A Quiet Barometer of What’s Wrong: Nikki Darling Interviewed by Cooper Lee Bombardier

The novelist on living in liminal spaces, Los Angeles in the `90s, and using Ponyboy as inspiration.

Fade Into You

In her beautiful new novel, Fade Into You (Feminist Press), Los Angeles-based writer Nikki Darling takes us into a beater car to tag along with a band of talented and troubled teens navigating sexuality, racial identity, and art under the looming presence of the entertainment industry. In the spirit of New Narrative writing, the fictional protagonist, Nikki, guides us through her world from a first-person punk confessional vantage point. Introspective exploration like this is evident throughout Darling’s work. She is also an actor, critic, visual artist, and performance artist. Her essays and criticism appear in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, the LA Review of Books, and The Believer. Her visual and performance work has been exhibited and performed in prominent Los Angeles art venues, and she is a veteran of the infamous Sister Spit queer feminist performance tours. Darling’s poetry is published in the chapbook Pink Trumpet and the Purple Prose. Her first book of essays, Funeral Carwash, will be published by Hesse Press. Darling’s work and letters are archived at the UCLA Chicano Research Department.

—Cooper Lee Bombardier 

Cooper Lee Bombardier The fictional Nikki’s internal monologues in Fade Into You are like incantatory and muscular beat poetry—thumping love letters to California. They’re some of my favorite passages. How does place—Los Angeles, California, and New Mexico, especially—inform the book, your creative work in general, and your own identity? 

Nikki Darling I’m also a poet, as you know. If you’ve seen me read poetry, I mild-slam. Which might make readers laugh or chuckle, but I slam light. I very much hear things in rhythm. I use very long uninterrupted sentences that in my mind just need a breath, but I forget that for fiction you need a full stop. A period.

Everything I do—performance art, fiction, poetry—is in some way about place and location. Growing up mixed-race you’re constantly looking for a place you fit. You’re usually not white enough, or in my case brown enough, to feel fully integrated into your own family. I never quite felt comfortable saying I was Mexican, and I never felt on the inside like I was white, though certainly on the outside I am. I was raised by my mother and her family. They are brown. The only thing I knew for sure and that I could say with pure certainty was that I was an Angeleno. In some strange way the city, Los Angeles, became my identity and all its people my family. Its history, my history. So, I tell her stories in order to find myself.

CLB You write, “I’m tired of being your fly on the wall. Invisible bystander. A quiet barometer of what’s wrong. You don’t see me but I see you. Pale and pretty on the outside, burned to a cinder in my soul.” I was struck by how silence becomes something like a character throughout the whole book, whether in Nikki’s home, or in the hallways of school, within the construct of families, between friends, and around the ghosts of dead siblings. 

ND If I was a Marvel character my super power would be blending in or disappearing. This is a gift and curse of “passing.” I’ve never had very high hopes for us as a nation in terms of toppling racist ideologies because so often I have been privy to conversations that people of color don’t hear. Racism has become politicized and gone underground in liberal or “polite” society. A large majority of people are racist as fuck—I know. I’ve been in rooms, in colleges, in cars, on the way to museums—the whole liberal rigmarole—and someone will say something incredibly racist. You just sort of sit there and go oh, Suzy, Jenny, John, Rick, Jill, Steve, whomever, is from a racist family and racism has been normalized in their home and/or community. But Jenny, Suzy, John knows, however, if they’re in the company of a person of color, you don’t say these things. They might even have POC friends—they often do. Things I count as racist are comments like “those people” or casually tossing out stereotypes as if they’re facts. I was in a pool once with a very wealthy beautiful young woman whose father was a somewhat high-ranking-type person with power, and her boyfriend had some anecdote that I can’t even share, it’s so unbelievably offensive. Their parents have their names on buildings.

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Photo by Paul Mpagmi Sepuya.

CLB Why did you choose to write the novel as auto-fiction? 

ND The decision to use my own name came very naturally as I intimately knew the setting. I lived through the `90s as a teenager in Los Angeles. I knew the hallways, what our orange and yellow lockers looked like, the streets, our cars, how our friends talked and what we were wearing. I intimately knew the smell of the mildewed barrels we dove into head first looking for those Lydia Lunch-style Mickey Mouse sweatshirts. I knew how our fingers were always grungy and our makeup a little smeared and still applied by somewhat adolescent hands. So, it felt natural to write from the first-person perspective. I am an avid reader of New Narrative fiction that frequently uses the first name of the author.

My dissertation and academic work are on New Narrative. Eileen Myles, Michelle Tea, Chris Kraus, Salvador Plascencia, etc. I consider all of it a careful construct. Even social media, all of it, is persona work. Me, as an individual, among my friends, I’m very unlike how I present on, say, Instagram. I’m loud and colorful but also an isolator and an extremely dedicated, busy, hard worker. Eighty-five percent of my waking life is spent writing, editing, e-mailing, painting, researching, teaching, grading, driving to interviews, studio visits. I’m a control freak and also somewhat serious and at times a humorless person. I’m not carefree or spontaneous in the way that I suspect I present. In this way I never really see “Nikki Darling” in social media, in texts, on stage, in the gallery, as a representation of my true self but rather as an extension of my practice. I’m an artist first, and there are things I want to achieve. My desires are different than the fictional Nikki, who just really does want people in her life. I share a very curated version of who I am. I feel very comfortable sharing that version of myself in fiction. 

This is my third novel, but the first one that’s published. The first book takes place in the 1920s and is omniscient, and the second is set in the 1970s, and the protagonist is a man—a possessed, demonic Harrison Ford, to be exact. The choice to use my own name was unique to this book but not an indication of how I might write future novels. It really depends on what the narrative calls for.

CLBFade Into You constructs a world of teens with little adult interference, even if some characters yearn for parental interference in their lives. The character of Nikki is the girl Ponyboy Curtis whom I’ve always wanted to exist in literature. Maybe she’s also a literary descendant of Mick Kelly in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It is a gift to linger in the fictional consciousness of a teenage girl character whose mind is solely her own, who is an artist. ND I very much had Ponyboy in mind while writing this. I loved The Outsiders so much in junior high. I reread that book a million times before returning it to the library. I love his interiority, and the Robert Frost, of course. The film—my god. Perfection. The lack of parental supervision is very true to my own high school experience. LA is a big city, and in the `90s it was even more fraught and disconnected than it is now, so a lot of your life as a teenager was spent in transit, commuting from place to place. I was also a druggy punk, so my particular friend circle was a little wounded and blue, perhaps wandering around looking for a parent even if they weren’t aware of this. On the other hand, the kids in my book aren’t Johnny and Sodapop. They individually are very talented and applied to get into this ridiculously difficult and exclusive high school. They have ambition, it’s just been buried in the milieu of teen angst and circumstances beyond their control. For instance, before they ditch school, Dan is always making sure he has his homework. That was just a little touch I wanted to add to his character. He cares about school, even as a semi-delinquent. They’re highly intelligent kids. We also had real adolescent needs that could have been addressed better.

My sister and I are a decade apart, and my mother and father were hippies, lived on communes, traveled in a van. My dad was in Vietnam and then an antiwar activist. They weren’t yuppies or helicopter parents by any means. They themselves were free and creative in this way that trickled down to us. I was given immense freedom and trust to make my own decisions. I’ve always had a wandering spirit. They never tied me down, but they were also conspicuously missing a large part of the time. I understand the value of hard work, social justice, and responsibility to others—that’s my mother and father in a nutshell.  

CLB To further the discussion of place, Fade Into You captures some of the deep complexity of Nikki’s New Mexican heritage in a way that I don’t see touched upon so often in literature. The novel captures this liminality of place and inbetweenness in terms of the characters, but also in terms of setting. 

ND New Mexico is a trip. Most people have no idea what the actual history is because the United States doesn’t teach it in school. There are so many myths about Spanish identity constructed as survival mechanisms, and they’ve stuck with the people. I mean, when the United States acquired the Southwest, the Mexicans living there weren’t blind or stupid. They saw how the new gringos treated POCs. They had also been ancestrally the first wave of colonialists that came through the Americas in the 1500s. They knew what was coming. It makes sense to identify with the colonizer if your life is on the line.

Juan De Oñate, the man who colonized the Southwest, came up from Mexico City. His parents were both Mexicans. I’ll just leave that there. The entire Southwest was Mexico, an already colonized nation. Were horrific things done to indigenous populations by the United States? Yes, it was the final nail in what Spain had started. It’s a national wound and a tragedy that can never be undone. In terms of being legible and visible, the identities of New Mexican families who have lived in the state before statehood are not all that complicated. And it’s changing with younger generations. It started in the `60s. I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying all that. It’s a heated debate amongst New Mexicans.

CLB Nikki embodies a sense of inbetweeness. She is buffing away the edges of her unnameability and the silence constructed around her by saying fuck it and getting faded, but in scenes with her mother and her English teacher, the hunger to be seen and the excruciating pain of being seen exist in tandem. Which was worse for her?

ND She exists in liminal spaces the same way I do. We have that in common. She is biracial though it’s only hinted at in the second scene in Chelo’s bedroom. In her unexplainable attraction to Mike, she does understand that he is gay despite Dan’s assertions she is in denial, so perhaps her attraction to Mike is more about wanting to inhabit his freedom. Nikki the character is also coming into her bisexuality. Mike is queer, and so is she; but she isn’t quite aware of her own sexuality yet. It will take a few more years, but there is a freedom to his outness that even though at times is painful to watch, such as when Mike is being kicked out, she yearns for that honesty. 

I, the author, am also biracial and bisexual. Both I and the character occupy this sense of liminality. She is discovering that she has this uncanny ability to shape-shift as well, to manipulate others into what she thinks she needs, but doesn’t actually need. The idea of being seen is an unnamable thirst, but once she is seen, even momentarily, she wants to disappear again because it is in the not-being-seen, in the liminal inbetweeness, where she is free. Her parents are stressed out about raising her, so in some ways they’re asking her to disappear too. Everyone involved is pushing and pulling. In the end they pull away. They fade away. Everyone. They decide it’s too painful, so they go their separate ways; even in a family that still has more coexisting to do, they’ve broken up and drifted. It’s painful but in many ways less painful than facing the truth head on and grieving, because no one in that family is equipped to deal with what’s happened. 

Nikki is fading into her sister; she is becoming Lori even as she pulls away and resists. And finally, she’s constantly stoned and a burgeoning addict. She is fading into herself, dissociating more with each day rather than entering adulthood with clarity and awareness. The lines between reality and questions of her own sanity are also constantly fading and blurring. There is a fuzzy quality of being high that adds to the narrative. Silence is, you are right, very much a theme of the novel.

Cooper Lee Bombardier is an American writer and visual artist living in Canada. His writing appears in many publications and anthologies, such as The Kenyon Review, The Malahat Review, Ninth Letter, CutBank, Nailed Magazine, Longreads, The Rumpus, in the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology, The Remedy–Essays on Queer Health Issues, and in the Lambda-nominated anthology, Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Speculative Fiction From Transgender Writers, winner of the 2018 American Library Association Stonewall Book Awards Barbara Gittings Literature Award. He is a 2018 Visiting Writer at the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Critical Studies graduate program.

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