Rikki Ducornet, 1997. Photo by Forrest Gander. All photos courtesy of Rikki Ducornet.
I met with Rikki Ducornet at her lovely home in Denver on a darkening afternoon in early June. Outside the windows the day went purple, trees gently thrashed and agitated doves flew off. In the oncoming storm’s dim aquarium light, at a long Balinese table, I fussed with the battered tape recorder I’d borrowed. A nervousness about recording a conversation with a friend—the fear, as Rikki laughed, of “being in the box”—must’ve been part of my inability to figure out how it worked. “Machines!” Rikki scoffed, with her characteristic generosity, going on to conjure a little gem of a tale about ones she had, by her mere presence, caused to malfunction or completely give up. Of course that isn’t on the tape, though fragments—”and he said he had the most wonderful stereo, but then when he went to play it … ”—haunt. As does the image of Rikki’s returning from the depths of a closet bearing aloft another recorder, small, dusty, but “only in need of batteries, and, Laura, we must use it, look: it’s a ‘Realistic’!” And her gorgeous laugh. A unique combination of the practical and fabulous, a woman equally alive to the possibilities of joy and the necessity of political responsibility, a creature—à la Shakespeare’s Cleopatra—of “infinite variety,” Ducornet is a writer of extraordinary power, in whose books “rigor and imagination” (her watchwords) perform with the grace and daring of high-wire acrobats. Her novels include The Stain, Entering Fire, The Fountains of Neptune, Phosphor in Dreamland, The Jade Cabinet (a finalist for the National Book Critics Award), and The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition. A poet, essayist, short-story writer, and artist as well as a novelist, she has received numerous awards, including fellowships from the Bunting Institute and the Lannan Foundation. Gazelle, her most recent novel, is a heady mix of transformed memories and brilliant imaginings. Awakened in the irresistible voice of a young girl at the tender beginnings of her erotic life, a magical summer in Egypt becomes the site of transformation for the woman that girl has become. Ducornet’s vision is so strong it is as if we too are remembering: being given a chance to waken—all our senses—in time to transform our own lives.
Laura Mullen Let’s start with the first chapter of Gazelle, which appeared as a short story in your collection The Word “Desire.” Readers have noted that you often begin enticing stories within your novels and move past them, scattering possible sites for further exploration. In this case you’ve activated one of those magical beginnings. Can you talk about that process?
Rikki Ducornet Well, of course stories do have a way of engendering other stories, at least the good ones, and when I wrote The Word “Desire” I was in the mood to write a classical series of old-fashioned stories. Or at least their structure would be classical, even if their themes were strange. But “The Chess Set of Ivory,” because it evokes my own story in part—the father is very much my father, and the girl, Lizzie, certainly has something to do with me—brought back memories of a period I spent in Egypt as a child. When the story was finished, it became clear that there was a novel in it, that both this moment of my life and the city of Cairo itself warranted much more attention. And so I went back to it.
LM The images of your family in Egypt—those wonderful photographs you showed me when you were just starting Gazelle—left me a bit confused about the relationship of your mother to Lizzie’s mother. But perhaps that relationship is confusing? You mentioned that your mother would have actually used the word bombshell, which is very much the kind of Americanism that the mother in Gazelle is given to, along with expressions like “looking like a million bucks.”
RD Well, my mother was something of a bombshell herself—but one of the seductions of writing the novel was the possibility of imagining someone else as my mother. The mother in Gazelle is based on someone I knew in Egypt, the mother of my best friend there, a very sexual creature, fascinating. I was younger than the narrator—I believe I was 11—and just awakening to erotic life. Once when I was spending the night with my friend, we were awakened by music. It was very late, probably two o’clock in the morning, and we got out of bed and peered down the staircase into the living room to see what was going on. My friend’s mother was dancing naked to Eartha Kitt and singing to herself in this amazingly languorous, sexual way. It was one of the great moments of my young life. That moment, which became a scene at the opening of the book, both set fire to and informs the entire novel. The other thing is, both these women were very much inspired by movies of the ’40s: Rita Hayworth, a certain kind of look, a certain kind of over-the-top vamping.
LM That connects with the mother’s language. What she does with her daughter’s name, turning Elizabeth to Lizoo: there’s both a seduction and a distancing in that.
RD She’s a tragic figure, the mother; she’s clearly very out of it, in profound ways. And she’s something of a transvestite: her sexuality is a pose; she’s not allowing herself a relaxed femininity. She’s obsessed with beauty, very concerned about aging and losing her appeal. Her vocabulary is also very much of the time: she talks about “animal magnetism,” for example. This out-of-it-ness is also very clear in her relationship with her daughter. Calling her Lizoo is part of it; she infantilizes her. She’s not a thoughtful person, in other words, and she’s not really aware that she’s harming her daughter, because she’s so busy trying to get laid, you know; she has little time for family life. At the same time, there are ambiguities in the book, because as charming, in his odd way, as the father is, he’s also maddening. The more time the father spends in war games, the more time the mother is out and about trying to find a life for herself. Being a lost soul, and very much a creature of her time, a blond Icelander whose experience of American culture has come through cinema, a lot like Manuel Puig’s, she sees herself as an actress in this exotic city, making her mark in the gold lamé dress. Conquest is a way of finding an identity for herself.
LM The father also seems to be a bit of an actor, with his fez and goatee. We have a family where the parents are both dressed up, both acting, both absent, and then we have the daughter, who is—also—trying to find out who she is.
RD It’s curious—very rarely do I write anything autobiographical, and really this is the first time I’ve engaged so profoundly with elements of my own life. The father is like my father, who was intellectually playful and a wildly interesting man; I quite adored him. He did play war games and hide himself beneath costumes of all kinds. He wore fezzes, and cummerbunds, and spats. He was a Cuban, a really elegant guy, and danced a mean rumba. But he hid behind obscure ideas and attempted to engage his friends in conversations about subjects such as Coptic gnosticism. So, yes, both of the parents are hiding behind screens, and they’re compelling and interesting screens, which is dangerous. Lizzie can’t help but be somewhat seduced by these mysterious, enigmatic people who are her parents, seduced by their glamour; and she can’t help but wish to attain it for herself. As it turns out, Lizzie, too, has always been hiding in some way. I think there is a risk that people will see it as a book simply about a young girl coming of age, when in fact it’s really about a woman of middle age coming of age: realizing that because of what happened to her, particularly one summer, she hasn’t allowed herself to be fearlessly alive in the world, and that, in the words of the fortune teller, her time has come. Lizzie is a surgical anatomist, and while her work reveals important things about our favorite illusions (what it means to be beautiful, what it means to die), still, mummies are corpses! They are silent, and therefore safe. Lizzie says it all when she says, “They can’t pull a fast one.”
LM It’s wonderfully unclear at the end, for me at least, whether she’s come to the realization that will free her or whether, in fact, she’s come to understand where she’s been and will stay. The book doesn’t give us any promise that she’ll run right out and get laid, you know? (laughter) But as a reader one comes to this book on the side of the young girl Lizzie was—she is such a reader of the world. And there’s a lot of discussion about the world’s legibility, so that the protagonist’s work with the dead—another effort to know, to understand—seems complicated: necessary, exquisite, and terrible.
RD The last word of the book is “transformation”—we don’t know how she’ll go about it, but we know she’s ready for it. Reading the past is a way to understanding; history is so important because we are learning from where we have come. And the preoccupations of the ancient Egyptians very much mirror the mother’s mysterious preoccupations: the idea of not only preserving the body but in fact repairing it for the great journey. On the other shore one would be awakened in full youth—a pleasant reverie. At the book’s end, Lizzie awakens to the world, I think just in time.
Rikki Ducornet on the feet of Ramses, Thebes, ca. 1953.
LM The idea that knowledge about the past can free us makes me curious about the influence on your work of that of your husband, the psychoanalyst Jonathan Cohen.
RD His work has influenced mine enormously, because my work is also so involved in revelation. Living with a very, very thoughtful psychoanalyst whose prime interest and concern and passion is to enable people to think for themselves made my own process much clearer to me. I realized that in some way I’ve been writing—often, again and again!—about coming to terms with the terrors of the world and its taboos and dogmatisms. In order to be fully human, in order to be fully autonomous, one has to learn to think for oneself, and so my work, for me, is about that personally—which means that whenever I engage in a book I’m hoping to push ideas further or take on issues in new ways: find a new language, new ways of thinking about determinisms, subverting dogmatic thinking, received ideas. This shows up also in terms of my characters’ lives one way or another, and I think that in some ways the books are very different, but in other ways they are always dealing with the fundamental problems of intellectual freedom.
LM That’s so true—you’re often very tough on the hypocrisies of institutions, the mind-crushing oppressions of the patriarchy. But one of the things that struck me in this book is that the usual figures representing those powers have withdrawn. One feels their presence, but less directly.
RD Well, you’re right, because there are only two places where a kind of traditional patriarchy appears and is threatening. When I mention that the CIA is interested in the father, it’s a small moment in the book, but I think it’s an important one because it says something about the father’s own incredible lack of responsibility in relation to the world, and implies too that he’s not been all that helpful himself when it comes to his daughter. He’s written a book that interests the CIA because he’s describing deadly techniques that could be useful to them, and he’s flattered that they’re interested—they invite him out to Washington and so on—and it isn’t until later that he sees he’s made a terrible mistake, that he was seduced by something tainted. But I do feel a certain amount of sympathy for him, because one understands his plight: this is a man who’s a dreamer in a world where there’s very little room for that. And then there’s the end of the book when Lizzie is visiting Fayum, where her parents’ friend, the perfumer Ramses Ragab, has a large plantation. He wants it to be an enterprise that is as equitable as possible but is having to deal with the problem of a traditional culture that fears its women, fears the feminine, and is repressive. So the problem of oppression shows up again here. But I suppose I was mainly interested in the family and its ambiguities this time around, and in that sense the politics of the book are more the politics of the family and less the politics of the greater world, although of course the two are connected.
LM I actually feel that the politics in Gazelle are as strong as they are in your other books, but they’ve been handled differently. Maybe the understanding is deeper. The father’s a little like Oppenheimer: he had an idea, but an idea itself is only as good or evil as it turns out to be in the hands of those who get hold of it.
RD This book stands on its own—it’s its own animal entirely. Nevertheless, it is the first book of two, and I’m working on the second one now, which is all about war: Algeria’s war of independence from France. The wars in Gazelle are games, based on real wars, but in the second book, which also takes place in North Africa, we see what real war is. That book will be very much about sight and light, while this one is very much about scent, about the role perfume can play in quickening the senses and stirring memory. Ramses Ragab, the master perfumer, is the gazelle of the title: elegant and spirited and mysterious.
LM You’ve always been a visual artist as well as a writer, but you’ve recently begun creating these astonishing canvases. What is this doing to your writing?
RD Painting has always informed my writing. I often think of Vermeer, of his use of light, and want to somehow express a quality of light in a scene, for example. But now the opposite is happening, in a way: the painting is being influenced by the writing. I’m fascinated by wonder rooms and collector’s cabinets and have written about obsessive collectors, and this is informing the painting. I’m currently working on a series having to do with cabinets of curiosity and at the same time experimenting with the tools I’m using—just playing to see how the “cabinet” can be handled technically in various ways.
LM For some of the paintings, you are thrashing the canvas with paint-soaked plastic fruits and leaves!
RD Yes. (laughter) I started doing that because though I had continued to be a printmaker and illustrator, I hadn’t painted for many years. So, in going back, I didn’t want to get hung up with the brush and get tight and fussy. And—I had a dream that this would work—I went out and got a bunch of plastic grapes and leaves and so on and have used them to paint with. It’s marvelous because, of course, there’s no way I could be fussy with this stuff. Now I’m writing in the morning and painting in the afternoon, and that’s an unbeatable combination.
LM Perhaps my question is also motivated by my knowledge—which is not common knowledge—that you handwrite the novels, and with a fountain pen, no less! (laughter)
RD Some of that certainly is about the painter’s delight in pigment on paper—I really do like the feel of it, the way it looks: ink on paper is extremely satisfying to me. And it’s silent, and it’s a lot more comfortable. If you’re writing four or five hours a day, it’s just a lot easier to have your legs up than to be hunched over a computer or a typewriter, which I think is really hard on the body.
Rikki Ducornet, untitled ink-and-brush drawing for Forrest Gander’s forthcoming Blue Stone Collection, 2003.
LM So you’ve been painting, and working on the new book, which is sort of a diptych with Gazelle, and you’ve just done illustrations for a book of poems by Forrest Gander. What other projects are in the works? How about the Borges project?
RD That project was a book inspired by Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” A number of years ago, I had a workshop at home with some very gifted people, and I proposed that we do an encyclopedia of imaginary places, as a kind of tip of the hat to Borges, but also as a way of distancing ourselves from usual ways of working. People did some extraordinary work, and two of them, Amy England and Katherine Kasper, marvelous writers (now teaching their own workshops), continued to do this project. I proposed doing a book together.
LM And I understand the Lannan Foundation has invited you to Marfa?
RD Yes, I’ll be going there in the spring to write, but I also offered to do a show while I’m there, and we’ll see what happens. I would like to continue this theme of collections and cabinets and the monstrous and the marvelous, so hopefully my—can I say this?—sort of coming back to the world as a painter will happen there.
LM Splendid. Speaking of coming back to the world: I’m very interested in your work as a teacher.
RD Well, I love to teach. I’m no longer teaching full-time, but last spring I did the Vermont Studio Center, and I just got back from the Naropa summer festival in Prague. I go off for a few weeks each year to teach. But, speaking of received ideas, I do find myself very much concerned by the workshop. I think it is, more often than not, extremely destructive, and I’ve seen many brilliant writers profoundly harmed by the workshop and its impositions. Very often—too often, it seems to me—people are made to think they have to write in a particular way, and that they can’t write about certain things. And it seems obvious that what’s absolutely essential is that the creative process be guiltless and the workshop a place where there are no taboos, the idea being that you can write about anything at all, you just have to do it very well. And that you can write in any way whatsoever, as long as, again, you are doing it very well. So my mantra is always “rigor and imagination.” And I try to set up a workshop in such a way that it is as innocuous as possible but also as much a turn-on as possible, so that it’s a place that’s intellectually and aesthetically very stimulating and demanding but, once again, very safe. People are not to be made to feel guilty because of what they’re thinking or the way they go about things.
LM Can you talk about your method?
RD When I have the good fortune of teaching a workshop that lasts long enough, I ask that people not bring work in too early. I will say, Okay, I don’t want to see anything until it’s gone through five, six drafts. Because before that it’s inevitably going to be a mess, and so not only are you going to be wasting people’s time, you’re going to have people mucking about in something that is not yet formed. Which is very risky because so much of the process is organic, and you don’t know yourself where things are going to go, especially not in the early drafts. And to have 12 people tell you what they think you should be doing too soon is wildly destructive. So I say, Nothing comes into this room, nobody sees anything until you really have a sense of what you have cooking, because then you can separate what’s useful and what’s not. And I just keep saying, You must be very respectful of one another’s work, and that means reading it very carefully, giving yourself time to think about it so that you are offering up ideas that, again, will be helpful and not harmful.
RD And no taboos. If somebody wants to write a story about a vicious rape, they are allowed to do that—they just have to handle it intelligently. Years ago I had a very talented young man come in with a story that was not violent, but wildly obscene. Everybody was offended by it, and some of the women in the class even wanted to leave. They were furious. What I did was find five different writers who had handled a very similar erotic encounter and had done it beautifully, and I read those five scenes to the class. It immediately became clear to everybody that the problem wasn’t the erotic encounter, the sexuality: the problem was that the guy’s writing wasn’t good enough. He himself could hear it, having heard all the others, and he came up with some super writing after that. But it’s troubling that one student should say of another that he should not be in this class, he’s offended my … whatever.
LM Especially within the workshop, which should be an area of creative joy.
RD Yeah. And writing about taboo subjects, to me that’s a fascinating thing. I do it often because it forces me to look at things in new ways. That’s also why I write about repression, because I really want to understand the mechanism, I want to know why people treat one another so badly. What goes on in a mind that is out to destroy a child’s integrity or capacity to dream? What is that all about?
Sobkey Habib, the inspiration for “The Chess Set of Ivory,” working on a set for Ducornet’s father, Cairo, ca. 1954.
LM Reading your books, with their examination of what might make a person try to contain or control another person, I also learn what might make it possible to live a life that is more exciting, more gloriously sensual, more, to use a word we both like, awake.
RD Gaston Bachelard talks about digging life deeper, and it seems to me that that is exactly what art needs to do: dig life deeper, and ask important questions, you know: Why are we not more delighted with our existences? Why are we not more madly in love with one another? But you know, it’s a very cynical age, and you’re not supposed to engage problems of beauty and erotic life.
LM Reading Gazelle I realized—I actually set the book down and wrote a note to myself—that often we don’t feel worthy of the gift of life itself; we hide from the knowledge, even, of the largeness of that gift, which your work reveals and opens.
RD Well, I’m delighted, because I would love to be worthy of that gift. The gift of life is an extraordinary thing. I suppose that I was very fortunate because, despite my parents’ eccentricities, I was allowed a childhood of enormous openness. I grew up on the Bard campus. Creative life was abuzz around me from morning till deep into the night. I was surrounded by those for whom beauty and the imagination and the body really mattered. It was a place that was openly erotic, thoughtful and thought provoking, and packed with extremely talented and courageous people, both creatively and intellectually. So, a tip of the hat to Bard. I wish every child could have the chance I had, such incredible luck! And it continues to be an extraordinary place. I taught there recently, and I was enchanted with the quality of the students and their ongoing willingness to engage difficult and thorny subjects.
LM What difficulties do you anticipate for Gazelle?
RD Well, I think it is always a risk to write about sexuality, even though we seemingly live in a blatantly sexual culture. You know, many people have said that it’s actually a puritanical culture, one that’s really afraid of the body. So I’m concerned about Gazelle because I’m writing about sexuality, I’m writing about the sexual awakening of a girl, and later a woman. Our culture sexualizes children to an outrageous degree, but at the same time doesn’t recognize that they are erotic beings—and Gazelle explores the important role erotic reverie plays in the process of growing up. So there’s that, and another thing is that the erotic interest in the book is directed toward Arab men, and of course this is a touchy time for that. Another element that may be problematic is that the really nurturing figures in the book are also Arab men, and though I was not thinking about that as a political statement when I began the book, it certainly became clear to me while I was writing it that it was going to be an issue. Perhaps it’s important to have a book like this come out now because of our tendency to demonize other worlds. So I’m glad that one can see another aspect of Arab culture.
LM One last question. How does it begin, how do the first words get down on a page?
RD Novels are about characters. The opening of a book so often for me has come simply from a voice, which comes at times from a dream or a kind of stunning, sudden vision. But really it is about voice, and that’s something that is infinitely reassuring because there are infinite voices out there. So many of them are very, very interesting, and one can’t help but want to embody or investigate them somehow. When I began The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition, the voice was already there; the fan-maker was already in place. I could say the same thing for Septimus in Entering Fire (who embodies all the bullshit I’ve ever heard) and the Sandman in The Fountains of Neptune (who, like Lizzie, takes forever to wake up). When “The Chess Set of Ivory” became Gazelle, Lizzie was there waiting for me. And now another voice has claimed me. He’s gay, a geologist, erudite, interesting, a French intellectual who has read many of the things that have intrigued me, and so he is a way for me to get back to certain ideas and issues I want to explore further. I always thought I’d write eight novels, for some reason. And now that I’m working on my eighth novel, that seems somewhat ominous. But I think I’ll probably write many more than eight novels, because of this question of voices and characters: they don’t want to leave me alone. It’s a kind of haunting that takes place, a sort of visitation. And that’s irresistible.