Broken and accidental topographies in The Obituary, a new novel by Gail Scott.
As a former political journalist and as a queer, feminist, francophone, Quebecois experimental writer Gail Scott cannot help but to radicalize everything she touches. In The Obituary, her latest novel, the evils of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism are complicated into a haunted tale of geopolitical trauma and family history. I asked Gail to speak with me about the experience of what stays buried and what gets exhumed within the rich sediment of her novel.
"No human lineage is certain"
— The Obituary
Kim Rosenfield What struck me when I began reading The Obituary was the epigraph you used by psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok: “what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Their ideas of the Phantom, of the crypt, seem like the ideal theoretical frame for exploring your novel. In fact I’d like to use their thinking to guide this interview. Very few people, even in the analytic field, know their work, and those who do find it difficult. How did you come to read them and what does this particular quote mean for you in terms of the novel?
Gail Scott Kim, I love this question, the epigraph has been little discussed and of course epigraphs play in some part the role of beacon. Lisa Robertson introduced me to Abraham and Torok during a visit to Vancouver. I was telling her about the quandary of writing a work to do with shame in assimilated families, yet adamantly not wanting to do an identitary or quest novel. My prose has been concerned with the redistribution of narration over a broken or accidented terrain in order to trouble conventional relations of narrator, narration, and narrative. I have been avoiding using, as best I can, unary-voiced narration by sharding “character” to allow a maximum porosity or absorption of noise and text along a line where intrinsic and extrinsic meet. To use elements of family history was to risk getting stuck in a conventional rendering of the past (nostalgia). The critical notion that I retained from reading Abraham and Torok’s The Shell and the Kernel was the notion of ventriloquism, which treats the speaking voice as a conduit of multiple voices, past and present, endogenous and exogenous. This allows the unconscious chorus of previous generations and their social conditions to be deployed as part of the present racket. If the chorus remains repressed in the family or historical narrative, then whatever or whoever steps on stage to speak has all her unresolved anger and shame stowed away in a secreted gap “within,” as if walking around with a “stranger” in the belly. How perfect for a tale of First Nation cultural [and actual] genocide, which is, in so many ways, a founding meta-narrative of continental culture. What the novel turned out to be “about,” which I always only learn at the end of writing, was an investigation of “who speaks when ‘one’ speaks.”
KR Yes, the novel is indeed full of ghosts whose objects lay within “a secretly perpetuated topography” (Abraham and Torok). I love this phrase in relation to The Obituary, to what is unknowingly transmitted or sealed over and at the same time kept alive, or, as you so eloquently stated: “as if one walked around with a ’stranger’ in the belly.” I’m thinking specifically of the image of Veera that fronts the chapter called “The Crypt’s Tale.” Can you tell me about your inclusion of this image?
GS Yedda Morrison scanned this photo for me, and seeing it in high definition gave me a start. The dark hair of this biracial little girl, my mother, is painted over with red, but the bangs are sloppily done and a careless, diagonal swipe of the brush leaves part of the bangs dark. In addition, the girl’s shoulders are bared, with a scanty piece of tulle around them, which seems a somewhat indecent Victorian way to portray a four-year-old. The image holds so much of my fantasy along with my resentments about my mother’s family. It indicated a way into some of the raw material of what had been heard or dreamed. It also pointed to the obvious, I guess, which is that the crypt’s contents are never definitively emptied out. The little face, the hair, the bare shoulders can be read as a visual sign of Abraham and Torok’s secretly perpetuated topography. The question all the time I wrote was how to write when the possibility of accuracy lies nowhere. And when who speaks is never one, but a chain of unreliable “he saids” and “she-saids,” embracing everything from the hyperpersonal to historical documents like the “Royal Commission Inquiry into the Conditions of the Half-Breed Population of Alberta.” I suppose in this tale the topography is the fantasy family as it is presented to the world, with the gape, the anomaly or shadow that marks the story, ever uncomfortably present.
KR All of your novels use failure of containment (and maybe this is the gape, or the anomaly or shadow that you mention) as a stylistic choice. By that I mean your narratives don’t hold a usual sequence of events, don’t hold time as continuous. This framing/unframing speaks to your idea of “the sutured subject.” Can you speak a little on that concept and its importance to how you think about your work?
GS If I were a poet, I would not feel the need to “re-suture.” That is, I would not feel the need to create a docu-semblance of reality, while reconnoitering what Fred Wah brilliantly terms—and in his case accomplishes—“Music at the Heart of Thinking.” A “music” is often written in sentences that seem a gesture of working through a matter, yet the sentences run together, alongside, into each other with stops, gaps, diversions, as in improvisational music, suggesting estranged word-worlds “at the heart of thinking.” To try to operate at these limits of articulation, which is one of our tasks as writers, is to allow spillage with respect to whatever genre or field one is working in. Gertrude Stein is so right when she says it is never beautiful the first time—“Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted.” I like that she puts the onus on the reader to find the beauty. With respect to the novel genre, the narration in The Obituary is embedded, perhaps even submerged along the way in something closer to composition, in order to foreground the possibilities of language in excess of the usual predominant communicative vectors of a tale. But I also feel a desire to at least pretend that I am sewing the bits together in a semblance of narrative, while leaving the accidented relations between the parts obvious. Poetry does this. Why can’t I and still call it a novel?
KR Gail, you can and you do! The Obituary is a perfect articulation of what is forgotten, stitched together, buried, witnessed, transgenerationally transmitted or not, within a personal and societal history. I can't get this sentence out of my mind in which you place the word “native” crossed out next to the word “narrator.” Or how you describe Rosine’s flat as sitting “directly over buried pylons of former magnificent Crystal Palace [. . .] where ca. 1885, mid rows of faces on iron beds erupting like plastic bubbles into fetid putrid pus, lay Shale Put Workers! of neighboring Saint-Jean Baptiste, dying in smallpox epidemy . . .” (19). In your novel, it seems that the dead object is never dead. Do you agree with this read of your work?
GS I wanted to resist the procession of so-called dead objects, ever succeeded by other objects. We call that progress—exactly what Walter Benjamin critiqued in his rebuttal of historicism. The parts needed to be reduced, compounded, shifted, reorganized, in relation to the requirements or pressures of the moment. The past in The Obituary is present as little momentary illuminations that appear and fade—and formal experimentation has a lot to do with opening spaces in which they might emerge. That the past is not a placeholder locked in time hearkens to My Paris. In that novel, what I learned about writing the past-in-the-present [the search for a “lost” avant-garde in ’90s Paris] was instructed and sustained, in part, in conversation with Benjamin’s Arcades Project. In The Obituary, the mourning of the dead is trumped by the dead not being dead. The First Nations presence is always there in the trajectory across the city and in the colonial presence, the latter signified by how the triplex is built over the burnt-down Crystal Palace—an exhibition site for imperial objects and accomplishments. For the years I was writing this novel I went about the city reconnoitering Indigineity, which is actually very easy in Canadian cities. In prairie cities there are large urban native neighborhoods. Currently, the Idle No More movement is a large ongoing Aboriginal protest movement punctually present in every major city, calling on "all people to join in a peaceful revolution, to honor Indigenous sovereignty, and to protect the land and water." In the novel, the pressure of assimilation, which has been a key means of suppressing First Nation culture and identity, keeps the Aboriginal presence on a fairly abstract external register while operating as the site of much intrinsic longing.
KR Absolutely. There’s something so palpable in the book in how the First Nation presence is registered on a disembodied level by the city, and at the same time, by the narrator’s maternal family—a completely cellular and simultaneously disavowed presence. The last two chapters of the novel, “The Crypt’s Tale” and “Her Little Shelf A Cemetery,” house the narrator in relation to her ancestors via seepages, a fragmented history moving out from and into her. Yet what also becomes palpable in these chapters is that this kind of embodiment is full of shame. As you mentioned earlier the shame of the assimilation story is replete with “all the masks, denials, secrets of that Psycho called Reality” (16). How do you view the role of shame in the novel?
GS A key issue for me was to approach this matter of shame without drama. If shame here is the burden of assimilation, it is shame at one’s (and one’s ancestors’) cowardice, lack of loyalty, etc., plus shame at arriving on the new cultural site empty-handed (bearing NO SIGN). Kristeva says that within abjection lurks “one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It [the revolt of being] lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.” To find a way to narrate as “a liar,” as “inauthentic,” opened all kinds of doors to write a novel where closure, especially tragic closure, is unthinkable precisely because the revolt of being cannot be quashed regardless of surface appearances. This is not to suggest that the genocide of First Nations and the choice to assimilate as a means of survival is not tragic beyond description, nor that there is not a “brutal sadness” (Robert Glück) in this novel. But I love the idea that in the midst of all that, said revolt of being remains active and indomitable.
KR The title, The Obituary, is so striking because it implies afterwardness (and here I'm thinking of Freud's concept of nachtraeglichkeit), a re-working of the past even after something has been supposedly laid to rest. In the novel, the dead, the past, the buried history of a city, a nation, a family, keep getting exhumed. One keeps looking back. What was it like for you personally to sift through these psychic artifacts/landscapes while constructing the novel?
GS I’ve probably been sifting most of my life on some level or another. I knew I was starting from a position of negativity as regards the dominant culture. I was terrified of how to express the internalized racism that fosters the kind of choices that the family in the novel has made. Erasure was not the answer. I find useful Barrett Watten’s formulation of negativity in the context of avant-garde writing. The negative moment of “refusal of the culture from which it emerges” can run the gamut from “explicitly oppositional politics to self-negating to a radical reconfiguration of the formal possibilities of a genre . . . .” In the novel, the struggle against either providing transparent answers or heading toward a space of closure required deploying negativity in a manner that opened out into possibility but not certitude. I kept trying to imagine a kind of future anterior. The “will be” of the future tense and the “have been” of the past put together suggests a radical reconsideration of being as something that cannot be pinned down in a linear time economy. And this takes us in the direction of good poetry. The Obituary’s re-consideration of temporality seems significant to me because time is everything in a novel.
KR Abraham and Torok write in The Shell and the Kernel (130):
Inexpressible mourning erects a tomb inside the subject. Reconstituted from the memories of words, scenes, and affects, the objectal correlative of the loss is buried alive in the crypt as a full-fledged person, complete with its own topography. The crypt also includes the actual or supposed traumas that made introjection impracticable . . . Sometimes in the dead of the night, when libidinal fulfillments have their way, the ghost of the crypt comes back to haunt the cemetery guard, giving him strange and incomprehensible signals, making him perform bizarre acts, or subjecting him to unexpected sensations.
It seems like every character in the novel is a keeper of the crypt, yet it is Rosine who is the most psychically aware, the most able to not get buried alive under the sediment of the past. How does she “escape” being entombed herself or is she, too, speaking from inside the crypt?
GS The chapter “The Crypt’s Tale,” which is one of my favorite chapters—and which was written mostly when I had the Québec Arts Council Soho studio for six months—was very much bathed in the air of contemporary downtown New York poetry. Listening to and talking to poets continuously helped me treat the crypt, which is also here on some level the narrative, as very leaky. All the voices come together in discombobulated bits of chorus in that chapter, leaking out from within and seeping in from without the encrypted space. But Rosine, if you mean the woman on the bed, can seem kind of trapped unless one keeps in mind that the body on the bed is only a shard of the presence that dominates the intradiegetic space of the story. Her hypereroticized alter ego and male animus, the fly on the wall, seems less entombed by virtue of his obsessions than the figure on the bed Yet, being a fly, he also stands for rot and disintegration. She, Rosine, does provide us with a final dinner-party appearance—which implies being outside of the crypt—but there all the novel’s complex peregrinations as regards identity are quashed by one sentence from a smart little multi-ethnic girl asking Rosine if she is “Eeeengleeesh.”
KR Has your own afterwardness in finishing this novel felt different than when you’ve completed other novels?
GS Yes, I have felt very sad. For the years I was writing the novel, I could be with these people and inhabit, far more than I do in my real everyday, something of a cultural space to which I no longer have a direct relationship. Save when I get together with members of the family in the far north—and they are mostly relatives by marriage. On a selfish personal level, I did hope this novel would be seen to represent something fresh as far as the genre is concerned; also that maybe, just maybe, it would add to the ongoing discussion about belonging.
Kim Rosenfield is the author of five books of poetry. Her latest, USO: I’ll Be Seeing You was released by Ugly Duckling Presse in February 2013. She is a recent recipient of a Fund For Poetry grant and is a founding member of the international artist’s collective, Collective Task. She is a practicing psychotherapist and lives and works in NYC.