“What Hovers Beyond Language”: Jennifer Natalya Fink Interviewed by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Sex as ecstasy and trap.

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Jennifer Natalya Fink Image

Jennifer Natalya Fink, Bhopal Dance, University of Alabama Press, 2018.

Jennifer Natalya Fink is a master of the hybrid form, always integrating the analytical underpinnings of nonfiction and the layered imaginings of poetry into her novels so she can open the gaps between language and feeling, internal sensation and external action, movement and stagnation. Her fifth novel, Bhopal Dance, is both a searing indictment of the white savior mentality and an intimate investigation into everything that separates the human from the humane. Funny, scathing, alarming, and reverent, Bhopal Dance interrogates the era of “Reaganomics and orthodontics” and the top-down mentality of corporate profiteering that always ends up corrupting everything.

Bhopal Dance centers on the efforts of a trio of activists organizing a militant response to the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984, where thousands of people in India died due to the negligence of a U.S. corporation. Told by an imprisoned activist decades later, the book is relentless in its quest for uncomfortable revelation. Fink’s prose takes us to “that place beyond body, in body. The battleground after the battle.”

Here I talk to Jennifer Natalya Fink about digression as a literary strategy, the perils of activist imaginings, the lure of revolutionary rhetoric, and the problems with easy solutions for dystopic realities.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore While Bhopal Dance centers on events in the 1980s, it’s told from a prison cell decades later. There’s a distance between experience and perception. Part of this is what prison can do to anyone—Cordelia, the narrator and central character, is trapped in solitary confinement, and so her thoughts circle around and around.  You write, “Prison is a palace of digressions,” and also, “Digression is our only progress.” As in all your work, you are creating fiction without enforced clarity. And yet are you also pointing to the dangers of a lack of clarity?

Jennifer Natalya Fink I want to get under your skin. To be your skin. To skin you. I don’t want to describe Cordelia’s imprisonment and the events that led up to it, but rather to imprison you in its shattering paradoxes. 

Certainty, moral clarity, and precision in describing both the problems of capitalism and their “solution” are propulsive—they move the conversation forward, allow us to imagine an end to our current misery. But such clarity is also a trap. The very need to renounce the present order of things can lead to a rigid utopianism that rejects any change that isn’t absolute. It engenders a finger-pointy gaze at the world that elides self-examination. Nuance. Complexity. Cordelia’s highly detailed yet elliptical narrative suggests that certainty—especially of the paranoid lefty flavor—is both a trap and an escape. 

Ultimately, this leads at best to that inevitable disaffection with “the cause” familiar to any activist. At worst, as in Bhopal Dance, it leads to outright violence. Ah, you’ve heard this song before—right, Mattilda? The Ballad of the Neoliberal Sell-Out. But Bhopal Dance isn’t satisfied with this predictable critique of radicalism. Instead, it turns the tables on it through a dialogue—or dance, if you will. Between certainty and questioning, clarity and confusion, forward motion and stasis. Prison is the perfect site for staging this mad waltz. 

MBS So, in a way, you’re creating a form out of digression, and at the same time you’re challenging this form. Cordelia is in prison, and the only way out is through digression—and yet, in a sense, this is another prison. 

JNF In prison, time is stalled. You are suspended, occupying an infinite space in which to explore the past, but there’s no forward motion. A palace of stasis. When I ran a prison literacy group, two things struck me. First and foremost, the insanity of imprisoning the body of another human, of enforcing such a suspension of time. But also how imprisonment freed the mind. One thinks of Gramsci. Of Anne Frank. Of us, imprisoned here in Trump’s North America. Of course this can easily become a privileged form of romanticism, but I’m interested in how an imprisoned mind grows tangled, takes flight—as Cordelia does, to the point where she declares, “I am almost an owl.” Almost.

MBS Around the middle of the book, you write, “What hovers beyond language, beneath the easy anthem.” It seems to me that this could almost be a thesis statement. 

JNF Or a hymn to our impossible state. Digression, elliptical motion, dialectical pendulum swings—these are the ways Cordelia makes sense of what’s happened not only to her, following her attempt to mount a protest of the U.S. corporate-industrial complex equal to the devastation of Bhopal, but to the nation-state that enabled this near-apocalyptic destruction. Which of course is still happening. To us.

MBS The characters in your book are struggling against an all-encompassing conservatism, and yet they are also always victims and participants. Even, or especially, in their desires to challenge status-quo violence, they are enmeshed in the same structures of violence. Sex, which they see as something that will set them free, seems more to be something that prevents them from adequately understanding their situation. 

JNF Sex is their ultimate ecstasy, communion, liberation … and another trap. The activist group Cordelia helps form has all the worst elements of culty lefty discourse, complete with an alpha Bernie-bro dude screwing two brainwashed female followers. As Cordelia says, “ewww!” But the women queer this paradigm. Cordelia and Caren show us, through words, how they arrive at this ecstatic pleasure beyond words. Ultimately, both the bro and the state recuperate this power. Still, their ecstasy sings across time, between the prison bars, in the slippery space of sex.

Yet I don’t offer redemption—through sex, or anything else. See, both their analysis and methods are abhorrent. They engage in this relentless critique that is directed everywhere but inward. Their own groupthink and endless lefty one-upsmanship lead, ultimately, to outright violence. Sex cements this culty conformity. Cordelia concludes they are implicated in the worst sort of white savior complex, of patriarchal lefty absolutism, while being “absolutely correct.” 

MBS That was the most surprising part of the book to me, the chapter called “WE WERE RIGHT.” Up until then, it seems like the entire book is centered around a critique of the falsehood of revolutionary bravado, but here, suddenly you turn everything around. Which, in a sense, makes the reader more present.

JNF What else can we do with capitalism besides blow it up? What action is commensurate with the Bhopal disaster, short of destroying the corporate entities that created it? Won’t we always fail to see ourselves fully? Won’t we always reflect and embody the worst sins of our culture, even as we attempt to dismantle it? 

Cordelia is haunted by two images that appear recursively—television footage of children running in the streets of Bhopal, pursued by invisible gas, and the Buddhist nuns who immolated themselves to protest the American War in Vietnam. Is anything less than explosive immolation a fitting answer to this endless colonialist capitalist violence? But in so exploding, are we not repeating the very systemic violence we seek to eradicate? 

MBS And of course many people are asking these exact questions now. I know I shouldn’t ask if you have answers, but do you have answers?

JNF I leave it to the reader—who Cordelia variously positions as her stolen child, her dead lover, her other living lover, her lover’s cat, her father, and a sort of universal reader—nested in this unresolvable paradox. To acknowledge their imprisonment. Embrace and repudiate it.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore is most recently the author of The End of San Francisco, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Her new novel, Sketchtasy, will be out in October from Arsenal Pulp Press.

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