CHRIS ABANIA Conversation with Chris Abani
Recorded April 23, 2008
Patty Paine: You open Hands Washing Water with the quote, “I have never found a way to separate art from the act of living” by John Outterbridge. Can you tell us what this quote means to you?
Chris Abani: Well, I should tell you who John Outterbridge is first, I think. John Outterbridge is this incredible African-American artist who lives in Los Angeles, and I met him about three years ago. He’d been pretty famous, but I didn’t know who he was. His projects are all about recovering rubbish and turning it into art. But not just simple assemblage. He’ll do amazing canvasses, but all with retrieved objects—found paint, found canvasses, found cloth. You’ll often see him scavenging the bins in downtown L.A., in the fashion district looking for rags.
So he read my books, and we got into this conversation about the idea of social engagement. And he asked me, “Do people always ask you, because you’re a political activist, does that come before your writing? Or do you think that as a writer you feel that you’re more obliged to speak up about social issues?” And I said, “No, I think it’s the engagement of all citizens.” And that’s really what he was saying, that the way you live your life should really be the way you make your art. And so all the things you care about, all the things you struggle with, the things you’re ashamed of, particularly the things you’re ashamed of, should all kind of come out in this work you’re trying to make. And for him, the actual act of going into places and recovering debris and turning it into art was sort of part of his passion with Compton and parts of South Central Los Angeles, that he was recovering as communities. And one of the projects he wanted to do was to go through the city of Compton at night, where there are a few trees, but there are no leaves on the trees, they’re all skeletal trees. And he was going to tie rags, these brightly colored rags, all over these trees, and so when people woke up in the morning, this, like, explosion of color. And so he got really excited about that. I don’t think he ever did it, but it really gave me an idea for one of the poems in the book.
So really, for me, that quote is about integrity. And integrity not in, not in the ways of morality, but sometimes having to act ethically, in a sense, which often means going against your morality, going against your own politics sometimes in order to act in an ethical way in the world. So the quote is a way to remind me that the art I make should reflect the way I live in the world. So it should always be about the recuperation and the restoration of dignity. No facetious art for me.
PP: It seems to me that as a writer you have an eye much like Diane Arbus’s in that your characters, much like Arbus’s subjects, are unconventional. Why do you think you are interested in depicting people outside the norm?
CA: Well, I kind of half-romantically like to think that I’m outside the norm. You know, I think it has a lot to do with, it might have a lot to do with my life in many ways. I grew up in Nigeria. So I grew up in Iboland in a part of Iboland that there’s a small town that, in recent years, I’ve begin to realize more and more how hybrid it was. So that most other ethnicities within Nigeria are very clear about how essential their identity is, but this is a community that’s made up of immigrants from all over the country who come in at different points. And then here I am, I was born biracial. My mother’s white, so that additional mixture. So living in a bilingual, bicultural state, growing up reasonably privileged, but living in rural areas with people who didn’t have privilege and so playing with friends who had no privilege and then going home to a house of privilege. So, in a way, I sort of always had this somewhat inside-outsider’s perspective on things, with the fact that I grew up in a culture that sort of was very über-masculine. And here I was, this kid who wanted to read books, and write books, and the fourth son. You know, I was an absolute nerd, and so I was always on the outside of every game. I never got to play the game, everyone thought I was weird. But also, my reading was weird, because I was reading Marvel comics, I was reading DC comics, I was reading the Commando series, right along with Baldwin and Dostoyevsky with the Russians. And so I think that I’ve just, everything kind of comes through, particularly with Russian writers, you get this real sense of what I think Bakhtin later calls the aesthetics of the grotesque.
And so I’ve really been always fascinated with the underbelly. And that I was . . . I suppose as a young person, when you’re artistic, you have this way of being like a symbol inside and outside. So I was inside by privilege, but being aware that I was inside by privilege, and I think there was a lot of guilt with that. And so I would look out on the streets, and I would see things that nobody else would see. So I became more and more interested in those stories, in stories that get silenced or become erased, not even always by an act of will, but simply by their own invisibility. In other words, where the gaze does not even register what’s going on. And that drew me to that. I’ve often said the Silver Surfer and Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment combine to create this essential existential melancholy that I think I inhabit, and all my characters inhabit. I don’t know how much of it is true, as in a true melancholy, or how much of it is something that I’ve created from being a child in this way. When you have that sense, then what you’re looking at always, especially if you’re playing with the existential, is how we come to be. In other words, you don’t believe so much in fate, you don’t believe so much in forces beyond . . . you’re more interested in the person.
And so a lot of my work is about that. It’s about the question of becoming, tagged along with the question of redemption, of transformation. And so I like to take characters that ordinarily don’t get to speak, or ordinarily, when they speak, they’re spoken for rather than channeled. And I try to channel them in as real a way as I can so that they can become this . . . Diane Arbus says it better, but they become these sort of flaming metaphors. They’re so far from the average reader, that the reader feels it’s safe to enter this territory, because they think, “Well, there’s no way this person has anything in common with me.” And what I do subtly is to flip the script, and so the things that make the character seem grotesque or different become less important as their humanity begins to happen, and coupled with a writing style that forces a reader into the viscerality of the character. These characters just offer so much, and for me every, writing is a spiritual exercise, it’s the one true, constant spiritual exercise I have. So part of it is, I guess, that I’m trying to, trying to find out if I have any kind of humanity, and how nuanced I can be. So these characters draw me that way.
You know, I know that Diane Arbus was often accused of being voyeuristic, but there’s no voyeurism in this work. It’s not an identification, because that’s a false idea, that you can identify with a character, but it’s a recognition. It’s the same thing that you, you walk into a room and you just know the people that are your kin and the people who are not your kin. It’s that kind of thing. It happens to writers all the time, where you start to do something, you read another writer, and it’s not that that writer so much influences you as you recognize within this writer’s work your own struggle. So that’s what it is, I think, with these characters, that when I see them, or when I begin to envision them, it’s that recognition. And that recognition allows me to access them, and hopefully, other people can do the same.
Jeff Lodge: Along the same lines—and I guess this question may be more craft-related—you’re not a fifteen-year-old soldier who’s had his vocal cords cut, like the character My Luck in Song for Night; you’re not a Nigerian girl in London being forced into prostitution, like the title character in Becoming Abigail; and I assume you’re not like the character Black in The Virgin of Flames, not a cross-dresser who dresses as the Virgin Mary. How do you then manage to create these characters that you’re talking about and then inhabit so many characters who are so different from yourself. Or do you inhabit them? As you’re writing, do you, in a sense, become them? And if so, how do you do that?
CA: I think that what it is for me is this. It’s that when I approach a character, I suspend judgment. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn as a writer, to suspend absolute judgment and allow yourself to dissolve into the character. So I do, as you [were] asking, become them in certain kinds of ways. And, of course, it’s difficult, because some of my characters are not—particularly if you look at something like Becoming Abigail, there’s a character called Peter, and Peter dehumanizes this young woman. And in writing those scenes, it would be so easy to make him unhuman; the hardest thing is to make him human. And in doing that, what it then means is that I have to, at some level, ask myself terrifying questions.
JL: The fact is that whether we want him to be human or not, he is. That aspect of his character, or those aspects of his character, are aspects of being human.
CA: Yes. And that contrary to even the idea of creating sympathetic characters, that I have to also acknowledge something which is fundamentally even more terrifying, that perhaps if the conditions were right, and I had a different upbringing, perhaps if no one was looking, that I might be able to do the same thing to somebody.
JL: There but for the grace of God . . .
CA: Right. And that, in a way, I think just—this is what’s so difficult about some of my work for a lot of readers is there’s no clear morality to the story. It’s complex morality. It’s a complex ethical tale. There’s always a struggle between faith and the idea of logic. What logic is telling you is often not the way the world is. And so it’s this kind of murky ground in between.
But main thing is to not assume that you’re speaking for a character, that in a sense, after a while, you have to completely embody this character and speak from them. And once you start to speak from them, their gender goes. So when I write about a young woman being forced into prostitution, it’s not really about the prostitution. She’s not a mouthpiece for my political views on that. She’s not even a mouthpiece for my ideas of what, you know, what I think women are. It really becomes almost this way in which you really realize that we all have very fundamental things about us that are all the same. And part of it is when you create a character that has so much dressing, and like they’re so different, that the process is actually a stripping away, and that in stripping away the outer coating, the true humanity begins to emerge. And what really startles me, and I think what startles the reader, is this immediate recognition I’m talking about, that if you suddenly look past all of that, that this is a struggle and it’s not dependent on class, or gender. If you’re a young kid growing up in Compton, a young boy with no father, the struggle to become a man, as dangerous as that is, is no different from a young, middle-class white kid growing up in Seattle. It’s still the same struggle. And that’s really the difference in the work I do, that it takes away this idea of value judgments and begins to replace them with questions that, though they’re never answered, they’re given scope for exploration, and really the reader has to decide.
But also one of the things I do, and this is how I can inhabit those characters, is that I reverse received narrative. And received narrative is everything we’ve been told about the world, that we assume to be true, though we’ve never questioned it. And living in the United States, you know we have a lot of received narrative, and I’m no different from this. For instance, the idea of my identity didn’t really become clear, or problematic enough, until I moved to the United States. And suddenly here I am, biracial, a person of color, tri-national, multilingual, and there is an overwhelming monolithic capitalist system that’s always trying to define you, and I realized that books like GraceLand, which is actually set in Nigeria, would not have been possible to write in Nigeria, because in many ways, you’re so, you’re blinded by your proximity to the material, in a way. So that’s how I approach it.
I never pity my characters, either. I never do that. To accept someone’s humanity is to accept their humanity, so if your character . . . in Song for Night, there’s a young boy, he’s a boy soldier, his vocal cords have been cut, he’s been forced to do terrible things, but in the book, he has to also acknowledge his own guilt, his own complicity, his own enjoyment in these things. And that I think is also what would save those books from moving into the sentimentality, into moving into, into spectacle, is this refusal to excuse or apologize, but to say, as you said earlier, that this is what the full range of our humanity encompasses. That’s kind of my approach to it. And then the rest of it is, of course, as you know as a writer, is that constant sort of polishing and stripping away and questioning and rewriting, and asking yourself tough questions, that even when you like something, oftentimes it’s the most, the things you like that have to go, because that’s you being sentimental in the work. And, you know I love a word, I mean talk about craft, I love the word “technique,” which comes from “techne.” And techne really meant in the old days people who made telescopes had to grind their own lenses. And so the techne of polishing and grinding your lens and working out all the optical dimensions to get the best refractions through it is really where technique comes from. And so this idea that as a writer, that’s what you’re doing to your characters, to your story, that you’re grinding, you’re shaping until you are almost erased from the text, and what remains becomes both an idea of a mirror so that the reader can completely see themselves in it, but also this idea of transparency, that it goes right through you, in a way.
JL: I want to go back to the notion of judgment. Okay, you withhold making judgment on your characters. Is there at any point, as you’re writing or sometime later, forgiveness of them for what they do? I guess where the question comes from, or what I’m thinking, is that to forgive, the first thing we have to do is recognize the humanity there, recognize that this person may act like a monster, this person may be a monster, this person is human, or I could be that person under other circumstances. Do you ever find that happening?
CA: It’s an inevitable part of the process, I think. I mean, a lot of my work hinges on the idea of, almost of transubstantiation, right? It’s a very Catholic, and it has to do with all my years in the seminary, being kicked out. But literally, the whole point of this is to see how much darkness a person can hold and still be able to allow light in. So forgiveness for a lot of people is, is the erasure of the darkness. It’s the erasure of the trauma, it’s to make, render, that invisible. And people find it hard to accept people who have clear darkness as actually agents of light. What I try to do is figure out . . . it’s more an Ibo way of seeing the world. It’s more to do with the idea that healing or recuperation, or even the idea of happiness, is not about erasing trauma, but, in fact, it often requires you to recall that trauma as a way to prevent yourself from enacting trauma to somebody else. So healing becomes a way to live with the damaged self. And that ultimately is forgiveness. I mean, it’s easy to forgive other people. It’s easy to forgive my characters. It’s easy to forgive people in the world. The hardest thing to do is to forgive yourself. And I think that in many ways within the text I’m able to do that, I’m able to forgive myself. And the moment you’re beginning to do that, the work moves from the pornographic, it moves from the voyeuristic, and really becomes about this one-on-one engagement with the text, so that in many ways, all I’m doing is taking different facets of my own being and polishing them up and putting them out in that text, in a way.
You know, Derrida has that beautiful essay on forgiveness, and he’s saying that the idea of forgiveness hinges on the fact that some things are unforgivable, that we’re able to forgive because there are some things that are unforgivable, so that forgiveness is always a calculation. And it’s a beautiful idea, because . . . I know it sounds . . . when you think about it on the surface, when you think about it through the lens of morality, it sounds callous. But the truth is the only way you can forgive is when you balance a crime done against you against something that’s unforgivable. So it’s a scale. And so you find that most individual human beings can never enact enough trauma to reach that scale of the unforgivable. You see? And so that’s really the inevitability of the work, that there’s no way for the characters not to be forgiven and not to find forgiveness, and not to find this transformation they’re looking for.
It happens in unexpected ways, and that’s part of the thing that shocks people about the work, because we always think of happy endings, right? And happy endings aren’t pretty endings. They’re beautiful endings, they’re inevitable endings, the way in which the death of a character can actually be a beautiful ending, because it’s a resolution, and there’s a release, and there’s all of this stuff. Or the ways in which I take traditional ideas, like the somehow received narrative idea of suicide being weakness, or being a negative thing, and turning it around and making it an act of courage or an act of love—where in Abigail, the father commits suicide to prevent himself from enacting any abuse on his own daughter—and the daughter’s ability to recognize that, even in the moment of her own grief. And I think that’s really what I think separates my aesthetic, I think, from a lot of aesthetics out there. For forgiveness to occur, for transformation to occur, then the darkness cannot be erased. The light has to come out from within there. So they’re inevitable endings in the books; they’re inevitable endings for the characters. But there’s also inevitable forgiveness and transformation.
JL: Speaking of the erasures, you were speaking to a couple of my classes yesterday, and in one of them, if not both, the subject of the body came up, and what the body remembers, and how that can’t be erased. It has to be accepted, and that that is part of who you are, that memory.
CA: The physical memory is part of who you are, too, and your relationship to that physical memory often determines how you see the world. I also asked the people, the young students in your class, what they saw when they walked the streets of Doha. Not one of them said anything about workers, who don’t have the same advantages. Not one of them spoke about any poverty, or any difficulty. Their comments were about traffic and about houses and their annoyance at the emerging skyline. In many ways, I was reminded how in that moment I was taken straight back to some of my classrooms at USC, where I have privileged kids who attend USC, who drive better cars than the professors do, and again, this is the way in which the world is just the same, but the body and the relationship of memory creates a lens. And so that my books aren’t actually about memory, they’re about forgetting, that we become who we are by a process of forgetting. And so what I do in a lot of my books is simply highlight the process of the forgetting rather than the process of the remembering. And so what people do with a bodily trauma is they bury it. But the body does not play those games. It will come up. It will come up as a cancer, it will come up as a deformed part of your body or it will come up as an anger you enact on the world, it will come up as rage. It will come up as blindness, that you can live in a condition where you’re watching the same trauma that was done to your body being done to other bodies, and it means nothing to you.
I mean, this is what makes it possible—and part of it is survival—but this is what makes it possible for people to do things they do in wars, for instance. It makes it possible for good Germans to look the other way while their Jewish neighbors are being taken to camps. This is what makes that possible.
So rather than make judgments about those, or rather than sort of try to remember those, I simply take a character through the process of the forgetting. So what the reader does is they are going through every stage of the forgetting, and what that does is it brings up their own forgetting. The act of reading my books becomes a visceral, bodily experience. It’s no longer just an intellectual. You can throw the book across the room, and this has been interesting, people, I hear people say things like, “I was reading Becoming Abigail, it took me an hour, and I wanted to throw the book out the window, I wanted to be mad at you, and . . . .” These are good, these are good things. But even people who’ve left the book, Abigail has a way, as do other characters, too, of haunting you. But it’s not that the character’s following you, it’s simply that he’s triggered something. And this is something Baldwin—I mean, this is not new—Baldwin figured this out a long time ago, and he, paraphrasing him, he said, your suffering means nothing except it unlocks somebody else’s suffering. So when people feel things for you, they’re not feeling things for you, they’re feeling things through your experience that allows them to access their own pain. So it’s an index of relationship. And that’s what redemption is about. That’s what compassion is. That’s what empathy is, is that when you see someone suffering, you know that you have suffered. You know that—and depending on where you are on the scale, right?—some people are unable to forgive people who they think their suffering is caused by themselves. I mean, the whole idea of being a saint is to be able to forgive people who are making their own suffering. So it’s a scale of things, and it’s really beautiful, and tasking, and it’s hard. It’s hard on my nerves. But this is the only way I know how to do it. And I think that every writer finds a way to do it. I think everybody does.
PP: The cities of your novels—Lagos, Los Angeles—seem as viscerally real as they are wildly imagined. You seem fascinated by the intersection of what is real and what is not. What about this intersection interests you?
CA: Well, you know, it’s funny you bring up cities. I lived in Lagos for a lot less time than I lived in Los Angeles—this is just an anecdote—when I wrote GraceLand, everybody said it was a true representation of Lagos, right, because I’m from Nigeria. I lived in Los Angeles longer. When I wrote The Virgin of Flames, everybody was upset, and said, “This is not Los Angeles,” instead of saying, “Abani’s better when he’s doing Lagos.” And that made me laugh, because this says one thing: Place is an invention. Nothing exists. Topography is the only truth, but topography is shaped by the imagination, not the other way around. And it’s the same with language, right, that we think, in the world, that things exist outside of language. Nothing exists outside of language, because until you can call it into being, even though it might have a material existence, for you it has no perceptual existence. It’s just like if you—I’ve never had cancer—my sister struggled through this, and even though my language can call that into being, it’s again only through relation to other beings—but if you’ve never had any of those things within your life, it doesn’t exist for you. But cities, for me, are the beautiful thing about it, because, I think, cities are the modern unconscious, right? If you look at old stories, the forest is always the place of the unconscious. That’s where Red Riding Hood gets attacked, it’s where Hansel and Gretel get eaten. The modern forest is the city, right? It’s this urban, sprawling, huge landscape that is as terrifying as a medieval forest would have been. Especially at night, because it’s often vacated, and these things become trees, and there’re goblins around every corner—except we call them serial killers now, or rapists. And so, a city’s all about that whole idea, and, I mean, Japanese movies have done tremendous things when using the urban landscape in this ways, the collective unconscious. And most people will flee from the city at any hint of violence into a suburb, which is oftentimes more violent than the city they just left.
So cities are made-up. They don’t exist. They always happen around the intersection of water, big bodies of water, so seas, lakes, and rivers. And those are already mythical places, because the moment you occupy any water, any natural phenomenon that is bigger than you, you begin to mythologize it. So that’s how they start to grow. So they completely don’t exist. And what I’ve come to realize is that a city exists for everyone in a different way, and there’s actual experiments to prove this. They did a thing in New York where they charted people who came from New York over fifteen years. And when they were there for a year, they asked them to draw a map of the city. And the map they drew was pretty accurate, actually, so because they’d spent time studying the city before they relocated. Five years later, they asked them to draw a map of the city, and they drew, basically, the neighborhood they lived in, and they drew all the places they ate dinner at. After fifteen years, they weren’t even drawing a neighborhood of a city, they were drawing it by landmarks. So their city simply became their dry cleaner, their restaurant, their school, their work. As if Manhattan essentially would go from this complicated grid, by fifteen years it had become like a hand, and so essentially this is how my city is. And that’s what’s so fascinating. So everybody you ask in a city what their city is like, they tell you a different thing. Particularly certain cities lead, Lagos, Los Angeles, Mexico City. I think that all big cities are one city, and they’ve replicated themselves, from the time of Luxor till now. And they throw up all of our inherent fears. In the classroom yesterday, this came up dramatically, that people in Doha suddenly terrified of change, not because of change, but because it’s coming in the form of cities. And cities blur all of those ideas we have about comfort, and they require you to shift into a whole new way of thinking.
JL: So it’s the expanding forest coming right at you.
CA: It’s the expanding forest coming right at you, and this is really what the terror is about. It’s all this encroachingness of it. In other places it’ll be encroaching desert, and all this sort of different kinds of fears. So, for me nothing is real beyond what we say it is. And for you to actually say something is real and exists, you really have to have the capacity to imagine it. So if I tell you a hundred million people are killed today in an earthquake in China, it means nothing to you unless you can imagine the death of one person and then transmute that into a million. And so, that’s why we all suffer from compassion fatigue, right, because the more people need help, after a while we get this whole thing about certain cultures are constantly needy and all this sort of . . . it becomes tiresome for us.
It goes down to the same thing. Every family, everyone in the family, every sibling has a different memory of growing up in that same family. So for me, there are obviously clear facts that have happened, clear things you can trace. A family moved in, a family left. But everything about those interactions—entirely imaginary. And I love this idea. I love that this is tied into the idea of becoming for my characters, that cities are becoming as much as the characters are becoming. And the nation is becoming.
You actually said this yesterday, that they should think about Doha, not so much about its fear of erasure of an old culture, but what it can become and how it’s going to keep changing, and that there’s not going to be a Doha, even if they get used to the city now that’s encroaching, in fifty years, a new generation is going to tear it down and do, probably have floating cities. And these kids, who are like using text messages, are going to be saying, “In my day, we . . .” And so this idea that there was ever a—so this nostalgia we always have, is really interesting to me. And the Germans have a wonderful phrase for it, I can never remember it, but in English it means a nostalgia for something you’ve never had. And I think we all do this. And so we invent our lives every day. All of our lives are inventions, all of our memories are. And the thing is, the moment we let go of invention, the true randomness of the world, I think, begins to emerge. And that’s too terrifying.
So I love this intersection. Plus, I grew up in a culture that believed in ghosts, that you’d go to the market, like the souq yesterday, and you would buy something, and your aunt would throw it away. Because she would say, “Oh, you just bought that from a ghost,” or stuff like that. So this idea that the living and the dead are intersecting all the time . . . and we do it, whether we call it Catholicism or we call it Islam, it’s all the same idea, that we’re constantly dealing with these intersections between what is real and what is not real. And some people live entirely on what is perceived to be real, and some people live entirely in the idea of the perceived real. I like to live in the middle, so it’s an ability to see this force at play. So everything for me is at liminal point, it’s that gray area between the two. And that’s where, if there’s any truth in the world, that’s really where it resides. And so it’s not just about cities, but characters, about myself too. I’m constantly asking myself these hard questions about what I’m doing, how I’m reinventing things.
So it’s really about this idea of liminality, that we all live in this constant flux, but it’s impossible to live in constant flux, because you would never get anything done. So you have to come up with ways of dealing with the world. Stereotypes are one of those ways of dealing with the world. The difference for me is that some people are conscious of it, and some people are not. And I think that’s what redemption is about. Redemption is not that you’re never judged by the mistake, but you’re judged by how you act after the mistake, right? And that’s really what it’s all about. So for me, the idea of this relationship between the real and unreal is, as a writer, someone who’s aware of that, how am I acting within that space. And it goes back to John Outterbridge, that you cannot separate the act of living from the art you make. So it’s that kind of thing.
PP: You are an amazingly prolific writer. You’ve written plays, novels, novellas, and poetry. How is the impulse to write novels different from the impulse to write poetry? And how do you know which medium best suits what you have to say?
CA: The impulse to write, to make art, is really the impulse to seduce the world. At some level. Part of it is to seduce the world into believing that you’re beautiful, and that they should see how beautiful you are. But part of it, then, is that through that seduction, you can bring people to confront themselves in these different ways. And I think that’s the only true gift the writer does have, is to remove the masks, and force that confrontation. That’s what writing gives us. In terms of the form, the impulse to do each of those is different, based on what the narrative has to be. This is something that I’ve come to realize, is that, as human beings, we’re narrative-making machines. We’re rumor-mongerers and metaphor-mongerers. We, we just always have to make narrative out of something. If you give a human being six completely unrelated things, they will make completely logical narrative out of it. In fact, if you ask a bunch of people in a room to sit in a random order, they will never sit in a random, they will try to sit in a random order, but they will not. They will . . . you’ll start to see clear groupings, and clusterings going on. So that amazes me about us. So when you’re writing a novel, what the novel’s trying to do is to explore the process of that clustering. I think that’s what all fiction does, how you cluster and why you’re clustering. This is, and so you need lots of pages to do that.
The poem comes from the impulse of silence. It’s the moment when you sit down in that cluster. And so it’s the pause between sitting and looking around and thinking you’re in a cluster. So the poem is about silence. What the novel does is it makes the narrative, and each writer has a different way of arranging the cluster. So it’s just a meta-narrative on the already existing narrative. The poem, on the other hand, says that the reason we make narrative is because we’re afraid of silence, and that all realization is about silence, is about the ah! moment. So poetry reverses narrative, even if it’s a narrative poem. Because, if you think of narrative as a constant stream, right?—which is what we do, we have this linear stream—the poem is about the trauma of the stream. It cuts the slip cord, and its says, “Stop, for a minute.” So you’re basically freeze-framing an entire cultural narrative for a moment, so you can look at it with more intensity. And that’s a terrifying and difficult thing to do.
So if the work requires really trying to locate the ineffable, then it will be poetry. So in Hands Washing Water, it’s about finding home, but finding home is not something you can put into language, it doesn’t obey. You can find a home, which is what fiction will do for you, but poetry is about finding home, right? So in Hands Washing Water is a process of finding home within language, the only home I have. I’ve come to realize that’s the only true home that exists for me. And so you need that quiet moment, and the book itself is arranged, not like an accordion—well, a little bit like an accordion—because it starts with this huge poem, it starts with poems of place, and it begins to move into these smaller, smaller, smaller poems, and then it kind of pulls out at the end with a kind of realization, in a way. So the subject that has to be meditated on will determine the form. Some subjects you have to put in an essay. I mean, you can’t have a really intense, deep exploration of the philosophy of identity as a book of poems. It won’t work.
So that’s kind of how I do it, that I start writing. This is what I do. I get the idea and I just start writing, and I write free-flow for a while. And I’ll realize after about ten pages what form it needs, because when I suddenly stop and look down, by the third page, it’s already beginning to . . . if it’s a poem, the lines are getting shorter, or they’re becoming lines, which, you know, the sentence is the unit of meaning, where the line is a unit of possibility, so it becomes more and more these lyric lines. And if it’s fiction, it will just start to become sentences. And I’ve just learned over a while, over years, to trust it. It’s like, you practice the scales long enough, and you can sit in with any band and jam. So it’s really what it is. I just have good instinct for it, I think. And I’m lucky to do multiple forms. Not everyone can.
JL: You know, of course we can’t let you out of here without asking what you’re working on now and what’s up next for you.
CA: I’m just putting finishing touches to a long poem called Sanctificum, which you’ve published some excerpts of. And then I’m back, I’m trying to get back into this novel called Fire and His Brother, which is about Nigerian circus freaks in Las Vegas. And then I’m writing a series of essays which I don’t have a title for, but they’re exploring the ethics of identity, asking really hard questions about, for me, about identity and my relationship to received narrative, this very thing I was talking about. So those are the three things I’m working on sporadically, and they’ll happen sooner or later as published work, I don’t know.