Mindwalk: A Conversation with Kate Zambreno

Lidia Yuknavitch

I first met Kate Zambreno on the page. When I was the editrix of Chiasmus Press, the editors selected five manuscripts as finalists for our experimental novel contest. I read the last five.  The names had been removed. I was completely torn in my decision, because two of the manuscripts literally ravaged me. The writing in both was intelligent, fierce, brave, original. What to do? So I brought my decision to the other editors, who happily informed me that I needn’t struggle with choosing. They had both been penned by Kate Zambreno. My next struggle was simply deciding WHICH astonishing manuscript to publish; we published O Fallen Angel, a book that remains unparalleled in my opinion.

My next meetings with Kate happened over the territory of language, writing, ideas, chaos, mess, monsterhood, psychosis. We discovered we had equal interest (though a better word would be obsessions) with Dora/Ida Bauer, the heroine of Freud’s failed Hysteria case study.  We also found a mutual drool over the paintings of Francis Bacon, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigges, the face of Falconetti, the suspended violence of desire in Hiroshima Mon Amour, blondes, monsters, Laughing Medusas, much more. I’m no longer surprised by the women and men I meet inside the territory of language, writing, ideas. I’m no longer surprised that we find our way to one another. I am fascinated by how deep the “relationships” between writers can be, inside words, those tiny intimate galaxies. In Kate’s books readers will rediscover what it means to be a reader–for her writing will both dismember and remember you–and how writing can still “happen” to you.


“Sometimes after work she takes a bath and watches herself in it. Sometimes she forces herself under water. She pretends she’s dead. She pretends she has drowned…After her bath she gazes at herself in the mirror. Is this what I look like? She marvels at the stranger in the mirror. The stranger looks so solemn, so serious. She smiles. The stranger smiles back.

I too study her, a curious object. Like a prickly piece of fruit. I experience horror at my former self. Is that me? Can’t be me. Can’t be. I was never that young… She is dead. Dead and gone. Dead and gone. Gone. Gone. She is gone. I have mourned her. I have murdered her.

Later, when we look back at ourselves, we marvel at our emptiness, our youth. The shiny surface. We forget the confused upheaval stirring deep within back then, a revolution that we stifled daily.”— Green Girl

Lidia Yuknavitch: This moment in Green Girl captures for me something vital about both the story, but also about other women you have written about or created as characters in Heroines and O Fallen Angel. This moment is like a hummingbird’s motion to me. A glimpse. A rapture. A catching of a girl becoming. There is even a moment captured between character and narrator and author, as if three women were simultaneously present on the page, briefly. Nathalie Saurraute called them emotional intensities, micro-movements, in Tropisms... Can you talk a little about what moments of becoming—or whatever you would call them, mean to you artistically and personally?

Kate Zambreno: I like that. I definitely think of all of my writing as working through emotional intensities, both in terms of style and embodiment…something I’ve been thinking about lately is how I want my books to be like nervous systems, thinking of Deleuze’s description of the paintings of Francis Bacon. (That’s our first point of contact, Bacon, the ecstatic letters your Dora writes to Francis Bacon.) For inspiration to try to get myself to write I’ve been reading David Sylvester’s interviews with Bacon, and he talks about how he’s influenced by photography, like Muybridge’s serials of wrestlers, but that he doesn’t want to paint from the photograph, instead he wants to deform a feeling. That’s what I wish. To deform the photographic. To write a feeling.

So, my portraits that I write, all coming in some way from a memoiristic impulse (while using framing, style, fiction, for distancing), are about the swirl, the chaos—the deformed feeling. The girls or women never become, or other characters, like Malachi in O Fallen Angel, my version of Septimus Smith, my Woolf-man. They are often in process, deformed, intimate and tender grotesques. They are always becoming yet not allowed to become, and agitating against a dominant narrative. Some like Maggie in OFA are stuck, suicides. Others like Ruth, the narrators in Heroines and Book of Mutter have more movement, hopefully insight, as to their lack of freedom. There’s a cruelty I think always to the portraiture, a furious intensity, even when directed towards myself—hopefully also an empathy.

2. Voice and Silence

If I have communicated anything to you I hope it is the absolute urgency to write yourself, your body, your own experience. The absolute necessity for you to write yourself in order to understand yourself, in order to become yourself. I ask you to fight against your own disappearance. –Heroines

LY: I read Heroines as part reclamation story, and part authorial discovery story. Who is a woman writer. Who was she. Is it me. Embedded within those braided stories is a violent litany of all the ways in which women and girls are silenced or disappeared. What is at stake in the creation of voice, body, story for women writers now? And is it necessary to read the voices that came before us, as you did, to relocate and even dislocate the women writers of the past in order to forge a language of our experience and design a space for our stories to exist?

KZ: You’ve quoted from the last two pages of Heroines, which ends in a sort of crescendo manifesto, inspired partly by Cixous’ “Laugh of a Medusa” and its invocation to write the self, the true bodied text that the institutionalized patriarchal world dislikes. The “you” I am speaking to here is anyone who feels illegitimate, who feels dismissed and marginalized, but who desperately wants to write, who cannot publish, or publishes to very small audiences, to write anyway, to write as a form of becoming, to keep diaries, to refuse to be silenced. I think I am saying here, write your own specific experience and subjectivity.

I am very glad that this ending spoke to so many, many who write me to tell me just that. Although I do think in some ways it’s a departure from the rest of the book, which is mostly exploring in fragmented anecdotes this one, heightened, nervous consciousness, an unnamed narrator who feels herself haunted by and acting out all of these ghosts, inhabited like a dybbuk, these souls of former suicides, and feels pushed to tell these stories, of a few wives and mistresses of the great men of modernism who either had difficulty writing or didn’t write and exploring all the ways they were silenced in their contemporary and dismissed in historical memory.

But, ultimately, I can’t and don’t want to speak for all women writers. I think the danger of this contemporary conversation about women writing is how commodified and institutionalized it’s become, how dangerously mainstreamed. Not only that, but even this conversation around counting omits so many crucial factors in terms of visibility and difference, I think what’s really at stake is so complex in terms of power and capitalism and identities and bodies that it cannot be answered in a panel or an interview, but the real nuanced conversations aren’t happening, not really. I think there’s all kinds of dismissals still, all kinds of dumb commodity boxes, so I think ultimately looking at literature in terms of identity politics in this mainstream conversation—like ever since I’ve moved to NYC all I’m ever asked to be on is a panel on women writing, to only do events with other women writers, or to do readings because it’s Women’s History Month—I think that can be quite limiting, and actually repeats and reinforces these problems. Also that these events as they’re proposed to me rarely feature women of color, queer writers, trans writers, i.e. the great majority of these events trying to engage with the problem of women writers feature women writers whose stories are pretty mainstreamed, as well as their aesthetics and politics.

For me to make a space for myself as a writer, I had to give myself permission to become a writer, in secret, on days I was not working, at night—but that permission didn’t come from big publishing houses, that agency cannot come from having an agent. It didn’t come from small presses either—I was rejected for years from the majority of the small press, as well as from every agent I applied to, Green Girl was rejected at least 100 times (an existential postmodern 300-page novel about working retail, turns out: not really publishable), Book of Mutter almost that much, mostly because I had fewer places to send it. Eventually after I wrote and rewrote and finally published I have achieved some level of institutional acceptance and material success (still really earning money only through teaching), but it might go away, because I will always write what I want to write, and afterwards, if it all goes to shit, I’ll still be reading and writing.

3. Memory and Dememory

My mother has been rendered elsewhere. This is not my mother. I must not remember this strange fuzzy alien as my mother (who must I remember as my mother?).—Book of Mutter

LY: In some ways Green Girl, Heroines, O Fallen Angel, and Book of Mutter gravitate towards questions of memory. Personal and cultural. Some people and art gets remembered, while other people and art are de-remembered, embedded in the story of another, or moved to the borders, even erased. Too, there is always a cultural pressure in every time to remember the so-called right things, the sanctioned and legitimized things, determined of course by suspicious and even repressive forces. In your writing I have witnessed a beautiful kind of resistance to memory itself (at least the kind we are tricked into adoring), a devotion to the creation of notebooks, lists, diary writing, micro meditations, blogging, epithets, fragmented forms of writing. Can you describe your interest in the fragment, the presence that dissolves, the story made with pieces that never actually resolve?

KZ: I think of most of my work as coming from a nonfiction impulse—although the novels are certainly more fictionalized—but I think in general my project hopefully antagonizes the project of memoir, as well as destabilizes the notion of the coherent “I” or self, and I’m inspired by Acker and Duras in terms of this idea of writing from my life while troubling this, fictionalizing it, and in the nonfiction, having an unreliable and heightened narrator. Book of Mutter is a work that I have thought of for so long as an “anti-memoir,” like you label your beautiful and urgent The Chronology of Water. Mutter is a meditation on and wrangling with memory, on how fictive and false memory is, of its gaps and inconsistencies, on the fragmented story the body tells in trauma. The work also deals with official and false narratives of torture and national memory.

Lydia Davis wrote a beautiful essay about the fragment as a form of doubt, and I think one of the main energies behind my writing is this self-doubt, a space of not-knowing and struggling to know. And also, circling around silence and impossibility, even my writing that’s more rant-like and explosive. Sheila Heti reviewed Heroines, and there’s a line that’s now used as a pull quote, that I write like I’m screaming in a shed, sure I’m not being heard. I am not sure if Sheila meant it as a compliment, I’ve never asked her, but I took it as one. In this series of works that I think of as some form of memory cycle I privately call “Scratches” (like Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Death Sentences”)­–Mutter, Heroines, then Switzerland—I’m interested formally in the explicitness of the rant juxtaposed with silence and impossibility, which is the fragment. And how fragments can build in a way to be like a symphony. I often think of writing as music, especially modern compositional music, which I also write to (for Mutter, John Adams’s “Shaker Loops” on a repetitive loop, I think I deranged the upstairs neighbors).

If I was going to make a list of my favorite prose writers writing today, they are the ones writing the lyric essay, the fragment, the meditation, the notebook, the poetic text tracing its own erasure, that avoids the explicit, the easy narrative, the market forms, that is its own strategy of resistance. Of contemporary writers I’m thinking of T. Fleischmann, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Valeria Luiselli, Amina Cain, Pamela Lu, Renee Gladman, Gail Scott, Bhanu Kapil. Lydia Davis and Susan Howe and Anne Carson as well, writers who have achieved a great deal of recognition without sacrificing their philosophical and poetic and highly original forms, giving themselves eminent permission. (I always joke I want a bracelet that says WWACD? Or: What Would Anne Carson Do?).

4. The Body as an Epistemological Site

LY: Talk to me about hair. About what women do to their bodies. About figuring and disfiguring. About ecstatic states and violence and the body of a girl or woman. Talk to me about the throat of rage, the scream, the body in pain, the liminal body. I see the body as a place generative of radical meaning in all of your work, but I was the most…ravaged by Book of Mutter.

KZ: My partner John calls Book of Mutter an atrocity museum, and I think there’s something to it, it’s a passionate text, I mean speaking too of the religious connotations of that word, and in fact there’s one section towards the end that’s entitled “Stations,” having so much difficulty recalling yet compulsively circling around a loved one’s intense suffering.

Back to the question of memory for a second the movement of Mutter begins as a frozenness, a fragmentation at some remove, and then melts. Another way I think of this is a sort of movement into a place of violence, the body in pain, and then the speaker recounting this, circling around this trauma, that of childhood, that of the spectacle of pain, of herself, of others, psychic pain, bodily pain, and at one point desires to scream and cannot, and at another point when circling around a horrific image, this time in the historical archive, can only react with a blank page. A central image in the book is Helene Weigel’s scream as Brecht’s Mother Courage, another one is Renée Falconetti’s mute face as her head is shaved as Dreyer’s Joan of Arc (an image that is also central for Green Girl, I display it in Mutter, which contains several images, mostly film stills, which is quoting and paying homage to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée). For I think in the text the scream is often rendered as silence, or an attack against being silenced, for the scream disfigures language.

I’m always interested in the body in my work, and as you say, the figurative body, the disfigured, alienated body, the hysterical body, the ecstatic body, a body that wishes to fragment, to deconstruct, to disintegrate, to escape outside of itself. I think of the text as a body. I’m also really compelled to think of my work as performative, so issuing forth from my body, often a performance of voice, sometimes of anger, sometimes of yearning and desire, sometimes of loneliness and depression, sometimes of grief, always intense feeling. In O Fallen Angel there are literally several choruses. I guess I will always be a daughter of Artaud.

In terms of hair—the cutting of hair is quite personal, and has been historically for me a performance of rehearsing trauma. In Mutter and Green Girl especially I circle around the act of shaving one’s head or cutting hair as a form of mourning or amputation.

5. Film and Painting

“And yet—what image, what book, what event from history, can we grasp at, in an attempt to access our personal trauma?”—Book of Mutter

LY: I know you are deeply interested and influenced by film and painting (another thing we have in common), but I also feel like when I’m reading your books that film and painting are vital to the characters and the story. Sometimes I even feel like film and painting are more REAL WORLDS than the daily life worlds of your characters, something I both love about them and something that I deeply identify with. In your work, how do you hope the reader situates their experience in your narrative cosmology?

KZ: I try not to think of specific readers or their own experiences they bring to reading my work, or certainly what the reader would want. I write what I need to write, and what I feel needs to be written. When writing, I do think of what the experience is like of moving through a work. I do wish for the process of reading to be an intense experience, aesthetically and emotionally, and I want to write a text that readers can access, even while wanting to do interesting things with form and language, and sometimes pushing back against what the reader wants.

Kate Zambreno

But it’s hard even to think of ideal readers, although I’ve definitely interacted with many talented ones. An ideal reader for me, a talented one, reads my work for what I’m doing with language and form, can contextualize it but not in oppressive ways, and appreciates the performance of this one small and specific consciousness I’m attempting to represent, in innovative ways, as well as the ideas in the work. I do wish for a reader to feel intense recognition, but not necessarily recognition because they see themselves in my characters or narrators, like it’s their mirror. And I do think it’s valuable to find your own experience represented in literature, especially if you feel underrepresented, but the experience I’m writing about is never a guide for living well or really even empowerment, or speaking for a mass group of people, but of representing one tiny, flawed subjectivity, or the interactions of a few, most often to critique some aspect of contemporary society.

Part of Heroines is about the ecstasy of reading, of feeling that intense recognition and identification you describe, like when I first read Jean Rhys’ Good Morning Midnight and found complete solace in Sasha Jensen, in actually reading a female antiheroine with an ecstatic and poisonous worldview.

Yet there’s so much conversation now about “unlikable” characters (i.e. written by women writers), and I think there’s this idea in trade publishing that the reader comes first, that characters should be recognizable, coherent, and identifiable in positive ways. I do hope to have readers of all genders—and if they see themselves in what I’m writing, especially of what I write about alienation and loneliness, I think that can be incredibly transformative, but that’s not what I’m concerned with when writing. I tend more to antagonize the reader, to have a sort of an S/M relationship with the reader in most of my work, and to subvert and play against ideas of identification, such as the author-narrator’s relationship to Ruth in Green Girl.

In Green Girl, film is definitely more real to Ruth and Agnes than their real world, and as a writer film is important to me too—the Dreyer Joan of Arc film and Hiroshima mon Amour are constant references in Book of Mutter, as well as Barbara Loden’s filmography, which includes just two films, Splendor in the Grass and her film Wanda, which I keep on circling around in recent writing. Painting is important to my process, both in my novels (O Fallen Angel partially an act of ekphrasis with one of Bacon’s triptychs) and in the works that are more auto-portraits. Lately though it’s photography that I’ve obsessed over—Mutter deals so much with photographs, many not shown, everything from spirit photography to cartes des visites of dead infants in the Civil War era to the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib to family photo albums. In the book, I meditate on photography and its relationship to mourning, discoursing a lot with Barthes, especially his Mourning Diary and his writing about his mother in Camera Obscura. But even though these art forms are important to me, literature is by far the most important—I think in many ways reading and books are more important to me than my real life, they are how I see the world.

6. Legitimacy

LY: Can contemporary women writers achieve literary or artistic legitimacy? On whose terms? Toward what end? This is a question that troubles me, or a question I think should be endlessly troubled…

KZ: It troubles me too. Although I can’t speak for all contemporary women writers, just myself. This new idée fixe of mine—to be taken seriously as a writer—also, to someday write a truly great work, and then I will be taken seriously. But—I don’t know if I will know if a work is great, perhaps that’s not something I can decide or know as the writer, and perhaps these ideas of greatness or genius are oppressive terms anyway, about approaching perfection or success, when I’ve always been more interested in failure.

And what does that even mean—a serious work? Sometimes I feel exquisitely that if I never wrote about femininity or feminism, about emotions, especially depression and anger, never wrote from the first-person, I would be taken seriously as a literary writer, but I keep on returning to these themes in the work. I mean, there are certainly some contemporary women writers that achieve a great deal of literary legitimacy and recognition, and occasionally in the mainstream, and I think many are incredibly deserving. But I have absolutely no misconceptions that American trade publishing is a meritocracy, and in my opinion most of the important work being written in the United States today is happening in the small press, sometimes at a very micro level, and this is because the demands of the market, especially for the massive audience of women readers, are not the best recipe for prickly and urgent literature. I think the world of poetry and the micro-community of innovative prose writers published on the small press allow more for women writers to be considered serious and important writers, because they are not connected to market forms. Quite often, they are less visible, or unknown to a larger readership, but escape being made into commodities or images or spectacles.

I mean I hope as my body of work grows that I will not only continue to have a passionate readership but also be read as a serious writer, who is attempting to push against the boundaries of even my own previous work. I also try to remind myself that Kathy Acker, published on Grove, felt strongly that experimental writers shouldn’t be content to be only published in the underground, or that Close to the Knives was published on a trade press. I often wonder to myself, it’s a constant worry, why I have achieved more recognition—why me, why not so many of the others. Was there something about me that was easier to be marketed and sold? I think it’s one of the reasons I wanted Mutter to be published by a poetry press, a smaller readership perhaps, but a public that will read the work on its own terms, and not solely in terms of my autobiography or gender—and I wouldn’t have to promote myself or publicize this intensely personal work in a way that would make me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t bear if it was reviewed for its feminism the way Heroines was, or reacted to as conventional memoir. For this next work, I don’t know—I’m convinced it’s either going to be an 80 pages lyric essay, or 800 pages, an epic. I am very lucky however that I have found a reader and friend in Cal Morgan at Harper—he mostly just wants me to write what I feel compelled to write, to write the work, to not think so much about the other stuff. In my heart though, I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer’s writer—to be taken seriously by my peers who I take seriously, that is what I’m really searching for.

I think as long as I write from a place of an explicit, fleshly self, and write the body, and emotions, and attempt to write some deeper truth of my existence, I will not be read as totally legitimate by the culture. Which—I guess is one of the discoveries of Heroines, that these women were not allowed to write from the self, that this was seen as taboo, unliterary. And more so, there will always be a desire to make my identity and image, which so often feels fragmented, rendered coherent, marketed, a brand, a persona, despite my attempts at resistance. If I continue to publish to a larger readership, I will hopefully connect to wonderful readers who would never have heard of my books otherwise, and I will continue to get some reviews and critical attention, but I will still get takedown reviews, reviews that dismiss or marginalize or focus only on the autobiography or don’t review the actual book. Reviews assigned often by male book review editors who like to see women pitted against each other for maximum pageviews, while seeing themselves somehow as allies. Or vehement and personal takedowns by paranoid yet imperious male trolls in online lit magazines (I’m thinking of at least two). The wounded egos and wounded wannabe academics.

Again, after the intense, ambivalent reception of Heroines, I seriously considered never publishing again, not publishing Mutter, or any of it, the world of the Internet, the world of media, the world of NYC, felt like a series of Shulamith Firestone’s “airless spaces” that I needed to withdraw from, that was endangering me as a person and as a writer. I am still channeling these ideas for the work, Switzerland, which in some ways is about being public, published, like Heroines is about illegitimacy and the unpublished. For therapy against being written about in public, I just read Doris Lessing’s updated preface to The Golden Notebook, and when I’m feeling like I need a particular fuck-you-all bravado I read Andrea Dworkin’s preface to Intercourse. I want as much as possible to retain this status of the outside, of the marginalized, of the, yes, illegitimate, to create the work. I’m thinking of one of Virginia Woolf’s epiphanies in A Room of One’s Own—that perhaps it’s better to be locked out, than to be locked in. Ultimately I’m deeply suspicious of institutional acceptance and legitimacy and some signs of my material success, especially here—it makes me worry I’m doing something too safe, when all I wish to do in the world is write works that come out of tremendous risk.

Kate Zambreno is the author of two novels, O Fallen Angel and Green Girl (reissued this week by Harper Perennial in a revised P.S. edition). She is also the author of two books of innovative nonfiction, Heroines (ebook out this month through Harper Perennial) and Book of Mutter (forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2015). She is at work on a novel, Switzerland, and teaches in the creative writing programs at Sarah Lawrence College.

Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of two forthcoming novels from Harper Books: The Small Backs of Children and The Book of Joan, as well as the anti-memoir The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), the novel Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books), and three books of experimental short stories, Her Other Mouths, Real to Reel (FC2), and Liberty’s Excess (FC2).  She teaches in the low residency MFA program at EOU and at Mt. Hood College, as well as in prisons, rehab centers, and various other “institutions.”