The Fragility of Perception: Jessi Jezewska Stevens Interviewed by Kristina Tate

On visual art as a tool to write about narrative, creating different kinds of time, and juggling complicated realities.

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Jessi Jezewska Stevens and I met in the halls of Columbia University’s MFA writing program. It was a moment of monumental life shift, one that can be confusing and terrifying but full of growth. It was a moment not unlike what Percy is confronting in Stevens’s debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q (FSG), when she discovers she’s about to have a baby and that she’s the unwitting subject of a popular photography exhibit created by her ex-fiancé of a decade ago. Times like these force one to question everything. Who am I? Who was I? And who do I want to be? Between asides on art and the murky world of the Internet, we follow a cast of eclectic and wildly entertaining characters including a self-help author, a psychic, and a neighbor who disappears. The Exhibition of Persephone Q is comprised of the things our own stories are—the lives of so many others. And Percy—like all of us—navigates her own psyche as a balancing act, juggling her surroundings, her relationships and lovers, and the life growing inside of her. 

—Kristina Tate


Kristina Tate The Exhibition of Persephone Q is set in post-9/11 New York. In the details throughout, we’re hit with images that seem to echo harrowing loss, in both big and small ways—from the neighbor who goes missing, to a woman who spills coffee down her blouse. Through Percy, readers feel the confusion and grief that must have enshrouded the city. I remember moving to New York from Arizona for my MFA and experiencing 9/11 in this new way. In Arizona we felt it, of course, but at a remove. You were born in Lake Placid and you grew up in Indianapolis. How did you decide on post-9/11 New York? 

Jessi Jezewska Stevens I never set out to write a historical novel, though I was always interested in writing about conflicting realities and identities. I started the first draft in 2016, when the election foregrounded how violent the collision of different narratives of the truth can be, and how far apart our versions of reality really are. I was stuck on this idea of identity as both a narrative and a constant negotiation.

A lot of problem-solving in those early drafts came down to selecting the situations and settings that I thought best framed these themes. The exhibition at the center of the book quite literally substantiates concerns over identity: no one else believes Percy when she claims she’s the woman in the pictures, and this leads to a kind of tug-of-war over the very basic question of, Who am I? Likewise, I chose the setting not because I wanted to recreate a historical event, but because I felt the backdrop threw a contemporary mood into relief. It struck me that 2001 and 2016 bookend a particular cycle of questioning national identity and character.

KTIf Percy were to be presented with the same situation of appearing in an art exhibition today, she’d run into similar challenges, but she’d be flooded with so much information on the Internet, it would be hard to find the true facts. 

JJS It would be impossible for this to be a private story if we set it today. Percy wouldn’t be up against major obstacles in getting her version of the story out. Rather, the scandal would take care of itself, traveling the channels that one would expect it to on the web. We do see precursors to that kind of online culture in the book. But instead of Percy being humiliated online for appearing in these photographs, that kind of sparring is happening in chat rooms dedicated to things like whether or not to wax. Percy’s version of the Internet still feels like it has private spaces. 

KT What part of this book is satire? 

JJS I like the way you phrased the question because I think that’s a tricky word. When you assign “satire” to a novel it can be sort of totalizing, like everything is in irony. The elements of satire in the book include the way it is presented as a historical novel but at the same time it’s very much written for the contemporary reader. We can see around the characters, who are trapped in their historical moment and miss things about, say, the Internet, that the contemporary reader is going to pick up. For example, Percy and Misha are kind of doubting whether or not Misha’s startup in instant advertising is really going to take off, and of course the joke for us is that it’s going to become one of the most profitable and transformative developments in digital media. 

Also, we’re familiar today with the idea that each user has her own algorithms that are tailored to her preferences and which are supposed to reinforce or determine who she is. In the book, this is yet another way that the idea of self-determination becomes confused. To what extent is identity formation an authentic process that the individual controls, and to what extent is it manipulated by others, or even by algorithms? 

KT Are you satirizing the art world?

JJS I did not aim to target the art world necessarily. I think it’s a very easy target. But I do often reach for describing paintings or works of art in my fiction. One reason art has such prominence in my work, and maybe why it appears in all of my short stories, too, is that I sometimes find talking about a piece of visual art can help illuminate certain abstract ideas. I am drawn to visual art as a tool of writing about perception and the fragility of perception. 

There’s definitely a tradition of novelists writing about artists and visual art as a way of writing about writing, and writing about narrative, too. If you’re obsessed with writing, unless you want to write about writing, you will eventually find some other way of coming back to narrative as your main subject, to some extent. 

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Photo of Jessi Jezewska Stevens by Nina Subin.

KT Speaking of the writing, your pace is immediately swift, and the prose, lyrical and sparse. The sweeping vignettes bring you along, a lot like Percy’s evening walks. Tell us about how you landed on the pace and structure. 

JJS I like that it seems sparse—I don’t think I was consciously aiming for this as I was writing it, but for most of my writing life I think my prose has tended toward the overwrought. So, if it is sparse, that is a hard-won development! 

I know at some point I decided that I did want to write a book with different kinds of time—summary time, scene time—to give the novel a sense of texture. It begins in habitual time, the time of routine, creating a baseline for Percy that the arrival of the exhibition catalog can rupture. After that, we’re in quest time, following Percy beat by beat in her attempts to “prove” her identity. The sequencing may have evolved, but that basic blueprint was always there.

As for the three-part structure of the book, since Percy is so in denial about the life she’s chosen and the person she’s become, I played with the idea of making her a bit memoryless in part one. My aim was to allow her to become more “historical” in part two, to set aside her amnesia, if you will, and take a closer look at how she arrived where she did. In some sense, part two, where we get Percy’s life story, is another kind of “exhibition.” I also found it an amusing structural joke that she would ask a five-minute audience of her fiancé and then blabber on for some forty pages. 

KT That blabbering was so revealing. He barely remembers anything from her life. It really sets the tone.

JJS There’s a lot of misremembering in the book. On top of the basic tension between Percy’s narrative about what the pictures show, and everyone else’s narrative—they say it isn’t her—there are these other ways that contrary narratives are kind of colliding, and this is an example. Percy remembers her relationship with her fiancé, and even her own childhood, in a certain way, and he has this contradictory set of memories, which is especially absurd when he contradicts memories that he couldn’t have been present for, as with memories of her childhood. 

KT Absolutely. It was in the one line from the fiancé that I was like, Oh no, her reality is Truth. She completely changed in my mind and I wanted to trust her entire narrative. 

JJS I think it will be interesting to see where different readers’ sympathies lie. There’s the case to be made that we do believe Percy and then also that we don’t. But there is a basic discomfort, whether you end up believing her or not, which is that we are questioning whether or not to believe a woman who is desperately trying to tell us something about herself. 

KT Who is desperately trying to lay claim over her own naked body. 

JJS Exactly. It’s not up for debate that we live in a world where women are so often objectified. I think that’s true in our world, I think that’s true in Percy’s world. But maybe that’s why in this moment she seizes the opportunity to play the role of subject and tries to take authority over the pictures in that way. 

KT I’m so intrigued by Persephone’s initial response to the exhibition, and that does help explain it. The email she sent requesting that he add her contact info came as a surprise to me, I think especially because Percy is a character who otherwise has little agency, and is extremely ambivalent about her life, her future. Yet, when she wants to be credited, almost obsessively, that ambivalence becomes more starkly a mask. It’s like she can’t handle that she’s been forgotten, but feels that’s possible. Likely, even. What is she most afraid of? 

JJS I don’t know if I agree that Percy has little agency. Though she’d like us to believe she has no responsibility for her actions, she does exactly as she likes, when she likes, with little regard for the other people in her life. It’s a central problem. But I do think she’s a character utterly without ambition, a little lazy—a near-sighted creature of caprice. 

It’s a bit of a craft trope to discuss character motivations and wants and fears, and there’s good reason to do so, but I tend to doubt these constructions. Or at least I tend to think the answers are more abstract than the explicit motivations first drafts furnish. I do, however, very much believe in the motivational power of obsession and emotional misdirection. So maybe I replaced “will” and “agency” with obsessive denial—and denial is the negative of agency, a carefully constructed narrative about already having what you want. It’s an unstable state, and therefore a state of narrative potential.

That said, I think it’s interesting that you pick up on a fear of being forgotten. I wonder if, on the threshold of major life events such as childbirth and marriage, there’s a natural fear of forgetting oneself or one’s former independence. This kind of anxiety is definitely manifesting in Percy’s behavior. In some ways, she becomes so obsessed with the exhibition because it offers a kind of productive procrastination, a distraction from the finality of certain life events (marriage, motherhood) she’s facing. 

KT In her monologue to her fiancé, where Percy gets “historical,” she says, “The way you worked through the problem of a painting wasn’t so different, in the end from the way you addressed a problem in math, or in life.” You studied math in undergrad. When tackling a narrative problem, do you approach it mathematically?

JJS I worry about pigeonholing myself, but I suppose it’s inevitable that the training you received as a young person influences the way you approach whatever you’re doing now. I do find a certain resonance between the way I learned to write proofs and the way I wrote this novel. For a proof, you’re given a premise and a desired end point, and your task is to go in search of the most elegant series of steps to bring you from A to B. But each step you write down opens some possibilities and closes off others, so you have to keep different universes alive in your head at once and toggle back and forth. It’s a logical process, but also imaginative and creative, and makes you feel you’re working toward something beautiful.

The other thing about writing that reminds me of my math training is the shit-out-of-luck feeling of being up very late, very stuck on a problem, and knowing that you can’t ask anyone for help—you’re on your own. I suppose I became a novelist because I turned out to be far better at weaseling my way out of narratives than equations.

Purchase The Exhibition of Persephone Q here.

Kristina Tate is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. She has lived in Arizona, San Francisco, South Lake Tahoe, New York City, Australia and elsewhere. Her work has appeared in Narratively, Guernica, BOMB and others. She is currently working on a memoir and a novel.

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