David Naimon: Today’s episode of Between The Covers is brought to you by All Lit Up, Canada’s independent online bookstore and literary space for readers of emerging, quirky, and acclaimed indie books. All Lit Up is your Canadian connection for award-winning fiction and poetry, author interviews, book roundups, recommendations, and more. The only online retailer dedicated to Canadian literature, All Lit Up features books from 61 literary publishers. All Lit Up makes it easy to discover, buy, and collect exciting contemporary Canadian literature, all in one place. What’s more, for a limited time, listeners of Between The Covers get 10% off all books on All Lit Up with promo code betweenthecovers. Check out All Lit Up at www.alllitup.ca. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, a collection of 12 stories in which the strange is made familiar and the familiar, strange. Says Lucy Tan, “Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is for the adventurous reader—someone willing to walk into a story primed for cultural critique and suddenly come across a plot for murder, or to consider the dangers of sea monsters alongside those posed by 21st century ennui. Each story is spectacularly smart, hybrid in genre, and bold with intention. The monsters here are not only fantastical figures brought to life in hyper-reality but also the strangest parts of the human heart. This book is as moving as it is monumental.” Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is out now from Tin House. It wasn’t planned, though it may seem that way, that Fernando Pessoa came up in the last conversation with Rabih Alameddine, then Rabih read from one of his favorite Pessoa poems for the bonus audio archive and now, today’s guest, James Hannaham, is on the show to talk about his completely uncategorizable book of possible fictions or maybe non-fictions or poetry and of images, and visual art, often of mysterious origin but also a book that is very specifically in dialogue, poem by poem with Fernando Pessoa. I can’t take credit for the only two times Pessoa has come up on the show, being back to back like this but this conversation does, among many other things, talk about just this uncanniness that can and does happen in life. Before we start, here on this first day of February in the waning hours of Groundhog Day’s Eve, consider, before being trapped in a never-ending time loop, switching your identity, like Pessoa himself might in one decisive swoop from a listener of Between The Covers to a listener-supporter of Between The Covers. There are more things than ever to entice you to do just that at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. But also there are the simple joys of joining the community, shaping the show, of receiving the resource rich emails with each episode, and of supporting the things you love and have found valuable, yet if you are like me, you might still want something great in addition to that. If you head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers, you can check out all the various things that past guests have gifted toward the future of the show that could now be gifted to you. Now, for the uncategorizable and uncanny conversation with writer, and visual artist, James Hannaham.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest by his own description is writer, professor, critic performer, and visual artist weirdo, James Hannaham. Hannaham received a B.A. in art from Yale University, an M.F.A. in Fiction and Screenwriting from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin, and he’s a professor in the writing program of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn New York. Beginning in the 90s, he worked in the art department at The Village Voice, as well as ultimately writing for them. He was a staff writer at Salon. His criticism, essays, and profiles have also appeared everywhere from Spin magazine to BuzzFeed to The New York Times Magazine. He also co-founded the New York-based performance group Elevator Repair Service. During the decade Hannaham worked with them, the company often utilized found texts and improvised with anything that wasn’t literature where words or movements or sounds went through a process of several translations, whether from one language to the next or one medium to another. Hannaham is also a visual artist. His often satirical, text-based artworks have been exhibited everywhere from the The James Cohan Gallery to the The Center for Emerging Visual Artists. His faux-historical exhibition of bygone mid 20th Century signage from America’s racist, sexist, and homophobic present Jim Crow Hell No was that open source gallery in 2021. His work Everything Is Normal, Everything Is Normal, Everything Is Fine, Everything Is Fine was judged best in Show at a national juried exhibition of artist books and text-based visual works at Biblio Spectaculum at Main Street Arts. James Hannaham, however, is best known as a novelist. His debut God Says No was honored by the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His second novel Delicious Foods was winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, named by Publishers Weekly as one of the top 10 books of 2015, and selected as one of the notable books of the year by The New York Times in the Washington Post. A citation from the PEN/Faulkner judges called Delicious Foods, “At once a sweeping American tale of race and exploitation, a darkly comedic thriller and an intimate portrayal of a troubled mother and her damaged son, and that Hannaham was “unafraid of the complex and the horrible, and yet his novel shines in its intimate details.” James Hannaham joins us today to discuss his most uncategorizable book to date, one that most captures the breadth of his artistic interests, as well as his self-described weirdness, his book of prose or perhaps, poetry and visual art Pilot Impostor from Soft Skull Press. Bill Kelly for Booklist describes Pilot Impostor in this way, “Whether read as prose poems or short aphoristic thought experiments, the pieces are infused with Hannaham’s distinctive dark humor, biting social commentary, and ever-present exuberance . . . Calling to mind a blend of Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, David Markson, and Steve Martin, the result is daringly original and uninhibitedly inventive, born aloft by subversive verve.” Kirkus in its starred review says, “Hannaham’s book—not quite a novel, not quite a short story collection, not quite like anything else—is a clever series of reflections on art, doubt, race, and impostor syndrome. Written as a response to the poetry of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, the book mixes artwork with brief pieces that blur the line between prose and poetry. Hannaham continues to be one of the country’s smartest and most surprising writers of fiction (or whatever this book actually is) … Unclassifiable, dizzying, and gorgeous.” Finally, Amitava Kumar says, “In his new book Pilot Impostor, Hannaham performs a different kind of magic. Brief spectral texts and photographs respond to Fernando Pessoa’s poetry, while fragments from the news return us to what is uncanny in our present moment: we are in Pessoa-land but also in Trumplandia. Pilot Impostor is a complex reflection on Pessoa’s heterogeneity of identity and Trump’s embodiment of bluster and chicanery. It’s impossible not to hear Trump’s voice in lines like this: ‘Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, before this afternoon, I had no experience whatsoever flying a plane, I had hardly ever even ridden in one, but I have to say, flying is awesome, and I am great at flying planes.’ Reading Pilot Impostor is the experience of encountering something new and charged and original in a pleasurable way.” Welcome to Between The Covers, James Hannaham.
James Hannaham: Oh, thank you. I was hoping you would just keep going on.] [laughter] I was like, “Oh, this sounds really interesting. Who is this guy?” [laughter]
DN: Who is this guy? That’s the question, who is this guy? I mean since we’re going to be talking about Pessoa, and I think that is one of the animating questions. But before we go to who is this guy, who is James Hannaham, who is Pessoa, even though Pilot Impostor is full of airline crashes, including multiple times, those of 9/11, 9/11 isn’t the main date that hovers over the collection, rather 11/9 is 11/9/16 when Trump was elected. You’ve talked many times about how you were writing under the mood of that moment, just after he won, so let’s start here. Connect Trump, air disasters, Portugal, Africa, and Pessoa and how they became the ingredients of Pilot Impostor.
JH: The moment that exemplifies how that all came together was that I was returning from Cape Verde on the way to Lisbon in December of 2016, which is a trip I’d planned before any of what happened happened in the election, or before the election itself happened, I should say, because plenty happened beforehand. I had finished reading this other book by a Cape Verdean author, then while I was on the plane, I started to read Fernando Pessoa. I had already been obsessed with this television show called Air Disasters that apparently, very few other people have paid attention to, but it’s basically a procedural that each episode is about a different plane crash. What fascinated me about it was not just the sensational difficult material to have to wrangle. It was also that it was done in a way that wasn’t particularly lurid. It was much more informational than lurid. They had really great CGI recreations of each of the crashes and that is I guess one of those things that stops people from channel surfing. They play it as many times as they possibly can, I feel like that’s where television is going ultimately, like non-stop car crashes, plane crashes, and viral videos of people being belligerent in supermarkets and stuff. The 2016 election was on my mind and the first line of the book that I was reading, the anthology of Pessoa’s work Pessoa & Co, which is a really great translation by Richard Zenith, the first line of the first poem is, “I never kept sheep. But it’s as if I had,” which there are a number of ways to look at that line but to read that line at that moment on the route that I was taking, which was old, if it had been done by ship, it couldn’t have been more exemplary of like the slave trade. It struck me as somebody pretending to be something they weren’t. That’s a little bit like the heteronym who supposedly wrote this line is a guy named Alberto Caeiro. It’s a complicated thing. I wonder how tongue-in-cheek it was for Pessoa but he’s an anti-poetic poet who believes, more or less, writes about in his work how things really are as they seem on the surface and he does so in this mystical sounding way that to me is a little bit like Chauncey Gardiner from Being There. He is considered one of the more important heteronyms of Pessoa. He’s considered the master poet by a lot of the heteronyms apparently. But I thought that line was exemplary of the times because here, we had somebody with no experience in public service becoming the most powerful person in the Western world and in, at least, some measure elected so that he could tear everything down and be like almost literally the bull in the China shop that his constituents really wanted, like somebody who couldn’t keep his mouth shut and couldn’t stop being aggressive, nasty, and all of those things that are so reprehensible and relevant to dictatorships, and various dictators. Some of the other things that Alberto Caeiro says also reminded me of things that authoritarians would love to say like, “Everything is as it seems. There’s nothing behind the curtain, don’t panic.” [laughter] Or not even, “Don’t panic,” but like, “There’s nothing to panic about.”
DN: We should mention, I guess for people who don’t know Pessoa, what heteronyms are versus a pseudonym.
JH: They were alter egos but for him, they were more intense than alter egos I guess. They had biographies that were much more intricate somehow. Today, I feel like it doesn’t have the same resonance because so many people are avatars half of their lives now. His argument that the heteronym was more intense than an alter ego sounds a little flat now, just because everybody does it now. He was doing it just on paper. He wasn’t also creating various images of himself to be disseminated around the world the way that normal people are doing now.
DN: But what’s maybe unusual about it is that with his 70 plus heteronyms, they interacted with each other. They wrote the preface for each other’s collected works. They translated each other. They wrote political articles, published stuff under the name of a specific heteronym. It was like a little world.
JH: It was a community of Portuguese poets that Pessoa had dreamed would exist. I guess if he didn’t see it in the world, he decided to put it in the world in the way that he could. Although he didn’t put it that much in the world during his lifetime, most of his output remained just like the trunk. I’ve actually never seen an image of the trunk but there’s some giant trunk, just like full of little scraps of paper that he wrote on.
DN: Like you, not knowing a ton about Pessoa before the project, I did a lot of exploring and apparently, it’s like 25,000 manuscripts. That even on one piece of paper, because he wrote horoscopes, he wrote political stuff, he wrote linguistic theory and poems, they might all be on the same page. The different heteronyms might all be on the same page. He might have seven different alternate phrases above and below a line with nothing crossed out. He also was getting drunk every day, so it became more and more illegible. It’s really like there’s no standard thing but he did publish a lot of non-poetry in his life. He didn’t publish much poetry but apparently, he published a lot of other things. But one of the things that I really loved about one of the choices you made in Pilot Impostor is you set up a daily practice where you would read a Pessoa poem from Pessoa & Co., his selected poems, then respond to it with your own work, working your way through his book one by one as you wrote. I think what’s so gratifying for me is that no matter how different the tone or genre or format or mood of your book is, one page or to the next, it’s still tethered in some loose way to Pessoa & Co. as it unfolds so that there is the opportunity, even though it completely stands alone, you can read Pilot Impostor by itself. But you have these little notes in small print on each page where if you want, and it was really fun to do, you can work your way through a piece of yours, and a piece of Pessoa’s, one by one together so that you’re actually in tandem reading both books.
JH: The connection is actually tighter than that. I tried to keep it in order so you could read both books at the same time, going back and forth. I tried to make it as airtight as I could. I skipped things and I removed things but the rule was if I was going to skip something, I had to replace it with an image, then through the various drafts, I started using different categories of image to replace things.
DN: Let me ask you a probably impossible question. Pessoa’s heteronym that you mentioned, Alberto Caeiro, he continues to bother you as you read beyond the line, “I never kept sheep. But it’s as if I did.” You write in an essay that many ideas and his poems challenge your basic values, and you list some of them. For instance, “Thinking is a discomfort,” or “To think is to not understand,” or “To love is eternal innocence/And the only innocence is not to think,” then you say, “Could any married person read those last two lines without laughing derisively? I got angry. But at whom?” This is the question I wanted to stay with, the “but at whom?” because other heteronyms of Pessoa have world views that are in opposition to Caeiro’s worldview. For instance, while he’s an uneducated shepherd, Ricardo Reis is a doctor, a classicist, and a monarchist who writes Odes in the style of Horace and he doesn’t glorify unmediated sensation. In fact, the way Pessoa describes him is he’s led by thoughts and by words, not by music and feeling. To return to your “I got angry but at whom?” when you’re wrestling with Caeiro’s philosophy, do you feel like you are also wrestling with Pessoa the person or did this question vex you or did it even really matter at all?
JH: I think initially, it mattered somewhat but as I started to get more familiar with the different heteronyms, I mean now it seems to me more ironic than it did at the beginning because I think it’s a little bit of a jab at the idea of poetry that poetry is supposed to do these things and most poems are attempting to show you what’s beneath the surface of life, whereas Caeiro is trying to tell you that the surface of life is all that there is. It’s funny actually at this point but at the time, I was worked up. To encounter it at that moment of being worked up made me want to engage with that idea because I feel like that idea or those ideas, some people actually think those things. There are some people for whom surfaces are all that is and are devoted to the idea that there isn’t a subtext to anything anyone says. That’s the opposite of how I’ve lived my entire life.
DN: Did you feel like when you were moving from one Pessoa heteronym to the next, let’s say from the uneducated shepherd to the monarchist classicist and writing your work, that you noticed a shift in yourself, a different part of self coming forward to wrestle or not necessarily?
JH: I feel like I wasn’t necessarily asking myself that question. One of the things that I was really interested in and that if someone has heard your introduction of me, then the description of all of these different characters that Pessoa created, I mean that was obviously the thing that interested me most about his work was that he was adopting all these persona, personae. Did people actually say personae? [laughter] I guess they do.
DN: They do now.
JH: That was something to me that I identified with as somebody who bounced around and did a lot of different types of things, types of art, and types of writing. I guess I thought at the same time that he was all of these people. He was also Fernando Pessoa but he also does a good job of trying to convince you that he doesn’t exist any more than the heteronyms that he created, which I guess at this point is probably true because he exists only as the writings he left behind.
DN: Could we hear your piece Air Disaster, which I think while it begins sounding like narrative reportage is really ultimately about what we’re talking about.
[James Hannaham reads from Pilot Impostor]
DN: We’ve been listening to James Hannaham read from Pilot Impostor. I love this doom search for the black box. The box obviously that purportedly contains the truth, the idea that the plane crashing in the rainforest, the second plane rescuing the black box disappearing over the ocean finally being recovered by divers whose boat catches on fire as the metaphor for how to engage with Pessoa through his heteronyms. Then if we’re reading that piece on our own, we have the indication of Pessoa’s poem Before I Had You where we could go for possible clues of what you might have responded to.
JH: That was what I’m responding to.
DN: [laughs] I know. It has lines that aren’t obviously related but that I think are great like, “Before I Had You I loved Nature as a calm monk loves Christ. Now I love Nature As a calm monk loves the Virgin Mary.” But we also have another way to relate to this text of yours which is often the case. There’s an accompanying photo, which is of a guy later known notoriously as the tourist guy, standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, getting his photo taken while the first plane behind him, unbeknownst to him, is just about to hit. But though you don’t tell us this, it turns out that this photo is a hoax that went viral. Even though it was easily debunked by the time stamp, by the way the light lands on the plane so differently than the lighting in the rest of the photo, or that the observation deck wasn’t even open at the time that 9/11 happened, none of these verifiable truths stopped the popularity of the photo and its “mystery,” and someone eventually in Brazil even claims to be the guy in the photo and becomes a huge celebrity there even though he wasn’t the guy. It feels very Pessoian and very Trumpian, at the same time, how does one engage with another when that other has a parallel universe of fake news sources and we have no shared agreed upon reality. In light of this, it makes me think of your piece How to See Without Thinking–
JH: I’m not going to read that one.
DN: No, which is inspired by Caeiro’s aspiration to see without thinking and is really just a page of gibberish. Talk to us more about seeing without thinking or seeing while only thinking using a reservoir of fake facts to do your thinking or/and of using fake facts yourself in Pilot Impostor.
JH: How to See Without Thinking is basically a joke. I wanted some of the pieces in this book to seem a little bit like throwaways or even just to give people the sense that this was an ongoing project that like some things, I was going to devote certain kinds of attention to and other things, I was not. This is one that’s a little bit just like a visual pun almost. It’s also a little bit of a joke about something I tell my students when I’m teaching, which is that, “Intention can be made clear in a variety of ways.” One of them is to say, “Put a title on something that tells you how to look at it.” That is what this piece does. It says, “Here, look at this thing that’s completely impossible to think about in the way that a poem would.” It’s a little bit of a concrete poem without being a concrete poem. I feel like the experience of looking at something unintelligible, it’s fairly common. It’s one of those things that we find ourselves doing. We open a PDF or something and it’s messed up, and you get all this garbled stuff sometimes. There’s a lot of that kind of thing. That was one reason I did that. There were just some days where I was like, “Well, maybe this is what I’m going to do.” I wanted to preserve it in the manuscript ultimately rather than taking it out because it doesn’t do a lot of the same other things. What was the other part of that?
DN: Just using fake facts yourself, like we have this viral hoax video, a still of the hoax video next to the piece Air Disaster, which you just read for us.
JH: There’s a couple of other images like that in the book too. There’s a guy who goes by Pilot Ganso who’s made a series of images of himself holding a selfie stick out a window of the cockpit, which is totally impossible to do. If you thought about it for a second, you’d be like, “Oh, this is clearly photoshop,” or whatever, but people lost their minds when they saw this. [laughs] They were like, “This guy needs to be fired, bla-blah-blah.” [laughter] You did a couple of other things like that, but I guess part of it is that it’s just so easy to fool people with an image. I feel like that’s art school 101. Images are treacherous. You get the Magritte painting or whatever. It’s very easy to fool people, both visually and conceptually with a constructed image. I guess there’s something about that I think is funny obviously. I think in the context of the book, it’s less dangerous than in the context of like it’s disseminating it on the internet because there’s a far more limited audience for a book like this than there is the potential for total randos who don’t understand what’s going on to seize on it and think about it in a way that’s going to be damaging.
DN: Yeah. I don’t see that as a huge risk in this book, especially because you have to go away outside the book to even discover what some of these images are, then you learn that they are indeed hoaxes, not real things.
JH: I like hoaxes. That’s probably what it is. I think there’s something about the hoax and the prank that is a little bit what artists are up to a lot of the time. Things that I gravitate toward anyway in terms of art are usually an intervention into conventional thinking on some level that surprises you and changes the terms that you had already accepted. Hopefully, in a good way, that expands your mind rather than shuts you down or whatever. But I think hoaxes, once you figure out that they are hoaxes, are like that. They’re also funny. Unless you are somebody who feels like just duped and you’ve done something really horrible in connection with something hoaxy, and you’ve fooled yourself in some way, you might feel bad about having been duped by a hoax.
DN: Keeping in mind this notion of seeing without thinking, I wanted to ask you about a certain type of thinking that keeps people from seeing. In your last book, Delicious Foods, which dealt with modern slavery, there are a lot of ways we refuse to think about what is before our eyes regarding contemporary slavery. Some of the most common items in our lives, like the smartphone maybe being the most obvious one, whether it be people leaping from the Chinese factories or threatening in mass to leap from the roofs of Chinese factories, building the phones or the child slaves that are mining the components of the phones, or what you call the temporal dread around contemporary slavery, that slavery hasn’t actually ended even in the American South to the same demographic, but there’s also a certain smokescreen thinking that is used to prevent seeing things like this. Not only the fake stories that are used to lure people into wage slavery but I’m also thinking of Sextus, the owner of Delicious Foods, who sets his company up as a shell company, which gives him a plausible deniability for the whole thing. He can say, and in doing so, preserve a sense of his own goodness or innocence, “I have no idea what these subcontractors are up to,” and keep himself from seeing himself as being involved in the consequences of whatever those subcontractors are up to. I’m thinking of the visual in the book because when we think about your own art, a lot of it has to do with text previously, like signage signification, and there are things in the book that are very legible. When you’ve taken other people’s images of planes and plane crashes, we can if we want, go to the back and look at the image credits, and follow what those things are. But much of your own art in the book, in contrast to a lot of your previous art, is often abstract, often squares, and often different surfaces, like ceramic tiles, so there’s no obvious content. But I’m wondering if these surfaces are hiding something underneath if I’m going too far to think that these squares, the absent content are somehow connected, however tenuously, to plausible deniability. But if not, talk to us about this part of the book which, I don’t want to say it’s superficial in terms of meaning, but it feels like it’s very much dealing on the surface.
JH: It’s actually so much fun to hear you do this that I don’t want to tell you any differently. I’m like, “Oh, it’s so nice that he thinks that.” [laughter] It’s probably a little simpler than that but it’s nice that it’s not just resonating in this one way. Unless people are interpreting your work in some way, I think that’s the ideal way for someone to approach anything. But really what it was, there were a couple of things that are a little bit more mundane. Originally, I had planned to design the book myself. Since I’m old, I was using some QuarkXPress. One of the things I liked to do with that was to make legible this mechanism of the program itself. I’d taken a lot of photographs in Lisbon once we got there and I noticed that there were all of these very different and very vibrant surfaces and a lot of squares. They paved the streets with these little squares that they put in all sorts of cool formulations. There are square, old tiles lining the walls in some places in front of apartment buildings and such. Lisbon is an extremely old city. It’s about 3,200 years old at this point. It’s been ruled by the Romans, then the Moors, then the Portuguese. There are lots of different layers of just in the city itself. One of the things I noted as I was walking around was just how much history there is, just under the surface of a lot of things. We were staying in Alfama and we were walking around, and there was a sign that just said, “To the Roman Theatre.” I was like, “Oh, it must be a Roman style theater,” but no, they had excavated an entire theater from Roman times. [laughter] There was a church nearby there that had done a dig that went something like 60 feet down to the Roman sewer beneath everything. The other thing that I realized a little bit later is that Pessoa himself is a square.
DN: [laughs] And also everywhere.
JH: Yeah. If you’re looking for him, you’ll see him, but he’s so unassuming. His image just looks like a clerk somewhere.
DN: Maybe another way that the squares and the surfaces of Lisbon made me think of was your essay Why I Became a Southern Writer, where you explore why you set both of your novels in the South despite not growing up in the South and how you found comfort being below the Mason-Dixon Line. In that essay, you say, “While I looked askance at the widely available mammy cookie jars in gift stores, I felt that at least they were tangible signs of a nationwide bigotry that Northerners tended to sublimate or explain away. In the South, I could point to actual artifacts and say, Look! Racism! White folks in the South had no filters.” When thinking about all the surfaces of Lisbon that you’ve put in the book, I was wondering what your experience of Lisbon was like in this regard.
JH: Did I have like racist microaggressions against me or something?
DN: Or how you felt as a black tourist in Lisbon.
JH: As a black tourist in any place that’s not America, I often feel much safer and much less scrutinized. First of all, it was December in Lisbon and no one was there. My husband and I were just driving to the coast every day and finding these empty beach towns that you could tell were much more popular during the summer but it wasn’t super cold. It was in the 40° to 50° range. We just took a lot of romantic walks on the beach and stuff. We didn’t really interact with that many people. I think that maybe one way in which I didn’t feel as if the weight of oppression was falling on me, I mean in some European countries, you actually feel like people, if you’re a black American specifically, they are overly demonstrative about how much they like you, which is a different kind of racism but I would say it’s preferable on a certain level. I don’t have any problem with people who actually want to have sex. [laughter] Seriously. I feel like over the years, I’ve heard people write these short stories and stuff about people who are fetishists or whatever. I’m like, “It’s fine.” It’s the people who ostracize you based on race that I have beef with. It’s like if people are going to actually connect, there’s an opportunity there for growth and potentially knowledge, and all of this other stuff that happens when people connect with one another but the people who are like, “No, categorically, no. We must not.” I feel like any time I leave the United States almost, I can’t actually think of a country I’ve been to where I felt any more like, “Oh, they’re following me around in the supermarket,” or like, “I’m under suspicion, just because of who I am,” or not even who I am but what I look like, which is much different than who I am. That weird feeling of like, it’s even weirder actually than this, the really twisted feeling of like I have to troubleshoot in this space to make sure that somebody doesn’t question my right to be where I am even though I am a citizen of this country, born and raised in this area or wherever. That feeling almost never happens in foreign countries. Some are better than others. I won’t go through the list but Lisbon was not giving me that vibe at the time. [laughter] I’m not saying that there’s no racism there or anything.
DN: Of course not. I just didn’t know if the Lisbon surfaces were a commentary on Lisbon in that regard.
JH: Oh, no, not a commentary.
DN: Yeah. Could we hear another piece? I was hoping maybe we could hear False Poets.
JH: Why that one?
DN: I feel like it’s perhaps speaking most directly to Pessoa and personas or in Pessoa, I think also in some respect, the irony that his last name is a person in English.
JH: I didn’t tell you the other story about getting off the plane, which you probably read somewhere already.
DN: About the travel agent?
JH: Yeah, one of the car rental agents. We got off the plane and the first person I met in Lisbon was a car rental agent whose last name was Pessoa.
DN: Which is not a common name, right?
JH: I didn’t know that at the time. I was reading the book, then I got to the desk and she had this name plate that said Pessoa. I was like, “Oh, it must be like Smith or Jones or something,” so I was like, “Whatever,” but then I decided I could open a conversation about it, so I was like, “Is that a common name?” She’s like, “No.” I was wondering if maybe she was related to him but she didn’t know if she was related to him, which seems odd to me like, “How would you not know you were related to him?” But I had already envisioned a book project by the time I got to the car rental agency and that just put a period on it if you will. I was like, “Oh, definitely, this is a sign.” I guess Pessoa himself probably would have thought of it as a sign because he was like an astrologer guy.
DN: He was. He was also helping Aleister Crowley do hoaxes when he came to visit, which I think is really bizarre and funny. [laughs]
JH: You have done so much homework.
[James Hannaham reads from Pilot Impostor]
DN: We’ve been listening to James Hannaham read from Pilot Impostor. Part of why I wanted you to read this is because I want to tease out what rankles you from what doesn’t. Because if we think of Pessoa’s heteronyms and his “insincerity,” one where not only do his various heteronyms contradict each other, writing in three different languages translating each other but they also write things against the dictatorship but for authoritarianism where different Pessoas could both support the idea in his own words of an aristocracy that would reduce the proletariat as far as possible to the condition of slaves or for instance, in an unsent letter to Woodrow Wilson, blacks are not human beings, sociologically speaking, the greatest crime against humanity was the abolition of slavery but also a different Pessoa opposing the Italian invasion of Abyssinia saying, “The fate of all imperialist peoples that, by turning others into slaves, they turn themselves into slaves,” or “All of us, all people in this world whose lives are oppressed, what are we in this world if not Abyssinians,” or on a personal level, with his soul romance in his life with a woman named Ofelia where even when he was writing his letters of affection, one of his heteronyms would also write her letters telling her to leave him alone and when they analyzed Ofelia’s accounts of the only time that he professed his love to her out loud, it was by quoting Hamlet’s lines to Ofelia in that play, so she wasn’t sure how to engage with these borrowed lines that were addressed to another person who shared her name. Thinking of all this, I think of an early announcement long ago about Pilot Impostor coming out where you said, “It explores the connections between pretending and privilege, and the ways in which identity is like a plane crash,” and you’ve said in other places that the implied privilege of Pessoa imagining himself as Caeiro appalled you. But on the other hand, I don’t get the sense that you are against pretending or heteronyms, or that you are only for work that is earnest. He just gave me the funniest look. [laughs] For instance, in Guernica, you say about Delicious Foods, “There’s this feeling that you have to write what you know, and you have to be sincere about it, and it’s not that way at all. It’s more fun sometimes to write against your own beliefs, or to write a character who is someone you wouldn’t particularly like in real life but try to render them compassionately and faithfully.” I think of how in that book, you write from the voice of crack cocaine or how, in your debut novel, Gary lives a double life and when he leaves the heteronormative family, he lives as a gay man under an alias and elsewhere you say, “I’m always aware that language can never quite say exactly what it needs to, it’s an imperfect delivery system for reality, essentially, and it conceals as much as it seems to reveal and can be used for all kinds of lying and half-truthing and obfuscation. Though I think those qualities can be horrible and fatal in real life, in literature they’re fun to mess around with.” If it’s true that you aren’t anti-pretending, yet are writing a book about the connections between pretending and privilege, can you unpack that a little bit for us?
JH: I can unpack it by creating a series of heteronyms, [laughter] I mean Pessoa is like a human rabbit hole, I mean one could go searching for the authentic in Pessoa. I think he did a pretty good job of covering his tracks. Even in his supposed real life with the example you give there, it sounds like he was trying his best not to exist or at least, not to let on that he existed independently of his work, which is a way of disappearing. No, I’m not anti-pretending obviously. I just think that like a lot of things, it’s a tool. It can be used for good or bad. That’s a little bit of what the book is about. It’s hard to determine sometimes which is which, especially in a moment where the volume is turned up so high as it was in the 2016 to 2020 range, but go on, tell me more about my eyes.
DN: [laughter] Could you speak to the privilege that you see in regards to your first early announcement of this book’s future existence, that you were exploring the privilege of pretending or at least, the privilege of pretending in relation to Pessoa?
JH: I think that I was responding a little bit to Alberto Caeiro at the time still and feeling that the way that he described the world was one that I could not afford. If I were somebody who felt that the surfaces were all that existed, I might be dead. [laughs] I was saying earlier, I feel like I spend a lot of the time not necessarily listening to what people say but how they say it and what they actually mean or what their motivations might be, which is a little bit harder to hear when there’s lots of noise. I think that’s a little bit what I meant by that. I mean one could look at the facts of Pessoa’s life and say that he led a pretty privileged life. Even though he was in some respects miserable, he was never impoverished. The hardships he faced were all emotional difficulties, which is maybe I don’t really want to say that’s worse or that’s better or worse than abject poverty because sometimes, it can be so debilitating as to be equivalent or worse. I think it’s a difficult and futile thing to try to quantify people’s various pain, and trauma versus to compare some kinds of pain against others. If nothing else, those kinds of things should really unite us. I’m not sure what I meant. [laughter] I think I’m so close to what I meant there.
DN: To speak to you saying that Pessoa attempted to maybe not exist, even though paradoxically, so much of his world being paradoxical, he did publish under his own name also, there is this sense of anxiety that’s throughout his different heteronyms around whether he has a coherent self.
JH: A disquiet maybe.
DN: A disquiet. The last poem of Ricardo Reis has the line, “I don’t know, when I think or feel, who it is that thinks or feels,” or my favorite of his heteronyms, the bisexual naval engineer who lives in Scotland, Álvaro de Campos, who says, “To know where to be that I could be in all parts, to know where to lie down that I could stroll all streets,” but what’s mysterious is at the same time, Pessoa must have had some sense of self because the person who wrote The Book of Disquiet, he only calls him a semi-heteronym because he’s too close to Pessoa’s own self-conception to be considered a proper heteronym, which seems very bizarre. All of these people also share roughly Pessoa’s age and build.
JH: There’s maybe one female heteronym, right?
DN: There’s one out of 70. She’s like a hunchback with tuberculosis. But in light of all this, I was hoping maybe you could read us the Epigraph by Westerhoff at the beginning of the book and say anything that comes to mind about it.
JH: I love this epigraph by the way.
DN: I do too.
[James Hannaham reads from Pilot Impostor]
DN: That’s just crazy. [laughter] And amazing.
JH: I found that in the middle of writing this book. I was like, “Definitely this.”
DN: It seems so improbable that you didn’t make it up because how it unites heteronyms and plane crashes in this way, it’s just amazing. Planes and plane crashes ultimately.
JH: And identity.
DN: And identity.
JH: The book started out being about one thing and it totally turned itself in a way that was, I mean at some point, usually in whatever I’m working on, I asked myself, “Well, who are you to say that?” I usually have some moment of self-consciousness about whatever it is I’m working on. I think in this case, it was like there was a way in which it turned into a question about perception in the self and it started out to be being a book about someone who is an out of control political leader but then became a little bit more about how we are all the out-of-control dictators of our own lives, headed toward inevitable plane crashes I guess.
DN: Yeah. But what’s so fascinating, if we take this idea that we’re not just in a flight simulation but ourselves within the flight simulation is are also simulated, then we think of like the end of False Poets, which you read before of the buried body on the moon of the false astronaut that continues, despite being buried, to rise up and you say, “We should all be so lucky. This body that keeps making itself visible,” it makes me wonder if in the end, regardless of whether a self exists, whether the pilot itself is simulated or not, if in the end, it doesn’t matter that because we’re ultimately beholden to each other in the world to our bodies/selves in interaction with each other either way, I guess I’m curious to know if Westerhoff’s epigraph is there because it is something you believe, or rather it is there because it so ingeniously brings together the elements of the book, which clearly that it’s there for that reason but is it only there for that reason. Because one fun thing about Pilot Impostor is that as you try on all these different genres, tones, and moods, we don’t know if they are all “you” or especially, because you’re responding to Pessoa in different costumes, if there are different yous or if there is a capital Y You.
JH: Isn’t that the point?
DN: Yeah, that is.
JH: That’s the whole point I’m trying to make. [laughter] I’ve said sometimes that the book is about identity politics and how somehow, the idea of identity has gotten whittled down, and boiled down to this characteristics that are on the surface, culture, language, skin color, and all of that stuff when the experience of being a human being is not about those things ultimately. It’s about experiencing from the interior of one’s being, whatever that is, something that’s outward. I feel like I hadn’t heard people address that enough in the last few years. I understand that there are great political reasons for reducing the identity to all of those political characteristics but that there’s also an interior one that “What happens to that when you do that?” There are so many people writing so wonderfully about the other thing. I was like, “Well, there’s room for me to do this.”
DN: Well, staying with imagination and privilege, and maybe moving a little bit towards the other thing in relationship to your thing, you engage directly with race in this book and I think of the lines from Claudia Rankine, one of the lines from her work, “Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people,” and her now famous line, “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black people are dying,” and you have pieces here that imagine their way into the heads of cops who’ve killed unarmed black Americans and I also think of the piece in Pilot Impostor called Dear White Woman I Nearly Hit With My Car where you say, “The assumptions we make based on our own perceptions and needs can be just as correct as other people’s, and yet still cause confusion, injury, and death.” I guess I was interested in maybe staying with what plays out between the white cop in their imagination about the unarmed black person they’re about to kill or their imagination after they’ve killed them, and what plays out in your imagination when a white woman leaps across the street in front of your car, both seem to tell us more about the person imagining than the person being imagined even if the consequences are dire. Could you talk a little bit about those pieces in the book?
JH: Lifestyle issue came about because I was thinking, “What could these people possibly be thinking?” Aside from the Pessoa piece that exists alongside, oh, that was another thing. It’s a Reis piece called Obey the law, whether it’s wrong or you are, which is of course, that’s extraordinarily provocative to a black American to say that because there are times when the law is unjust and it’s pretty obvious when the law is unjust, so I’m sure that my decision to write about this came about because of all of that connecting. There was actually one that I cut at the end. Just structurally, it was important that all of these different voices seem like different voices. That’s why it’s not divided by numbers but by one and another, and another and another because I wanted to make sure that the distinction was that it wasn’t all my voice. It was all supposed to be different possibilities for somehow incorporating this horrible fact into someone’s life, which I was just trying to imagine what is going on in the minds of people who may be guilty of taking a life in a situation like that. There may be some things that are like dog whistles but I’m not sure that it’s specifically about race. I know that the go-to assumption about that because of, “Not who I am but what I look like,” is probably there. I’m certainly teasing that but I almost always want to make sure that what I’m writing about is power and the kinds of abuses of power that have nothing to do with people’s culture, and skin color. Not everybody has the power to do these things, to do these kinds of injustice to one another but everyone is capable of it. That I think is a little bit getting lost in a lot of conflicts around the world. It’s that these historical things have become essentialized. It’s absolutely true that anybody, any group that gets a teeny tiny little smidgen of power is going to try to abuse it in whatever way they can. Essentially, the thesis is that everyone sucks. [laughter] Seriously, everyone is capable of both incredible achievement and connection, unity and horrific atrocity. That is one of the things that actually unites us.
DN: I’m guessing that I already know the answer to this or that you’ve already, in some oblique way, answered this but just in case I’m being presumptuous, thinking about identity being reduced to surfaces, to skin color by the imaginations of people and where those imaginations can cause real life, injury and death, I guess I wanted you to chime in on what feels like the perpetually fraught question of people writing outside their subject position and the distrust that people have, especially when they’re writing down a vector of power. Because this comes up more often than anything on the show really. I often bring up Zadie Smith’s defense of inhabiting other positions called Fascinated to Presume, and I also bring up Claudia Rankine’s observation that almost always, when white people write about race, they don’t stay in a white body when they do it. They imagine themselves as another race, like as an African or someone who’s enslaved. That when they write about race, they leap into and inhabit a black position, and that it reinforces whiteness as both something that transcends race and a default position beyond it, but did you have any thoughts on this debate? [laughter] You don’t have any thoughts about it, right?
JH: Wait. I’ll get back to you with my dissertation later. [laughs] I’m sorry. Can you simplify that question?
DN: When you’re talking about not writing about race but wanting to write about power that makes in the way that anybody, regardless of race, given the opportunity, could abuse it. If I were to imagine further about you from that around this question of writing beyond your position, I would guess that you would say that it’s not a question of what position you’re writing from, it’s how you’re writing from it and that it doesn’t matter what the race of the person writing is, it’s how they do the portrayal, whether it’s causing harm or not.
JH: But there are also considerations about the business of publishing and who gets published, and why. It’s impossible not to look at the publishing industry and say, “This is extraordinarily full of European descended pale people,” let’s say. I think I’m trying to avoid terms like white and black, just because I think they contribute to the mess, like what Claudia Rankine was saying in the quote that you were mentioning. There’s a political aspect to it that really artists shouldn’t have to worry about but do, I mean I think that ultimately, an intelligent readership, which we have, can look at a work of art and say, “This was done in a spirit of connection, love, and respect,” as opposed to, “This is someone trying to cash in on something,” and they really have no connection to it and they’re actually either punching down or they’re committing some other sorts of acts of scorn that may be disguised as a charity in some way. But if you take away from novelists for example, the ability to imagine other people’s lives, there’s nothing left. They just don’t have anything. There’s no other game. There’s no other trick in the wheelhouse. That might explain to some degree the rise of auto fiction. People are so afraid to write from another perspective or to take on a persona that is unlike the one that they project visually, that they have to just mind the details of their own lives and maybe even fabricate the details of their own lives in order to write something that doesn’t feel compromised. But I think that some of what happens to people who get criticized for doing that is that they get a lot of money and attention for something that seems paternalistic in whatever way. People who are not getting a lot of attention and money for doing something that is not paternalistic tend not to get that kind of criticism. There are some really fascinating examples of that but I’m not going to call anybody out.
DN: You can do so, we’ll just edit it out. Go ahead, say all the names right now.
JH: No. [laughter] But I think it’s absolutely necessary, I mean fiction is like a social art form. There’s no way to write about just yourself. Even when you’re just writing about yourself, you can’t write about yourself in a way that’s like airtight authenticity. Writing is writing. Life is life. There is an actual difference. It feels bizarre to feel like I have to say something like that. I find it actually amusing that sometimes people will say things that suggest that they’re one and the same. They have a friend who’s an author, who has written a depiction of someone based their life in a book. They’ll point to the book and say, “I’m in that book.” [laughter] Even sometimes, when people are like, “There are black characters in that book. There aren’t enough black characters,” it’s like, “They’re just weren’t on a page. Nobody’s really anything in a book except in your mind.” But that’s a little too esoteric I think an argument for a lot of people. Certainly, in the middle of a heated debate, I would not bring that up.
DN: Yeah. I was hoping we could hear two more pieces, Look and Black Rage.
[James Hannaham reads from Pilot Impostor]
DN: We’ve been listening to James Hannaham read from Pilot Impostor. I want to spend a moment with my favorite collage of images which occurs really early in the book on a series of pages called On Scene Pessoa. These images to me are the most uncanny. In the background is an image of the only Air Portugal flight that has ever crashed. It’s where I feel like we’re invited to imagine Pessoa as the pilot impostor who flew that plane. But in the foreground is a statue of a man who is impaled by many, many small planes as if they were arrows, and like the Air Portugal image, you have to investigate to find out more about this but in investigating it, it really blew my mind. For one, the statue is by a black sculptor and it is called Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. It portrays a Tuskegee airman as St. Sebastian who was shot by arrows for protecting captured Christians he was supposed to imprison. But in Michael Richards sculpture, the airmen, a black pilot from World War II is being pierced by multiple airplanes and this becomes very eerie when we discover that this black sculptor who made a sculpture of a black man pierced by planes, a sculpture where he cast his own body in plastic resin to create the human form, that this sculptor died in 9/11 because his studio was in the World Trade Center. There are many moments in the book like this but none that gave me this sense of vertigo and shook me in quite this way where this real coincidence of events seems so wild that it seems unreal. I know you say this book operates mostly in the poetry sphere even though Soft Skull has it marketed as fiction.
JH: I saw it in essays the other day.
DN: Oh, did you? In defense of Soft Skull, I’m not sure where you would put it, but I feel like you’re heightening obviously the tension between the fake and the real with things like this that are so improbable yet true but I guess I wondered how much did you allow the reverse, how much did you slip in fictional things into real events for instance?
JH: Actually, more of what I did is create a head cheese of fiction versus reality. I usually will start with a series of things or a thing that is on some level real or accepted to be real because who really knows? Then in the case of Air Disaster, the piece you had me read earlier, a lot of the details in that piece are from a couple of different real disasters that have happened but it’s a composite of a lot of that. Some of it I added to or shaped in a particular way, just to imagine the worst possible outcomes for some of those things. But the thing that’s really fascinating about the Michael Richards piece is that is it just a fantastic coincidence or is there some connection to some greater reality that he was tapped into? It’s not the thing you can ever definitively say even though in retrospect, it looks as if it was some rupture in reality that allowed him to predict what might happen to him, but it’s very easy to make those kinds of determinations after the fact.
DN: Right. But it does feel mystical or magical or foreshadowed or somehow.
JH: There’s a piece later in the book that’s about somebody that I didn’t know who was in the Air Disaster and they were both college friends. Somebody else I knew who became a well-known artist who makes these pieces that look like some of them, I should say, were redolent of the reconstructions of airplanes that you sometimes see. In fact, there’s a spread where one of her pieces is juxtaposed with a reconstruction of a disaster. I think it actually might be the actual one. The feeling that while moving through life, you tend to interpret backwards because things that happen seem to mean something after something other than that. It’s really difficult to explain but you know what I’m talking about. It’s like it’s much easier in retrospect to try to come up with an explanation for things than it is to try to explain their meaning in real time or as they’re happening. I think that’s one reason people are fascinated with the Michael Richards piece, and that one in particular. But his intention was to be making work about the Tuskegee Airmen. That puts a little bit of a spin on the whole thing. It doesn’t seem like it’s about his own self-annihilation. He might have just been using his body because that was the material that he had. He wasn’t trying to say, “I think this might happen to me,” but something totally different.
DN: I imagine that as one of the more probable explanations.
JH: There are lots of ways in which the book touches on that. Like my husband and I are from the same city and we lived in that same city for various years. It’s been an endless mental game for me to think about the fact that we probably crossed paths at some point long before we met and fell in love, but there was no way to go back and figure that out. Technology has not evolved to that point I guess. Although I don’t know, you might be able to do it now if you started 10 years ago and looked at where people had been.
DN: All the Google surveillance cameras and everything. The nerd in me really loved learning about all the weirdnesses that are Pessoa. I didn’t know for instance that José Saramago wrote a book that starred one of Pessoa’s heteronyms. So Ricardo Reis who was living in exile in Brazil after a failed royalist coup comes back to Portugal to attend Pessoa’s funeral in Saramago’s book or there’s this amazing description by another heteronym, Álvaro de Campos, describing when Ricardo Reis first encounters Caeiro, he goes to a reading of Caeiro’s and that’s where he first discovers for himself that he wants to be a poet, so this is a heteronym describing the first encounter of two other heteronyms where he says, “Some physiologists say that it’s possible to change sex. I don’t know if it’s true because I don’t know if anything is true but I do know that Ricardo Heis stopped being a woman and became a man or stopped being a man, and became a woman as you on the day he met Caeiro.” [laughs] I’m very enamored by that quote.
JH: The question of Pessoa’s queerness comes up every so often.
DN: Yes, it does.
JH: Yet another unanswerable.
JH: It does seem sometimes that when there’s a blackout of information, that you can just leap to the conclusion but maybe not so much in this case. There may be some kind of identity that he had for which there was no language at the time or for which he had no language.
DN: Yeah. But in a weird way, it feels like he created his own dungeons and dragons of poetry in the world. Some of the poetry I really love, even when I don’t agree with the philosophical assertions or don’t even think about whether they’re true or not, I like reading them like Cohen’s and sometimes, they produce these startlingly interesting moments because he’s assuming these really absurd positions philosophically and otherwise.
JH: Welcome to the club.
DN: [laughs] But what I wanted to ask you about is exactly this, not just or even mainly about what to do with “problematic” artists but you’ve said that you wrote this book to undo Pessoa’s work in certain respects but also to rescue from it what still feels relevant in others. I’m curious if you were ever transported by the beauty or wit or invention or whether it was easier to undo him because you just simply weren’t. Because I’m thinking of, for instance, when you’re on The Yaddo Podcast very early on in the pandemic and you mentioned to your fellow guests that some people were looking really hot wearing masks to you, so my question would be, does Pessoa ever seem really hot in one of his masks?
JH: [laughs] I’d suppose that I saw his work as an opportunity to explore. I’m not somebody who thinks I have to agree with everything with a writer that I like on some level. I’m a big fan of Yukio Mishima actually but not his politics. Who’s a fan of Mishima’s politics at this point? Only Mishima. I’m not about to commit seppuku over anything he does but I like grappling with the ideas. Similarly, Pessoa just pushed a lot of different buttons and also provided a lot of pleasure and teeth grinding. There were a lot of different reactions I had to it. It wasn’t boring. I wasn’t bored. I was like, “Let’s try this.” My area of engagement is less to judge an artist, especially somebody who’s dead, long dead like this and who was deliberately trying to screw with people’s ability to nail down his politics. I don’t think it was really even possible other than to seize on various quotes as proof. I didn’t think it was as interesting or even possible, just to try to nail him down and accuse him of whatever, especially when more than half of the heteronyms are espousing views that he doesn’t particularly hold himself and who is himself. He claims not to exist. Why not just respond to the work as the work? It’s very like Roland Barthes to me, isn’t it? I’ve never left undergrad. There’s this deconstructionist idea of removing the author from the text, lit 101.
DN: He wrote poetry, fiction, politics, horoscopes, drama, philosophy, linguistic theory, a treatise unboxing, an essay on exhibitionism, and he actively published things throughout his life, both under his own name and under his heteronyms. I even discovered that he published an interview that he did with a fabricated Italian anti-fascist that prompted the Italian Embassy to complain that the person didn’t exist, then he responded with a forged letter from the invented person. But he did publish one book of poetry in his life under his own name, a book that was nationalistic and called for a return to the glory of Portugal’s “age of discovery” by celebrating its various famous explorers. One that to his dismay, even though he had supported the dictator prior to being the dictator, was embraced by the dictatorship. It’s here where I feel like you’re most unsparing to Pessoa himself and it’s also him writing as Pessoa. It prompted me to go down a different rabbit hole to discover more things about Portugal. Like what you mentioned about Lisbon being 3000 years old, a lot of people call it the oldest nation state in Europe because it has remained with the relatively same borders as a kingdom, then as a republic for the longest time, pretty much the same borders for 800 years, and it has the longest lived empire of 600 years, one that extended to over 50 countries, 53 countries at the time of its height. It was the first European nation involved in the transatlantic slave trade, which returns us to your flight from Lisbon to Cape Verde, which is as you mentioned, one of the historic routes. But I also encountered a scholarly work called Whitewash: Nationhood, Empire, and the Formation of Portuguese Racial Identity that started out with the notion that the self is always constructed in relationship to the other and that the other for the Portuguese was the Moors, and that they defined themselves as both white and Christian over and against the Moors whose land they had to take to establish the Portugal’s modern border. Manuela Mourão says in this article, “The profound effect of the discoveries in the formation of Portuguese national identity cannot be overstated. Because they happened so early in the nation’s existence, and because they came to an end within a century and a half, they created a huge, enduring gap between the country’s mythology as ‘ancient glorious nation’ and its ‘present diminished reality.’ Living in the past became the defense mechanism developed by the nation to deal with the psychic trauma: by having lived for centuries as the people who ‘discovered and baptized the Earth, from Cape Verde to India, from the Strait of Magellan to the Philippines,’ the Portuguese forestalled having to confront significant cultural and historical traumas. Besides shielding the nation’s psyche from trauma by allowing it to remain in denial, this obsession with the past also suggests that the nation arrested the development of its identity at the moment of the discoveries.” This seems to be like Pessoa’s gesture to try to reclaim the glory of Portugal by somehow re-evoking a romantic notion of these discoverers, and this is my long prelude to asking you to to read some of these pieces in response to these poems that are written in Pessoa’s own name. I picked out a little brief triptych that I would love to hear, Ten Days of Repentance, Blue Sky Tulum, and Abyss.
[James Hannaham reads from Pilot Impostor]
DN: We’ve been listening to James Hannaham read from Pilot Impostor. Before we end or as an ending, I wanted to mention Pessoa’s revenge on you as you were part of the weirdest thing that was looked at in The New York Times in an article called Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts? where you fell victim among many others to a phishing scam.
JH: I actually didn’t fall victim to the scam.
DN: Oh, you didn’t?
JH: No. The way they wrote the article sounds like I did a very clever job of circumventing and using language to suggest that I’d actually fallen for it, but what happened was I got an email address that I’d use specifically for random people from the internet to interface with me. I got an email on that email address from somebody who said they were my editor. This was right after the announcement had been made of the sale of the book. Instantly, I was like, “Why the heck would he contact me on that email address?” I went to my normal account, the one I normally interact with him on and I asked him like, “Why were you contacting me there? We have all these email chains and this other thing.” He called me and said, “That wasn’t me.” I do know other people that have fallen for it.
DN: Yeah. Both big people and lesser known people. That’s part of the mystery it seems is that this person had so much insider knowledge or has so much insider knowledge that he’s able to fabricate conversations to grant himself credibility, then ultimately acquire these unpublished manuscripts but nobody knows to what end because he’s never published them or sold them.
JH: I think he’s a scout. Most people are saying that it’s probably somebody who’s a scout. The forehand knowledge of what’s coming out is like currency for them. They will sometimes use whatever means they can to get a look at things that are not out yet. That’s the only type of person I can imagine for whom they have some intrinsic value unless it’s just some MFA burnout who has a point to prove or something.
DN: But also knows all these names, like the names of the editors and the publishers, and the timing of everything. It’s very mysterious. I’m glad that wasn’t Pessoa’s contemporary revenge against you. But tell us as we depart, you have a novel coming out soon that as soon as you get off this call with me, you will be doing the final edits for. Tell us about what we have in store for us.
JH: The book is called Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta. Everyone was trying to tell me to use the word trans but I feel like this is a person who is gender non-conforming, living as a woman who is coming back from an Upstate New York prison after 21-ish years in the system. It’s the story of Carlotta Mercedes who went into prison as a male presenting person and came into herself while in prison, and also being traumatized and abused in a variety of ways by the system, and is coming back to Brooklyn. Most of the book takes place on the day she gets back. But I realized at a certain point that writing about somebody coming back from Upstate New York is like rewriting the Odyssey because of the central military tract in Upstate New York. I don’t know much you know about Upstate New York, but a lot of the names of the towns and the municipalities in Upstate New York are references to classical literature. It was because there was this one guy in the office that was responsible for naming things after the Revolutionary War when they were dividing up all the land who was really into classical literature. He’s like, “Okay, Troy. Okay, Ithaca. All right, Romulus, Hector.” There’s Homer. There’s just a lot. The book also echoes both that book and Ulysses because I thought it would be just lame for it to only refer to the Odyssey because everyone on Earth has done that, then at the same time, my husband who’s of Irish descent and I went to Ireland for the first time, I had never read Ulysses. Usually, as I did with the Pessoa book, I brought a representative work of literature from the country I was traveling to and it came out to be that one, then I was like, “Oh, I could just turn this whole thing into something really difficult to do.” [laughs]
DN: And you did.
JH: It seems like I did.
DN: Thank you, James Hannaham, or James Hannahams, or whoever you are. Thank you for being on Between The Covers today.
JH: Thank you, David.
DN: We’ve been talking today to James Hannaham, the author of Pilot Impostor. 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. More of James Hannaham’s work can be found at jameshannaham.com. If you’re hungry for more Pessoa after this episode, last month’s guest, Rabih Alameddine, talks about and reads Pessoa for the bonus audio archive. This joins bonus audio from Nikky Finney, Jorie Graham, Natalie Diaz, Alice Oswald, Rosmarie Waldrop, Ted Chiang, Ross Gay, Layli Long Soldier, Arthur Sze, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter 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, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.