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Thinking Through Images: An Interview with Nick Sousanis

July 20, 2015 | by

First idea map for Unflattening, April 14, 2011.

First idea map for Unflattening, April 14, 2011.

Everything about Unflattening is odd, from its ungainly title and unfashionable subject matter (Rudolf Arnheim art theory meets Herbert Marcuse radicalism meets Scott McCloud comics boosterism) to its provenance: Nick Sousanis initially wrote and drew this full-length comics essay as his graduate-school dissertation. (He was earning his doctorate in education at Teachers College Columbia University, studying under the philosopher and social activist Maxine Greene.)

Sousanis’s career might be considered a little odd, too. He followed up an undergraduate degree in mathematics with a brief stint as a professional tennis player, then cofounded and edited a cultural magazine in Detroit, while also working as an artist. This isn’t the typical career path for a cartoonist—though to be fair, that profession doesn’t provide many followable emblematic models in that regard. Wild enthusiasm and plunge-taking fearlessness aside, Sousanis seems like a solid citizen; while his ideas are radically utopian, their flavor is resolutely wholesome. He is reminiscent of the kind of small-town high school teacher who’s popular with students because they believe he tells the truth and is unafraid to veer away from the curriculum-assigned script.

The script Sousanis is veering away from in this case is the age-old Western bias against visual imagery (and in favor of the Word), which he traces back to Plato’s cave. Sousanis believes that verbal language alone is a poor vehicle for capturing the multidimensional, many-layered fullness of human experience, the equivalent of Edwin Abbott’s two-dimensional flatworms trying to explain a sphere. It’s not so much that a picture is worth a thousand words, but rather that a picture is worth concepts that can’t even be put into words. And in an attempt to prove his case, he drew it.

What does “unflattening” mean?

It would be easier to tell you what the book’s about than to tell you what “unflattening” is. Actually, I’ve thinking about that lately because there’s a French translation in the works, and they can’t use that word because it doesn’t mean anything.

How could it not mean anything?

Well, I don’t think it means the right thing. It doesn’t mean anything in English—it’s not a word people use. The book is very much an argument that we make sense of the world in ways beyond text—teaching and learning shouldn’t be restricted to that narrow band. So rather than talking about visual thinking and multimodal stuff—from Howard Gardner to Rudolf Arnheim, people have been talking about it—comics just let me do it.

That’s what the book is about, if it’s about anything. Read More »

Good Literary Citizens: An Interview with Ladan Osman

July 13, 2015 | by

Photo: Tariq Tarey

Photo: Tariq Tarey

The past two years have been eventful for Ladan Osman. Last year, her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, was selected for inclusion in the box set Seven New Generation African Poets, a project of the African Poetry Book Fund, and she received the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony, which was published in April by the University of Nebraska Press.

“I have rarely encountered a young poet whose work was so completely its own thing,” writes Ted Kooser in his preface to Ordinary Heaven. The speakers in Osman’s poems are often women, and the book tackles themes of love and loss, displacement and authority. At its heart is the notion of bearing witness and what that means both in a larger political sense and in very intimate ways. The language is rich and playful and can be both brutal and transformative—sometimes in the same poem.

Osman spoke with me recently by phone from her home in Chicago about metaphor, translation, and family influence.

How has your background informed your work?

My parents are from Mogadishu, Somalia. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in neighborhoods that were largely populated, if not by Somalis, then by East Africans. So many different elements go into my work, but there’s a very direct link to the way my parents would tell stories—their comfort using parables, making leaps in language, speaking in metaphors. My father would often point to a complex image or something strange and say, Look, it’s a metaphor. But he wouldn’t explain further. My parents speak English and other languages, but they’re most comfortable speaking Somali and they would speak Somali to us. So I always felt like I was doing some kind of translating. And things that are untranslatable—that’s poetry, too. Read More »

From Nowhere: An Interview with Antoine Volodine

July 8, 2015 | by

© Didier Gaillard

© Didier Gaillard

We both discovered Antoine Volodine, appropriately enough, in winter. One of us was sitting in a classroom overlooking bare trees, translating the first pages of Des anges mineurs (Minor Angels). The other one of us had just read the same novel in English and was sleepwalking through the dark, snowy streets of Rochester recalling Volodine’s declaration that the novel’s meaning was “not in the book’s pages but in the dreams people will have after reading it.”

Volodine’s books are almost as dreamlike as their author himself. He writes under four (or perhaps five) heteronyms, including Antoine Volodine, and only the most basic facts of his biography are known: he was born in 1950, came of age during the 1968 student protests in Paris, and taught Russian in France for some fifteen years before devoting himself entirely to writing. His debut, Comparative Biography of Jorian Murgrave, appeared in France in 1985. It is the story, told by way of fragmented microbiographies, of an alien hunted down on Earth whose dreams are invaded by psychobiologists intent on making him talk. “There is no way I could call Biographie comparée a novel,” one befuddled critic wrote; others were swift to express their shock and delight at such an innovative author appearing in the frequently monotonous ranks of science fiction. In a matter of years, Volodine had became famous for his (and his heteronyms’) singular brand of writing.

Names, places, and themes recur throughout his oeuvre; it has quickly coalesced into a new genre, which Volodine terms “post-exoticism.” This genre, “a foreign literature written in French,” describes prisons and Eurasian steppes, interrogations and monologues, walks through the Bardo state, failed revolutions and cataclysms, and humans struggling, in spite of everything, to survive in a world similar to our own.

Minor Angels, published in France in 1999, comprises forty-nine narracts—brief texts, prose poems, short stories—loosely connected around a group of immortal crones who indirectly revive capitalism; it won Volodine the Prix France Inter in 2000 as well as an international readership. To date, he has published some forty books—including Naming the Jungle, We Monks and Soldiers, In the Time of the Blue Ball, and Writersunder his own heteronym, as well as those of Manuela Draeger and Lutz Bassmann. Open Letter Books will publish translations of three new books over the next three years; the first of these, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, appeared in May.

We interviewed Volodine last winter, shortly after he was awarded the Prix Médicis for his novel Terminus radieux. We asked our questions in English, and he responded in wonderfully Volodinian French.

Twenty-five years ago, a reporter at Le Nouvel Observateur asked in which literary category you would place your work, and you responded that it was outside and beyond the conventional categories of existing literature. The question prompted you to invent the nearly nonsensical phrase “post-exoticism.” But eight years later, the phrase had taken on some significance, enough that you published a book around it, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Since then, has “post-exoticism” come to mean something different for you?

I’d like to start by correcting an error I made. I attributed this question to a Nouvel Observateur reporter. It actually came from a reporter for Le Point in July 1991. Our conversation was exactly this—“What genre do you prefer to be classified in?” “Anarcho-fantastic post-exoticism.” It was a somewhat irreverent wisecrack, but it was a way, at the time, to confirm that I didn’t belong either to science fiction, the genre in which my first four books had been classified, or to highbrow French avant-garde literature, which Éditions de Minuit, my publisher at the time, often published. I took the opportunity of the interview to proclaim this break, which seemed evident to me but which literary critics had had trouble taking into account. They hid for far too long behind the adjective unclassifiable, which I can still find in numerous publications today. Read More »

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Split Screens: An Interview with Richard McGuire

June 12, 2015 | by

McGuire_author-photo-crop

Photo © Maelle Doliveux

Last November, on his birthday, I accompanied Richard McGuire to the emergency room. He was experiencing some excruciating back pain. Richard is an unusually polite and considerate man, but as he waited and waited for some relief, I began to worry about him. I asked a passing nurse about pain medication. She poked her head into our room and explained there was a “code” on the floor—the doctors had been dealing with that.

We went quiet. Richard explained that “code blue” usually meant a death.

Half an hour later, Richard was given a Valium and two extra-strength Motrin. He talked about being in the hospital with his father the night his mother died, the machines all going crazy, the medics rushing in and telling them to leave. When his father died, he said, it was different, more peaceful.

Richard was X-rayed, diagnosed with a severe muscle spasm, and discharged. We headed to a restaurant a block away where far-flung friends had gathered for his birthday dinner. It struck me, as we ordered burgers and martinis, that the past few hours could be a strange and miniature overture to his book, Here, which he had just finished. A birth date, a death date, loving and painful memories, banalities, transient spaces, and always an eye on the time. Here launched a month later and has since become a best seller.

I feel that Here is a very new kind of ghost story. Not a scary one, but a haunting one. What portion of the book was inspired by the death of your sister and parents, and what was the original strip inspired by, or an exercise in?

I think their passing set the tone for the book. You see things differently after going through that experience—the idea of impermanence is made more real, and everything seems fragile. The family home had to be sold. Just emptying it took a while. My parents lived there for fifty years, and the house was packed. My mom hated throwing anything away. All the clothes, the photos, the letters and things that had meaning to them. The only thing I took were boxes of photos and some films my dad shot. I think it helped with the grieving process, looking at all that stuff. Read More »

Haunting Houses: An Interview with Angela Flournoy

June 4, 2015 | by

flournoy_angela

Photo © LaToya T. Duncan

In Detroit, the Turners have lived on Yarrow Street for generations, and now their home is worth a mere tenth of its mortgage. Oh, and it’s haunted—it’s been that way for fifty years, since Cha-Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner, was attacked by a haint one summer night. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, set primarily in 2008, tells the Turner clan’s story as they tend to the elderly Viola and decide what to do with the family home.

Flournoy hangs the family’s personal struggles on the political history of Detroit, tracing their move from Arkansas to the bright industrial promise of midcentury Motor City, the electric environment of the 1967 riots, and the city’s long decline. “Lelah,” an excerpt from the novel in the Spring 2015 issue of The Paris Review, focuses on the youngest Turner child, whose gambling addiction takes her to Motor City, where she loses the last of her money on a game of roulette.

I met Flournoy near the Review’s offices in north Chelsea. I was late, and Flournoy, elegantly dressed and having just arrived from Detroit, had already enjoyed most of her coffee and was patiently talking on her cell phone. We discussed ghosts, gambling, and the blend of personal and political in her novel.

Your novel is full of Detroit history. Did you hear stories about it from your family?

I did a lot of research. One thing I remember hearing of the ’67 riot is that nobody knew what it was while it happened. Nobody knows that today is going to be the day a riot starts. A lot of people in Detroit actually called it an uprising. So I would apply the facts I learned in my research to a character’s life. Imagine you’re getting off work, or you’re at work, and things just feel weird. Then you hear that something’s happening across town, but no one knows what to call this thing, because no one knows how big it is. It’s more difficult for the individual to frame what’s going on as a whole, what’s happening outside of the details in the personal life. Read More »

Ruthless Levity: An Interview with Our London Editor, Adam Thirlwell

May 29, 2015 | by

thirlwell

Photo: Eamonn McCabe

“As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I had always known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car.”

Adam Thirlwell’s third novel, Lurid & Cute, is made up of such impressions—charming, nostalgic, not quite tethered to reality. The unnamed narrator—formerly a child prodigy, he tells us—is a privileged young man who has quit his office job to pursue his art, and who now lives with his wife at the house of his adoring parents. His talent, as he puts it, is mostly for thinking. The observations above occur to him as he drives his bloodied, comatose best friend to the emergency room, having discovered her suffering some kind of hemorrhage in his hotel bed after a night of ketamine and sex.

At thirty-six, Thirlwell dresses like a youngish teenager—silver sneakers, jeans, T-shirts emblazoned with the Eiffel Tower—and looks perpetually exhausted. In our Skype conversation, he had a way of speaking that, like one of his characters, “sometimes seemed like teasing and sometimes seemed like it wasn’t and it wasn’t always easy to be able to tell the two apart.” “Multiplicity! Levity! World History!” he later wrote to me in an e-mail about what he seeks in his reading. “Those kind of T-shirt slogans.”

Your dialogue is very funny. It seems very stylized but then, when you read it aloud, it’s perfectly realistic. Do you have rules for dialogue? Whose do you admire?

Maybe perversely, I love Henry James’s The Awkward Age, which is written almost entirely in dialogue and is therefore almost incomprehensible. Everyone is speaking in intimation and allusion—which is so much like life that the reader has desperately to work out what the degrees of irony and lying are. That kind of flatness seems to me the ideal. There’s a great moment in a Lampedusa essay where he praises the dialogue in Stendhal’s novels, because none of it is celebrated, nothing is quotable. I wonder if in novels, rather than plays or screenplays, the dialogue can become this baroque surface thing, because it’s free to be as close to audiotape as possible, without the burden of meaning anything, or conveying plot. Although I don’t know if this is some kind of London problem—how little is actually said in conversation. Okay, sure, there might be mutual understanding—but the sentences are only nonsense, or nonsense poetry. Read More »