profiles in poetics & linguistics: Bhanu Kapil

image (2)Bhanu Kapil

Websites: jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com

Bhanu Kapil is set upon the windowsill. Her mother whispers “Sing a poem to the stars, Bhanu.” A way of half clouds moving across the breath of an ocean, to her grandmother. As a British-Indian poet her work is complex. “Crystallized and condensed – the two kinds of water” surround questions of the female, immigrant body. We experience what she calls the “non-identical: brown body”. This occurs through similar intonations of music and improvisation; a “connection with someone very far away, the familial listener, the one you had to leave.” Her post-colonial eye has led to questions of migration and mental illness, racism and the way a “visible body” postures the light in mostly white cultures. This is specifically in regards to built environments, social care and domestic violence.

Kapil aspires to write in a way that literature is not made from literature. Her work Ban en Banlieue, recently published by Nightboat Books (2015) is the focus of this interview and performs in an “axial space”. Here theory, performance art, and the novel interact in strange converging dialogues. This fusion allows her to bridge cultural differences of the body in a way we see that nudity is perhaps unreadable. It is here she says in some ways we are able to “look away from the ‘glimpse.’ A glimpse that is also an abyss.”

Bhanu Kapil is an Indian or British writer who was born and brought up in the UK.  She now lives in Colorado, where she has, for many years, taught through the monster at Naropa University.  At Goddard College, she teaches at the intersection of narrative, social care and urban housing.  To clarify, these are her interests.  Her books track: colonial and post-colonial: flows: of various kinds.  But also: what does not flow.  And is yet to be discharged.  Her most recent publication — notes toward a novel never written — is Ban en Banlieue [Nightboat Books: 2015]. On an almost daily basis, Bhanu blogs about institutions, bodies, racism, motherhood, animals and true love at Shame May Be Fatal: A Daybook for Monsters and Immigrants Of All Kinds.  The name of the blog sometimes changes; earlier this year, it was called: Reading Moten in the Cherry Orchard.  But the site can always be found here: SHAME MAY BE FATAL

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Auto-sacrifice (Notes)

— from: Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books: 2015)

1. Pink Lightning for Ban

“The day of the riot dawns bright and lazy with a giant silky cloud sloughing off above the rooves.”

“The mouth of the riot is a stretch of road.”

Pink lightning fills the borough like a graph. All day, I graph the bandages, race passion and chunks of dirt to Ban – plant-like, she’s stretching then contracting on the ground.

Three streets over, a mixed group nears a house. Their faces are pressed to the blood-flecked window, banging their forehead on the glass. Inside the house, a woman arranges the meat on a tarp. She tucks and pins the shroud behind its ears with quick-moving hands, looking up from time to time at the crowd that’s gathered to spit on the window and call.

That night, I dreamed of exiting the subway at the interface a car would make with the M25. The commuters are processing around a semi-rural roundabout, their hands on imaginary steering wheels, their wing-backed loafers shuffling on the tarmac, the black road, like wheels. Evening Standards tucked sharply beneath their arms.

The dream requires something of me.

It requires me to acknowledge that my creature (Ban) is over-written by a psychic history that is lucid, astringent, witty. No longer purely mine.

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2. Meat forest: 1979

Ban fulfills the first criterium of monstrosity simply by degrading: by emitting bars of light from her teeth and nails, when the rain sweeps over her then back again.

I like how the rain is indigo, like a tint that reveals the disease process in its inception.

Above her, the pink lightning is branched — forked — in five places.

A brown ankle sparkles on the ground.

Genital life gives way to bubbles, the notebook of a body’s two eyes.

Like a person in an ancient pose, I lean in a L-shaped posture over the counter: flat back, rump displayed to any passer-by, blood dripping down the backs of my thighs. They don’t see me. I clean the street until all that’s left is a ring of oily foam, the formal barrier of a bad snow. Are you sick and tired of running away?

Then lie down.

Invert yourself above a ditch or stream beneath a bright blue sky.

Then pull myself up from your knees to clean.

Clean the street until all that’s left is a ring of oily foam, the formal barrier of a bad snow.

It snows that April for a few minutes, early in the day. Children walking on the Southall Broadway open their mouths to receive the aluminium snowflakes. In their bright pink and chocolate brown dresses, tucked beneath the heavy blue coats, these immigrant children are dazzled by the snow, even though they were born here, a train-ride from a city tilted to receive the light, its sprig bending over in the window of the pretty bank.

Many years later, I return. To place a daffodil on the Uxbridge Road.

Is zinc an element? It’s a sheen. Spread it on the ankle of Ban.

Is there a copper wire? Is there a groin? Make a mask for Ban.

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3. What is Ban?

Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas.

Looping the city, Ban is a warp of smoke.

To summarize, she is the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.

April 23rd, 1979: by morning, anti-Nazi campaigner, Blair Peach, will be dead.

It is, in this sense, a real day: though Ban is unreal. She’s both dead and never living: the part, that is, of life that is never given: an existence. What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English?

Under what conditions is a birth not recognized as a birth?

Answer: Ban.

And from Ban: “banlieues.”

(The former hunting grounds of King Henry VIII. Earth-mounds. Oaks split into several parts by a late-century lightning storm.) These suburbs are, in places, leafy and industrial; the Nestle factory spools a milky, lilac effluent into the Grand Union canal that runs between Hayes and Southall. Ban is nine. Ban is seven. Ban is ten. Ban is a girl walking home from school just as a protest starts to escalate. Pausing at the corner of the Uxbridge Road, she hears something: the far-off sound of breaking glass. Is it coming from her home or is it coming from the street’s distant clamor? Faced with these two sources of a sound she instinctively links to violence, the potential of violent acts, Ban lies down. She folds to the ground. This is syntax.

Psychotic, fecal, neural, wild: the auto-sacrifice begins, endures the night: never stops: goes on.

As even more time passes, as the image or instinct to form this image desiccates, I prop a mirror, then another, on the ground for Ban.

A cyclical and artificial light falls upon her in turn: pink, gold, amber then pink again. Do the mirrors deflect evil? Perhaps they protect her from a horde of boys with shaved heads or perhaps they illuminate — in strings of weak light — the part of the scene when these boys, finally, arrive.

The left hand covered in a light blue ash. The ash is analgesic, data, soot, though when it rains, Ban becomes leucine, a bulk, a network of dirty lines that channel starlight, presence, boots. Someone walks towards her, for example, then around her, then away.

I want to lie down in the place I am from: on the street I am from.

In the rain. Next to the ivy. As I did, on the border of Pakistan and India: the two Punjabs. Nobody sees someone do this. I want to feel it in my body — the root cause.

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4. Cobra Notes for Ban

I want a literature that is not made from literature. A girl walks home in the first minutes of a race riot, before it might even be called that — the sound of breaking glass as equidistant, as happening/coming from the street and from her home.

What loops the ivy-asphalt/glass-girl combinations? Abraded as it goes? I think, too, of the curved, passing sound that has no fixed source. In a literature, what would happen to the girl? I write, instead, the increment of her failure to orient, to take another step. And understand. She is collapsing to her knees then to her side in a sovereign position.

Notes for Ban, 2012: a year of sacrifice and rupture, murderous roses blossoming in the gardens of immigrant families with money problems, citizens with a stash: and so on. Eat a petal and die. Die if you have to. See: end-date, serpent-gate. Hole. I myself swivel around and crouch at the slightest unexpected sound.

When she turned her face to the ivy, I saw a bunch or cube of foil propped between the vines. Posture made a circuit from the ivy to her face. The London street a tiny jungle: dark blue, slick and shimmering a bit, from the gold/brown tights she was wearing beneath her skirt. A girl stops walking and lies down on a street in the opening scene of a riot. Why? The fact of the riot pricks her prone form and at points it rains. In a novel that no one writes or thinks of writing, the rain falls in lines and dots upon her. In the loose genetics of what makes this street real, the freezing cold, vibrating weather sweeping through South-east England at 4 p.m. on an April afternoon is very painful. Sometimes there is a day and sometimes there is a day reduced to its symbolic elements: a cup of broken glass; the Queen’s portrait on a thin bronze coin; dosage; rain.

This is why a raindrop indents the concrete with atomic intensity. This is why the dark green, glossy leaves of the ivy are so green: multiple kinds of green: as night falls on the “skirt.” The outskirts of London: les banlieues.

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5. Some notes: I wanted to re-imagine the boundary

Perhaps I should say that I grew up partly in Ruislip. The Park Woods that bounded it were rimmed, themselves, with land forms that kept in the boar. I used to go directly to those masses and lie down on them, subtly above a city but beneath the plate of leaves, in another world.

One morning I went there though it was raining.

To soften this scene would require time travel, which I am not prepared to do. I am not prepared to take off my clothes. I am not prepared to charter or re-organize the cosmic symbols of Sikhism, Anglican Christianity and the Hindu faith. One night, I went home, and my hands were caked in dirt and dew. My skirt was up around my ears. My legs were cold. The insides of my eyes were cold. The bath I took, I couldn’t get it hot enough. That night, my eyes turned blue.

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More recently, I’ve been obsessed with the image of a dark-skinned girl walking home from school.

Imagine your fingertips are animals that still carry the imprint of a plant memory.

And the veins of the nearby plants flood with sugar. The sugar and the sky suck the body of a black woman. They surge towards her through the mud and air in tubes. Pinned there, scrawled, like a name. A woman so black she radiates a limited consciousness. In this scene without depth, she is supine, lifting her arms very carefully then setting them down; an image that is never exhausted, though I write it again and again. With a careful hand.

How the street tilts and the rain and blood slide into the gutter below the pavement’s lip. A dress slides off and is received by the white space beneath the ivy. Is the street a letterbox? Is the night a letterbox? A long black hair is carried to Yeading High Street on the sole of a shoe. And it’s there behind The White Stag, a skinhead pub on the border with Hayes, that the hair sheds off. At this moment, like a delicate clock, like the difficult music of another century, the riot begins – a distant roar, the sound of broken glass; a van with orange stripes – a strobe.

I made the ivy go faster like a carpet or rug I could pull.

Ban turns her head, at some points in that last night, to the wall.

Imagine a cloud of milk as it dissipates, spilled on a London street in an act of protest.

Imagine mica glinting in the oily curd of the pavement.

Imagine that the rough, pink tip of a girl’s tongue slips out, extending to the ivy’s salt – for nourishment.

What did Ban do that outweighed art? What kind of art did she produce?

Returning to the U.S., I dug a rectangle of mud and lay down in that, removing my clothes and exposing my body with its waist and hips and suitcase of limbs. Above me, in a bush of late summer flowers – white pom-poms with deep green leaves – migrating finches made a choral sound.

From one angle, Ban is slick, like the emerald or indigo tint of ring feathers. From another she is a kerosene seam set on fire with a careless match.

It’s time to go home. As we coast up the estuary, veering left and north towards Heathrow, I can see the Southall water tower and the golden, balloon-shaped minaret of the Sikh temple. I look down as we fly over and there, close enough to touch, is the set of Ban. I describe the creamy clouds in my notebook, how they emit dark silver beams of light. I analyze my glimpse of the asphalt.

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What can I do? The boundaries of my work are structurally weak. I am weak. Too weak for a Monday night.

When it was time for such a thing, I could not bear to be touched – by another person.

The Chrysler building was burning like a star in the clouds below, when I – arrived.

The sun burns and heals.

Ban opens her mouth for the fluorescent pink flakes that pour from the early morning sun on April 23rd, a Monday morning in 1979 – just as the rioters are eating their breakfast, an egg on a piece of toast, with not a thought – of riot – in their heart.

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6. Notes Toward a Race Riot Scene

In April 1979, I was ten years old.

This is a short talk about vectors. It’s about Brueghel’s Icarus. It’s about a girl walking home from school at the exact moment her neighbor laces up his Doc Martens, tight. It’s about a partial and irrelevant nudity. It’s about the novel as a form that processes the part of a scene that doesn’t function as an image, but as the depleted, yet still livid mixture of materials that a race riot is made from. Think of the sky. Think of the clear April day with its cardigans and late afternoon rain shower. Think of the indigo sky lowering over London like a lid. Think of Blair Peach, the anti-racism campaigner and recent emigrant from New Zealand, who will die before this day is out.

Think about a cyborg to get to the immigrant.

Think of a colony. Think of the red and white daikon radishes in a tilted box on the pavement outside Dokal and Sons, on the corner of the Uxbridge Road and Lansbury Drive. Think of the road, which here we call asphalt: there, it is bitty. It is a dark silver with milky oil seams. A patch up job, Labour still in power, but not for long. It’s 1979, St. George’s Day, and the Far Right has decided to have its annual meeting in a council-run meeting hall in Southall, Middlesex, a London suburb in which it would be rare — nauseating — to see a white face.

To see anyone, actually. Everyone’s indoors. Everyone can tell what’s coming. It’s not a riot, at this point, but a simple protest in an outlying area of London, an immigrant suburb: a banlieue. Everyone knows to stay back, board the glass up, draw the curtains and lie down. Lie down between the hand-sewn quilts shipped from India in a crate then covered in an outer cotton case stitched to the padding with a fine pink thread. The quilts smell of an antiseptic powder, an anti-fungal, Mars. We lie down beneath the blankets in front of the fire. It’s 1979, so there’s a small gas fire and a waist-high fridge, where we keep our milk and our bread and our cheese, right there, in the living room. It’s 1979, and so I live in Hayes, though in two months, we’ll put our house on the market and move.

Move away. As would you.

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7. Ban en Banlieues (suburban)

A puff of diesel fumes on an orbital road.

The country outside London, with its old parks and labyrinths of rhododendron or azalea
, futile and tropical pinks in a near-constant downpour of green, black and silver rain.

In the forest surrounding London, a light ice falls through the trees.

Like glitter.

A snake, aspen-colored, bright yellow with green stripes, slips through the bracken, its pink eyes open and black diamond-shaped irises blinking on then off. In frozen time, ancient beings emerge with the force of reptiles. In the forest, time and weather are so mixed up, a trope of bedtime stories, bottom-up processing, need. I need the snake to stop the news. This is the news: a girl’s body is dressed and set: still yet trembling, upon a rise in the forest. There are stars. Now it’s night. Time is coming on hard. The snake slips over her leg, her brown ankle. She’s wearing shoes, maroon patent leather shoes with a low heel and three slim buckles, but no socks.

Whoever dressed her was in a hurry.

Imagine the scene: a forest outside of London, 10 p.m.

An April snowfall, the ground still coppery, gold. A snake has escaped from time: a water box, a shelf. Volatile, starving, it senses a parallel self, the girl’s body emitting a solar heat, absorbed in the course of a lifetime but now discharging, pushing off. Without thought, below thought, it moves towards her through the rusted trees.

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8. Inversions for Ban

“To ban someone is to say that no-one may harm him.” Agamben.

A “monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city.” (Ban.) To be: “banned from the city” and thus: en banlieues: a part of the perimeter. In this sense, to study the place where the city dissolves is to study the wolf. Is this why some of my best friends have come from the peninsula of Long Island?

To ban, to sentence.

To abandon is thus to write prose. “Already dead.” Nude. A “wolfe’s head” upon a form. The form is the body — in the most generic way I could possibly use that word. The nude body spills color. Blue nude, green nude. The nudes of pre-history in a pool of chalk in an Ajanta cave. Agamben’s thought familiar to me, already, from the exchange of Arjun and Krishan on the battlefield. I should stop writing now.

What do the wolf and the schizophrenic have in common?

Here, extreme snow. I mean fire. The extreme snow makes me neutral about the strangeness of this first intact fragment. Of Ban. A novel of the race riot, “Ban.” Nude studies/charcoal marks: wired to the mouth of a pig. A boar. Some of the work is set in the outlying, wooded regions of Greater London, where King Henry VIII had his hunting grounds. As a girl, I would lie down in my coat and trousers in the snow upon an embankment of earth: engineered, centuries before, to keep the meat in.

I wanted to write a book that was like lying down.

That took some time to write, that kept forgetting something, that took a diversion: from which it never returned.

I wanted to write a book on a butcher’s table in New Delhi: the shop-front open to the street, a bare light bulb swinging above the table and next to it a hook.

Swinging from that hook in the window, I wanted to write a book. Inverted, corrupted, exposed to view: a person writes a book in their free time, calling that time what they want to call it.

I wanted to write a book about England.

I wanted to write a book about lying on the floor of England. I wanted to return to England. I went to England. I was born in England. I lived in a house in England until I was thirty years old. My parents were English. I was English. After 1984, we all shared the same nationality, but by 2006 or 7, this was no longer true. Between September 2010 and late December 2012, I studied a piece of the earth, no longer or wider than a girl’s body prone upon it. The asphalt. As dusk fell: violet/amber — and filled — with the reflected lights coming from the discs, the tiny mirrors, positioned in the ivy as she “slept.”

On a balcony.

The asphalt’s green stars, the shed parts of a ragged elm come Spring.

Ban is a portal, a vortex, a curl: a mixture of clockwise and anti-clockwise movements in the sky above the street. I study the vapor as it rises, accumulates then starts to move. How a brisk wind organizes the soot or casings and bits of bark into whorls.

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  1. What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

My mother used to wake me up, on the occasions that there was a sky full of stars or a visible moon, and set me on the windowsill.  “Sing a poem to the stars, Bhanu.”  Her own mother was in India, and, in the era before this one, communicated through astral bodies!  My grandmother had told my mother that if she sang to the moon then she, my grandmother, would receive it when the moon rose in Punjab.  Thus, a first poetry.  My mother would write down what I said and sang; a first writing – and a first feeling that poetry was music, improvisation, the being woken up from sleep, a connection with someone very far away, the familial listener, the one you had to leave.  I remember that my mother also had a shrine to Krishna in the linen cupboard that was also in my bedroom, and sometimes I would wake up to a tiny oil lamp flickering. And the bhajans of Mira Bai – a lyric, you could say, of abandonment and reunion in its own way.  “I am standing under this tree, Krishna, in the rain, in the darkness./ Just a crumpled note on my dresser./ I am going to stand here until you return.” Okay, I made that up.  But the bhajans are basically that, for all time.  And in this way, you could say that Mira Bai’s poetry, which I did not understand was poetry, was the first poetry that I listened to, attenuated – a child — stirring in my bed before dawn.  Also: my mother’s bedtime stories – which, after a while, I realized – combined – the trauma story of Partition with the Ramayana – the fabular epics that she told and re-told in her own way, and never from a book.  The form that narrative took: a hybrid account, you could say.  Though I didn’t have language for any of this until I came to the U.S. and perhaps not until my forties, strangely enough – which is the time in a woman’s life, my friend Diane Kempson says, when a “deep pelvic grief” may rise.  And the thing to do is to: “adequately grieve.”  It is perhaps natural, then, to answer your question by returning to the deep sources of grief and poetry – the two things are not separate – in my own life.  Am I writing too much in response to your question?  Suddenly, I was on a windowsill beneath a tinny English sky.

My favorite writer as a child was Turgenev.  My grandfather used to take me to the Russian bookstore in Sector 17, on our long summers in India, and leave me to read while he played chess and drank cup after cup of milky chai with the owner, a Russian, from little glasses.  I remember the onion skin pages of the mass-made books; opening Fathers and Sons for the first time.  As a teenager, I wore black “like a little funeral,” to emulate the girl in the poems by Sylvia Plath.  I read and shoplifted books of poems obsessively.  At university in Loughborough, I read the plays of William Congreve: writing as revenge.  That stayed with me for a long time: literature as butcher’s shop.  In the U.S., I broke free of the Larkin-Tennyson vortex, and was amazed, one day, to see my hands surrounded by violet light as I lay on the grass holding the News of the Universe above me – against a bright blue sky.  In this collection, I read Bly’s translations of Mira Bai for the first time, confused but also dazzled by their unrecognizable structure, sound and content.  At the same time, I recognized them as identical, or near-identical, in their capacity for ululation: to that long-ago time in feral Middlesex; Middlesex, that is, of the long nights.  When I moved to Colorado, Laura Mullen – whose seminar I was in – gave us Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee to read.  I don’t remember reading it, but rather carrying it with me from place to place, opening here and there: to a line.  A fragment.  Voltage.  Life that comes from life.  A taken: life.

  1. Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

John Lucas, Anthony Piccione, Laura Mullen.  Those were the professors who put books in my hands – that changed my life.

  1. How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work has crystallized and condensed – the two kinds of water – around the question of the female, immigrant body.  In The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, I began with broad travel, polyphony, encounter, the non-identical: brown body.  This project had two longer section; a vision of photocopying the notebooks in which I wrote down the answers as they were, or a list of some kind.  Another section, too, built on my sticker graffiti – the way I wrote before I came to U.S. But Kelsey Street was only able to publish the first section, for which I am grateful – though perhaps I should do something about the fact that the complete work resides in a cardboard box somewhere in the Bear Skull Pantry off the kitchen!  Is it still there?  In Incubation: a space for monsters, what varies? Travel happens through hitch-hiking.  And the writing happens through a girl both singular and multiple: a presence.  She mutates.  My first monster.  In humanimal: a project for future children, I take up the story of two sisters – contested feral life – and if I think about how movement is happening here, I recall my research into Ida Rolf’s narratives of movement pathologies and rehabilitation, transposed with a study of correction and colonial life.  How does the human-animal body reach for the tail of the cat in the tree?  I went to India and climbed that tree; I investigated the claims that the girls were not real; that they were somehow faking it, or being asked: to fake it.  Girlhood, I suppose.  In Schizophrene, I turned my post-colonial eye, you could say, to questions of migration and mental illness: with a particular focus on the high-incidence of schizophrenia in women of Indian and Pakistani origin, in immigrant neighborhoods of north-west London.  In studying psychosis rates, including the question of misdiagnosis and treatment paths, I came to the astonishing finding that, in fact, it’s not migration that is the stressor, but rather – chronic experiences of racism; the way a very visible body moves through a mostly white neighborhood; the posture this body might take.  How do you tell this story from the bottom-up?  Through the nervous system as much as narrative: modes: themselves? I began to think about how syntax – the part of narrative that held: non-verbal flows – was happening in my work.  What a sentence could be.  What postures the “bodies” in my books were taking.  From this work, a worlding, some of which I had to work out through performances of my own, came Ban en Banlieue, which was, very simply, an attempt to track the effects of oppression upon the brown, female, immigrant body.  Yet Ban mutates, and is a monster of her own kind.  What does she lick?  Who does she become?  I ended that book with the figure of mermaid – a fusion of the body, mid-sacrifice, with the pink dolphins of the Ganges, that carry her – out to sea.

  1. Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

Reading and teaching (at Naropa University) — through architecture and GIS mapping  – what the grid is, what happens when it fails – was very useful to me in mapping humanimal and Schizophrene.  I began to have conversations about built environments, social care and domestic violence – with students at Goddard, I recall.  Kristen Stone and Sayra Pinto come to mind. Researching cross-cultural psychiatry – narratives of refugee and immigrant physiologies – and attending a conference (as a delegate) in which these accounts were grounded in discussions that included relief workers, epidemiologists and social workers, was extraordinarily useful for me.  It came after Schizophrene, but it gave me the confidence to understand that experimental writing practices have an extreme value in the way they match up, more than more linear forms, to “clinical experience.”  How will the fragments attract?  What is the pathology of the fragment?  Where does it “lodge” in the body (Andrea Spain)?  But also, what happens when it reverses itself?  Holding it up in the air, how can we attend to the fire and water that begins to stream from it?  All of this – on a spectrum of hallucination to integration – the extreme power of the fragment to charge the atmosphere in which it finds itself – became the ground of Ban.  And the ground of the sentence around which Ban is built: “I want a literature that is not made from literature.”

  1. What are your plans for the future?

Before I came to this country, I said, to Dennis and Inge Goodwin, who had invited me to their home in St.John’s Wood for tea: “I want to write a novel on yellow paper.”  They were asking me what I wanted to write, how I wanted to live.  Dennis had been a commander of the Ethiopian army.  Am I remembering this correctly?  A story of colonial time.  Inge was a translator of German poetry into English; in an orchard outside London, she pointed out the apple tree Michael Hamburger had planted when he first visited them.  I don’t know how they recognized me as a writer-to-be; it now seems like a miracle.  Of love.  Once in the U.S. I hitch-hiked through Oregon – with an A4 pad of light yellow paper; I remember sitting in the Eugene Public Library, unable to begin.  I discarded that paper on a table after the third day, and continued on with my physical adventure.  A week ago, over twenty years past the moment I am describing, I parked my car outside the bank in Loveland and ran across the street to the Quick Print Shop, which often has remaindered paper on a shelf.  I immediately saw a batch of gold-yellow or cadmium-yellow or gold or goldenrod paper, and bought it.  I can see it from where I am writing to you.  So that is my plan. To write a novel on yellow paper.  To write myself out of one life and into another.  To find a way to begin

  1. What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

We are putting the failures of our lives into our books – its bloody leaks – at the expense – of a lyric mode.  At the expense, you could say, of how beautiful a book could be.

  1. Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

To answer this question is to exclude, or to engender a feeling of exclusion, perhaps, in all the promising women writers I do not name or forget to name.  I suppose I cannot answer this question at the cost of publicizing the writing of a woman writer who your readers would not encounter otherwise. And yet: I refer you to VIDA or to the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo twitter feed or my own Friday Interview Series on my blog or the Action Books catalogue – as venues for where to: look.  Look at the future, I suppose.

  1. If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

“Experimental writer” is not exactly working out.  I used to say: “experimental prose writer.”  But what it really is is that the middle of me is poetry, or poet.  And that anything I write, whether it resembles fiction or a hybrid work or non-fiction or poetry itself, comes from that. I want “poet” to mean all of this, I suppose, but in reality, I never win the grants I have applied for.  Is it that I am a bad writer?  Or that my writing doesn’t resemble poetry enough for it to receive funding in that category, or even the category of prose?  Actually, because I have given up even trying to apply for grants, perhaps this is no longer true!  What else?  “Failed British novelist” is another favorite.

  1. The landscape of Ban is as you summarize, “parts of something re-mixed as air: circa 1972-1979. She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black. A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.” The setting is painted with strokes of compassion that hurt hard; “violence like snowflakes under the bed.” I would like to ask you how one psychically and emotionally deals with entering into the horrific bones of a historical event such as this? How does this affect the evolution of the character? How does the author complete the bend of compassion aware of the outcome?

It’s something I talk a lot about with my students.  How can we attend to the earth memory, the body of the witness – the body of the reader, perhaps – as much as our own bodies or the bodies that appear in our writing?  What are the ethics of asking a reader to discharge the “event” – the materials and matter of a violent event, in particular – through what the reading will be itself?  I think this is where syntax – in its capacity to re-pattern the eye movements of the reader – to replicate a kind of light, consistent touch that repeats but not in a completely organized – thus human – way – helps.  Not as trauma therapy, per se.  But as a nervous system pathway within the writing, that releases – what is in the writing – into what might receive it.  The ground?  To the beings – seen and unseen – who arrive at the edges of the work as it is being written?  So that a part of writing the character is to look away, to glance into the environment that surrounds her – or deflects her, I suppose, then return.  This makes for a wet book, a book that opens and closes – fluttering – all the time.  I am responding in the most simple way I can to your question; part of answering it is to re-enter: the other world.  Of the work.  And perhaps I can’t, this morning.  But I have written about these questions on my blog, and what it has been to work on these questions through memorial, ritual, and performance/re-performance, in particular:

http://jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com/2015/02/detritus-and-decompressions-ban.html?q=discharge+nervous+system

  1. We first meet the character Ban in wet smoke. She is above a mirror in the hands of your pen, your heart, and your mind. You intimate to the reader, “I wanted to write a novel but instead I wrote this.” Furthermore, “I wrote the middle part of the body to the end”. Character development is enumerated when we learn “Ban is not an immigrant, she is a shape or bodily outline that’s familiar: yet inaccurate.” And perhaps more important to this work is not Ban herself, but your relationship to her. You lie next to her, “extending my own tongue to the ivy that curls down to the sidewalk with its medicine and salt: so close to my own mouth. Lick it and you could die. I do all these things.” How close does the writer need to delve into the characters that they extricate in their work? What do you believe this does to the author and how much of the self is reconfigured and formed in the body of the character as well as the writer? How did this enumeration expound and transform your own life?

Perhaps I can answer this differently to the answer I gave above, accompanied by the writing on the blog, by speaking through the lens of diasporic writing.  I think to write books about a particular place in a place that does not resemble that place is to engage, also, the blankness of the earth and sky: these huge blocks of energy that take the place of memory.  So that the alchemy of changing the red of Colorado to the gold of a north-west London sunrise – is something I am always trying to do.  To substitute one intensity for another.  But also, I can’t, sometimes, activate my own “worlding” – my own time or imagination – except by taking the posture the body takes in the writing; thus, to feel it in my body, or to track the sensations there.  And in some cases, on my loops through the U.K. or India, I am able to lie down: there.  To see the glossy green leaves of the ivy; the seams of the asphalt – and so on.  It is about, in the U.S., compounding, always, a symbolic scene – in order not to be making something up: about the middle of the body.  About what it could be to write a narrative to its end-point and beyond; into the minutes, I suppose, when it stops trembling.  Is this reenactment?  I am not sure.  In terms of transforming my life, it has brought me into a new area: the axial space and theory between performance art and the novel.  And different conversations, with radical others, about how to progress this: strange art.

  1. The following line is written in the section of the book titled: “Notes for a novel never yet written”. We read, “Are those two words? Someday. Tucked into a suitcase. Or sent in a crate. This pure banality, the sending of household supplies by freight, is an emigrant act. A form of nudity.” Is nudity the exposure of one of “other” as immigrant in a suitcase? Are all “others” naked in some sense and is this why there is a lack of sexual nudity in the project?

Sexual nudity, in my host culture, would result – in decimation.  I think a part of me writes experimentally – in order to conceal the potential for this other kind of nudity.  To make it unreadable.  Also, the stories in my family are all about people being beheaded, gutted – the evisceration of the female body, glimpsed — and so on.  What people did, what they saw.  Post-Partition.  Those stories have been inherited, culturally, as a kind of domestic and gender violence – in the communities I lived in or belonged to or am from.  Is this true?  I read an extraordinary book this year, Rana Dasgupta’s Capital that matched to my sense of this: glimpse.  How a glimpse mutates, inherited, as the desire for abject nudity: to be made visible – as part of a series, you could say, that the glimpse: precipitates.

This is why, perhaps, there is always: a partial scene.  On my blog, however, I think I am more explicit.  But also I sometimes delete those entries, the ones where I write in more direct ways about my sexual experiences, or my body itself.  Delete, delete, click.

  1. Can you please describe your intention behind the project as a character named after your personal childhood name, your memoir pieces throughout the book, and the ending passages from your “rogue notebooks”?

My friend at Haberdasher’s Aske’s School for Girls, Lindsey Norman, called me Ban.  As to the other decisions, they match up – to the way in which, over many years, the novel – as it was intended to be or dreamed – was stored.  I began to think of other things, other gestures, other kinds of writing that fill or might fill: a “novel-shaped space.”  The rogue notebooks come from a kind of ennui – no, the sense of being daunted about – opening each notebook in turn and reading it thoroughly.  And also, as I have written about elsewhere, an interest in sensation – as what allows a person to discharge trauma – an attention to sensation – rather than narrative or even image-based content – – which re-loop: the content or activate it too strongly.  The notebooks also function as an expanded environment; what it would be to look away from the “glimpse.”  A glimpse that is also an abyss.

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profile in lingusitics: Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

FrazierAuthorPic0714Soma Mei Sheng Frazier

Websites:

wikipedia.org/Frazier

somafrazier.com

I realize if we lived here we could be home by now. So how do you suggest we communicate? Do we receive and appropriately reciprocate the words of another? Do we communicate the internal gestures of our own healing or projection of trauma? How are we loved? In each encounter we address elements of verbal and nonverbal communication. Soma Mei Sheng Frazier is a writer who focuses on the rigidities and relaxations of our verbal and nonverbal cues and how this intimacy is shaped through the body of our words as well as our actions. In this interview we take a close look at Frazier’s fiction chapbook Collateral Damage: A Triptych, winner of the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize in where she intimates, “every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done?”

Some characters need to “hit rock bottom, in a way that [they] wouldn’t forget.” Some characters have found “peace, so there’s little left to write about”. There are gender tensions present in the work to which Frazier points out, “I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.” Gender aside we are reminded how, “as adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.” Perhaps it is more about the patience we have with others and how we learn to live in our sentences as well as our bodies.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s debut fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, won the RopeWalk Press Editor’s Fiction Chapbook Prize of 2013 and earned high praise from Nikki Giovanni, Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket), Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Antonya Nelson and Molly Giles. Soma’s writing has placed in literary competitions including Zoetrope’s and the Mississippi Review’s, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, been named a Notable Story of 2009 by the storySouth Million Writers Award and won nods from Robert Olen Butler, Jim Shepard and others. Recent work is available in Glimmer Train (Issue 89) and online, at Glimmer Train (Bulletin 72) and Carve Magazine. New stories are forthcoming inZYZZYVA this year and Glimmer Train in 2015. Soma is at work on a novel that walks the line between traditional and urban lit.

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1.)      What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

When I was four, I played boys’ games and wore boys’ jeans: Toughskins, and at least two pairs of dark denim monstrosities whose tag, “Husky,” stuck straight up from the ass. Given my odd interests, stout form and not-so-swank style, I found myself with plenty of alone time.

That year, I picked up the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series – asking my dad for help with larger words; persisting even after Burroughs cracked civilized Tarzan on the head with a rock so he could start from scratch again – and somewhere around Tarzan and the Leopard Men I started wanting to write too.

Once I devoured Grace Paley, Joy Harjo, Nikki Giovanni, Raymond Carver, Maurice Sendak, Judith Budnitz, Kiese Laymon, Kobo Abe, Louise Erdrich, Bob Butler, Tupac Shakur, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Yasunari Kawabata, David Foster Wallace, Stephen King, James Baldwin, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Denis Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Shel Silverstein, Molly Giles, Uwem Akpan, Richard Bausch, Paulo Coelho, Simone de Beauvoir, Sara Teasdale, Joy Williams, Thomas Hardy, Richard Wright, Sylvia Plath, Anais Nin, Ann Beattie, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Molly Giles. Many more. Nowadays I’m so fickle or time-strapped or both that I can barely make it through a book. I read a lot of anthologies, piecemeal, as well as poems by Charles Bukowski and Charles Simic (I do like me some Chuck). I have an enduring fascination with Daniel Handler, who was kind enough to blurb my little fiction collection, Collateral Damage: A Triptych, and my favorite writer to talk with in person would have to be Arisa White.

2.)      Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Hmmm. Burgious Frazier; Shannon Williams-Zhou; Candice “Antique” Wicks, of Antique Naked Soul; Colleen Chen; Marty Rippens; Arisa White; Robert Mezey, who once told me I had “the ear;” Sarah Lawrence College mentor Myra Goldberg, who pointed out that if I was too stubborn to write accessible stories I might as well keep my work to myself; Lisa Schiffman, author and friend; Dartmouth professor Li Hua-yuan Mowry, AKA “Mom.”

3.)      How has your own work changed over time and why?

My work was once vivid; striking. Now it’s factual and quirky, as I’m disenchanted with drama. What is it that Queen Latifah said in “U.N.I.T.Y?” “Uh, and real bad girls are the silent type.” I guess I like work that sneaks up on you to get its hand around your throat.

4.)      Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I have a hard time delineating genres, but I’m interested in translation – from gut feeling to motion, understanding to imperative, experience to page and screen.

5.)      What are your plans for the future?

But of course, world domination. Muahahaha!

I’ll be completing a novel this summer. Shortly thereafter, I’m hoping to secure a full-time, tenure-track teaching gig someplace in the Pacific Northwest.

6.)      What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

I’m always getting surprised by women’s work – Lori Ostlund’s, last week – and I’m hoping that the industry will surprise me as well, by correcting the imbalance that leads to more men’s books being reviewed than women’s, and more males being commissioned write reviews. Women are, after all, the primary consumers of American literature. Another lingering disparity is the industry’s disproportionate whiteness.

7.)      Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Akemi Johnson, Muthoni Kiarie, Arisa White.

8.)      If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

Oriental Cracker Mix. (Delish!)

9.)      “leave,” is a short prose story about an aggressive abusive familial relationship. Jason we learn, “is an alcoholic; but it’s not the drinking that’s the problem. It’s the problem that’s the problem, and drinking is what he does to avoid thinking about it. […] The problem is that our government trained him, and neglected to untrain him.” The feminine persona here, Sarah, is first mothered by her child, Lilli. Sarah lost her breasts to a double mastectomy when she was eighteen. Her mentally abused passive personality regularly leaves their home to avoid physical domestic abuse when her daughter tells her, “Mama, leave”. But Jason is not a machine. Sarah tells us, “And that is how I knew that the military had left some part of him untrained, and that, if I ever needed to, I could touch that part and be rid of him.” And she does. She traces his humanity, insulting him and calling him a “sodomized friend-killing LOSER!” He hits her repeatedly; close to the point of death. She tells us, “Oh free oh free oh free. I smile up at him, just for a moment, and let my face fall slack.” And then it is she who tells him, “Jason, leave, […] evenly.” And she knows that these words will keep her safe. I am at point most attentive to the juxtaposition between Sarah and her daughter. The transfer of responsibility, and how both parents seem to have gone through degenderizing identity creates friction; Jason, through his military experience, and Sarah through the removal of her breasts. When you were creating Sarah as a character, what do you believe gave her the strength to sacrifice herself, to address Jason? And also why he knew, that what she spoke to him was in fact the pain he needed to face, in order to allow her to leave?

I think Sarah’s devotion to Lilli led her to provoke and abandon Jason. I’ve watched people kick bad habits when faced with a child’s reliance – even conflict-averse, starry-eyed addicts who aren’t fully sold on their own worth. A kid is a strong incentive. Hell, I’ve kicked a few habits myself for my daughter Zoe: people, substances, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. (Okay, I lied about the last one. But I eat them furtively now, and mainly in the winter so I can blame my red fingertips on the cold. Brrr.)

Jason – he needed to hit rock bottom, in a way that he wouldn’t forget.

10.)   When we enter into, “everyone is waiting,” we see how spectrums of suffering effects how we are able to relate to one another. The main character Dan is in a fruitious relationship that ends tragically and unexpectedly with his partner Lena when she vomits blood and passes away almost immediately. He is befriended by a woman who is the only one he feels can relate to his most intimate soft spots. Similar to “leave,” even though here the woman is only a friend, we see how the experience of trauma can unite people in a space that is alien to most. Ancanit, who we learn was in the LRA was kidnapped, most of her family was killed, and she was abusively held captive to save her family. There is a dissonance between Ancanit and Dan. While she is able to comfort him, we are left we a startling image of her with a gun at the end of the story. One that seems to haunt her. The women in both of these stories seem to assume responsibility for the pain of their male counterparts. Why do you believe the stories evolved this way, and why do we not hear more about the muted counterpart to the relationship?

Every protagonist in Collateral Damage: A Triptych answers a single question: Can I do what needs to be done? I wrote “Leave” as Sarah’s story and “Everyone Is Waiting” as Dan’s. The secondary characters are less visible, but in some cases more solid. For example, Acanit is practical. At thirteen, she’s withstood more pain than Dan. She handles business and lives with the repercussions, and she’s also a very direct person – whereas he’s tentative; skittish; prone to hiding in facts and figures, turns of phrase. No matter how precarious her situation, she’s found her peace, so there’s little left to write about her, whereas we can still speculate about Dan finding his.

I hadn’t noticed that both Sarah and Acanit took on more emotional responsibility than the men in the first two stories, so your question gave me paws. Meow. Perhaps I was writing from the experience of watching women step up to deal with emotional matters on men’s behalf. I think it’s fair to say that, out here in the world, men are expected to act with emotionless certainty and mask pain. Internally, though, they’re as baffled and hurt as we are. It’s an interesting tension.

11.)   “charlie golf, charlie golf one” is the concluding story of this chapbook in which we meet Mike and Celeste. Mike narrates the relationship and describes, “I’m the one who enlisted at eighteen, shipped out at thirty for one last tour in a field artillery MOS and stepped on a goddamn pressure plate.” The story is one of a “perfect wife” relationship, until the trauma. And Mike cannot tell her, he does not want to tell her about his memory. That after the explosion he heard: “‘Holy shit! His legs! His fucking legs! Where the fuck is fucking Medivac?’ Over and over he shouted those words, but I heard what he was really saying. I love you, Mike. I love you. I love you Mike.” He admits, “I want to tell Celeste this story. More importantly, I want to say that I need her—Charlie Golf, Charlie Golf, for God’s sake, don’t watch me sink—but it’s like I lost my language when I lost my legs. Both of us lost our language.” The language of disaster is loss. Communication is lost. He needs her to listen, but in a way he also knows just as in the previous stories that his words will somehow falter to the devastation of trauma. There is a shift in the story when both characters realize that language is not enough, but the relationship and love through eye contact is. They speak to each other through their eyes. Can you please speak to how we utilize language to intimate the trauma, where it stifles, and how bodies possess the ability to speak past language, to something perhaps more human that allows us to persist in love?

I have a Pit Bull. He’s sentimental: smiles up in the way that Pits do; leans into our legs without language. At night, the dog sits quietly at the window in our stairwell, listening to creaking trees and other questionable sounds that might harm us. His expressive ears twitch. They stand up and sometimes he does too and then, slowly, he sits back down. When friends come to the door he rolls over and submits – lets their children grab his tail. The kids hear him loud and clear,and take advantage. Yet when we go walking, there are always a few pedestrians who flinch away from my tail-wagging dog. Some step off the sidewalk entirely, right into the street with the cars.

My husband is a black man and people react to him the same way, sometimes even while saying Nice to meet you. So I’m guessing most folks who own dogs or are attuned to racism, classism or other under-the-radar isms already understand how bodies speak past language.

But for politically insensitive readers with dog allergies, I will simply defer to multiple studies indicating that human communication is heavily sight-based; less than 10% conversation-based. Even our speech is shaped by nonlinguistic elements: voice quality, pitch, volume, rhythm, intonation, accent and pace. When we’re babies, we’re fluent in all of this. As adults, perhaps some of us lose touch – forget how few words can cut like a lover’s sharp glance; how few mumbled funeral parlor condolences can affect us like a squeeze of the hand.

While some courageous, desperate, immodest or impatient people always take full advantage of language, most of us only gesture toward trauma with words.

My father was quick to use his hands, we might say, on both me and my mom. And then comes the rest of the communication, in micro and macro expressions; a slight lean forward or a slow lean back.

profiles in linguistics: Amber Dermont

Amber Dermont for Inprint 2Amber Dermont

Websites:

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As a child, Amber Dermont grew up in the resonant renaissance of rare book dealers. Poems, she intimates, “taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness.” This intrinsic revelatory relationship between story and text nurtures her admiration of, “writing that doesn’t give up its secrets”. Take for example one musing inspiration she had for her book Damage Control, out from St. Martin’s Press; Bette Davis. Dermont describes her affinity towards the, “beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it.” These sentiments reflect her personal linguistic style, dreaming brightly in a wildfire.

Dermont’s view on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years? She states: “In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same … Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.” For Dermont, “Being a woman is a political act.” There is an advantage sitting in the reams of marginalization: “I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening, but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.”  This is a position one cannot take for granted.

Damage Control is a political pro-choice investigation highlighting the geometric tensions evident in domestication and women’s bodies. Our landscape takes place in an etiquette school between a teacher and his three passion stricken girls who refuse to quiet their desires. Mr. Foster falls for the girls he fosters. He falls for their intellect and their permissive humor. Ultimately, we learn, “the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice, but I also wanted to complicate the narrative.”

Dermont reflects, “Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned … Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger.” The story is one that honors and respects the courageous act of exalting flaw and freedom.

Amber Dermont is the author of bestselling novel, The Starboard Sea, and the short story collection, Damage Control. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Amber received her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Damage Control was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and The Starboard Sea was selected by the New York Times as one of the top 100 Notable Books of 2012. Amber lives in Houston, Texas where she serves as an Associate Professor of English at Rice University.
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1.)    What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. My parents are rare book dealers and I grew up in a home filled with first editions. As a child, I spent most of my vacations hunting for literary treasure in red barns and antique fairs all over New England. We’d speed around in the family Fiat listening to books on tape—short stories by John Cheever, Saki, Guy de Maupassant. A semi-charmed literary upbringing but one that made me take the business of books and writing seriously from a very young age.

Even though I write fiction, my first love is poetry. Many of the poems I have memorized are the ones my father read to me as a child—“The Idea of Order at Key West,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” “The Bat,” “High Windows.” My father is a fan of subversive verse. When I was nine, my Daddy actually handed me Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” then asked, “So, what did you think? Pretty cool, right?” Poems taught me how to feel, how to handle my loneliness. My mother specializes in children’s books. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of stories and if you tell her the half-remembered plot of your long-forgotten favorite childhood tale, she will know the title and the author. My parents taught me how to care for and about books and I am forever in their debt. They are my first inspirations.

I’m less interested in playing favorites with writers and more invested in what I can learn about storytelling, craft and narrative complexity from authors who take real risks in their writing. As a reader, I’ve come to greatly admire difficulty and am particularly engaged by writing that doesn’t give up its secrets. Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Sabrina Orah Mark’s Tsim Tsum, Caryl Pagel’s Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was An Aztec, Holiday Reinhorn’s Big Cats, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Jennifer Chang’s The History of Anonymity, Melissa Febos’s Whip Smart, Melissa Ginsburg’s Dear Weather Ghost, Ramona Ausubel’s A Guide To Being Born are books I return to over and over again. These are complex, ambitious texts that warrant multiple readings. Ideally, I want a book to invite me back; to demand more from me as a reader.

2.)    Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

My friend Amy Margolis has taught me the most about storytelling, pacing, word choice, dramatic enactment and defamiliarization. Amy is the director of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival and when I was a grad student at the Writers’ Workshop, I sat at her feet and listened. Amy’s lessons were always immediate and life changing. She understands how to turn/detonate/deliver a story and she has a singular relationship with language. No one is a better storyteller. No one. At the moment she’s working on a memoir and it’s the one book I crave daily and cannot wait to read.

As a child, I watched a lot of classic Hollywood cinema. Bette Davis was my ideal. Here was a beautiful, difficult, often unlikeable woman who was completely transfixing and divine. She scared the hell out of me and I loved her for it. “Number One Tuna,” a story in my collection, Damage Control, is an homage to Bette Davis’s incomparable filmography. Barbara Stanwyck’s sadness and her unhappy childhood—actually, her entire unhappy life—are a source of constant concern and amazement. She’s my current muse and I long to honor her work. Jean Seberg haunts me and moves me beyond measure. Her political activism probably cost her her life—a gift of basketball uniforms to the Meskwaki nation sent the FBI after her—imagine that.

A dear friend and a cast of Hollywood icons all taught me how to dream brightly and warned me about the dangers of doing so.

3.)    How has your own work changed over time and why?

I never want to write the same story twice. Though writers are the crummiest and most dubious authorities on their own work, I might hazard that my novel, The Starboard Sea, is different in style and tone from my collection, Damage Control. Hopefully the short stories are each their own animal. Maybe my greatest wish as a writer is to escape all categorization. Yes, I wrote a novel about a prep school (a guilty pleasure for most) but writing The Starboard Sea was like setting my childhood on fire. A controlled burn is often the only way a writer can create new worlds but sometimes you need a wildfire. With Damage Control, I challenged myself to learn something new with every story. Each narrative pays tribute to someone I love or loved and lost or loved and temporarily misplaced then found hiding under my bed. The stories are an attempt to reconcile this longing.

Most writers are strange people and I am no exception. I am riddled with contradiction. I’m incredibly shy but I feel most at home on a stage. I would give my shoes to a stranger and walk home barefooted but would prefer to never put on shoes or leave my home. I loathe humanity but an enthralled by the human condition. I admire profound and complex human intelligence but nothing is more moving to me than a wild, open heart. My writing will probably always reflect these contradictions.

4.)    Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

When I was a child, you could sit me down with a stack of Archie’s comic books and I’d be very happy. Over time, I’ve tried to heighten my reading powers—though I would still feel at home at the malt shop with Betty and Veronica. I’ve always had eclectic taste and am inclined to read books that others might dismiss as pulp or genre—not for hipster cred but rather for serious appreciation of form, plot, world creation. Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, Phillip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler have been claimed by the academy as literary writers but I loved them first when they were marginal mavericks. I adore British novels about class and privilege especially those by Evelyn Waugh, Martin Amis, Alan Hollinghurst, and Edward St. Aubyn. Their books play with satire and point of view in daring ways. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the power of fairytale especially Kate Bernheimer, Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. Ultimately, I just wish I could be Alice and write through my own looking glass.

5.)    What are your plans for the future?

I’m drafting another novel. It’s terrifying and literally keeping me up at night. Last week, I was doing research and discovered a fact that actually confirmed one of my fictional details. I felt invincible for two glorious days and wrote with conviction. Don’t worry: all of that glory has worn off by now and I am back to my old terrified self.

Recently, I’ve been developing an original screenplay with the novelist Teddy Wayne. I’ve also written with the author and screenwriter, Mark Jude Poirier. Film is a collaborative art and passing drafts of a screenplay back and forth is particularly challenging and invigorating. Most of the time, writing is isolating and no one knows if you’re keeping honest working hours. It’s comforting to have a comrade in arms—someone who urges you on, helps you meet deadlines, fights your worst instincts and benefits from your minor gifts. Mark and Teddy are both blisteringly funny and sharp but they also have big hearts. It’s a curious thing to be able to write with another person—we enjoy shared sensibilities but we also each need to have something the other doesn’t. Mark and I had been friends for over a decade before we wrote together and the intimacy of that friendship made collaborating a real pleasure. Neither of us has any ego so we both wrote in service to the script. Teddy and I barely knew each other when we began our project but we share a similar drive and instinct for storytelling. Teddy has an extraordinary work ethic. You need to sustain that level of commitment if you hope to write a film worthy of production.

6.)    What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

In 1926 Coco Chanel creates the little black dress and fashion is never the same. Prior to that the color black was used to distinguish a widow or woman in mourning and dresses were meant to hide a woman’s body and hinder her movements. Say what you will about gender and fashion but the little black dress created a revolution.

I’m looking for a literary equivalent.

In the past twenty years, seven women have won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and nine in poetry. Ten women have won the National Book Award in Fiction and five in Poetry. Seven women have won the Booker Prize. In that time, six women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. What does any of this mean?

Women buy/read more literature than men (this is a fact) and female writers often top the best sellers lists. More women are being heard but I fear we are still losing voices especially in terms of race, class, ethnicity and sexual identity. For years, I taught at a women’s college and I encouraged my students to not only be writers but to infiltrate the publishing world and make significant changes in terms of who and what is published. All too often when women achieve some degree of power, they give that power away to a man—either by championing his work or privileging his heart and mind over their own. I write this as someone who has worked with male writers and supported their efforts (at great sacrifice to my own) so I myself am guilty as charged.

Writers benefit from maintaining an outsider status. Women, as a rule, are outsiders. We may make up more than 50 percent of the population but we hold 10 percent of the world’s wealth (who knew that this answer would include so much math). For me, the advantage of being marginalized is that I can observe the world and no one really expects me to comment. “Oh, we didn’t see you there with your notebook writing down all of these terrible things we’ve been saying. How dare you?” I suppose I look innocuous and nonthreatening but inside I am all blowtorch and mass destruction.

Being a woman is a political act. Writing, speaking in public, telling stories are all acts that can result in a woman’s death. I take my position as a writer very seriously and try not to take my privilege for granted. This past year I gave a reading with Jesmyn Ward and I remain in awe of her storytelling, her lyricism and her capacity to understand the good and evil we do. Ward’s writing is one of the great gifts of the last twenty years. She gives me hope.

7.)    Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

I’m a big fan of Madeline McDonnell’s novella Penny, n. and her short story collection There is Something Inside, It Wants to Get Out (both from Rescue Press). McDonnell’s writing is all razor wit and wild heartache. No one has a better command over language or double entendre.

Kelly Luce has just published a dreamy and daring collection Three Scenarios in Which Hanna Sasaki  Grows A Tail (from A Strange Object) that I recommend to anyone who loves magical toasters, imaginative leaps, outrageous honesty and miracles, miracles, miracles.

Melinda Moustakis won the Flannery O’Connor Prize for her collection, Bear Down Bear North and her writing is in direct dialogue with O’Connor’s work. Moustakis is fearless. She will take you into the darkness then teach you to love the white nights of Alaska.

A. Naomi Jackson has two novels that are about to be published and her words will light

up the sky. Her writing carries the wisdom of the ages.

Laurie Watel writes with profound strength and narrative authority. Her sentences contain a clarity and purity that readers hunger for but Watel never makes easy choices. She complicates her narratives in brilliant and surprising ways.

Megan Mayhew Bergman dazzles me on all fronts. She understands the natural world better than anyone and draws on our relationship to animals in surprising, harrowing and delightful ways.

Periel Aschenbrand is one of the funniest, dazzling and most uncompromising memoirists around. Her two books, The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own and On My Knees will keep you laughing, screaming and reeling but they will also teach you how to take better care of yourself.

8.)    If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I am searching, always searching for the next story.

9.)    In your short story “Damage Control,” there is a triangulation between the relationship to Landon, the boss’s daughter, and the girls in the Sis and Hasty Breedlove School of Southern Etiquette. The school is based around the curtsy; the performance of the comfortable. As the main character, teacher, and boyfriend Mr. Foster elucidates, “manners are neither commonsensical nor elitist, but rather an inclusive, complex methodology for making people feel comfortable.” The established frictive pull to the girls is intensified by their utter lack of manners. Can you describe this tension, why it feels solidified in a genuinity that contrasts Mr. Foster’s statement, and how this relates to the connection he has with his lover Landon?

I’m very grateful for these questions but I also want to say at the start that I do not believe that my opinion regarding any of my stories is any more valid or informed than any other reader’s. What will follow are merely thoughts—not explanations.

Years ago, I was struck by the relationship between gender and etiquette. I was teaching a class on gender studies and used an old etiquette book to illustrate the social construction of gender. If there’s an etiquette around a subject matter then that subject can and will be discussed according to the rules of etiquette. However, if there is no etiquette, there is no discussion. I wanted to write a story with a happy ending where the happy ending was not just one but three abortions. The girls in the story refuse domestication. They are audacious and reckless but they are also smart and funny and in control of their bodies. Mr. Foster believes he can control the world through etiquette and charm but he is merely a servant to these girls and their desires. It’s a strange story; one that I never thought would actually be published (never mind turn out to be the title story in my collection.) I thank Jill Meyer from American Short Fiction for taking a chance on a coven of untamable teenaged girls.

Love stories require triangulation and conflict. Mr. Foster has to choose between his lover Landon and the girls he fosters. I hope he makes the right choice.

10.)    The dialogue of the girls in the etiquette school is robust, overtly sexual, and encompassing. We ruminate between lines such as, “my mom knows how to swim. She thinks I’m a lesbian,” to “Molly showed us her bikini wax. Want to see it?” to “Molly thinks I’m polymorphously perverse”.  And as he himself admits, draws him into their world. The relationship is reciprocal; they need each other. One student tells him, “Mr. Foster, we should all sleep with a picture of you at the bottom of your beds. If your face was the first thing that we saw every morning our lives would, like, totally improve.” Does he want them to improve though and what does that mean? Is he, not in a way improving, further seduced by their inappropriate nature? Can you please describe how you utilize the dialogue of the girls to present this unraveling?

I believe that characters should only speak when they absolutely have to and only when they have something revealing to say. I love a great one-liner, a bawdy non sequitur. From Mae West and Moms Mabley to Joan Rivers, Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, so many women in stand-up comedy have made heroic advancements in feminism by saying smutty, outrageous and transgressive assertions regarding our bodies, our desires and our disappointments. I love that Mr. Foster falls for these girls—not for their bodies but for their good humor and wit.

11.)    These girls, Mr. Foster admits, “are a mystery to me. Their rituals and desires terrify me, and I feel myself getting lost among them.” He goes on to say, “Everything will go as planned, as ordered and conceived by me. These girls are my future and my family, my destiny, my choice.” But are they really his choice? The connection to the girls seems an unswayable trance yet he remains in a position as facilitator. Can you elaborate on this relationship? How do you see Mr. Foster and the girls participating in the teacher student dynamic? Who is in fact the guiding factor and how does this relate to the title of the story?

Ultimately, the girls are in control. I wanted to write a pro-choice story and knew from the start that the last word would be choice but I also wanted to complicate the narrative. Mr. Foster isn’t entirely reliable—he has his illusions/delusions.

Frequently, rumors emerge about anti-abortion politicians who have secretly arranged for and insisted that their partners or mistresses have abortions. “Do as I say, not as I do” is a classic patriarchal rule of etiquette. I feel obligated to call out hypocrisy wherever I see it. Years ago, I heard a story about a famous ex-president who (allegedly) arranged for his girlfriend (pre Roe V. Wade) to have an abortion. It’s an extraordinary yet all-too-predictable story, well-sourced and most likely true and it speaks to a particular culture of American hypocrisy. I had that story in mind when writing “Damage Control.”

Abortion is legal but states make it harder and harder to achieve access. I wrote this story while living in Texas and—at the time—if I’d wanted to get an abortion, I would have had trouble finding a doctor willing to perform one. Yet again I find myself in Texas and yet again reproductive freedom is under siege. (Wendy Davis for Governor!) Abortion Clinics are curious spaces to me. Hospitals—which all too often have religious affiliations—have outsourced surgery and women’s health issues. By creating a clinic where reproductive rights are exercised, we’ve created a space where those very rights can be protested, challenged, threatened, assaulted, condemned. Hospital administrators don’t want abortion protesters on their front lawns and so we live in a world where a medical procedure is criminalized.

Women’s lives are more complicated than men’s because we are called upon to make more complicated decisions. Our decisions place us in danger. A pregnant woman is most likely to die at the hands of the person who made her pregnant. I wanted to write an unapologetic story about abortion but I also, more importantly, wanted to create a world with wounded, complex characters willing to exercise and exalt their freedoms.