Literatures of the Girl: An Interview with Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is the author of the novels Green Girl and O Fallen Angel Her book of essays, Heroines , will be published by Semiotext(e)'s Active Agents series in Fall 2012.

I read Green Girl as part of a larger body of literature--I guess you could say "literature of the girl," which deals with a lot of different ideas of femininity and the female experience but also I think specifically talks about femininity as a kind of labor in exchange for a (usually limited) degree of material comfort provided by male lovers--like Jean Rhys's narrators, or Doris in Irmgard Keun's The Artificial Silk Girl . So in a certain sense, that performance isn't entirely consensual, and it's dictated by the demands of male desire, and it's also very explicitly informed by class. There's always the sense that the narrator is being observed, and knows she's being observed, in all these books, and in Green Girl as well. Can you talk a little about how you see your work fitting in with, or writing against, that literature?

Hi Rejectionist! Yes, I think it's become my sort of idée fixe , this idea of the girl, how she has been written, rewritten, whether she herself writes. This obsession ran parallel with my desire to become a writer, to excavate the experience of being a fucked-up girl in my early twenties, because I wasn't reading literature reflecting that, I wanted to write something that made the toxic girls I knew and that I once was say aaahhh with recognition like Infinite Jest , or Kerouac's On the Road did. Of course, I had Jean Rhys as a precursor but didn't know it yet. And then while working in a bookshop in London while 26 or 27 I read all the silver Penguin Rhys paperbacks, devoured them whole--and was like, oh, well, she did it, Rhys did do it, she wrote of a demimonde almost a century earlier that was still so immediately recognizable and real today, of a feminine economy, where girls use and are used. And to some extent I think my character Ruth in Green Girl fits into that tradition--both "preyed and prayed upon," as I write in a reading of Rhys in my upcoming critical book Heroines , but she needs the approval of the outside in order to existentially exist, more passively pulled by the force of others' desire, less so dependent on them for material survival, like Anna with her protector in Rhys' Voyage in the Dark (I love that scene in Voyage in the Dark , the 18-year-old heroine Anna is reading a book, and her older, brazen chorus-girl friend Maudie says of the "dirty book"--"I bet you a man writing a book about a tart tells a lot of lies one way or another.") But yes even in Green Girl there's a class system to all of this--Ruth is Woolf's nameless, powerless "girl behind the counter"--or her power is in her youth and beauty. She will let a man buy a dress for her and just hope she doesn't have to sleep with him, or she'll sleep with someone to have power over him. I wrote a toxic girl character more broadly drawn in my first novel, a triptych of Americans during wartime called O Fallen Angel , and a reviewer classified my character, Maggie, as a prostitute, because of a passage in which I wrote that Maggie occasionally slept with men to get help moving, or for money for a ride home. Just like the modernist women I'm fascinated with are classified often in Wikipedia as "prostitutes"--like the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven or girls mentioned only by first name in Surrealist texts. It's actually that these muses of modernism were just very conscious of their roles in the exchange, conscious of what they had to perform (Miller in Tropic of Cancer goes on and on about the "whore" but he too is a "whore" himself, bartering himself and his services for money, for survival. I guess the power is in who gets to name). I discuss a lot of these ideas in the upcoming Heroines .

But to get to your other question, in Green Girl my narrator is the one doing the observing, she has created and is constantly watching the girl, much like the girl always watches herself and is watched. She is kind of an ambivalent mother-figure, sometimes quite cruel and dismissive, other times maternal. In some ways the novel became my meditation on youth in general, and more of a philosophy of the girl, so became more hyper-aware, of the literature she fits into or she's been excluded from. In my creation of my narrator, who is Ruth's author, I was really inspired by Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star .

It's also very interesting to me, and by "interesting" I mean "deeply depressing," the extent to which these kinds of perspectives are totally erased from what's considered literature--I think the "power of who gets to name" is a very nice way of putting it, and who is doing the naming hasn't changed at all between Rhys and Green Girl (I mean, between Marie de France and Green Girl , if we are getting technical). I would consider myself pretty rabidly anti-essentialist, but I think there is also a real truth to the idea of écriture féminine --where you have this body of writing by women that is basically united in having difference imposed upon it, of having specific stories devalued or erased altogether. And obviously particular women--queer/poor/trans/of color--are erased more routinely, but even the idea of telling a story like Ruth's is still seen as not a worthwhile project. It's something I've been thinking a lot about lately, because I also write (so far exclusively) about women, and I wonder sometimes if it's possible to really understand work by and about women if you haven't had the experience of being read as female. I also just read Dodie Bellamy's Barf Manifesto , where she describes "the Barf" as a literary form that "comes naturally to women" ("The Barf is feminist, unruly, cheerfully, monstrous... not so much anti-logocentric, anti-dichotomy, as outside the whole fucking system"). Do you believe in a kind of writing that is, I guess for lack of a better phrase, inherently female? Or that that shared experience of exclusion leads to a different kind of literature?

I mean, I think the literature's out there‚ in contemporary American writing, just in the past few years, I'm thinking works by Danielle Dutton, everything Danielle publishes on her Dorothy press, Laurie Weeks' Zipper Mouth , Bhanu Kapil's recent Schizophrene , a lot of writing done on women writers' personal blogs, like by Bhanu or Suzanne Scanlon or Jennifer Lowe or Jackie Wang. I think our work is often just pushed to the margins. We are often shuttled to the "minor" in the public literary conversation. A few things to parse out here--when I think of l'écriture feminine as interrogated by the French feminists, I think of a radical mode of writing, that is the writing of voice, of the body, by the outlaw. That to me is also a question of style, closely associated with the Surrealist idea of automatic writing--and maybe some of what Woolf was talking about when she wrote about breaking the sentence in A Room of One's Own , which to her looked a lot like Dorothy Richardson's stream-of-consciousness. A lot of Cixous' examples of this type of radical writing were men--Thomas Bernhard or Joyce's Molly Bloom monologue. I would add to that Eliot's "The Waste Land" or the monologues of Artaud or Bataille's Blue of Noon or Céline or Henry Miller (and for women examples--of course Jean Rhys and Jane Bowles and Violette Leduc and Marguerite Duras and etc.). But another aspect of this idea of feminine writing is not only the style but also the experience--that of being subaltern, silenced. And I think the explicit, the excessive, the emotional, is a vital way to write against the system, to revolt--and for precursors of this I think of the queer and feminist practitioners of New Narrative, including Dodie, but also Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz's Close to the Knives , Dennis Cooper, Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles, how these writers subverted the novel form and inserted their monstrous and messy selves into the conversation. I don't think the reader should be excluded from the conversation, though--there's this weird idea in our culture that women writing is only for women (I'm thinking V.S. Naipaul and his dismissal of women writing as "feminine tosh")--I don't think that's true at all. I think these works are just less visible and known, and so are not regarded as canonical. I write a lot to this in the critical text that's coming out.

Oh, for sure, I don't meant to say that you have to be female to read women's writing; but I was thinking about this conversation when I was walking to the subway the other day, and some guy started following me yelling "It's my birthday! Why don't you fuck me!" and I thought, "You know, this is a very particular and visceral type of experience that a large group of people will never have, and it certainly colors my perception of the world whether or not I want it to." For me, I think that kind of externally enforced essentialism is pretty central to my experience of reading, of the kinds of stories I'm drawn to and the kinds I lose patience with very quickly.

"Feminine tosh" is a nice segueway into Marie Calloway--you wrote that brilliant piece that was republished at Thought Catalog, and there's so much there I want to ask you about--but I think one thing you didn't really talk about that interests me is whether you think that kind of confessional writing is altered by the medium it's transmitted in. Do you think the Internet has affected what you call "the decision to write the body"?

Why didn't you fuck him? I mean, it WAS his birthday! Very little to ask for, after all. Yes. We need women to write to revolt against THAT. Agreed. And more than that, I think it was Simone deB who said in The Second Sex , I'm rewording her, that yes largely we are equal, but it's these little upsets and humiliations that we burrow under our skin, the experiences of living in a patriarchal society. We need a literature to viscerally reflect that. As Jean Rhys does for me, or Virginia Woolf, the modernist wild women I love, as well as more contemporary writers, Kathy Acker or Elfriede Jelinek or Ingeborg Bachmann. I find myself lately reading *mostly* women writers, and women writers who write of the fucked and fucked-up experience of being female, although my mentors on the page are equally male (Thomas Bernhard, Beckett, Henry Miller, Bataille, I love so many assholes it seems). What I guess I was reacting to, which I don't think at all that you were implying, is that the feminine experience is not universal or human enough for great literature (which even Simone deB in The Second Sex suggested). Or Caitlin Flanagan just recently in The Atlantic hurrahing about Didion being for girls, Hunter S. Thompson for boys. Fuck that.

I think there's a whole other revolution of l'écriture feminine happening on the Internet--I know that seems hyperbolic, but I really do believe it. The blog is such a fascinating, confessional, diaristic, form, that has something in common with the notebook form, Camus' notebooks or Elizabeth Hardwick's fictional notebook Sleepless Nights , or Montaigne's longform essays. I'm thinking less of Marie Calloway and more the notebooking you do, or the subsubculture of writers who keep personal literary blogs that comment often on my own blog, Bhanu Kapil or Jennifer Lowe or Suzanne Scanlon. I think there is something particularly feminine about this form--also that we can publish ourselves, and that it's uncensored except what we choose to censor, that we can be pseudonymous or develop different literary personas. This sort of blogging is part process, part performance art. And I would connect it in a lineage to girls writing in their Tumblrs, and before that Livejournals. What I find fascinating about Marie Calloway and mostly the older school, traditional reaction, is that she is a writer who grew up with these forms, so being confessional in public was second-nature to her, part of the way writers and girls like her compose and mediate their existences. Probably the last third of Heroines meditates on the girl-blogger, and her previous incarnation as a diarist in the modernist period, Jean Rhys' diaries or Anais Nin's notebooks.

Right, his birthday! What an asshole I am.

Another thing that's so fascinating to me about the reaction to that story is the obsession with whether or not it's "true," or how much of it is "true"--which, to my mind, is one of the least interesting questions you can ask about a piece of writing (I mean, other than journalism, where "truth" takes on a whole different quality--but anyway). Personal blogging seems to blur that line quite a bit in interesting ways. Eileen Myles is a writer who plays with that pretty brilliantly, I think--in all her prose, but especially in Inferno . And as I told you, I read Inferno and Green Girl back to back, and they complement each other and intersect in these fantastic ways. Two very different blueprints for your potential life as a girl, but the problems faced by the narrators are the same: being fundamentally hampered by other people's readings of your body (there's that great line in Inferno : "I always hear about men feeling humiliated by the army, or something. They should try being female"; which dovetails with Green Girl 's narrator's observation that "being a girl is like always being a tourist, always conscious of yourself, always seeing yourself as if from the outside"). So collapsing all of that writing, which comes out of a lived experience--I mean, it has to, I don't think you can live the experience of being female without being affected by it on some level--into "Is it true? Or not?"--seems so tremendously boring to me. I guess that's not a question. But maybe you have a thought about it?

Yeah, it's really interesting how short-sighted people can be in terms of literary history. I keep on saying again and again that I'm boring myself--nonfiction and fiction are genre terms, worse than that, they're publishing house terms, but this strict division wasn't always there. And the writing I'm most interested in blurs these boundaries, blurs boundaries in general--and I definitely see the New Narrative writers as fitting into that. I recently reread Kathy Acker's Great Expectations and I was really thrown with how she was fucking with the notion of autobiography, she's writing her life, she's writing the life of the girl, but she complicates it, she fractures into all of these personas, she tries to insert the girl back into literature, she writes the girl coming to be an artist, which was before seen as the province of the great men, which I think Eileen M. does as well with taking back the poet's novel in Inferno ... And I am really interested in Eileen Myles' recent prose work, as well as my editor, Chris Kraus', I feel they have really revolutionized and made feminine, or queer, the nonfiction novel. But there are precursors to this, Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories , where the narrator is named Christopher Isherwood, Henry Miller's novels. But the naked memoir was often seen as taboo in modernism, Scott Fitzgerald getting shit from his male contemporaries for his "Crack-Up" essays, or Ezra Pound furiously scribbling PHOTOGRAPHY next to the lines of marital distress in Eliot's "The Waste Land." But... but... a point I try to make in Heroines ... that I really wrestle with... is that I feel it's considered more dangerous, more taboo, when the girl who was previously muse or character takes back her own narrative. And I really focus on the shitstorm that happened when Zelda Fitzgerald attempted to circle around her experiences of breakdown, while writing Save me the Waltz , the "madness" material Fitzgerald was stewing over for years and years with Tender is the Night . Or Jean Rhys' drawing from her life as material in the novels.

The Marie C. situation, added to that the immediacy of blogging, is not a strict parallel. She initially wrote the piece as memoir on her blog, then when Tao Lin published it some names were changed and it was "ta-da!" fiction. I don't deny there's perhaps some ethical dubiousness about writing so confessional in a blog format, involving potentially unaware parties (I'm referring to people's concern over the girlfriend in the unknowing ménage). But the point I think I was trying to make, at least one of them, is that this is not a new conversation. And yes the question "is it true?" is totally boring. And the defense "yet it's fiction," also boring.

I think people draw such strict lines between "fiction" and "memoir"--perhaps MFA programs are to blame, with their genre divisions? What you say here about Green Girl is true. I wrote from, I always try to draw from, to plumb, the material of my existence. I did with Green Girl go into a space of fiction, I did begin to regard Ruth as this character outside of myself, and Agnes, who truth be told are both versions of myself at one point, and began to model both of them on others I had known, the girl living down below from me, celebutantes, wordless girls that stared blankly at me from fashion advertisements. And Green Girl did start more as autobiography, but as Jean Rhys has said, real life doesn't have shape, and then as I began to work more and more on the book, and it became this world more distanced from myself, the novel itself became a meditation on fiction, on what it means to be a character, what it means for a woman or girl to always feel like a character in a novel, and with the appearance of the narrator--which came later--also a semifictionalized character, I began to meditate on this character, Ruth, this former self, on youth in general. But in terms of "truth"--I think, I hope, there's a lot of truth in the novel. I am not a blonde Deneuvian ingenue, I have never worked as a perfume spritzer in a major department store, when I lived in London I was an impoverished new married, working in a bookshop, and a few years away from those mythical fuck-up years. But the stuff of the novel--the real stuff--is true. And the other stuff--the icing--where I lived, who I worked with, characters in my path, experiences being out in the world, my experience of being a girl in a city, of being a foreigner in London, of getting my hair cut--lots of that is taken from my life, my lived and observed life, taken up and twisted and planted where I saw fit.

I am always reminded of this when I see the way men sit on the subway--the unapologetic occupation of as much space as you want to take up can be a really useful strategy. I do that in my writing, and in my daily life as much as I can.

Oh I like that--an unapologetic occupation.

New Yorkers: Kate is reading at the Franklin Park Reading Series on February 13 and at the KGB Bar on February 19.