Why Don't You Like Me? writers Tamara Faith Berger and Kate Zambreno in conversation

 (Left, Kate Zambreno; Right, Tamara Faith Berger)

TAMARA FAITH BERGER: I met Kate Zambreno in New York at Whole Foods, upstairs, where we ate healthy food before the fire alarm went off. I was in from Toronto and Kate flew in for the night from Carrboro to participate in a loosely-planned, shame-themed, launch-like event for my book Maidenhead. I had just read all of Kate’s books, including the devastating Heroines, and so meeting her felt intimate, shorthand. I am someone who equates the author with their text and no one can really tell me otherwise.

Kate and I walked together from Whole Foods to an animal-smelling pad where we picked up a young poet that Kate met online, and onward to Bluestockings, the activist bookstore in the Bowery. I was anxious about the prospect of launching my book in New York, being a Canadian small-press writer that nobody had ever heard of. But it turned out that New York wasn’t such a big deal because Bluestockings was a lot like the scene on Commercial Drive in Vancouver – crafty and queer, full of earnest workers.

During our talk for the forty or so people present, Kate was dramatic and penetrating and so amazingly kind even though I tried to shut us down out of nerves after five minutes. The nerves were there because even though I felt at home, I got this strangulating embarrassment at being watched. Anyway, I think that conversation-type events instead of readings might be a better way of approaching the intimidating launch of a book. Then at least we can all laugh in public together.

I. TEEN LIBERTINES

HOST: Tonight [September 13, 2012], we have Tamara Faith Berger. She’s launching Maidenhead in the U.S., a novel following the sexual awakening of a 16-year-old girl, which has been described as a “mesmerizing and important novel, lying somewhere between the wilds of Judy Blume, Girls Gone Wild and Michel Foucault. It’s a thrilling, enlightening and really hot place to be.” Berger is joined by Kate Zambreno, author of Green Girl and O Fallen Angel. The two authors will follow short readings of their incendiary novels with a conversation about literary heroines, sex and language.

[The readings occur.]

KZ: Maidenhead is such an interesting work. It’s both this gritty, erotic novel that’s set half in Key West and half in Toronto, and also this really brilliant meditation on desire and power. This character of ‘the girl’ seems to be repeated in both of our fictions. Why do you think the landscape of ‘the girl’ is such an interesting space to write from, philosophically?

TFB: I think that it’s a space that there are a lot of projections onto—the soon-to-be sexualized and already-sexualized young woman. There are so many outside perceptions grafted onto her, that she feels all at once completely blank and completely full. I noticed that a lot in your book, as well, this repetition of a shallowness. But there is also depth in the constant repetition of this shallowness. What do you think?

KZ: When I was writing Green Girl,I was reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and she’s very dismissive of the young girl. She writes about the girl as being from this space of bad faith and blankness. I’m more interested in a messy space. I think that [Green Girl protagonist] Ruth is blank, but she’s also having an existential crisis. I noticed that in Mira in your first book and in Myra. Your characters are extremely aware, while also quite passive. It’s an interesting contradiction.

TFB: I’ve had that comment a lot, about the passivity. I think that maybe it’s that passivity is a very perceptive space to be in. When you’re passive, you’re a sponge taking everything in – and I’ve never understood why that’s a critique. [laughs] I think it’s because in fiction, things are supposed to happen. But I do really like passivity.

KZ: You get really scared for Myra in Maidenhead. Myra puts herself in situations where you’re thinking, What are you doing? Don’t go into that room! It’s a little bit like a horror film. But throughout, you’re having a dialogue about abjection and masochism as this interesting philosophical stance. You seem to be arguing that passivity can be a fruitful place, almost an active space, a really meditative space, a site of awakening. So your characters seem to come to consciousness through annihilation. Is that a bad reading of it?

TFB: No, it’s not. What you just said reminded me of Chris Kraus’s book I Love Dick, where she says, ‘why do people think that we’re degraded when we’re examining positions of degradation, or examining the cycle of our own degradation?’ I love that concept.

KZ: But it’s interesting, though, because I think your work reads almost as if Bataille’s The Story of the Eye or Blue of Noon was written from a young teenage girl’s perspective. But there is this question: in Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, the character that she’s narrating is in her mid-thirties, whereas your characters are fifteen and sixteen years old. I have no idea how old my characters are, but I think they’re in their early twenties. So the question is, how aware is she? 

I’ve been really interested lately in the figure of the girl libertine, who I think you definitely write towards. And I feel like Marquis de Sade offers two models of the libertine, in Justine and Juliette. She’s either the victim or the complete predator-libertine, coming to consciousness through fucking or being fucked. I wonder if this libertine is more ambivalent. Do you think there’s an element of victimhood in the characters that you write? Do you think that your girl-philosophers are divided or unaware, at times, in terms of their desire?

TFB: Yeah, I think that they’re in the action or the moment, and sometimes you’re so young that life is bigger than you. I also think that sixteen is a little bit symbolic, as well – it’s not complete realism in that way. I wasn’t making a documentary of a sixteen-year-old. Sixteen is symbolic of that time in our lives.

II. SASHA GREY

KZ: We were going to talk about [the adult film star] Sasha Grey. We’re both really interested in her. Do you watch a lot of porn?

TFB: No, I’m very fickle with it. I don’t watch a lot of it. But I’ve seen it and I’ve seen lots of Sasha Grey excerpts, because it’s easy to get them online. [laughs]

KZ: She at once seems completely aware and completely performative: performing her sluttiness, her degradation. But also there’s this kind of blankness when she’s doing porn.

TFB: I think this performing of the degradation is something that everybody should see. I think Sasha Grey said that the reason she got into porn was because she felt like there were all these uncharted, unmapped places of female sexuality, and she felt like it was a political act. She felt like it was her duty and that’s what she felt compelled to do: to be in porn and help to illuminate all these corners. I think that the degraded girl – she’s such a girl, too, right? – she so willingly performs and the degradation that she so willingly enters into is fascinating. She’s bold enough to do that and not be perceived as a victim or as actually being degraded. Her soul is not being degraded. But yet she’s performing this for everyone just so that we can all experience it.

KZ: So you think she’s totally active. She started, though, when she was fifteen or sixteen years old. There’s that story that she asked the Italian porn star Rocco Siffredi to just punch her in the stomach in the gang bang scene. It’s this famous moment.

TFB: No, I think she was eighteen.

KZ: Oh, she was eighteen. I see in her performance this ambivalence, and also a little bit of boredom. I mean, porn is really boring.

TFB: Yeah, it’s like an opiate of the masses. [laughs] I don’t know why people think it’s so dangerous when it actually just…

KZ: Totally boring.

TFB: I’ve just read this book by Virginie Despentes called King Kong Theory, and she writes a lot about porn in it as well. She says that everything works out in porn. It’s completely the opposite of real sexual attractions and real people getting together. The women are always satisfied, the men are always hard, everything always works out.

KZ: It’s a field of cocks.

TFB: Yeah. Everyone feels good.

KZ: Has anyone seen The Girlfriend Experience? She’s the worst escort in that because she’s beautiful but she looks dead. That’s probably not the best review. I just would think that a high-class escort should be more charismatic than that.

II. EXTREME ECSTASY, EXTREME CONSTIPATION

KZ: You’re often characterized as a pornographic writer or a writer of pornography. I was reading your first novel, The Way of the Whore, on the plane coming here, and I was sitting next to this guy who was reading a Christian self-help book that used sports metaphors. And I was looking at his book, so I know that he was probably looking at mine! It was a pretty titillating experience to read it in public. Maidenhead is also very hot at times. Where do you situate yourself in porn and erotica?

TFB: I think that my first experiences of reading porn were so good that that’s what I wanted to do, too. I don’t see any problem with it, and I know it doesn’t turn everybody on, but I think it’s such a great experience to be turned on – really turned on, you know, not just intellectually turned on, which can happen with lots of people’s books. That’s the normal experience of reading: it’s a very passionate, involving, immersive experience, but I also like the being-turned-on aspect of it.

KZ: So is the goal of your work to turn people on?

TFB: No, but if it happens, I think that’s good.

KZ: You seem to be questioning and playing with ideas of desire and power. It is erotica and also subverting the erotic. The first erotica I read was Anaïs Nin. I remember being twenty, sitting on the porch where I was living with my boyfriend and reading Anaïs Nin. I’d never read anything like it before. What was the first literary erotica or erotica you read?

TFB: I think it was The Story of the Eye. I also wanted to talk about jouissance, and what that’s all about. And how it’s connected to women, sex and writing. Can you talk about jouissance?

KZ: I mean, I can’t give the definition. I look up Lacan on Wikipedia. [laughs] I think jouissance is being outside of yourself. Desiring something that’s so intense and oceanic that it’s actually outside of yourself.

TFB: And can that be translated into writing? How is it all linked up with women’s writing?

KZ: I experience extreme ecstasy when I’m reading. And lately I only experience extreme constipation when I’m writing. [laughs] Do you write every day? What’s your writing practice like?

TFB: I think it depends where I’m at in the process. I try to write every day, but I definitely don’t have that jouissance every day. [laughs] A lot of times it’s constipated.

KZ: You wanted to ask me if there was anything that would make me stop writing, which I thought was the best question, so I’m going to ask you: Is there anything that would make you stop writing? Were you always a writer? Is that how you identify yourself?

TFB: No, I was not always a writer, but I always wrote a diary, so in that way, yes. I think the more I do it, the more I feel bad when I don’t do it. I would be very depressed if I didn’t do it. What would make you stop writing?

KZ: Bad reviews. [laughs] No, I think that would be great, to stop writing. I feel like there can be a connection of writing to capitalism that I can sometimes get into, this idea that if I write it has to be work. I feel like I’m actually trying to separate that and not feel shame when I don’t write. 

Writing has always been a process of formation for me. When I was a fucked-up girl in my twenties and teens, and I was kind of mute, I didn’t write at all, but I really wanted to be a writer. I felt like I was a character, that I wasn’t an author. I always thought, I’m having all these experiences and working these jobs and getting myself into these rooms with people I shouldn’t be in rooms with because I will someday fucking document it and meditate on it. I think making sense of my past experiences drives me. 

But I think that writing and publishing are different. I think I will always write; I might not always publish. The idea of not publishing is wonderful! [laughs]

TFB: You’re saying it’s anti-product. You love the process of it.

KZ: Sometimes, yeah.

III. THE INTERIORITY OF THE WHORE

KZ: It’s really interesting, the character in Maidenhead is writing an essay throughout the novel about Simone Weil, about Bataille, and then in The Way of the Whore, there’s this discourse on Our Lady of the Flowers and on Genet, and I wanted to ask you, are those your big literary ancestors – Genet and Bataille – in writing about sex and power? What is your relationship to these writers?

TFB: I read them and really related to the text. I think that, especially with Bataille, with his fiction anyway, I felt like every book of his that I read kept saying things that I had never encountered. It was all so mysterious and exciting.

KZ: When did you read Bataille? How old were you?

TFB: I was old. Maybe twenty-three.

KZ: Henry Miller, Genet, Sade, Bataille are really important writers for me and I love them, but I feel often they don’t love me, you know? I feel I always have to wrap my head around the way the girl is treated in the works, and the way the woman writer has been treated within their philosophies. I think of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, where Janey Smith is in an S&M relationship with Jean Genet, who she follows around the deserts of Algeria, and he’s horrible to her, and that’s what I think of when I think of my relationship to those writers. I think you have to read the text, obviously, despite that. 

You seem to be subverting Sade and Bataille’s ideas of the whore, and Henry Miller – all of his cunt portraits, all of his horrors that he writes about – you’re writing about it from an interiority and a subjectivity that we don’t typically get with the ‘whore’ or the ‘slut’ or the sexual girl.

TFB: Yeah. The figure of the whore, just like Sasha Grey, and that woman-degraded-through-sex concept, has always fascinated me. There’s that ancient concept of the temple whore, too – that’s really fascinating; that every girl had to be a prostitute.

KZ: Like Cassandra.

TFB: Yeah.

KZ: The mystical whore.

TFB: It’s in every single woman.

KZ: Do you believe that?

TFB: I don’t know. Probably not. [laughs]

IV. LOVABLE ASSHOLES

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was curious what you both assume about your readers, thinking about your influences and the way your books slightly nod at porn and women’s magazines. You have a very specific cultural grounding and I was wondering how much you thought about a reader who maybe has never seen porn.

KZ: Who has never seen porn? [laughs]

TFB: I like to imagine a female reader. I’m more concerned with the female reader than the male reader.

KZ: Why so?

TFB: I don’t know why, really. I think I’ve just gotten more feedback from female readers. It’s not a great answer. What about you?

KZ: I do think of the reader, but I it would probably be fair to say that in the novels I’ve written so far that have been published, I’m fairly antagonistic toward the reader. But I think there’s a playfulness about it. I’m really interested in playing with archetypes and ideas of the grotesque. What’s interesting, I think – and I don’t know if Tamara would include her writing in this – but I’m often playing with notions of unlikeability with the character or with even the narrator. I think most of my characters are lovable but also assholes. They’re not heroes or heroines in that idealized way, which is why it’s interesting when works are reviewed and there’s a criticism about whether a character is smart or likeable enough. I love my characters, but I do think of them as characters. It’s very self-conscious for me. 

V. A GREEK CHORUS

KZ: Our two most recent novels are very aware of the fact they’re fictions. In Maidenhead there’s a Greek chorus composed of the two secondary female characters who are commenting on Myra’s actions and commenting on the novel. In Green Girl, I have a narrator who’s the author-narrator, who is creating this character Ruth, giving commentary on Ruth and criticizing Ruth, and sometimes she’s saying what the reader would say, anticipating a reader’s reaction to the work. I was really interested, Tamara, in your decision to use this Greek chorus. What was your philosophy behind it?

TFB: I think it was humour, really. To allow for more voices, as well, but also humour. Making myself laugh.

KZ: The last question I have is, we both use theory – maybe promiscuously – in our work. Do you like reading theory? When did you become exposed to it?

TFB: I guess I got into it through Bataille. I do really like reading it; I’m reading Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl now. Theory is thought, but it’s so compressed. It’s great to read it in pieces. It’s not a narrative – it’s the opposite of a narrative, I find. It’s a really different way of reading. In a way, there’s less pressure. I don’t feel like I need to understand everything in theory. I just take it in.

KZ: Yeah, reading it can be a very voluptuous experience. I use theory like finger-painting: probably quite messily, taking what I want from it. My favourite Bataille, by the way, is Guilty.

TFB: Yeah, it’s good.

KZ: I love how Sartre dissed Bataille for being too fleshly in Guilty. It’s so agonizing. He’s surrounding himself with hookers, he’s on the train, he’s mourning. I love that one. It’s my favourite. He’s like this surrealist Charlie Sheen. 

VI. CONCLUSION 

KATE ZAMBRENO: It’s funny, over email we had come up with such an involved and erudite list of questions to ask each other, but once we were actually talking, we kind of forgot what we were going to talk about. I found myself growing gregarious, as happens when I go into some hostess mode. Yes, I had to force Tamara to keep talking! She got embarrassed after a few minutes. I admire, though, how humble she is. And what we were circling around—the girl, the erotic, the libertine—I can’t imagine anyone I would have rather engaged with about that than Tamara. 

At Bluestockings, there was a beautiful selection of the Semiotext(e) Intervention series, all laid out like candy. After the reading, I bought the pink Tiqqun that Tamara and I talked about before the reading, which I gave later to the poet Carina Finn, who had graciously offered to let me crash with her (I later declined, finding a budget hotel a few blocks away, realizing I had gotten too old or stuffy to stay on futons in main rooms where others were also staying in a magnificent squalor, like a young poets’ version of Rent).

The translator of the Preliminary Materials for Theories of a Young Girl, Ariana Reines, was in the audience, sitting in back. I became embarrassed momentarily when Tamara brought it up, as I had looked at the PDF and wasn’t sure I really got what they were talking about. Anyway, I think I like our theories of a young girl even better. We leave more possibility for her in the text.  

After the reading, we all went to a bar with some author’s name – I forget what it was called.