IN CONVERSATION WITH KATE ZAMBRENO
When I first saw Kate Zambreno, she was giving a lecture at the “Violence and Community” Symposium hosted by Naropa University in 2012, entitled “Apoplexia, Toxic Shock, and Toilet Bowl: Some notes on why I write.” She read fifty points, notes. She declared, “it is an absolutely fucked-up time to be female.” She read, “I’d like to make a case for maladaptive emotions in a maladaptive society where we are physically and psychically oppressed. A case for toxic or furious women.” These words echoed through and past the space of the symposium, haunting me.
Later that day, I saw her standing by a triptych of bright pink silk cocoons hanging from the wooden beams of the University’s administrative building. The hot pink silk of the cocoons suspended eerily above Zambreno, twisting and glistening in the Colorado sun. Glistening bright like blood. The cocoons were an installation by La Genet, a curatorial collaboration between Zambreno and her partner John Vincler. The exhibit was titled NO MORE WIRE HANGERS.
One year later, I found the text of the lecture “Apoplexia” in Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The words that had haunted me were printed in a chapbook (Guillotine #3), the cover of which screams the same hot pink as the cocoons. I opened it up and read, “as opposed to swallowing violence I need to vomit it up.”
Kate Zambreno births monsters in the form of mutant texts, texts that push and breach the boundaries of genre, the boundaries of the text itself. She writes of and from the female body itself, inserting the body into the text. If Hélène Cixous’ écriture feminine is white ink, perhaps Kate Zambreno’s ink is the red, is the hot pink of the female body’s power and violence. And she writes the female monstrous, madness, and violence. In texts like Green Girl (Emergency Press, 2011) and O Fallen Angel (Chiasmus Press, 2010), Zambreno presents different mutations of fictions, different mutations of the woman and the girl. In her innovative work of subjective criticism, Heroines (Semiotext(e), 2012), and her upcoming projects, Book of Mutter, and Drifts, Zambreno is working to transgress the forced objectivity of scholarship, of memoir and history, reclaiming the essay as a space for the female body.
SALLY SECK: The trajectory of your writing has evolved from innovative fiction—O Fallen Angel and Green Girl—into the forms of subjective literary criticism—Heroines—and anti-memoir—The Book of Mutter. What impulse would you say drives this movement between forms, these mutated or monstrous forms? What forms do you anticipate mutating in the future?
KATE ZAMBRENO: I don’t think of it as an evolution—I think that perhaps suggests a hierarchy between forms or genres (which is out there, of course, I try to ignore it.) And, just historically, I think of all of these works as my first movement as a writer—they are all the works I more or less incubated (or mutilated, or mutated) while not publishing. Technically O Fallen Angel was published first but was written later than the genesis of the others—a surprise, to write a book in such a flash over one summer, a surprise, people actually wanted to publish it, unlike the other misfits and orphans that were in a drawer unwanted for years, the projects too I keep on failing and circling and coming back to. For all these other projects I’ve labored over in some form or another for quite some time. It has been remarked of me that I’m quite prolific, because I published a book every year for a few years—yet I take forever to write things. I’m very slow and am becoming increasingly unproductive—which in a way I am trying to savor, my current state, defiantly unproductive, nonreproductive (this is a monstrous state too.) I do tend to work on more than one book at the same time. There’s that line in Renee Gladman’s excellent Toaf, that I keep returning to, I can’t find it, but it’s something like: For those of us working on more than one book at a time, how do you keep it all from bleeding? That tends to be my process. Just trying to stop all of the bleeding. I spend forever making lists about severing one book from the other, like attached twins.
Except for OFA, which I guess is more of a set of monologues, an attempt to write grotesque portraits like Bacon’s triptychs—I actually feel the other books have more in common than not, although they all have different forms to accommodate the mess, to reword Beckett. I think they’re all highly referential and about reading, about other books. I just read an essay where Eileen Myles wrote that she thinks of her books as novels, because you are supposed to read a novel from the beginning to the end. In that way I think all of my books I’ve written are novel-like, while also having some aspect of the essay to them.
In terms of “critical memoir,” or “anti-memoir,” or “essay-novel,” or “mixed genre,” or “hybrid,” or all the weird mutations in which I have variously described my writing—I wish I could just say “books.” I am most drawn to works that are uncategorizable—I feel these works contain a certain electricity, a sort of refusal against both preconceived forms and the market.
SS: I want to thank you for Heroines, as it served as the impetus for my master’s thesis written under Bhanu Kapil’s advisement, on Anna Kavan as an experimental writer. In the introduction, I write, “Heroines feels like a call to action: to peel away the lingering obstruction of biographical criticism that binds women’s lives to their work and analyze women’s texts as aesthetic and literary subjects.”
I asked you in an email about the girl as monster, because I have been lately obsessed with the character, the archetype, of Anna Kavan’s girl. You responded that you have been “starting to consider the woman as monster much more in my work.” How have you experienced this evolution from the girl character to the woman character? In what ways is the girl monster differ from the woman monster?
KZ: I was just talking to Bhanu Kapil about this over email, about her monsters, about the monsters I’m beginning to write to, thinking too of her important book, Incubation: A Space for Monsters, thinking of Clarice Lispector writing an abject girl of her past in The Hour of the Star, as she’s dying of cancer, writing too “Am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?” Thinking of Marguerite Duras as an old woman, with her ravaged face and whiskey, writing what Avital Ronell calls her “alcoholizations” (I get this from Maggie Nelson in her magnificent Bluets), conjuring up the past in The Lover.
Anyway, what I mean to say: I think with that period of writing I was conjuring up and murdering the girl that I was. In some ways this is a tender horror. I think this already happens with the narrator’s maternal ambivalence in Green Girl, with the crucifixion of my Maggie in O Fallen Angel. The girl can be, perhaps, suffocated by everyone else’s definition of her, she can be made claustrophobic by the gaze, she hopefully reacts against this and writes her own defiant and ecstatic witness, her own ambivalent libertine. But as we get older we become more invisible, or made visible only in our decline, a refusal to groom or tame our bodies or selves. And so lately I’ve been more interested in say—Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher, or Duras’ zombie heroine (Bhanu again) Lol Stein, or Shulamith Firestone locked up in her fifth-floor walk-up in the East Village, or Nella Larsen dropping out of the literary scene after a scandal and becoming a nurse in Brooklyn.
But I cannot escape the girl—I will always still be writing the girl, the girl I was and the girls I’ve known, I still am in many ways a girl (thinking of Chris Kraus’ concept of the girl more as a failed subjectivity, of femininity as generally a failure, such as Dodie Bellamy writes to in her text “Girl Body.”) And I’m still writing a girl-monster, my Monkey who is trapped in the cellar by her father, a novel of hidden girls and what is hidden, that I’ve been working on and kind of frustrating over for years. Yet Monkey too grows old and gray underground.
Yes, Anna Kavan’s glass girl! Such an interesting movement. She dies her hair ice-blonde after being institutionalized, and begins to write this cipher in her increasing horrors. I love Anna Kavan and will return to her, in some way, in every text I will ever write. She is the writer for me—of dystopia, of disappearance, of a mythology that increases into a demonology. And too, like her perhaps, I keep on writing iconic blondes. I have scribbled down an outline for this book about an aging actress, Sirens, well I’ve been working on it forever and it’s always wrong, it was originally a set of monologues, lately it’s been essays about a book that never happens, but anyway—I really want to make her blonde, I also really want her to go work at a department store, like Gene Tierney had to in Kansas—and I’m realizing I already did that, in Green Girl, but I desire to do that still. Repetition to me is the gesture of writing.
I feel all of this is somehow encompassed in Kathy Acker’s peroxide, plus Marilyn Monroe’s reinvention, Jean Harlow literally dying of her bleach, it poisoned her kidneys—I feel I can just gesture to it and return to it again. I am bottled up.
SS: The Book of Mutter is forthcoming in 2014. I am interested in it as a work of anti-memoir, and as the stitching together of scraps of anti-memories or histories of women in your family and women in history. This overlapping is intriguing and makes me think of Heroines and its art: a cut and paste collage, a feminine art form transcending the boundaries of physical time and space to bring women together as sisters, as classmates in the yearbook of a girl’s school. Why is it important for you to, tell the stories of these women—Mary Todd Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Vivienne Eliot, and Zelda Fitzgerald—to tell their stories together, give them a space for companionship, a cohort?
KZ: Well, the history of American feminism will remind us that the term “sister,” is fraught—assuming a companionship or commonality that is largely absent, due to other hierarchies, and then the whole idea of sisterhood killing, etc. But I do use the term sisters, and I use the term mothers, ad nauseum, right? and I think for all of these women I’m attempting to find some makeshift family, maybe.
Intimates? Maybe another mother? Although like myself all of these women I write to would have been terrible mothers, probably. I was standing up in a bookstore on Avenue A last night scribbling elaborate notes on Nan Goldin’s magnificent 1986 visual diary The Ballad of Sexual Dependence, I also took tons of pictures with my phone, the proprietor was not thrilled—and I think a)she’s doing everything in those photographs I’ve been interested lately in writing, in terms of a certain nakedness and writing the body and b)I love what she says in the introduction, about how her friends formed a tribe for her, that this was her documenting her tribe.
I’ve always had trouble making friends. I crave intimacy with others most in the world, that companionship, that connection. It’s always been difficult for me however. I was bullied when I was younger. I am often depressed and retreat.
So I think—I think so much of my work has been about this, and will continue to be. I think I’m interested in difficult women, especially women who wanted to be artists, in their failures and fragilities, their uneasy communities with each other and refusals often of kinship. I don’t think I’m sometimes liking these women I’m drawn to, and often I too find them repulsive, say Vivienne Eliot’s fascism or Mary Todd Lincoln’s melodrama, but I do love them. Or my portraits of them are wrapped up in identification and empathy, the uncomfortable stripping away of boundaries between us.
There’s a cloistering too, for me, with these figures, my tribe—who are not only female, lately it’s been as much Kafka and Nietzsche and Genet and Thomas Bernhard, these haters—that when I feel isolated, and alien, and unknown or misread, and unbearably anxious about what I’ve written or what I will write, I can commune with these writers, I can have my paper soulmates, as Cixous writes. They often give me courage and permission and recognition.
SS: I’d love to hear more about your work-in-progress, Scratches. You have also referred to it in your blog, Frances Farmer is My Sister, as Mad Wife, and indicated that its secret title is In Praise of Female Monsters. In what way does this work expose the woman writer as the female monster? You have referred to Scratches as a novel in your blog. But the title alludes to Michel Leiris’ autobiography. Is this work a novel cannibalizing your autobiography? Are you, like Anna Kavan, painting portraits of your self as monster?
KZ: “Scratches” was the term I gave, after Leiris, a long time ago to my writing projects, including my private and obsessive notebooking process, which are in some ways memory projects, or documentations of a sort (I like the term for its connotation of violence and impossibility). I thought of it like Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Death Sentences,” that scrawl on a scrap in Malina…I guess I’m working on my own Death series, which will most likely be unfinished as well. What I mean is that Malina is probably one of the most important, and mythical books to me, and I’m attempting now to write about what it’s like to be a woman writer and the seeping of this into philosophy and a political history, that is extremely inspired by, entirely indebted to that book. I’ve been thinking lately about writers like Clarice Lispector and Édouard Levé, how they approach their books. I’ve written in the past two years a few essays, really the only writing I’ve been doing besides constant diary-writing, these essays, on the photographs of Anne Collier, the work of Kathy Acker, Barbara Loden’s film Wanda, that I think might eventually make their way into their own collection, not really collection, a book, a book that meditates on the essay, the first-person, the woman in public, the actress breaking down, that I’m calling Sirens. I’m primarily now working on a notebook, that is at once fictionalized yet ambivalent about fiction, that is born somehow from experience and memory, while carving away at biographical specificity. Although “Scratches” is an idea in it, this attempt at writing, the novel is now called Drifts—and that is how it will be structured, a series of drifts, of drifting and drifters, a novel of disappearance and ego, of disquiet, of loneliness and the city. Of community and heartbreak.
I’m still working on the form of Drifts. I’m really inspired by Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives (and Wojnarowicz is a figure I circle around in the work). I want it to be more beautiful than anything I’ve written before—but also, I want to find some sort of honesty, some nakedness, some tenderness, that I’ve never achieved. To write a beautiful book! An elegant book! But also: how to write a book that disintegrates, yet ruptures in the process. How to write melancholy and beauty and rage. How to make the alien glittering. How to love the monster, how to convince the monster she’s loveable. How to stage one’s own immolation, or refusal.
Kate Zambreno is the author of two novels, O Fallen Angel (Chiasmus Press) and Green Girl (to be republished by Harper Perennial in May 2014). She is also the author of the hybrid book-length essays, Heroines (Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents) and Book of Mutter (published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015). She is teaching this year in the creative writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University.
Sally Seck is an Appalachian feminist experimental writer living in Cotopaxi, Colorado. She has an M.F.A. in Writing and Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University and is the author of two chapbooks, Salt of the Earth and Rivers and Swans, and a hybrid manuscript, Molt.