Heroine Worship: Talking with Kate Zambreno


At Work

Kate Zambreno’s first book, O Fallen Angel, won Chiasmus Press’s “Undoing the Novel” First Book Contest, and her second book, Green Girl, was a finalist for the Starcherone Innovative Fiction Prize. So it should come as no surprise that her provocative new work, Heroines, published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents imprint next month, challenges easy categorization, this time by poetically swerving in and out of memoir, diary, fiction, literary history, criticism, and theory. With equal parts unabashed pathos and exceptional intelligence, Heroines foregrounds female subjectivity to produce an impressive and original work that examines the suppression of various female modernists in relation to Zambreno’s own complicated position as a writer and a wife. It concludes by bringing the problems of the modernists into conversation with the contemporary by offering a timely consideration of the role of the Internet and blogs in creating a community for women writers.

What was it about the modernist wives that first interested you?

I think I came to the wives through an initial discovery of more neglected modernist women writers—Olive Moore, Anna Kavan, Jane Bowles, maybe I’d add Jean Rhys to that list. I was living in London working in a bookshop and not doing much in terms of trying to write a novel, so I pitched to Chad Post at Dalkey that I write an essay on Kavan. And because I had nothing else to do, I sat in the British Library and read everything by her. And started reading all these other experimental women writers, like Elizabeth Smart—not the Mormon abductee, but the one obsessed with the poet George Barker, an obsession she documents in the amazing By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Not a modernist, I know, but I sat at the British Library and read the communal notebook she kept with Barker and thought about Vivien(ne)’s hand on “The Waste Land” manuscript. I began to be really interested in ideas of literary collaboration.

I returned to the States and started reading the bios of these modernist women like candy. I think it was Jane Bowles’s bio by Millicent Dillon that instigated everything for me. Especially the decades of her not publishing after her initial unbelievably original and amazing novel and story collection—her being stuck writing this fictional notebook, this unfinished novel. I began to meditate on ideas of the unfinished, on women who were scratched out from history, on the unwritten. Even thinking of Jean Rhys working on Wide Sargasso Sea for decades in total anonymity, everyone thinking she was dead, in her crumbling cottage in Cornwall. Her obsessed with recovering the madwoman of Brontë’s legend. I began to be immersed in my own project of recovery. I began keeping my own fictional notebook.

About yourself or about those writers?

It was a project called Mad Wife. The idea was a fictional notebook of a woman obsessed with these Sibyl-like figures from modernism—Zelda, Vivien(ne), the first Mrs. Eliot, Jane Bowles. A lot of this writing became part one of Heroines eventually. I just kept on taking notes, somehow interweaving meditations of my daily existence with anecdotes and inquiries about these women. I was an adjunct professor for the first time, living in a hermitage on Hermitage Avenue in Ukrainian Village in Chicago. My partner away at work all day. I think I connected my feelings of isolation and alienation with these women.

Was that Mad Wife project material what you published on your blog, Frances Farmer Is My Sister?

Yeah. After many years in Chicago we moved to Akron, Ohio, where John worked as a rare-books librarian at the university. I was kind of in-between projects, yet I was crucially also still unpublished, so a lot of my reflections were about the idea of feeling marginalized as a writer—yet still writing—and thinking about what it means to not publish. So I picked it up again—I didn’t know whether all these notes I was hoarding were criticism or experimental biography or memoir or a novel. I started rereading novels during the long spaces of the day, the times in between teaching—Madame Bovary, Tropic of Cancer. Meditating on these male authors who I found so ecstatic to read but I also kind of hated, if that makes sense. I started a blog. I didn’t know anyone who blogged. I think I was trying to notebook these ideas. I thought, Maybe what I’m doing is essaying.

I was surprised to find this community out there, of writers with similar obsessions. I went from invisible community—the wives, my regular seance—to another invisible community—online. Sheila Heti told me she thinks of Heroines as a novel. Maybe it is a novel. I don’t know.

In what ways do those genre labels matter to you? Is it more important to be a female novelist or a female memoirist, or… ?

I’m most interested in writing that disturbs that boundary. And when writing Mad Wife I was enthralled to the notebook form—Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, Rilke’s Notebooks, Gail Scott’s My Paris. And in the contemporary my editor Chris Kraus’s Native Agents imprint at Semiotext(e) has been really influential in re-innovating the idea of the nonfiction novel, one that is both essay and memoir and has novelistic elements.

But Chris approached me about writing a book for Active Agents, which is their ”nonfiction” imprint. So I think the publishing label made me initially not realize that what I was doing was writing the novel, really, finally finding a form for the novel. I like Henry James’s idea of the novel as a “baggy monster.” And I like Montaigne’s idea of essaying, as an attempt. The concept for me is intertwined basically with failure. But to answer your question, I think novelists are taken more seriously in the culture than memoirists. Don’t you?

To some degree, yes. Although there’s a third category we haven’t mentioned yet that Heroines intersects with, and that’s literary criticism. So that complicates things, because the distinction between memoir and criticism seems more rigid than between fiction and memoir. How do you see that aspect playing a role here?

Do you think it’s more rigid? I don’t know. I think that Dodie Bellamy, Eileen Myles, and Chris Kraus have really radicalized a vernacular criticism that involves the self, that invokes confessionalism to some degree. Eileen and Dodie who used their blogs as incubators of their criticism. For me memoir and criticism are commingled, comorbid maybe, to borrow a term from psychiatry. Maybe this comes out of the blog, the aesthetics of it. Documenting the quotidian, and also trying to describe the highly subjective experience of confronting literature. I’m really starting to interrogate how and why I use the self in my writing, whether there’s a sense of commodifying the confessional in our current, highly public culture. Yet I think it’s really important to involve the body, the messy, undisciplined body, in our writing. I feel that’s a radical, feminist thing to do. Part of my project that Heroines came out of was a personal, intense diary, which was also about confronting what I censored, what I scratch out, what makes me not write.

And in Heroines I really try to analyze charges of self-indulgence and narcissism that writers like Anaïs Nin and Jean Rhys—and then Zelda, writing her novel—received, from both female critics and the male readers in their lives. I also question why the diary and writing that comes out of a diary has been historically viewed as more girlish, more amateur, more illegitimate. I think as a woman writer I might be more wary of being called a memoirist, for many reasons. For one the memoir is read as more unliterary, coming out of modernism. A novel is more noble. But I think all the more reason to combat this sense of shame and guilt from taking our lives as our own material.

I guess I was thinking about the rigidity between memoir and criticism in terms of the machine-of-legitimacy, i.e. academia. Perhaps this also overlaps with gender issues?

I’m not sure I think much about academia, except perhaps as this unconquerable fortress. I pretty much luxuriate in ideas of being illegitimate. I read theory, though. I love theory. I just got the three books of Foucault’s History of Sexuality today. You and I have talked about our mutual love of Catherine Clement’s Syncope. However, I don’t think anyone would think Heroines was a straight scholarly text. I mean, footnotes make me hyperventilate. Sometimes scholars hear Semiotext(e), and they get impressed, because they think of the French theory leg of it, and I’m like—to channel Chris Kraus here—No, I’m being published on the “dumb cunt” imprint of Semiotext(e).