The Conversant republishes excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. An earlier version of this present conversation can be found here.
HER KIND: In her poem “Summer X-Rays,” Nina Cassian tells us: “That’s why I swim so far out, / willing prisoner / inside the sea’s immense green magnifying glass.” What draws you to the water? How far are you willing to swim and why?
Amina Cain: My mother tells me that when I was two years old, she couldn’t keep me from the water. She would set me down on the beach and before she knew it, I was in the waves trying to go further than a two-year-old should. I had very few fears as a child, and I loved the water, as many children do. I love it still. I am always trying to decide which I like best—ocean, river, or lake—but I can’t. The ocean is immense, yes, but you can float down a river for a very long time, and in a cold climate a lake’s waves freeze in winter. Today, on the first day of summer, I think I would choose to swim in a river. The Yuba, in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
I like to think that I’m willing to swim to the ends of the earth, but the truth is that I have a relationship to fear now. There are ways in which I block myself. But there are also ways in which I feel free. I am freest in summer, more myself. I think water has something to do with that. Water is healthy; swimming is healthy. Cassian writes: “I’m still able to recognize a perfect day.”
Is it bragging to say that I think I know what swimming far out feels like? I have felt it in my movements, and in my relationships with other people (I love how far you can go with another person) and myself (I love how far you can go with yourself) and in my writing. To temper this are the ways in which I have been very held back. I think that those moments of going far into something made me a writer, or at least they take up the same space as my writing. It may be that I write partly to be in that space. It is one way to get there: I am probably slightly addicted to it, to heightened experiences (this is what swimming far out is often like for me). But I am also made happy by the simplest of things.
Veronica, I just finished your new novel, The Sad Passions, and the sense for me of reading it was almost total immersion. I think you are able to show what swimming far out is like, swimming out with one’s fears. Feeling them and swimming anyway. Being set in front of the ocean. The water is there, so the question is not do I swim, or how far, but, what is swimming like? What will I encounter “inside the sea’s immense green”? And the sisters’ (and mother’s) voices/chapters do become like waves; they return and crash upon the narrative.
There’s a passage toward the end of the book—in Julia’s final chapter—that reads: “I know what limitlessness is. It was during that year that I saw it in Claudia. I know what not stopping feels like, what not having an outline is, a boundary, an inside, which ends at the edges. I know what not having edges is. I have seen it, that lack of line.” This is the other side of the coin, the other side of swimming far out into the sea. It’s not a place one can live in all of the time.
Veronica Gonzalez-Peña: I think that I swim because I have to. . .and I am not brave; I don’t go far out. I respect those primal forces, fire and sea, and I like safety; I like to feel myself in some place of control; I envision myself a coward, a scaredy-cat. . .this is my vision of myself, though when I step outside myself a bit I know it is not true. I am constantly doing things that would terrify other people—this book for instance, The Sad Passions. But it is not a choice for me; it is not as if I do things because I am brave or feel heroic. I don’t choose to be these things. I feel myself a coward who does what she does because she must. I am already in the middle of the ocean, and I have to swim hard, hard to try to find my way back to land. And I can’t say what drives me, either. I am not someone who does things with a plan in hand. I don’t say, I’m going to write a terribly dark novel, or teach myself a new skill, or go far and wide. I like doing, and so I do and do and do. I am making films now too, in addition to my fiction, and working on this collaborative project called Rockypoint through which I make prints with writers and artists, and through which too I ran a reading series in Los Angeles.
Right now, I am on the road, sitting in a Motel 6 with my cat and my dog. My cat has just gone to the bathroom, and the whole room stinks. I have left a very comfortable life and am moving from LA to NYC. Not for a job, not for anything concrete, just because I am compelled to; it is like I have to do it. Like. . .writing. Like all these other things I do. But in actual water, in the ocean, say, I am never one to tempt the waves. I do not go far into it at all. I am afraid of that immense space. . .the wine-dark sea. . .how it may take me over, bring me down and into itself. I respect primeval forces.
I am listening to the Odyssey on my drive across the sea that is Middle America. Ian McKellen’s recording of it—it is just gorgeous, and of course the ocean, the sea and water are everywhere. People are constantly crying too—the warriors weep all the time, into the ocean itself sometimes, and their blood is everywhere, all that aqueous substance. The wine-dark sea of self.
In The Sad Passions, Julia says she is afraid of limitlessness, says she knows what boundarylessness is. . .her mother is mad, so this is her experience of that space that is not a defined space at all because there is no outline. And that limitlessness which can be such a Romantic aspiration for some, for her is a terrifying and tragic reality.
But, Amina, I’ve been looking at I Go To Some Hollow again, with our discussion in mind, and your writing, your stories are so full of water. It is everywhere, from the very first. People going to the water, staring at the water, swimming in it, floating, in pools and rivers and the ocean; it is everywhere. All this water is set up as a kind of counterpoint to fire and barren land. Can you talk a little about this, both as symbol and in the actuality of these primal forces: the barren land (yesterday I drove through Utah) and the sea. How do those two things play off of each other in your own internal landscape, and then in your writing?
AC: I relate to that completely: moving to a place because you just have to, because you are driven towards it. That’s what moving to LA was like for me. I was pulled there, kind of inexplicably. And I knew my time in Chicago was over. Driving across the U.S. is like a kind of ocean. The vastness but also the weird depths. There is something to sink into in that huge swath of landscape that’s always changing. Sometimes your own self.
Landscape has always been important to me, both physically/psychically in my life, and also in a story. When I write something new I often start with land or at least a kind of atmosphere, usually a place I want to spend time in somehow, either because I crave or miss it. Maybe I passed through once and I couldn’t stay, didn’t have enough hours. Lately, I’ve been combining landscapes. In the novella I’ve started writing: an imaginary France-Brazil coupled with an imaginary Los Angeles.
When I was a baby, our house burned down. Heat is a purifier. I don’t know how to stop it from being a kind of purification in my fiction too. As with bodies of water, when I go to the spa in winter I can never decide which kind of heat I like best: the dry sauna or the wet one. There is something to the sensation of sweating everything out, but I also like the subtle way dry heat pulls out the toxins. I guess I need both, and when I’m at the spa I take turns with each, several times in a row.
When I drove through Utah, I felt very alive and happy. Maybe I’ll never live in Utah, but some part of me wants to inhabit places like that in my stories. I like when everything seems empty; I like when it’s still warm at night. Something this simple is enough to get me writing. In my stories, I think I just go towards what I need and crave, and this means I take myself to these bodies of water and land.
In your novel, Claudia wanders outside her hotel room in Acapulco, looking for her husband M. and she sees a falling star. At first it’s just Claudia and the sky and her fear. Then the ocean is there, moving in that landscape too: “I stopped and made a wish, though I was very frightened, my heart racing, because I believe you must, you must take a wish that is offered to you. And as soon as I had made my wish I registered the crashing waves, loud, hard, and black and loud as they are on the Pacific. I watched their dark violence play itself out upon the soft white shore . . .” When I read this passage it stuck with me, partly because of how beautifully it describes the complexity of an ocean and what our feelings toward it might be in different kinds of moments, but also because of the way it comes alive in that scene, comes alive in that sentence. When I read your writing and in the times I’ve heard you read it out loud I’m struck by how your sentences gather their power and then by how whole chapters do as well. Do you like sentences? I mean, as writers, I imagine we all like them, but in the same way that the ocean becomes present in the middle of fear and a star-filled sky, I find a sentence written by you to bring a thing into existence and then another thing and another all along itself. There is a way to travel not just from one sentence to the next, but right inside one of them. There is a way to swim far out. This is gratifying.
VGP: I’m obsessed with sentences. With rhythm, with the way things build. I love repetition and patterns and hiding things inside of other things. I can live inside a sentence by Henry James, or one by W.G. Sebald or Josef Skvorecky who wrote this incredible novella full of unbelievable sentences, Emoke, or HD (who writes about fire beautifully). Or Flaubert, the way his sentences can negate themselves with one semi-colon. Nabokov writes about this in his Lectures on Literature. The way one of his sentences will build and build through clauses; and then a semi-colon and the negating clause which undoes all that went before. It is perverse, almost, and I like that sort of thing. . .the way that Jean Rhys makes things happen in her sentences too, the dense poetry of them. They do get very complicated sometimes, my sentences, I love layering so I can lose control of them sometimes and then I have to double back and make them work. This can take a long, long time, but that is what I find gratifying, to use your term—that wrestling with language that ends up giving you something. I like it so much I want to give it to my reader, that gift, a sentence you have to untangle, the pleasure and sense of satisfaction you get from something like that. . .For me it is all about sentences, not words necessarily. I’ll sacrifice a word for a sentence—I won’t sacrifice a sentence for anything else, not for a paragraph, not for plot, not for character. I work toward making as perfect a sentence as I can; I don’t struggle for the perfect word in the same way. But we’re all so different. I’m sure there are people wanting to kill me over that statement. How stupid, they must think. But I chalk it up to difference and to pleasure. Sentences are my pleasure. And a series of good sentences, when the rhythm builds to a pitch—that is just beyond. . .
But Amina, I want to talk to you about the floating sensibility of your characters, who are so often there and not there at once—this I associate with water, the ocean mainly, as it is so symbolic a body of water, huge and unknowable, like our very selves. Your characters are often trying to feel or make themselves felt, as if floating on the surface of life. Sometimes they say this directly, express it, their need to be felt, their need to feel; it is as if they don’t quite know they are there at all, like a dream. It is almost as if through the meticulous narration—because your narration is slow and careful and meticulous—they are trying to explain themselves to themselves. Sometimes the stories have a dream logic, as in “Black Wings” where a pilot is suddenly present in an important role, as interlocutor (I imagine him wearing his pilot hat, his pilot’s coat). Other times the stories exist more fully in that dream world, as in “Homesteading”; yet other times they inhabit our logic, but still feel floaty and somehow slow and surreal—like being in deep water. How do you do this? I keep trying to figure it out. It is not any one element, and, as I said, your narration and attention to detail are meticulous, so how do you achieve that sense of swimming, which feels like suspension in water, deeply pleasurable, but so untethered we might float away at any moment?
AC: That makes sense to me, that you find such enjoyment in sentences and in the way they build upon each other through rhythm to a pitch. I know I mentioned to you that after hearing you read last month here in L.A. for your book launch, well, I didn’t really want it to end. I felt pitched into something, something not easy to come down from, like when I’ve just watched a film and then it’s hard to walk out of the theater afterwards, into the actual day, or night. The same with reading The Sad Passions. When I finished it, I missed it. I had gotten used to going into the landscape of it, everyday and also the landscape of those sentences. Interestingly, right now, writing back and forth with you, having this conversation, is affecting my own sentences! I realize I am at times going further into them myself.
It’s fascinating to me what different writers gravitate to in their work. I have always thought that though I’m a writer, it’s not language I’m drawn to when I’m working on my stories—more than that, it’s image. Sometimes fictional situation. And always atmosphere/setting. Plot has never been important to me. Character, I’m not sure, but certainly the relationships between characters. And definitely narrative and voice. So much can be carried in the voice, a swimming out. I think that when plot is not the thing holding a fictional work together then other kinds of scaffolding can emerge, perhaps dreamlike. I don’t plan anything out either, relying instead on my subconscious. That’s probably where some of the floating sensibility comes from. I write to see what is inside my mind—a bit like meditation. But I think in Creature, which will be coming out in the fall, I have been trying to get closer to feeling, and closer to closeness itself and to understanding another, instead of that distance I have so often mined. Not that one is better than the other, just that these kinds of proximities are important to me right now.
I have to say: I very much want to see the film you just made!
VGP: I’m glad you appreciate that sense of rhythmic space I create within my writing—or work to create, anyway. I want readers to feel submerged in the musicality of the book, to feel so deeply in it that it is as if they must come up for air sometimes. To feel as if they are swimming in it. The films are not as weighty. I made the first one as a relief from the book, which had been so solitary, deep and intense, so I wanted to work collaboratively, which was a joy. The film is visually poetic, and slow, though it is narrative too, and hopefully it is moving; but it is not of the same deeply immersive intensity as my writing. Sylvere Lotringer plays my daughter’s grandfather in it! This I love. The title comes from something he says to her character about death: Death is like a shadow. . .I’m making a new one now, with Michael Silverblatt; and Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti are in it too. It’s about a young poet Michael is concerned about, and a young poet plays that part; I’m not really interested in working with actors, but rather in making things happen with the people who are a part of my life, my sphere of interest. I want you to see the completed one! We’ll do that.
It is clear that atmosphere is your main concern. It is amazing, really, how you are able to create it in such a minimal/minimalist way. There is a sense of indirectness between characters and situations, and although your characters work hard to explain things to themselves, they never quite get at things—this is part of this sense of atmosphere, I think, the living inside a space that is thick and weighty and, as I’ve repeatedly said, dream-like, that they seem to not be able to move out of, even through their meticulous attention to detail, language and careful attentiveness to each other. We sense they are working toward an intimacy that is at one remove from them. They have affairs that aren’t satisfying, friends they love deeply but can’t tell. The children, even, seem careful in these stories. And we are never quite sure why this is, even though they try to tell us, try to tell themselves to us, and it feels almost as if all these things they do in the world are part of the telling, in the service of the telling that will come. In “And Went Inside” the narrator tells us, “Often I imagine things too soon. Sometimes I begin while the thing is still happening.”
I’m in NY now, in my new apartment, and of course I am still thinking about the Odyssey. When Odysseus reaches Ithaca, he still has many tests he must endure. He knows this going in, the gods tell him it will be this way. He enters Ithaca a liar; he has to obfuscate the facts in order to save himself. And then for many books he is constantly lying, even to Penelope and Telemachus, telling stories about himself to others through the voices he takes on. “I believe he is still alive,” he tells both his wife and his son at different moments, referring to himself in the third person. I think this is something all storytellers share—a telling of the self through the stories we tell, and of course I don’t mean this directly, as autobiography, but something deeper, more decentered and thus more deeply moving. What are you telling us about story telling through your work and about yourself as a teller of stories?
AC: Regarding Death is Like a Shadow, I really like the idea of working not with actors, but with the people who are already significant in your life. My good friend Laida Lertxundi, also a filmmaker, does something similar. Sometimes she drives out to a space—like the desert—and part of shooting the film, I think, is spending time with the people who are with her there in that specific space. They are making a film, but they are also having an experience together, inhabiting something, and that experience comes into the work very strongly. Laida’s films are not driven by narrative, but they are in relationship to it, and I’m always interested in how one can be in proximity with something without going through the front door of it, if that makes sense. Connecting this back to writing: a story with a relationship to character, for instance, without centering the story there.
I like the way Odysseus refers to himself in third person. “I believe he is still alive.” If anything, I think of storytelling as a way to get close to experience. Can I somehow let the reader swim out into that space too? There are things that have affected my life so profoundly that I think I have wanted to be near them again, either because of how pleasurable they were, or painful; either way, I have wanted to share them. I have wanted to be in conversation.
What kind of storyteller are you?
VGP: A lost storyteller, always searching. I feel I am always lost, like I don’t know things I should and so I tell to figure those things out or to at least attempt to approach. I am always searching. And this can be hard for others. . .I am always pushing further, asking questions, too many questions, and I am sure that sometimes I am just too much. . .
AC: I’m glad for that answer, Veronica, for how honest it is. I think I’m trying to figure things out too. Thank you for having this conversation with me.
Amina Cain is the author of two collections of stories: Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as n+1, BOMB, Two Serious Ladies and Denver Quarterly. She lives in Los Angeles.
Veronica Gonzalez-Peña is founder of rockypoint Press, a series of artist-writer collaborations, including prints, a reading series and now films. twin time: or, how death befell me, her first novel, published by semiotext(e), won her the 2007 Premio Aztlán Prize. Told in five voices, The Sad Passions (2013), her new novel, is just out; of it Francisco Golman says, “It gently mesmerizes with its rhythmic prose, and the emotionally rich and complex strategies each woman employs in telling her story. A beautiful and moving choral tale of isolation, love, damage and intimate struggles. Its many landscapes, especially Mexico City, sing too.”