debunking the anxiety of influence
Joanna Pocock and Susana Medina in conversation.
Joanna Pocock: I see elements of Virginia Woolf (particularly Orlando), Anaïs Nin, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Borges in your work. People have also compared you to JG Ballard. Do you see any of these influences? Do you think of your writing as being part of a linear collective of writers?
Susana Medina: Not so much a linear collective of writers, but a cluster of different literary traditions as well as other fields. We are all clusters of everything we’ve encountered and within these clusters there are points or areas of density because there’s something there that concerns us on some level or other. What I see are affinities, friends. Through the work of others you’re mapping your own DNA. I have read most of the writers you mention though I haven’t read Anaïs Nin, although, of course, I know of her work. And of Rhys I’d love to read more because I’ve read so little of her.
JP: Tell me more about your processes and influences when it comes to your writing.
SM: As far as I’m concerned every book has its own process. The process for Red Tales was to first gather a large collection of weird experiences to draw from. It was a way of entering different realities and having fun. I was drawn to extreme people at the time and some of my characters are partly an extension of what I imagined these people could have done or said. So, I would say my main influence was life. A large part of the work consisted in substantial daydreaming. To listen, to look at things and details and follow the logic of the landscape; to look at puddles, at ashtrays, at interesting objects.
Deep memory is a polyphony of voices. If you’re talking about literary influences, everything you read might end up in your work whether you’re aware of it or not. At the same time the reader brings their own readings into the reading of a new work and might identify echoes the writer never interacted directly with. When you read an author, let’s say author X, you might be reading so many other authors indirectly, and all these authors were in turn reading other authors that you as a reader might too have read. So, you, as a reader, find these echoes there that perhaps author X never intended. It’s all really promiscuous and confusing; an orgy of voices making up a unique voice. Reading might be one of the most promiscuous activities as you get to be intimate with all these voices replayed in your head with your own voice.
JP: I particularly sensed traces of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with her gender-neutral hero/heroine who time-travels as a male and female character.
SM: I suppose you’re talking mainly about ‘The Space of the Tangible Hallucination’. It’s interesting: you see elements of Orlando that would never have occurred to me. Orlando is a work I really enjoyed and I first read it in English, then in a Spanish translation by Borges. It’s so remote in my mind. It’s a great work, I’m glad you mention it. The film is good too. I wonder whether the elements you see are more related to the translation than to the original. Rosie Marteu, the translator, might have brought in all these other voices. There are always blind spots when it comes to seeing your own work objectively. Of course, some of the concerns voiced in Orlando were also my concerns. Maybe forgetting is as good as remembering when it comes to writing. At the time of writing Red Tales I was really interested in gender issues; androgyny as a way of bypassing gender, and I was attracted to androgynous people. If there was something I wanted to be as an adolescent it was to be androgynous, biologically speaking, which was impossible. I think this came via Patti Smith and David Bowie. And so I became interested in androgyny as a way of being in the world; as politics.
JP: That is really interesting. In some ways you are taking Woolf’s work further. She was interested in looking at the limits of our gender; in seeing what was open or closed to men and women. Whereas you are coming at gender more as something to be transcended: that we can go beyond male/female into an androgyny or even another gender altogether. As a young woman I wanted to be a man and I shopped in the boys’ department of stores. I lived in boys’ clothes until I was in my mid-twenties.
SM: It’s lucky to be able to pass off as whatever gender; it opens up new realms.
JP: We’ve gone off track. Tell me more about your influences and how they shape your work.
SM: A writer is always a great reader and when you look for echoes, there might be hundreds and hundreds, but then there’s the presence of psyches that somewhere echo your own. I find so many writers inspiring. Marguerite Duras is a good friend, I’ve re-read her work several times; I should think the authors that matter in the end are the ones you re-read. Duras is the writing master of desire; Red Tales was very much about the chaos of desire. In this respect, the work of Kathy Acker was an eye-opener for me. She might have been into Anaïs Nin, which I then surreptitiously and unknowingly inherited. The Angela Carter of The Bloody Chamber was a revelation. Deborah Levy is also fascinating on desire; I came across her work a long time ago and she’s remained a favourite. At the time I was really into female visual artists. In ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ Borges said: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors”. Borges was, as usual, so clever. It’s true.
JP: And there is much Borges in your book. I thought of him immediately when I read the ‘Note’ that opens your collection. As for Anaïs Nin, I suppose it was the unquenchable desires in the book that reminded me of her and also the epistolary format you use in ‘The Farewell Letter.’ She was a mistress of letter-writing and diaries.
SM: ‘Note’, the introductory note at the beginning of Red Tales, which was written recently as opposed to most of the rest of the book, was a homage of sorts to Borges’s antics. He used to write prefaces to all his books speaking about all these other writers, a hilarious and playful modesty that was another way of his of creating a labyrinth. I spent many years writing about Borges’s stories so he’s more than welcome to turn up whenever he wants. In ‘Note’ I wrote about the book’s avatars and tried to place my work because I felt some readers might not know where I was coming from. After I’d written it I thought that I could have also mentioned Beckett, Julio Cortázar – who I think was a much better reader of Virginia Woolf than I have been – and of course, Marguerite Duras (I probably didn’t because I had already mentioned them elsewhere); and Calvino, for the spirit of adventure and narrative swiftness, and Lynch; and Walt Whitman because he was the poet who turned me into a writer. In the end I would have liked to have mentioned all these writers whose work gave me so much. It’s like having a party; you want to invite all your best friends. In relation to the tradition of the fragment, I was really interested in the truisms of Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. I’m not sure I’d read Antonin Artaud’s Les Cahiers de Rodez at the time, where he deals with the unsayable, but this book is a very interesting example of the fragment conveying inner chaos.
JP: Funnily enough Artaud’s first published work was a collection of letters between himself and Jacques Rivière, the editor of the French literary magazine La Nouvelle Revue Française. Artaud had sent him some stories, which Rivière never published. Instead he wrote to Artaud asking him to explain his work and a wonderful correspondence eventually turned into a book. Writers and editors should do more of this!
SM: Definitely, though editors seem so overworked these days. The blogosphere might be a good place for that kind of exchange.
JP: Tell me more about your fascination with the fragment.
SM: The point of departure for my first novel, an anti-novel, was the most minimalist Beckett; it was largely made out of fragments. So I started tuning into writers who had turned the fragment into a genre. I felt the fragment was more capable of conveying interiority; of grasping the timelessness of interiority. Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster was right at the inception of Red Tales. I was discovering so many writers of fragments, like Pessoa, a poet of extreme interiority, and the Handke diaries and the Handke of Wings of Desire; and Iain Sinclair. There should be a section in bookshops called ‘Fragment’. Red Tales was a continuation of my insistence on the fragment, but also a reconciliation with narrative.
JP: When discussing the fragment one must not forget the Queen of fragments: Sappho herself. There is a wonderful translation of her work by the Canadian poet Anne Carson. It’s a must-read for all lovers of the fragment.
Back to Red Tales. Before I’d read it I’d seen Steward Home’s comparison of you and JG Ballard. Do you see this in your work? I personally wouldn’t have thought of it, but I can see it now.
SM: Ballard’s work fascinates me and I often speak and post about it; so many people associate me with Ballard. I hadn’t read Ballard when I wrote Red Tales, which doesn’t preclude it from being Ballardian because there are elements there; like sexuality displaced into weird situations, objects or architecture, which are there in my work. Let’s say we’re both interested in the psychopathology of everyday life; in psychoanalysis and surrealism. Also, in many of his stories Ballard happens to describe the landscape of my childhood: sand dunes and modern architecture. And that’s why I became so interested in his work and he’s such a good friend.
JP: How important is character to you? I was wondering as I read these stories whether you start with a character and extrapolate from there. Or whether the ideas for your stories come more from situations, or even abstract ideas.
SM: I thought character wasn’t that important but the characters are obviously there in my work and they contain the kernels of images that lead to abstract ideas. Red Tales was fundamentally about the image; entering ideas through the image. I wanted to push the story into a different direction. I had this idea of interweaving fragments and narrative; of poetry and narrative and the image coming to the forefront. I was fascinated by art and installations and even saw writing as a cheaper way of building these spaces. It was also very much about processing experiences.
As a child I loved this TV series, which wasn’t shown in the UK: Pippi Longstocking (dreamt up by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren). She was a proto-punk girl so strong she could lift her own horse. She was eccentric and fun; she was definitively a formative experience. The tradition of the picaresque, which is a very Spanish tradition, is also something that I’m very pleased to have inherited.
JP: Yes, we had that series in Canada, where I grew up and I also had the books, which I adored. I just read it to my daughter who is five and was amazed at its anarchy. I hadn’t remembered it being so extreme: such a call to arms! It’s wonderful. From Pippi Longstocking back to Red Tales.
SM: There are a few puns and jokes that are untranslatable, and that is just the way it is. Going back to androgyny, when I wrote about Pink Panther as the symbol for the next millennium, in Spanish it’s called La Pantera Rosa, so, it’s a feminine name and that is lost in the English translation. Pink Panther is a male character who happens to be pink and who in Latin languages has a feminine name. So, for me it was a symbol of androgyny itself.
JP: That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. In some ways the untranslatability of this image/icon is a metaphor for some of what is in the stories themselves.
SM: Yes, it’s interesting. We’ll have to make sure a lot of people read this exchange.
JP: I forgot to say in my last email to you that I see some of Slavenca Drakulić in your work. Have you read The Taste of a Man? It is a remarkable book about unquenchable passions and love as a consuming, elemental force. There is nothing ‘safe’ about the sex in this book, which was something I also noted in your stories. Drakulić was accused of being a ‘witch’ – I am not making this up – by the government in her native Croatia and moved to Sweden for some time. Her book As If I Am Not There about the rape of women during the Bosnian war is almost too harrowing to read. She also writes non-fiction. You would love her!
SM: This is the first time I’ve heard of her; would love to read her. You seem very strong on female writers, are there any writers who you feel have shaped your work?
JP: Oh goodness. My turn is it? Well, as this exchange is about your book Red Tales, I will keep my answer brief. Growing up in the seventies in the Canadian suburbs I felt a lot of anger about the treatment of the women I saw around me. I once asked my English Professor – the incredibly named Milton Wilson – who taught Renaissance English at the University of Toronto, what sort of work I could do once I got my degree. He looked at me as if I was insane and said that after I graduated I would of course get my ‘MRS’. It took me a few moments to understand what he was saying: I would end up getting married anyway and becoming an MRS, so frankly it didn’t matter what I studied. I was furious. But in the early eighties you just had to take this stuff. So, I naturally gravitated towards writers who were as angry as I was.
Virginia Woolf was paramount to me as she managed to channel her anger into the most challenging and formally inventive art. Charlotte Brontë and many of the Victorians, such as Mrs Gaskell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were also very important to me as women and writers. One cannot really call George Sand a ‘Victorian’ but she was someone I looked to as a model for how to live and write; Colette as well. As you say, the writers one loves become friends. All these women informed not simply my writing but the decisions I made as a woman travelling through a world I felt was antagonistic towards me and my desires. I looked to them as role models. George Sand was a cross-dressing bisexual, never wanted to marry and when she did have a child she abandoned it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning didn’t have a child until she was forty-three, and Mrs Gaskell championed the rights of prostitutes. And of course there was George Eliot living in sin with a married man. These were the women I looked to for advice. We think we are so ‘modern’ and forward-looking but the Victorians did it all!
And, yes, Kathy Acker was someone I admired greatly. I once saw her read with William Burroughs at the University of Toronto. It was amazing such a conservative and misogynistic institution could have scheduled such an event. It was truly an evening to remember. I almost felt there was a sense of the baton being passed from the elderly Burroughs to the spiky young female writer before my very eyes. She is missed.
SM: Yes, anger. We’ll have to do a more general exchange about how centuries of sexism has affected women’s concerns when it comes to writing and the arts. I was really angry when I came across The Vida Count, as there’s still a glaring problem when it comes to women writers being reviewed and fairly represented.
JP: I have really enjoyed this exchange. Thank you, Susana. May there be many more such exchanges between writers.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Joanna Pocock has a Masters in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. She has been shortlisted for the 2013 Bath short story award, the 2012 Mslexia short story competition and the Lightship International first novel award. In 2010 she won joint first place in the Segora short story competition, which she went on to judge in 2011. Some of her stories have appeared in Riptide and Cooldog. Her story ‘The Road to Napanee’ will be published in Love on the Road, an anthology of short stories, which will be appearing in November 2013. ‘The Woman in the Cupboard’ will be appearing in an anthology of new writing published by Hearst Magazines. She teaches creative writing at Central St. Martins and also works as a freelance copy-editor for a variety of publishers.
Susana Medina is the author of Red Tales (bilingual edition, 2012, co-translated with Rosie Marteau) and Philosophical Toys (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014) – offspring of which are the praised short films Buñuel’s Philosophical Toys and Leather-bound Stories (co-directed with Derek Ogbourne). Her other books are the poetry and aphorisms collection Souvenirs del Accidente (2004) and Borgesland, A voyage through the infinite, imaginary places, labyrinths, Buenos Aires and other psychogeographies and figments of space (2006). She has been awarded The Max Aub International Short Story Prize and is the recipient of a writing grant from the Arts Council of England, for her novel Spinning Days of Night. Her story ‘Oestrogen’, translated by Rosie Marteau, will be featured in Best European Fiction, 2014, Dalkey Archive. Medina has published a number of essays on literature, art, cinema and photography, and curated various well-received international art shows in abandoned spaces.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 4th, 2013.