Language and Landscape: Renee Gladman by Zack Friedman

Renee Gladman’s novels, set in the yellow-skied, unraveling city-country Ravicka, link language and deep disorientation. She talks to BOMB about cities, sentences and the alterities therein.

Renee Gladman Ravicka Cover

Renee Gladman’s latest novels, set in a yellow-skied, unraveling city-country called Ravicka, link language and deep disorientation. In Event Factory (2010), a linguist-traveler arrives in Ravicka, which she believes she understands but does not, not really. Her attempts to speak the language, Esperanto-like in its evocation of all European languages yet none, including complex bodily rituals, elaborate concoctions of gestures and bows and dances, never quite cohere. From her errors come comedy, poignancy, and—evoking Kafka—a sense of being trapped in a system whose logic is airtight yet inaccessible. Her latest, and the second in a planned trilogy is The Ravickians, published by Dorothy. Narrated by the “Great Ravickian Novelist,” Luswage Amini, the novel begins with a meditation on its own untranslatability: “To say you have been born in Ravicka in any other language than Ravic is to say you have been hungry. That is why this story must not be translated.” Amini travels through the city and ponders its deepening crisis, which has something to do with the buildings. To give a summary—she takes the train to a park, thinks about the bridge where she met her onetime lover, hears an old friend read poetry, drinks and talks with other writers as somewhere fires start—doesn’t do it justice. Gladman’s writing is about consciousness, memory, and thought, and how these occur in urban space. She calls a city into being for this purpose, its language, culture, architecture. Yet the city itself keeps gleaming in the distance—as Gladman puts it, an idea toward which the characters reach, rather than something that is revealed.

Zack Friedman I’ll start things off with some comments based on Event Factory. To me, a central theme of this book was fluency. The narrator has a formal intellectual understanding of the language and culture of Ravicka, but lacks the practical understanding that comes from lived experience within the city and its traditions or the native speaker’s true facility with natural speech. I was struck by the detail that went into this—the slightly awkward or clumsy phrasing of the narrator is rendered perfectly. What elements of your own personal background with language learning, teaching, and translating (not to mention iffy tourism) went into these books? Are there certain ideas about language and culture that influenced you or that you find coming through in the books?

Renee Gladman I wrote the first two books of the series without ever having left the North American continent. At the time of the writing, I experienced a kind of paradox. It had something to do with the filmmaker Béla Tarr. I’m not sure how to explain this. Seeing his work, in particular the 7.5-hour Satantango—as well as the work of the Polish filmmaker Kie?lowski, and the Russians Tarkovsky and Sokurov—created in me some instinct of belonging. It made no sense, but at a gut level I felt that those dreary, silent, beautiful landscapes, that sense of exhaustion and isolation, were my own. I wanted to place a narrative within a possibility or convergence of those spaces. I also—and I don’t have a rational explanation for this—wanted to push it farther east. A desire began to form for places like Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia. I dropped Ravicka down, perhaps in pieces, over this entire region. Though, at the same time, not really. Something entirely different had happened. I had wanted to escape my monolinguism, so (and you can find seeds of this in The Activist) I began to make up a language that I spoke with my lover on the streets of San Francisco. I would say some words of this language and she would respond with other words, apparently also of this language. Within that exchange was the space of the city, questions of the built environment, of community, occupancy. You think long enough about something and it comes to life in some alterity adjacent to your own. Those alterities have been my fictions.

ZF What about the presence of, for lack of a better word, genre elements in the Ravicka books? There’s a bit of a sci-fi or fantasy feel (who else writes trilogies these days?), including an invented language (although I’m going to guess you didn’t go the full Tolkien on that) and you mention Samuel Delany in the acknowledgments. I almost want to call Event Factory a social science fiction book, with the sciences being linguistics and anthropology. But you seem very rooted in literary fiction and poetry, with an emphasis on what can be done with the individual sentence. What traditions do you see yourself working with when you write about an imagined city?

RG I definitely would prefer social science fiction to science fiction, as I really didn’t intend these books to ask deep questions about technology or bioengineering or inter-galaxy relations. Instead, they wonder about city living, architecture, language and communication, desire, and community—the same things I wonder about in my own life. It is true that the air there is yellow, but, equally true is the fact that Luswage Amini, the great Ravickian novelist, argues that “yellow” is a mistranslation of the word “dahar,” so we really don’t know what color the air is. And yes, there is an underground ancient city, but so are there underground cities in Atlanta and Montreal. I guess my resistance is that I don’t know what people mean when they say sci-fi, what it is they wish to qualify. Maybe EF is sci-fi because a black lesbian poet wrote it. That’s pretty otherworldly. My concern, the more I think about this, is that “sci-fi” or “fantasy” are applied to assuage the deep confusion and disorientation experienced by the characters of the two books EF and The Ravickians or to justify why someone might have to do a backbend in order to eat. For me, it needs to stay on this side of reality, and it needs to be pushing for physical space in this world.

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Renee Gladman

As far as traditions or influences go, the emptied-out city of Delany’s Dhalgren was a portal into Ravicka. But, aesthetically, these books are more aligned with novels like Cortázar’s 62: A Model Kit, Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Gail Scott’s Heroine and My Paris, Michal Ajvaz’s The Other City—city novels or novels of walking. But not stories that happen to take place in cities, rather stories where “city” is an idea toward which the author or characters reach, a kind of reflective space that leads to questions about subjectivity or time. I love these questions regardless of the atmosphere in which they’re formulated, but inside urban space, alongside buildings, traffic, transport, the encroaching crowd, the desolate part of the city, they take on dimension. I can move “the problem of the person” around as though it were a thing. Also, as a writer of the English sentence, I am very conscious of the assertion of subjectivity. You can’t get very far in the sentence without having to make a big gesture of identity. “I,” “The man,” “She”—these solids inside which a certainty is assumed to exist. I like to think of moving through the sentence (as writer or reader) as moving through a kind of terrain. The sentence is at once a map of where we have gone and where we wish to go. You can see how dropping a city over this “map” might allow one to work on a figurative level. Your question about progression can become a character itself.

ZF I’m fascinated by your parallel between the sentence and physical space. Is the disorientation and excitement an individual sentence, made slightly “off,” can produce, like moving through a city? Does a sentence have architecture, or is there a kind of urban planning that goes into writing? What makes it physical?

RG Beautiful questions. In a way, I feel that most of the fun is in the asking rather than the answering. Like, what happens to your mind after you think those things? But, I will venture a response. On one hand what I’m talking about is syntax, how words are ordered to create meaning, how moving through that order is a kind of unfolding, each word being a “sign” of sorts that tell us about where we are and where we are going. Punctuation affecting our pace. A few years ago, I wanted to draw a parallel between the duration of maintaining self (the always-unraveling thread of experience) as one moves through a diverse city and the becoming of “subjectivity,” particularly as one navigates difficult sentences. Now, it is more trying to see the architecture of a sentence or group of sentences, and getting from there into a drawing space, where I’m thinking of the line as translation/conversation of thought.

ZF Since we’ve talked about thinking about urban space, I wonder if you could share a story or experience of a time when you’ve found this idea of the city as reflective space crystallized, when you’ve perceived something of that which you’re reaching toward.

RG I don’t have an experience from my life that isn’t fictional but I do have an example from fiction that feels very real to me, which can be found a few pages into 62: A Model Kit, where Juan is trying to understand the dimensions of “the zone” within the city. How it exists temporally and how it is both an isolated and shared experience for each member of his circle of friends. It’s about the possibility of a certain kind of communication. Cortázar writes, “In some way they’re all there waiting for you to tell it in the zone, in any part of the zone, you can’t tell where anymore because it’s in so many places and so many nights and so many friends… the zone, somewhere between ubiquitous and limited, which resembles all of them… it’s a trick with words where things happen with the same force as in the life of each of them outside the zone.” This is actually something I was trying to draw out in The Activist, showing the temporal and textural disparities between inside and outside spaces. This is what the city is like for me—neighboring pockets of differently distorted spaces.

ZF It’s difficult to raise and disentangle these identity-based questions, but how do you think your “otherworldly” identity—a black lesbian poet—relates to your interest in the sentence, its confusions and disorientations? Are there dominant ideas about language you want to call into question?

RG Bhanu Kapil and I were talking about this just yesterday. Experimentation, we were saying, is an ideal mode of engagement for marginalized people, and we couldn’t understand, we continued to say, why so many people still believe that the “transparency” of conventional storytelling somehow allows one to capture what it is to exist in the world more authentically. Of course, this question has been debated within the arts for decades now, but it is no less pertinent and divisive today. As a “black lesbian poet” you enter language from a place of disorientation. Your grasp of the authority of the subject is slippery. You feel deviant. You feel the need to fuck with things. As you gaze into words, into their relation, you see things that are not there to people who have never had to prove that they should be counted among the living. You see jungle spaces, geometric spaces inside which it is possible to point, to unfold something about the silences, the loneliness of being in the world. Really though, this opportunity exists for anyone who looks deeply into language and the moment of utterance with his mouth or body all open.

ZF You say you want to escape your monolingualism. Regarding the importance of translation and its inherent imprecision in The Ravickians, are there translations you’ve encountered, or alternate philosophies of translation, that have struck you as interesting escape attempts? The idea of inventing a language as a kind of flight, or an act of intimacy, is really lovely.

RG Well, I should be more proactive and say I want to rid myself of monolinguism rather than escape it. Translation is not about escape at all but nor is translation about ridding oneself of monolinguism. So, we’ve got two things on the table: one is being able to operate inside a language that exists outside of the way you’ve been taught to think and conduct your body in the world, being able to meet people in their own native forms, and two is what happens when the untranslatability of another language enters your own—how it bends, erodes, how gaps form, doubling occurs, how ghosts are born. Then when you go about saying, yes I thought I’d climb a tree yesterday you’re not (in your head) just saying, yes I thought I’d climb that tree.

ZF In Event Factory, an outsider struggles to make sense of a city; in The Ravickians a novelist, someone who is both an insider and an outsider, struggles to convey that city. What made you settle on these perspectives? And may I ask who the protagonist of the third volume will be?

RG My narrators always seem to be these marginal beings, drawn to central spaces, but full of ambivalence when inhabiting them. So, where they are is not usually where they want to be. There is some inner space they need to reach, some person who comes along and understands everything. Translators, I find, occupy a special position with regard to the place of their found language(s) that is excellent for fiction. They have the tools to navigate comfortably, or at least functionally, within that non-native space, but because they are moving from the second language back into the first, or the third language into the first (or whatever the configuration) they’ve got to stay a bit outside. There is a space there, where things fall out, that is lovely. And, when you’re reading translations, don’t you sometimes feel the racing heartbeat of the translator trying to get shit right? It’s just all very good for writing.

Yes, the third volume. The questions of what I owe to the city-country Ravicka seems to be important for this next volume, which I am in the process of re-visioning. I’ve been going around saying I’m writing a trilogy but the truth is that there are more books than three. At this point, there are four, and I think I’m about to start a fifth one. The manuscript that I’ve been calling “the third in the trilogy” is called Houses of Ravicka, and a person Jakobi is the protagonist. He’s a top city official for Ravicka, its Comptroller. He goes around conducting geoscogs of houses in all of the city’s neighborhoods, as houses in Ravicka shift dramatically over time, and someone must be in charge of keeping track of them. But this book is very much a fiction. It has suspense that needs to be drawn out and developed in a particular way. Writing it makes me uncomfortable, like I don’t know what I’m doing.

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