Lingering with a moment, operating in the dark, and moving through membranes.
Each fall, Dorothy, a publishing project releases two books that frame a conversation about what fiction can do and be. This “conversation” is imagined as taking place primarily in a reader’s mind. An actual discussion between authors is, of course, not always possible, but the pairing published this month—Amina Cain’s Creature and the third book in Renee Gladman’s Ravicka series, Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge—brings together two contemporary American writers who have much to say to one another, not only in their work but outside it as well. In the following discussion, which took place over the month of October, they talk not only about their new books, but about language as a stage, the dreams books have, landscape painting, and stories as cluttered tables.
Renee Gladman I want to begin by asking you about slowness. Very general, I know. But it’s something I think about when I read your narratives: the duration of a moment of perception. Or perhaps, the sense has more to do with a certain silence around perception, which I’m reading as speed, but which might have more to do with space. Where do words like “slowness” or “silence” land when you think about the nature of experience or subjectivity?
Amina Cain I do often see “duration” within perception as a kind of spaciousness (something I am always trying to find, both in my stories and in my life), but, interestingly, I just finished an essay on my relationship to writing and it’s called Slowness. In it, I talk about how drawn I am to films (like Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman) and books (like Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark) that seem to move slowly, or that when they do build up to something with some kind of energy, do so without the promise of “real” drama, not unlike what it is to prepare to meditate. In the Soto Zen tradition, which is the only one I really know, you go through a fairly momentous ceremony to simply stare at a blank wall, to arrive at something like spaciousness or slowness. On that blank wall is projected everything (after all, you can see your mind there) and also nothing. I like that relationship between drama and quiet, between moving towards something and then just sitting down upon arrival to experience what it’s like to be there. I like it in life and in writing.
I wrote another essay that thinks about the similarities between fiction and landscape painting (as well as character and landscape) because I’ve been realizing more and more how important image and setting are to me as a writer—in a way, even more so than language, and certainly more than plot or story. The question I am now asking myself, that I think I have always asked myself, perhaps without knowing it at first, is: can a story be like a painting, or a video or film, or can it allow for lapses into the space of one of these things for a little while? What happens when a narrative allows us to spend time with an image longer than we are “supposed” to, when it is just as arresting as the story being told?
But, in that second essay, I also talk a bit about Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, about how the narrator “softens” (and what I mean by this word is that some kind of boundary breaks down) with not only the “architectured” landscape, but also with sentences, and with the physical act of writing. It feels to me as though everything in the book is passing through the narrator’s body or that the narrator’s body passes through everything. I wonder if these impressions mean anything in terms of the way you yourself see the book, if you thought at all about porousness or exchange.
RG Sometimes it’s difficult to separate a narrator from language or the idea of the body and text. I often think they are inextricable, but lately I think it’s more that the narrator (of most of my fictions) and the body (which people ask me about a lot) are sublimated figures. They belong to language; they are problems of language. The only reason there is a body is because there is a text, in this case a “bridge,” to make its form possible. I like when people talk about membranes in regard to writing, because it allows you to visualize a layer that potentially sits on top of language. Because, you see, I think the language of the book is passing through something as well, and it’s not the narrator’s body, rather some abstraction of itself. Language has a dream of itself and the book passes through the dream. The first part of the sentence forms the membrane and the second part of the sentence moves through it. In my mind, it looks like ribboning, but is colorless. Someone writes about language as a skin, which perhaps corresponds with your thoughts on porosity. I am interested in the idea that the skin is an organ, because skin is flat like landscape, like language. If we allow language to be skin in our imaginings then we can move immediately to all the processes happening below that level—so many systems at work with the skin (language) acting as protection, as boundary and container. I think about things entering that membrane and moving through the body beneath and try to imagine what that looks like, sounds like at the reading level. I want the language you see, particularly in Ana Patova, to be alive and in process.
Earlier, in talking about meditation, you mentioned going through “a fairly momentous ceremony to simply stare at a blank wall,” as a way to describe your relationship to narrative. This is really exciting to me, a series of elaborate acts to prepare for one prolonged gesture. (Though I have a problem with the word “one” there. I’m not sure it’s countable.) How does this translate in writing? You talked about the wall, but I’m interested in the ceremony. Where does it take place? Is it outside of the frame of the narrative?
AC I like so much of what you say here, especially about language—what belongs to it (not possessively); what’s just underneath, moving; its dream of itself; the second part of a sentence moving through the first. I often want to ignore language, but of course I owe it everything because I don’t ignore it when I write and, thought about in the ways you describe, how could I? Here (and in Ana Patova) it’s as alive as a character (is character alive?), but it’s not character. It doesn’t want or need to be alive like that. It makes me think of language as a stage, the thing we all show up to see. A character may walk across it, but that is not the important part. Not that I think the two are pitted against each other, or ranked. It’s more about possibility (and I think there’s possibility everywhere in fiction). And the language in Ana Patova is always in process, yes. If a house has burned down in the first part of a sentence it is not necessarily so in the second part, and yet it’s not as if the first part doesn’t still exist. Nothing is reversed. This is something I love about the book. Sometimes an event that seems final happens again. The ribboning, colorless, makes sense to me. I also think of the sentence here as a kind of animal, drawn lightly. Maybe it’s my image-driven mind, but I sometimes felt in reading Ana Patova as if I were seeing drawings that flickered in and out of visibility.
The ceremony takes place in the narrative. Maybe the narrative is the ceremony, there to usher in a setting or moment that can then be stayed with for a while. Sometimes I feel as if I am a selfish writer (though I also think it might be okay), and that I write stories to get to something else, not the actual story. I don’t think that I “use” narrative or story in a negative sense, just that it’s a medium that allows me to get to these places, these moments. I don’t think I could get to them through poetry, for instance (or even through another kind of story with its other concerns). I’ll probably fumble a bit in expressing this, because maybe I won’t quite get to it, but it’s interesting to me looking here at how we both talk about our books, our writing. I have already brought into the conversation words like “character,” “setting,” and “story,” these classic elements of fiction. You and I both do and don’t seem to come to narrative in very different ways, and these differences in how writers arrive at and to their texts is endlessly fascinating to me.
RG I’m drawn to this idea of language as a stage that we all show up to see. First of all, it’s exciting to think there are objects in the field of language, that there are actually things to see, because often I find we leave the object world behind when we speak or write. Language is so abstract and goes on about its business of deducing, connecting, naming, expressing, etc. with nothing tangibly in play. You know what I mean? Language uses our memory of objects and our desire for meaning to world-build. So, if I’m inside your metaphor, and I’ve arrived at this stage upon which I will see language, I’m giddy, because I think I’m looking at nothing. Nothing is happening in my eyes. Though, somewhere else (perhaps through some other kind of seeing) shapes emerge. Signals go off and meaning parades through our brains. How fantastic is that? When I teach poetry, I like to ask my students where does the poem exist? Is it that thing on the page? Is it the words lingering in our brain, some feeling in the body? Where is it? The nothing that happens when one writes “Danielle is sitting in that chair” is incredibly compelling to me. And I think this is something you’ve mastered beautifully in your work—a surface that acts as if it’s devoid of objects, so that it’s less what the words say than how they behave. In “Attached to a Self” you write, “Sometimes there is a great emptiness, like shaking a box nothing is inside of; sometimes the box becomes warm.” I get caught up in the mystery; it’s a sort of displacement of consequence. Things take on surprising qualities in your work. And even though it’s the language that relays these effects, I find it’s more what is absent, what is pulled into an invisible but no-less-felt tautness that I’m waiting to see.
I wonder if you can talk about recent evolutions in your thinking about narrative—what you want it to do, what it actually does—and how the narratives you create correspond to those you experience in the world.
AC That’s really nice—waiting to see what won’t show up alongside of what does, and then, through that absence, being able to see a shape. A seeing without eyes. This might be true for many writers, but the way I’m able to tell if a text is finished is when I’ve cleared out enough space. If it’s too cluttered, certain relationships won’t be able to exist or make themselves known. It’s like a table with too many things on it. In a situation like that even the table is unable to be seen. Something about abstraction is hard for me, at least within a text, partly because it seems there is very little space in it. My feeling is that it gathers too many things around itself without clearing any of it out. Maybe that’s why I am always trying to use this thing that can be so abstract—language—to get to something else.
I don’t know if my thinking about narrative has changed necessarily, but definitely my understanding of what I do through narrative has evolved and become more visible. Mostly I feel I operate in the dark (while actually in the act of writing) and that my subconscious mind knows much more than the conscious one. But I do know that I want narrative to reveal, to let certain things sit next to each other; to catch abjectness and transcendence; and closeness and distance. In many ways, the narratives I write reflect what my experience has been in the world, or what I have been drawn toward, or repelled from, or what I find funny or sad. And, self-indulgently perhaps, as a writer I tend to plunk myself down in a narrative or setting or situation I want to spend time in, either because there’s something in it I want to imagine my way through or recreate. In my life, place has always been really important. This might sound bratty, but there are certain towns or cities that can crush me even if I’m just passing through for a couple of days, and these are not necessarily unliked towns/cities I’m talking about. Los Angeles is a place many people dislike (of course there are people who love it too), and yet for me it is almost therapeutic to be here. In the same way, place (and I might extend this to atmosphere, which brings in psychic as well as physical qualities) often drives my narratives. I take a long time to set things next to each other in a way that will hopefully make them alive and reveal something about their relationships to each other and create the space of the narrative.
What about you? Earlier you talked about language (and sentences) in a way that turned my head around and I really appreciated that. How does narrative fit in? What is the relationship between language and narrative?
And before I forget, I want to set this passage from Ana Patova here, because I want it to be in the space of our conversation and because it struck me so much when I read it:
“I wrote sentences about space so that I could stand up and walk down that hill. I wrote them, because the hill was too steep to descend gracefully with your body upright and steady. Spaces moaned when you crossed them; they didn’t know how to hold you.”
It makes me think more about what language can do, in a text and otherwise.
RG In Ana Patova the city becomes a three-dimensional embodiment of writing, a world propelled by sentences. Sentences, thus, become both propellants and consequences of the events of Ravicka. Ana Patova writes so that she can act in the world. The writing is the site of that action. What happens in between, where she’s actually walking down the hill, is unmappable. I don’t believe that there is any language without narrative, but there seems to be (in Ravicka and in Providence, RI) plenty of language without events. In Ana Patova, I’m trying to follow the line of thinking, letting it pass through these sentence-corridors that are bridges, and I’m doing this because something is being produced through this particular shape. A crossing reverberates, something being crossed. One consciousness crossing another. One’s books crossing others’ books. One’s walking with another’s walking. One attempt to see the crisis with every other attempt, and not only by the one person but also every other person in the city. I think of narrative as the story of our thinking and of language as that material.
So, I’m in the process of writing a long statement on my poetics called The Eleven Calamities. This will be a series of eleven mini-essays on my eleven favorite words or compounds that organize my thinking about writing. The first six on that list are world-building, novel space, sentence, architecture, line, and time. What would be yours?
AC That sounds like a book I can’t wait to read, Renee. I think I would start with landscape, lightly, story-like, relationship.
Amina Cain is the author of two collections of stories: Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009). Her stories have appeared in n+1, BOMB, The Encyclopedia Project, Two Serious Ladies, Denver Quarterly, etc. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Renee Gladman is the author of one collection of poetry and six works of prose, most recently Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). Since 2005, she has operated Leon Works, an independent press for experimental prose and other thought-projects based in the sentence, making occasional forays into poetry. She teaches in the Literary Arts Program at Brown University.