Volatile and Transitory: Babak Lakghomi Interviewed by Zach Davidson

A novella of warranted paranoia. 

Book Cover

The writer Deborah Eisenberg says: “A piece of fiction is a communication. You’re sending an urgent message in a bottle from your desert island. You hope that somebody’s going to find the bottle and open it and say, S … O … X? No. S … O …”  In Floating Notes (Tyrant Books), the urgent message is not contained in a bottle as much as it is in a series of Ziploc bags—the reader is tasked both with assembling and deciphering a meaning. Any experience of transparency is merely superficial, disposable. Floating Notes is the story of a desperate man whose given name we do not know, whose wife has apparently left him, whose prospective girlfriend has just disappeared. People from his past may be following him, or this may be a labor of his imagination. The reader identifies with the narrator; as he struggles to make sense of things, so do we. I’ve known Babak Lakghomi since we were students in the same writing workshop in Toronto, Canada, back in 2012. After our classes, we would pace and shiver on a street corner. We would discuss books and craft until we got tired of blowing air into our palms, or until the noises of the streetcars had overawed us. Now? Now, I’ve settled for asking Babak questions over email.

—Zach Davidson

 Zach DavidsonFloating Notes begins with what is not there: “I don’t remember the first time I wrote my name.” The novella includes missing persons, missing artifacts—a photograph, a pair of pliers, eggs—and, more generally, the absence of coherence. The printed text, too, seems to float amidst the white space. How much is the act of writing an act of articulating the unsaid?

Babak LakghomiFor me, it all comes down to articulating the unsaid and the unsayable. We’re continuously being failed by language. There are always gaps in what we’re trying to communicate. The narrator’s inability to get other people to recognize his name is an example. Over the course of the book, he’s trying to parse down his life methodically, but reality keeps escaping him. Using artifacts and playing with the absence/presence of these objects felt like an organic way to place him in the world, to tell a story that is not a reductive representation of experience. In my experience, life feels more volatile and transitory than prototypical narratives. My hope was to capture those experiential gaps in the act of writing.

ZDThe novella opens with the narrator’s name–specifically, his act of writing it. What is in a name for you?

BLI want to believe names don’t mean much, that our human experience is not bounded by geography, race, and class. I rarely name the characters in my fiction. I don’t know how this started, but it might be a way to get to the core of our shared experience instead of highlighting differences. The narrator does not use his real name since no one would recognize it. In a way, his position of powerlessness provides him with a sense of liberation. Choosing a new name for himself makes him an almost God-like figure.

ZDTell us about your own name, about its history, and your experience of occupying it in a predominantly white space—like Hamilton, Ontario.

BLThe beginning of the novella is the most autobiographical part of it. The narrator’s name is not recognized in the new place, and he prefers to go with a simpler name: Bob. We can lose parts of our identity in the act of immigration, in redefining a new self. Losing one’s name seems like a natural by-product of this transition.

My parents named me after Babak Khorramdin. He was a revolutionary from Azerbaijan that fought Abbasi Khalifa. I was born after the Iranian revolution. My parents were politically involved. For a short while, there’d been hope for a different future. Babak was a popular name during that period.

ZDAs I read Floating Notes, I was intrigued by the idea of what constitutes authority. Can we count on our memory? On our documents? On our papers? Do you write to undermine authority or to establish it? Or perhaps both?

BLAuthority can be established by a voice on the page, the music of words and sentences. I am thinking of some of Beckett’s nameless narrators here. Sometimes they are just voices in the darkness. But there is authority in the writing.

The act of writing (or any art practice) can excavate something internal that is uniquely ours if done honestly. The book builds on some of my preoccupations and memories, but it is an exploration that extends beyond myself. There is a sense of loss and displacement at the core of the book that repeats in different shapes through what Bob sees and experiences. Despite this loss, and his fears of the outside world, he continues his search for Lily. For him, writing the notes is a way of coping. Even though the previous notes are lost in a flood, or used as crime scene evidence, he continues to write until the end.

ZDI wondered about the narrator’s reliability, too. The destabilizing effect of the text seems particularly apt in the current political climate that is bloated with counterfeit news and counterfeit claims of counterfeit news. The paranoia in the book and in society feels both pernicious and sometimes  warranted, like the concerns over illegal wiretapping. With this in mind, has immigrating to North America heightened or lessened your sense of being under scrutiny?

BLIt seems the world is under a constant state of surveillance right now. Most of our actions are recorded and digitized in the form of data. In Iran, right after the revolution, people lived very different public and private lives. They feared consequences, and there was a continuous feeling of terror. I remember this period vaguely, but my parents experienced it very closely. On the other hand, the act of immigration generates a severe experience of being under scrutiny. The sense of otherness spreads to the simplest aspects of life.

The narrator’s sense of paranoia and instability is more extreme, but it’s warranted due to the events of his past. He has difficulty making sense of things that happened to him, such as being captured in his country and the loss of his family. Though exaggerated, his point of view might help us to better recognize the insanity of what is going on around us.

Author Photo 2

Photo by Ayat Shariati.

ZDAt one point in Floating Notes, the narrator says: “I wondered if pretending that everything was normal was still the best way.” Do you wonder this yourself?

BLIt is almost impossible not to wonder about whether it would be easier to cope if one could pretend. In my case, I might not have tried hard enough or been good enough at pretending.

ZDI’m also curious about the form of Floating Notes. In a 2012 article in The New Yorker, the English novelist Ian McEwan writes: “To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie.” As I read Floating Notes, I felt, at times, like I was in the audience of a theater. Michael Haneke’s Caché—and that sense of being stalked, of being recorded—came to mind. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Trans-Europ-Express also deals in intrigue. The unforgiving humor of the book recollected Barbara Loden’s Wanda. Were there any films in particular that you would credit in the development of Floating Notes?

BLIt is interesting that you’re referencing Caché. There is a sense of lost control in Haneke’s work, carried out by undefinable and violent forces, that is also present in Floating Notes.

Carlos Reygadas’ 2012 film, Post Tenebras Lux, was something I thought about a lot in the process of writing Floating Notes. The movie has a fragmented structure, and some of the fragments might seem a bit disjointed from the main narrative at first glance. However, they have a visceral impact that combines with and adds to the overall effect of the main narrative.

ZDIn addition to writing Floating Notes, you have also published short stories. What similarities and differences have you encountered between working in these two modes?

BLThe short stories that I write are usually very short. Most of the time I am driven by language and images. Here, I composed the fragments similarly, however, a sense of a character and a world started to evolve that I kept going with. I really liked working on the interplay of the shorter fragments and trying to build an overall accumulative effect through them.

 ZDA book that came to mind while reading Floating Notes was David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. The recursion, the desperate attempt at making sense, the experience of the aftermath of a trauma, the fragments of narrative—each book shared these traits. The writer Robert Lopez once interrogated the sequencing of Wittgenstein’s Mistress. He asked if certain paragraphs could be reordered without altering the overall effect. Do you think pages of Floating Notes could be reshuffled without affecting the impact of the whole?

BLMarkson, and especially Wittgenstein’s Mistress, has been a key influence. This idea of reshuffling the text also reminds me of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. However, in this case, I don’t know if the text can be moved around with no effects. While Floating Notes is composed of sometimes disparate fragments, there is still a forward-moving progression and suspense that might change if the fragments were rearranged.

ZDIn your acknowledgments, you credit Peter Markus. We both studied under Markus—an innovative writer and teacher. Some of your rhythms, repetitions, and sentence constructions reminded me of his. Can you talk about Markus’s influence on your work?

BLThe first time I read Markus’s work, I was completely taken by the sheer force and possibility of his language. I was, later, very fortunate to study with him. Studying with Markus made me more aware of the importance of each word, each syllable. In a literary landscape where the voices become more and more similar and flat, Markus gave me courage to embolden aspects of my writing that were not necessarily in line with current literary trends.

ZDWhen I raised the idea of doing an interview with you, you brought up writing in a second language. I was wondering—do you think writing in a second language intensifies the effect of Floating Notes? For example, the effect of alienation?

BLCommunicating in a second language is distancing and provides a kind of detachment that can have both an empowering and limiting effect. Certain words carry such a weight in your native language due to the past associations. Sometimes this cannot be present to the same level in a second language.

I am generally interested in defamiliarization and the musical effects of language. A sense of distance can help to bring in word choices, syntaxes, and rhythms to this effect that I wouldn’t have used as a native English speaker.

ZDSpeaking of alienation, and experiencing a sense of distance, I’m interested in how this narrator relates to the reader. The narrator introduces himself—to us—as Bob, the name that he employs “but only where I am sure nobody knows me.” How do you regard your relationship to your reader? When you are writing, are you writing with a specific audience in mind?

BLWhen I was writing this book, I didn’t really have a reader or a particular audience in mind. Looking back, the whole publication of the book seems like a mere accident.

Not many people read fiction these days. With small press books and literary magazines, the audience is mostly limited to other writers. But at the end of this effort, there may be hope for some kind of connection with the reader, a moment of looking at something and seeing the same thing together.

ZDAt one point, the narrator states: “How could I lose the only photo that I had recovered from the negative? The only photo that connected me to them, to this previous life.” Are there certain objects you regard as connecting you to your previous life (if I may draw this distinction)?

BLA number of blue marbles my wife gave to me on a fall day in Tehran. A worn-out Farsi translation copy of Heinrich Böll’s Group Portrait with Lady that belonged to my parents.

Zach Davidson is a writer, editor, and educator who lives in the Bronx. He teaches at the non-profit women’s organization Mercy Center.

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