Travel Souvenirs: An Interview with Joanna Walsh
September 22, 2015 | by Erik Morse
Joanna Walsh’s writing enacts what Chris Kraus has called “a literal vertigo—the feeling that if I fall I will fall not toward the earth but into space—by probing the spaces between things.” Walsh, a British writer and illustrator, is fascinated by liminal spaces, especially in the many varieties encountered by tourists. She’s sometimes known by her French nom de guerre, Badaude, loosely translated as “gawk,” and suggesting the perambulatory figure of the flaneuse. Her work trades on the literary genres of the miniature—short stories, essays, even postcards—reminiscent of Marcel Schwob, Clarice Lispector, Roland Barthes, and Lydia Davis. Her 2014 Twitter initiative @read_women is an archival who’s who of modern female writers, extolling in its tweets the distaff works of everyone from Leonora Carrington to Elena Ferrante. Aside from her abundant online presence,Walsh’s prolific output includes three new books: Hotel, Vertigo, and Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairytales About Sex, all of which run from the bantam lengths of fifty-five to 170 pages.
Among her seemingly disparate subjects are hotel architecture and etiquette, sexual politics in twentieth-century psychoanalysis, the perils of family vacations, the fantasias of cinema, and fables of transgendered witches. In Walsh’s feminist cosmogony, all are brought to bear as inscrutable souvenirs of the everyday mundane. She elucidates the slippery, gendered in-betweenness of everyday ritual in a manner reminiscent of Derrida’s disquisition on the chora—that most mysterious and mundane of spaces, not unlike the anonymous corridor of a hotel.
I reached Walsh, appropriately enough, at a hotel in Mexico. She and I shared a lively discussion about hotel culture and theory, travel fantasies, and the contemporary potential of fairy tales.
You write toward the beginning of Hotel that “A hotel, restless, cannot be a home, not even a home away from home … A hotel’s secret is that it’s only a seeming mini-break from the rights and wrongs of home.” Similarly, in Bruce Bégout’s phenomenology of the motor hotel, Lieu Common, he refers to the hotel as a “home without qualities.”
A hotel has no qualities perhaps because its connections have different consequences than they do at home. Encounters are, as Raoul Vaneigem describes—and I quote him in Hotel—formalized “inauthentic.”
The hotel becomes a kind of disorienting counterfeit to the authentic shelter of the home, which is the dominant space of traditional Western values because it’s a place of permanent or rooted dwelling—in the Heideggerian sense of the word.
There’s something a bit silly about Heidegger and his hut (which I write about in Hotel). There’s nothing more kitsch than the search for authenticity—but it’s impossible not to engage in it at some level. There’s something slightly silly about most desires, probably because they’re not needs. Unless we’re engaged in a constant struggle for basic necessities—and thank goodness I’m not—we live in a world in which desires claim a massive role. Desire involves definition, choice, and rejection. Hotels are all about defined choices. A refusal of desire leads to a lack of definition. Homes have a lot of blank spaces. It’s easy to get lost there.
If we could shift our traditional notions of “placeness” from the home to the hotel, we could find a new way of considering modern space.
Well, a hotel is a commercial enterprise. It’s not set up for our benefit, though it appears to be. Nothing fits perfectly in this hotel where I am right now. The chair is far too low for the desk, and I have to sit on a pillow to type. It’s difficult to think of either homes or hotels as pure space, as places we choose—they are materializations of psychological space. Freud uses an economic metaphor, with “a desire from the unconscious” as the “capitalist” who also needs the “entrepreneur” of a “diurnal thought” in order to construct a dream. The dreamer, I suppose, is a kind of consumer, or hotel guest. I wrote, “A hotel is a dream and must avoid the disappointments of the actual, but it requires something physical: an entrepreneur to provide the furniture for desire. And it is made of both human and inhuman materials.”
It would be interesting to imagine a hometel without the context of either a hotel or a home, but I’m not sure it’s possible. Hotels and homes are codependent but it’s a shifting codependency, as what we desire from either of them is not fixed. Though each can invade the other, what seems stable is their polarity, and also this—if a hotel is an open but formalized exchange of money, and time is money and so are so many other things—for something that addresses itself to our desires, then homes also contain their very own halls of mirrors that conceal the number and nature of the things we sacrifice to keep us homeful, not homeless. I think the knowledge that these things are hidden is at the heart of both hotel and home, and the relationship between them.
The hotel’s increasing focus on fantasy and interiority has made its own space—it becomes part of the tourist’s primary experience of travel.
You could go on holiday and never step out of your hotel room. I’m enjoying staying “home” in this hotel tonight. There’s a big window overlooking a park and, even better, a six-lane highway whose lights provide some interest as it’s night and the park is dark. I’m definitely cheating on my spare time when I should be out “enjoying” the city.
Hotel also focuses on what you call the “language system” of the hotel experience, which brings the symbolic regime of patriarchy beyond domestic life into recreation and tourism. How important was it for you to dig outside of the typical theoretical reference points for “homeliness”—Freud, Heidegger, the situationists, et cetera—to showcase these dissenting female voices?
Most of the writing I read on hotels by women was fiction or autofiction, not theory. Jean Rhys, Joan Didion, Katherine Mansfield—they wrote about the texture of living in hotels, its rhythms and rituals. At the same time, Rhys and Mansfield wrote about service, the lives some of their women characters were keenly aware of refusing. We don’t live in the early twentieth century, but service is something most grown-up women know about. Even rich women are usually the ones who organize and pay the cleaner, the nanny. And there’s an intimacy to many of the services women provide professionally. The job of a chambermaid is so different from the job of a janitor, and these jobs still tend to be gendered. Most women who do the “home work” I talk about in Hotel—unequal amounts of unpaid domestic labor—are encouraged to feel they’re doing it for love, and I’m sure that’s the case, but they could do other things for love and they tend to have limited choice in the way love can be expressed.
The joke every American seems to make when traveling to Europe is that the hotels there are half the size and double the price. Do we expect different forms of hospitality, fantasy, amenities, luxuries?
I don’t know whether Americans expect anything different in their hotels. As a European, the U.S. sometimes seems an almost fictional space connected by a language—and we’re dominated by U.S. culture. An American friend first visited Europe as a student and was disappointed that the castles didn’t look like the ones she’d seen in Disneyland as a child. She’d expected them to be pastel-colored and sparkly. As a child I knew what European castles looked like. I was instinctually revolted by the Disney version—I knew castles didn’t really glitter, and I felt I must be being obscurely manipulated—but I had to engage in a kind of doublethink, knowing the Disney version might currently be more important.
Do you think these differing symbolic orders of the European and American hotel are represented as such in their respective literatures?
The division seems more between the early and late twentieth century, and beyond. In the early twentieth century, people on both sides of the Atlantic really could live in hotels, but I doubt many of them were very glamorous. There was something shameful about living in a hotel, as though guests had neither the economic nor emotional resources to construct homes of their own—but this had its own glamour, too. In the screwball comedies of the 1930s, Fred and Ginger, Loy and Powell are never at home.
Are there other writers whose focus on the hotel presents a different perspective on the complexity of tourism and hotel dwelling?
I like Sophie Calle’s work very much. She’s one of the few artists who treats the subject of working, rather than staying, in a hotel. In a work called L’Hotel, she took a job as a chambermaid and illicitly photographed people’s luggage. It’s a typical Calle project—a small-scale transgression, a minor, but very personal, impertinence. I love how she deals with the petty. She’s not a shock artist—and art is under so much pressure to shock—but an annoyance artist, and annoyance is surely an underrated affect.
In Hotel you include a series of resort postcards, where you describe in short capsules some of the quotidian frustrations of marriage and love that exist just outside of the frame of the picture-perfect fantasy. In some sense, I think these parallel your new story collection, Vertigo, which often invokes a tourist whose spatial displacedness mirrors an estrangement from the “confines” of home.
Lots of the Vertigo stories are holiday or travel stories, stories about places where we’re forced to confront our own oddness, especially our oddness in groups, and particularly families whose members, traveling, have no recourse to the support structures of external relationships they have at home. I’m also concerned with how strange words are, and how difficult it is to get them to visit reality for any length of time before they peel off, start obeying their own rules. I find all writing strange or estranging. I think I’m one of those writers for whom, as Thomas Mann said, “writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” When I started, I definitely found it hard to string a sentence together, and then I got interested in that. I don’t like to read writers who make me feel they are entirely in control of their material. I don’t like that relationship between a reader and a writer.
I’m also intrigued by your use of the paradigm of the fairy tale in Grow a Pair: 9½ Fairy tales About Sex, because fairy tales are sort of a genre of tourist or travel literature. Do they provide you with a unique template?
Who is it that said that fairy tales are a king visiting another king to borrow a cup of sugar? Was it Angela Carter? That’s what I love about fairy tales, the combination of the grand and the minute. I love Calvino’s collection of Italian fairy tales—such economy of language. There’s a wonderful throwaway line in one of the stories about “a little door into Scotland.” How fantastic to cut any “realistic” approach to moving from one scene to the next.
The characters in Grow a Pair gorge on sex, of every form and pleasure. As fantasy genres, do porn and fairy tales have a unique bond in how we relate to them?
There should be more writing about sex, and it should be less sectioned off from other areas of writing. It’s notoriously difficult to write about. How do we know if we’re doing it right? We’re back to anxieties about authenticity. Ideally, sex writing provides the writer with access to the fluidity of language. Writing about sex is often meant to be a turn-on, of course, so it’s a kind of speech act that reveals language’s multiple intentions. Everything becomes at least double. I like every kind of “suggestive” language—and suddenly the word “suggestive” sounds so … suggestive. Once you start talking about sex, everything sounds dirty and all language is brought into question. I love puns, and lots of puns are dirty—their function both to conceal and reveal at the same time. Puns are not really very funny though, are they? I’m a real lover of stupid, clumsy, obvious jokes where the purpose is to rehearse something over, to make an exchange. I’m not a fan of real wit. It can be bit show-offy and aggressive. I love a joke that ends lame—phatic humor, perhaps.
Well, I didn’t really answer your question there …
Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is also a lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles.