Describing Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God is akin to describing a poem: ultimately unsatisfactory. The novel is “about” the narrator’s relationships to her parents and later, a lover—but without a conventional structure, the novel’s real relationships are more abstract. It is as if the author had taken her story, much of it autobiographical, and wrote in-between the lines. This is what we read. We come to understand something about a father who cannot speak his children’s language and bestow his Chinese Panamanian heritage, a mother who is driven to learn the language in order to tell her stories about the fall of Nazi Germany, and the narrator who, in observing life in Brooklyn projects and Manhattan ballet classes, has no choice but to become the storyteller. Then of course there is the Russian taxi driver who learns English in order to woo the storyteller. However, in the end, the primary relationship is less with people than with expression, or more literally, with the English language. A delicate and sinewy novel.
Brooklyn, October 22, 1994
Kimiko Hahn When I was younger I desired clarity, but now there’s a deep interest to explore ambiguity, what I’d call the blurs in my life. Your novel is brimming with blurs.
Sigrid Nunez I’m not quite sure what you mean by “brimming with blurs.”
KH More simply, things that are not black and white. For example, translation seems to be clear and concise, but we know it is only an approximation. I wonder what you think of that notion of clarity and ambiguity as a theme in your writing, specifically in A Feather on the Breath of God.
SN I wrote the book to clarify certain things about the past, knowing that no matter how hard I looked at them, these blurs as you call them, were going to remain. But the act of writing itself helps to clarify. Part of the motivation for writing is to come to a clearer understanding of one’s memories, ideas, and feelings.
KH Here are blurs I found in your book, and you can agree, disagree: The language itself is about expression or the inability to express; communication, silences. When we search for identity (almost stereotypical for first novels, especially those that deal with ethnicity), there’s a process toward clarity. Even the narrator’s relationship with the Russian immigrant Vadim is ambiguous. She is not his girlfriend, not a wife, and not really a mistress. The relationship between those two characters—is it part of a search for identity?
SN Well, the question of identity is certainly central to the book. The narrator mentions an elementary school teacher who hugs her and says, “Promise me you’ll never forget that you’re just as good as any other little American.” When I was growing up this idea of seeing yourself as an American was quite strong, and came up all the time in school. It is confusing to a child, neither of whose parents is American, to see herself as a little American. It is more complicated when the parents are desperately trying to cling to their own pasts and ethnic identities. I saw parallels between Vadim’s experience as an immigrant—his acquiring English, his homesickness, and his trying to become an American—and the narrator’s experience. But as you say, the relationship between the narrator and Vadim is ambiguous. I guess we could call them lovers, simply.
KH An immigrant’s position in this society is also a blur. That feeling of wanting to be American and not wanting to be American. The narrator’s German mother, Christa, always wanted to go back home, although finally she said she couldn’t go back, that Germany was no longer her home. And the narrator’s father, Chang, couldn’t speak very much. His character was also a kind of immigrant blur.
SN He’s the most displaced of them all, and the one about whom we have the least information. Towards the end of the book the narrator sees a therapist who says, “A background like that, no wonder you’re here. You don’t know who you are.” In other words, if you come from a mixed ethnic background, as I and the narrator do, how can you possibly know who you are?
KH I wonder if it’s not so much who you are, or who the character is in the book, as much as the fact that the father didn’t speak? A father who doesn’t speak to his children would be a problem for anyone. The form this takes in the hook is that the father can’t speak English very well and so when he’s home he’s in a different room, or there are no family outings …
SN This is not just a question of a language barrier. I’ve had several Asian American people say to me that they saw their own fathers in the character of Chang, and that his reserve and his lack of participation in family life are in fact characteristic of his generation of Asian men. Something else that I’ve discovered that astonishes me is the number of young Chinese people who do not speak Chinese and whose parents do not speak English. Just as in the book Vadim talks about how, in his Brooklyn neighborhood, you have parents who speak Russian and no English, and children who speak English and no Russian. How do these people communicate? One Chinese student said, “We use a lot of gestures.” It’s hard to imagine people in one family not sharing a common language, but that’s very close to how it was with me and my father. In the book a Korean man says, “When my son speak to me in English it is knife to my heart.”
KH I’m also interested in the synapse between fiction and non-fiction. The structure is probably closer to a memoir than it is to a conventional novel.
SN Well, it’s a very self-revealing and personal, even intimate book, but it isn’t strictly autobiographical. Were I to write a memoir, it would be a very different book, even though many of the episodes and the characters would be the same. I wanted, first of all, the distance and the freedom that you have with a novel that you really can’t have with non-fiction. It’s not playing fair with the reader to say, this is non-fiction, but in some parts I’m going to imagine how it was. I’ll give you a perfect example. There is Christa’s four-day walk home from her boarding school after the fall of Nazi Germany. Now, my mother did make such a trip, and I could have interviewed her and gotten the historical facts straight. There wouldn’t have been very many, because she doesn’t remember that trip very well. And it wouldn’t have been very interesting, or accurate, because it was long ago and memory is notoriously unreliable. I wanted to imagine what that experience was like, what she was feeling, her thoughts and sensations. I really believe that by that act of imagination I got closer to the truth of her experience than if I had reported the facts. And with non-fiction you do have to stick to the facts. In the beginning of the book I say, “The first time I ever heard my father speak Chinese was at Coney Island.” When I wrote that first line, I didn’t think, should this be a novel, should it be non-fiction? I simply started to write, and as I wrote, I found myself moving between these two forms, the essay and the story. And it was very comfortable. It came quite naturally, to move back and forth. It was the content that determined the form. It’s not a fixed genre, but it’s the ideal form for dealing with displacement, nostalgia, memory, and loss.
KH The writing in the novel conveys the sense that I’m sitting next to you, as I am right now, and you’re telling me about your experiences. It’s interesting how few anecdotes there are to anchor the text.
SN If I were to say which parts of this book are factual and which parts are completely fictional I think people would be surprised. Some people believe that if you’re using autobiographical material, you’re cheating, not working as hard. I’m writing a second novel now, in which there’s no blur of genres, yet the work of writing is exactly the same. Whether you are writing from your own life or not, the same kind of inventiveness is required, the same energy and powers of imagination. Or so it is at least for me.
KH Returning to A Feather on the Breath of God, the narrator is never named, was that intentional?
SN No. If there had been a place anywhere along the line where it would have felt natural to give her a name, I wouldn’t have hesitated to do so, but it never happened. And it didn’t bother me when the book was finished and the narrator had remained unnamed.
KH For me it’s as though the novel is ultimately not about the narrator.
SN I agree with you. You see everything through the narrator’s eyes, and you learn a great deal about the narrator, but it is not really a story about the narrator.
KH Perhaps it’s about beauty, suffering and loss. Which comes up several times. Just those three words together.
SN I have tried, just as a kind of experiment, to think about how I would have written this story as a straight novel. And I can’t see it. It doesn’t work for me. I had to be able to move away from the story and the reflective, meditative, as one would be in a personal essay. I had to have that freedom to write the book.
KH The reader hears someone’s voice or a kind of sensory description about childhood: playing in the playground, hearing nylon stockings that swish, smelling onions cooking. I’m not sure how you constructed a whole text on this very, very strong sensory work. I spoke early on about expression, both being able to communicate and not being able to communicate and yet there isn’t really a theme of translation. Vadim has his dictionary, but it’s more about learning English. I’m not sure what my question is, it’s more an observation.
SN Maybe you brought that up because the narrator doesn’t have a common language with any of the other characters. The narrator does not speak German to Christa, her mother, or Chinese to Chang, her father, or Russian to Vadim, her lover.
KH The effect this has on me as a reader is that the book is about becoming; becoming American, becoming fluent in English, becoming more able to speak to one’s daughter or one’s lover.
SN I did try to make a connection between language and love. There is a point where the narrator, touched by Vadim’s passionate desire for her to learn Russian, realizes that her parents’ not teaching her their native languages was “a terrible withholding.” And that insight she owes to the affair with Vadim.
KH What has influenced your writing? Books, people?
SN I was encouraged to write at a very young age, and that’s always been the most important thing in my life. Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
KH In Woman, Native, Other, Trinh T. Minh-ha has written a lot about women as storytellers, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Leslie Marmon Silko. In your novel the mother, Christa, is constantly speaking, to the point where the narrator is uncomfortable when she’s not speaking. I’m interested in how you would view your own mother as being an influence in storytelling.
SN Probably the most important influence. First of all, my mother is an extremely articulate woman with unusual powers of expression. I’ve never seen any writing of hers, not even letters, but she was a very, very gifted storyteller. Certainly, I owe a tremendous amount to that. I was completely fascinated by her stories about her childhood in Germany and the war. When I was growing up, if she attended a PTA meeting, say, when she came home I knew I was in for an entertaining evening, because she would recount the whole thing, mimicking people, and she was very funny. And also she gave me stories. She gave me books to read and encouraged me to write.
KH There was literature in her background I take it. You have a lot of quotes from Nietzsche, Goethe and so forth.
SN In the book I do quote Goethe and Nietzsche but those quotes do not come from her. In fact, we had very few books in our house. She was a gifted storyteller but she was not well educated or well read.
KH Trinh T. Minh-ha also talks about storytelling as “a protection and cure” for the storyteller and for those listening to the story.
SN Well, the cure part I certainly understand. But we’re really talking about two different things. I think she’s talking about the oral tradition and communal storytelling. When I write, it’s just me talking to myself, hoping that it will be interesting enough for somebody else to want to read it. So it’s not really possible for me to put myself in that tradition, or to feel a part of that. But for me, as a child, I think that reading stories was a cure, and my mother telling me stories and sharing her memories created a powerful bond, particularly since there was so little interaction with my father.
KH In this novel the process of storytelling is very powerful. The narrator needs her father’s story so desperately that she takes the few facts she knows and embellishes. That actual process of story-telling is incredibly important. It does become a cure, for what I’m not sure. But it also becomes a kind of protection.
SN Virginia Woolf said that before she wrote To the Lighthouse she was obsessed by her mother who had died when Woolf was 13. And after she wrote that book, in her forties, the obsession ended, as if she had laid a ghost to rest. And certainly with A Feather on the Breath of God, I felt that I had at last found a way, a form, the words, and the will, to deal with a past that haunted me. And I suppose people who go into therapy, particularly therapy where you’re encouraged to talk about your past, are doing something like that. I mean they’re telling the stories of their lives, in the hope of talking themselves into a cure.
KH In Poetic Closure, Barbara Hernstein-Smith contends that the end of a poem reveals the structure. I believe this is true in novels as well. The last word of your novel is “ravished.”
SN It’s exactly the word that I wanted. I tried in the last few pages to do something that I would like to do more often—I think of it as crocheting, even though I don’t crochet. (laughter) But it has to do with writing a paragraph and then going on to the next paragraph, and then going back and picking up a thread from the previous paragraph, and bringing that thread into the new paragraph and so on. Moving on but then going back and picking up one element and continuing. There is an Italian writer named Aldo Buzzi, whom I’ve recently discovered in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Grand Street, and he does this beautifully. Right now he’s a profound influence, his use of language and structure are so original and have given me so much pleasure, even in translation. More pleasure than any other writer in quite a while. And I bring him up because he does this, what I call crocheting. And at the end of the book, I tried to go back, hook back into all the different themes—beauty, suffering, loss—and to bring them all together, in the final paragraphs, ending with this word: ravished.