, where there’s a lot of trauma.
TM: And there’s sort of this pressure when you experience bad sex or sex you’re not sure is assault, to then categorize it. But that pressure is furthering a certain kind of patriarchal, either/or mentality of, “things can’t be subtle and fluid, and you have to decide who’s bad and who’s good.” It’s interesting that the danger I feel in writing down my own story is coming at me from both sides. I’m afraid of the trolls and the misogynists, and I’m also afraid of the Twitter court of public opinion and upsetting those who feel I’m somehow betraying the cause by expressing my ambivalence about whether I was assaulted or abused or consented.
KA: Yes. And, I mean, on the one hand, consent is the bare minimum for good sex. But it doesn’t guarantee good sex. Consent is just consent. It’s dangerous to inflate it into enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things are different. Agreement to sex is just agreement to sex. So, that’s the kind of the legal side of it. But beyond that, we should really be listening to what makes so much bad sex possible. And that these very constrained horizons for women about how much pleasure they can expect, how much joy they are entitled to? How much sexual exploration they’re invited to play with.
The world really caters to male heterosexual desire. It doesn’t cater to women’s sexuality. When it addresses women’s sexuality, it tends to do so in ways that kind of re-inscribe this sense of punishment and guilt and responsibility. And the flipside of that is that male desire is represented overwhelmingly in terms of kind of conquest, and sort of joyless satisfaction. And that’s also why sex is often bad for the women who sleep with them, because I don’t think men are well-served by that. I don’t think men are encouraged to explore the unknown in themselves and the vast kind of breadth of sensations they might be capable of. And that kind of narrowness leads to unpleasant sex for women, because it’s so often so focused on such narrow kind of physical parameters.
So, I really think it’s about on the one hand, like, really taking seriously that very basic kind of consent education. But on the other hand, really trying to think imaginatively about what ideas we might try to loosen and what kind of unknown sort of experiments and pleasures we might allow ourselves if we weren’t so intent on closing sex down.
A heron made of storm. A squid culled for its ink. A society broken by coup and disintegration. Floods, droughts, hiding in caves, and offering blood to the seas. Robbie Arnott includes it all in his sophomore novel The Rain Heron, a beautifully poetic, hypnotic, barreling ride through symbiotic characters and landscapes, churning its nimble feet with environmental and existential angst. It is as delightfully brutal as it is captivating.
Born in and still residing in Tasmania, Arnott’s debut novel Flames was released to critical acclaim in 2018. The novel was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Arnott was also a 2019 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and won the 2019 Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes.
The Rain Heron is sure to garner just as much attention. It is as pitch-perfect a second novel as could have been anticipated. Bringing darkness with light, chaos tinged with resolution, and a magic and myth-encrusted world that sings and stings, Arnott displays stunning talent on every page. Connected halfway across the world, Arnott and I spoke about the influence of environment, literary inspirations, external versus internal pursuits, and the complicated notion of symbiosis between nature and society.
The Millions: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about this brilliant novel. The Rain Heron is a stunning blend of mythologies, grim society, and fatefully interconnected lives, and I’m curious to know, what was the origin of the book? Was it a particular line, an image, an idea?
Robbie Arnott: The writing of the book began with the first section, which details the legend of the rain heron. I was trying to invent my own myth, of a creature that was emblematic of both the beauty and savagery of nature. I tried a few different things until I realized I was trying to describe a storm, and the way a storm can be as captivating as it can be deadly. Once I figured that out, I turned a storm into the only creature that I believed could embody its grace and power: a great, wondrous bird.
TM: Landscape plays one of the largest roles in the story, particularly through weather and environmental changes, which makes me wonder how much you gravitate to the outdoors? How much does the environment around you inform your daily life, or your writing process?
RA: I’m fortunate enough to live in a beautiful, somewhat remote part of the world, where stunning landscapes and environments are all very close, so I spend a lot of time outdoors. If I’m stuck for something to write about, I start describing a landscape I’ve visited recently—a forest, a stretch of coastline, an ocean, a mountainside—and then see if a story or plot line curls off it. It’s not necessarily intentional; I’m just easily influenced by the world around me.
TM: The landscape in the novel is rendered geographically anonymous though—generalized in title as mountains, forests, rivers, seas. Is this to make the plight more universal, to drive the story forward as a more collective mythology?
RA: Absolutely—I wanted it to feel universal, and unanchored to any places in the real world. If I placed the story in my homeland of Tasmania, for example, the setting would bring along all the things that readers already associate with the island. The book would be imbued with an inherent Tasmanianness, and I wanted to avoid that. Instead, I wanted it to feel clean and new, as well as being recognizable, although not as anywhere specific.
TM: In terms of literary influences, I’d love to know what writers and artists inform and inspire your work?
RA: I’m heavily and unashamedly influenced by the descriptive prose of Annie Proulx. I think she’s a wizard. My work is also heavily in debt to Richard Flanagan, Jeanette Winterson, and Susanna Clarke, as well as many other writers. I love the clean and revelatory prose of Kazuo Ishiguro. When writing about landscapes and nature, I think I’m probably inspired by non-fiction writers as well—people like J. A. Baker and Helen Macdonald.
TM: The Rain Heron is built on minimal dialogue. Is that a style particular to this novel, or an aesthetic you cultivate across your writing?
RA: It’s probably both. I generally don’t use a lot of dialogue, probably because I’m naturally drawn more to description than conversation. For this book, I wanted to portray the characters almost entirely through their actions and reactions rather than what they said or felt. It felt right to do it that way—to flesh them out through their behavior.
TM: Does the sparse dialogue tell us something about the novel’s take on internal pursuits versus external influences?
RA: I hope so. I hope it draws out a sense of tension and conflict between motivations that can technically be justifiable, and things we inherently know to be wrong. Sometimes there are no good choices.
TM: Ren, our anchor point character throughout much of the novel, only relinquishes her solitude when the landscape around her is endangered. Is this a commentary on valuing the world itself above the individual?
RA: Yeah, I guess so, although I don’t know if I conceived of it that sharply. Human destruction of the environment is unavoidable in real life, so I thought it should be unavoidable in the book. Yet we still like forests, mountains, and rivers. I wanted Ren to experience a tension between her love for nature and her unwillingness to interact with other people. If that plays out as a commentary on valuing the natural world, then I guess I’ve done part of my job.
TM: That begs the question then: What is the other part of your job?
RA: To entertain, I think. And hopefully to enrich. I love books that both drag me in and mess about with how I see the world. If I wrote anything like that, I’d be over the moon.
TM: Throughout the book, there’s a focus on nature versus humanity, specifically society’s desire, and yet inability, to fully control or dominate nature. Do you think we’ll ever truly see a genuinely understood symbiosis between society and nature on a global scale?
RA: Many communities and groups of people have done it before, for long periods of time. It’s not hard to cast around and find examples of civilizations that existed harmoniously with their environments for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands. I don’t know if it will happen again—at the moment, it seems unlikely. But it has been done before. It’s tempting to hope lessons can still be learnt from the past.
TM: At one point Ren also says that she wishes she’d been “less cold” to other people. Beyond the influence of the environment, how much do our relationships build who we are, affect who we become?
RA: We’re just a sum of our experiences and relationships, really. And we don’t often get a say in how they affect or shape us. It’s out of our hands. I’m not a total believer in determinism, but I do think we are largely molded by forces outside of ourselves, rather than through internal machinations of the mind.
TM: Through some slick and smart perspective shifts in the novel, the notion of antagonist and protagonist is muddied. Do you see that typical dichotomy as outdated or flawed?
RA: Not necessarily—there are lots of books with typical antagonists and protagonists that I love. But I didn’t want to write a book like that. I’m interested in the messiness of people, the hesitations, the self-justifications, the swirl of kindness and selfishness. I wanted to create characters who embodied those things. I don’t think standard protagonists and antagonists need to be done away with, but I do think there’s room to write stories about people who are neither wonderful or evil, and whose singular actions don’t necessarily define who they are.
TM: Have virtual events been any sort of silver lining to releasing a book during a worldwide pandemic?
RA: I’ve met some incredible writers I wouldn’t have otherwise, and have been able to talk about my book to people who never would have been able to make a traditional bookshop or festival event. So that’s definitely been a surprising benefit. Everyone has adapted so quickly.
TM: From your first novel to this second one, what has changed in your approach, style, or intent as a writer?
RA: I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but if my writing has changed, it’s probably because I can figure out what’s not working more quickly. I think my instincts have sharpened through experience. I’ve done away with a few styles I played with in my first book and focused more on what I believe are my strengths. Although my writing process is still a giant mess. It’s chaos. I don’t know any other way.
RA: Oh hell yeah. I love the work of Ryan O’Neill, and can’t wait for his next book. Jane Rawson is phenomenal, too—From The Wreck is a work of tremendous skill and imagination. And I desperately hope the world doesn’t sleep on Laura Jean McKay and her remarkable novel The Animals In That Country. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.