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A Q&A with Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov
Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Investigation of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, co-edited by Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov, is forthcoming on November 4 from Rose Metal Press, and features essays and examples from 43 contemporary hybrid authors, including Nick Flynn, Terrance Hayes, Sabrina Orah Mark, Maggie Nelson, David Shields, and Khadijah Queen.
In early October, Jacqueline, in Texas, and Marcela, in Israel, chatted over email about how the collection came to be and why hybrid literary work is more important today than ever.
JACQUELINE KOLOSOV: What’s the first work that you recognized as hybrid?
MARCELA SULAK: For me it was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,
I was studying 18th century political thought and literature as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, where we read Hobbes, Locke, and Hume, as well as Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders. All three of these novels are hybrids—the latter two are epistolary, and Stern’s is ostensibly a fictional autobiography, but Tristram is notoriously more interested in the diversions the narrative takes than the narrative itself. He includes doctored-up sections of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Francis Bacon’s Of Death, and Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, and many other works. Tristram Shandy exploded my head! It was like fiction on a psychedelic trip (I’m just guessing)—each sentence was radiant with the diverse atmospheres from which it was stolen (or borrowed). Each sentence was a doorway into an entire world, its sensations, politics, medical practices, gossip, and dining habits. These novels contained worlds—multiple novels, multiple points of view. I couldn’t believe you could get away with writing like that. I couldn’t believe that not everyone wanted to be writing like that all the time.
JACQUELINE KOLOSOV: Your answer coincides with mine. At NYU, I signed up for what I thought was a course in the 18th century novel. The professor, Anselm Haverkamp, a German historian, had us read the unabridged Clarissa, which brought me a good deal of back pain, Tristram Shandy, and The Sorrows of Young Werther, provocative hybrids all. We also read Habermas’s Theatricality and Absorption, and plenty of Roland Barthes. Though I was very confused about the nature of the course for the first month, it wound up being
among the most influential. And it ultimately makes sense that the 18th century works jumped to the forefronts of our minds, right? Eighteenth-century artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers shared a common body of knowledge and training. Sir Joshua Reynolds could sit down with Samuel Johnson and talk shop. My favorite book from that class, another hybrid, is one that had a huge influence on my dissertation: Robert Boswell’s Life of Johnson. When I stared down that biography, I thought B-O-R-I-N-G.
In reality, it proved to be one of the most entertaining biographies I’ve ever read. It uses fictional techniques in bringing Johnson to life, and it’s also a portrait of the biographer. Ultimately, biographies are hybrids. No life achieves the “closure” traditional biography strives for. So too, the biographer brings his or her personality and interests and obsessions to bear on the subject. That said, we couldn’t very well have included “biography” in the anthology and kept it manageable, could we?
MS: When thinking about contemporary hybrid work, for a long time, I just assumed that the period of cool hybrid work had ended after the medieval period, or the 18th century. I didn’t rediscover it until Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which, for some reason, I couldn’t love, as I was annoyed by her use of the word “zip.” (Now I adore her Antigonick, illustrated with transparencies by Bianca Stone). But William Carlos William’s Paterson, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, and anything Dada excited me so much with their uncategorizable nature, and their energy, that I decided to do a Ph.D. in early 20th century American poetry. It wasn’t until Lyn Hejinnian’s My Life (2002), C.D. Wright’s One Big Self (1993) that I realized hybridity was alive and well, and still astonishing and powerful; that it still worked like invisible ink held over a match in a sandbox, or smeared abdomens of fire flies in the dark in June—magic. Or the leveling force of WCW’s Kora in Hell—the kill kill kill of all previous systems of thought. I also loved how hybridity was used to express hyphenated identities: Native American Indians Joy Harjo (Crazy Brave) and N. Scott Momaday (The Way to Rainy Mountain), Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. I love the ways writers use trans-genre to express transgendered notions of selves or sexual preferences/practices that are deemed subversive to family or religion, such as Kazim Ali’s Bright Felon (an excerpt of which we are including).
JK: The word “hybrid” is new. But hybrid writing has always been there. I just never scrutinized the terminology. Years ago, I was at a translation conference in Montreal, and I sat down at dinner beside a charismatic Russian. He asked me what I wrote, and I told him “Fiction, nonfiction…” and he said, “What’s the difference?” His response was a real eye-opener for me. In so much Russian literature, and in any literature in which forms of political surveillance and oppression are involved, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction are not so clear as they are in this country where whole arguments are launched and sustained, sometimes for very good reason, when a “nonfiction” writer changes a detail. So much children’s literature is “hybrid,” and I’ll single out Lewis Carroll’s work, which continues to enthrall me. Virginia Woolf, about whom I’ve written in the afterword to the anthology, is intrinsically a hybrid writer, hugely influential in so many writers’ lives. Another contemporary writer who’s become known for her hybrid writing—though she herself doesn’t use that term—is Pam Houston. And of course Pam received many hand slaps for inventing details of a travel piece she sold years back—and other writing, I believe. I recently heard her read from Contents Have Shifted, and she spent a good deal of time talking about the fact that her readers expected “the real Pam.” Many of them said this to her, apparently, after the book came out. She really didn’t know how to handle that statement. This is the real Pam, was her bottom line, despite the fact that Norton slapped “a novel” onto the cover in order to market the book. So, to some extent, these genre categories are artificial. Hybrid writing has always been there. It just hasn’t been qualified as such, and the fact that it’s growing in popularity among a diverse range of writers is one of the chief reasons we decided to do this anthology.
MS: Right, speaking to our rationale for creating the anthology, there was nothing like it. I looked up all the anthologies I could find that had the word “hybrid” in the title, or that had traditional hybrid genres for titles (prose poem, flash fiction, nano-this-and-that), and I felt as if these anthologies did not necessarily focus on bridging genres, or showing their overlaps or blurs, but rather reifying distinctions (which is natural, since the point of them was definitional). I wanted an anthology in which everything was mixed. Sort of like Cortazar’s Hopscotch, where you could mix and match and come up with various family narratives/genetic trees.
JK: So, Marcela, two and a half years later, what would you say was the hardest part about creating this anthology?
MS: Coming up with the genre distinctions. It felt like we were working with a couple of sliding scales—from writing that tried to comprehend something tiny, like a cell or a memory, to something too large to grasp—gun violence, black holes. Form became less and less important, and goals became more and more prominent.
JK: Now that the book’s about to come out, I’d love to have included the novella, one of my favorite hybrids, but again the length becomes a little prohibitive. In terms of the hardest part of the anthology, I also agree with you 100%, but I have to be more practical here. For me, the administrative dimension of tracking 43 authors and their work proved to be the biggest challenge. Negotiating permissions, keeping everything and everyone moving along—including the two of us—all that proved remarkably challenging. Kathleen Rooney and Abby Beckel, at Rose Metal Press, are remarkable for their organizational skills and for their ability to keep us on schedule.
The other hard part, I’d say, was striving for balance in the anthology, a balance of diverse, rich voices. We managed to find a balance, but there was a great deal of give and take along the way.
MS: Another difficulty was defining the categories. But once I began to think of genre as a matter of information types, rather than a matter of structure, it became easier. Though we title our sections in terms of external structures, a strong secondary emphasis was what kinds of information we could deliver within particular kinds of structural combinations.
An eye opening conversation for me was with a novelist who admitted that the 16-year-old female protagonist of her novel was meant to go on the road for an extended period of time, but her publisher objected that girls of this era did not do that, and offered her protagonist a long weekend, instead. We talked about how such a prohibition excludes books with female protagonists from partaking in the genre of the “Great American Novel,” which involves a kind of on-the-road experience. So a fun and cool thing about hybrid work is that it allows a suspension of the rules of hetero-normative gender/genre rules, and opens up an unbounded playing field.