Lucy Ives: Have more “Calamities” transpired?
Renee Gladman: I’m on page 45 of Calamities, which means there are probably about thirty essays now.
LI: They’re about a page each?
RG: Yes, usually a page or a page and a half. I’m starting with a question or premise, like cleaning the espresso maker, allowing that to relate to a heavy topic, but treating it in a haphazard way, allowing that to change into something else or letting it fall off, because there’s really nothing you can say. I start from the idea of being in the day, then generate an idea from it, let it fall apart, and see what the shape is after that. And for some reason they end up having this ditty shape of a couple pages.
LI: Say a bit more about this “ditty shape”?
RG: I call them ditties because they feel less like they’re trying to travel; there is just one point that gets made in a quick circle. It’s funny to call them essays anyway, because they fail as essays. They don’t sustain an argument, they don’t go anywhere, they don’t conclude anything, and the half-paragraph ones seem even more so, kind of absurd. I mean, the whole thing is to allow me to have fun with some of my stresses, like teaching, being an academic, trying to get tenure, living in a sad, lonely city. It’s a way of getting out of a kind of rut, a question I couldn’t get past, what should I be doing with my writing.
LI: What should you be doing with your writing?
RG: If I were a really good drawer I would give up writing and just make beautiful line drawings, or at least for a while that would suffice, but I don’t draw well enough to abandon writing. Sometimes I go around and talk about the sentence and prose, and for a while I was really stuck on how thoughts exist in a preverbal way. I was thinking about how in our minds we have many things going on simultaneously, as images, half words, gestures, partial marks, and from that multiplicity we go into the single line of articulation, of expression. I kept trying to point back to that threshold moment, that translation or becoming. The linguistic selection process, what you decide to privilege, is fascinating to me, but it’s hard to know what to say about it. It makes writing a very interesting space. Writing is not a map, but something that comes after mapping.
LI: Do you think about a reader in that sense?
RG: It’s bewildering enough trying to grasp “the person” in space and time; imagine trying to think about the reader as you write. For me, writing is a kind of pursuit of company that never comes. That comes, but then leaves or gets taken away; a pursuit that, because I write fiction, is embedded in the narrative. It gets acted out in the events of a narrator and another character or group of characters. I guess it is possible to see something about the reader in here.
LI: In the Ravicka novels, the linguistic gesture is itself a character.
RG: It would be much easier to talk about this if we were talking about poetry. In Turkish, when you bring food out to people, the people who are receiving it say, “Health to your hands,” and the person who brought the food says in return, “Health to you.” An encounter could have a bigger sort of performance behind it, so you’re not just saying, “Thank you,” but, “May birds fly through your hair at night.” I wanted to embed in narrative these other symbolic possibilities. Somehow we get the idea that we can’t say what we want, maybe it will make us cry or be too big for our hearts to contain. So we say, “Hi,” but what we really mean is, “Will you pick me up and carry me across the street?”
LI: Ravic speakers say things like, “But could my body handle the three minutes of deep knee bends that I would have to deliver as my apology?” That seems like an unusual relationship to have with one’s language.
RG: My feeling about English is that the subject-verb-predicate order enforces a pattern. Having the body as an extra means of communication is one way of addressing that limitation, but the body still imposes another kind of order. You age and can’t communicate because you can’t spend three minutes in a backbend or whatever. I really wanted to place the sound of the language in an Eastern European space, that felt important, a heavy consonant presence, I’m really drawn to that. I also started speaking this language, before I called it Ravic, aloud with a friend, so I could only say what my voice would allow me to say. Because of English and because I studied Spanish there was a lot of vowel presence I had to get rid of. With a name like Luswage Amini, syllables get pronounced the way a black Southerner speaks. It’s like Lu-SWAGGE, kind of slow, drawn-out. I wanted that to be there. It’s still this black girl who’s writing about this place that’s far away and not necessarily in conversation with her culture. One of my “Calamity” essays is about how I think black people and Eastern Europeans should have a conversation about possible overlaps between their experience, and what if I were to call myself an African American Eastern European, or is it an Eastern European African American, because I think about that.
LI: How does that “Calamity” fall apart?
RG: It starts, “I began the day considering the possibility that the person I am before I set my eyes upon the page I’m about to read—in this case, page 79 of Herta Müller’s The Appointment—is entirely different than the person I am once I commence reading. I know this because I am not Eastern European in my real life.” That’s the entry point. The distraction is, “I can’t get anyone to understand how the black person is another kind of Eastern European, esp. the Eastern Europeans.… How eventful it would be for the Eastern Europeans to begin calling themselves black, or even black-Asian. How undermining of all that is the case for me to begin writing in my bios, 'Renee Gladman is an Eastern European African American.'” Then it says I would do this only to understand myself better as a reader.
LI: There’s the reader again.
RG: I think the reader is there more, in "Calamities." There’s this feeling that there is a community or interested parties who are reading these essays, because they are also junior faculty or are also living in lonely cities or also have a crazy idea, like that black people could be Eastern Europeans.
LI: It feels a little bit like an advice column that doesn’t have the format of an advice column.
RG: I don’t know how you would regard an advice column called “Calamities.”
LI: That makes it really good!
RG: Ultimately, it’s this performance of self. And this is why I don’t have to end them, because it’s an accumulation. If I wrote 120 pages of these essays, I would hope that through the accumulation of attempts to understand myself in particular experiences, maybe I would be something. That would be the self, an accumulation. We have these tiny moments, and it feels necessary in terms of surviving the day to put them together and see where we are.
LI: Why prose?
RG: I came up through poetry, but I am a sentence writer. I don’t know if it’s so much creating narratives as narrative space. I’m interested in time and experience and the sound of telling a story as opposed to the story itself. I have a love and deep interest in fiction, especially fiction in translation, so I teach that. But often in my workshops now I’ll bring in texts that are hybrid, cross-genre works. It’s useful as a way to get students to take more notice of language. I have students read poetry and then enter it from a sentence space.
LI: So the poem also contains the sentence?
RG: You can’t avoid narrative in any kind of language space. And poetry is interested in experience; time is there, and the day. There are places where it pushes toward documentation and begins to remind me of what you might do in prose. Maybe not fiction. But in prose, how you might build sentences around an abstraction or feeling rather than plot points. I think it can only benefit literature for fiction writers to employ various degrees of compression in their approach to narrative.
LI: At the risk of going backward, what’s the difference between fiction and prose?
RG: Fiction is interested in a certain kind of unfolding or sequence of events. Time is more intact in fiction. Prose, I think, introduces the element of the awareness of yourself in language as you are unfolding things in time and allowing yourself to be distracted or interrupted, allowing yourself to question the difficulty of what you’re doing and be stalled, not to move. I want more fiction to do this, because it changes the way we read and understand story. With fiction that repairs all doubt and interruption and experiment by being fluid, coherent; what we expect doesn’t leave much room for me as a reader. But I think the more you talk about these categories, their distinctions, the quicker they break down. Ultimately, what I want is for there to be a blur over everything.