Sarahland (Grand Central Publishing), Sam Cohen’s debut book of short stories, is an expansive multiverse in which various iterations of a Sarah slide their fingers in the grimy mulch of being, sifting through, eating, and vomiting out what they find there. What’s left for the reader to chew on is the glittery muck of that something called “the self,” pleasingly unstable and ever ready for adventures in transformation. Lesbian twinning, gossip, becoming trees, and the end of the world as we know it are just a few of the strategies Cohen’s characters employ in pursuit of a collective “we.”
Sam and I met in 2011 and have since enjoyed all kinds of pleasures in friendship together: swimming in the ocean, eating Hello Kitty petit fours, earnestly appraising Jenny Schecter and her legacy as The L Word’s most hated character, and hosting the Yes Femmes reading and performance series. We talked over Zoom about our glamorous friendship origin story, growing up in suburban Jewish enclaves, and all things Sarahland.
Gina Abelkop I thought we could start by talking about how we met each other because I think it’s a good story.
Sam Cohen Yes! I remember I was going to be a bad Disney princess in Kate Durbin’s group performance at the Pasadena Book Fair and she asked me to pick you up and bring you. I remember feeling an immediate kinship with you. Like, Oh, she talks like me. There was something very spacey high femme about your vibe that made me feel reflected in a way that felt good. There were all these qualities that I’d felt insecure about and you sort of had them too, and they seemed so cool on you.
In the performance, I was Sleeping Beauty and I kept falling down. I was fake snorting breath mints out of this pill ring and then crashing to the ground. And I remember you sitting down and grabbing my head after I’d fallen and stroking my hair in this really sweet way. I kind of had this epiphany that you were queer because of the way you were touching me which I didn’t read as sexual but just not a way that I think a straight woman would touch me. I remember going home and Googling you and finding your obituary about Jenny Schecter. And also realizing that you were Jewish. I feel like it’s maybe important to mention that during this whole day we spent at the Book Fair together, I was not wearing pants (because I bought the cheap version of the Sleeping Beauty dress which was just an apron) and you were not wearing a shirt (because you were a mermaid).
GA I felt like we were very much on the same wavelength when we met. I also remember stroking your head and it’s an extremely rare thing for me. I’m just not a touchy friend. Maybe it’s because we were in character and performing and it just seemed like the right thing to do, but I had no anxiety about it and was not self-consciousness; it was very special.
SC You sent me a handcrafted postcard in the mail—a picture of your naked back in a forest or something with interlocking woman signs in pink paint pen, glued on card stock and cut with scalloped edges. The postcard was inviting me to submit something to your chapbook press, Birds of Lace. It was such a magical thing to receive. I remember sending you “Gossip” and I really didn’t know if it was a short story. Or if it was even like, writing, you know? I felt like I was doing something so weird in it and I had written it and then kind of shoved it away and then, when you asked for something… I don’t know, I’m a very slow writer so it’s not like I can just come up with new things. Publishing that story out with Birds of Lace really made me come into the queer writing community I still think and talk with, and shifted my identity as a writer. I feel like it was the start of a mode of writing, trying to be polyvocal in fiction or re-tell old stories.
GA Will you talk a little bit about the polyvocal thing? I noticed Sarahland opens with a “we” and it ends with a “we,” a very different “we.”
SC Yeah that’s an interesting point. It starts with someone who can’t get out of a “we,” right? But it feels like a stifling “we,” a “we” that’s really limiting her “I.” I haven’t really thought as much as I know you have about the “we” pronoun, but I do think the book is interested in how people are part of collectives and who we’re considering as part of that “we.” In the first story, Dr. Sarah’s “we” is really not only stifling to her but also to all of the characters and their capacities to see the fuller collective. This is a milieu of people who are not really looking outside of themselves or their own very uniform and insular community. I grew up in a community very much like this, and it seems like you did too.
GA Until I transferred to a non-Jewish public school when I was 13 or 14 everyone I knew was Jewish. My parents had one gentile friend and it was like, Oh it’s their one gentile friend.
SCOh my god, Gina. I have to tell you a story related to this, which is that the Sarahs in the first story are based on real girls who I saw at a wedding probably six to eight years ago. They approached me, and they were very tiny and very pregnant and one of them was like, So we heard you date girls now, is that true? It was uncomfortable but I said, “yeah, it’s true” and they seemed to be satisfied with that but then thirty seconds later they turned around again and they were like,“Okay, but what we really want to know is do you date non-Jewish girls?
GA[laughter] Oh god! As soon as you fall off that suburban, tight-knit Jewish community all of a sudden people have no idea what your life could be.
SC You become both scary and alluring to them. There’s actually very deep care and concern among this tight Jewish community and even a spirit of like, collectivism and resource sharing—like, We’ll all make sure that everyone is cared for within this community. But then there’s just really no vision outside of that at all. I’ve started calling it Jewish separatism.
GA In the title story, “Sarahland,” you write, “I was making independent choices and moving around freely, but a secret groove had been carved. Invisible bumpers were going to push me gently back into the groove, the Jew groove, Sarahland, and Sarahland would trick me into thinking it was the only world.” And then all these different worlds are explored, worlds that we could recognize and worlds that have more surreal or speculative elements to them. When you were ordering the stories, was there a momentum you were trying to build, or rhythm?
SC Ordering the stories felt like a collaboration with Maddie Caldwell, my editor. I think we wanted to start with a Sarah who’s hemmed in by certain narratives. She breaks out of them and then is trapped by other narratives, but still, in the re-narrativizing of these older stories, such as that of Abraham and Sarah in the Bible, there’s a total change of context in terms of what is possible. And then there’s “Dream Palace,” where Sarah goes on this psychosexual journey through the collective unconscious, outside of clear narrative, and this shakes something loose. After that there are more imaginative, playful and sometimes magical options, and these are all Sarahlands, too. So it’s not just the character who transforms but the whole collective. I think that something that was inherent to the naming of everyone Sarah is this question of, What is a character versus a collective, what is a self? What is it?
GA The stories all answer that question in really different ways, via gossip and sex and fan communities and friendship. I’m so obsessed with the last story in this book, “The Purple Epoch.” I heard you read it at the 2019 National Women’s Studies Conference for the first time and I totally got a lump in my throat. The story ends up with a real obliteration of all the Sarahs, but it’s not sad. Can you talk about that story a little bit more?
SC I think I needed to write an end of the world that I could live with. I became really concerned about the earth dying because of humans, when I was in high school and read this book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It features a talking ape—I think it’s an ape—who talks to a person and is like, “This is what human nature is like and now you’ve like, killed the planet.” I was plagued by that as a young person and still am. Maybe “The Purple Epoch” is in response to that. Plastic will merge with the earth at some point, things will keep moving and shifting and growing and interacting. All of that is still life, even if it’s unrecognizable to us as humans. I mean, I feel aware that in this book there’s not a great end option for like, how to be a person. It feels like maybe becoming a tree is the best option that the book offers, which is not something we can actually do.
GA It’s not actually becoming a person. It’s becoming a tree.
SC [laughter] Right, I wanted there to be a good person-option, and I just didn’t really get there. Did you read Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws?
GA No, but I got Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook in high school and was so excited by it.
SC I think the underlying thesis of it is like, There are all these ways to kill yourself without killing yourself. And so there’s a list of things you can do that vary in effectiveness and danger. Some of them might be, like, Take a bath: it’s low effectiveness and low danger, but familiar.
GA I love that.
SC Do drugs. Maybe high effectiveness, high danger. One that really sticks that I think about all the time is that you can pick your age, you don’t have to age in a normative way and if there’s a time that you need to be a little kid you can be a little kid. If there’s a time when you need to embody the crone, you can embody the crone.
GA That makes me think so much of the Team Dresch lyric, “don’t kill yourself cuz people can’t deal with your brilliance.” There’s so much messaging from queer artists about how to survive. “Don’t kill yourself” was a big part of what queer art was trying to give and maybe still is—not all of it, obviously, but maybe that’s one legacy. Your book is in that tradition of queer imagination and transformation as methods of survival: the first Sarah finds her world and her life absolutely untenable. And then she goes about trying out other things. Some things that go well, some that don’t, but she’s always on the hunt. And even when she’s gone she’s on the hunt. The collective consciousness keeps up that hunt.
SCPeople have asked whether these are meant to be read as different characters or the same Sarah and I think it’s both. It’s a character who keeps being almost fully obliterated in order to transform.
GA If you were putting your book in a “we” tradition of other books, or even movies or albums, what would be in it?
SC Mary Gaitskill and Angela Carter are always really present, mostly for how seriously they both take interaction, love, sex, and friendship. Kathy Acker for her way of using the literary canon and pop culture and for her flat aesthetic that allows for individual characters to be sort of interchangeable. Leonora Carrington. Kelly Link. You, Gina, and Andrea Lawlor are contemporary people whose work I want to keep connecting to and talking with. I also think about Octavia Butler. She’s obviously doing it at such a different level of detail and scale, but there’s something about the kind of questions she is asking about the collective, the planet, and how we can all live together into the future that resonates. Daisies is something that I always think about.
GA The flowers?
SC The movie.
GA Oh, of course!
SC I’m really into the possibilities, what two girls together can do.