Sunday, 25 May 2014

Causerie à deux in “Kathleenville”

An interview with Kathleen Winter

Two months ago I published a post on this blog, which was a review of Kathleen Winter’s novel, Annabel. It was followed, soon after, by a review on my other blog, Zero to One, where I called it “a book of contrasts.” The novel had been a finalist in the 2014 edition of Canada Reads, the most important book-reading event taking place in Canada. I was a little upset when the novel was excluded from the competition based on an interpretation that I found (and still find) completely wrong and unfair. As my friends know too well (and as will become apparent below), I am not a Canadian. But Annabel caused avalanches of thoughts in my mind, a lot of them too Canadian not to be highlighted. So I wrote the blog posts mentioned above. But I wanted to know more. And there was only one way I could find out the author’s perspective on place and space (which are, to me, the strongest elements in the novel). I contacted Kathleen Winter and asked her to give me an interview. To my delight, she accepted. Here is the result of our electronic exchanges:

The novel features a strong contrast between geography and urbanism. On the one hand, there is Croydon Harbour, a place that doesn’t exist on real maps – a mythical place of vast expanses, of white winters, of seasons that follow their own path, where humans are nothing if not subservient to ontology. On the other hand, there is St John’s, a real place in Labrador-Newfoundland – a place of human interests, of explosive colours, of distances that can be measured, of streets that limit movement or channel people’s actions. This contrast reminded me of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who proposed a distinction between what he called “smooth spaces” (the equivalent of your Croydon Harbour) and “striated spaces” (your St John’s). Would it be fair to say that the novel hinges on the understanding of this relationship and its own hermaphroditical nature? ||| My brother Michael told me that my writing about Croydon Harbour is really about a place he calls “Kathleenville”. He sees it as an extension of my imagination, which I suppose in a way it is. I have to admit, though, that as I wrote about Croydon Harbour, I thought I was writing about the real Labrador, and not really an imaginary place. It surprises me to find out that what I think of as earthy, real, tangible aspects of a place might in fact be none of those things. When I was writing Croydon Harbour, I envisioned Labrador communities I had seen and known. The landscape, the animals, the vegetation and the skies are “real”. But yes, the power and electricity and magnetism of the place, well, I guess they are real as well, but in order for them to be manifest they need a person, or consciousness, to meet them. St. John’s is a place I lived in for decades, but there again, in a way, it represents layered myth and story, to me. It’s sort of like a ragged, east coast San Francisco – the hills, the coloured houses, and what my daughter calls the higgledy-piggledyness. I love it there. The contrast between Croydon Harbour and St. John’s is, for me, partly about intimacy. Croydon Harbour is a place where the soul expands out into great space, whereas St. John’s is where it rests, like a cat, kittycorner and protected.

Croydon Harbour feels like a place that had to be imagined. My question is: what came first – Wayne or Croydon Harbour? Which one started the engine of the novel? ||| The character, the person of Wayne/Annabel, started the engine and caused me to begin writing a short story that would turn into the novel.  I met a Labrador artist who had worked a startling and mysterious figure into a beaded work on black felt, and when I asked her about this figure, she told me it was “a hermaphrodite.” She told me people of dual gender were known about and accepted in Labrador as having special powers. I had already begun writing the book when she told me this, but she helped me see a bigger picture, and Labrador was part of that picture.

Did you imagine the other places mentioned in the novel (I mean, of course, the places visited by Thomasina, which you describe to a certain extent) or did you actually see them all yourself? ||| I knew some of the places, such as London, from experience. My dear friend Elizabeth wrote me postcards from Bucharest that I used, with her permission, when describing Thomasina’s postcards. Elizabeth was my friend in St. John’s and she rented her basement apartment to a pair of Mormon missionaries. They came upstairs in the evenings and she gave them tea and cookies and they enraptured her so thoroughly with the Book of Mormon that they converted her and she became a Mormon missionary herself, which is how she got to Bucharest. Elizabeth is an artist and she has the best stories of anyone I know, the most humane and heartrending and compassionate. I beg her to let me use them and every now and then she does. Other places in Thomasina’s travels I researched or imagined.

In my review, I reflected on the myth of the androgyne, because it seemed so obvious to me. I have not seen this aspect mentioned in other reviews. Of course, I haven’t seen all of them! But how does this stand with you? Did you draw inspiration from literature that accommodated the idea of the hermaphrodite? ||| I have always been fascinated with gender, and have always felt a tension at having to play-act at being female. All my inspiration is unconscious, so it’s hard for me to be exact about a question like this. I just know that androgyny excites me and always has, whether in myth and story, or in life. Whenever I see or hear of someone who has broken the prison of gender duality, I feel released, somewhere deep in myself. Every single one of my favourite writers lives or lived beyond gender.

Wayne is written as a boy. Did that make it difficult to you to imagine him, to write his ‘gender-specific’ thoughts and actions? ||| It was the most difficult part of the book. In some ways, I feel it was impossible for me to do justice to this, which is why if you examine the story it becomes obvious that most of the gender-defining comes from people around the main character. In a way, Wayne/Annabel is transparent, and might even be said to be nonexistent. This is why I needed the idea of bridges in the book. The structure of bridges, their substance and their engineering, along with their overarching beauty, loftiness and grace, gave me a sort of whole entity that Wayne and Annabel could embrace and be interested in. I mean, you can’t have one without the other.

A Canadian trapper (a type embodied by the character Treadway)
Source: Le Dernier Trappeur, via
Wayne is the protagonist of the novel, but his father, Treadway, covers a lot of narrative territory as well. And of course, the ending belongs to him too. I don’t have the right metrics to measure this, but it seems that he appears more often than other characters in the novel. Why is that? ||| I began with one opinion and vision of Treadway, as a macho, one-dimensional man. But I based him on several men I know, and I think perhaps because of this, he quickly taught me that pinning him down would not be so easy. He taught me that nobody is one-dimensional. He taught me that love can make a father change his mind and question his own fears, and accept one’s child. He was not what I expected. My editor, at one point (when a fourth or fifth draft was not working), asked me if I should maybe “kill off” Treadway in the second half. I think that when she asked me that, I suddenly knew how important Treadway was, to the book. Her question made me work on bringing out his power and loveliness.

Also on Treadway: he never struck me as a person capable of thinking about murder. He kills animals for a living, but that’s where his capacity to kill seems to stop. He is not violent, he is not unfair, he is not revengeful. And so his determination to punish those who had dishonoured his son took me by surprise. Not that I though him incapable of reaction; but to me he seemed more likely to respond with a reflection rather than such a drastic action. When did that transformation happen in him? ||| I think of that time in Treadway’s mind as the time he regretted that he had not been able to protect his daughter. He thought of the attack as an assault on a daughter, and felt a father’s quiet, poisonous and lethal rage. I think it was fuelled by deep sorrow and regret that he had failed to prevent the violence against Annabel. Also, I felt that he knew the perpetrator would hurt someone else in the future. He wanted to at least prevent this. From a purely practical standpoint, he would dearly have loved to incapacitate the cruel, stupid bully.

To end with, there’s another aspect that I find striking in your novel: reading. Your characters read a lot. And not just each other’s letters, but books, serious books: Aristotle, Diderot, and so on. Is that normal for a man who goes out trapping in the Labrador wilderness? ||| Yes, it is normal for a Labrador trapper to read. I spent time with an old trapper who told me this, and I also heard it from other people. Trappers like Treadway were part Inuit and part Scots, and there was a lot of European influence on the Labrador coast. If you go to some of the coastal communities now you will find libraries full of books brought by the Moravian missionaries, and Labrador is full of fascinating people who combine practicality and deep knowledge of the land with a knowledge of literature and philosophy, as well as music.

Photo for Le Monde, (c) Jessica Auer
This is where our interview finishes. But I have to say I felt, from the very beginning, that I could spend days talking to Kathleen Winter, on all the intricacies of her novel and the specificities of her characters and stories. In order to understand all this, her novel needs to be read. Annabel needs to be on people’s bookshelves. For its hermaphroditism, for its themes, for its beauty.
||| Also, visit Kathleen’s blog, with a title taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, to see her other ways of approaching writing, as well as the other wonderful talent she has: drawing. |||

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Why I think writing is super-human (2)

Let’s come again to why I think writing is super-human. The question put again. The question re-membered.

Writing is more like a divorce

You see now how close writing is to data storage, which is the thing we tend to associated with computers. They (writing and the computer) both preserve texts for the use of an entity different from the one that’s doing the storage. What this means, if I manage to put it into simpler words, is that mere storage – mere writing – is not sufficient if taken in isolation. A piece of text can stay where it has been written for thousands of years and be a masterpiece; nobody knows about it – it’s useless. So the text is nothing if not read. Reading is the soul of writing; it is the life blown into that text. Can you imagine an archive? Millions of texts sitting there; so many, it has been impossible for the whole team of archivists to go through them all – to even know what many of them contain. Those are dead texts. Inexistent texts, in spite of the fact that they are right there, in that confined space of the archive.

Writing is separation.
And from the above sentence I arrive at another one: writing is separation. Only things cut away from their source can be stored. Right? Let’s take a look at our thoughts again. It wouldn’t be hard for us to agree that it’s impossible to pickle them inside our brain, like millennium eggs, and keep them there for eternity. No, that is not humanly possible. Maybe in the world of Funes the Memorius, but even there, some problem will arise at one point or other, and the whole castle will crumble, as attested by Borges, who would have liked things to be different.
So now, if we’re taking these thoughts to their logical conclusion, we may finally say that writing is not human. It is, indeed, super-human – not as in Superman, but as in prosthetics.

Writing is more like a fake limb

All forms of art (and writing is one) are prosthetic in nature. They do what we cannot do by means of our physical abilities. At the beginnings of science, the scientific disciplines were called arts – you probably knew that. So seeing further (telescopes) or deeper (microscopes), helping people walk when no limbs are in place – all this, of course, implies prosthetics. Prosthetics help the human individual do what he/she wouldn’t be able to do by using their limbs/bodies alone. And so with writing. It does something our minds cannot do: remembering.

iHand. Source: Designboom
For this reason alone, writing is, indeed, super-human. (The title of this piece finally makes sense.)
And now you’ll look upon your daily scribbling in a different way, won’t you? Nah. Maybe not. In fact, writing has become so closely tied to you – your breath, your heart beats, your blood pressure, your bone marrow – you don’t believe it possible for you not to have it. The thought of not having writing is perhaps more tormenting than the thought of being left alone in the middle of a jungle, snakes and tigers and tarantulas lurking around and looking at you from the dark with fiery eyes. That’s how deeply writing has penetrated into your blood stream. And it’s not at all a bad thing, because without this forgetting of writing’s nature we would never be capable of accepting other, more subtle, more sublime, more miraculous things enabled by writing. I say ‘Literature,’ and I need not go any further.

Let us not disparage writing, though

I said here things that have put writing in a bad light. I said it didn’t help memory. Well, it doesn’t – in principle. But writing is not entirely foreign to the things we remember. No. The device, alright, the device is the holder of the memory. That’s where we believe it’s safely deposited, like a bonus bond promising a certain return. But there’s a process taking place here. The very process of scribbling; of putting pen to paper. Well, it so happens that between pen and paper something occurs. And that’s a mental process: we activate the thought that will be immortalized on the page. This thought navigates from our brain to our hand, and from there not straight to the paper but to our brain again.
I say, to the brain again. How’s that? Well, writing doesn’t happen haphazardly. Yes, Master Plato, it doesn’t. It is the result of a mental process and it generates another mental process. If it weren’t this way, we wouldn’t be able to re-member with the device. We would not recognize the text. But as we very well know, when we see the post-it on the fridge we recognize it. We re-visit it. We recollect having known it before. Which means when we read the message we are in fact finding something we have always already been familiar with. We are returning that thing to the receptacle of our mind, where our mind rejoices at the sight of a dear old friend. What we recognize is not only our own handwriting, but the very nature of Writing itself: the inscription of marks on a solid surface. That, before anything else, appears to us as a recognition of writing. The device is showing us the way. (The Tao of Writing. Somebody should use this as a title somewhere.)

I just can't resist the association.
This sounds good, I know. Feels good too. It feels like relief. We’re not so doomed to be Platonic failures, after all. But beautiful as this may seem, we need to realize that we won’t escape the device. Technology (and this is a word I haven’t used in my posts so far) is the grand mediator without which we would be left with a huge gap between us and the thing we like to call ‘the world.’
Proof? Don’t forget the way we store phone numbers in the phone’s internal memory. At least that. Oh, and maybe this as well, from Edgar Allan Poe:
“If you wish to forget anything, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.”

Just to take us back to the post-it issue, and the super-human nature of writing.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Why I think writing is super-human (1)

Let’s try to clarify one thing about writing: its association with memory. Writing enables us to remember things – that’s how the saying goes. But I wouldn’t be so fast in perpetuating this almost dogmatically embraced dictum.

Let’s take a look at the most recent thing you’ve written. I don’t know – anything. Say, the email you’ve written this morning. How much of it can you remember? Really. Not just recollecting (which is a milder version of the same thing, don’t we agree?) but remembering: putting the members together. Got it? Re-membering. Yeah, that’s what I mean.

Writing is not (our) memory

So. How much can you remember? Let’s say, a lot. Let’s say the whole frigging thing – commas and full stops and exclamation marks and all. Every single thing, to the breath in your lungs while you were typing the message after having brushed your teeth with your favourite mint-flavoured tooth paste, and after having had your breakfast eggs the way you like them: sunny side down. Let’s say.
Wow. I’m hardly ever capable of that. I’m more of a Platonic type, you know. (Of this, a little later, though.) So well done you. Well done.
If you say you’re so good at remembering things, I wonder: why did you need to write the whole damn thing? How is this feat of memory indebted to your having put all that stuff into words?
Of course, an email (you’ll say) is never written in order to remember anything, but in order to remind (presumably others). Not to re-member, but to re-mind. To re-mind. To make the mind feel good in repetition. But you are catching my drift, aren’t you? If not, check out another type of writing. Let’s take a post-it stuck to your fridge. Telling you that you need to buy milk and coffee. Now that’s a more accurate depiction of how we are made to remember through writing, right?
You didn’t remember because of those words, but in spite of them. You remembered because you were endowed with a spectacular memory in the first place – you lucky thing you. You did not remember with the words on the paper but with the words in your mind. And in that mind of yours, in that beautiful receptacle of ideas, things are not written. Never. Not with a pen or pencil, no.

Source: TMG

Writing is more like putting things in a cupboard

The question that arises straight away is this: when we speak of memory, whose memory do we mean? Because, we need to admit it, some kind of memorisation is taking place every time we write. And we kind of agreed (have we?) that it’s not our memory, because ours is busy with all manner of things which are not written – cannot be written, unless we’re talking about writing in a metaphorical sense; but we don’t want to complicate things.
Here’s my thought: the memory we’re talking about belongs to the device: paper, computer, smart phone, tablet, piece of bark with incrustations on it, papyrus, wall, noticeboard – whatever. I mean the object itself, not the text upon it. It’s in the device that the text is placed. It’s in the device that we find what we stored earlier. So what does this make of the thing we call writing? Well, let’s say writing is not actually a form of memory. It is not mémoire (read this à la French, s’il vous plaît), but aide-mémoire. Help to memory, to be more precise: a prop, a prosthetic device.
Now we’re onto something. And that’s this: Writing is truly storage. It’s where we put things in order to find them later. Like a cupboard, if you like, or like your kitchen drawer. Or (yes, why not?) your bookshelf.
Do you understand now where our obsession with having things in the right place at all times comes from? Oh yes, we have derived it from another obsession, which is truly a necessity: the need to store. Since we can’t carry all our possessions with us everywhere we go, we need a safe place to put things to rest; to take them off our minds, in fact. Hence – writing, reading, and the whole OCD we have developed around correct reading, the ‘right way’ of texts, the ‘actual’ meaning, and so many other legends we’re not going to elaborate on here.

Source: Treasure Chest of Memories

So what was that thing that Plato said?

Theuth, the inventor god of numbers, calculation, geometry, astronomy, and writing, meets king Thamus to exhibit the extraordinary features of his arts. When it comes to writing, which he promotes as “a potion for memory and for wisdom,” Theuth goes:
“O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wised and will improve their memory.”
But the king, wiser himself than the god who’d spoken to him, finds the effects of writing “the opposite of what they really are,” and swears that those who employ the art of writing are doomed to millennia of stupidity:
“They will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.”
Plato is famous for this rejection of writing, in Phaedrus. The reason of his distrust is clear, I hope. Haven’t we, so many centuries after him, discovered the truth of Plato’s words when we started using the memory of our mobile phones rather than our own memory? We have given the device what has always been the device’s. We have embraced writing together with the reliance on its memory.
What can we say to Plato, then? Sorry, Sir, but among other things we have also discovered the pleasures that lie in the art of forgetfulness. Oh, yes, we have. We’ve built libraries and archives, we’ve conceived of human beings capable of remembering everything, and have invented machines that do so in real time. We have, in other words, fallen prey to the lures of this art, of this deceit. But man, we’re loving it.
(to be continued)

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Call me clumsy

It’s funny how clumsiness dismisses authority. When speaking to a person with an accent, we suddenly slow down, speak in spaced words, simplify our vocabulary. As if having been born in a language where vocal chords are used differently makes one stupid without remedy.

Source: Huffington Post

In a person who speaks with an accent we see a potential to err. Before any idea has had a chance to be uttered by that person, a barrier of words keeps it from coming forth.
This is mostly a problem of design. Of wrong design – or what we perceive to be wrong. In the acceptable scheme of things, when we perceive the world we expect to hear the other speaking with the intonation of our voice and the natural inflexion of our sounds. That, to us, is proper design: design that doesn’t surprise, doesn’t seem impudent, doesn’t scream with pain. It’s design in a blessed state of perfection.
Naturally, to this sense of perfection, every change in intonation is a crime against normality.
Want another example? Go online and visit a website. If its overall design looks unprofessional, awkwardly put together, without any consideration of proportions, composition, thematic unity, they’re doomed. If they use an ugly font or a magenta background, they’re as good as dead. We have no high regard for them. They may as well just go and shoot themselves in the head – very few will care about their suffering.

The problem of the first encounter

All this disparagement happens as the result of a mere glance. In reality, I’ve read interesting texts on numerous badly-designed sites or blogs, and loads of crap on their flash counterparts. I’ve heard people with accents uttering more ideas worth listening to than many natives, with their entire plethora of perfectly rounded vowels and perfectly lisped th’s. The point of difference between them – the turning point, in the most literal of senses – was this first glance, the hiccup of a clumsy design.
At the moment of the first encounter many things are wrongly interpreted. The other is more distant than ever, and because of that, he needs to be simplified in order to be better understood – or understood at all.
The first glance is really a self-defence technique. It helps the fragile self of ours overcome the shock of the encounter. If it’s not in the accent, then it’s in the gestures; if it’s not there, it must be in the social relations developed by the other; and if it’s not there either, it will certainly be in the way they eat, they sleep, they read, they write, they accept, they reject, they blink, they wear their headwear, they flush the toilet, they turn the light on, they walk, they run, they jog, they stroll.
If it’s not this, is that – this is the logic of the first encounter; a logic of animadversion, of nit-picking, of hair-splitting. At the moment of the first encounter everything is clumsy, because everything is out of tune.
So the problem with clumsiness is that it lives in this grey zone of the first impression. Since it does so, it doesn’t have much chance at rehabilitation, because first impression is an animal hard to tame.

Source: pxleyes
Clumsy things are rarely allowed the privilege of depth. Being clumsy is like erecting a barrier of perception. I still refuse to read texts whose authors use the apostrophe where it shouldn’t be, and who write things like “your not going to be taken seriously.” There’s something in the genetic package of my mind, I guess, that recoils at the sight of these crimes. And I can’t do much to resist it.

A stage and nothing else

But clumsiness, you see, is in the making of things. It is an unavoidable stage. Like a creek that needs to have been a spring in order to become a river. When a house is being built, when it has only the structure in place and a couple of patches of insulation in a room or two, it looks very clumsy – inhospitable, uninhabitable, unappealing. And so are ideas. When the idea in my head is work-in-progress, when I’m still trying to figure out where it’s taking me, I am in the land of clumsy. I look at the screen of my computer, where words come one after another, and nothing is taking shape; everything is potential. This is how I work most of the time. I write and I write, focusing on one thing, then on another. All this time, the text is out of my control; it presents itself to me as a testing field, where I try my best to shoot as close as possible to as many targets as I can see. The whole thing is clumsy. It is only after the throwing away of all garbage, after the clarification of all doubts, that I can say, hand pressed against my heart, that I am pleased with what I’ve done. But before that happens, my idea is inhospitable, uninhabitable, unappealing. It is not even an idea at all: only a handful of crumbs scattered on the tablecloth of my undecided mind.

Source: Urban Omnibus
And so there’s virtue in clumsiness. Imperfection leaves room for things to come. I am inspired by my indecision. I live well in the bedlam of my thoughts. And what’s left clumsily scattered on the page forms a healthy mine-field, where ideas are always on the verge of exploding into new forms.
So call me Clumsy; I won’t mind.