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Between the Covers Canisia Lubrin Interview

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David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between the Covers is brought to you by the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University. Since 1974, the Summer Writing Program has been a wild and inspiring combination of writing school, counter culture event, and literary festival. This summer marks 50 years of that collective study of writing as an art, spiritual practice, and agitating force for social change. This year’s program runs June 9th to the 29th. Faculty and guests include Anne Waldman, Eileen Myles, CAConrad, Carolina Ebeid, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Cedar Sigo, Laird Hunt, Lisa Jarnot, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eleni Sikelianos, and others. As part of a contemplative education project and an experiment in community, the Summer Writing Program does not engage in gatekeeping and nearly all writers, artists, and interested or curious students are welcome to register. There is no application fee and scholarships are also available. For more information, please visit the online catalog at naropa.edu/swp. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Elizabeth Brooks’ The Woman in the Sable Coat, a dark and twisting love story that remakes the World War II novel. Says Natalie Jenner, “The Woman in the Sable Coat is a mesmerizing, psychologically complex story about two women who meet at an impromptu dinner party in the 1930s English countryside—an encounter that sets off a decade of secrets and betrayals–only to discover their dreams of romance might be the greatest self-betrayal of all.” The Woman in the Sable Coat is out on March 5th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s conversation, like the last one with Diana Khoi Nguyen, is one I’ve anticipated for many years now. We almost talked years ago about her much acclaimed poetry collection The Dyzgraphxst but we ended up ultimately looking forward, far ahead into the future, to today actually, to her tantalizing debut collection of fiction Code Noir, 59 stories that exist in an interesting way in relation to the 59 Black codes of Louis XIV, codes meant to be rules of conduct for the French colonies during slavery. Canisia and I, imagining forward, far into the future to this very day, when we would be talking about Code Noir, is a kindred gesture to one element of the book’s project, a book that engages with history but also lives in a far distant future, a book whose imagined worlds make a future by unmaking history, by creating different lineages, different stories, different histories. Canisia’s and my history is intertwined with those of Christina Sharpe and Dionne Brand. Canisia pointing me to Dionne and her work, Christina pointing me to Canisia, now Canisia and I gesturing toward the past and the future together. At the beginning of the last episode, I recapped some of the most dynamic contributions to the bonus audio archive in 2023. In that spirit, I want to mention Canisia’s contribution today, given that Dionne, when she was on the show two years ago, she read from Code Noir and also from Christina Sharpe’s book Ordinary Notes, long before either were out in the world and Canisia does something similar, giving us a preview of Dionne’s upcoming book Salvage: Readings from the Wreck, as well as other readings, including an extract of Christina Sharpe’s “What Could a Vessel Be?” which Lidia Yuknavitch and I evoked in our episode about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. But I also want to mention why this is probably the best time to become a supporter of the show, to transform yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter by joining the Between the Covers Community. Every supporter gets the resources with each episode, gets pointed to relevant essays, videos, podcasts, scholarship, and more related to the given episode, and every supporter can join our collective brainstorm that helps guide who to invite as future guests. Then there are a ton of other things from access to the bonus audio to the Tin House Early Readership Subscription, which for much of any given year is usually sold out but right now happens to have two open spots where you receive 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. But the reason I say this is the best time is because past guests of the show often donate things as their own gesture toward the show and their desire for it to continue. Amazingly, miraculously, this show happens entirely because of you. I am employed by you, the listener, and about three percent of listeners at any given time support the show. Recently, quite a few past Between the Cover’s guests, iconic writers have contributed things as a gesture toward bringing more people into the show’s ecosystem. I wanted to take a moment to mention some of them, some of them that have just arrived. The singular and wondrous Bhanu Kapil has offered for one lucky supporter a customized poem written by her for you. Give her a theme, a name, a memory, an occasion, a first line, an image and she will compose a poem for you. Poet Victoria Chang is offering some signed editions of her work including an out-of-print letterpress chapbook. Rae Armantrout is offering two rare collectibles, her little-known memoir from a quarter century ago True, and a four-poem chapbook. Karen Joy Fowler has created a bundle of a 1987 Twilight Zone Magazine, a 1989 Interzone Magazine, both with her work in them, as well as a broadside of her novel Sarah Canary, and Lucy Ives has sent me her chapbook Sodom, LLC: The Marquis de Sade and the office novel, which is an amazing look at how Sade’s elaborately choreographed scenes of orgiastic violation, how they share impulses of domination and control with bureaucracy, and the office culture. Whether you are a longtime or first-time listener, you can check all of this out and a lot more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with none other than Canisia Lubrin.

[Music]

David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, poet, writer, and editor Canisia Lubrin received her BA at York University and her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Her debut poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis was named one of the best books of Canadian poetry of 2017 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was a finalist alongside past Between the Covers guest Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound Is a World for the 2018 Raymond Souster Award, for best collection of Canadian poetry in the previous year. Sonnet L’Abbé said the following about Canisia’s debut, “Lubrin’s speakers seem to have lived in generations of bodies of the African diaspora, and through centuries of migrations, slavery and neo-capitalism. Yet hers is still one single, contemporary vision – grieving, mongrel-cultured, exiled from the Caribbean archipelago’s sun. Here is a brilliant new Canadian voice, in the lyric lineage of Dionne Brand and M. NourbeSe Philip, raising up language like a shield against European histories and sciences, raising up poetry like a sacrifice of sweat and blood.” Lubrin’s second book, The Dyzgraphxst, took the literary world by storm, not only a best book of 2020 for the Paris Review, the CBC, Quill & Quire, and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, the Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Rebel Women Lit Caribbean Readers’ Awards but the winner of the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Canada’s most prestigious poetry award, the Griffin Poetry Prize. When the New York Times asked a group of poets during the protests after the murder of George Floyd, “What poetry they turned to in time of strife?” Natalie Diaz responded, “Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst is on time in reminding us that language is a performance, a re-enactment of the deeds we have done and practice for those we might yet do. The pressure she puts on pronouns by disjointing who is defined by the ‘I,’ the ‘you’ and the ‘we’ helps us to form what could be the most important questions of this radical summer: Who am I; who are you; who are we; in relation to the world we’d like to live in?” Canisia Lubrin is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. She has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, Queen’s University, and with Poetry In Voice, has worked as an editor with Buckrider books, as a director of the Pivot Reading Series, and is poetry editor at McClelland & Stewart. She was one of the jurors of the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize and the judge of the third annual Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry, selecting Gazan Poet Mosab Abu Toha for his book Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear. In 2021, she was picked by Globe & Mail as the Poet of the Year and she also won that year the Windham-Campbell Prize. It is with no small amount of anticipation and joy that we welcome Canisia to Between the Covers to talk about her debut book of fiction Code Noir. Past Between the Cover’s guest, the iconic Dionne Brand says, “Code Noir is storytelling at its deepest and most intimate. The stories take you into their confidences – confidences that are knowing, but at the same time defamiliarizing. You have to meet their speakers wherever they are in their lives. These speakers know things they shouldn’t know and, uncannily, they know things that you know. Things about lullabies and dogs, and elephants. The stories say, loneliness is nostalgia; they listen to Billie Holiday during a war; they know the decrees of Code Noir, that 17th century rulebook for Black life; they know the realm of time, where best friends drown in rivers. Some of these stories are like looking through blue sea glass, some are like drinking strong liquor, some are like a whiff of smoke and then an orange light. These stories are magic and you must enter them as if you, too, are wondrous.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Canisia Lubrin. 

Canisia Lubrin: David, David, everyone should be so lucky to have you introduce them to anybody at all. [laughter] You’ve uncovered all the things. Thank you so much.

DN: Thank you.

CL: It feels an especially vast gift to be with you in conversation because I just think you’re one of the most astute interlocutors of literature anywhere in the world so thank you. 

DN: Thank you. Well, this year for me seems to somehow be a year where several writers are coming on, including you after many years of anticipation. In our case, it’s been four years. I’ve told you many times, my origin story around your work was attending a live online reading because of Bhanu Kapil being part of it even four years ago. I was preparing for that conversation with her but the reading I was most captivated by that evening and that was most unforgettable for me was your reading, and it was my first encounter with you and your work. I didn’t know who you were and at some point, not long after Christina Sharpe directly messages me on Twitter and says, “You should have Canisia on the show,” and I tried to puzzle it out with you. [laughter] We tried to figure out a way to do The Dyzgraphxst two different times but my schedule was already over-determined. You and I have been checking in on each other here and there intermittently over the years. But before we talk about Code Noir, the book and before we talk about Code Noir, the decree passed by King Louis XIV in the 17th century, the decree that defines the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire and that served as a code of conduct in the French colonies for just over a hundred years but whose afterlives you were born into in St. Lucia, my first impulse is to ask you how much you knew of the code growing up. But I want to delay this question and your answer of it because regardless of the answer, I imagine that a lot of its effects were probably like the weather in the way that Christina Sharpe talks about anti-Blackness as the weather, the sort of totalizing condition of things that perhaps is both everywhere and also hard to see, and articulate from within. I’m thinking of both Dionne Brand’s book An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading where she looks back at her own growing up in Trinidad, educated in the British school system and revisits the texts, and the ways colonial violence operates through canonical English literature. I’m also thinking about when I was in conversation with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who similarly talks about this and writes about the same thing in Kenya where even post-independence, speaking your own mother tongue was stigmatized and policed out of the schools by the teachers, and even in post-independence, much of what you were taught was from Europe. The reason I bring this up is because in many places, you describe the power of first encountering Dionne’s book No Language Is Neutral, which a teaching assistant in Canada suggested to you, you’ve called it a moment of rapture but you’ve also said you were utterly pissed off that this had never been taught to you before. I wonder if we could start here with what you were taught, what was foregrounded growing up in St. Lucia. What was the weather of your education and how does it sit alongside what you felt or knew to be true at the same time? 

CL: Yeah, what a fabulous question, David. How did I come to be aware of the weather? The weather of my own, not just materially being in the world and coming into a kind of awareness about the ways that these structures impose on us but the weather of my own literary imagination. I didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of books in it. There were very few choices for me in that regard. The book as an object of literary encounter, it didn’t find me until much later on but we did have the Bible and we had, by some what I want to think of as magic because there’s no way we could afford it, we had a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I think was probably given to us by someone. However it ended up in the house, it was there and I spent a very long time pouring over those things. My sister was reminding me not too long ago, she said, “Listen, you remember when you were about five or so? It’s summertime, you’re not in school. Instead of being outside with all your friends, you were upside down in those damn encyclopedias with your legs flailing up in the air and you’re having the best time of your life.” I had completely forgotten about that. Those seemingly formative encounters with the book and the way that it transports the world, coming much later on to know about all the troubles with the Encyclopedia Britannica, notwithstanding, I somehow had forgotten that. For me, my texts were the sea, the sound of the ocean where the voices of the people around me were my grandmother’s education that she passed on to me through the oral traditions of the Caribbean, the folk tales, the folk songs, these practices of improvisational encounter that we call the séwinal, which is you just have a group of people going around in the neighborhood usually around Christmas time with songs in their mouths, that they would sort of thread stories about the people in that particular house, thread stories about them, things like gossip. No one was spared. [laughter] Your business would be in the séwinal and it was all done in good, great fun. [laughter] I had those embodied encounters with the text if we want to call it that. When I got into school, we had these little story books, Frog and Toad and Andy Rose, these kinds of books which were about children’s adventures with their grandparents in the summertime. Summertime, I’m saying as if the Caribbean has seasons. [laughs] It’s always summer but those were the books because they were imports. Outside of the structures of the folk tales, later on in high school, there were Derek Walcott’s plays like Ti Jean & His Brothers and of course, Shakespeare. I remember playing the role of Julius Caesar in those very few years that we actually had to study English literature and it was really just three years for me. [laughs] I was devastated after that third year in high school, form three, they no longer offered English literature and that is what I felt the strongest pull toward. I had a teacher, my English teacher Mr. Dasrat at the time who said, “Don’t worry about it. If this is the thing you love, you’ll find it anyway.” He was the English literature teacher. He said, “You take what you have here,” because we were a country school. We were not the schools in the city who had all the resources. Provisionally, I carried my limited education with me forward and I held on to that. Indeed, the teaching assistant that I was taking for a course, a satire course, who said to me when I handed in an assignment and she handed it back the following week, she said, “There’s something you’re up to here that just reminds me of Dionne Brand. Have you read Dionne Brand?” I said, “No, I haven’t.” She popped her eyes at me and she said, “Run, don’t walk, go to the library, get your hands on some Dionne Brand and you can thank me later.” [laughter] She was absolutely completely right. I was a student of creative writing and publishing at the time. I had never encountered Dionne Brand as an object of study, worthy of literary study let’s say, as part of a tradition that is worthy of literary study. We had some anthologies that we studied, the Norton and those other ones that Dionne was included in. But she was not actually on the syllabus to be studied, so I didn’t actually get to her until second year and I had that conversation, and this was the very first time. With everything that I’ve just told you, this was the very first time that I actually heard myself, meaning there was something in the frequency of Brand’s poetry that tuned my own ear to the innermost substance of my voice. It was hugely instructive. It was life-altering. I will put those words out there because it’s actually true. It really is the thing that said to me, “Yes, perhaps you can step into this hall called literature and this pen that is yours that you’ve been avoiding, even while writing all of these other things, pick up that particular pen and put that language, and put that music to a certain shape and to a certain use.”

DN: Wow. Well, part of the reason I thought of starting here is because of some of the things you’ve said about your two primary languages, English and Creole. In your interview at the Ex-Puritan, you talked about how even though you didn’t learn about the colonial legacy of the Caribbean until later, you “Always felt some great loss in the everyday register of English insofar that its relationship with Creole bore what I eventually understood as a fraught politic of self-preservation.” It makes me think of a conversation with the science fiction writer Nalo Hopkinson who often writes in what she calls an Anglo-Caribbean vernacular, a mix of Trinidadian, Guyanese, and Jamaican in sometimes invented or imagined Caribbean settings. She characterizes her work in general of having to do with survivance and survivance in a particular Caribbean way. She isn’t speaking about it in relation to language specifically but I wonder if Creole is an example of survivance. I looked up what survivance meant because I didn’t know off the top of my head. It was first coined by the Anishinaabe theorist Gerald Vizenor who says speaking in an indigenous context here, “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry,” and others have since wondered or proposed whether he made a portmanteau out of the words survival and endurance or of the words survival, and resistance. But either way, I think of you when you say again in Ex-Puritan, “To think of how to use the language of the colonizer to decolonize. To think of my Creole—the language of the colonized—invented by slaves whose very survival bred this linguistic creativity, a liberty twisted up in their need to communicate external to their masters, in spite of their subjugation. To think of language as a place of freedom for my ancestors: even as their ancient tongues were sliced from their mouths, they grew new speech.” I love this idea of this power of invention in the face of erasure and rupture, even as I think also of Hopkinson saying that every several years, she has to give herself permission once again to write in the language that’s most natural to her. That she needs to reaffirm it. That the survival that is enduring, maybe it comes from the survival that is resisting. It makes Creole to me seem almost like science fiction, an imagining of an otherwise with whatever materials there are to imagine it. But I wondered if you could speak to your work and the ways it engages with your dual linguistic heritage or your dual linguistic inheritance, and with the process of creolization.

CL: You brought up Ngũgĩ earlier and I think both Ngũgĩ and Nalo are in conversation in this question that you’re asking about Creole and the kind of Mongrelian dialects of Caribbean English or Caribbean Englishes. I’d like to think that what my ancestors, who were violently transplanted via transatlantic slavery to this side of the world, the first significant thing that they had to invent was language because in the strictures of the geography of dispossession and destruction that became what is known now as the “new world,” the space for liberation had to be imagined first as a possibility in language, language being what it is in the body. When you go anywhere, your need to communicate intensifies. If I go somewhere else where I don’t speak the language, I feel desperate to have that orientation to the people in the place. Actually, that’s one of the reasons why if I go anywhere, I love to go to the market because that is where you really encounter all of the frequencies, the flourishes, and the configurations of the language of a place and other people. Of course, there’s all of the stuff that shows you what the cultural makeup of that place looks like, what history looks like there, etc, but it’s in the sounds of the people. I imagine that the kind of creolization that happens in the language on this side has to do with this impulse to want to communicate to codify a sense of standard communication outside of the dominant language that was being imposed on people already dispossessed and brutalized. The kind of code-switching that would braid together the major colonial languages, whether it’s Spanish, English, French, that’s what have you with languages from West Africa, then putting these in a configuration that even if you’re from a different tribe and you don’t understand each other, there was a kind of aesthetic principle in that experimentation happening that would lead to a language that now has its dictionaries, Creole. There is a kind of poetic knowledge there that I think is indispensable. When Nalo talks about having to become familiar again with the impulse for survivance in language, in story, in the shape of story, that rings to me as 100% true because what is concentric in the phenomena of language is that we have these hierarchies in it. This is our world. This is the world we have. The hierarchic encounters are everywhere and principally in language where I think our imagination of the future is tested first. It’s tested there, it’s tested in the immediacy of presence that the imagination allows for us to reach into. My own deployment of the Creole and English side by side, and sometimes in really disruptive ways because sometimes that’s where the true thing is, it’s in the dissonance. It’s not always the pretty-sounding thing or even the thing that makes the most sense. Sometimes the illogic, the lack of logic, is where the truth is. It’s not manicured for something called logic or sense. But we have to get through the illogic in order to get to a kind of sense that can be additives and accumulative. Sometimes I leave that in the poetry.  I leave the illogic in the poetry because I expect that the encounter the reader will have in the text would also perhaps maybe be interested in that generative quality. Maybe I’m being a bit over-determined in that but I just think that the reader is as much a mystery to me as I could be to anyone else or even to myself sometimes. When Audre Lorde says that the master’s duels cannot undo the master’s house, and I think people sort of miss the invitation to reckon with the master’s tool anyway, we have to reckon with it until it ceases to be the master’s tool. This is where for me Creole is instructive because it does have elements of English in it. It has elements of West African languages in it and in other instances, you have elements of French and other things. The way that these languages, these Creoles have propagated throughout a region, somewhere like the Caribbean, I think gives us a kind of demonstration of the relationship between knowledge, knowledge as we have come to know it, and the social history of our experiments in embodied speech because Creole was not a written language until the 60s. It was entirely oral. Even further, dictionaries of Creole languages are still a very, very, very recent occurrence. What moves us into this kind of rhetorical technology that is language itself is survivance. It’s our desire to survive and to reach something called a future. It’s against death. 

DN: Well, before we go further or take our first steps into Code Noir, let’s hear the opening remarks, the first two pages of the book.

[Canisia Lubrin reads from Code Noir]

DN: We’ve been listening to Canisia Lubrin read from her new book Code Noir. We have a question for you from the poet and scholar Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, the author of 100 Days, A is for Acholi, and most recently, Song & Dread. 

Otoniya J. Okot Bitek: Hi, Canisia. I begin with Christina Sharpe’s response to your question/not question when she was on this podcast recently. What a gift it is to be here, a witness and beneficiary watching, learning, writing, and thinking alongside you. I also want to say just how generous you are with your time and your heart, and thank you for your support of mine through the years, especially working through A is for Acholi which was a bit of a minefield when it first came across your desk. I’ve been thinking about why and what makes your work so compelling, difficult, necessary, powerful, yet still real. While many of us readers want to read as an experience, your work demands that the reader be in a working relationship with the work of words, language, and text. It’s a slow reveal, not abracadabra. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who was recently on the show teaches us that the language of our heritage is integral to our survival and being. NourbeSe Philip teaches us that we cannot rely on the further tongue to language us to a full humanity. How then yours is a poetics of conjurance and rereading it or being in its presence is coming to know how language can be wielded. That these are small, small stories in Code Noir, our illustration along with Torkwase Dyson’s powerful and graphic interventions that the code survived. These stories orientate and disorientate in turn until we fall dizzy into a clearing and finally, we come to know ourselves and where we are. There’s an awe in being here with you. I love you and I love watching you work through the work that we do. I want to ask you about being inside John Coltrane’s Venus that Dionne Brand has evoked and that you’ve written about but perhaps we might do that over a drink. For now, I want to ask, how do you orientate yourself as you work? Whose stories ground you, let you fly, bring you back home? Thank you, Canisia.

CL: Wow. Otoniya, dearest one, thank you for that. It feels in this moment, especially such hardness in the world, it feels like nutrition. It feels like the power and the will of carrying on. I love you also. Of course, your work, as you know, it was wonderful to work with Otoniya. It was wonderful to work with this poet of great audacity. In A Is for Acholi, minefield as you put it was a necessary one that really helped me exercise some much-needed poetic and critical muscles. So really, the thanks is mine. I hope everybody reads Otoniya’s work. What a lovely question. How do I orientate myself? There’s always with me my grandmother, her stories, her voice, and her being, which is where I learned about what you call the conjuring, that language is the poetics of the conjuring. I learned that from my grandmother. I don’t know if she knew exactly what she was giving to me because by all logic, she was losing her memory, most of it, and in that process, story became a different animal, song became a different animal. The joining of disparate and different elements that would not typically go together taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about the possibility of the world. It taught me a lot about the possibility of my own being, my own presence, and what language could possibly do. It’s the doing of language that draws me always. Of course, I have encountered some principal teachers along the way. Some principal guides along the way. As we already know, Dionne Brand did that thing she did for me. On the library right at the shelf, I sat down on the floor and that’s where it all happened. [laughter] A security guard came over and said, “Listen, the library is closed. Are you okay? What’s going on?” That was the irrevocable moment. I really love Amos Tutuola’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and The Palm-Wine Drinkard, those two novels. When I read those, I thought, “What remarkable absurdity that feels completely true.” There was not a single moment in those books where I thought, “I don’t believe any of this.” I felt it truly so much so that when I came out of the book, I expected the world to be exactly as it was in Amos Tutuola’s novels. It was a great disappointment that the world was not like this. [laughs] But on a poetic-emotional level, it absolutely was. The world was exactly that. Encountering Toni Morrison, for me, my favorite Toni Morrison is Jazz. It’s that kind of textured, sonic, haptic storytelling that moves from state to state. It makes a kind of liquidity of really hard things that taught me a great deal. I love The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. Those are some of the books that I really love. But always I think the encountering of the multiplicity of texts in the world, it’s never an essentialist thing for me. I trust that I will find what I need when I need it. Each work has required a different set of things so far. For instance, with Voodoo Hypothesis, there were a lot of encounters with just the basic sciences of the universe. The quotidian mechanisms of the history that I had come to encounter in Christina’s The Weather later on, it was really at the end of writing Voodoo Hypothesis that I met In the Wake. At the very end, it made everything alchemized, coming to that sense of anti-Blackness as the weather and the wake, the still moving, and the still proliferating presence of that terrible history and the many ways that it evolves. Then, of course, there’s always music. There’s always music involved. There’s always some kind of music involved. There was quite a lot of jazz when writing The Dyzgraphxst and Voodoo Hypothesis, and Coltrane’s Venus that Otoniya brings up is one of those pieces of music that makes you leap beyond the immediate temporal. It puts your mind in a different time-space. The invitation is to be in a frequency of Blackness that is about the boundlessness of the moment and the boundlessness of anything called identity or the boundlessness that lets you escape the strictures of something called identity. There’s something about Coltrane’s Venus that’s more than music. There’s something about it that is literature, that is painting, that is the kind of quotations of scientific marvels. It’s really there’s something about Coltrane’s music, Venus in particular that really makes my brain fire in multiple directions at once, so this omnidirectional appreciation of something. I always trust that I will find the orientation I need for the task. Then in my sitting in front of the page, the computer, or even a whiteboard, scribbling things on it, the work finds me, then it puts me in mind for finding the proper form for the subject, even though the subject is not really what I’m interested in.

DN: Well, to extend this question about who helps you orient yourself to your work and the line from the opening remarks that you read, “What does it mean to speak as though the world you know is the world?” which are lines from Dionne Brand that I’ve never stopped thinking about, the moment of rapture in finding Brand’s No Language Is Neutral was only the beginning of an ongoing relationship with her work and with Dionne herself. While a student of creative writing, you find yourself in a poetry seminar with her. Many of the poems in your debut Voodoo Hypothesis come from your work in that class and you’ve recounted many times the ways The Dyzgraphxst was shaped and brought to fruition under the aura of Dionne noticing the relative absence of the pronoun “I” in your work and also her being captivated by the voice of Jejune in the manuscript, and suggesting you needed more of it. Your words to her in The Dyzgraphxst say, “Dionne, your editing found the book, kept the pen inked, tuned every line, every syllable, and every language.” In the new book you write, “No book arrives without you.” I have some questions regarding Code Noir that relate to her advice to you about The Dyzgraphxst. But before I ask it or ask them, I wondered if you had any stories or if there were stories about any ways in which her advice has informed Code Noir in specific in the ways it’s come into being.

CL: So the funny thing is that I encountered the Black Codes, King Louis when I was doing a little bit of research for The Dyzgraphxst and I ended up using very little of that, maybe just a phrase or two that led to something in The Dyzgraphxst but I  knew immediately that this is a thing I would like to return to given the broad canvas of fiction, so I put it aside in a folder where I had about 10 or 11 stories coming together. Then the first thing I did when I finished my work with The Dyzgraphxst and I could turn my attention to what became Code Noir was that I used one of the articles from the code as an epigraph to one of the stories, then it occurred to me, “Why not do that with all 11 stories that I was working on?” Of course, in a conversation with Dionne, she sits there in her usual suave, completely calm self and says “Why not just write all 59?” [laughter] Of course, I am immediately horrified by the proposition that I spend time with all 59 of these horribly disgusting things to write 49 more stories, 48 more stories and I thought, “Man, I will be here forever.” But of course, she was right. This is the only way. [laughs] It’s the only way to come through a project like this, so it was a prompt that made me commit to the entirety of the project and to have it come out in the form that it has come out in because of the constraint let’s say, what turned out to be the constraint of having all 59 of the articles be part of the book. 

DN: Well, in relation to The Dyzgraphxst, you’ve spoken a lot about your distrust as a poet of the lyric “I,” that you don’t like in your language the verticality of the ego, the hierarchy of knowing that it entails nor the way the lyric “I” makes a singular sound, a homogenizing sound. You went on, thanks to Dionne, to add an “I” prominently in The Dyzgraphxst but you fracture it into an uppercase “I,” a lowercase “i,” a “they,” a “you,” and a figure called Jejune. You’ve called this “I” a prismatic “I” and you’ve called Jejune a Creole figure, a shapeshifter, the embodiment of Caribbean polyvocality where Jejune gathers all of the “I’s” where the self addresses the self but in the mode of the collective. In your own words, you did this, “To interrupt the hierarchy of the lyric address,” which I think is also similar in structure to the Eurocentric capitalist, individualist orders of our present world. Before I received a copy of Code Noir, before I knew what Code Noir was like, I definitely thought, “Well, if Canisia is distrustful of the lyric ‘I,’ surely she’s even more distrustful of narrative and characterization within stories.” I think of Dionne Brand’s words that while the reader interrogates narrative, poetry interrogates the reader or that narrative is a system of representation, one that is almost always implicated in the racist colonial project. That all narratives are bracketed by racism. That narrative for Black people is incapable of transmitting or sounding a tomorrow beyond brutalism. We have to put an asterisk here that Brand is very well known for her prose, for her narratives, as well as her poetry, and her narratives engaged with and troubled by this very thing that she’s pointing out. I should have known yours would too. These stories can be three lines long, two pages, or quite long. They can be a redacted letter, a story told in footnotes, or told in chorus and verse. There are stories with a cab driver, mind prospectors, yogurt-making monks, stories in the past, and stories in the year 3032. There’s no stable character connecting the stories. They are connected otherwise. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about narrative and story. You often, as you have already today, talk of the formative influence of your grandmother as the great storyteller when you were a child. Stories you described as deeply visual, deeply sonic, and deeply intelligent, which I think also describe Code Noir. You also mentioned today about her memory and how the stories weren’t normative formally. They were fractured and weirdly joined, and she moved between Creole and English. From the get-go, you’re immersed in stories that work against the normative expectations of narrative. But I wonder, do you come to narrative and character and characterization with the same distrust as you do with the lyric I? If you do come with distrust, maybe we could spend a moment about the strategies you do use to honor that distrust and to trouble the things that trouble you within the narrative. If you don’t come with distrust, talk to us more about your relation to story and storytelling. 

CL: This is a really fabulous question, this question of narrative mode. Because I think if there is a principal lesson that I can carry around from learning things from my grandmother is that at this stage in my life where I have a critical vocabulary for the work of narrative is that narrative modes are varied. My distrust of the lyric I, that probably comes from a number of sources but really as you said, the primary one is a sort of deep discomfort that I had with the egologic structure of that lyric, of that sounding, and that insistence on a kind of authority, and a kind of language order to the world that troubled me because I could see it replicated elsewhere in so many different structures in our society, the kind of global modernity that has led to this really corrosive form of individuality where it’s almost impossible to imagine someone who isn’t you having a presence in the world and that is simply justified by their mere existence. My outlook on narrative is that, as Brand says, I quite agree with what she says about the kind of power structures that the grand narrative of history, the history of the transatlantic slave trade, the history of colonialism, which is the major organizing principle of our world, the way that has been reproduced in the library and what we like to think of as the primary library, the main forms of description, the main phonetics of myth, the main knowledges that come to us with all kinds of contradictions that we might not give the required skepticism to that we should because we have been conditioned in the workshop, so to speak, of colonial literary forms. I knew that in entering Code Noir, I wanted to have a different orientation to the narrative that would be about the ways that we actually tell stories in spite of the dominant narratives and the dominant narrative modes. When you encounter anybody out there, there is a kind of embodied storytelling that we find ourselves in the presence of. This is again why I love the market. [laughs] Somebody might tell you a story that lands in your heart as a glance would catch your eye. Somebody might tell you a story that is in the form of a song. There is really nothing else you can call it other than the song. The different orientations that people have to different ways of telling stories, the grand orality of the Caribbean, and the kind of mellifluous multiple censorial that something like that offers, that was my guiding principle in the book, which is why there is, to my mind, a poetics of intimacy at play. What we have in the book are a lot of people telling each other stories. These are the ways, really, truly. If you want to think about the invitation of Code Noir, my Code Noir, the book next to King Louis the XIV Code Noir, the invitation is that there are all of these practices that we carry about in our person that allow us to survive what should be unsurvivable. There are places in us, on the inside of us that the law, the “blunt instrument of the law” in its conflations with morality and ethics as we know that don’t always bear out, and that are outright lies sometimes or most of the time, it’s about power and instituting balances of power or imbalances of power, and allow the most powerful and moneyed in the world to carry on as if the world only belongs to them, how we survive that are the things that actually fall outside the dominant structures that we encounter in the temporality and in the improvisations of our daily living. I wanted to find these modes and make them central to the forms of storytelling that happen in the book, that choreography between the stories, and what the main voices are doing. I do use first-person narration quite a lot and even in the opening remarks that I read just a little bit ago but it is a shape-shifting perspective. That voice treats the project of making a book. It’s the book being aware of itself really. The stories are sentient things. I treat them as sentient things. I make them aware of each other. I make them talk to each other. That voice, that sort of meta-like voice in the opening remarks comes through the porosity of many of the other stories because I really wanted for that sense of literary or let’s say narratorial collaboration to be part and partial of what that voice is doing. We move by a different kind of authority, not one that is interested in domination or the singular characterization of the hero and that arc, the beginning, middle, and end hero’s journey but in another orientation to agency and not necessarily to a kind of broad strokes authority in which you simply have the fictive spell that reduces the world only to its instrumental parts. The different kinds of storytelling are about privileging the relational over the instrumental.

DN: I love that. When Dionne was on the show in 2022 for the bonus audio, she chose to read from Code Noir and also from Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes long before either was out. I’m going to play her reading of an excerpt of the opening story as a preface to a question, another question about stories. Here’s Dionne reading the opening story or at least the version of the opening story that existed in 2022.

[Dionne Brand reads from Code Noir]

DN: Well, it seems to me that one of the things that most defines narrative versus poetry is its relationship to time and that if, as Dionne says, narratives—and I would suggest narratives tied to Kronos, to the supposed linearity of time—if they prevent Black people from sounding a tomorrow beyond brutalism, it seems like time might be the thing one would most want to trouble as this story suggests. You definitely do this. There are lines in the book, throughout the book, lines like, “Decades it would take. But both of our mothers died in the library of the future,” and “An hour she knew was an invention,” and “Time, if you outlaw it well, is the thing that muddles an argument against the rules prescribed to the living,” and “Is today a long time ago?” and, “We know that to remember is to call upon something like time,” and “For everything to move in response like a mirage,” and one of my favorites, “Even though I am writing to you from the unliving place, I am still alive.” How do you think of time in relation to story and storytelling, and more specifically in relation to storytelling about Black people in the afterlives of slavery? 

CL: Very big question.

DN: We’ve touched on it a little already.

CL: Yes, we have. We have. It’s a really important part of the project of Code Noir. Code Noir exists in refusal I would say, to refuse the teleological, this idea that time is this linear chronological thing that determines outcome and is solely tied to the whims of the most privileged. Because if we really think about time in relation to the materials of our lives, if we begin in disaster, things can only get worse because that is the epicenter, that is the originating incident. The originating material is disaster, so it can only produce disaster. You can see how that in itself is a very strange logic because all it does is misrepresent and mismanage the complexity of our lives. But History with a capital H depends on the management of such narratives. It depends on the management of time in this sense that says there is a principle of dominion which makes the world and which puts human beings at the very top echelon of being. Of course, this kind of theological underpinning to this worldview basically inscribes that teleology, that the kind movement of time, the arrow that moves and we call time can only move toward a sanctioned improvement. On the other end, you have the phenomenological, which is if you begin in disaster, it just propagates. But then the material, in a sense, because that story, that narrative, and that apprehension of time belongs to those who wield the power, who instrumentalized power and they are somehow the only ones who can declare that conditions have improved, therefore, that improvement, that line of progress leads to better and better. But of course, that is what it is for them because they continue to accumulate the privileges. The people who are subject to the deleterious effects of that kind of worldview are subject to a development of dysfunction. Because if you look at the king’s codes, the articles of the Code Noir, that was on the surface. That was presented as an improvement. That was presented as wanting to make conditions more “humane” for Black slaves. In effect, what it did was it fortified the practice of slavery because the grand narrative that says, “The White man is God’s chosen person who has dominion over all and who could buy whatever biblical injunction, and slave and have dominion over the world,” that principle, the ideology simply gained fortification because it can then present itself as having an improved sense of morality about it without having to dispel with the very vile practice that it is “humanizing.” I have a lot of trouble with this concept really of the humanization of things or anyone because we see over and over again that there is a strange dissociation between the capacity of human beings for cruelty, and what it is to be human. If the human is doing the thing, then clearly it is a human thing to do, right? Why do we sanitize the idea of the human by claiming a kind of unilateral goodness, ethics, and morality to what the human does? We see the human act in all of these ways that say otherwise, so there is a profound sense of mystery about existence, about human existence, about the existence of our various beings in space and time that is missed. So much of it is missed in the kind of reductive work that narrative must do because it has to, in a sense, limit what we focus on. It has to draw a very clear perimeter around the subject and around its narrativization in the world, and what we call drama. For me, Black time, just by virtue of the sort of history that Black people had to survive in the kind of modernity that European colonialism unleashed on the world, that gives us a different orientation to time that does not rely on Kronos. That in a sense, we are always already living in the future because if we are conscripted entirely to the historical and to how it unfolds in the present, it’s almost as though the future is completely foreclosed. That conception of Black narratorial time is about the conditions that make Black liberation in space possible. In space, when I think of space, I think of narrative whereas time is the kind of the immaterial thing that moves in whatever direction you point it to.

DN: Well, I love how in the excerpt that Dionne read in the opening story, you sort of shoot an arrow across the entire book into the space of the final story, which is a thousand years in the future. You might not realize this as you read it if you don’t know the title of the last story when you’re reading the first story but there’s this gesture toward the future space in that first story. There’s also this wonderful moment in your conversation with Dionne in The Yale Review where she shares an anecdote about her grandmother and says, “Time is longer than rope, my grandmother would say enigmatically. It was a saying passed down to her. At first, I understood it as a warning. As I grew older, I began to understand it as a wry concession to my speed in running away from her. Older still, I understood it as a warning again. And then I had to think it through to its origins in slavery. What it takes to say this. Meaning, we will outlast you; you will not be there forever; rope disintegrates, but time does not. How to feel such a thing, which you know is transient, in your body—a certainty that sorrow and wickedness cannot last.” You respond, “My grandmother used to say the longest rope has an end. There was always an occasion for those words to be drawn into the inventory of this hour, and that hour. And then it was my mother who said it often. It resounds, the rope. It repeats. All the ropes, which are the same rope by different threads. It is as you have said. Parallaxes of half-formed outlines, of warnings today, whole as yesterday. I say it, too: the longest rope must end, mustn’t it?” In that aura of this, let’s finally talk about the codes, the rules of conduct for slaves in the French colonies under Louis XIV from which your book finds its structure. The 59 stories of this book are in relation to the 59 edicts of the Code Noir, which the artist Torkwase Dyson engages with at the beginning of each chapter and which in a little bit, I want to talk more about. But how much did you come to writing your book with a foreknowledge of the codes and how much was it a discovery? Regardless of how much you knew coming in, what were you most surprised by in them as you worked with them with some intention?

CL: I actually did not have comprehensive knowledge of the codes. I had some kind of peripheral knowledge, just a small bell, a small insistent bell. When I came upon them while doing research for The Dyzgraphxst, “Oh, right, these things.” Then of course, going back to them with the intention that you’ve beautifully outlined here, it was just so obvious to me, in my body, there is a knowledge that is in my flesh, in my body that I recognized as both a kind of defiance to the conditions of life that I grew up in the Caribbean. Then coming to Toronto and becoming acclimatized to the metropole, and seeing the ways that the narrative of these codes are still alive in all of these ways, that was the light bulb that went off. This is what I realized is the way that these articles, these edicts have persisted and have found an evolution in the current mechanisms of social order. Things like carding, what we call carding here in the State, you call it stop-and-frisk. In places like Georgia, there were questions about, “Who can own a dog? Who can keep the market? Who is deputized to keep community order? Who is allowed to live in what zone? Why do you need the marks and the properties of belonging to nation?” That is something called a passport, an ID card. Those were the things that led me to, if you want to call it that, a kind of surprise. To see how these ideologies have found a kind of resiliency in not just current-day jurisprudence but in the many forms of social engagement and order, and even interpersonal things that happen. I’m talking about the fact that even here, especially here in Canada that likes to paint itself as the salvation of the slaves, this is where they came for freedom. They left terrible America and came here for freedom. No one wants to talk about slavery that was practiced here in Canada. All of the same systems that were in place there in America were also in place in Canada. Even right now, you have police officers being called on five-year-olds and six-year-olds and putting them in handcuffs, and putting little Black girls in the back of police cars. It’s still happening. So I actually did not have a comprehensive sense of the codes until entering this research for the book. Well, I didn’t know it was going to be a book yet but immediately, I knew that I wanted to enter fiction with King Louis’ Black Code. 

DN: Is it true that you translated them because you couldn’t find them in English?

CL: It’s true. Maybe it might have been an effect of the pandemic. [laughs] But this was right at the height of every horrible thing that was going on in 2020 with the pandemic and I couldn’t find the English translations truly. I’m sure they existed. I just couldn’t find them, so I did translate them also with conversation with another writer friend of mine who also was involved.

DN: The reason why I wondered about the difficulty of finding the English was I do a lot of my research, jogging to podcasts, often doing research. I’ll go on a run and I’ll listen to the history of whatever that seems to be relevant. I figured I would be jogging to various history podcasts on the codes but one of my surprises was how little there was in English. There was almost nothing. No discussion happening in that sphere. I found a podcast on Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the French violinist conductor, accomplished fencer and dancer, who was known at the time as the Black Mozart. He was from Guadeloupe. It just mentions in passing that he was the son of a White plantation owner and his mother was a slave. According to the code, his son too would have been subjected to slavery. His father takes him to France for his education where he remains. I found another podcast on slavery in Canada called Enslavement and Faith and I think that is what struck me the most, reading these edicts of the code in your book. On the one hand, there’s this administrative, impersonal, and bureaucratic language, a language that’s very much a legalese that you would expect when talking about property, even human property in this case but also how very out in the open and matter of fact, Christianity is part of it all, not really seen as a contradiction but very much informing it. I was surprised even knowing, because I have a foreknowledge that the doctrine of discovery, that the explorers would use to justify taking land and subjugating or killing the inhabitants of the land if the people were heathens, that this was approved by papal decree after papal decree. The church was very involved in blessing the genocides that happened in the Americas. But to see it so casually, part of these codes was remarkable for me. Before we talk about Torkwase’s rendering of them, I was hoping maybe we could hear one of the edicts. I was thinking of the one on page 79, Article 6.

[Canisia Lubrin reads from Code Noir]

DN: Well, let’s spend some time with the 59 visual engagements of the 59 codes. Here’s a question for you from past Between the Covers guest and author of Monstrous Intimacies, In The Wake, and Ordinary Notes, Christina Sharpe. 

Christina Sharpe: Dear Canisia, I am so excited for the publication of Code Noir. Excited that everyone will now have a chance to read your sparkling intelligence, imagination, and humor. My question for you is about your collaboration with Torkwase Dyson and I wondered if you could talk about how that came about, and the beautiful work that your stories and Torkwase’s paintings that each desegregate, disintegrate, disarrange, undo the code’s work together. Thank you so much and big, big congratulations.

CL: Thank you, Christina Sharpe, my dear friend. It’s so lovely to hear her voice. Always grounding. Of course, I think I’ve said a million times how much Christina’s work has meant to me and her sustaining person continues to be a great source of everything good in the world. Yes, this collaboration with Torkwase, I know you mentioned a little bit earlier, David, the role of religion or faith, both of them in the underwriting of the transatlantic slave trade, I mean truly it would not have happened without the benediction of the Roman Catholic Church. They certainly needed that, being the prevailing power of the day. There was not yet a separation between church and state, and certainly the concept of the nation-state didn’t come into its own until after it came out of that modernity. A lot of the codes are about converting slaves to Roman Catholicism. In fact, King Louis’ Edict begins by banishing all Jews out of the colonies because of course, by their logic, that posed a threat to the establishment of a purely Roman Catholic colony or a bunch of them, the fact that almost all of them, the edicts are concerned with faith, with religion, with practices of religion, with family, and ensuring that the so-called condition of the slave is passed on from generation to generation. While this version of the Black codes is usually held up as the kind of first instance of it, there were codes, these ideas were codified, if not directly into law, but directly into legislations, bylaws, and things like that, even well before that, some as early as 1700s. What was immediately obvious to me was how much I did not wish to reproduce the logic of the codes in the stories. I wanted to stay as far away as possible from the practices of narrative that ask for reproduction in this sense. The majority of stories that exist with regards to slavery do this thing where both description and a kind of narrative representation is about the reproduction of the kind of logic that is at the heart of a practice like chattel slavery. So what you have are stories about extreme violence enacted against slaves, against Black people, against the allies of slaves and Black people, and the grave punishments that came with rebellion. Because I did not wish to reproduce the logic because I think we have an abundance of these stories already. I think partly one of the reasons why art, especially narrative art that’s produced or that’s made, I like the word making better than production, they’re conscripted, these various forms of Black art are conscripted always into a kind of reductive view of Blackness, which is always about instrumentalizing, pathology, criminality, that kind of thing. Even when the work leaps beyond that and doesn’t do that, it gets clamped down into something called a study of identity. I can’t tell you how annoying that is to me. It really truly is. My conversation with Torkwase was the most organic thing possible. I met Torkwase some years ago and we were working on a little bit of a collaboration and we were in the same room around the table having, sharing a meal. The question of how the stories were going came up, and of course, I said I’m pretty well done and what the problem I’m having really is how to make sure that the people who are on this production team can find a visual language for what I would like the articles to do, which is to treat them like artifacts, to treat them as these relics that would, in a sense, find that the stories are their countermeasures, that the stories are, in a sense, counter-narratives, but also these kinds of omnidirectional treatments of the more internal, inward, mysterious qualities of being, yeah, that sort of move away from the sort of demand for these atrocities to be played out as narrative. So I just said, “Torkwase, I don’t want this thing to be beautiful. I don’t want it to be legible, because I really am not centering the logic of them in any way that would require them to have that presence in the book.” And she said, “Send them to me. Send them to me and I’ll do something.” I said, “My goodness, I know you’re the busiest person on the planet,” but her generosity, she’s just endlessly kind and generous, and within a couple of weeks, had these 59 drawings back to me. She did send me the first three or four that she did just to be like, “Okay, this is the direction I’m heading in,” and I was just floored. Immediately, it was a kind of lyrical shorthand to that brief conversation we had that led to the book having this doubled presence in the world. You can see how embodied the visual language is in those drawings. You can see Torkwase fingerprints. You can see her hand moving across the page. It is not mechanized in any way. It is the sort of beautiful, also deeply emotional language that she has given where the blackness of the space of the page is the kind of presence that we have even with the articles from the codes being part of how the mechanisms of that visual encounter works. So collaboration, I think, is necessary. Just generally, my own philosophy about how we do something called work in a world, I think collaboration is really necessary to helping us meet the challenges of the biggest problems of our day, truly. What Torkwase has given the book is another language, another sensorium, which is about a kind of emotional landscape, what she calls Black compositional thought. This is her theory about Black geography and space and the kind of conditions that make for Black liberation, that make for us to leap into a kind of appreciation of the future beyond the hold of the slave ship, beyond the hold of the slave castle. In that sense, she says, “The shape makes the black.” This coming into what’s inside of us, having a measure in the precarious ecologies that shape and restrict the kind of bodily presence of Black people in the world. That visual language that she uses with those drawings, I find so moving. Every time I encounter one of them and I can see her fingerprints, I can hear what she says about what’s inside us being enough, about the things that limit our imagination, about how to have more generous imaginings, about how we can influence futures that counter the deleterious materiality of the global modernist project that is colonialism. So there’s a kind of layering that she does that’s kind of liquid and it’s kind of dispersed and it’s about the accumulation of Black life on the page in all these beautiful abstract ways. So that kinetic energy I find is the perfect balance that the books needed as having multiple modes of encounter with those codes.

DN: Well, when Christina Sharpe gave the keynote speech at the Black Liberation Center at an event called Art of Collective Care & Responsibility: Handling Images of Black Suffering & Death, she talked about Torkwase Dyson and how her abstract art is a rubric, not a destination, and then she quoted Dyson saying, “I decided to make paintings and drawings that reconfigured that history of murders and tortures in a way that was diametrically opposed. to images in photography. And I did this so that I would unkeep that history.” I think of that unkeeping history and creating things opposed to photographic images when I look at these visuals in your book, I can feel the intention behind Dyson’s engagement, but the story behind it feels maybe out of reach of language. With some of the edicts, she leaves the words very vibrantly readable and their backgrounds very white with all of her work happening around the text. Some of them make the words quite hard to read or somewhere in between, like when you read the edict to you, you paused it a couple of words, not entirely sure immediately what they were. Others are underlined by her. Certain words are circled sometimes or striked out. I feel the unkeeping of history, this counterforce changing the terms of the presentation of each edict and of the edicts themselves, even if I can’t construct a “why” behind each individual one, why one is bright, why one is dark, I feel her mind, nevertheless, in the foreground in these engagements, mainly when she’s editing the text, but I also feel this force beyond personhood and what is going on around the edict in the space that isn’t made of words. Maybe related to how you made the [Oceanica] character in The Dyzgraphxst. But I guess I wondered, like when you were saying you didn’t want to write something that was legible and that you didn’t want to reproduce the edicts or be engaged in sort of a linear relationship with reproducing what they were nodding towards, maybe you could spend a moment with how a story in process or in gesture or otherwise is related to the edict that precedes it. How did you decide to place a given Torkwase Dyson painting/unkeeping of an edict alongside a specific story?

CL: That prompt is great. I love this idea of unkeeping history. There is this insistence that adhering to these particular ideas about the sort of dominance of history can cause us to lose sight of certain things, which is why I am interested in the other modes of abiding that is about the story or the novelist, the short story writer, the poet would have you glancing back at history and knowing something enough about where we are in the present and how that can make a sound into something called the future. What we end up keeping are the materials of liberation that put us beyond the strictures of capture, both materially and ideologically. The funny thing is, and maybe it’s not funny, and it’s really the correct thing, it was the best thing that could possibly happen, the drawings came in after everything was done, and Torkwase received the manuscript already complete, and she made the drawings directly onto the proofs.

DN: Oh, wow. [laughs]

CL: Yeah. I did not dictate what she should do with any of the articles. It was really that lyrical shorthand, that exchange we had around the dinner table that led to what we have in the pages of this book. She decided what to do. What you’re seeing is an actual true collaboration. That is her emotional response to what was happening in the stories and of course, in relation to the edicts. What we have is an emotional landscape of this brilliant abstract artist, taking in very concrete terms, the abstraction of the fictions of the Black as a presence being made in the hold of the ship, and having these laws mounted around what in essence is elastic but is made to be static. There’s quite a lot of kinetic energy in these paintings. There’s a lot of movement. Like I said, you can see how her hands are moving, where things smear. You can see where the brush passed and her fingertips and the movement of making a circle or a square or making an underline. These are entirely her choices. They were as much a surprise to me as they are, I suppose, to everybody who will encounter them. But they made the best possible outcome. They realized the best possible outcome in this instance. There is a thing about what I do in the stories that do not privilege the logic of the codes and does not try to replicate them, which is not to say that there isn’t violence, of course, the violence is there. I mean, simply, that is part of the mechanism of story and it’s a fact of the way we live out here in the world. There’s violence, there’s deep violence, unrelenting sometimes. But the violence has kind of pushed the background and the materials of interiority, the materials of way-making and life-making in its interesting details, that is what is privileged. There is a kind of way in which some of the stories are simply a glance at the codes, they’re a glance at the edict, it’s just the sideways glance and then this person is carrying on in their lives, because that’s kind of the truth. Not everybody’s walking around. I mean, I certainly wasn’t. I wasn’t walking around with knowledge of these codes hanging over my head, even though their effects are in things I encounter all the time. So the way that people just are in the middle of making their lives, I wanted those materials to be to the fore. When the violence does happen, as is what is codified in here as the sort of institutionalization of a kind of violence they are met in ways that make sense to the logic of the world of the story, not necessarily to the logic of King Louis’ world, you know? [laughs] I think in a really fundamental sense, story is an exercise in density and transparency. It’s an exercise in legibility and illegibility coexisting. The interesting things that make relationships, the interesting things that make character and voice, the structures and textures of the every day that are right up against the sometimes concentric life-making phenomenological stuff that we would have in something like the edicts. The spectrum of storytelling that we encounter is in this mode of the organic engagement that Torkwase had with the manuscript and making those drawings directly into the proofs of the book and what I found years earlier making the stories.

DN: Well, stepping away from the structure of this book in particular, and more wondering about your sensibilities more generally, we have a question for you from writer, scholar, and critic, Rinaldo Walcott, whose own books include Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada, On Property, and The Long Emancipation: Moving Toward Black Freedom.

Rinaldo Walcott: Hey, Canisia. It’s great to be able to ask you a question. I’m looking forward to reading Code Noir like so many others. Your work breaks with form in so many ways. The description of this new book suggests that you are keeping at this practice of breaking with form. I’m wondering if you might say something about where does your irreverence for form come from? What motivates your impressive twisting of forms that we think we know into something else?

CL: Rinaldo, oh, how nice, what a lovely surprise. Thank you for that. Rinaldo, of course, is another one of those people who has done just an immense amount of work for thinking Black Canada and thinking Black being just generally as a critic, as a cultural theorist. He is amongst the people working today who, to me, are really indispensable and I really hope that a lot more people pay attention to the work that Rinaldo is doing. It really helps to clarify a lot about our times. Rinaldo, thanks for that. Yes, you’re right. I do have an irreverence for form. People try to tell me why I’m like this because I don’t want to lie to you and say that I even know why am I like this. I don’t know. [laughter] I’m just like this, man. I found me like this. [laughter] But people try to tell me, they’ll say something like, “Oh, because you’re an Aquarius.” That’s the answer. [laughs] But of course, I hold skepticism toward all forms of cosmologies truly. But on a very serious note, I’m interested in ideas. I find ideas fascinating, not just because they make for a kind of intellectual exercise. No, I’m really interested in the way that ideas materialize in the world. The way that they animate the world and determine so much about how we live and shape the contours of our experiences. I find that extremely, extremely fascinating. One of the main modes of my encounter, of my encountering ideas is in language. Then there are the formal principles at play for how language can move and what can cause someone who isn’t me to identify the ways that language and ideas are working. That is where the formal principles come in. Often I will find that the inherited form is not enough for what I am trying to do because I really am trying to draw a parallel between the way that ideas are animated out there in the world, in 3D space, and what they do in our minds, what they do on the page, and what the relationship is between the gulf, in that gulf between the page, the world, and then where the artist called the writer is located and what kind of work that the writer is doing. I usually find that the traditional or inherited forms, they only take me partway. I think that because I have spent enough time in the study of forms, then I can figure out relatively quickly how to make them move in these different ways, in these atypical ways. Because formal principles, for me, although they’re given to us as these given things, as these pre-made containers, the invitation for me is to look at where the continuum is disrupted and what that can allow me to do. That is in terms of what Nina Simone says: artists responding to their time and artists reflecting their time. The way that what we call ideas, the things we walk around with, how they have material consequences, I try to find some way to make that convincing on the page. It’s really that. But also, I think I owe a debt, if we want to call it that, to how very easily I get bored. [laughter] I get bored so easily so I always have to find ways to configure and choreograph myself away from boredom. That’s one of the ways that I find I like to play with form.

DN: Did you acknowledge boredom in your acknowledgments?

CL: No, goodness, I forgot, you see, but I did put a bracket in there for the things I forgot and the people that I forgot, so boredom would be enough for me.

DN: Shout out to boredom.

CL: Shout out to that. [laughter]

DN: Well, I wanted to return to Otoniya’s description of your work as difficult and necessary, because to me, I feel like the difficulty is necessary. It feels similar to Christina’s book Ordinary Notes, where I felt like the more you put into it, the more you get back. Most of these stories don’t have the shape of traditional short stories, and like the stories in Lidia Yuknavitch’s Verge, where by design, many of them depend upon the others to function, to complete themselves in a certain way, there’s a sense of accretion that is, I think, necessary to Code Noir. There’s even one story within the book that meditates on itself in a way or meditates on story saying, “The story that does not obey itself produces another mark of authority. So when will you tell me, sanely, with authority, what abundance is, what rips such a story, who might invite its targets? Does the story have a target if we know nothing of who can read the unclassifiable, would you mind?” When you won the Windham Campbell Prize, you did this great video with Rinaldo of the two of you having a conversation while cooking a meal, and you would stop with individual ingredients to speak of their significance, their histories, or legacies within cultural, familial, or personal memory in a way that I think could be one way to view the stories within this book in relation to the book as a whole. That you have these ingredients that can’t be separated out once they’ve been cooked but are distinct things going in. But thinking of the phrase “difficult and necessary” and then Rinaldo’s curiosity about your sensibility and your desire to break form, talk to us about your notion of audience, of address, and of readership if you think of these things at all, whether when writing or afterwards. I know that’s not true for some writers. What are your thoughts on audience address and the reader in this regard?

CL: You know, this question of audience, I don’t think it has an organic presence in my process. It is perhaps intrinsic to the fact of my writing, but it is not, say, this situated consideration that influences what goes on the page. I am concerned about the materials that make up the page and how convincing they could be. Sometimes you require difficulty because the subject, the theme, the line, the music, or the character, all of these are located in difficult subject matter or a difficult relationship with the earth. But I always say that the reader does have a presence. It’s a participatory one that I do not view the reader as a mere instrument for consumption, or as someone just waiting to perform the duty of being a receptacle. The reader is actively present and actively participating in the imaginative act. That’s who I project if I do project a reader. For me, the kind of normative way that readers are thought about is not only miserly but I think that that conception of the reader as someone who needs to be placated, like handheld, or baby fed, I think that has a deleterious effect on literature, which is generally the practice of literature. I think the readers are capacious, they’re multiple, they are people invested in the work of the imagination, otherwise, they wouldn’t really exist. My own sense of what kind of reading I like to do, perhaps, is where the surrogacy of the reader happens. Let’s put it that way because I don’t think I can say with any degree of certainty that this reader wants that thing. I always love to be surprised. I like to find what I could never have presumed was there. I like things that are in a sense a bit challenging, that allow me to learn something, that allow me to be entertained, that allow me, in a sense, to work through a kind of reconfiguration of the state of the thing I’m looking at. The kind of appreciation I have for a presence called the reader is one that allows me to have a participatory cohabitation. It’s always that the subject or the thing I’m writing about leads me to the form. It leads me to find the shape that best suits the thing. In this case, King Louis’ articles, the edicts are in and of themselves fictions, and a lot of them are incoherent. Most of them make no sense. There’s a kind of ridiculousness to them, that in this historical moment, one might just brush off. But this was one of the main mechanisms used to structure the world in the 17th century, and beyond, even well past the abolition of slavery. I mean clearly, fictions can have really profound concrete specific effects in the world as well.

DN: Well, there’s this passage, speaking of fictions, there’s this scene in your book that’s about the difficulty of communication but where the difficulty is beautiful and part of an expression of love or connection. I was hoping we could hear it if you’d read it for us.

[Canisia Lubrin reads from Code Noir]

DN: We’ve been listening to Canisia Lubrin read from Code Noir. I love that scene so much.

CL: Thank you.

DN: I want to spend some more time with this phrase “difficult and necessary” because of the way you took the notion of dysgraphia, which in Greek literally means difficult writing, and brought it into The Dyzgraphxst. But the notion of dysgraphia that you’re engaging with is from Christina Sharpe, the way words such as humanity, child, or mother, when they encounter Blackness, shift their meaning. Black children not seen as children, Black mothers not seen as fit mothers or fit to be mothers. As you’ve already alluded to today, most fundamentally, the word human and humanity and who gets included in this, where you say in ROOM Magazine about The Dyzgraphxst, “It attempts to investigate the overlapping problem of the self as it pertains to the historically supremacist category of ‘the human’ and the deadly hierarchies and material conditions this involves.” It feels like often this exclusion is masked or dodged, where people, in contrast to their actions, will say, “Well, of course. I want dignity for all,” “I want equality for everyone,” or “I don’t see color,” or even the way the Code Noir orders masters to give their Sundays off for their slaves, which in a way feels like a sleight of hand. It seems to pretend one is treating them as humans with Christian souls, while at the same time, doing this gesture in a way to cover up that they actually are not. But sometimes, and I’m thinking here of the siege on Gaza right now by Israel, it’s expressed nakedly without this dodge with a phrase like “human animals,” the phrase used by ministers in the Israeli government for the people they are attacking, which Dionne Brand engages with in her poem in Jewish Currents called “prologue for now – Gaza” with lines like, “The inconceivable decibels of all the things we’ve lived before / We’ve been advised of the quotas of casualty, this time / But of all the things I lost when I lost hearing / Was the sound of ‘human animals’ / how did you come to be ‘human animals’ they asked / We were born I told them.” And later, “No one can defend us, no one did / some of us are meat like ‘human animals’ / retrospectively eliminated.” But I also think of how you’re creating this book in the aura of Sharpe’s dysgraphia, returns in a really beautiful way within Christina’s book, Ordinary Notes. It’s sort of a call-and-response where your book came from her meditation on this notion, or in part did, but where she does this several-page meditation on The Dyzgraphxst within her subsequent book, Ordinary Notes, and she says, “In the book’s title, the ‘i’ in the dysgraphist is replaced by the superscripted ‘x.’ In the poem, when that ‘i’ appears, it signifies a self that is diffuse and quarrel, singular and collective. The ‘i’ refuses the ways Black people are written by those who make and profit from the ill world. This ‘i’ collects and gathers. It is lifted with all that lift carries with it. Distance and movement and theft and light and possibility.” I say all of this as sort of a preface because there’s an epigraph to your story, A History of a Noise that makes explicit these questions of the human and the human animal, I think, in Code Noir. I was hoping maybe we could hear the quote by Benjamin Disraeli, and then what it means for you, how these questions of dysgraphia live in your latest book.

CL: “What is the highest nature? Man is the highest nature. The question is this: Is man an ape or an angel? (Loud laughter) My lord, I am on the side of the angels. (More laughter and cheering)” This is from Benjamin Disraeli’s speech Church Policy, which he delivered in Oxford in 1868. The parentheses where the laughter and the loud laughter and cheering is happening is an actual transcription of the audio file from that. Yes, this question of dysgraphia, as Sharpe has done a remarkable amount of workaround, when I encountered it in In the Wake, it just helped me put some puzzle pieces in place that I had been playing with for a while and the way that she makes plain how the way in which Black people are narrativized or that incidents pertaining to Black people are narrativized and spread throughout the news and things like that, and who as you said is represented in a linguistic form when we talk about mother, daughter, child, human, etc, and how very clearly that writing of Black presence in the world is located in this kind of dehumanization, pathology, and criminality. That just gets replayed and picked up in a kind of automatic way. It’s not just on the news, it’s also in the literature, it’s also in the music, it’s also in these various forms of social and cultural aesthetic, whatever gives a view of form, aesthetic, and craft that is autonomous, has everything to do with the way meaning is made, meaning is created, and meaning is disseminated. So the method that I found coming into that understanding with Christina’s help was to put a kind of poetic imagination at play that works to kind of interrupt the order of the stronghold that those ideas have out there. I mean, you talk about Dionne’s poem “prologue for now – Gaza” and the way that she meditates for several lines at a time on this notion of the human animal, this just makes me think of the way that the world is structured and oriented based on these systems of power. What if the world was oriented differently? What if it didn’t have to do with power? What if it had to do with other forms of relation that are about a true heterogeneity of existence where things are their own justification for existing because they exist and because we have in this one precarious earth, the imperative is for us to share it. Anything that exists in this kind of worldview with its forms of meaning-making that isn’t about domination and power and the accumulation of resource and wealth needs language to also do that job. Language is where all of that stuff first must be convincing, which is why you have propaganda, which is why wars are not fought only on the battlefield. They are also fought in the storehouses of grammar and syntax because those are meaning-making, world-making mechanisms, and manifestations. The transatlantic slave trade wouldn’t happen if first, the Black as non-human wasn’t invented. The doctrine of discovery wouldn’t happen without the savage being invented. The instances that we’re seeing in Gaza with the endless dehumanization, and we’re back to that word of Palestinians being referred to as roaches and little snakes and human animals and Go back to the Shoah with the rats and all of that, those instances are constantly being conscripted and redeployed to suit what the mechanisms of power of the day need for their order of the world to continue. Truly, one of the poetics at play in Code Noir in relation to this is to put the human and the nonhuman world on equal footing, to put what we typically consider nonhuman and therefore less intelligent life on par with the human. The dogs, the birds, and all of these things, they all have a significant part to play in some of these fictions that are not simply to support the main character called the human. So there is a kind of dislocation of the law of dominion that tells us we live in a human supremacy. To my mind, the potential for any one of us to be the kind of purveyor of this really destructive ideology of dominion is there. It’s there for everybody. It’s not just relegated to a few instances and a few people of different races in history, we can see how cruelty plays out in any society, in any culture in the world. It is the resilience of these ideas, these ideas that produce these miswritings, these difficult writings, that also say we need to have a response to them that is up to the task of unspooling the difficulty into these manageable units, which is why change doesn’t simply happen in one fail swoop. Each of these stories, the way that they exist to sort of reconfigure how we think about the human and who is storied in narrative, that instance for me is where I find a linguistic heritage that is about not hierarchy, but another form of relation.

DN: This notion of reconfiguration, it makes me think of Christina’s notion of anagrammatical Blackness in In the Wake. She says in that book, “I arrive at Blackness as Blackness is anagrammatical, that is we can see the moments when Blackness opens up into the anagrammatical in the literal sense as when a word, phrase, or name is formed by rearranging the letters of another. We can also apprehend this in the metaphorical sense in how regarding Blackness, grammatical gender falls away and new meanings proliferate, how the letters of a text are formed into a secret message by rearranging them, or a secret message is discovered through the rearranging of the letters of a text. Ana as a prefix means up, in place or time, back, again, anew. So Blackness anew, Blackness as a temporal, in and out of place, and time putting pressure on meaning, and that against which meaning is made.” And/or I think of Dionne in conversation with you where she brings up Wilson Harris’ The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, because, for her, it opens up ways of knowing that haven’t been suppressed by colonialogics. She mentions his phrase “the originality of the future” as one that gets at a set of knowledges that have yet to declare themselves fully. Somehow I wondered if your several pieces, which are rewritings or re-renderings of V. S. Naipaul stories, I wondered if they were in the spirit of anagrammatical Blackness and The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination. Really, I’m just curious about this reworking of others and why reworking Naipaul in specific.

CL: Oh, you’re getting into the hot water stuff. [laughter] I think you’re completely right, David. I’m tempted to leave that as that, but let me follow your lead here for a minute. Of course, Naipaul is a really difficult character, a difficult presence in the Caribbean and the sort of trouble that led him to kind of reject the Caribbean as a space of serious artistic consideration, even though he did write about that place. But what I always say is that Naipaul is also a logical result of colonial history, that the kind of torturedness is very much part of the outcome of that horrific force on people. So what I found really moving about those two Naipaul stories, Thing Without a Name and Bogart from Miguel Street, were in fact those characters that seemed to me so alive and peopled, and there was a kind of sociological perimeter drawn around them and the lovely language, the lovely creolized language of that Trini English that is in those stories that I thought, “Man, I know these people.” I didn’t grow up in Trinidad, I’m not from Trinidad. Right down the street though, down the ocean, let’s say, in St. Lucia, and I was like, “I know these people.” There’s something that is gestured to in those stories that are not the main materials of the Naipaul stories, but it is that kind of shimmering interiority that we get a glance of each time the story moves from scene to scene. I thought, “If I make those, if I make those moments, the central moments of the story, what might happen there?” There is this kind of unreadability that is suggested in the sort of rearrangement, the anagrammatical, let’s say, rearrangement of the everyday lives of those characters and then putting them, the main characters of the story, Hat and Bogart, and putting them in really close relation to the stuff of each other’s other’s interiority. What then will happen? What happens in that encounter? I just find these characters just lovely to stay with and the kind of absurdity that shakes the foundation of the kind of rock-solid logic of what it is to make a life in the aftermath of colonialism and then reckoning with the kind of working-class context for your life. All of the things that people do in order to survive from one day to the next, that is the space that I grew up in. Those are the materials of my own life, my own young life. Sometimes people do things that present anagrammatically or even as a kind of magic, as a kind of conjuring. What you make out of nothing in an instant could be worthy of story, of being narrativized. While we are moved by narrative, even in an anagrammatical sense, moved by character, the whole animal of story, and the work of a kind of poetic knowledge that undergirds it for me means that I wanted to give resonance to such experiences of the world as experience in and of themselves, not as like social comment. Consciousness plays in these energies that the languages of those characters confer means paradox and plausibility are rooted in the place of those stories, and I really love, I’ve been to Belmont streets and I’ve walked those streets and I was like, “The energy of that might yield some kind of really interesting thing.” That is exactly what I found. So these stories ended up being a kind of haptic, song-like, repetitious kind of thing in my iteration, which is different than what’s happening with Naipaul.

DN: Well, I love that the closing remarks of the book are, “Now that you have read all the early drafts, prepare for consequences from friends, lovers, and enemies.” [laughter] So great.

CL: Thank you.

DN: Before we close with a final reading, what else can we expect from you, or what are you working on, and/or have you finished since Code Noir?

CL: Well, you know what they say, if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you and all the things like that.

DN: You can kill me and not tell me, too, if you want.

CL: No, they’re lying. [laughter] It’s mostly lies. I do have work coming up. There’s going to be poetry soon. More poetry, there’s going to be more prose, the novel form, and work, and of course, I’m putting some thoughts down in nonfiction, some essays of some kind. Yeah, there’s always a lot happening. But yes, very soon, there’ll be more poems.

DN: Alright. Well, I would love to go out with a final reading. There’s a page that I found the language particularly captivating that I was hoping we could hear. Page 286.

CL: You know, it’s so funny that these experiments with the stories, the Metamorphosis ones that I’m going to read right now, of course, those were instances where that the formal, the metaformal experiment of the book were given to a narrator who could reveal how the experiment is itself scrutinizing the act of writing itself, like the way that that thing comes together, but for that to be somehow, as I say in that other story, a different mark of authority, one that is not really about writerliness, but a kind of assertiveness of thought making its way into the materialist story. Metamorphosis: 4.

[Canisia Lubrin reads from Code Noir]

DN: Thank you, Canisia Lubrin.

CL: David, thank you. Thank you so much for this indispensable gift of your cohabitation with literature. You are an international treasure.

DN: [Laughs] I don’t know about that.

CL: My pleasure talking to you.

DN: It was a deep pleasure talking to you, and so worth the four years of anticipation today.

CL: Thank you. Thank you. I’ve been really looking forward to this for a long time.

DN: Me too.

CL: And really, I’ve talked with a lot of people but I really do mean it when I say that you’re a step above.

DN: Thank you.

CL: Thank you so much.

DN: We’ve been talking today to Canisia Lubrin about her latest book, Code Noir. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.

Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Canisia contributes a reading from Dionne Brand’s yet-to-be-published next book, Salvage. Also, from Christina Sharpe’s remarkable, Le Guin-inspired essay, “What Could a Vessel Be?” and more that I’ll leave as a surprise. This joins supplemental readings by so many of our past guests, long-form interviews with translators, some craft talks, and more, and the bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests and every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation of things I discovered while preparing, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards, including the Tin House Early Readership subscription, getting 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.