Creative Non-Fiction

Fighting the Silence: A Conversation with Alexander Chee by Peter LaBerge

BY KIRIN KHAN

 Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  (Mariner Books, 2018).

Photo by M. Sharkey. Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Mariner Books, 2018).

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh, The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How To Write An Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

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Alexander and I discussed his essay collection while seated outside on a hot day at the Tin House’s Summer Workshop at Reed College in July, where Alexander was faculty for one of the novel workshops. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kirin Khan: In your essay “On Becoming a Writer,” there’s this moment where you talk about how in the U.S., there is an insistence that the measure of success for an artist is becoming middle class, and that failing that means your art has failed. How would you describe success outside of that middle-class aspiration?

Alexander Chee: It’s often unspoken but it’s something I’ve definitely experienced so regularly over time that I started speaking about it. For my first novel I was paid $4,000 out of a $6,000 advance before the house went bankrupt. I saw the paperback rights get sold, ended up getting half of half of that money because of the bankruptcy. It was probably significantly less money than a lot people make for a novel, so it was funny that one of the first reviews that would come up when you google my name was by someone who had taken my poetry career very seriously and accused me of ‘selling out.’

It’s been very moving to me over that last two years to have so many young writers who are so different from each other tell me how much my work has meant to them. How it’s helped them connect to themselves, to write the stories and poems that they have been wanting to write. I think for me the definition of success is making space for other writers, especially at this point in time in our history as a country and culture.

A friend of mine (Noel Alumit) sent me these postcards from a prisoner who had read my first novel. The prisoner, a convicted pedophile, described himself not being able to speak for the four days that he was reading it. He went on to say it was the first thing he’d ever read that ever showed him how what he did was wrong. I didn’t realize that I had written my first novel to do that, but that strikes me as a measure of success.

KK: That moment was incredible to me, just reading about it in the essay “The Autobiography of My Novel.”

AC: It’s what you end up meaning to people that is the real marker. You should want to get paid, even paid well, but we’re trying to change people’s minds, trying to illuminate, to help people reconnect to themselves and others. That’s the marker I use to see if I’m succeeding or not.

KK: In the essay “After Peter” you talk about being a minor character in this story, and that you tell it because the people who would tell that story are all dead. That devastated me. How do you write about large scale loss? In the collection, you confront it again after 9/11 (“On Becoming an American Writer”), this massive scale loss, and how paralyzing it can be as an artist.

AC: It’s important to remember that your despair is a gift to them—not to ones who were lost but to the ones who took them. In these conflicts, they want you to feel like their win is inevitable, they want you to give up on fighting back or succeeding. It’s interesting to see things like the cultural production that we have in the U.S. that is much richer and more diverse than it has been in a while. At an age when we have more and more Black filmmakers, POC filmmakers, writers, thinkers, critics doing astonishing work, at the same time, we have this white supremacist takeover of our three branches of government. It points to the way they really are a minority and the country is not with them. This is their revenge on us. They are trying to act like they are the majority and that their wins are legitimate—and they’re not. It’s on all of us not to give up in the face of that, not to give this country to them in the process.

KK: Do you view writing about the people we’ve lost is a way of resisting that?

AC: Yes. I think one of the biggest challenges we face is the loss of intergenerational knowledge. I had a student last year doing an assignment for a writing class. She was a Black Lives Matter activist and she started doing some research into her family and discovered she came from a family of Black Panthers. None of them had told her. She was stunned to discover this, like, “Were you just going to not tell me?”

That’s very rare, not common at all, but in that silence, there is something to investigate. Why would they watch her doing what she was doing and not tell her about their own experiences? That silence, whether it’s born out of death, loss or fear, it’s something that we have to reach into and fight so that we can have those lessons of, how did we fight before this? How did we find courage before this?

The thing that’s very moving to me now are the intergenerational conversations that are possible with internet and social media. One of the things that’s been most gratifying to me is connecting to young queer writers and young writers of color, hearing from them, the work they are producing. I’m still part of a very small group of out gay Korean American writers—for a long time I was an only one, and the first. Then there was Sam Park, who died just as James Mattson debuted last winter, this sad mix of debut and loss. Sam died of stomach cancer; his posthumous novel is coming out this fall. I’m waiting for there to be so much more than there is, and I can see it coming. I feel myself still trying to hold that space for people. I’ve been funding fellowships at Jack Jones Literary Arts and Lambda Literary and am looking at creating one in Sam Park’s name at Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center.

KK: When you say you’ve been waiting for it, what do you mean?

AC: The writers who are arriving are the ones that I’ve been waiting for.

KK: Like a queer, POC revolution?
AC: Yeah, exactly. Patty Yumi Cottrell. Franny Choi, especially.  She’s amazing. One of the reasons I’m still on Twitter is that I get to see her tweets. It’s a delight to me. Chen Chen is fantastic, too.

KK: In “Girl,” you explore the shame of being misgendered as a kid and what’s underneath that. I was often mistaken for a boy as a kid. When I was a bit older, I’d get these sexy, cheap costumes for Halloween, and I’d wear a wig and high heels, but then I’d get mistaken for a man in drag. It was really disorienting that there was no way for me to be perceived as female, whether I performed this kind of hyper-femininity or wore my brother’s hand-me-downs.

AC: You were always trying to be a woman and not quite getting there.

KK: Right. I just am what I am. I thought it was interesting that in your essay, you explore that childhood shame of being mistaken for someone that you can be much more comfortable with later. I was wondering if you had things to say about that, that moment of being mistaken for a girl as a kid versus looking really hot as a girl and passing in that moment as an adult.

AC: One thing I like about what’s happening with gender now is that we’re thinking about it more as a relationship to the self rather than a relationship to others, making self-identification more important first. A panoply of identities is making that possible. What makes me interested in say, queer liberation, is that it makes room for other people whether they are queer or not. It allows young children to feel the freedom of identifying as a boy but wearing hot pink shoes to school and butterfly wings.

KK: And getting to be pretty.

AC: Yeah, getting to be pretty. Nail polish and what not, all these things that were so risqué as a teenager in the ‘80s, that are so mainstream now.

KK: You write about the excitement and potential violence there.  I felt that.

AC: That’s the thing, especially for men who do drag for the first time, who pass. It’s a vision of the reality of being a woman in a way that nothing can prepare you for, which is the constant threat of violence.

KK: Do you think writing about large scale loss, such as the AIDS crisis and 9/11, is different from writing about individual loss, like your father or Peter, specifically? Does it feel different?

AC: Grief and grieving are never really over, because they’re born out of love. So long as the love is there, the grief is also there. You learn to live with the loss, and it becomes this long-term meditation. One of the great wounds of the AIDS crisis was that the Gay community finally had this tremendous victory for pleasure in terms of sex, so many different kinds of sexual explorations were happening. The other was this way in which it was a warning, for those who were able to take it, about what this country would face under healthcare for profit. It was happening just as that change was happening in healthcare. When I look at this friend of mine who just got 185K bill for this cancer procedure she had—it’s just a crazy way to think about trying to live a life in this country where 40% of Americans would have an emergency if they needed more than $400.

KK: That reminds me of how, in the book, you talk about there being three decades worth of wealth accumulation for the rich, and that this was literally letting the poor die and determining our value.

AC: Right, acting like its natural.

KK: That it’s a reflection of our worth that we are poor in the first place. Therefore, our deaths are justified.

AC: In the aftermath of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s win, it was funny to see this renewed attention to the sorts of values that she is putting forward: healthcare for all, a climate change proposal that’s aggressive and confronts what’s actually happening to the earth, and suddenly, there was a lot of discussion of whether these kinds of values would work in the rest of the country. At the same time, there are polls that show that Democrats are favored at 49% versus Republicans at 37%—this massive leap has opened up. These issues are supposed to be hurting Democrats and Americans, but what if this is what people want? Healthcare for all has been widely supported by a majority of Americans for a very long time, going back to Obama’s election. The only place where it hasn’t had widespread support is in Congress.

KK: Noel Alumit previously said, in conversation with the 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellows, that one thing he wanted us to know is that “your novel will not fix you.” And that that is something he wished he knew with his first novel.

AC: That’s funny.

KK: In “The Guardians” you talk about your novel waiting for you to reach where it is, in terms of speaking out. What are your thoughts, do you agree with Noel?

AC: You’ll still be the same person after you publish your first novel. It won’t magically fix any of the problems you have with your personality or government or any of those things. The cognitive process of being able to reconcile that which was not reconciled before certainly was a profoundly, psychically transformative experience for me, and that was part of what I write about in the collection, in both “Autobiography of My Novel” and in “The Guardians.” I don’t know that it was the writing itself that was the recuperation, as much as the writing was how I was able to see what needed to be recuperated and how I was able to chart that for myself.

It reminds me of when I was a yoga teacher and was learning about chanting. Chanting was a way of observing your breath through the sound that your voice makes. Writing was also like that, a way to observe the mind. It is not therapy, and I think that people who think it is therapy are putting a lot at risk. I was talking with another friend who writes memoir about the importance of doing the private writing for the self—many of these essays were born out of or reliant on journals that I’ve kept. Journals allowed me to reflect and tell myself things that I needed to tell myself. Out of that, I was able to figure out what I needed to put in an essay. If I was using the essay alone to do that, the success or failure of that essay would weigh too heavily on the recuperative process, and would be an incredible violation of it as well. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to think that your writing can fix you, as Noel said. It can’t fix you. But it can show you how to be fixed.

KK: In “The Guardians” you also talk about being in a video/documentary where you lie about how abuse hasn’t harmed you. I felt that there’s this desire to say that, even when it isn’t true.

AC: Your feelings catching up to you can take so long.

KK: Which isn’t something people tell you. In the same essay, you discuss repetition as a form of forgetting. Can you ever really write the trauma? Do you feel like you go back to it and are writing about it in different ways? Or do you feel like at one point you’ll be done, or is it more like grief, where it transforms as you grow?

AC: It’s a Freudian idea, Freudian repetition trauma. With this book, I do have this feeling of having concluded something. There may be more to write later, but I think now I’m really excited about turning to other projects.

KK: In “Girl” you write that sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask. You repeat the idea of the mask: in “Girl” you put on the mask and find out who you are without it, and then in “The Guardians,” there’s another mask, whether it’s behind the novel or in the documentary, of pretending to be okay. That idea is also talked about as passing as whole. There’s passing as straight, passing as white or by race, and then there’s passing in relation to trauma, passing as “okay.”  Can anyone really pass with respect to trauma?

AC: Lots of people are fooled, and they can’t be faulted for being fooled if you put all your effort into it. I should add that, unfortunately, people have some pretty horrific opinions about how you should handle sexual abuse and rape.

KK: And whether it was bad enough.

AC: Yeah. I went through that with one interviewer recently who was like, “Well what you describe in there, it wasn’t that bad, right?” It was a woman. I was just like, “Yeahhh, I don’t know how to talk to you about this, it was really clear in the essay.”

KK: It’s a scale used to silence people. I’ve heard that the fewer details about rape that you give, especially when pressing charges, the more likely it is that someone will sympathize with you. Because the more they find out, the more likely it is that they will say, “I would have done something different.”

AC: Yes, yes. I remember that. Even when I was very young, seeing how my friends who had been in this choir with me had to leave school, because they were harassed once the story of the crimes came out. No one was empathetic. At least if they didn’t actually have to be, and even then, empathy was its own fraught situation. So, it didn’t seem like there was any reward in trying to talk about what was left.

It’s the strangest thing. I was teaching the novel Agostino by Alberto Moravia to my students in Italy.  The story is of a young boy who is on vacation with his mother, who is this beautiful widow, and he falls in with this very rough crowd of boys while she is enjoying herself with a new lover. They introduce him to the ringleader of the child gang, this older man who is a pedophile. They trick him into going on a boat ride with the man—that is essentially how he inducts boys into this gang. My students were really horrified by the novel and by what they saw as the misogyny in the novel—the mother is treated constantly like an object of desire by everyone, including her son. Her value is always focused on her looks; she’s always judged on her desire to have a sex life. And I kept trying to push the conversation further, and finally I had to lay out—in the novel if you look carefully, the pedophile eventually becomes this boy’s mentor on how to be a man. This mother is considered an enemy of his manhood, and I said, “The mother has only ever supported him, the pedophile is the one who abused him. Why in this world is the mother the one who is hated? I know you’re struggling with the misogyny but I need you to look all the way in. What does the structure of the novel communicate? It’s the depiction of a world that’s gone wrong—what is it saying that’s wrong, and that, finally, was what you could see when you pull back from all the rest.” It’s a slim novel, but it lays bare a structure that we see again and again in terms of what’s happening along the border with children being separated from their parents and being essentially pushed into situations where they are in the hands of abusers. And we’re being asked to treat the kids as criminals, as the trespassers and blame their parents as well. It’s a lot.

KK: It really is. In “The Guardians,” you get down to the “this is what happened” piece and you take us through it, which is incredibly hard and incredibly brave. In the #MeToo movement, there are narratives about women being abused as adults, but I don’t see as much about childhood trauma, and men and boys are just beginning to step forward publicly as survivors—it’s rampant for all genders. I just wanted to emphasize that that’s no small thing that you’ve spoken out so boldly about it in your essays. People are going to ask you about it and that’s got to be hard. What were your thoughts when you decided to really write this essay?

AC: I was trying to get at the ways in which you turn yourself into something else in the attempt to hide the pain. How you engage in a second kind of erasure after the first erasure that was the trauma itself, and how hard it was to reconnect to that boy who was so alone back then, and who built these baroque defenses that turned out to long outlive their capacity to protect me, and that I had to dismantle in order to engage in the kind of recuperation that I desperately needed.

KK: Which is something that people don’t talk about with PTSD—these tools saved your life at one point.

AC: Right they got you through something. Being hidden got me through something. The thing is, it was time to stop hiding.

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Kirin Khan is a writer living in Oakland, CA who calls Albuquerque, New Mexico her hometown, and Peshawar, Pakistan her homeland. Kirin is an alum of VONA, Las Dos Brujas, and the Tin House Writers Workshop, and she is a 2017 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2018 Steinbeck Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Margins, Your Impossible Voice, 7x7.LA, and Foglifter among others. Kirin is working on her first novel.

Geography of Translation: A Review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River by Peter LaBerge

BY VALERIE WU

 Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of  The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border  (Penguin Random House, 2018).

Photo credit—Beowulf Sheehan. Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Penguin Random House, 2018).

A nation’s geographical border can define its identity as much as its politics. No book is as much an examination of this idea as Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. A memoir that is primarily journalistic but also deeply personal, the narrative provides a series of snapshots into Cantú’s work as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, while also drawing from Cantú’s own academic background in U.S.-Mexico relations.

Yet the central idea of The Line Becomes a River does not address immigration policy, but the humans that are directly impacted by it. Throughout the book, Cantú emphasizes that the border serves as a microcosm for greater economic, racial, and human issues—issues that manifest themselves in the interactions along the geographical boundary of the United States and Mexico.

A vulnerability is present in Cantú’s writing that lends itself to his setting. Cantú is struck by the almost surreal quality of the landscape, juxtaposed with the very real violence that occurs there; the duality is one that Cantú will explore throughout the memoir.

Much can be explored regarding the function of Cantú’s own character as aggressor and advocate; at first, it is revealed that he joins the border as a real-life application of his academic knowledge. Yet, as Cantú ruminates on his time at the border, it appears that the decision to become a Border Patrol Agent was motivated by a desire to reconcile with his third-generation Mexican-American identity. By bearing witness to what occurs at the border, he begins to recognize that there is an inevitable connection between himself and those he has been taught to view as “other.”

It is at this intersection of a tangible geographical border and a figurative linguistic one that Cantú starts to understand the complexity of the situation. It is not just a matter of lines, but those on each side. Life and death are as compounded by human factors as they are by political ones. Those with the most deportations, Cantú says, become criminals in the eyes of the American government. But it’s this insistence on crossing for opportunity that reveals the commitment to family values—what is perhaps the primary facet of American identity.

Throughout his time on the border, Cantú struggles with the idea that his work as a Border Patrol Agent is defeating and destroying the migrants’ hope. At the same time, he believes that he is saving them from further pain. So when the agents “slash [the migrants’] bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” they are actions of love. The reader witnesses the toll this takes on Cantú’s physical and mental health; he begins to grind his teeth. His dreams consist entirely of ferocious wolves and faceless men. Cantú’s mother, a former Park Ranger, is no stranger to the implications of Cantú’s role on the border for both the migrants and himself:

You spent nearly four years on the border, she said. You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. And let me tell you, it isn’t something that’s just going to slowly go away. It’s part of who you’ve become. So what will you do? All you can do is try to find a place to hold it, a way to not lose some purpose for it all.

When Cantú addresses the institution, it is through the lens of an academic. He quotes the psychologist Carl Jung, saying that it had become “a political and social duty” to perceive “the other as the very devil, so as to fascinate the outward eye and prevent it from looking at the individual life within.” What he refers to here is the transformation of all migrants into “other,” but the fact that they are the same, all of them Americans. These migrants, Cantú states, were born into different circumstances, but they are just as human.

Towards the end of the book, Cantú focuses on the specific case of his undocumented coworker José, who is deported and unable to return to the United States after visiting Mexico for his mother’s funeral. This is a moment of clarity in Cantú’s life when he realizes that what occurs at the border has a ripple effect away from it; the implications of an action on the border are far-reaching and evident in the separation of families. It is a startling reminder that deportations are not just occuring along the line between the United States and Mexico, but in our own communities.

The book does not directly seek to address the economic implications of illegal immigration, nor does it enforce a political stance. Instead, it chooses to display the raw, human side of what occurs along the border. The line is defined not so much as its geographical boundaries as the people it represents. By prioritizing stories over statistics, Cantú allows his readers to develop their own relationship with the people on the other side. It is in fact this acknowledgement of migrants as humans that creates a basis for empathy, a means of solidarity that is paradoxically both universal and specific.

For Cantú, this realization of boundaries being imaginary occurs when he stops to fully acknowledge his surroundings as not a “border” but a bridge and river. “As I swam toward a bend in the canyon, the river became increasingly shallow...I stood to walk along the adjacent shoreline, crossing the river time and time again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood,” he writes. “All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”

As Cantú emphasizes, there is no textbook way to solve the issue of the border. It is not an issue of policy so much as it is the reasoning behind policy; the ability to perceive these immigrants as human beings is what informs our policies. Translation of the immigration experience does not occur through headlines and harmful rhetoric. It occurs through empathy, which speaks to all.

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Valerie Wu is a high school senior in San Jose, California. She is a two-time National Gold Medalist in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and has presented her writing and literary research at Stanford University, the University of California-Los Angeles, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Manzanar Awards Committee, and the Columbia Political Review, among others.

The unholy idol of narrative: A Conversation with Alice Bolin by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Alice Bolin, author of  Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession  (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession (William Morrow, 2018).

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession, a New York Times Editor's Choice and  recipient of a Kirkus Star. Her nonfiction appears in publications including The New York Times, ELLE, Vulture, and Tin House. She is assistant professor of Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis.

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I fully admit it—I’m drawn to dead girl stories. It’s an easy pull given that so much of our popular culture employs the trope for entertainment. Dead girl stories are quite literally everywhere. As a thriller writer who has used the trope in my own writing, I was jazzed to read Alice Bolin’s critical essay collection, Dead Girls. What I found was a collection about so much more. Bolin uses the dead girl trope as an entrance into a journey, one that leads the reader through an Americana of popular culture, which expertly turns back around to examine itself. I was thrilled to have the chance to ask Bolin a few questions about her latest work.

Meredith Doench: The collection of Dead Girls covers so many different topics—it’s fascinating to see how they all eventually come together. How did you determine the structure for the book and what were your goals in the ordering of the essays? I’ve heard you refer to the book as the “unholy idol of narrative.” Could you explain what you mean by that and how it fits into the structure of your collection?   

Alice Bolin: The four sections of the book are mostly organized by similarities in topic—the first mostly about true crime and violence against women, the second about Los Angeles, the third about witchcraft and sisterhood, and the fourth a long essay thinking about when I moved to LA and the politics of white femininity. But I do intend for there to be sort of an evolution through the sections. I start out the way readers might expect, talking very explicitly about Dead Girls, but I didn’t want to dwell there. I wanted to try to find a way out—and I model that in the book, straying farther from the “Dead Girl” theory as I go on. I also wanted there to be a way in the book for me to reflect and revise what came before. In the introduction and in the last essay I was able to look at the first essays I wrote in the book and question the assumptions that undercut them.

In the first essay I say that Dead Girls are sacrifices to “the unholy idol of narrative,” meaning that one excuse for killing girls in pop culture is that “it’s a good story.” Today’s humans are addicted to stories, and we probably consume more of them than at any time in history. And these narratives help us to abstract and metabolize pain, like that of living in a violent, misogynist culture. I do see an overarching narrative in my book, but it’s obviously fragmented, out of order, doubling back on itself. I don’t necessarily want it to read smooth. I want the reader to be aware of their experience of reading it.

MD: I was very keen on interviewing you not only because I love works of cultural criticism, but also because the dead girl trope touches on my own work. One aspect of my writing is a lesbian thriller series where the first two books feature a string of “dead girls.” Your book has given me a lot to think about in this regard. You talk about how the dead girl trope can be found in genre and literary styles of writing. What responsibilities do you think an author has to her audience (and possibly culture) when working with this type of trope? Do you think there is any difference in responsibility between genre and literary writers?      

AB: This is a really interesting question. I think that a writer has both ethical and artistic responsibilities to her audience, meaning that she should tell a good story without also telling a damaging one. This is at the heart of my criticism of the Dead Girl story. That it’s not only politically suspect—the catalyst is a teenage girl body quite literally objectified—but also artistically lazy. If we’ve seen it a million times before, is it still a good story? So I think we can follow both our artistic and political instincts to avoid the clichés and pitfalls of this genre. There are a million ways to subvert or complicate this trope narratively, and quite often doing that creates a much fresher and more interesting product.

I think genre writers actually more often push the boundaries of these narrative formulas, because they are so self-referential and allusive—they take it as their duty to comment on and play with the genre conventions.

MD: I think that your father and I might be cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of our reading tastes! I was touched by the descriptions of your father’s personality and his active reading style. In many ways, the descriptions of your father reveal a lot about you. Was it difficult to incorporate such personal relationships and experiences in a book that also feels very academic at times?  

AB: It was difficult, though my relationship with my dad was the least difficult to write about, especially because he took a pretty active role in the writing process. I interviewed both him and my mom and let them read and give notes on the first draft of the essay. My dad loves the essay and keeps rereading it. He is such a ham and likes being one of the stars of the book.

I think to be a nonfiction writer you have to tell yourself that your relationships and experiences are yours to write about in whatever way you choose, but I’m not sure that’s true—I’m still working on not stepping on or appropriating other people’s stories when turning them into characters.

MD: One of my favorite parts about the book is that it brings up issues of writing—in particular, creative nonfiction. I’ve been thinking a lot about the question you ask regarding how you can use the form of the personal narrative without it using the writer. This “meta” question turns the reader’s eye toward the artist’s structure and choices of what to include (and exclude). In some ways, it is like your discussion of how the dead girl trope works. How does your work invite readers to pay attention and consider exactly what they are reading and watching (i.e. consuming)? Do you see what some might call the “blind consumption” of popular culture connecting with crimes against women and minorities in American culture?       

AB: It is really gratifying that you connected with this part of the book! By talking explicitly about the ethics of nonfiction and my specific aims with the book, I am not only inviting people to think about the ways the essays were created, but to take my conclusions with a grain of salt. I want to allow myself room to think things through and to change my mind, and to let my readers do the same. You’re right that one goal I had with the book was to encourage people to be more mindful consumers of popular culture, thinking about what trends and repeated narratives say about our values, and why we are drawn to what we are. I don’t think that that is going to solve all of our cultural problems—in fact it is probably the last place we should start if we want to end gun violence or violence against women or police brutality. But if our culture is a mirror on our values, we can clearly see the problems of our society by watching and reading more critically.

MD: In the not-so-distant wake of reports that Sherman Alexie has continually sexually harassed (his word, in his written statement, was “harmed”) women in the literary communities in which he was a part (and a HUGE name within), how do you feel about including Alexie in a book that seeks to illuminate the harm done to women by men? Had the timeline been different, would you have thought to exclude your analysis of Indian Killer as a part of your essay, “Black Hole,” or have you thought about revising the essay to include the reports? Also, you only briefly mention the privilege of the “Dead Girl,” that is the Dead [White] Girl, and I’m wondering why you neglected to include, in further depth, cultural criticism surrounding the murders of women of color and people of non-conforming genders/sexuality and, perhaps especially in “Black Hole,” the murders and disappearances of indigenous women in North America?

AB: I don’t think I would exclude Alexie entirely, but if the timeline were different I would have written about the allegations against him. I’m a critic, and my essays are not endorsements. I still think Alexie is an important, if obnoxious, figure, and the book I focus on, Indian Killer, is his least successful and most bizarre, with tons of gratuitous violence and no satisfying conclusions. Alexie used his institutional clout to prey on people and otherwise behave badly, and I think it’s crucial that he is stripped of that institutional power. But his literary legacy will have to be reckoned with, and had I had the time I would have considered the way his known transgressions reflect on Indian Killer, this troubling and complicated book. Whether that attention might add to his institutional power is a fair question, but that’s basically the minefield I work in every day.

I am talking mostly about fictional violence in the book (or the dramatized world of true crime), and I’m thinking about the reasons the murders of white girls and women hold so much sway in those arenas. In another version of the book, I would have written in more depth about the marginalized victims you mention, but in the end I decided that it was not primarily about murder and violent crime—it’s about Los Angeles, reality TV, witchcraft, writing, and my own experiences. The Dead Girl story becomes more of a case study or a backdrop; a way to understand both the threats and privileges I carry with me through the world and the paradoxical way white women can be both oppressed and oppressor.

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Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.

This body is an inheritance: A Conversation with Elissa Washuta by Peter LaBerge

BY MEREDITH DOENCH

 Elissa Washuta, author of  Starvation Mode  (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta, author of Starvation Mode (Future Tense Books: e-pub, 2015; chapbook, 2018).

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.

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Meredith Doench: Your memoir, Starvation Mode, was an interesting read, and I was fascinated with the chosen structure. It covers a large span of time—early childhood into adulthood. I think it can be difficult to write about long stretches of a life so clearly and so succinctly, but your memoir does so beautifully, in large part because of its clear framework. It’s written in three parts and uses a collection of 36 rules as section breaks for Part I and four lies in Part II. Why did you choose such a structure for the book, and how long did it take you to find it? How did the use of vignettes as oppose to lengthy narrative highlight the message of the book?

Elissa Washuta: In beginning to write this book, I presented myself with a structural challenge: to, within a span of about twelve thousand words, using linear chronology, recount my entire life’s history of eating. I was driven by my anger at a review of my first book: the reviewer faulted me for, among other things, failing to apologize for my eating disorder and dysmorphia. I knew responding directly wasn’t the classy thing to do, so I responded with this book in which I tried to dig in further and even more unapologetically. I wanted to experiment with linear chronology because my first book is non-linear. Segmentation and quick glimpses allow me to span a lot of time without rushing: the focus is sharp and fast-moving, without transitions. Using transitional connective tissue would bore me, and so I hardly ever do it. I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.

I was struggling with that project, though, because the idea of being bound within linear time bored me. I believe I’d just heard Claire Vaye Watkins give a lecture on “craft transgressions,” ways of raising the stakes by breaking the rules set by the piece. Part II halts the progress of that recounting of eating that I undertook in Part I.

MD: “I absolutely reject the idea that prose mastery requires the ability to incorporate seamless transitions.” I love this, and I have also given it a lot of thought to this in my own writing.  I like how this method engages readers in a way that invites them to participate in the prose rather than being spoon-fed the ideas. Do you see this as something that designates [creative nonfiction] as literary (as opposed to genre writing)?

EW: I’m not actually sure I know what the distinction is—not in a concrete, detailed way, anyway, not well enough to delineate a designation. I think it’s possible that the method and purpose of inquiry separate the different approaches to nonfiction, but I’m just as willing to believe that the separations are arbitrary and flimsy.

MD: As someone who has struggled with disordered eating since my early teens, I could relate to much of what is written in Starvation Mode. The part that really smacked my gut with recognition was “Rule 9. YOU MUST EAT ONLY SIX HUNDRED CALORIES PER DAY.”  This section so clearly and accurately describes what I’ve always referred to as the betrayal of my body (the moment I grew breasts and my hips widened). You write about how quickly these changes occurred for you and the idea that starving the body would stop these changes. For many of us, this is the moment that changed everything regarding personal relationships with our bodies. It also intersects, in some ways, with issues of gender. Did you find this emotional topic difficult to write about so openly and honestly?

EW: This book was hard to write, craft-wise, but it wasn’t difficult emotionally. Writing My Body Is a Book of Rules was so hard I had to pummel myself with alcohol and cigarettes to get through it—I was remembering acts of sexual violence that I’d forgotten about or remembered only partially. The same is true for the book I’m working on now. But Starvation Mode felt like an opportunity to explore the interior that was responsible for the public acts people around me saw: my weirdly fast and focused eating, my denigration of my own body, my strange and hard-to-keep-up-with dietary restrictions. I felt like I had a chance to explain myself.

MD: Another aspect of the memoir I found fascinating was the discussion of meat (whether to eat it or not), and how the body, despite the mind’s knowledge of its needed protein, made it difficult to swallow/ingest the meat. I’m fascinated by the “mind” of the body, and it’s depicted so clearly in your work. In many ways, I found these references to be reminiscent of Roxane Gay’s Hunger and the way she writes about her extensive nutritional knowledge that is overpowered by the physical body’s hunger. In your own memoir, do you see the body working against the mind or the other way around? How do these polarities in your work add to the larger discussion of bodies and their hunger/starvation?

EW: I think it’s possible that my difficulties with meat are the result of inadequate stomach acid, which can be caused by stress. I mean, that’s what the Internet says. I think in this way, the body is working with the mind: I feel constantly stressed and anxious, and my body behaves accordingly, focusing less on digesting food and more on responding to the stressor. I wrote Starvation Mode about three and a half years ago, and at that time, the Paleo Diet still had quite a hold on me (not that it doesn’t at all now, but I don’t follow it, even if its rules still run through my head), and I really thought I needed meat in my diet, so on top of the ever-present life stresses of trying to make enough money to survive and trying to stay safe while living among men, I was stressed about the fact that I thought I should be eating meat but couldn’t.

I don’t really know how my work is situated within the larger discussion of bodies and hunger. I don’t read other books about disordered eating. I still have patterns of disordered eating, and I can slip back into a full-blown eating disorder very easily.

MD: The fear of slipping back into a full-blown disorder at any moment is stress-provoking in itself! As I was reading, I wondered if this memoir served as a release for you in regards to disordered eating. Do you feel like your life is different now? Have you let go of some of these issues that plagued you in the past?  

EW: No, I don’t think it was a release. Maybe temporarily, but years later, I’m still struggling with it. I just drank a bottle of Ensure instead of eating a meal. My eating and appetite problems are basically the same as they’ve always been. I think the difference, now, is that I’m older and I’ve accepted it and I’m not hiding that I sometimes struggle to stop eating Doritos and sometimes struggle to eat anything at all. I drank the Ensure in my colleague’s office. I think now, I’m more willing to let people in to see it in life and not just on the page. Maybe now that it’s been dealt with in narrative, I’m able to detach it from one.

MD: I found the pairing of binge eating and mental health/medication interesting. Many of the descriptions regarding food during this point of the memoir feature such an urgency to binge, such a deep starvation and hunger within the body: “I would rip [the bag] open at the seams on my kitchen counter and devour the contents like a jackal with her face at a mess of entrails.” Could you explain your thinking about the weight gain that occurred during this period? Was it simply primal need of the body or was the weight a form of protection?    

EW: I don’t think it was either, exactly—I don’t know the mechanism of action of the drug that caused the weight gain, but when I began taking an antipsychotic drug, I gained weight quickly, probably in large part because it made me so ravenous. So in a way, the body did suddenly have this need, but I think of it not as primal but as manufactured and imposed.

I know that other people have spoken to the emotionally protective effects of fat, but that has not been my experience. I constantly find myself—even now, in my house, having not been in the proximity of another human for almost 24 hours—contorting my body to make it smaller. I wrap my legs around each other twice when I sit, I keep my elbows close to my ribs, I often try to gather myself when I’m in public and somebody walks near me in an enclosed space. I am always trying to take up less space. Taking up more so suddenly, without time to adjust, was hard for me.

MD: Your speaker makes a clear point throughout the book that food, no matter how good it might be, doesn’t fill her: “What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.” This idea has been part of a much larger cultural narrative regarding hunger, the body, and women’s identity with the flesh they inhabit, particularly for obese individuals. How do you see your memoir expanding or joining the larger conversation on a “starving” American society? Do you see this as an issue for all genders and races?            

EW: I can only speak to my experience as a Cowlitz woman. I’ve been thin for most of my life. I definitely don’t believe that my problems are necessarily representative of anyone else’s experience of their own body, so it’s hard for me to speak to the larger conversation—I tried to tunnel into my own brain and my experience as deeply as I could.

I think Starvation Mode is really a book about the ways that hunger and romantic or sexual desire have gotten tangled up for me, about boys and men looking at my body and thinking it should be different, and that look is the thing I was devouring. But I’ve been single for years now. Now, if a man thinks my body should be different, he doesn’t get to touch it. My god, I’ve wasted so much of my life listening to broken men tell me to start running or eat Paleo because I needed to be “fit.” Speaking to other Native women about our shapes has helped—I’m never not going to have a thick waist (even at a size zero, with my ribs showing, I had belly fat) and I’m never not going to have a bony ass. This body is an inheritance. Eating has become a lot less charged for me. I mean, I’m still full of holes, and I have more ways than ever to stuff them full, so I keep having things to write about.  

MD: I love the idea of the “body is an inheritance.” It’s not something I’ve given much thought to regarding my own body. Do you see any connection with this quote and your statement that eating has become a lot less charged for you?  

EW: I think so, at least in part. As I said, the eating problems have remained, but I’ve come to (usually) accept and even appreciate the appearance of my body as it is, so I’m not deliberately restricting my intake anymore at all. I’m not sure what changed, but I know that I look at my mother and my ancestors and see clearly that they are and were beautiful, and that I look like them. It’s hard to talk about the period after the end of tension, because as a person who builds narratives, I’m following and modulating the tension. In real life, I wish my ass weren’t bony some days and don’t think about it on others; I notice the lack of definition in my upper arms in a photo and promptly forget about it. I suspect that the answer is as simple as the fact that I realized a few years ago that wearing dresses makes me stop feeling the constant nagging of a waistband digging into my belly, so I hardly wear pants, and I’ve been able to let go of that ever-present, back-of-mind feeling that something with the body isn’t right.

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Meredith Doench teaches writing at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in literary journals such as Hayden's Ferry Review, Women's Studies Quarterly, and Gertrude. She served as a fiction editor at Camera Obscura: Journal of Literature and Photography and her first crime thriller, Crossed, was published by Bold Strokes Books in August 2015.  Her second, Forsaken Trust was released in May of 2017.  Deadeye will be released in early 2019.

 

Expanding and Dissolving: A Conversation with Chelsea Hodson by Peter LaBerge

BY AYDEN LEROUX

 Chelsea Hodson, author of  Tonight I'm Someone Else  (Henry Holt and Co., 2018). Photo credit: Ryan Lowry.

Chelsea Hodson, author of Tonight I'm Someone Else (Henry Holt and Co., 2018). Photo credit: Ryan Lowry.

Chelsea Hodson is the author of the book of essays Tonight I'm Someone Else and the chapbook Pity the Animal. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Bennington College and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell Colony and PEN Center USA Emerging Voices. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times MagazineFrieze Magazine, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She teaches at Catapult in New York and at Mors Tua Vita Mea in Sezze Romano, Italy. 

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One steamy summer, in the swamp that was an apartment in downtown Brooklyn sans air conditioning, my friend Ceilidh and I were chatting about books in the doorway of our kitchen. Like playing catch in the park, we slung recommendations back and forth. Maggie Nelson. Sarah Manguso. Heidi Julavits. These were women who dealt with the self, with desire, with record-making. And then she threw me a name I’d never heard: Chelsea Hodson.

That night, Ceilidh sent me a digital copy of Hodson’s Pity the Animal, a chapbook published by Future Tense Books in 2014. I recall lying on my stomach under the yellowed overhead light, in my underwear and hoping to dent the heat. I never read books digitally because my attention can’t fix on the screen, but here I was, scrolling through Hodson’s exquisite long-form essay meditating on what a body can endure. Hodson deftly braided small paragraphs on the ways her own body is used, valued, objectified, and desired. But these weren’t just fragments, they were beautifully portioned sentences. I was deep in the process of writing my own first book and was feeling the rush of absorption, as the right texts were finding their way into my hands precisely when I needed them. This was, indeed, one of them.

One the occasion of her highly anticipated full-length collection of essays, Tonight I’m Someone Else, I interviewed Hodson about her exacting treatment of the body as a locality that entangles labor, desire, and identity. As a nod to the title of her book, I chose to interview her three times over the course of two months in order to tease out precisely who she was in each conversation.

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APRIL 9, 2018

Ayden LeRoux: Because your book is titled Tonight I’m Someone Else, I wanted to start by asking who are you tonight, or I guess technically, this afternoon?

Chelsea Hodson: The title mainly comes from the element of persona my writing takes on. It’s this very curated version of myself and a very specific part of myself. It’s like a way of isolating parts of myself in order to examine them and really figure out what made a memory particularly memorable or what made a person particularly memorable. I have to isolate things in order to understand them. So that’s a big part of how I live, too. I’m always compartmentalizing. Today I’m in full work-mode, and I’m longing to get back to art mode, where I can turn off my email and get back to my own work, but you know, that’s just part of being a writer and a teacher. Like today, it’s all manuscripts and all critical eye. I find editing very creative, but for me, that’s a very different part of myself than the part that makes work.

AL: I was thinking about an interesting tension I found between different essays in the book:

“All characters appearing in this work are you. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely you.” (58)

“I love them not for who they are but for the ways in which they altered me. In this way, my love for them becomes a love for my own deterioration.” (135)

“The mystery of myself grows larger the more I try to solve it.” (169)

With those three in tandem, I see this idea that the self is both constantly expanding and dissolving. It’s simultaneously a sense of being undone and constructing the self. Especially because the self that is described in this book is defined so much by others and the longing for the Other. I would love to hear you talk about what you feel dissolves your sense of self and how it simultaneously is constructed through desire.

CH: Wow, that’s a really good question…. You’re tuning into a lot of things. I love what you said about it expanding and dissolving, and that, to me, informs a sense of a whole new thing being created. In my deterioration, I construct something brand new. In America, the idea is that the thing would always be improved. I’m not sure that it is, I like to think that it could be, but there’s this idea that in shedding your old self that you’re automatically presented with a better self or a better version. I definitely don’t think that’s always true. I think that, often, one is confronted with a worse part of oneself. A lot of times that’s what I’m writing about: what do you do with yourself when you’re really just not sure of what’s right and what’s wrong, or what you really want?

That first quote that you mentioned is a play on the disclaimer that books use. It’s a joke, first of all. I think that I’m getting away with a lot in a book that’s classified as essay/nonfiction. I always naturally bring in this frantic id voice of passion and imagining impossible things. To me, the idea of the “you” being everyone is a part of that. It changes. In parts of the book, the person being addressed doesn’t even seem to be that singular to me. Sometimes people are bringing things out of me that would have been brought out no matter who I was with. I’m rambling a little bit, but the idea of one face replacing another is interesting to me. I’m interested in the series of people one meets throughout their life.

AL: Circling back to this idea of American-ness and identity. Maybe this is what’s most bold and what stands out to me about this book, the unceasing desire and desire for others to define the self that’s talked about in this book. As Americans, we’re expected to be these incredibly individualistic people. Going back to this dissolving of the self, what feels really unusual is you giving yourself permission to write a book that’s almost saying there is no self that exists, except all these longings for other things. That is something that’s frowned upon by a lot of people in our society. They want you to find yourself. That’s the ultimate goal of living in America, and especially New York. You better know who you are and what you want to do in this world. There’s so much desire, which is a very American thing, but then so little assertion of the self.

CH: I’m interested in the ambiguities of the self and one’s own weakness, especially as a woman. I think there’s this tendency to want to project or portray oneself as invincible and super strong at all times. I think that’s the reductive version of what I see on the internet sometimes and to me, something is only interesting when it has multiple dimensions. I’m really interested in this idea of portraying myself as I am, which is often full of sadness and absence and longing.

AL: Something else I was thinking about while reading your book was that sense of feminism. How does this project relate to being a feminist project, if you feel it is? I was thinking particularly about “Swollen and Victorious.” There’s a lot of privilege in that essay: what does it mean to ask for it, to ask for pain because life doesn’t have meaning and has been so normal and even-keeled? The desire in that essay is to feel remarkable or special in some way. I’m curious, how does that relate to being a young woman?

CH: That essay is an attempt to discover that. There’s a line in it, where it’s like, “Girls like me get to choose when and where to look. That’s the real privilege.” And that’s, in summary, what it’s about. What I’ve seen is very curated and a specific point of view, and it’s privileged, but that doesn’t mean that, in my opinion, I shouldn’t write it. That essay is an attempt to understand something outside of myself, no matter how misguided. It’s a progression of violence—a misguided look at it, and then perhaps a step in a different direction. Trying to understand something as big as a border patrol officer murdering someone trying to cross the border illegally, to having touched someone that later was shot in the head. That essay came from a real sincere effort in trying to understand what a hand is capable of, and to me it’s capable of everything because of the degrees of violence that we see now. Even though I’m not on the front lines as a war journalist, that essay is my attempt at understanding violence, and to me it started with something “troubling,” [...] this real attraction to violence, and what do you do with that? It’s more common than people think. That death-drive is in all of us. When people say that reading something like that is troubling, I’m like, Wow you’ve never felt that? It’s hard to imagine not relating to that at all, even just a little. It’s just fascinating when people say about my book, It’s so sad. And I’m like, Yeah, isn’t life so sad? I don’t necessarily equate sadness with badness, or any sense of negative feeling. It is what it is.

AL: We’ve been talking about longing and desire and yearning. Often times people use this metaphor of hunger or thirst. I’m wondering if you think this book feels more like hunger or more like thirst? And what is the difference for you?

CH: That’s a really good question, but I can’t separate “thirst” from the internet definition of it. [Chuckles]

AL: What do you mean?

CH: Like a thirst trap. [Laughs] It’s like, an Instagram photo for a guy would be, like, posting a shirtless photo of yourself. That’s a thirst trap. For me, it’s hard to call my book thirst because I don’t want my book to be a thirst trap. I think hunger is definitely the better word for it even outside of that. It’s a hunger for knowledge in a lot of ways, for How can I be better? How can the speaker be better? How can I better serve other people in my life? It’s this real hunger for knowledge of all these different things. That’s why I felt like it was valid to write the book at this point in my life. It’s become more accepted to write a memoir or personal essays when you’re 30 or so, but in previous generations it would have been frowned upon. It would have been, What do you know? For me, I’m not sure I’ll know that much more when I’m 60 or 80. I’ll be a different version of myself, but what I know now is maybe worth exploring. That has to do with a hunger to know myself.

AL: It’s interesting—as you’re talking about absorbing knowledge, or wanting to learn things, hunger is so much about solids and being filled by solids. Whereas thirst is just hydration and lubrication and keeping things running smoothly but not taking in new things.

CH: I’m going to be thinking about that tonight. When I go to the gym I’m going to be thinking, Hunger or thirst? Hunger or thirst?

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MAY 17, 2018

AL:  Who are you tonight?

CH: Tonight, I’ve been packing for a trip and cleaning my room, which used to be all white, but I’m transitioning into all blue. My room is very small, so it gets messy easily, but I’m thinking tonight about how pleasing it is to be in my room when it’s quiet and tidy. I can hear my neighbor’s bird, Spike, singing through the wall, which he does every night. The song is very sweet and cheerful, and I like hearing it. I often think about the fact that Spike is older than me.

AL:  As we've already discussed, your book is filled with so much longing and lust. On page 147, we finally feel the release of all the desire and tension that has built up when you write, "Tyler rubbed his jeans against my jeans like someone lighting a hundred matches in a row. I closed my eyes and came." When I read that sentence, I felt so much relief—that, at last, the wave of desire had broken. I couldn't help but wonder which you think is more important and interesting to explore as a writer: the potency of that build-up of energy, or the release of it?

CH: The anticipation of anything—a trip to a foreign place, a career accomplishment, a romantic rendezvous—is almost always more pleasurable to me than the end result. I like that heat of uncertainty, of not knowing exactly how something will play out. Even after something desirable has been attained, I always feel a tinge of sadness. For example, I felt extremely sad when my book was done. That made no sense to me at first, since I’d been working for years towards this exact thing—shouldn’t I be happy? I was, in a way, but I could see how attached I’d become to this feeling of being in the middle of a problem. Anticipation had become a sort of hobby for me, a place to put my desire.

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MAY 24, 2018

AL: Who, or what, are you tonight?

CH: I’ve just returned home from a work trip to Los Angeles, which felt surreal and dreamlike in its cloudy atmosphere and Hollywood proximity. Some things I saw: a snarling coyote, Angelyne in her iconic pink Corvette (the fourth time I’ve seen her in my life), Joanna Newsom walking with her baby (while I was being interviewed), Ryan Seacrest at a restaurant (but not eating), and a crowd of people applauding a particularly beautiful sunset. I used to live in Los Angeles, and I appreciate its unique Hollywood brand of magic, especially now that I’m reading Eve Babitz again, but I’m happy to go elsewhere for now. I’m tired—perhaps from walking most places instead of taking cars. I walked 32 miles in four days, simply because I had the time.

AL: Your wide array of jobs is speckled throughout your book. You've worked at NASA, for Marina Abramovic, and as a model. I love looking at that list because it dismantles a lot of romantic visions of what it means to be a writer and speaks to the contemporary world we live in, which often creates these fractures in identity as writers take on a odd jobs and "hustle," for a lack of a better word. How do these jobs inform your written work (beyond merely appearing in them)? How is work or labor connected to desire for you?

CH: Yes, this word “hustle” has come up a lot for me lately, especially in conversation with other writers. Everyone is curious about how other people make money—how they manage to both work and write, since writing so rarely provides any kind of substantial money. I accept the “hustle” and multi-tasking as part of American life—it’s a privilege to be able to write at all, and I’ll take what I can get. I talk about work a lot in the book because it would be a weird absence if I didn’t—my jobs were where I spent so much of the years that I wrote about in the book. And usually my jobs provided an interesting juxtaposition to something going on in my personal life—studying another planet while longing for someone unreachable, working retail while considering my own body as a commodity, working as a model while interrogating the idea of a body as an art object. These connections are everywhere if we pay attention, and I think part of the essayist’s role can be to document and investigate how certain parts of life connect with other parts, and to begin piecing them together.

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Ayden LeRoux is an artist and the author of Isolation and Amazement (Samsara Press, 2013) and Odyssey Works (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016). Her writing has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, edibleManhattan, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. She has had solo exhibitions of her work at IDIO Gallery, Flux Factory, and the Institute for American Art (IFAA). She is an MFA candidate at UCSD.