That’s What Language Can Do: The Millions Interviews Pádraig Ó Tuama

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“Faith shelters some,” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “and it shadows others.”

We are lucky—those of us who are believers, and those of us who are not—when our theologians are poets. Ó Tuama makes me think about belief, God, and language in such a jarring, revelatory way. Afterward, I don’t want to return to my tired assumptions. 

I felt invited into In the Shelter not because it was about a life quite like mine—although we both come from the Catholic tradition—but through Ó Tuama’s syntax; how his sentences move from past reflection to present encounter. I often think of good books as journeys, and all of the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings that go along with such movement, and In the Shelter feels like it moves. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and host of Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, where he is the Theologian in Residence. From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His poetry collections include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles and Readings from the Books of Exile. He is the author of In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, and, along with Glenn Jordan, Borders & Belonging.

We spoke about language as exploration, the necessity of questioning, and how we seek sanctuary in this world. 

The Millions: Early in the book, you write of being in the monastic community at Taizé, France, during Lent in 1998. Each morning began with reflections in English, French, German, or Spanish, and a monk “would ask, moving casually from language to language, which tongues he should use in order to be understood by everyone.” Then, on Holy Thursday, he reads from the Gospel of John, and others in the group read it in Dutch and Norwegian. There’s this swirl of language as a glorious but also frayed route toward belief throughout your book, and you include moments of Irish as well in the text. Where does language carry or compel you? Does language bring you closer to faith, to God, or to somewhere else?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: When I was a child, my mother wasn’t very well. So, from September 1978 (I was two, soon to be three) I spent a few hours a day with a woman known only to me as Bean an Tí. This lasted for two years. She was from Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, an Irish speaking village in West Kerry and was up in Cork city living with her niece. My dad told me later that he’d heard her try to speak in English once, but she was utterly confused. She had some vocabulary, but no sense of the English language. So, for two years I was surrounded by her Irish, fluent as the salt in the sea. I remember she had a gravelly voice. I remember she wore lots of navy. I remember that I had a plastic cup—was it yellow or red?—from which to drink milk halfway through the day. It was a kindergarten of sorts, there were other children there too. I thought she was two hundred years old. She gave me language. Bean an Tí means Woman of the House, a term meaning landlady perhaps. I was affronted when I heard another woman being called Bean an Tí years later, thinking that I knew the one and only. She was from the Ó Bric family, a well known clan in the Dingle peninsula.

All of this goes to say that the question of language, or, to be more accurate, languages has been a part of my life as long as my life has been my life. I loved speaking in Irish and English, once I realized that I could speak them both already. My older sister Áine started learning French at school so I begged her to teach me anything she could. When my mother had a small accident involving two German motorbikers, they were invited (read: forced) to our house for dinner. I sat next to them admiring their sleek jawlines, begging them to teach me anything in German. My auntie Mary is deaf, so I asked her for a sheet of paper with the alphabet for Irish Sign on it.

You get the drift.

I don’t know if language is a pathway to God. But I know it’s a pathway. For me, learning that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t say ‘be quiet’ to the waves in the gospel of Mark, but rather said ‘be muzzled’ fills me with wonder. I am not particularly interested in what it means—because that implies it definitely means something, or, even worse, definitely means one thing—but I’m transfixed by what this implies. It implies so much: the sea like a rabid dog, growling, gazing, muzzled temporarily, saliva and ferocity all crowding the experience. It’s the kind of language that makes literature literature. It doesn’t have to mean one thing in order to mean anything. It is like a mouthpiece at the edge of the universe telling its own story to itself.

Language compels me towards more exploration. Sometimes I feel like language is a tool for exploring the underground, the layers of rock underneath the assumptions and messages that are being communicated. When I was 20 and a man who was trying to cure me of being gay told me that my problem was language, I was accidentally landed into an experience of confidence. He claimed to be an authority in religion and psychology, so I—a good Catholic, always submissive to authority—took him at his word. But when I asked him what his obsession with teaching me how to objectify women was, he became angry and told me my problem was language. And suddenly I was more shiny than I’d ever been before. I saw through his trickery. He was a man making up language for the mouth of God, and he was pisspoor at it. I left and never went back.

That’s what language can do, when language is doing its work: it can spur extraordinary action.

Pisspoor—look at that delicious alliteration. P.P. Two little explosive sounds right next to each other. I needed those sounds to describe the explosion of life that happened in me after I realized that language could be part of being more alive. I know I’m not describing anything like a pathway to belief—because mostly, I’ve been affected by an awful kind of religion, so I’ve needed language to lead me away from it, not towards it. God’s own anarchy, giving humanity the faculty by which God created the world. We can create too. And destroy.  Language can be a terror, as we know well.

I know. I’m still not answering. Look at all this language. Once a man I know was telling a group of people how tired he was of fighting for his rights when his rights were being denied by those who said they spoke for God. He was in a room of a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation community I was leading at the time. A woman sitting next to him said. “It’s okay to rest, others will do the standing for you.” Something about the quality of her words meant he heard them. He cried. The seventh day. It was evening. It was morning.

TM: There’s a real strand of Ignatian spirituality in this book. While in a course of Ignatian spiritual direction in Australia, you learned the vision of the world that transformed Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “The Glory of God is found in a human being fully alive.” You also ponder the humanity of Jesus: “We can ask about when he fell, or when he cried, or when he had nightmares. But we must also ask when he learned truth, or courage, or integrity. When did he learn the human art of apology? How did he live with his own body, the move from boy to man, the richness of a life lived in tension?” What has the corporeal sense of Jesus meant to you? Do you think that people fully reckon with his—and maybe our—flesh and blood?

PÓT: Years ago, when I was definitely more religious, I was teaching a class about the Stations of the Cross. It was a class of adults. I had been doing a daily practice of the Stations of the Cross myself for five years by that stage. I’ve always found the three-fold falling of Jesus to be very affecting. I had some images of Jesus that I was using as we were considering the walk of torture for a man about to be executed.

All of this was in a room in Australia. I was the only Catholic, and I was, in a certain sense, trying to prove to the Evangelicals in the room that Catholics, too, can be Christians. I have all kinds of problems with everything that was happening.

Anyway, after the third “Jesus Falls to the Ground” Station, I asked the people in the room what they’d say to Jesus. A woman named Julie said she’d ask him if it was worth it. Julie had lots of piercings and tattoos and half her head was shaved. The hair she had was dyed pink and green. She wore Doc Marten boots, and lots of leather. She was magnificent. Her own self. I hear she went to do a degree in law and worked in public defense of young people who’d been criminalized by a law system bent on marginalizing the already marginalized. She was somewhat of a scandal in this class because she would regularly say she wasn’t a Christian, even though she was on devotional course meant only for Christians. I admired her so much. There was something about the disposition of her question that moved me deeply. I think it was the first time I’d ever heard someone pose a question about—or, even more audaciously, to—Jesus without expecting they knew the answer. I want what she has, I remember thinking, which was: more distance from religion in order to be able to see a little more clearly.

I have never seen her since—this was 20 years ago—but I think about her regularly. She gave me what others resented her for having: distance and non-predatory curiosity. She was able to ask a question of Jesus of Nazareth without having formulated what she thought his answer should be. In the freedom she held in herself, her Jesus was also freer. I could imagine him saying No, it’s not. Get me out of here in response to her.

So whatever my relationship to the complicated question of Jesus’s identity is (and I wrote complicated essays about the hypostatic union in my degree), I always want the curiosity of the brilliant Julie. I’m not interested in being part of a gang who are so desperate to prove we love Jesus that we don’t take him seriously. I don’t know if I love him. I certainly respect him. I have many questions. I imagine he’d have been exhausting as a friend. I imagine he must have had some kind of energy in him that drew people to him with a heavy appeal. I’ve got a few friends like that. I am drawn to them. I come away depleted sometimes.

Who taught him to read? Was he interested in spelling? Did he skip formalities for the spirit of things? What did he say about Herod when nobody was writing down? Why did he tell the story of the desert with a devil in it? Wasn’t it just himself? When he said Why have you forsaken me, was that the end of his belief? It seems to me that when he posted three friends to keep watch as he prayed that he was leaving room for escape. Who is the escaping Jesus? What would he say?

To take Jesus of Nazareth seriously is to take ourselves seriously, I think. And consequently, to treat Jesus like some kind of perfect boy god is to deny the complexity of the secular everyday today. I’ve still got questions. I think I always will.

TM: You talk about studying redaction criticism during your theology schooling: “the skill of discovering how the texts that we now accept as a literary whole may be the product of decades of editing, with changes, additions, and extractions having happened.” I’m curious: do you find the action of memoir as a form of redaction criticism? What does it mean for you to revisit the stories of your life?

PÓT: A few years ago, I was in a Swatch Watch shop in New York City. I needed a new strap. The people were very friendly in there and after I’d gotten a new strap, the man working there said, “Do you want to come to a Swatch party on Thursday night?” This was not what I was expecting him to say. “What happens at a Swatch party?” I asked. “Oh all kinds of people come and they share their Swatch Story,” he said.

Swatch Story. Jesus. I could almost hear the voice of the branding consultant who came up with this inanity. People had sat in a room wondering how to build their corporate reach, and some overpaid person came up with the idea that the Swatch Story was a way to make people buy more shit.

I didn’t go. Although, I wonder what would have happened if I had. I hope that at that party there were small corners of people talking about what really mattered in their lives. I hope people made friends that night. I hope there are groupings of people who, when someone asks them, “How did you all meet?” answer, “Oh, at some party one Thursday night.” They forget that it was for a brand of watch. They made human in a place where money was the imagination.

Story is everywhere these days as a commodity. And that’s a betrayal of the brilliance of story. Story, if it means anything, is always changing. Story should never be convenient, or pretty, or nice. Stories should have the capacity for change—or, at least, the people who tell them should. If I’m telling the same old story at 60 that I am at 45 then I think I’ll have failed. I’m uninterested in being outraged because sometimes stories of outrage are being told by people who are profiting from my outrage while dodging accountability.

Stories are extraordinarily entertaining, but can leave corpses in their wake. Who is made a hero of a story? Who the scapegoat? How can a new point of view be told? How can a story be told anew? How can powers be re-examined? How can I be suspicious of the neat in a neatly told story? Who is the teller? Is it me? Am I over-identifying with the me in memoir? How can I make plural where commodity insists on single? I need to be made exile and made new. Stories have borders, too. And walls. And guns to keep certain people out. So I need all redaction, all historical criticism, all literary theories, and queering and turning upside down. Life is not a story, but stories—maybe—can help us live a life. So they’d better be good enough.

TM: You intersperse poems in this book, and one in particular, “Staring Match,” really paused me: “I stare at the icon, / the sacrament, and / the sacred story.” I think staring is a form of the ecstatic moment—our eyes locked somewhere, lost and drifting. What causes you to stare, to hold yourself to the point where you can’t look away?

PÓT: I’m intrigued that you’ve found such ecstasy in that poem. And I’m moved, too. That you found this in the poem speaks to me that the poem is doing its work; in that the words made space for you to put yourself into them. Were we sharing a pot of tea (Assam, made with leaves, stewed for seven minutes, proper boiling water. Microwave? Get behind me, Satan.) I’d want to ask you more about the poem, because you are participating in the making of the book, in the sense that you’re engaging with a conversation that I’m only an eavesdropper to.

All of that goes to say that if ever anyone ever says to me “I liked your book,” I always ask, “Why?” Not because I’m interested in checking out whether they’ve read it or not, but because they always say something interesting in answer to the why. Usually I realize the book is just a prompt for them to have a conversation with themselves.

I’d gotten completely stuck halfway through writing In the Shelter. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a plan, as much as I wasn’t sure what the point of writing something new was. I was reading Adam Phillips’s book In Writing, where he says that most things are written in order to be forgotten; but what happens in the experience of reading is what is meant to be remembered. It changed everything for me. I went back to writing.

Staring, for me, in the context of that poem, was actually an accusation. I’d been schooled in the art of the devoted gaze, the gaze of love, the gaze of adoration. I needed something more like the fuck-you-glare towards an icon. If an icon is a window into God, then I had something to say. So much of In the Shelter is a landscape of anger; as well as a landscape of slowly stripping away denial about the violence of religion. Looking at the placid face of Jesus in an icon, I was angry, and in staring at him (through him, to him, with him) I was able to hear parts of my own life that had questions. I didn’t think he was cowed by my anger. I get the impression that if he was listening, he’d have been glad for it. It was my hidden-and-stowed-away questions that required me to get to the stage of exploding towards the very source of the very source. It was such a relief. Like many, I’d found myself caught in a cycle of leaving a suitcase of questions, objections, fantasies and furies at the doorway of the halls of prayer. Learning to bring a few of those items into chapels helped me take whatever it is that religion does more seriously.

The last word in that poem is “hungry.” Hunger, in Irish, is Gorta, a word we use for a body’s hunger, but also a word we use to imply the Great Famine—An Gorta Mór—a famine that was not a potato famine, but was, like most famines, influenced heavily by the political machinations of the day. While perhaps two million Irish people starved to death from the years 1845 to 1847, the British landlords (grabbed lands, I hope you didn’t need me to say that) were making money by supplying over half the corn and half the cattle to Britain. Hungry people were filling ships with foodstuffs they’d farmed but would never be nourished from. People who couldn’t pay the rent to live on the land that had been stolen from them were being evicted. Kindly neighbors who brought in evicted neighbors were subject to a new law that made such hospitality a crime. All of this being watched over by people who said they had God in mind. Jesus Christ. He deserves everything he can get.

TM: You wrote of living overseas, and sharing an occasional meal with people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and “haunted and loved by God,” but who “had found the welcome of the church to be more airy than substantial.” You receive a call that the local priest wants to come to the house and join the dinner, but the caller says the priest “is keen to be seen to respond.” You focus on that language, and consider a few paradoxes. The priest came, brought some wine, and you spent time together. You remain friends. But you let him know that his presence there was fraught, and that what you needed to see “was less his kind words around the privacy of a table and more his public words in the halls of the powerful. Show us your change, please, I asked.” I can’t help but think of your recent erasure poem in response to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the blessing of same-sex unions. Do you feel, as you write in the book, that “faith shelters some, and it shadows others”?

PÓT: God almighty, that priest. He was a lovely man. He’s still a priest, and one of the good ones. But the level of entitlement he had to send a message to me—via a secretary—that he’d heard I had a gathering of LGBT people in my house and he wanted to join, in order to be observed to be doing the right thing… that left me speechless. Of course he couldn’t come. I wouldn’t even tell him the night of the week, and I was aghast at how he’d found out. But he came alone to talk about the message.

There was so little consideration of the safety of the people around that table. Many of them would have feared being fired by him—or, at least, his machinery—had the story of their sexuality become known to him. Was the priest gay? Well, perhaps. But in this instance, unfortunately, who cares? There was a roomful of people seeking sanctuary around a table hoping that a Thursday evening in a kitchen in West Belfast could give enough courage to survive till the next month. His presence there would have been a little echo of empire.

It was a demonstration of the chasm between intention and impact. He would have said that he intended no harm, he intended no worry or threat. But actually his intentions weren’t really of any interest or consequence. His presence there, his self-invited presence, would have had an impact far beyond any intention he’d have used to butter over whatever awkwardness he’d have felt. I’ve grown suspicious of my own intentions, too. It’s all well and good for me to say I mean well. But I’ve been alive long enough to know that when I say I mean well, that that’s only sometimes true, and even when it is true, it can still wreak havoc.

Anyway, like I said. He was a lovely guy, but the luxury of his imagined innocence was a luxury he alone could luxuriate in. I stay in touch, I do. I text him, too. I’m always happy to hear from him, and support him if I can, or ask him for his help if he can give it. He’s not some boogie monster. But he needed to wise up about the impact of his association on a room of people at risk of unemployment.

So of course the establishment of religion works for some and not for others. For some it is important to find a pathway out, knowing that your imagination and safety and creativity might find life outside the borders of religion. Others find religion a salve, and I believe them. Some people say that such violences of religion are evidence of establishment, not Jesus. But I don’t accept that at all. Jesus said many things that, today, would not be considered acceptable. Sheep and Goats and Jews and Dogs and Belief and Gehenna and Pharisees and Divorce and Eunuchs and Devils, oh my. I would love to talk to him. But he’s not an innocent in the corner with angels dancing round his head. There’s blood on his hands, and not just his own. There’s blood on mine, too. Not just my own either.

That recent statement—or Responsum—from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was such a strange pronouncement. It was ostensibly aimed towards LGBT people. But any Catholic LGBT person already knew that any space for our unions to receive blessing was unlikely to come from the top. In reality I think that the true target of that document were allies of LGBT people within the structures of the church. It was a shot across the bow of a Cathedral. You next.

Such a use of language from such a platform was a complete failure of language, and authority. So I wanted to mine for something of curiosity within a text that was utterly predictable in its aggression.

Groups of belonging—whether that’s a country, a religion, a gender, an ethnicity, or a club—have a long history of violent bordermaking. Some groups are easy to join and impossible to leave. Others deny anything outside them exists. Some are almost impossible to join, but’ll kick you out if you sneeze the wrong question. What is the quality of fluid belonging, is something that’s at the heart of my interest. I don’t need to—or, my god, want to—belong to all the groups. Every group has membership requirements, etc. That’s probably okay, or at least, it could be.  But it’s the quality of entry and departure that interests me. And the quality of the stories told about those who left too; and those who wanted to leave but didn’t for fear of repercussions; and those who needed to; and those who stayed, too; and all of us in the in-between.

We’re back at story. I know. How neat. 

There Is a Freedom to Being Kept Outside: The Millions Interviews Kate Zambreno

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Kate Zambreno’s To Write as if Already Dead is, in part, a study of writer/photographer Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert’s book, published in French in 1990, is a thinly veiled autobiographical narrative about AIDS, following the protagonist from his discovery that he has the illness through an increasingly severe decline. Michel Foucault features in the book as “Muzil,” a friend who is also suffering from AIDS; so does French actress Isabelle Adjani, as “Marine.” The book made Guibert a celebrity. Zambreno reads it in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and her own medical suffering.

But that’s just the seed of this complex, daring new book. She has written it, Zambreno says, for a contract: her family needs money, she is pregnant with another baby, and her temporary teaching positions lack necessary benefits. Yet the book, which Kirkus describes as a “meta-memoir,” escapes her original grasp. In doing so, it expands, delightfully, to take in a host of other concerns, including literary friendship—and betrayal—motherhood, the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the brutal shortcomings of our healthcare system.

This interview was conducted over email, shortly after Zambreno was awarded a 2021 Guggenheim in nonfiction. I was finishing up a brutal semester of teaching, and apologetically sent her my questions weeks late. She, doubtless also finishing up her semester, plus dealing with, well, winning the Guggenheim, nevertheless amazed me with a response sent less than 24 hours later, elaborating thoughtfully and carefully on each in my long list of questions.

The Millions: To begin, could you talk a little about the decision to write this book in the immediate present tense? I’m referring here to your literal tense, but also, of course, the inclusion of extremely recent events like Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter uprising. Everyone has heard the advice to wait before writing about an experience, and there was also a hasty wave of pandemic literature published early on, in which, as you observe in the book, “Every writer with a byline publishes a coronavirus diary, even if they are never sick, especially then.” Were you at all unsure about ending the book on a necessarily unresolved subject—a pandemic and political movement still being felt in profound ways around the country and world?

Kate Zambreno: The book is divided into a diptych—there is a story in the first part, “Disappearance,” that takes place in a more speculative time period (there are references to the museums being closed, and the daughter being out of school), and then the second half, “To Write as if Already Dead” is a first-person notebook with the catalyst or impetus of a bodily deadline in which to finally write this study on Hervé Guibert, which has the vertiginous thrust of the novel being circled around, To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life. Guibert’s novel, documenting his AIDS diagnosis as well as the death of his friend Muzil, based on his neighbor and intimate Michel Foucault, has as its frame the actual diagnosis but goes back in time to situate a chronology of his body and the portrait of various friendships and fallings out. Likewise, the second half of my study attempts to figure out how time works in Guibert’s book, and how narrative works in a sick body, and does so by adopting Guibert’s methods. As soon as I set about the project to write a date, as Guibert does, and attempt to move forward in a calendrical way, to write a diary at least as a frame, then it becomes a conceptual work about time, which Drifts was as well, in different modes. I couldn’t ignore the pandemic, and the twinning feeling of it, as I was writing of the AIDS crisis, I couldn’t ignore being in New York during the summer of protests, because that was the frame I had chosen for my book, to proceed forward in time.  Plus thinking of Guibert became a way for me to think through the often-paralyzing intensity of the current moment. I feel lucky that I had a project like this to work on—for a couple hours a day it was another way to feel active, alive.

TM:   Early in To Write as if Already Dead, you refer to your “fascination with how writers have historically made money, and when this desire is expressed nakedly, how it affects the form.” This book, you tell us, is written for a contract. I’d love to hear more about the decision to write about how you make money in this book, and the book itself as money-maker—in direct contrast to the romantic idea of the novel as something born deep within your soul, the book you were born to write, etc. How does it affect your form?

KZ: Well, I made $5,000 before an agent’s cut for this book for Columbia University Press, spread across the three years I was supposed to write it—this was not a money-maker, like basically all of my works, I always spend far more time on them (and then editing them, and then promoting them) than would amount to an actual salary, but also of course I need that extra money, which probably went to a few months of family health insurance, which I pay out of pocket for, as I am an adjunct at the two places I’ve been teaching for close to a decade, or almost two months’ rent in Brooklyn. I also write about needing to sell the novel that is Drifts throughout the span of the second half of the Guibert study, in order to continue living in NYC and supporting my newly growing family. I think that the publishing industry and its adjunct institutions, the university, the MFA program, want to hide the question of money, and make everything about the romance of the writer, to hide the fact that writers, in all of their various ways—you and me having this conversation!—are workers for the publishing industry, and being workers, are precarious and vulnerable and often unpaid. I started being interested in the question of money and writing as I became more interested in the question of labor and bodies. But all of this is fed by Hervé Guibert’s novel, in which he writes openly about needing to make money and selling various books. I do think the speed of his illness books is catalyzed by survival energy, and this energy and speed is something I meditate on and enact in this work.

TM: Relatedly, I was thinking while reading the book that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a writer publicly write about doing research on Google Books, although I can only assume every researcher with Internet access has done so at some point in their lives! Later, you write that you’re reading The Compassion Protocol on a PDF on your phone. There’s almost a sense of the camera zooming out to show the writing and reading process itself as it is taking place. Why was it important to include these moments of radical reveal, banal as they might be?

KZ: I don’t believe in purity, in terms of research methods, and am far more interested in the daily and embodied way that people actually read. Thinking of Moyra Davey cutting her Genet diaries in half and reading them on the train in Burn the Diaries (and reading on the train is also a very Guibert thing), or how Bhanu Kapil performs deleting her epigraphs in Ban en Banlieue. I feel I’ve read a lot of writing that’s not mine that does this—but perhaps this also bespeaks to the community of blog writers from a decade ago that the first half of To Write as if Already Dead elegizes. There was recently an essay by Aarthi Vadde and Melanie Micir about how Heroines restages an “amateur criticism”—they consider it alongside Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas—perhaps I am playfully not trying to be a real scholar. Rephrasing Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, there is a freedom to being kept outside as well. Also, it’s been impossible to get into a library.

TM: To Write as if Already Dead plays with a variety of anxieties and challenges around performing the labor of writing, teaching, and bearing/caring for children all at the same time, from (eminently relatable) anxieties about healthcare and mortality to interrogations of your own fragmentary form. Can you expand on this—the book as Portrait of the Artist as Woman, Mother, Precarious University Worker, and more?

KZ: Yes, I do think this work does this (at least as a portrait of a mother, an artist, and precarious university worker, I also think and hope it plays with gender in more slippery ways) as do the lectures that make up Appendix Project, which I delivered at universities across the country in the first year of my firstborn’s life, bringing her with me. As does Drifts. I think becoming a mother has widened my understanding of the intense vulnerability of precarity, and how it’s a condition of the modern world (quoting Anna Tsing here) of which I am an extremely privileged yet still precarious art and university worker. I’m not interested in erasing that in my work, because so much of my impulses towards writing is a protest or provocation against disappearance or erasure. It’s telling that the thrust of both Drifts and this Guibert study, coincidentally, deal with the labor of pregnancy and intense anxieties of how to pay for it while working and anticipating working without any maternity leave. I will say a lot has been made over how fragmented my work is. I guess I don’t see it! I am interested in form. The Guibert study is a diptych, half fiction, half notebook, and I’m interested in the form of the day, of a paragraph, is a paragraph or passage a day, continuing with Guibert. Or maybe—of course it’s fragmented! I wonder if I read anything that’s not fragmented. What makes, I would counter, a work not fragmented? Isn’t a chapter a fragment? Isn’t a paragraph?

TM: You’ve said, of a previous book, “One of the great heartbreaks of my life is that I love poetry and I identify as a poet, but I’m not a poet.” I love that, and I think it points to an often-overlooked relationship between what’s defined as poetry and some forms of nonfiction prose. I’m thinking of Chris Kraus, for example, whom you mention in the book and who has articulated a similar attitude toward poetry. I wonder if you could talk more about your relationship to poetry and poets in To Write as if Already Dead?

KZ: This was for a conversation I had with the lovely T. Cole Rachel in The Creative Independent, in the weeks after my first daughter was born (I had to look it up). I was being hyperbolic. I don’t think it’s one of the great heartbreaks of my life. I do think I considered Book of Mutter poetry, and wanted it to be considered as poetry, and how much that book got rejected was intensely despairing for me (as I also trace through the anhedonia of Drifts rejections in the current work—can I say I consider Drifts poetry as well? Can it be a poet’s novel if I’m not considered a poet?). There is no one else who would have published Book of Mutter as it was—literally nobody—except Chris Kraus and Hedi El-Kholti at Semiotext(e), who also commissioned Heroines and published Appendix Project. Their publishing project comes from such a place of brilliance and love. I don’t think Appendix Project has sold more than a couple hundred copies, if that. So I am a poet after all! I think TWAIAD traces through relationships with prose writers who are part of the poetics world that I met online, and a banishment I feel from a particular subset of that community. The heartbreak of community, of “The Poets.” But again, I’m being hyperbolic!

TM: Relatedly, how did you ultimately decide to name or not name the writers you engage with in the book, from the mysterious Alex Suzuki to “Bhanu” (the wonderful Bhanu Kapil, I assume) and “Sofia”?

KZ: The Guibert study is dedicated to the genius Bhanu Kapil, and our conversations on caretaking and survival energy form part of the thinking in the book. I’m also playing with referentiality across Drifts and To Write as if Already Dead, so that book continues the conversations with Sofia Samatar, also a genius, in Drifts. I think of both books as friendships, more than any other genre (I reference Thomas Bernhard’s Wittgenstein’s Nephew throughout, also subtitled “a friendship.”) Guibert also plays with names (and facts) across his books, that he sees as linked together—there are some fictionalized names that are consistent, and others that change, and other real-life people (like Mathieu Lindon) whose names are not changed. Alex Suzuki is in many ways a fiction, based on a real-life genius, who was also part fiction—the first half of the book explores the concept of pseudonyms and personas—and “Disappearance” contains a good deal of invention.

TM: I’m interested in the way you often write about the particular nexus of literary success (your shame at publishing books so quickly) and professional precarity (adjunct at an elite university). Do you worry about the repercussions of writing so honestly about the financial arrangements of the “life of the mind”? To what degree do you think the need to obtain a professional position through writing defines what people are publishing now and why?

KZ: I think my shame at publishing books so quickly has more to do with my relationship of writing to shame, which probably involves also the family, without which I would not be a writer. It seems that I am writing constantly, I should also say, but that’s not the truth. I do write in a notebook constantly. But I just wrote an introduction to a book and I feel it’s the first writing-writing, like in a Word doc, I’ve done since giving birth at the end of August, besides revising the Guibert study. I have written a few books in a quicker time frame—Appendix Project over a year, the majority of the shorts that make up Screen Tests over a summer—but everything else took at least a few years, and often much more. Columbia UP is publishing this book months after it was finished, which is lightning speed in the world of publishing. It does seem like I constantly have books out, and I have been writing fairly consistently in the past four years, often because I have been under deadline.

Anyway. Constantly having smaller books out is not actually the key to literary success, at least in terms of major publishing. I am supposed to write a big, coherent book, that can be translated into screen, and have it do well, and then repeat this again a few years later. I should appear on talk shows, and make bestseller lists, and excerpt in big places that want me, and promote the book for a solid year. Instead, I take on things like this Guibert project, like the lectures. I cheat on the projects I’m supposed to write with other projects. My books tend to get fairly ambivalent reviews. And still I keep on, because I do think my desire to write comes out of something insatiable, some internal need to write the kind of book that I will finally feel does what I want it to do…and publishing a book is perhaps a way that I can finish something. I think this is why I take on Guibert, because I’m interested in what appeared to be his hyperproductivity in terms of writing and publishing, and the why of it (what was the exact texture of his ambition?).

You ask about the repercussions of writing so honestly about the life of the mind (I am looking forward to reading Christine Smallwood’s novel of the same title.) I have wondered if there would be repercussions for writing so openly about not having maternity leave at the two places where I work, at least in Drifts, but I think that would involve them reading my work? There might be repercussions for writing about publishing in this new book. I think Philip Leventhal, my editor at Columbia UP, took it very well. I don’t know. It would probably help if my books sold better. Also I could just say it’s like the Ben Lerner baby octopus, or whatever. I did half-wonder if I would be burnt forever for joking about the genius grant in Drifts, like what if I did someday become a genius, would they hold it against me? But I just was awarded a Guggenheim, so maybe the publishing industry likes to feel they’re in on the joke? By the way, thank you Guggenheim committee, this was life saving, I now can pay for outrageously expensive family health insurance for the next two years.

TM: I wonder if you could expand on the relationship between writing, shame, and the family? I find this is so insightful, and certainly so relatable, but I don’t know why. Why is shame so deeply entwined with writing? Is it, at least for you, a productive tension, or a destructive one?

KZ: I almost feel if I could—fully—articulate the answer for myself then I would never have to write again. It is not lost on me that one of the reasons I feel deeply bonded to Hervé Guibert and, for that matter, Thomas Bernhard, whom Guibert is also channeling in To the Friend, and other members of the so-called Vienna Group, Elfriede Jelinek, etc., is because they are writing from and against a society rooted in the prurience and hypocrisy of Catholicism, also as it informed the repressive state and its policies, and as represented by the conservative petit bourgeois family. I recently wrote the introduction to the Portugeuse writer Maria Judite de Carvalho’s 1966 novel, Empty Wardrobes, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, that will be published by Two Lines Press. The novel is set amidst the Catholic family and a sort of deadened interiority marked by gender expectations, the expectation to be the good mother, wife, daughter, daughter-in-law, etc., all the more brutalized amidst the Salazar regime. I became a writer as a way to write out of silence and silencing—whenever I see extended family, I am reminded that nothing has ever been or is still expected of me, I literally cease to exist, except for my role as a mother and aunt and daughter. There is a real freedom, however, to write amidst such invisibility from the family. I believe I write so as to continue to exist, and also to perform disappearance, nonexistence. I write knowing I inevitably shame my family by doing so, by writing at all about an interior life.

TM: You talk about the strangeness of talking to readers about a book once it has been published, writing, “I feel like I shouldn’t be included in the conversation. I am no longer the person who wrote that book, who wrote any of the books, and am not sure I can speak for them.” I’ve heard this from other authors. Of course, you don’t need to have a solution in order to validate a problem, but I wondered if you have a sense of what a better reader-writer relationship would look like? Is there a different conversation you want to be having with readers?

KZ: I like the reader-writer relationship as it is, prickly, intimate, invasive, tender, ambivalent! I’m incredibly grateful that my work does connect. It’s what I deeply desire. Whenever Drifts got a dick review I always hoped there are readers out there who did respond to it, who did deeply connect, even if they don’t write about it publicly, and hopefully the books live far longer than their press cycles. Having Drifts, and this book, come out, it feels like more of a vacuum, because I can’t have conversations with readers in bookstores and at events, which I do love to do. I think the conversation is, hopefully also, in the process of reading the book.  But I also write writers I admire as well. That’s how I’ve formed community as a writer.

TM: I’m having some trouble articulating this question, but I want to ask about the role of fantasy in this book. For example, the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything for readers, but I wondered if it might point to some larger decisions you were making in this book. Was there a feeling that you needed to tell this story in a particular way, a way other than the way you ultimately ended up telling it? Was there a different kind of story you felt the reader might want to hear, about Guibert and about your own life?

KZ: I love the move that Nathalie Léger makes in her book on Barbara Loden, first, she didn’t talk about the book in interviews, so we have to only speculate what’s fact and what’s fiction, and it’s unclear what’s real and what’s fantasy—the whole trip to America that makes up the end of the book. You don’t know whether that actually happened. That’s all I will say!

TM: Speculation and the idea of the speculative also seems important. For Guibert, you write, “his survival was speculative fiction.” I hope it’s not overreading to suggest that this felt like a point of identification between Guibert and you as reader/writer. Guibert’s survival is speculative because he has AIDS in the 1980s, but also, it seemed, because survival is speculative for anyone who becomes a “medical subject.” Could you expand on this? What does that idea of speculative fiction mean to you in the context of this book, and, more broadly, of life as it is being lived right now under the pandemic?

KZ: I also read To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life as structured or framed as a dystopic novel, utilizing some of the tropes of plague fiction, and ultimately it has an open-ended feel to the fate of the “hero” (the narrator) in the conclusion, the speculative survival you refer to, because also, that’s what it was like living with that disease that was shrouded in both secrecy and mystery. There’s no equivalent comparison between me being a medical subject and/or pregnant during a pandemic and the circumstances of dying from AIDS, however, but I do think being a medical subject can be an experience of alienation, and often an experience with the unknown.  I don’t know if this answers your question directly, but life has become and continues to feel very weird, for years predating the pandemic and certainly now. Time is vertiginous, connections are mysterious and superstitious, bodies feel doubled and uncanny. The more my work feels speculative, crossing boundaries, the closer I am to achieving something that feels like lived truth.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading 2012: Kate Zambreno
A Year in Reading 2019: Kate Zambreno
The Millions Interview: Kate Zambreno

A Kind of Deep Companionship: The Millions Interviews Jo Ann Beard

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Jo Ann Beard is a straight genius when it comes to observing and rendering observations with a twist. In Festival Days, her recent collection of essays and stories, skinny, Upper-East-Side trees are “scrawny and impervious, like invalid aunts”; an electrical cord catching fire is a “sprig of cloth-wrapped wire [that] sizzled and then opened, like a blossom.” Beard won lifetime fans with her 1998 nonfiction debut, The Boys of My Youth. It included “The Fourth State of Matter,” which ran in The New Yorker and managed to be about many disparate things: a mass shooting, friendship, divorce, plasma of both blood and space, dogs (“The dogs are being mild-mannered and charming; I nudge the collie with my foot. ‘Wake up and smell zee bacons,’ I say”). It’s hilarious and tragic and often lands on writers’ lists of favorite essays.

In Festival Days, Beard returns with her immersive, high-stakes storytelling. “Cheri” follows a terminally ill woman who obtains the services Dr. Kevorkian. Small, striking details set the scene—the light through the “parchment lampshades” of a cat’s ears, train tracks “unspooling like a grosgrain ribbon.” Beard illuminates what’s essential about her subjects; Cheri, sick as she is, registers others’ kindness: “She reels from it sometimes, the mute commiseration, the gestures of support and assistance so subtle she barely recognizes them as such.” In other essays, there’s a battle royal among ducks, coyotes, and weasels, written with Annie Dillard-esque love and attention. We read about the crappiness of ex-husbands, the salvation of friendship. All are threaded with a killer sense of humor (“‘We discussed you.’ ‘You don’t disgust me.’”) and a continual ability to delight.

Beard teaches at Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, where I studied with her in the early 2000s. The Millions talked with her about how she’s doing, her great love of tobacco, and mycological wonders.

The Millions: Animals—whether it’s a dog with an “aging dog-actress face” and “long glamorous ears,” or a horse who “noticed for the millionth time how small his stall was compared to how large the world,” or the starving, holy cows of India who “may not get eaten but they also don’t get fed”—play starring and supporting roles in Festival Days. How do animals find their way into your work, and what do they bring to a story?

Jo Ann Beard: Well, we live alongside them. Whether it’s domesticated animals we have curled up on our sofas, or the squirrels who move the nuts around between the trees that shade our houses, or the cattle who are forced to graze on our public lands or wander India’s busy streets, or the carriage horses whose lives are made up of endless trudging and standing, or the birds who flit or the bats who soar or the feral cat I’m watching right now out my studio window—a thickly furred yellow striped one who is barely more than a kitten but a ferocious one. I saw her stalking a wood duck out in the wetlands. The wood duck looks like a decoy of itself, but she’s half-starved and was all focus. It was a terrible thing to see; no positive outcome possible. The duck got away, of course, it wasn’t going near the reeds, and so she continued starving. You might suggest that I feed her but I can’t, because one of my dogs thinks of cats the way the cat thinks of a wood duck. So, I guess animals find their way into my work because they find their way into my life. Even if it’s just a scrabbling sound in my walls, or a yellow blur way out there, stepping quietly through the reeds, trying not to splash.

TM: In your essay “Werner,” the scenes describing Werner Hoeflich’s plight—he’s trapped in a building that’s quickly going up in flames—are mesmerizing: “With this nearsighted, close-up view, he could see smoke curling up through the floorboards, black specks inside the tendrils like a flock of birds banking and moving together.” How did you learn about Werner, and what were the unique considerations of telling his story?

JAB: The unique consideration wasn’t the story on the surface—for all its dire nature, it was a fairly simple narrative—but the underlying story. About what it means to discover that death can be stalking us even while we are safely asleep in our beds, that there’s nothing we can do to avoid the randomness of a fire that breaks out deep in the walls. You can live your life as an artist, devoted to your work, and to the catering jobs that keep you afloat, but like the wood duck bobbing on the water, there could be a striped cat somewhere right beyond your view, and the cat might be hungry enough to get her paws wet just this one time.

TM: You told The New York Times that “every page of Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape Our Futures had something moving and new for me.” As a member of the New York Mycological Society, I was happy to see you were also entranced by Sheldrake’s work! What was something in his book that especially moved you?

JAB: I listened to the author read the book last summer. His voice was the perfect narration for the walks I was taking through the woods, nine hours over nine days, with me inside the invisible network of fungi. I spend so much time feeling like we’re all inside the Matrix, due to the fact that we are living these muted online lives. When you’re in the woods, you’re not only walking through the mycelial network, but you’re inside the overlapping network of the trees as well. All these separate-same beings communicating with one another through chemistry instead of words, while I was listening to Merlin’s words. I call him Merlin not because I know him, but because I love him, and because he’s a wizard.

TM: In Festival Days, you thank weed, which I thought was funny. Do you have any interest in talking about that? Maybe in light of New York’s recent legalization of cannabis?

 JAB: Well, my version of weed—not in the essay, but in real life—would be tobacco. Some people, especially now that it’s legalized and artisanal, are becoming dependent on THC to get them through their days. I say, as a former cigarette smoker, you all have a long way to go before you can compete with tobacco. The best feeling I have ever had in my life, bar none, is waking up early, making a cup of coffee, and going out into the field to sit on the splintery Adirondack chair and have the first brain-whirling cigarette of the day. Such a feeling. Euphoria combined with vague nausea and self-hatred. I would give almost anything to have it again. Except my life, I suppose.

TM: You refer to Jonathan Franzen as your “imaginary friend,” and I think you, more than most writers, cultivate a sort of friendship with your readers.

JAB: I think a good book is always a good friend—when I’m reading something I like, especially a good long book like Franzen writes, I feel a kind of deep companionship. Not with the author but with the story and the characters and perhaps a little bit with the actual object and its cover, which sometimes includes the author’s face. When you’re slogging through your day, imagining what else is to come, and you remember that the minute all else is done you can sink down into your book like warm water, and be absorbed while you’re absorbing, is priceless, as they say in capitalism.

TM: Lawrence Weschler has said that he uses blocks to sort out the structure for his work. How do you create the structure for your writing?

JAB: The structure comes from the story, I’m pretty sure, not the reverse. I’m not aware of how it works, to be completely honest, and I like to maintain the sense of mystery whenever I can so I don’t analyze my own work if I can help it.

TM: You’ve got a big, loyal fan base. I’m sure many of them want to know how you’re doing, what’s going on with you, and your current dog/animal situation.

JAB: I have two dogs, Beatrice and Jet, both of them in late middle age and both of them looking at me right now. They have acres to run around in, but all they want is for me to take down the leashes so they can walk through the woods. I like to imagine they can hear the chorus of fungi and trees as loudly as I hear the spring peepers. Actually that last sentence was just writing, it isn’t really true. But what is true is that once a duck came flapping across our woods path—full disclosure, this was a while back and two whole other dogs—with a broken wing. Only not, it turned out: as the dogs tore off after it, I saw that it was leading them away from a nest. Chicks running every which way and the dogs never figured it out and never caught the mother. There have been other hysterical occurrences in the woods but they all involved me and my nemesis, the garter snake.

The Tragedy of Self: The Millions Interviews Makenna Goodman

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In Vermont, Alma and her family tend chickens and sheep, make maple syrup, and harmonize with the land. And while it seems idyllic, when her husband leaves each day to teach at a nearby college, Alma vacillates between raising their children and feeling utterly trapped. She’s constantly questioning if she is good enough, if she is doing everything right, and The Shame is a record of her breaking point. Suddenly, driving furiously away from it all—from her kids, from her husband, from her so-called quaint life outside the city—debut novelist Makenna Goodman gives us glimpses of Alma’s frustrations in a series of remembered vignettes: Her stress in attending collegiate dinner parties, her struggle to pursue a creative career in the face of monetary risk, and her solitude in living apart from society. It is a novel that bears witness to a blearing spiral of self-doubt.

Further complicating the matter, Alma has taken to obsessing over the social media posts of the a woman named Celeste. Celeste is a single-mother of three living in Brooklyn. She is a potter. She bakes. She cooks. She does yoga and meditation. She has impeccable taste, beautiful yet understated fashion sense, and a seemingly limitless well of patience for her children. Initially, Alma revels in the parallels she sees between herself and Celeste. But when she realizes that Celeste has somehow managed to avoid the darkness, Alma’s loneliness, solitude, the ever-evolving bouts of anxiety increase and her obsession intensifies. If only she could meet Celeste, talk with her, become a part of her life, then maybe she could find the key to righting her own existence.

The Shame is a sharp, poetic debut. It touches on motherhood, marriage, creative careers, and social media obsessions in a unique and thoroughly engaging way. We are in the car with Alma, speeding away from her former life. But Goodman also puts us in Alma’s head, as she grapples with each reminiscence and memory, and in her heart, as she works to sort everything out that is haunting and hurting her, everything riddling her with apprehension and doubt. Shame and self-loathing have found an honest, witty, and absolutely relatable ride in The Shame.

The Millions: Let’s start with the idea of shame. What does that word mean to you, what does it mean to Alma, and how did it come to be the title?

Makenna Goodman: It’s hard to pinpoint what one word means to me, because words hold within them such big concepts, and it depends on the context in which it’s being used. Shame is a human emotion, something everyone feels at one point or another, and in some cases is a determining factor in how we interpret the stories about our lives, a metric which we often use without knowing. For Alma, I suppose it means the moment of realizing she is inextricable from a system that she thought she was morally above, that her ethical choices had liberated her from being complicit in. But I suppose I could have called the book many things, and I had a hard time titling it. One afternoon, I was on the phone with my friend, the writer Sheila Heti, and we were talking about the embarrassing truths about what we were looking at on the Internet at that moment. I said, it’s just “the shame, the shame, the shame” and she was like, you should just call the book that. It felt right. But titles are just teasers, or suggestions, and I don’t hold it too tightly.

TM: I love that. Speaking of Sheila Heti, can I assume that her book Motherhood is one that resonates with you?

MG: Definitely, everything she’s written. I find her fiction and nonfiction to veer so beautifully into philosophy; she constantly is transgressing both formally and stylistically. Even though Motherhood was a book about, ultimately, not having children, it could easily be seen as a treatise on art and ethics, if the critical media could see past the word “mother” or its well-trod categorical biases.

TM: What started you writing this novel? What was its genesis?

MG: I had just had my second child and was on leave from work. There was a lot of time to think, but my thinking was blurred by lack of sleep. I would take these long walks up our dirt road with my daughter asleep against my chest. It was around that time I read a book of Jungian psychoanalytic theory from the 1980s that deconstructed the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche; it suggested that each character in the myth was, in fact, a different aspect of an “archetypal” woman—whatever that means. But when I started to consider that Eros could be characterized as something other than the god of love, as, say, a woman’s animas, I began to see that it was possible to interpret everything in life as some kind of projection of the “main character,” and that stories can be re-characterized by those who interpret them based on their own projections. It allowed me to have this kind of narrative distance on social structures I found myself either entrenched in or critical of, and I came up with a loose storyline as a kind of container. And from that story, I began to play with how theory and narrative can allow for a rendition of “truth.”

TM: That notion of a “rendition of truth” is really interesting, especially considering Alma’s contention both with her own truth and with that of her high-brow doppelgänger, Celeste. In terms of our outside influences, do you think we all have that kind of level-up influencer who wreaks havoc with our sense of self?

MG: I think we all engage with projection, which manifests differently depending on the person. It’s easy to say something is a cultural phenomenon and try to come up with a valid theory of why. For example, the Internet is obviously a space that has affected the way our brain works, and, as a result, our subconscious. But to say “we all have our influencer” assumes everyone uses the Internet in the same way. I do think when humans search for meaning, the search in and of itself is telling. When you go into the abyss of the Internet to find a sense of truth or comfort, for example, answers seem to instantly appear. But we are curating the space just as it is being curated by algorithms on what we view, which calculate our desires based on where our eyes rest for any significant amount of time. Our sense of self is being made and remade with our permission, and as such our projections are manifested, because they multiply, and then the whole “Internet” seems to be speaking directly to our individual quests. What is “real” and what is “self” might be changing rapidly, yet how can we determine what is true about either?

TM: When Alma does finally reach out to Celeste, in search of her own sense of self, she phrases it as a chance to “fuck with fate a little.” Between fate and free will, where does Alma exist?

MG: I’d say she exists between fate and free will to the same degree anyone does—waffling between the two. Free will is entirely subjective, though, obviously. Who has the right to it? Who is granted it and at what rate compared to others? And fate also holds a mythology of inevitability, the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” which could be interpreted in various ways. Either as a kind of critical systems analysis—‘it’s a game and it’s rigged’—or something more spiritual. For Alma, I see it as her reclaiming the narrative of her life. She’s given Celeste power over her story—even though Alma’s creating the story, creating Celeste to a degree, she’s projected the idea of free will or fate onto something other than herself. And once she reclaims the narrative from the spiraling path it’s on, what will she do with it? What comes next? In my mind the book is about the tragedy of self, more than anything.

TM: In the end, would you say the novel concludes with a resonating sense of freedom, escape, or something else entirely?

MG: I think there is a palpable sense of awareness. An acknowledgement of a story that needs to change. I hope readers will interpret the ending as a beginning of a new one, perhaps the same story, told again, told differently. Isn’t that the case with life? There’s no neat bow, no solution, just new perspectives on patterns. My hope is that the book asserts itself as a cautionary tale, less a moralistic assertion, although there is a moral question central to it all. It is less about the choice Alma makes at the end, and more how she’ll interpret it in the context of her larger beliefs about the world. Ultimately, the book lays out an exercise for her, a mental and emotional exercise, the kind of thing that could happen in the course of one day in anyone’s life, in various ways. How we choose to reprogram our perspectives. How we might rewrite them. I like the idea of control, giving the tools back to readers, to see engaging in literature as a practice in interpretation of our own consciousness. If books can offer that freedom from the algorithmic status quo, then perhaps there’s hope for art yet.

TM: Absolutely. Well said. And speaking of books and hope, what recent releases have stirred or inspired you?

MG: Mieko Kawakami’s new novel, Heaven, is an unbelievable book. Her writing feels so fresh and different, and I have loved everything that’s been translated into English thus far. Another book I loved recently was Noemi Lefebvre’s Poetics of Work. And this isn’t a new release, but I recently read and loved Cristina Rivera Garxa’s The Iliac Crest. There are many others!

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Writing to Heal: The Millions Interviews Elissa Washuta

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I once heard writer and educator Elissa Washuta say that writing essays can get very exhausting when it feels like the essayist is expected to be an insight machine. I took comfort from that acknowledgement, as a young writer who was (and still is) wrestling with the limits of my perception and self-awareness in a genre that often depends heavily on those qualities. And I continue to take comfort and inspiration from her work. She writes well about the difficult and sometimes fruitless struggle to shape narrative out of the mess of experience—from romantic entanglements to searches for the supernatural to our place in the troubling histories of our nations and peoples—and enacts that struggle on the page. The narrator Washuta’s readers encounter is not a sage on a mountaintop doling out wisdom to the worthy, but a friend writing from the middle of confusing and painful experiences, letting you listen while she considers the failures of life to cohere.

Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and an assistant professor of creative writing at The Ohio State University. She is the author of My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode, and her book White Magic is forthcoming from Tin House Books. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund.

I met Washuta when I was one of her graduate students in the MFA at Ohio State, and this spring we exchanged some thoughts via email about White Magic.

The Millions: This is your third major publication, after My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode, and a third book seems like a special milestone. Does it feel that way to you? What’s different about this publication from your previous two, in terms of your career or development as a writer?

Elissa Washuta: This book feels massive to me—it feels like my book in a way that the first two no longer do. I guess that’s not unusual. But I wrote those relatively quickly in comparison, and I didn’t know what I was doing to the extent that I do now. Starvation Mode was actually an offshoot of the project that eventually became White Magic, though the starting point (ancestral diets, disordered eating, and chronic health problems) is completely gone from the book at this point. I think of White Magic as my second book, and the second book is notoriously painful to write: we know our bad habits better, we’re more self-conscious, we know the literary marketplace is real and “the reader” isn’t an abstraction.

I believe I’ve told you (probably multiple times) my sad story about my first book as a cautionary tale about taking seriously the knowledge that when something is published, it’s beyond the writer’s control forever, to some extent. I wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules when I was in grad school and in the year following. I believe I finished grad school at the same age you did, but I didn’t have as much good sense as you do. I was reckless, and I just wanted to get the book done and published so I could become a literary celebrity. That’s not how it happened. Finding a publisher was hard, and readers arrived slowly. Once they did, I began to really understand that all my MFA school learning about the distinction between personal essay narrator and self was not really a thing in the real world. The narrator and I are seen as one in the same, which is a problem because we’re not. I was trying to write myself as a flawed, authentic character. Now that version of self will live forever.

I spent a long time on White Magic—about eight years or more—because I understood the enormity of a book. I wanted to stay with it until I felt certain that it was exactly what I wanted. In that time, I began teaching creative writing, and that made me a dramatically better writer, especially after I came to Ohio State and had to explain craft concepts to a bunch of brilliant grad students. My confidence in my knowledge became very strong very quickly, and I was able to push myself to take bigger risks, like writing a 100-page essay with overlapping timelines, that I knew could either flop or pay off. I also became really clear about where I stood in regards to narrative structure, and the acceptance that I was not at all anti-narrative made the book come together in a way that was a real departure from my first book.

TM: Your “Oregon Trail II” essay is so much about narrative, as is the rest of the book. On page 185, you write, “A trail is both more and less fixed than a narrative. When you’re writing the narrative, choices are infinite; when you’re reading it, your only choice is whether to continue or not. The trail is somewhere in between: when you get to the river, you can cross or not […] This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. He’s been silent for a week but you don’t know what it means. You ford the river. Text him or don’t.” Later, on 187, you quote other prompts from the game: “Try to find another path – You were unable to find another path. Wait for conditions to improve—”. These moments reminded me of something I’ve heard you say, which is that a collection of essays is a series of failures to make sense of your experience, and that it’s through the accumulation of these failures that the narrator (and reader) arrives somewhere new. Your use of the game’s mechanical text prompts helps make these attempts and failures feel as rote as they feel in life, where sometimes we can end up asking ourselves, “How am I at this juncture again?” and “Will I ever get past this?” Do you think writing has had a direct effect on the way you understand the events of your life? Do you think writing about your life has impacted the way you approach life choices?

EW: It really has. In 2015, when I was not really writing much and hadn’t yet found the direction this book would eventually take, I was diagnosed with PTSD, and the psychiatrist said that it was clear that creating a narrative of my trauma through my first book had a significant positive effect on my mental health. I really held onto that—it was affirming. At that point, I had very little recognition as a writer. I didn’t yet have big grants or a tenure-track job. I had a small press book that had great reviews and very modest sales. It had made me almost no money. I was really beginning to wonder whether I was wasting my time, whether I even had another book in me, because I couldn’t find it. I don’t think I immediately consciously appreciated the significance of what the writing had done for me as a person working on healing, but the doctor’s words stuck with me, so I know they’ve mattered to me.

In 2017, as I talk about in White Magic, I was trying to figure out why I was so stuck on a failed relationship, and I was also newly in Ohio, without any furniture but a new couch while I waited for the movers to show up with most of my possessions weeks after I arrived. I spent those weeks watching Twin Peaks: The Return and re-watching the original run of the series. The book began to jell as I wrote down quotes that felt related to the feeling I had that I was experiencing a kind of magic I didn’t understand. I started writing to figure out what that relationship meant to me and why I wasn’t moving on, and as I wrote into that, I realized that the answer was much bigger and more complicated than I knew (though I did suspect that, which is why I started writing about it). I kept writing until, 100,000 words later, I had my answers, and I felt that I was free and could move on. I really did break the bad patterns of my life by writing this book and coming to understand myself.

TM: In “Centerless Universe,” you write, “Our old stories are about things like excrement, dreams, and learning to copulate, because they’re meant to teach us how to live,” which is a small part of a longer reflection on ways of knowing, in this essay and throughout the book. There used to be a lot of anxiety in the nonfiction world about the integrity of the genre, and of “truth” in the genre. I think people have mostly tired of that discussion. But as someone who often writes outside of, or even against, rationalism, can you discuss how your thinking about how to pass on or express knowledge (especially in this genre) has developed over the course of your career? Did you ever receive criticism for engaging with forms of knowledge like magic or astrology or spirituality, and how did you respond—not directly; I mean in your own life and writing, how did you respond?

EW: Oh, definitely! I think this book is very much a product of my feelings about who gets to make facts. That’s something I was thinking about in writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, which is about the documents that defined me and sometimes overwrote my stories about myself. I was very conscious of the veracity debate when I was writing White Magic, even before it was focused on the “supernatural” in the way it is—it was always concerned with ancestry and Indigeneity, because I wasn’t satisfied with the writing I’d done on that in my first book.

The problem, though, is that Coast Salish and mid-/lower-Columbia River epistemologies aren’t easily approached by settler fact checking, and the disruptions of colonization have complicated this further. I have ancestors who had a number of different first names and last names at different points, for example, my great-grandmother was named Abbie but was also named Lucy—I can’t explain it—and she had a number of last names during her life. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about my family history, and a lot at stake in understanding who we are. For example: some of my relatives were disenrolled by their tribe of enrollment, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and the history of our family in the 19th century became very important in the battle over disenrollment.

My friend Theresa Warburton wrote about my work in her new book, Other Worlds Here: Honoring Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements, and this analysis really struck me as capturing the difficulty of writing the truth about our history: “My Body Is a Book of Rules use[s] genealogical approaches to self-storying to imagine what a practice of memorialization can look like when it seeks to hold in one space multiple, conflicting histories whose synchronism refuses absolution, either personal or collective. In fact, this rejection of the assumed division between the individual and the collective is central to the employ of such a genealogical method in the first place.”

So that’s one part of it. The other is the astrology, tarot, synchronicities, and the occult. The tension around what’s unverifiable is at the heart of the book: I was looking for some kind of proof from the universe that I was on the right path. But the universe doesn’t give proof. That’s a human obsession, and its importance is supposed to be self-evident, but we so often operate from a place of wanting the trick instead of the truth. Ultimately, the book is factual because it’s true that I believed all these things, and the book isn’t meant to inform as much as it’s meant to evoke.

TM: In “Centerless Universe,” after mentioning a man who was stalking the narrator, you write, “And now—I’ve gone and opened a door, introduced a wrinkle of a plot point, and I will have to deal with the stalking on the page or delete it. Can I ask you to deal with it for me? In my opinion, I’ve done enough. I’ve served as a sturdy container for men’s anger and need, so often overlapping. I’ve disclosed for the curious. Learned to wear my suffering like a mimesis of suffering, a tolerable performance, heart turned human interest story.” I’m interested to know what you think is owed or not owed to the reader when it comes to disclosure. I’ve often heard the phrase, “delve or delete,” in workshops, but you resolve that tension simply by acknowledging it. Do you think that’s usually sufficient, that we can disclose as much or as little as we want in an essay as long as the reader knows we’re aware of what is or isn’t there?

EW: I think this is an under-utilized tool. We talked often in workshop about whether essays were trying to do too much, scope-wise—“I think this is a book” became a joke pretty quickly, if I remember correctly—and I’m also reliably reluctant to tell students that I think they need to split one essay into two if there are multiple things going on. I think it’s always worth investigating why things assert that they need to appear in an essay we’re working on, even if the connection isn’t clear.

But yes—in this essay I mentioned the stalking, which began in 2015, paused in 2016 when I got a restraining order, and briefly resumed when the order expired in 2017. That was not originally in the book at all, and not because I didn’t want to disclose that to the reader, but because I just didn’t feel it tugging at me as something I needed to work with in an essay. The dynamics at play there were similar to those I’d written about elsewhere. In revision, I added the passage you quoted, because it was a significant experience in my life, and it did intensify the hypervigilance I was writing about in that part of that essay. I felt that the reader needed to know it as backstory, but I really didn’t feel like getting into it. So I just dropped it in there like that. Why not? If I were bringing it to a workshop, I know I’d probably be expected to answer for the exclusion—but in a book, the reader gets what they get. If they’re unsatisfied with my refusal, they can put down the book, but if they’ve made it to page 230, they probably won’t mind the scantness of my mention of this huge thing.

I tend to think readers want to know more than they need to know—readers are busybodies, that’s the deal. In writing this book, I came to realize that giving the imagined audience everything they wanted would mean engaging in the same self-destructive people-pleasing behavior the book is about. I think calling attention to this moment was an act of boundary-setting that is a sign of my growth.

TM: Your depiction of the narrator’s relationship with Carl was familiar to me. I recognized (and I’m sure others will, too) the feeling of having a love interest you’re always circling but will never be with definitively. By the end of the book, it seems like the narrator’s extricated herself from that pattern. How did she do that? Is there any such thing as the right person? Will you let me know if you figure that out?

EW: I did that by becoming a powerful witch. I’m being flip, but really, I think the process of writing the book was incredibly empowering, and increasingly so as it went along, because the most ambitious and technically challenging work came at the end of the drafting process. I believe I understood, at the end of it, what’s behind that whole thing about having to love oneself before being able to be in love with someone else. I had understood it to mean that a person wasn’t lovable or worthy until that point. But now I understand that, for me, it meant that I wasn’t fully open to accepting interest and affection I thought I didn’t deserve. So I got out of that by developing self-worth as part of the ongoing process of getting and staying sober, and through writing a book I’m immensely proud of.

I don’t know how the “right person” thing works, but I know I did meet the right person for me immediately after finishing the draft I’d then send to my agent. The next day, I believe. So, yes, I did figure it out, and my advice to you, as always, is to work on your book.

TM: There are a lot of parallels in the book drawn between body and land (each essay is so centered in place), and the violence done to people’s bodies seems always linked to violence done to the land (white settlement is both geographical and physiological). At what point did that theme enter your writing process? Did you already understand that was what you were writing about when you began, or did you write your way into it?

EW: Even though my first book and my chapbook were all about my body, I resolved nothing about the topic, because even as the tension in the plot of my life diminishes over time as I get boring, the thing about being alive is that the body is always changing. The physical effects of various medications have been significant for me, and (related or unrelated, I don’t know) my chronic health issues have intensified. I have a constant awareness of sensations (throat soreness, spinal pain, presyncope, dizziness) and changing characteristics (dry eyes, hair loss, etc.) that potentially signal problems, as I was trying to solve the mystery of my sickness for years. That was actually a much more significant area of inquiry when I was aimlessly researching in the early 2010s as I tried to find my way toward a book. I was gathering research on the health impacts of intergenerational trauma. But, as I’ve probably told you many times, not all questions can be answered by the essay, and some questions couldn’t be answered by bloodwork or any other tool I had available to me. The illness just had to get worse, which didn’t happen until last year.

Anyway. The body was always there, and so was the violence. I was sick with alcoholism during the years I tried to write my second book but failed. I think that absence of meaning-making through essay is part of the book, somehow.

It did take me about eight years to fully understand what had happened in my relationship with “Henry” and how it had affected me. Sometimes I write from the middle of things, but sometimes I just can’t, because I don’t know I’m inside a narrative at all. This was one of those things.

TM: It seems like you gave yourself permission, in this book, to include all the sources and threads you wanted to. In terms of style, it’s pretty maximalist and meandering, while your previous two books felt more tightly constrained. There’s been an overemphasis on spareness in white Western literature, in the past (and now), and as I think about style and form in the context of your book, it makes me think about how a text, like a body, or a landscape, can be settled and straightened and made to conform. Can I indulge in a Billy-Ray Belcourt quote here? Is that allowed? “There is an art to spinning words so that they are always-already against the monotony of voice and for the polyphony of political speak. This is the terrain of NDN writing. It always has been and always will be […] Simplicity is a mode of being in the world available to those enmeshed in white structures of feeling.” I guess the subject matter and purpose of each book has to determine its form. Starvation Mode thinks about the body and consumption in terms of restrictions and rules, so it made sense for it to be spare and highly structured. How do you think the subject matter of this book helped shape its style and form?

EW: This interview is a Billy-Ray Belcourt fan page. Your observation about style is so interesting, because I think of the book as maximalist in terms of content, but minimalist stylistically. This is because I was trying to get the manuscript under 100,000 words without making any major cuts. My last revision before my agent went out with the book was focused on examining every single sentence to see how I could trim them.

But I might be thinking of something as a matter of form that you’re thinking of as a matter of style. As you know, I don’t have a lot to say about style: I don’t teach it, I don’t have words for it, but of course it matters to me. It’s just that it’s largely intuitive and sonic, an internal sense of my own voice.

At some point, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a book as long as a Franzen novel, because I know he’s allowed to and the conventional wisdom said I wasn’t. Of course, I know that’s because the length of a book is a material consideration, and thus a financial one, and I know Franzen’s audience is much larger than mine. But all that aside, I get the sense that a 125,000-word novel is more acceptable than a 125,000-word memoir or essay collection. Why is that? I mean, I know why.

So yes: I believe I used to have a nearly imperceptible feeling that I was always taking up too much space. I would pull my arms close to me if walking near someone in a hallway. Or cross my legs at both the thigh and ankle if sitting on public transportation. My legs won’t actually do that anymore, I just learned when I tried it. And my relationship with space is different now that I never leave the house, and everyone has a different relationship with space now.

In my house, I sit wherever I want, and I take up space. Nobody is going to occupy the space around me the way men sometimes do in public, manspreading on public transit or getting too close to me in the elevator, making a claim on space that I can’t. The house is my space. I think of the book as being like a house in many ways, that one included. And I decided to make it as long as I needed and, beyond aesthetic considerations, to only cut when I was told I had to rather than limiting the length in anticipation of being told to. I did end up cutting, but not just for the sake of shortening the book. Tin House found ways to keep the book under 500 pages. 

TM: What have you read lately that you want others to read?

EW: Well, it is thesis defense time, and I got to be the second reader for Mia Santiago’s brilliant thesis, a collection of essays I hope everyone will get to read in book form sooner rather than later. I’ve mostly read unpublished work lately, and my to-read pile is more like 12 piles; the coffee table is stacked high with books. Soon I intend to read all of them, including Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey; Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron; Night Rooms by Gina Nutt; The Witch of Eye by Kathryn Nuernberger; Carry by Toni Jensen, Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon; Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller; Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez.

TM: I’ve seen you joke on Twitter that your next book is going to be much longer than this one. What’s next for you, in terms of projects?

EW: Oh my god, did I say that? I really think I just want a book as long as a Franzen novel, but I don’t know whether this one will be it. I’m working on essays about living between apocalypses. Right now I’m interested in the stock market. Something weird is happening. Perhaps it always is, and I’m just paying attention now. But I will say that this is the first time in history that a cryptocurrency created as a joke and based on a meme about a dog with a weird look on its face has spiked 400 percent in a single week. Where is the personal essay in this? I’m not disclosing my position yet, but I do not own any Dogecoin.

Formal Poetry Is Not a Museum Piece: The Millions Interviews Aaron Poochigian

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Aaron Poochigian, a brilliant formalist poet and translator of ancient Greek and Latin literature, already published two books in 2021, and has a third due in November. In February, Liveright Books brought out his new translations of four Aristophanes plays; his book of poems, American Divine, was published in March by the University of Evansville Press, having won that university’s Richard Wilbur Award the year before. This winter, Liveright will publish Poochigian’s first translation of a modern literary work: Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil.

Poochigian and I chatted via email earlier this year about his career as a translator and his practice as a poet.

The Millions: Did you have any particular agenda when you set out to translate Aristophanes?

Aaron Poochigian: Yes, I did. I worked from the start to bring the full musical virtuosity of Aristophanes over into English. In the last 50 years translators have tended to render his comedies as free verse or prose. In the original, for all their wild and liberating content, they are strictly formal poetry throughout, and certain meters are employed in fixed and dramatic ways. When I say “formal,” I mean there are regular rhythms and variations to those rhythms, so that modulation from one prevailing meter to another has a striking effect. Free verse and prose translations, by their very nature, sacrifice this effect. So, yes, I am a bit of an evangelist, in respect to form, in my translations.

TM: Do you consult other translations while working on your own?

AP: I compare my translations to others after I have completed a mature draft of them. If I find an earlier translator has hit on a mot juste I had missed or has better brought something to the surface, I make minor revisions.

TM: How do you feel Aristophanes has fared in English translation until now?

AP: Worse than most ancient authors. Older translations tend to whitewash the obscenity; more recent translations tend to over-emphasize the obscenity. In addition to recreating the effect of the rhythmic modulations, I strove to recreate Aristophanes’s playful, say, three-year-old’s anality. For example, though some readers of early drafts encouraged me always to go for the more offensive word (i.e. “ass” and “shit”), I often went for “butt” and “poop” because they struck me as funnier and more in keeping with the spirit of the original.

TM: Your translations of the Bacchae of Euripides were performed at BAM a few years ago. Did the possibility of future performances influence your translations of Aristophanes, or did you primarily focus on the plays as literary texts on the page?

AP: Yes, the experience of translating Bacchae, on commission, for the stage changed my whole approach to the translation of plays. Whereas readers of a text can stop to learn about arcane subjects in footnotes and endnotes, theatergoers cannot. In both the Bacchae translation and the Aristophanes translations I tried to gloss as much as I could, unobtrusively, in the text. Thus “Bromios,” a cult title of Dionysus, is translated as its meaning, “The Roarer” or “The Roaring God.” Similarly, in the Aristophanes translations, I tried to pull enough background information up into the text to make the jokes work. There were many places where I failed. Aristophanic comedy is very much of its time and frequently lampoons prominent contemporary figures. I chose to keep the names of the ancient figures rather than updating them with references to, say, Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell, because such references would quickly become passé and I want my translations to have a long life.

TM: How did you approach some of those more challenging passages you mention in your introduction, such as the “lyrical summons of all the avian species” in Birds, or capturing the Spartan dialect in Lysistrata?

AP: In the original Greek of Lysistrata, the Spartan characters speak in a parody of their actual Doric dialect. It is meant to be funny and othering, to make them sound backwoodsy. In his 1964 translation Douglas Parker translated their lines into something he called the “Appalachian” dialect. It reads at times like Black vernacular English. It offended many people. My challenge was to preserve the “othering” effect of the original lines and not to offend anyone. I chose to translate those lines into a country twang specific to no region. Furthermore, I had word choices do most of the work (instead of other dialect markers). Thus, you will find phrases like “y’all” and “I’m fixin’” and “I reckon” in my translation.

The song to summon the birds in Birds is remarkable both for its beauty and for its occasional use of imitative bird sounds as a refrain. The challenge was to bring the original over into equally enjoyable lyrics in English. I chose to use rhyme and off-rhyme in order to suggest, to the English-speaker, that these lines, unlike those before and after, were meant to be sung. I am pleased with the result, but you can judge for yourself. Here is an excerpt:
Epopopoi popopopoi popoi,
Ee-you, ee-you, ee-to, ee-to,
come here, all you endowed with wings,
all you who flutter over acres
of fertile land, you myriad throngs
who feed on grain, you swift seed-pickers
who warble such delightful songs.
Come all that over furrowed ground
twitter, molto espressivo,
this pleasant sound–
tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio, tio.
TM: Later on in your introduction, you talk about these plays as a model for political dissent. It’s one thing to draw comparisons between contemporary and historical circumstances; but I’m more interested in your idea that Aristophanes’s fundamental approach––bawdy, uncouth, and openly hostile toward individual leaders––is something we could use more of today, that “crudity is appropriate in criticizing the crude.” Can you talk more about that, and how you see the function of literature within a democratic society?

AP: I respect Michelle Obama a great deal. But, from 2017 to 2021, we saw that the when-they-go-low-you-go-high approach simply was not an effective response to crude, nasty, hateful attacks. The nasty language got all of the attention in the media and in public and private conversations, and quiet, noble responses got no attention at all. I saw many parallels between classical Athenian democracy and our contemporary American democracy as I worked on my Aristophanes translations. Athenians enjoyed “parrhesia,” a freedom of speech as broad as our own, and Aristophanes made extreme use of that freedom. In fact, he viciously lampooned the warhawk Cleon in his plays—and Cleon was likely in the audience each time. I imagine, whenever a joke about Cleon landed, audience members turned and laughed directly at him. He sued Aristophanes twice, each time unsuccessfully. Aristophanes remained safe in his parrhesia. No doubt the threat of obscene parody in Ancient Greek Comedy acted as a check on the behavior of those in power.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: I see Trump, with his mockery of the disabled, and Andrew Cuomo, with his “sausage challenge,” as ripe targets for obscene Aristophanic attacks. Those are the sorts of characters and behaviors of which Aristophanes would make wicked fun if he were writing in English today.

I cherish our American freedom of speech. I fear, however, that, with the erosion of fact-based “truth,” speaking “truth to power” is no longer enough. When there is merely hateful mudslinging, I see no recourse but to do what Aristophaes did—to get down into the pigsty and strive to sling mud better (harder and more memorably) than one’s enemies. The fate of democracy could hang on whether or not one is successful.

TM: Just a few years ago, Spike Lee adapted Lysistrata for his film Chi-raq, and there have been plenty of other notable interpretations in the past century alone. Why has Aristophanes (and that play in particular) endured?

AP: I feel that Aristophanes has endured because of the “great idea” plot structure he often employs. With this structure a character, say, Lysistrata, comes up with an ingenious plan to end what seems an endless war, by some ingenious means—by having the women refuse to have sex with the men. This plot structure allows the audience to experience an alternate reality and all the amusing implications of it. This sort of dramatic “play” provides a healthy childlike regression for audience members, leaving them feeling rejuvenated.

Oddly, the least known of the plays in the volume is the most relevant to our contemporary situation. In Women of the Assembly, females dress as males (with beards) to vote in the Assembly (the equivalent of Congress) to hand the government wholly over to females. They proceed to radically communize Athenian democracy. There is no more private property, no more rivalry, and no more marriage. The play dramatizes male anxiety over female power and prophecies, as I see it, contemporary American responses to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive women recently voted into Congress. The “great idea” plot structure is where democracy comes to play with possibilities.

TM: Do you feel you have a different responsibility when translating ancient works? When translating from Baudelaire, for example, there are millions of French/English bilinguals who can hold you accountable for your choices. In the case of Ancient Greek, or even Latin, it will mostly be academics that have that kind of authority. As a result, most readers are beholden to the translations that are available. Are you conscious of this as you work, and does it affect your method?

AP: Yes, those of us who translate from the dead languages do have an extra responsibility to reanimate lost civilizations. I just wish I knew cuneiform so I could translate “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” our earliest epic. In my editions, I do all I can with in-text glosses and diction to bring as much of the original cultural context up into the translation itself. Still, there are points where I must resort to notes. They are especially painful to me in Aristophanes’s comedies because nothing is lamer than a joke that has to be explained.

Yes, also, these dead languages have traditionally been the provinces of academic specialists. I do have a Ph.D in Classics (Ancient Greek and Latin language and literature) but I confess I only earned that degree because I thought the knowledge I acquired was essential for my original poetry. That has proved to be true. My career as a literary translator grew out of a series of craft-exercises I did nightly for years when preparing my assignments in graduate school. Literary translation has allowed me to hone my craft and supplement my income at the same time. Because I know Latin, the source of the Romance languages, and have spent years teaching myself to read literary French, I have now expanded my translation business to Baudelaire, the first Modern poet. He is the first poet I have translated who wrote in rhyme, and I put all I have learned in my translation practice to work in bringing his dense, disturbing, and almost magical poems over into English.

TM: Why did you feel studying the Classics was essential for your practice as a poet?

AP: As a freshman in undergraduate school, I had a religious experience while looking at the Latin that opens Vergil’s Aeneid: “Arma virumque cano…” It became clear to me at that moment that I was supposed to become a poet and that I was supposed to learn Ancient Greek and Latin. The poets who stimulated most at that time—Milton and Shelley—had a Classical education, and I felt that, if I were to compete with them, I would need the same background. In graduate school I got all that I wanted and more—my knack is for versecraft, not for academic prose—but I got through all right. My close study of Greek and Latin poets during this time has provided me with more than a life’s worth of themes and tones and voices. After graduate school, my major challenge was figuring out how to take what I learned and cast it into 21st-century language. I would like to think that my new book, American Divine, is the fulfillment of that effort. 

TM: What was the genesis of American Divine? Do you have your eye toward a future collection as you’re writing individual poems, or is it more a process of looking back over your work and trying to build a whole out of the parts?

 AP: My first two books, The Cosmic Purr and Manhattanite, were collections of poems—I took all the best poems I had written over a period of time, broke them up into groups and published them. American Divine is, in contrast, a Gestalt; the whole is more than the sum of its parts. More than just a collection of poems, it is a book that has, as one critic has pointed out, a symphonic structure. I knew years ago that I wanted to write a series of poems in which I bring “old-style,” polytheistic religious experience to contemporary America. I wanted, rather than the distant Judaeo-Christian God of monotheism, many gods to interact with humans in the here and now. The first section of American Divine, with the half-ironic title “The One True Religion,” collects a wide variety of intense revelations and religious experiences. The second section, “The Uglies,” takes the reader to the “dark night of the soul” in which there is only doubt and skepticism. The third section, “The Living Will,” works to reconcile these two extreme perspectives into some workable, livable whole. All my poetry books will, in the future, be written as Gestalts.

TM: The religious and spiritual content in American Divine is fascinatingly broad, and includes a youthful dabble in Satanism, a glimpse of Hindu ritual, a monologue by a figure from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience… Are you a student of world religions, or does this reflect, say, a nonsectarian quest for meaning?

AP: Both, I would say. I am a scholar of religions, particularly Ancient Greek and Roman pantheism, with its religious literature and cult practices. It is because I never cottoned to any religion or denomination that I fear I may be missing out on a central part of human experience. (Another central part of the human experience I am missing out on is parenthood.) I try to make up for the religious gulf in my life by reading about and recreating, through character voices, vital religious experiences for myself and the reader. Though in other ways I am not a relativist, I am in respect to religion: I really couldn’t validate the religious experience of, say, a Christian over a Hindu or a Muslim over an Ancient Greek.

I am in fact still deeply studying, still obsessing over, religious experiences after American Divine is out. I have been trying to curtail those studies lately because I want the next book to be something thematically different.

TM: You have a fondness for the second person. In your novel Mr. Either/Or, “You” is the protagonist, but in your poems “you” is sometimes a specific person the poem is addressed to, sometimes the reader, sometimes a stand-in for a larger idea, and sometimes it’s merely rhetorical. Is this also an outgrowth of the Classical tradition?

AP: Yes, in Classical rhetoric this literary (and artificial) address to a “you” that cannot possibly respond is called “apostrophe.” It is very common in Ancient Greek and Latin literature. I like the I/you dichotomy, and I like the directness of addressing a “you,” especially the reader. With Mr. Either/Or I wanted to replicate the perspective of Choose Your Own Adventure books and that of so-called “first-person shooter” video games, in which “you” the player see through the eyes of the character you play. The “you” in American Divine is occasionally a character (with a gender and history) that the reader is asked to assume. In other places, yes, the “you” is the reader or an exclamatory address to an abstraction.

TM: In addition to getting your Ph.D, you also went on to do an MFA in Poetry. I’m curious about how your work was received within the context of a program explicitly focused on contemporary writing. Did you find yourself at odds with faculty or fellow writers because of your classical influences?

AP: There was some tension at Columbia over my formalism. I was at one point told not to write that way. Because formal poetry is what lights up my synapses, gets me high—whatever you metaphor you want—I could not accommodate that suggestion. I wasn’t rebellious, just sure of myself. After one semester workshopping with the rest of my cohort, I worked one-on-one with Richard Howard who, with his work in syllabics (line-lengths based on syllable count) was sympathetic with my obsession.

That said, I credit my exposure to a broad range of contemporary poetry there with jolting me into the 21st century. The program in general and Howard in particular had no patience for archaisms and affectations, and I now, for all of my Classical training, have no patience for such things either.

TM: What other contemporary writers, if any, have influenced your work?

AP: The major influences on my work have been British: W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin. They are formalists who write in a contemporary idiom. They taught me what I wanted to do and how to do it. Auden did so through his virtuosity in all forms and Larkin through the personal renaissance he made of his life’s perceived deprivation. Another major recent influence has been the late Lucie Brock-Broido, one of my teachers at Columbia, who taught me ways of charging up poetry on a line-by-line basis. I recently taught a Master class called “Charge: Electricity in Poetry,” and nearly half the examples I cited were drawn from her work.

I see my whole project as one which establishes that formal poetry is not a museum piece but a mode that can express the full range and depth of 21st-century life.

Snapshots of Grit: The Millions Interviews Elle Nash

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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.

Interrogating Girlhood: The Millions Interviews Melissa Febos

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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.

 Bonus Link:
My Body Is Mine

Immigrants Behaving Badly: Maria Kuznetsova and Sanjena Sathian in Conversation

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?

We Become the Stories We Tell: The Millions Interviews Kirstin Valdez Quade

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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.