An Interview with Amina Cain
Amina Cain’s second book, Creature, came out last November from Dorothy, a publishing project, and its inner-workings have only grown more mysterious to me as time goes on. Her stories use language to get to a place entirely outside of language, to the maid’s room in Clarice Lispector’s The Passion of G.H., a room inside of your home where you haven’t been for a while, that when you enter, nothing’s as you had expected, and when you leave, whoever it is that’s leaving is different from whoever had gone inside.
Amina Cain and I emailed about Creature over the course of several months, and the conversation is as follows.
I. A KIND OF CONTAINER
THE BELIEVER: Your writing feels very far away from speech—like it may have been spoken at one point, but that now it’s been culled and shaped into the bare containers of speech, and it makes me wonder about the level of rhetoric in your writing. In shaping stories, do you feel like there’s someone you’re addressing?
AMINA CAIN: I love that idea: that the writing may have been speech at one point, but becomes a kind of container. When I’m writing, I don’t feel a distance from language, necessarily, but as if I am using it to get to something else, some place, so a container does make sense to me.
In terms of address, there have been times when I am oriented toward another (real or fictionalized) when writing a story (like someone I once loved, or Vitória in Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark), and that includes a few of the stories in Creature. And then there are times when what I’m facing is more like a landscape (the desert, a tropical farm, the mountains), or an intense experience, or a simple one, in which I felt very connected (riding my bike on a summer evening), or even a whole swath of time (when I felt very close to a group of friends). I think I address things as much as I address people, and sometimes I address writing others have done that I feel some deep kinship towards. In the novel I am now working on, I seem to be addressing, very lightly, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.
I hope that those others, those landscapes, those texts, and those experiences are also addressing me. In many ways I think so, yes; it’s maybe why I’m called to say something too.
BLVR: Does writing come out of a response, then? If you were stuck in a bare room for the rest of your life, would you still feel pushed to write?
AC: It’s probably always a response, if even to my own mind. If I were stuck in a bare room I would still write, imagining my way out of it. The need to respond might even be stronger—to the past, to some future.
BLVR: When you enter the headspace of writing, do you feel like you carry the rest of the day with you? Does teaching or bills or whatever’s on Facebook—does all of that bleed into your own writing, or are you able to keep it separate?
AC: I am not at all able to keep my writing separate from the day, which doesn’t mean I write about my days, but that whatever wants to enter my writing will. But I don’t mind it. The “day” becomes different then.
II. PSYCHIC SPACE
BLVR: Going from one story to another in Creature felt like I was standing in the same room, but that the furniture or something had changed, or like there was a plant I hadn’t noticed before. You’ve said that the narrators—most of whom are first person, speaking in nearly identical voices—share the same heartbeat. Can you speak to the proximities and intersections of the stories?
AC: What I am facing out at determines almost everything. Maybe the book really is like a room, and how a story takes its shape has something to do with what I’m right in front of at that moment. I mean what I’m in front of as a writer, not as a person in my life. If I become focused on a plant in a story, and sometimes I do, it does become a kind of address, and that affects what a story looks like just in terms of the gaze of it, and then how that becomes a narrative.
Sometimes there are echoes from one story to another. A limp or a swollen foot gets carried across Creature, for instance. Being a maid gets carried across, and reading, writing, or dance gets carried across, and also friendships, relationships, trauma, anxiousness, and other things too. The narrators in the book might be like a line of paper dolls, one steps out of another, and then a third and so on. Connected but facing out at life alone, and separated in that aloneness. I think there’s a search for something, a longing, and the stories explore that in their own ways, and sometimes overlap. Some of the narrators are bratty and some of them gentle and sweet. I wanted that continuum of feeling and action.
BLVR: Is that sense of what you carry over from place to place feel tied to the form? Does the novel feel different?
AC: Well, it’s hard to tell what will get carried across in the novel, just because it’s still so new and though I can really feel how writing it is different than writing a short story (I keep writing and there’s no end in sight, just a sinking in), I don’t know yet how the different parts of it will interact with each other, and what that will look like in terms of structure. It’s more like the aspects of the novel are now emerging and starting to make themselves known. But my sense is that the carrying over could very easily happen, that it is not just tied to the short story form.
BLVR: Creature feels so closely tied together that it seems to share a lot in common with novels, or at least in the immersion of atmosphere. Is that conscious?
AC: That’s really good to hear. What I found in writing Creature was that I was naturally moving toward a singular voice, more so than in I Go To Some Hollow, and yes, toward a singular atmosphere too. Maybe it’s that atmosphere became more significant in this book.
In a way, atmosphere is everything to me, a psychic space that can also be physical, which connects to landscape and setting. I like when an interior landscape runs together with an exterior one. Atmosphere is something a reader can get close to, or feel distant from, much like a character. And sometimes I think I write fiction simply so I can spend time in something like that. When I start something new, it’s often because an atmosphere has presented itself to me, but very vaguely, and then the process of writing the piece becomes to see the atmosphere more clearly. In terms of reading fiction, especially novels, it’s similar. I want to spend time in that space of them. It’s part of what makes me love Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein so much, or Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark, or Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler, or the stories of Brian Evenson.
BLVR: Yeah, I was curious about the presence of Clarice in “The Beak of a Bird,” and Marguerite in “Queen” both of whom, like you said earlier—but maybe it’s coincidental—are involved in the act of cleaning. You also mention that you’ve taken passages from Lispector’s Hour of the Star and Duras’s Blue Eyes, Black Hair.
Were Lispector and Duras two of those forms of address? The story “Queen” especially seemed to carry a lot of Creature’s main concerns: Marguerite and the narrator are passing through the same space, living together, working at the same hotel as maids, exchanging uniforms, but they’re separated—"everything separated by ice, separated, not just for me.” I was also really struck by the painting of the hundred women whose heads are missing and the Lispector quote toward the end: “when I write I am surprised to find that I possess a destiny,” which seemed to be how a lot of these characters move through the world.
AC: I was definitely addressing Lispector and Duras in Creature, and more specifically those four books above that you and I both mention. The story “Furniture, Table, Chair, Shelves” is indebted to them through the atmosphere/setting of tropical farm in Apple, and the act of rejection in Lol Stein. I don’t know why I made the Clarice and Marguerite characters maids, but I’m interested in it. Something for me to think about further.
“Queen” feels different to me than many of the other stories in the collection, simply because I let go of what I often do in a story, and writing it felt relieving in that way. I needed a break and I’m also always curious about the different ways a writer can get to a psychic or emotional state in a text. I agree that all of the concerns of the book are there, and the story is of course mirrored in some ways with “The Beak of a Bird,” with young women who clean hotels (or did) and spend time with each other, sometimes ambivalently. I suppose the women with missing heads is connected to that separateness you bring up, and to that idea of facing out at the world, even as they are all together. They can’t see each other or themselves, but they can feel the others’ presences and of course their own.
III. AN “I” WHO ISN’T YOU
BLVR: For you, is there something in the act of writing—or at least in this kind of writing, this specific project—that’s about trying to define an “I” who isn’t you? That seems to be something that carries a lot of momentum in your writing—stories that are all very first person, or personal, but they’re not autobiographical. Could you talk about what it is to write “personally” when the person isn’t you?
AC: This is a really good question because though there is something of me in the “I” of the stories, the “I” is also very much not me, and I’m always surprised when someone assumes Creature is autobiographical.
I don’t know if the assumption has to do with the first person point of view itself, or if it’s because of the things I write about, sometimes very intimate; a kind of interiority, for certain. I imagine it’s a combination of both, but as a reader I’ve always assumed that fiction is fiction and even if an author’s life is present in some way, it’s only one layer and there are always so many layers at work in a story or a novel. Maybe it goes back to the idea of address: sometimes you are facing your own self or something you once encountered, and sometimes you are addressing someone or something else entirely. Often this is happening in the exact same text.
All of that aside, I am definitely interested in subjectivity, even when it is not my own, and in intimacy, and uncomfortableness, and ecstasy, and suffering—and these can all be considered personal things, but of course they are more than that too.
And also, the first person “I” allows me to inhabit narrative voice more than the third person does and I’m attached to voice and all that it carries. You talked about containers of speech earlier; I think the “I” can be a container for something too.
BLVR: The first person as container makes a lot of sense to me, too, because a container’s a good way of thinking about what exactly fits inside of a character’s voice in a first person story—certain things just stick out, they don’t work. I wanted to ask how exactly all of your writing gets pared down, does it start messy? And is that paring down at all a rhythmic or a sound thing, or mostly a matter of intuition?
AC: Stories often start as scraps I can barely make out—like pencil drawings, maybe—and become messy as I start to figure out what’s there. The writing as a kind of seeing. Then it becomes a matter of clearing things away so that what’s important to the stories can be seen by the reader too. The lines become darker, more pronounced, and I guess that’s part of what forms the story. I can’t draw, but writing sometimes feels to me like drawing, or what I think it must feel like. The paring down is intuitive, but it includes voice, which I connect to sound and rhythm. I think I sometimes will write a very absurd sentence or line of dialogue because it belonged to the narrative voice, if not to the logic of character or situation.
BLVR: I’d heard of writing as sculptural—the way Don DeLillo talks about how his raw material forms out of sound and look, the way that there’s something sensuous about forming words on the white page—but I’d never heard writing as drawing, which I like a lot. Especially pencil drawings, where you can see the line. Is it mostly the emphasis of the line, or do you notice figures that take shape out of something more automatic?
AC: I like that, the way sound and look might rise up from the page into a more three dimensional thing. For me it’s emphasis, yes, in that the elements of a story that start out as flimsy become stronger, but setting takes its shape from out of the scrap, and objects, and character, and even voice.
It’s almost as if in writing there’s one flickering thing and all of those elements come to the surface of it and make themselves known (they too are flickering, though they become clear), through the sentence of course, like a line, but sometimes I forget I am even working with sentences.
BLVR: How do you feel that time passes in the writing that you make? Are you consciously manipulating a certain idea of time?
AC: Lately, I’ve wanted to write as if more than one time could occupy the same space. To be in different parts of the past as well as in a present and a future. Outside of that, I think I’ve mostly written without regard for time, letting it pass in a jagged way.
Hayden Bennett is the editor of the Believer Logger.
Photo by Harold Abramowitz