Photograph by Jean-Paul Cauvin.
Caren Beilin’s slim novels are marked by a distinctive dizzying logic—as if she had invented her own variation on realism—that allows the narrators’ imaginations, feelings, locations on earth, and personal symbologies to stretch and twist the plot. In The University of Pennsylvania (2014) and Spain (2018), she emphasizes the ways we are trapped within our own realities, but also suggests that these realities can be wondrous and huge. Beilin makes the experience of living seem private, wild, abysmal, and buoyant, and implies that we need other people because without them our inner landscapes would become too overwhelming—they would keep expanding and devour everything.
Her new novel, Revenge of the Scapegoat (out this month from Dorothy, a publishing project) follows Iris—a creative-writing professor much like Beilin herself—from her receipt of a package of hurtful old letters from her father (detailing criticisms he had of her, ways he blamed her for the family’s problems) through her eventual attempt to escape from her life by portraying a cowherd at an experimental art museum. I was instantly won over by Beilin’s writing—so funny and serious and playful. Her books have the natural authority of those artworks that are strictly, rigorously themselves.
For Beilin, our experiences of pain, and our positions within the family and other institutions, do far more than any innate character traits, any supposed God-given individuality, to determine the ways we encounter the world. In Blackfishing the IUD, her most journalistic and essayistic book, she weaves theory with the intimate first-person testimonies of women whose bodies suffered dramatically in the wake of getting an IUD, and she observes with horror, anger, and shock the sudden onset of rheumatoid arthritis in her own body shortly after the procedure. It is a moving, maddening account.
Beilin was born in 1983 and grew up in Germantown, Philadelphia. She teaches at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and lives in Vermont. I edited this interview down from a sixteen-thousand-word shared Google Doc.
How did writing begin for you?
I had a typewriter in my room when I was around eight and I positioned it at my window and wrote a captain’s log every morning. I was thinking of my bedroom as my ship. I would take each report and fold it up, seal it with a sticker, and put it in a small silver wicker basket.
There is such a sense of adventure in your sentences, and such playfulness in the way you make up words. Where did that come from?
Writing, for me, was born out of the need to create a language unreadable to my family of origin—unreadable because it was so beautiful! It is difficult for me to write plainly, even when I absolutely want to and see that that would be best, because my original impulse has to do with writing code for a wormhole outside of sadness and abuse.
You seem very interested in the family as an institution, and you also write about the university, the artist residency, and so on. Your approach to dismantling institutions seems to be not through politics but through humor. Does that seem right to you?
I would add that friendship is so powerful. Friendship dismantles the family, dilutes and complicates it, forces it to zag or stagger backward, remixes it, causes it to bend, relent, or in some cases disappear. Friendship might expose the family—ever ask a friend to come with you to a family event so that people will be on better behavior? It can help you figure out what is or isn’t tolerable, or show you different speeds of and options for love. It can of course enhance the family in all kinds of ways, too. And I actually like institutionality. But I think a radical thing to do within institutions is to form friendships.
In Blackfishing the IUD, instead of the humor I find in your novels, there is a propulsive rage. Rather than rely on the authority and inventiveness of your own voice, you constantly fold in the sentences of other writers. What was it that called forth such a different style?
I was a desperate reader, at the time—desperately reading listservs and the internet, research studies, literature. I was desperately reading what Isaac Newton, who was into alchemy and died of mercury poisoning, had to say about copper. I was reading hundred-year-old cooking manuals about copper pots. I was willing to do anything to learn why the copper IUD had seemingly instigated an autoimmune reaction that had caused me to be in this much pain and panic. I would read anything, listen to anyone. Deleuze and Guattari had more to say to me, more helpful information about metals and their interaction or assemblage with my body, than my doctors did at that time. Of course, probably the most helpful things I read were the narratives of other people who had been made sick by the IUD, many of whom had become activists and researchers themselves.
Do you have a relationship to math, or to the sciences?
I imagine that some of the pleasure I get out of writing is like the pleasure of a mathematician—this growing, immanent arrangement. Crystals, fractals.
How did the almost hallucinogenic form of your novel Spain come about? You write about such mundane things, and yet the form makes the narrative rather dizzying and surreal.
Since I was interested in writing a sort of antitravelogue in which a woman who travels doesn’t learn anything really or immerse herself in a culture or get better in any way, I wanted to express this in the syntax. One of the first sentences I wrote for Spain was, “A fire is like a bunch of daffodils on fire.” I liked this lazy, tautological metaphor. Daffodils are yellow and a fire is yellow, so. A fire is like a fire … I liked refusing to work.
I love that sentence so much. It’s such a good joke about metaphors, about what a writer is called on to do for a reader.
I was supposed to be working on my dissertation for a creative-writing PhD, but as I’d proposed it, it would have been a historical fiction set in antebellum Philadelphia at a time when a series of orphanages for Black children were set on fire. Strangely, I had found evidence for this in tourism guides from that time. People visiting cities wanted to admire the municipal structures, and it was recommended they go see prisons and post offices and orphanages, but there were asterisks next to several of the orphanages for Black children, saying that unfortunately you couldn’t visit them because they’d been burned down.
I’d proposed to write about this, I’m sorry to say, from the perspective of a Black child. I’m not a very smart person, and when you take that kind of person and put them through a PhD program where it was often emphasized that writing fiction is this awesome act of empathy—the ability a writer has to go into other bodies and beings—and you combine this impression with systems of hazing, punishments, favors, and accomplishments, and tie it all to a little bit of fellowship funding, then what you have is a fairly dumb person proposing to write this book to get ten thousand dollars. So I moved back to Philadelphia with my ten thousand dollars and I was going to do that.
Fortunately, something kicked in and I couldn’t—I felt disgusted. I felt like, How can I be a writer if it’s actually important to give people privacy, to not, like, go into people? And that is when I thought, I’d better use myself as a subject, as an act of mercy, so that I don’t go prowling around in the bodies of children. I wrote Spain out of horror for what my dissertation was supposed to be, and tried to write about myself, and my own quite uneventful time in Spain, as a way to not bother others. And when I was in Spain, I really resented the imperative to be this immersive, open listener and learner. I thought it was, among other things, a gendered ask, so I worked on a syntax of refusal with these mundane but funny stories from one of the least eventful times in my own life.
Can you say more about your opposition to the idea that fiction has to be some great act of empathy?
This idea that the imagination can take you anywhere—into anyone and anything—it thwarts one of the most basic things we learn as children, which is, Don’t touch everything! Don’t touch the stove, it’s fucking hot! I still see classes like “Writing the Other” listed in esteemed creative-writing programs. There is a lot of focus on the individual bound up in that idea, the individuality of this amazing writer with this special capacity for seeing, speaking from, or caring, but also the striking individuality of the characters themselves, this most sincere investment as them as people. I think of characters more as functions—propulsions, concentrations, knots of language.
Why do you think the academy is so set on this idea of empathy as the most important function of fiction?
I think it’s hard to sell a humanities education. But if you could convince people that they’re producing empathy, spreading peace, making the world better, that could be something great for the catalog.
I don’t think the world needs to experience empathy through literary form in order to get better. There are a few things I could say here, but maybe I’d just say the world needs more investigative reporting, and protections for journalists, in order to get better.
What do you think studying literature is good for? What is the most important reason, for you, to write and read fiction? Or why does one publish?
I think it’s about friendship, connection, affinity. And really, to be blatant, it’s anti-suicide. When I read Violette Leduc—when I read her brazen brain full of beaks and throbbing birds, of paradise, when she grinds her elbow into her writing desk, and cycles through worship and renunciation like a demon—I know that it is okay for me to exist. And when a writer friend asks after my work, or shares their work with me, or when they literally shelter me for months or years, I have a place on this earth. Language—pursuing it—can give you a life. Why does literature need to be about teaching the masses how to empathize? That’s not even realistic. Who are these masses who are clumping around pieces of literature, I mean, besides a blatantly fascistic literature? No, the people you will write for will be the people who are seeking you. Your friends, or friends to your mind and your language, maybe even to your cause. That is good enough.
You do something in your writing that I find very interesting, something that makes me constantly aware that I am reading the work of someone’s imagination, and also aware of how the world itself is a work of imagination. You take certain images—milk, bees, honey, cows, feet—and kind of smear them across the text, so that they appear all the way through it, but bearing different meanings depending on which scenes they are smeared over. It’s like smearing a streak of red over a painting, but instead you’re smearing cows—here they are in a field, here they are sitting on the narrator’s feet, here they are in a concentration camp. It really makes it clear, the way the imagination imprints itself on everything.
The smear is everything. One of my favorite artists is the musician Jason Molina. I just read a biography of him, Riding with the Ghost. He had his totems, his signs, and it became a kind of joke in his crew. Everything is wolf, moon, tower … over and over.
In my symbology, there are safe and glorious totems, good things, and there are bad ones, warnings, bad signs. A cow, or a sheep, would always be good. A goat must always be loved, and helped. If a character is reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, they are an agent of evil who may cause harm or disruption. If a character carries with her a book by Richard Brautigan, she is to be trusted. She may pass.
I’ve noticed some Jewish themes in your work. At what age did you understand that you were Jewish, if such a question can be asked? What did it mean to you, at that earliest age?
When I was younger, I looked uncannily similar to Anne Frank. People in middle school called me Anne Frank! I was acutely aware of the Holocaust, that I was a third-generation survivor, and that this actually means something. In my house there was stoicism, silence, bitterness, grievance, reeling, rage, aporia—and everybody worshipped Seinfeld. Seinfeld, to me, is about this generational survival. All the neurosis, pickiness, paranoia, supreme irony, these aftershocks—and the relief, and pleasures, of “nothing.” God bless the coffee shop.
Revenge of the Scapegoat seems to come out of something that happened to you in real life. Your father had written you some letters when you were young, which deeply pained you then, and he found them and re-sent them to you, years later. Can you tell me a bit about your decision to sublimate the pain of those experiences into a work of art?
I did receive some letters, at the start of the pandemic, in May 2020. When I received this package, I became very sad and tender. It pained me to have this sort of proof—typed!—of the way in which I was antagonized as a kid. People told me to burn them, and to remind myself of all I have in life that has nothing to do with this old dynamic. But in truth, I’d been writing Revenge of the Scapegoat for years, trying things out. The letters gifted me form, a most definite and burning point from which to begin. And a bit of comedy, too. On the acknowledgments page, I thank my dad, for sending me this novel-writing kit. I’m very sincere—thank you. That antagonism is inextricable from how or why I write. And in the process of writing about it, the letters became old and boring—a letdown, even.
You define scapegoat in different ways—what it means to the person in a family who has been scapegoated, and what it means to be told that you are responsible for the way the family is. That’s an insane thing for a parent to claim. However, instead of situating the book in the past, at the moment of scapegoating, you choose to focus on the child who has grown up to recognize the insanity of having been cast in this role. This makes it easier for the story to consider the ways in which not just families but by extension even nations scapegoat people and enjoy scapegoating. It also seems that the burden of being scapegoated might quite naturally make someone into an artist. They are the person on the outside, who has to decode the assumptions of those who are inside—who has to decode their lies.
A lot of family scapegoats do become artists, or tellers of some kind. Their road is difficult but they are forced, at a young age, to hold what they see, to keep a record. Revenge of the Scapegoat begins with Iris, who is upset to receive these letters, but it also begins by talking about the genocide of Indigenous people, and moves into stories of the Holocaust. Genocide is inextricable from the scapegoating mechanism, but where does scapegoating come from? Does it extend outward from families? Or are families that scapegoat mirroring genocides? When I was a teenager and learned about the Palestinian struggle, I couldn’t wrap my mind around how one scapegoated group could turn so neatly around and scapegoat another. If the family is a site where all of these things keep simmering, do we need, as humans, to change the family? How do we stop repeating ourselves? How do we arrive at a different mechanism? These are some of the questions I have.
Sheila Heti is the author of ten books, including, most recently, the novel Pure Colour.
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