I met Amina Cain in the early aughts, when I took over her spot as roommate to a mutual friend in a Wolcott walk-up in Chicago. Amina would come by with her new roommates, a perfectly friendly couple who nonetheless seemed rather fancy to me, as did anyone back then who talked easily about Roland Barthes. But Amina was not fancy; if anything, she had a sort of radical simplicity. Long before I’d read her writing, even longer before I published any of it (my wife and I published her second book through our press, Dorothy, in 2013), my impression of Amina was of a unique soul, quietly pursuing thoughts and concerns outside the more or less conventional life everyone else was living.
People change—I, for one, have come to love reading, teaching, and talking about Roland Barthes. But Amina seems less to have changed than to have become more fully the person she always was, with this important difference: over the interceding years, she has beautifully articulated her vision in two story collections and, now, a novel.
Indelicacy, out in February from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a work of feminist existentialism, or existentialist feminism—searching, like Lispector, and lucid, like Camus. The story follows Vitória, a poor cleaning woman at an art museum, who marries into money and begins a journey of artistic self-discovery as she navigates society, friendship, and marriage. It is a novel about class and art, about the roles available to women and the instinct for something more. In 176 nimbly woven pages, it brings together many recurring themes or concerns of Amina’s earlier work, things like looking, walking, art, freedom, self-awareness, silence, and the possibilities of life outside the patriarchy.
This interview was conducted by email over a couple of weeks in December.
There’s a story about how the young Donald Barthelme, wondering what sort of writer he wanted to be, attended an early performance of Waiting for Godot and discovered in Beckett a path toward his own sound. Not his voice or his style, but his sound, like a musician. Like Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk. Miles didn’t just have a style, he reimagined what a trumpet sounds like.
In thinking about what makes your writing unique, the best starting point I’ve come up with is that you have not just a voice, but a sound. I suspect that what I experience as your sound has as much to do with your attitude toward literature as with the particular words you choose to use, so I wanted to ask first about your relationship to writing in this general way—what sort of experience does writing give you and what sort of experiences do you hope your writing will give others?
I like imagining Barthelme making this kind of discovery while watching Waiting for Godot. I’m so used to talking about voice and about tone, but I think you’re right, sound more specifically comes into it, too. To consider sound when thinking about fiction is reorienting in a really nice way, and it may actually be what’s drawn me to certain writers, that I’ve heard the sound of their writing so strongly and satisfyingly in my mind. And some stories and novels do that more than others. Sometimes, as a reader, you’re just sinking into the world or space that’s appearing before you, or you’re urged on by the story, but sometimes fiction presents itself in this other way as well, to be heard.
I’m happy to think that my writing has a sound. I certainly hear it when I work, and when writing is going well, I’m pulled along by it. Sometimes I whisper or mutter what I’m writing. With particular sentences, it feels like I am in them somehow, or that they are taking me over, that I am sitting at my desk with them, that they are part of what gives me access to a story. In order to write at all, I suppose I need this kind of experience, to be possessed by something, carried along, and this is what writing gives me, a kind of space that becomes more animate and striking than the physical space I’m in, or that joins with it. And in turn this is probably what makes me continue to write, to have access to this kind of moment, which sometimes feels closer to experiencing a work of music or art than reading. I want the reader to be able to encounter this kind of moment as well, and I hope I’ve been able to do that. On a very basic level, I want to create experience itself for readers, not just a narrative, whatever that experience ends up being for them.
You mention space—“a kind of space that becomes more animate and striking than the physical space I’m in”—and that was my other jumping off point, your interest in spatial experiences, which is so much a part of Indelicacy. Before we turn to Indelicacy, though, what are some different ideas about narrative and space that you’ve been drawn to in others—Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, for example—or pursued in your own work?
To be honest, I think that spatial experience is something I’ve just naturally been drawn to in my life, in many different parts of it. A few years ago, I realized that I am often trying to get to the same thing—a kind of emptied out space—not only in my writing, but also in the rooms of my house, or in a landscape like the desert, which is part of why I moved to Los Angeles, to be near it. Though I don’t enjoy the act of cleaning, I do it a lot in order to clear away clutter and dirt, to make a space feel clean and spacious. And I can’t really write if my house is messy. In the same way, I like getting rid of sentences or passages or whole sections in a text. It’s not that I want to get rid of everything so that nothing is there, it’s just that with only a few objects or images present, you can really see them, and together the objects (or the images) can join to make something new. I suppose that’s a kind of theory. It’s probably why I like so much novels like Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein, or Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark, for their different ways of feeling emptied out. I just read a new novel by writer/artist Susan Finlay called Objektophilia, out in the UK with a press called Ma Bibliothèque, and while it is actually quite filled to the brim, there is still an airiness to it, which comes perhaps from its sound, and I love how it sees space, almost as a medium for objects to appear. There is a narrative, but it really does seem to exist as a way to “exhibit” these objects. It’s fascinating.
In Indelicacy, one place we see your interest in space is in your protagonist Vitória’s intense, imaginative looking. In front of a painting, she thinks, “I was there in that village, though I was also still in my seat, completely taken in, the way I was so often taken in by scenes in paintings.” She transcribes what she sees in paintings, and through these transcriptions she teaches herself to write, and ultimately starts to write about other things, her life. I’m interested in the role that looking plays in Vitória’s development as an artist and a person.
The novel was written very much through a process of looking at and describing art, as well as objects, like clothes and jewelry and furniture, and buildings, and nature, and weather. And it’s very much about that development of Vitória as a person and an artist/writer, as you say, through this kind of looking. It is the way in which she makes contact with the world, finds her place in it, and feels alive. Her looking is active, the first part of her writing process. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of not separating art from life, that a person can live creatively, not just in what s/he does, but in how s/he sees. If we really look at things in our own lives, like palm trees and mountains, for example, we see that they, too, can join to form a strong image together. Then something new is created for us, and that can be a backdrop to our lives, like the set of a play.
So Vitória is transcribing the paintings she sees, but she is also transcribing a reality for herself, and the paintings and other objects begin to make up the imagery of her life, as well as her writing. She finds them so pleasurable that they intoxicate her, drive her to writing. She wants to go further into what looking at them gives her. For her, there’s almost an addictive quality to all of this.
She’s a superbly complex character, Vitória. In some ways she’s like a child, full of wonder and selfishness, and in other ways she’s like a witch, dangerously individual and free of social expectations. She compares herself at various points to each. Looking at a painting of noblemen and witches, for example, she wonders if she is a witch or a noble. To me it seems clear that she’s a witch, if only because she casts the most wonderful hexes, like the curses of an ingeniously cruel child. To a pair of arrogant male writers, she says, “When you open your mouths, you are male worms eating from a toilet.” She is also, of course, a writer. Is a writer someone who is both a child and a witch?
What a good question! I think a writer probably has to be many things, and that a child and a witch are two of them. In order to write, do we not need to be infinitely free? A novel attached to social expectations sounds terrible. Even if we, as people, sometimes get caught in them ourselves, our writing never should. For me, writing is relieving because within it I can leave all of that behind. And I believe that writing is an alchemical process, or at least that it can be, and maybe it is close to witchcraft in that way. If you believe in writing as art, as I do, then you know that something can happen that has very little to do with notions of craft in the ways we usually talk about it. I hate the word craft when it comes to writing, and also words like tool and toolbox, which makes writing sound so boring and utilitarian. But if craft is attached to witch, maybe I can use it. And as writers, we of course have to be interested in the world, even fixated, in order to enter a childlike, dreaming space of it. But also, I am interested in brattiness, and I wanted to explore that in the character of Vitória. I wanted to explore her flaws.
She is a brat, but in a kind of heroic way, I think. By the way, at no point did I feel tempted to read Vitória as you, though for some reason I did come away feeling that many of her opinions are, in fact, your opinions. At the same time, I know from my own writing that whenever I include ideas or opinions that I think of as mine, they suddenly aren’t anymore. They become the character’s ideas, and I’m left largely idea-less, which I don’t mind at all. How do you feel about Vitória’s ideas and opinions?
I do share many of Vitória’s ideas and opinions, it’s true, but going back to the idea of flaws—I also wanted to look at her blind spots, and the self that isn’t, and maybe never can be, fully formed. Her outspokenness is important because it’s one of the ways in which she moves toward freedom, and pushes off repressive expectations for how she should be and live, but I also enjoy humor, and not making fun of my characters, necessarily, but in having fun with them, and engaging in a certain amount of absurdity. Sometimes my characters say ridiculous things. So her ideas and opinions exist in different ways for me. I also wanted to challenge this notion that a protagonist should go through a major change in the course of a novel. Vitória does change, certainly the circumstances of her life do, but at the end she is still flawed, we are always still flawed no matter what changes we go through. There’s not another side we can get to in which we are completely transformed, but the people who like to say what fiction should and shouldn’t do perpetuate that myth.
As you might have noticed, Vitória’s opinions of men are not great. In general, the male characters in Indelicacy, as well as in my stories, especially husbands, are flat and undeveloped, or annoying, and yet I have a husband who is anything but, who is very good, and male friends to whom I feel close. The goodness of men is not what I wanted to explore in the book. Men, and the institutions and ways of being they’ve established, are part of what Vitória must push off to be free. She must also push off women tied to these systems, who compete with other women, or who she thinks are shallow. These are my opinions, too, for sure, but they are larger than me.
She also has strong feelings about class, and the book’s engagement with art is inextricably tied up with all the questions raised by Vitória’s unexpected encounter with wealth, which she embraces and resists in specific ways. Artistic desire is not class-bound for her, but access to certain kinds of art—dance, opera—and time to make her own art certainly are.
Yes, it’s not until she’s married a rich man that she even has the chance to go to the ballet and the opera. On her own, she’d never be able to afford them, and yet they, too, make her want to write, and become part of her process of writing. Luckily she finds inspiration as well in the image of a simple wreath hanging on a door and wood stacked next to it for a fire, and the sparseness of her own rooms, but it’s a privilege she doesn’t take for granted to be able to look at stage sets, and experience dance performances, and take dance classes, and go to concerts.
Early on in the book she says of herself, “I wasn’t seen as someone who could say something interesting about art. I wasn’t seen as someone who could say anything at all and then publish it.” So there’s that aspect as well, a class barrier that makes her invisible. No one expects her to be an artist or a writer; no one sees her in that way. She is looking all around her, but until her future husband first notices her, no one is looking back. She is not a perfect person—later she remarks that she makes people invisible, too. She is very judgmental. No one looks at her friend Antoinette, who is also poor, either, which is something Vitória notices kind of bitterly. So there’s a lot about seeing in the novel, and a lot about not seeing, too.
You’ve been a story writer up to now, and I’ve always loved seeing how you make use of the space of a story. But in reading Indelicacy, it was exciting to watch you embrace the breadth and freedom of the novel form. What drew you to work on a novel? How was that experience different?
The desire to work on a novel started, I think, when I was writing Creature. Even though that book is a collection of short stories, I found myself within them moving closer to a singular narrative voice, and a more singular sensibility. That seemed important to pay attention to. I love the short story form, and I love writing stories, but I wanted to stay in something for a longer time. I also wanted to challenge myself as a writer, to try to inhabit the space of a novel, to see what happened when I was in it. That said, I found it really hard at times. I’m not an ideas person, and I certainly don’t begin with them. I wait for a piece of writing to make itself known to me while I’m working on it, so to start with such a blank slate, larger than it ever had been with a story, was daunting. Also, though I’m not a plot-driven fiction writer, Indelicacy does have more of a plot than my short stories, and as my wonderful editor at FSG, Jeremy Davies, said so well when I was having trouble tying things together toward the end in a way that felt right to me, “you unwittingly wrote a plot, and now you have to deal with it!” I’m paraphrasing. I don’t know if he said it in exactly that way, as he’s very witty, and I probably can’t reproduce that here, but he was right. Wrangling plot is my least favorite part of writing, and I felt I could ignore it a bit more in my stories. In that way, short stories offer me more freedom than the space of a novel does.
Though now, strangely, the short story form feels foreign to me. I don’t think it always will be. Maybe any form feels distant and mysterious when you are not in it.
In fact, that was my last question, to ask, now that the book is done, where are you now, what are you doing? Not necessarily what are you working on, but what are you thinking about, or looking at.
Well, I am reading a lot, and thinking about fiction, and trying to write essays on what I read and think about. But recently, currently, I am also looking at wildfires and smoke, whether in my own state of California, or in images from afar, in Australia. It’s not what I want to be looking at, but it’s certainly what I see, and for the first time, I’m asking myself what kind of writer I will be, can be, in this time of climate crisis. Yesterday I read an article by Emily Raboteau in New York Magazine called “This Is How We Live Now,” in which she records all of the conversations she had with people in 2019 about climate change and anxiety. It’s a hard piece to read, but hopeful in terms of how much people actually wanted to talk about it. I want to keep talking about it also, in order to, as Raboteau says, “make private anxieties public concerns.” I don’t think we should keep them to ourselves, which is a way of making them invisible. And for me, this is changing the space of writing.
Martin Riker is the author of the novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return. His critical writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, TLS, and elsewhere. With his wife, Danielle Dutton, he co-runs the publishing house Dorothy, a Publishing Project.
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