David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Megan Fernandes’ I Do Everything I’m Told, a collection of poems that explores disobedience and worship, longing and possessiveness, and nights of wandering cities. Says Adrian Matejka, “The collection is, at its center, a book of love poems like all the best poetry collections are. The pretense of love, the past tense of love, and what we do when the little galaxies we build with others start to come apart. Fernandes navigates these spaces with the kind of slick wit and care that love poems require: awareness, eros, and utter abandon.” I Do Everything I’m Told is out on June 20th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. During the last episode, the live recording of the public event at Powell’s bookstore where I was in conversation with Katie Holten about her book The Language of Trees, I commented on how sometimes uncanny things happen with regards to the order the episodes come out. They come out in a way where you might think I’ve masterminded them this way, and given that I didn’t, it can feel sometimes like an invisible hand has brought them into conversation. I think of the four-episode stretch of Charif Shanahan, Monica Youn, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Christina Sharpe where each in their own way engaged with Blackness and anti-Blackness in Africa and the Americas. Last episode, I was foolish enough to announce what seemed like another stretch of four episodes, to announce this while they were still unfolding, a quartet of ecological consciousness episodes starting with Melanie Rae Thon, Richard Powers, Katie Holten, and presumably today’s episode. This episode today with Johanna Hedva talks about a lot of things; fate, doom, curses, witches, death metal, Korean waterfall singing, yeast infections, drag, dogs that can’t roll over, Marx, astrology, sex battles, phone sex, leather, body horror, mixed-race identity, disability, debt, and perhaps most notably, making art and creating community, meaning, and solidarity in late stage capitalism. If it isn’t obvious from this list, this isn’t the fourth episode in a magical sequence but rather an episode that indeed engages with magic, that of performance and identity both on the page and in one’s life. Johanna Hedva has also likely contributed the most unique thing to ever grace the bonus audio archive. Most of the archive is readings, often really dynamic readings, craft talks, or long-form conversations with translators, and occasionally more rarely, someone does something different like playing music. But Hedva created something specifically for us. After we talked for the show, they were on a book tour on both coasts and recorded themselves moaning, singing, grunting, screaming, breathing city to city and they wrote text while they were on tour which they also recorded. Hedva sent these various voicings and voices to Henry Glover in LA along with the universe’s own voices, recordings of the sonifications of a black hole or of the Helix Nebula, raw audio of the sun, a field recording of the Aurora Borealis, and asked Glover to mix and master all this material into a track called “The Saddest Thing of All Is When a Lone Astronaut Falls in Her Suit—Who Is There to Help Her Up?” In their intro to this contribution, Hedva describes the vibe and imagined scenario for this astronaut that they wanted Henry to aim for but I’ll save that for you to discover because it’s pretty priceless. But if you subscribe to the bonus audio, don’t miss this one because it was dreamed up from the beginning, especially for us. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets the resource-rich email corresponding to each episode. Each listener-supporter can join our collective brainstorm of who to invite onto the show, then there are a ton of other things to possibly choose from, from the bonus audio archive to the Tin House Early Readership Program where you receive 12 books over the course of a year months before they are available to the general public. This only scratches the surface of things to consider. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Johanna Hedva.
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 and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Korean-American writer, musician, performance artist, and astrologer Johanna Hedva. Hedva was raised by a family of witches in LA, pursued a BA in design at UCLA, and both an MFA in art, and an MA in aesthetics and politics at the California Institute of the Arts, and they now split their time between Los Angeles and Berlin. As a musician, their latest album Black Moon Lilith in Pisces in the 4th House is described as, “Hag blues, cave music, mystical doom, intimate metal, and succubus folk. Music informed by the likes of Diamanda Galás, Jeff Buckley, Keiji Haino, and the Korean tradition of Pansori singing which involves training one’s voice by singing at waterfalls at great volume.” In Hyperallergic’s review of the performance at the I Wanna Be With You Everywhere Festival, a three-day festival formed by disabled artists and writers, they say Hedva leaves the audience “In the collective discomfort of loud sound and powerful vibration. Their music was an alchemical transmutation of chronic pain, trauma, and death that had more than one audience member nodding along in recognition.” Lara Mimosa Montes says of Hedva’s earlier EP The Sun and the Moon, “I was reminded of Gregg Araki’s Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy, disaffected, drug-induced epiphanies abound. I listened again and thought of Miss Kittin, industrial protofeminist ennui. Songs against capital. Graffiti anthems from the bedroom.” Two tracks from The Sun and the Moon were played at The Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon. Hedva’s performances and exhibitions include writing and directing a series of plays, and performances called The Greek Cycle that adapted ancient Greek texts to include feminist and queer concerns in contemporary discourse, and contributing video and works on paper including the astrological birth charts of Simone Weil and Robin Finck, the guitarist for Nine Inch Nails to The Season of Cartesian Weeping exhibition as well as work shown at The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Performance Space New York, and their first solo exhibition God Is An Asphyxiating Black Sauce in Berlin in 2020. Johanna Hedva’s writing has appeared widely, including at Triple Canopy, Frieze, and The White Review. They first came to a wider audience when they transformed a lecture they gave in 2015 titled “My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It & Want it to Matter Politically” into their Touchstone essay “Sick Woman Theory,” a widely influential and translated essay that Lauren Fournier describes as “Articulating an ethos of agency for those living with chronic illness.” Artslant Magazine adds, “In [their] Sick Woman Theory, writer and performer Johanna Hedva suggests that the dominant discourse on political action, drawing largely as it does from Hannah Arendt’s faith in the political effect of bodies in the street, is too narrow a definition of how we engage the political. Arendt’s conception suggests that only bodies that are able to enter the street are acting politically. It privileges those for whom this is a possibility and reduces other actions to the nonpolitical. Hedva asks us to consider the politics of intimacy, of interdependence, of bodies that need, that engage in relationships and in so doing reshape the social (political) fabrics around them.” Johanna Hedva’s first novel On Hell, a book Hedva describes as their attempt at a 21st-century version of Icarus from a crip perspective, Anne Boyer describes by saying, “It’s f*ck*ng brilliant. I’m in love. If there have to be novels, On Hell is what they should do.” Brandon Shimoda adds, “At some point while reading On Hell, I had the sensation that my heart had pushed through my chest, my brain had pushed through my skull, and my guts had pushed through my abdomen, and that I was, in solidarity with Hedva’s writing, wearing my insides on the outside of my body. Only writing this nakedly vulnerable could be this intensely embodied, and only writing this intensely embodied could be this insurrectionary.” Their follow-up released at the height of the pandemic Minerva the Miscarriage of the Brain documents a decade of their work in the form of essays, poems, and performances, a book Banu Kapil calls, “A process of alchemical, pelvic, infinite, sub-maternal, and ceramic change.” Johanna Hedva joins us today to talk about their latest, a novel called Your Love Is Not Good from the press And Other Stories. Harry Dodge calls Your Love Is Not Good a major achievement containing, “Revelations (both vibrating and appalling) about artists and practice, and about contemporary art worlds. An instant classic/must-read/ important addition to the (woefully scanty) genre of books by artists about art-life.” Kirkus in its starred review says about the book’s artist protagonist, “Conflicted over the opposing impulses of her desire for recognition and solidarity, economic success and artistic authenticity, excellence and anonymity, the narrator spends a long, dark night of the soul spiraling around the splendor of self-destruction like a moth to a singular flame. Impassioned, wry, compassionate, and hell-raising, this novel illuminates its frangible but resilient world the way a painter uses color on canvas to illuminate the focal point of her vision—building layer after layer of meaning until the image appears as if it has always been there for us to see. A resplendent and fearless book.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Johanna Hedva.
Johanna Hedva: Hi, David Naimon. Thank you. [laughter] It feels so weird to hear you say all of that but I’m trying to just appreciate hearing your voice talking to me.
DN: Well, we’ve been talking for years now about you coming on the show and us having a conversation, so this is exciting. My first question is not an astrology question or not only or mainly an astrology question but it feels like prior to this book, the stars were not on your side. [laughter] When you were in conversation with Asher Hartman for your last book Minerva several years ago now, you talked about that book’s improbably cursed publication history, that it was accepted for publication twice but each time the presses failed before it was published. Even though that book was ultimately published, it came out in the early days of the pandemic. Many of the performance spaces documented within the book no longer existed and of course, being in the world with a performance text was nearly impossible due to COVID. You talked with Asher about how, for the longest time with all these failed acceptances (which is a weird phrase, failed acceptances) and your publication into the heart of a cultural lockdown, you questioned what the book was and it really only came together when you accepted it as a shape-shifting thing, something capacious enough to hold essay, poetry, and performance and where the main character wasn’t really a person, the throughline was the city and the decade portrayed of the city. But it wasn’t just the publication history that seemed cursed. The era of your life portrayed in that book also did. You say in Minerva, “My decade began with a divorce from an abusive husband, a miscarriage caused by inherited disease, an involuntary hospitalization, and ended with the death of my mother.” One of the reasons you kept persevering around wanting to publish Minerva by your own account was because you wanted to kill this era of your life. But since then, it seems like, from the outside at least, things have shifted. The novel we are talking about today is with, not only a great press but one that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere but up. You also have a book of essays coming out next year called How To Tell When We Will Die: Essays on Sickness, Fate, and Doom. Thinking of fate and thinking of doom, does it feel like something has shifted in your favor, whether due to perseverance, due to luck, or perhaps because your book is coming out near the new moon in Taurus and us Tauruses are simply due for something new and good?
JH: I mean, well, girl, I’m cursed and doomed forever, so I feel like the answer is a bit more complicated than like a yes or no. Although I love that you’re setting me up to feel like, “Yeah, maybe everything’s great now.” A couple of things come to mind. One is that according to this very janky Chinese astrology website, the best year of my entire life is next year, then it just f*ck*ng tanks after that. It goes up and then down. [laughter]
DN: So we’re in a good bubble?
JH: Yeah. I knew that a couple of years ago. I was like, “Oh, 2024, okay, that’s the peak so I better get ready.” With the book coming out now Your Love Is Not Good, I astrologized that publication date to the inch of its life. I was just very lucky that the press And Other Stories would indulge me even that little bit where I could pick the date because my birthday was just two weeks ago, not even because I’m a Taurus like you, so I knew that starting this year, I had this peak that I’m only going to get once. [laughter]
DN: Well, you could say that part of why I bring this up is because our main character in your new book is trying to “make it as an artist too.” But really I bring it up to provide some history against, which I’d like to ask you, about the story of how this novel came into being before we talk about the protagonist within the book. You’ve said your primary methodology in your art-making is what you call hermeneutical mischief which involves morphing across forms and genres, and Minerva, your last book, is a perfect example of this. But you could probably say On Hell, your first book, is an example in a different way, a novel that you’ve called a tirade manifesto and that others have called “A paranoid, profane rant of a novel,” both descriptions speaking to a way that I think voice, to great effects, overpowers and even knocks down many of the other formal scaffoldings we might expect in a book, perhaps maybe even in the way your Korean waterfall singing is meant to shred the vocal cords that make the sound in the first place. But you said when talking to Asher years ago now that you had been working on this book for six years then and that you wanted it to be more of a novel than what you’d written before, and you couldn’t count how many times you had Googled what is a plot. Recently, you said to me by email that the joke is you’ve spent nine years now Googling what is a plot and you still don’t know what it is. I have a multi-headed question for you. First, why do you want to write a novel that’s more like a novel than before? Is your attraction to doing so antagonistic? For example, I think of Bhanu Kapil being haunted by this “real novel,” then trying to write one but then frustrated burying it in the backyard in the snow over the winter, then unearthing it in the spring and making this one of her many amazing hybrid, uncategorizable works from its remains that she pulls out of the Earth. Or on the other hand, were you attracted to it for other reasons, whether practical reasons or aesthetic reasons? The second part of this question is really a rephrasing of the first part. What is your relationship to the form, to novels as a form? What is your notion of them coming into this project? An extension of that is you’ve said that Anne Carson is squatting over your last book and I wondered if there were certain novelists that were squatting over this book.
JH: This antagonistic relationship to the form of the novel is certainly the big thing that was propelling me for sure because I don’t really know what a novel is. I didn’t study writing. I’ve never taken a writing class. I don’t really hang out in the literary world. I went to a conceptual heady art school where you just lay around on the carpet, eating a burrito, and you crit one work for three hours, and you’re not allowed to ask the artist any questions. [laughter] You just have to talk about it, what you see, feel, and think with whatever is in front of you. One of the things that’s so cool about that actually is that it means that anything is up for grabs to make meaning. Whereas say if you go to the theater, you don’t question the seat that you’re sitting in, the stage, where the lighting is, or where the usher is standing. Same with a book, you get a book, it has a front cover and a back cover, if it’s a paperback, it’s cheapish paper. Sans serif, serif fonts are really the only options, black type. But there’s something in art that has always been the most satisfying to me in the sense that all of those things can be up for grabs to be part of the work. That’s where I’m coming from. One of the things also that I would say about being a freaky outsider is the more confused I am when I’m looking at something, like some form of art, a movie, a book, whatever it is, the more confused I am, the more I like it. When I’m like, “What the f*ck is going on with this?” it’s a lot more exciting to me than if I’m like, “Oh, okay, there’s that, there’s this reference, this is what they’re trying to do.” I also feel this way about people, like the attractive thing that gets woken up in me happens when I’m like, “What is that?” [laughs] I think that as a context for me coming into trying to write books is maybe important to say and to set as a ground or starting place kind of thing which was that I was doing primarily in my 20s performance art, I mean I had been in bands all of my teenage years, so I was very versed in performing live, the feeling of being in a room with a bunch of people communally experiencing something. I was definitely in the bands where people would leave immediately when we started playing and that was a victory for me. I always felt very like, “Yes, get the f*ck out of here if you don’t like it.” It’s like a punk thing. It’s like if you can piss somebody off, if you can be revolting, shocking, or whatever scandalous like, “Yay.” That’s where I come from in terms of just a vibe. Then in my 20s, I was doing a lot of performance art that also tried to affect this with the audience.
DN: How do we take that and juxtapose that with this attraction to a recognizable form that might even invite people in, right?
JH: I think there was just from the beginning of the project back in 2014, just like a “F*ck you. I could do that. I could write a real novel. I could write something that has characters with psychological interiority who change over time and a plot that has consequences.” It was like a, “F*ck you.” Practically speaking, it was because I had written two novels, one that hasn’t been published, then On Hell which was. The first one when I was writing it, I was like, “Oh, finally, I’m going to get there.” [laughs] Then it was just universally rejected. It was rejected always with the same kind of note which was that it was really an art object, it was like graphic designed where there were different fonts and papers depending on the characters who were talking. There were two stories that were put together so you could start it on either end, then you reach the middle and this clutch of red pages at the heart of the book. Everyone who rejected it was like, “This is cool but we don’t have the money to print this. You’re nobody,” which is totally fair. I think coming from this as a background, weird performance art, punk bands that scared people, like really experimental jagged, textual experiments, it felt like the thing that I had not done yet actually was to try to write a “real novel,” to try to write a “story.” That was actually the weird, challenging, freaky experiment, was to aim toward a center. I’m quite interested in what happens in a work to make it more palatable to a mainstream, what keeps it out of a mainstream like what would have to happen to make them keep reading it. Also vice versa, somebody like me who wants to be confused all the time with work, when does something become too on the nose or too prescriptive to make me not interested in it? Then very, very, very personally practical was when I started it, I wanted to write a book that would heal my relationship with my mother. My relationship with my mother was very, very fraught and tormented. There was something that felt important to me about writing the kind of book that she could just go into a Barnes & Noble and get. She was disabled, she was very poor, she was an addict, so she would have to take the disability bus that only came once a week to drive her into the town that would have a Barnes & Noble which is half an hour away. She’d have to spend her little bit of money on it. That was the other thing, is I wanted to write a book that she could access that wasn’t in a curated art book store in LA or in New York only. Then just to take it real deep, real fast, the heartbreak is that she died while I was writing it. She never read it. She didn’t know about it. The other thing about this is I didn’t have the luxury either to just keep f*ck*ng around in the margins. Also, in terms of livelihood or making any kind of living, there was another concern there of like, “Well, maybe I should try to aim toward a place that would be a wider visibility and just see how close I can get in that trajectory.”
DN: So with that in mind, what are the novels or novelists that hover over this one for you?
JH: The squatters?
DN: Yeah, if there are any.
JH: There are, absolutely. The holy trinity was Shirley Jackson, Clarice Lispector, and Mary Gaitskill.
DN: Okay. It’s a powerful trilogy.
JH: Yeah, I mean I was like, “Well, we gotta pray to the right gods for this one.” [laughter] I write in a tiny, tiny room in my apartment in Berlin and there are 5,000 books in there, and I can reach them from my desk. With this novel specifically, I would keep the books of Jackson, Lispector, and Gaitskill on the desk. One of the things I really like to do, just in any writing, and I don’t even have to be stuck, I just like to do it sometimes, is I just pull a book off the shelf, I open it at random, then I write a sentence verbatim from that book into my own manuscript, then I go word by word and change the word to either a synonym or an antonym.
DN: Wow. I love that.
JH: It’s just for funsies. It’s like I usually end up deleting that sentence from the manuscript but it’s just to get a new syntax or approach happening. I would do that often with those three with this novel, then they were very specific things that each one of those writers do that I just stole outright.
DN: Well, one of the things you immediately encounter upon reading the book is that it’s composed of many short chapters, and they’re all titled by the name of a method, a term, or a definition from the world of painting which is the world of our protagonist followed by a definition for the word, then after the definition, the chapter itself. My favorite is Isabelline whose definition is, “A grayish, yellowish dingy white named after Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Sovereign of the Spanish Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries.” The story goes that when her husband went to war, Isabella vowed not to wash her underwear until he returned. She thought the war would be a quick one. Isabelline is named for the color of her linens when the siege ended three years later. This story was eventually discredited, which learning that made me sad. But you’ve talked about one of the many how to write a dramatic story books that you read, one that was mostly about screenwriting was putting forth a three-part structure where each part is built on and culminating in a battle where the hero loses in the first two parts, then wins in the last part. You said you thought it would be interesting to make the three battles in your book into sex scenes and art openings, both of which call into question the very notion of winning and losing at all. But what I’m most interested in hearing from you as we step toward the story, given your long fraught losing or winning engagement with what a plot is and whether plot was essential to the novel, if you stepped into the elevator with someone who said, “Well, what is your book about?” I’m curious what you would say. I know you know what to say because you shared with me this wild 43-page document, a questionnaire sent to you by your publisher that was supposed to help you think deeply about your book but also to help them to be public with your book and you give these really amazing long meditations on many things about it. But what would be your first step to some person that you’re meeting by chance that is curious, that we can use as a frame to step through to talk about the story of your novel?
JH: I mean I do have the elevator pitch, which actually was more the elevator pitch to myself in 2014 that I made when I set out on this plan to write a real novel. I was like, “Okay, what if we start with a first-person narrator who, on paper, at the DMV say, would check all the same identity boxes as me? White mother, Korean father, born and raised in LA, poor as dirt, queer as f*ck, kink, kink, kink, kink, went to art school and wanted to be somebody.” But then what I wanted to do is anytime this character has to make a choice, I wanted her to do the thing that I ethically disagreed with, that I politically thought was wrong, or that I didn’t do. There are a lot of reasons that I have for that but that was the concept, that was the prompt. It was something that at the time, and I still think of, is relevant or germane to call an anti-auto fiction which in some way I’m like, “Is that just fiction?” [laughter]
DN: I don’t know if it is actually just fiction.
JH: I don’t know either but it was great to start there, to just be like, “I would disagree with this.” In the moral dilemma that I’m going to put in front of this character in this chapter, what do I think is the right thing and what I think is the wrong thing, then I would try to write into the wrong thing. The other answer that I would have that’s a bit shorter is that I always think that writers put one line in their books that sums up the whole project. It’s a little game I like to play with myself with trying to figure out what it is, so I put one in mind, of course. Its meaning is slippery, yet it keeps slicing into you. I think that’s the larger philosophical project of the book.
DN: It’s interesting that you’ve set it up to have its major dramatic encounters either to be sexual encounters and what happens both during them and as an effect from them and around art openings leading up to them, what happens at the openings because I think the major themes of the book for me, the intersections of capitalism and art, questions of Whiteness in relation to the economy of art making, and the philosophy of art making, questions of gender and representation, they really run through both strands. I would say the three-act sex strand and the three-act art opening strand, we see how these forces shape our main character’s personal life, her family of origin, her affective way of being in the world and we see how these forces shaped the rules of the world that she’s trying to succeed in this institutionalized art world. But maybe we could just spend a moment with the why if you could lean into this question of you not only wanting a character who would choose the opposite of you but you want a character to have a lot of your, I don’t want to say superficial details but maybe things you would see as the first descriptors of somebody, White mother, Korean father, both White passing, you’re both artists, both split your time between LA and Berlin as you said, both come from poverty, both have a lot of art school debt. One other significant way it seems to me that you’re different is that you have, from what I can gather, a much more of a DIY or punk aesthetic.
JH: Yeah. [laugh]
DN: Far less capital is involved to make it, far less capital coming your way because of it. She’s trying to succeed on the terms of the art world itself, which maybe is because she’s made some of these “wrong choices” already before the book is opened, who knows? But then she wants to succeed in a big way on its terms with patrons and gallerists where the art openings actually involve great risk and possibility for her “career.” Whereas, I imagine the risks and possibilities of your own work are not framed on these terms. Speak a little bit more about why it’s important to tether these wrong choices to “you” versus just some completely other person making the wrong choices.
JH: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I should probably point out that the art world that this character exists in is definitely not the art world that I exist in. She exists in the commercial art world. She has a gallery. She sells her work. She goes to art fairs. She exists in that way, like you’re saying, a lot of capital, a lot of professionalization around this thing. Very early on in my dalliances with the art world, I was like, “F*ck that.” I was even very anti-object being sold for many, many years with my work. Part of this is a little bit of speculating into that juicy place around choice and consequence of like, “Did I make the right choices?” Because I’m poor as hell still. I don’t make any money, I mean in the last 10 years, I think I’ve sold three drawings in the high three figures. [laughs] It’s just a very different setting, the art world that I exist in. I think one of the reasons that I was the why of it has to do with going back to this question of “What is a novel? What is a novel good at that maybe other forms aren’t as good at?” Somebody very close to me when I was in the early stages of writing told me, “The main thing about a novel is time. It takes a lot of time to read one. It takes a lot of time to write one and it takes a lot of time to read one.” That seemed really profound to me. It seemed much more profound than three-part structures about plot and whatever. Because I think what happens with the time that a novel requires both to write and to read has to do with this kind of interiority that gets built by the novel, by being in it. This is also one of the things that’s interesting about novels is that the interiority is similar to the writer as it is to the reader in a way that there’s more distance with other forms, say like with music, I feel like the interior space that I’m in when I’m writing music versus when I’m performing it live for people and their interiority or whatever is happening while they’re receiving it, these are pretty different states. Same with a painting. A painter paints a painting for however long, then to view it or receive it as an audience member, it’s a very different space to see it than it was to make it. But I think with writing and particularly with writing long narrative stories where you follow a character for 100, 200, 300 pages, the reader isn’t having the exact same experience than I am but it’s a bit closer in terms of distance. I think that was the interesting thing for me is like, “Right, I’m going to reach into the interiority of this character and then feel that for a long time.” What that then does is build a relationship to the consequence in the external world of that interiority in a way that I find really fascinating. I guess though it’s a bit 19th century like Bourgeois of me to say this but I feel like the thing that’s cool about a novel is you really get into this distance between the interior intention, then the consequence of that choice and how far those things are, that is character, that is story, the distance between these and how that’s navigable on the page. I do think everyone can relate to feeling a distance between what they feel in an interior place, then how this is externalized in the world, how they are perceived, how they are read, whatever. But for me, I think that distance is particularly political, the interior, exterior thing. For example, one way I can describe that in more concrete terms is like, “I’m someone who looks like what I’m not.” I look like a White cis abled woman but what I am is a Korean-American disabled genderqueer person. That means that wherever I go in this life with the way I look means I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere because a lot of belongingness for us in political, social terms is predicated on a visual similarity, like if you look like something, then you’re allowed in. This is not just genetically, this is also subculturally like, “Are you wearing the mohawk or not? Are we letting you into the punk club or not?” That kind of thing. To me, that was one of the interesting things that doing that in fiction felt like I could really reach into the sticky, messy part of how there’s this distance between interior and exterior, and what it means in terms of a consequence in the world. This might sound like a Stoner epiphany but it seemed like painting, it’s very shallow, just in terms of it is literally a surface, 2D surface that then produces this immeasurable depth. It seemed like painting was just a supple way to do that, so I wanted her to be a painter.
DN: I love that. Well, this is one of the ways that I tried to understand the divergence between you and your character that shares your life CV details in some ways is that I think about the essay you’re most well-known for, Sick Woman Theory, which created such an immense amount of attention for you that you even reached out to others for advice on how to manage it and you were invited to speak at innumerable universities to be on panels, you were approached by agents who wanted you to make this into a book but it also irked you the way people wanted to view you solely through the lens of this one essay, and also this one issue to speak only to this question of disability when much of your work didn’t engage with it at all, as if you were like a band with one hit that people only wanted to hear when you toured, as if Sick Woman Theory was your free bird perhaps.
JH: Yeah, it was my free bird. [laughter] I think it was probably more like the Smash Mouth hit. It was probably more like that where I’m playing it at the Sacramento County Fair over and over. [laughter]
DN: In your essay Why It’s Taking So Long, you said, “And I wanted to be published so badly, I thought I would have done anything. The editors in my inbox didn’t say any numbers outright, but it was implied that I could sell the Sick Woman Theory book for what would be called “a nice deal” in the publishing trades. Money like that, security like that, a life like that, was something my ancestors and I could only dream of. It was a fairytale.” “But when you’ve been poor your whole life, and are descended from generations marked by it, you become street-smart. You know a scam when you see one because the whole world has been scamming you since birth. You’ve perpetrated plenty of little ones yourself.” By scam, you mean partly the type of book you would have been expected to write, a certain type of memoir, probably one with personal transformation or a redemptive ending perhaps shaping your life into an arc. I think about this when I think of you in relation to your character because whereas you forgo this temptation, I imagine your protagonist, if they were a writer instead of a painter, they would be all over this opportunity. I don’t know that there would be a lot of deliberation. Is that right?
JH: Absolutely, yeah. She’s definitely cashing and she wants to cash in, I mean she wants the legitimation that money, capital, power, and fame promise. That’s an ontological difference that we have. To be quite honest, when the Sick Woman Theory thing happened, I mean for the astrologically fluent listening to this, Jupiter conjunct the node exactly on my midheaven the day that Sick Woman Theory was published, so the people listening who know what that means will be like, “Oh, that’s why.” [laughter] Within two weeks, I had an agent da-da-da-da-da. For the non-astrologically fluent, it was just one of those moments of it was not under my control how big that thing got. It still stuns me how big it got. I think one of the reasons I’m still stunned is because I was doing all this weird work for years, like 15 years. I had a cute, little, tiny community of cool other artists doing weird stuff and we were doing it for each other, and it was great, then suddenly I had this huge audience that only knew this one thing about me. To be quite honest, it freaked me out deeply. For two years, I had an auto-reply on my email that just said, “I might not reply to you ever.” [laughs] For two years, I couldn’t handle it. I think one of the things about that is that it was suddenly like I was really perceived. That just makes me very, very uncomfortable. I wrote Sick Woman Theory in this storm of needing a voice that was not my own to pull me out of where I was and that’s the voice I wrote in. It wasn’t mine per se yet it became this authentic, like I think the subject matter signaled or signified to people like, “Oh, this is serious and traumatic, so it means that the voice speaking about it is the authentic real deep one that we have to take very seriously.” Whereas for me, Sick Woman Theory was much more trying to reach into the figure of the sick woman, why do we need her in society? What does she represent to us? How do we build this symbol, this archetype of the sick woman? Because the point of Sick Woman Theory for me is that illness, like disability and gender, is co-constructed, that illness feminizes and vice versa. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or not. That’s the point. The figure of the sick woman for me had to do with I want to reach into why we need her because of course, we need her because she’s the antipodal opposite of the character, the figure that capitalism loves, the individual abled man who can just cut through worlds in history and make his own life how he wants it. He doesn’t require care or support. Of course, his entire life is sustained by invisible labor and care provided to him by everything but we build him as this character that we place a lot of value on. He can really only exist as a protagonist if we have a proper antagonist and that’s the sick woman. For me, that was what I was trying to get my head around. Then the fact that it just blew up, then people were calling me the sick woman, then it wasn’t lost on me at the time, and it’s still not, that I don’t look disabled, I don’t look like genderqueer, like I’m femme passing, I’m abled passing, I’m White passing, so it was not lost on me that I was getting invited to speak about these things and disability activists who don’t pass were not. That was difficult for me to navigate and that’s also why I said no to a lot of stuff as I was like, “Don’t ask me. You should be asking, I could give you a list.”
DN: You touched on what I’m going to ask you next but I’m going to ask it to stay with it longer, this question of how you and your protagonists are connected, then also this question of the way you present versus who you are, then this constructed voice in what other people are reading as your voice in the personal essay Sick Woman Theory which may not be a personal essay, might just be an impersonal essay. [laughter]
JH: Well, my joke is that it’s a stand-up comedy routine.
DN: Yeah. [laughter] Well, let me ask this and see if we can go a little deeper on this question. You have this very vivid and funny response to a question about identity in the 43-page questionnaire that you shared where you say, “I wanted to write about things that make me the most ethically uncomfortable and I wanted to write a first-person narrator who I disagree with politically. The reason is because I think this is what fiction is for, to get into all that gunk. Often, I think of something Deborah Levy said that ‘Fiction is a wonderful home for the reach of the mind,’ and as she said it, she reached her hand into the air and closed her fingers into a fist. When I see this image, I think of fisting. In fisting, it’s good to wear gloves. If you’re going to reach into the mind, the ass of inquiry, the gaping genital of speculation, it’s good to have some kind of prophylactic protection. Fiction is the glove.” I love this and this idea that you’re fisting your protagonist, your sock puppet who is both you and your opposite. [laughter] As an aside, it reminds me of the performance in your last book called The Real Life of Johanna where you follow someone in their life for 24 hours doing everything that they do but while retaining your own subjectivity. It feels somehow connected to this character that you’ve created here. But I wanted to ask you, in the spirit of shadowing someone or of fisting your protagonist, about the notion of twins more generally in the book which is a major throughline. Here’s just a very small sampling of examples. The narrator saying, “I despise my mother, yet I am her duplicate,” and saying this as she wears her mother’s clothes, her mother who is also like her, an artist who, when she’s a kid, makes the paintings for her own daughter so that her child can take them to school, enter the art contest, and win. Then later, a classmate of hers in third grade who decides she will become her and it’s not as an homage, it’s a really devious form of bullying, so this classmate starts copying her voice, copying her gestures. Then later as an adult, a store owner says that she looks just like his wife and another character says she looks just like her mother. Most notably, the person she refers to as her twin, the White woman who is the subject and object of her art, and there are all these uncanny resonances, maybe it’s another version of you and the protagonist but it’s between the protagonist and their art object, their twin, but there are many more, including a twin set of dog anecdotes, the beginning and the end. With thinking of twinning, mirroring, shadowing, or gloved fisting, what is going on, Johanna Hedva? [laughter]
JH: I have a craft answer that might be interesting, which was that I did try to twin every major element in the book because it seemed to me to f*ck with the causality premise of a novel. I can never remember it but it’s like the difference between a plot and a story is like the queen got sick, the queen died, somebody dies because they’re in grief. You know what I’m talking about? It’s like E. M. Forster or something. It’s like the difference between a plot and a story has to do with the causality of the events. That somebody dies because they’re so sad that somebody else died or something like that. That just seems to me to be b*llsh*t. I don’t really buy the causality thing. I think it goes back to this thing that I just prefer things that are confusing. Also interpretively, this is what I mean with hermeneutical mischief being a methodology. What I wanted to do is twin everything, twin the characters, twin symbols, twin scenes but slightly invert or shift them in a way that would mean that whatever meaning was consolidated in the first scene or element was then f*cked with next. The one thing I kept thinking about was I never wanted my reader to be confused about what was happening but I did want them to be confused about what it meant.
DN: Somehow, Mulholland Drive comes to mind for me.
JH: Yeah. Well, Mulholland Drive was like that’s the other squatter on this novel.
DN: Oh, really?
JH: Absolutely. Girl, yes, I mean Mulholland Drive and three women, I was just trying to do that in a novel and with Mulholland Drive specifically because I adore Sunset Boulevard. Maybe an interesting biographical note here that is not in the book is that my aunt who half-raised me in LA was a Hollywood manager for her career. I always joke like, “B*tch, she was Liza Minnelli’s manager in the 80s, that’s why I’m like this. That’s why I’m like this.” [laughter] I grew up half the time in a house that’s like a non-mansion version of Norma Desmond’s house, with old Hollywood glamor, you’re not dressed unless you’re wearing perfume like gay, gay, gay. For me, Mulholland Drive is so fabulous because it’s like David Lynch doing his Sunset Boulevard.
DN: I also think of his influence from Maya Deren. She’s much more experimental and far less story central than Lynch but he’s taking some of those elements of her experimental filmmaking in that movie, so you get all the shadowing but you also get the story. Maybe it’s a similar trajectory with how you’ve moved into more of a story space.
JH: My favorite anecdote about Maya Deren is that she threw a refrigerator at somebody when she was channeling some mystical power. [laughter] I remember that very vividly in the documentary. But to be more poetic about the question around twins, I think there was something in the book around the parasitism of desire and particularly with queerness, like queer desire, I came out when I was 14, so I was pretty young and that would have been 1998, and I feel like this is one of the last years one could be gay before the internet helped consolidate your identity. You had to reach into weird places to find something that felt like it was you or there was a resonance thing that you were searching for that wasn’t just available easily. My first experiences of it were like seeing people and being confused if I wanted to be them or if I wanted to f*ck them. I think this is probably dating me a lot, it’s making me seem real old and unliberated but that’s def, def going on. I’m old and unliberated about this because there was something about a gender mirror also. This is one of the experiences with transness in general is like you comport yourself toward an image of the gender you feel you really are but you don’t look like it. I think that’s what I mean about this belongingness that’s predicated on the visual. It’s like I remember the movie that I always say made me gay like, “Thank God we had the Independent Film Channel in our cable package,” because late at night, it had just come out, I saw My Own Private Idaho and I remember just thinking like, “Oh, I am those boys.” It’s not like I wanted to f*ck them. It was like, “Oh, I am them. That’s who I am.” But I don’t look like that and the world doesn’t think I look like that so like, “Hmm, problems.” [laughs] I think that as a deeper way of how identity gets consolidated or legitimated in the body, the way it feels, there was something about that that I really wanted on the page. One of the ways that I tried to do that, this is another craft moment, in these sentences, there really shouldn’t be commas where there are commas. There should be other more forceful punctuation like colons, em dashes, and periods in some cases. I was very relentlessly stubborn and dying on my hill like, “These all have to be commas.” The reason is because a comma is like a milk toast punctuation mark, it’s like a workhorse. You can just put it anywhere. [laughter] It doesn’t make much of a statement. It doesn’t declare much about itself. I really wanted you to feel in the sentences that this character was thinking, these were not thoughts yet like you’re thinking. To get that rolling momentum where it’s not really discerning, it’s not a hierarchy of thought or importance yet, commas. As a counter-example with On Hell the first novel, that b*tch should have so many commas and there are none, and that was also a deliberate choice because, in that way, I felt like commas were this gesture of trust that the writer extends to the reader. They’re like, “Hey, are you good with this clause so far? Are you ready to keep going into the next part of the sentence?” I just did not want that feeling for the reader in On Hell. I wanted people to feel like they were in a truck with no brakes barreling down a hill.
DN: That is definitely the feeling. [laughter]
JH: Because I wanted him to sound like the internet.
JH: And the internet doesn’t use commas, so lots of commas in this one though.
DN: I’d like to spend the lion’s share of the rest of the interview with the actual substance of the book, art making and capitalism, Whiteness, mixed-race identity, selfhood in relationship to the collective, and also the uncomfortable places you lure us into with regards to all of them. As a first step toward stepping into the debased labyrinth Your Love Is Not Good, here’s a brilliant question for you from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. [laughter]
JH: Oh, yay. She told me she was going to do this so I’m excited.
DN: She told you?
JH: Well, we’ve been emailing a lot. [laughter]
DN: She’s not supposed to tell you.
JH: She didn’t tell me the question though.
DN: Oh, okay.
JH: She just said she recorded a long rambling one for me.
DN: It’s supposed to be a secret but here we go.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: Hi, Johanna. It’s Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Okay, I have a long complicated question but I know this is the place for long complicated questions. One thing you do so well in this book is to show the corruption of the art world as the system of extraction. It goes beyond the commoditization of creativity and into the everyday interactions in artists’ lives, so it’s not just a structural critique but an intimate one, I mean a critique of intimacy itself as a method of control, so there’s this enmeshment, right? So that even when there’s a righteous critique of the art world for its structural racism for example, when the critique becomes part of the art world, it becomes part of this process of extraction. I think that often, as writers and artists of all types, there’s a tendency to think of the creative impulse as a refuge from this commoditization, maybe it’s something pure or maybe something impure but in any case separate, I mean when we think of art as a means of survival. But in your book, there’s no separation because even the creative impulse is intertwined with childhood trauma, in this case, the trauma of growing up with an abusive artist’s mother, so art can never quite be that refuge. I think you’re asking such important questions about survival or art as a means for survival. What if survival itself is implicated in this enmeshment? What if there’s no way out? Now, I’m not asking you to answer this question because asking it and maybe leaving it unanswered or unanswerable is so central to the book. Instead, I want to circle back and ask about your process. In a sense, the method of the book is the process of making art itself, so I wonder if you want to talk about how you entrap the characters, the struggles, dreams, and desires within this process in order to reveal the larger structures that entrap them but also the ways that even the methods of survival potentially become corrupt.
JH: Oh, I love this. Matilda Bernstein Sycamore is just a goddamn deity walking around for us right now. Don’t you feel that way?
DN: I do.
JH: I adore her. I adore her work. I think that this is a big ick right now, right? It’s like how are we supposed to do this? How are we supposed to have any kind of ethics, right? I mean it’s become a meme. There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. Let me say it like this. Something I’ve been saying a lot lately because it’ll be in the book of essays is that I think the genius thing that capitalism has done, evil genius, is that it’s managed to make us believe there’s a difference between our needs and our desires but it makes us pay for both. The choice to pay for rent, food, shelter, or health care versus buying a fancy candle, going to Starbucks, or whatever, a need versus a desire, under capitalism, this becomes an index of our own individual moral failure but capitalism is making us pay for both. We have to pay for all of our needs and all of our desires, so we’re the ones that then have to decide what’s the ethical choice. What are you supposed to do under a system like that? I’m definitely like, “That’s correct, what Matilda is saying.” Even just survival tactics at this point do so much harm to various things, to various other people. It’s the thing where you have all of these justifications that you tell yourself. For example, I was a vegetarian for 10 years for ethical reasons, then I got sick and now I have to eat meat for my immune problems. Literally, every time I eat meat, I’m thinking about, “Oh, God, I have the ethical ick,” but then I still eat it. Does my pause, does my ethical ick, my moment where I’m conflicted do anything? I think this is the question that all of us are asking, well, hopefully, all of us. But it’s a catch-22, it’s just a paradoxical conundrum, I mean what are you supposed to do in terms of acting, how do you act? I feel like to get at the craft or what was the process is one of the things that I learned while writing this novel, because it’s just full of these difficult political, ethical questions like, “What should one do? How should one act?” one of the things that became clear for me writing it is while I was writing it, I also had a day job and my day job was working with a non-profit. I was part of the non-profit industrial complex. I believed in what we were doing, social justice, community organizing, I ran a fellowship program that gave money to people who really never got money and needed it, da-da-da. There were so many instances in working that job—I did it for eight years—where I would ask in frustration like, “Why doesn’t someone join the cause? Why doesn’t a donor give us? Why don’t we get this grant? Why didn’t somebody join the boycott? Why didn’t they sign the petition? Da-da-da.” I realized at some point that when I was asking this question why, I never really wanted an answer though. I was just pissed. I was furious, frustrated. I was just like, “Ah.” Then in writing this novel, I was asking that question and interested in what answers could happen like, “Why wouldn’t someone join a boycott when they should?” That’s the problem with the narrator. She should totally join this boycott but she doesn’t, so why not? Then all of the characters, all of them have some political complacency that they justify to themselves as to why they don’t. I think that’s this thing around fiction being the glove, it’s like the reach and the fist as much as it is also the glove, that it felt better. Nah, it didn’t feel better per se but it felt like there was more space to think these questions through in fiction than there was at the time in my real life.
DN: I like how Matilda’s question presupposes that the question isn’t entirely answerable or that the book answers it in a way that a conversation can’t answer it. But either way, I think her question really gets at how it’s impossible to disentangle the person, the interpersonal, the subjective, and affective from the structural, the institutional, and the political. If we look at our main character’s relationship to her mixed-race White passing identity, depending upon context, she has various contradicting feelings about it. Speaking of her White mother, she says she despises her and is her, and goes on to talk about how, instead of receiving the hair of her Korean father, she receives her mother’s hair which she characterizes as a family curse, yet she wears her mother’s clothes and both her and her mother are united in their self-hating. On the one hand, she has created a chosen family of close friends and artists who are largely people of color, and she sometimes envies those, like her Black best friend who are legible phenotypically racially, whose phenotype matches who they “are,” even as she is aware that her friend’s life isn’t one to envy from a racial perspective. On the one hand, she realizes an art school, that while she wants to be taken seriously for her skill as a painter, not for her identity, she soon realizes that fighting against the art world as it is would cause more problems than cashing in on how it is, that getting her foot in the door was the battle to fight. She didn’t have the luxury to choose which door. Yet, on the other hand, she’s ultimately aiming to be loved in a universal way. She aims for this a historical space of universality that’s normally reserved for White artists and she centers as her subject a White woman who is her doppelganger, and essentially aims to make it big on the terms that she encounters. Before we talk about what that means, I wanted to spend a moment with the notion of universality in relation to both race and identity. In your last book Minerva, you say you don’t like the word space which suggests empty, neutral, and historic. You prefer the word place but I would say your main character seems to be reaching for space. When you’re writing Sick Woman Theory, you were mentoring with Fred Moten at the time and went on to write another essay called In Defence of De-persons where you say, “If I’m going to wander around personhood, I’ve got to reckon with universality, because universality is the foundation for how we construct ‘persons.’ It’s the bedrock beneath the patches of soil upon which all of us stand. Sarah Ahmed explains it, I would say: the universal is a structure not an event. It is how those who are assembled are assembled. It is how an assembly becomes a universe. The universal is the promise of inclusion. Universalism is how some of us can enter the room. It is how that entry is narrated as magical; as progress,” and you continue in that same essay, “How many people, as I write this, have been declared—politically, legally, medically, culturally, economically, racially, socially, and gender-binarily—to be ‘de-persons’? As a white-passing a.k.a. White-privileged person, I believe it is my first obligation not to be a-historical.” I was hoping you could talk more about the throne of universality that your avatar is reaching for in light of this and the problems of reaching for the throne to, as you say, consolidate and stabilize us as subjects or to make us whole as people.
JH: Well, while I was writing Sick Woman Theory, then when I was writing In Defence of De-persons, the essay that came out after I was being mentored by Fred Moten in a para-institutional or non-institutional fellowship program in Los Angeles called At Land’s Edge, we just met in the garage of this fabulous scholar named Michelle Dizon and it was very like, “What are you working on? Who would you like to mentor you? Let’s just see if we can facilitate that conversation.” It was very chill. There was no money. It was just like, “Let’s see what connections can be made in LA.” That’s when Fred was here. We just reached out and asked if he would be interested in doing that and he was like, “Sure.” What it amounted to was literally just two long conversations that we had together, him and I, where he just eviscerated Sick Woman Theory and told me why what I had done in that first piece was create another cruel optimism of the sick woman as a universal figure.
DN: Did you say cruel optimism?
JH: Yeah. This is a Lauren Berlant idea.
DN: Yes, that’s what I thought.
JH: He was like, “You just made another cruel optimism. Now people can feel good about being a sick woman but the question of inclusion and exclusion into that category still stands,” which is absolutely correct, which is why I feel like I spent the years after Sick Woman Theory revising it and unmanifesting its manifesto tendencies. But this was something that was really revealed to me also just in general was the point of a manifesto is to lay bare why it cannot be manifested. That’s the point. It is an impossibility, so why is the question. There is something in there though about I feel like during these years of writing this book, I was having to come to terms and really cathartically speaking, like Aristotlean purge, pity, and fear catharsis of coming to terms with how badly I wanted to be part of the universal and whatever that meant, like how I wanted to be legitimated by certain institutions, racial ones, gender ones, capitalist ones, economic ones, whatever it was and like, “Why? Why? Why?” Some of it is yeah, it’s like just in the air we breathe, in the water we drink, and it just internalized from all of these ideologies that construct our world, then also sometimes it is a choice. Here’s again this dilemma of the interior intention and the choice that we make, then how that is determined in the external world. Just like in a basic way, the first thing I had to deal with was Whiteness because in my case, like my sibling for example is not White passing, so we had a really different upbringing, a really different experience just in our bodies. There is something also, I have to say that for me, in a [inaudible] way, like the political, it becomes political when you feel it in your body I think, just whatever it is. I don’t think an abstract political concept can really have a political impact unless you feel it in your body. I don’t know really exactly what I mean by that but it feels right. There’s an intuitive, “Yes, that’s right.” One of the things that I wanted to use the prophylactic of fiction to get into was how icky and bad Whiteness made me feel. My friend Jessa Crispin just started a Substack called The Culture We Deserve and she asked me to write about movies, so the first piece I wrote was about the Oscars. I thought quite a lot about Whiteness in this year’s Oscars and I realized I think the phrase White innocence is redundant. I don’t know what other kind of innocence there is. White innocence and White guilt is the entire project of the Oscars. It’s literally a room full of the wealthiest, most powerful White people in the world crying about how great they are, then they’re crying about how they didn’t let enough non-White people make movies. [laughs] There’s something in there though where I was like, “What really is the difference between White innocence and White guilt materially, politically?” Another way to say that is like, “What is changed in the lives of non-White people when White people feel either guilty or oblivious about their own Whiteness?” That’s on my mind a lot with how Whiteness works because I feel like the other thing that was going on around this time of starting to write the novel, then these years of like the 20-teens was really a lot of questions about what it means to be in solidarity, what it means to be an ally, what it means to support a cause, how should White people act at the Black Lives Matter protest? These kinds of things. These are all good questions and things to be worrying about but I often felt like some of the conclusions were just so unsatisfying because they didn’t really get us anywhere. They just made White people feel even more coiled into their own condition. That then also replicated the universality of the Whiteness that was already there. I think what also happened within people of color, like social justice communities of people of color, at least the ones that I’ve been in is that we started to measure ourselves between how close to Whiteness and how far we were from it. Whiteness and Blackness got positioned as this antipodal thing. For better or worse, I mean some of that is not bad but it just became this phenotypical visual thing. I mean just sort of armchair pontification, I think that in earlier decades, the left, maybe in the 60s and 70s, the solidarity was much more around class than “identity politics.” I’m not sure how useful it is to leave class out of these conversations around what we should organize ourselves around. Do you know what I mean?
DN: We’re heading towards money soon.
JH: Okay, yeah. Well, I was going to say we could segue right in the money. [laughter]
DN: I want to talk about money because money is such a huge part of this book. But before we get there, I want to stay for just another moment with Fred Moten. You mentioned that Moten pointed out to you that the etymological route for privilege and private are the same from the Latin prīvus which means individual, and you say, “That an individual can have privilege is also the extent to which such an individual can be private. It’s why white people don’t know what white supremacy is, or that they benefit from it—whiteness itself is a kind of totalizing assumption toward privacy.” Then Fred says, “Privilege is a radical incapacity for sociality,” which I really loved. In light of that, here’s a question for you from Lucy Ives, and speaking of sociality, it’s coming from the New York Subway so it’s going to be really hard to hear.
JH: Field recording.
DN: So here we go, Lucy Ives in the New York Subway.
Lucy Ives: Hi there. This is Lucy Ives. I’m coming to you from the New York City Subway. My question for you is what is the role of friendship in your work? Please interpret my question as you see fit.
JH: Oh, I love that too. This is so fun. Thank you, David Naimon.
DN: You’re welcome Johanna Hedva.
JH: I’m just going to have a moment, it’s great. It’s so cool. I’m alive because of my friends. I’ve only ever done work with people that feel like they could be friends for life. I think part of that is being crip. It’s a radical interdependency that just has to happen. Obviously, it wasn’t just like I’ve been so blessed with every friendship I’ve ever had, it just works out, and it’s amazing, there were a lot of years in my own just life of becoming disabled and figuring out how that was to deal with, that meant that a lot of my friendships stopped or ended. But the ones that didn’t are still there and they’re really, really, really profoundly deep. That was the other thing is in this novel, I really wanted her to have one relationship that was really good, which is her best friend Eve. Eve, I have to say, is a kind of an homage to my best friend who is my queer mentor, just a couple of little details of him that I wanted to put into the character of Eve, there’s one scene that’s straight from our lives. It’s the one where they’re in the elevator and they’re b*tching about something and there’s a stocky white guy in a baseball hat in the elevator too. They go down 12 floors and then we get to the bottom, the guy is like, “Yo, you guys are assh*les.” [laughter] They both just laughed. That happened to me and my best friend once and we were just so pleased.
DN: It’s great.
JH: But yeah, friendship I think is like there’s something to me just so, so, I don’t even have the right adjectives to hold the extent that it’s important to my life, and it’s not just a queer thing, it’s not just being in an open relationship or a care network for disability stuff, which are the things that I’m in, but I think it has just something to do with life is so f*ck*ng hard and it’s only getting harder. Our bodies are going to deteriorate, be more painful, and more expensive until they can’t move anymore and then we’re going to die. That’s literally the case. [laughter] That’s real. There are only a few things that we got and one of the few things is each other. It’s like our friends. That’s what I mean too about trying to get out of this ethical-ick, this conundrum of capitalism, it’s these moments that feel purely the strongest insurrectionary potential for me are the ones where I’m with my friends and we’re just laughing and drinking wine in a garden or helping each other get groceries. Honestly, this is also thorny because it means, “Do I have to like you to care about you socially?” But I’m a Cancer Moon, it means two things, it means I’ve never gotten over anything, and number two, it means that I will die for my friends.
DN: Well, okay. Thinking of sociality and friendship, one of the dramatic tensions of the book is the desire to have one’s art accepted, which begs the question by whom and on what terms. But also finding community and being accepted by community. These are two desires that are throughout this book. One of the big fulcrums of the book is around, as you’ve alluded to, a proposed boycott of galleries and museums by a Black artist who calls on all artists of color, no matter how much they might individually suffer, to stand in solidarity together against the institutions and to withhold their work. One of the dramas is “Who will our mixed race narrator stand with?” Before we talk about how this is complicated for her, talk to us for a minute about the boycott or the inspirations for the boycott, which you name in the notes at the back some real disruptive tactics that were happening in the world. Talk to us about wanting to employ this in the narrative, this potentially disruptive tactic within your narrative.
JH: One of the things was that boycotts happen all the time in the art world. They’re really a regular thing. I had had a version of mine first for about three years in the drafts when I was writing. But mine was a bit more of a call out, like a cancel call out moment, and then The Tear Gas Biennial happened, which was the Whitney Biennial in 2017, 2018, so now I’m going to forget, and there were several really incredible pieces of writing and mobilization that came out to really demand that the Whitney be held accountable for one of its board of trustees, the terminology is weird but he was basically involved in a company that manufactures tear gas. To be fair, all of the board of trustees of any f*ck*ng museum are blood on the hands. But this particular one I think really galvanized a generation because the questions that were being asked by particularly the writers of the piece called The Tear Gas Biennial, Hannah Black, Tobi Haslett, and Ciarán Finlayson, it was just one of these things that I think consolidated a lot of our feelings about recent art world shenanigans and chicanery that was going on and the question of can art be politically relevant towards social change of some kind, these questions around doing activism in one’s art practice at the Whitney, at these institutions, or at a museum at all. I think what those three writers pointed out is like, “Duh, the answer is no.” So why are you there? Because to me what happened with that Biennial and the boycott around it was I was shocked that more people didn’t just immediately join it. I was nobody. I’m not a commercial artist. I’m not going to ever be in a Whitney Biennial, but as soon as that piece came out, I was like, “I’m in.” [laughter] I have no stakes, nobody gives a sh*t if I’m in or not but I am in. Maybe I should say that as my character in the novel who calls for the boycott is the one I agree with the most. She’s my favorite, the really angry one.
DN: Let me complicate that, let me ask you about that. You’re saying you agree with the person who’s boycotting in the book more than your narrator but I want to push on that for a second. Because one of the ways this boycott is an impossible situation for our main character is that she has a six-figure art school debt and she’s gone all in with regards to trying to fake it until she makes it. What I mean by that is that throughout the book, there are all these meditations, which you’ve alluded to earlier, about painting and performance or painting and deception with lines like what something looks like becomes what something seems like becomes what it is, which also ends up speaking not just to art making but to self-making. Our artist with this six-figure debt in this spirit is behaving rich. She’s ordering delivery services for food, she’s buying these really ridiculously expensive clothes, getting herself in the room by performing a different self, but it’s this huge house of cards. If her upcoming exhibition is into success to backfill all of these liabilities, disaster potentially looms. The big question is will she stand with her fellow POC artists? What she wants to, do you identify, there is that desire in her but also then sabotage her shot or choose her chance at Whiteness against her heart on some level. I don’t know if I’m characterizing this right but there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on in this person. I know you characterize her as making all the choices you wouldn’t make, as making the “wrong” choices. But I wonder if it’s that simple because I wonder if you actually, in the end, empathize with her more than this statement lets on to. Here are some quotes of yours from elsewhere, first from an interview in Autostraddle, “‘Maybe the thing that we need to do, if we’re talking about communities, is define what community is.’ People really love it, they get excited when you start to say ‘us versus them’ as the way to talk about community, because it is clear and simple. So my favorite boo-yah thing to say is, you know, ‘us versus them’ is how politics are defined by Carl Schmitt, who was the official philosopher of the Nazi Party. The us-versus-them thing is one of the tenets of carceral logic. This person who did a crime cannot be part of ‘us,’ they have to be part of the ‘them.’ I think carceral logic creeps into activism all the time. It’s this idea that one can do wrong or one can do right. And if you do wrong then we’re going to banish you from the ‘us.’” Then in your 43-page questionnaire, you described the book as “It’s about people who keep making the wrong choice because there is no other choice, but also because they think it’s the right choice, which means it’s a tragedy. It’s about abjection, poverty, and ambition, which means it’s a coming-of-age story. It has a lot of kink which means it’s a ghost story. There’s a massive black cube behind the protagonist’s head, which means it’s a fairy tale.” But this notion of people making the wrong choice because there is no other choice suggests her wrong choices while different than yours are also perhaps ones that you understand in some way.
JH: Absolutely. I think that this is one of those moments where I would have to concede that fiction helps with empathy or whatever. [laughter] But to go into that a bit more around this thing I was saying earlier about how capitalism is just so f*cked up in the way that it makes us do this choice thing between what’s a need and a desire and how that becomes our politics, are you buying the right brand of laundry soap? Do you use Amazon? All of these things, I feel like one of the things that happened with writing the novel is that at some point, it was a little slack in terms of dramatic tension. I was pretty far in years into it and I was like, “God, it’s just not really propulsive,” you don’t really want to turn the page, and then I was like, “What could really amp this up and help me out?” and I was like, “Oh, money. That will do it because that is the dramatic linchpin of all of our lives in this way that sucks.” I have another thing to say about this in terms of the us-versus-them and the carceral logic that creeps into community, like I’m saying with class, it’s really difficult to ask these questions and include class because class, I’ve noticed just in the last some years, it’s the thing that answers why you’re doing the bad thing. It’s like, “Oh, we can’t use Amazon but I can’t afford not to.” Of course, under capitalism, the only possible condition is to be in debt. That’s the only possible condition. That is what capitalism is literally. That’s what capital is. There’s something about how we’ve managed to make debt. I talk about this and why it’s taking so long is what we should do with the idea of debt as the default is make it about being radically interdependent because it is. But instead, we use it as this index of how we have failed, how we are not solvent, or how we lack whatever. The other thing that I would say, I really want to say this anecdote right now because I think it speaks to this thing I’m getting at about the harshness of us-versus-them as the way that we’re building community. Listen, I should say this first, footnote, community sucks, sociality sucks. [laughter] These people, who are they? This is the problem that is the horizon of organizing on the left. This is the problem with interdependency as being the demand. I am the main person calling for interdependency as the thing but I’m also like, “I want to be alone most of the time. I don’t like you. I don’t want to hang out.” This is part of the profound limit of trying to build a politic based on a totally inclusive community. What I’m going to say next is my little anecdote as maybe this will help. It was something that happened to me a couple of months ago, which was that somebody took me to a pro wrestling show at the forum in LA. It was a Wednesday, sold-out crowd, 17,500 people. It started at 5:00 PM. I’d never been to anything like this. I’m a huge UFC fan but pro wrestling, I never got it, I was like, “That’s the ridiculous kind, the fake one.” This person convinced me by saying, “No, dude, it’s drag. It’s like masculinity drag. Drag is femininity drag but pro wrestling, masc drag,” so I was like, “Ooh, okay. I’m down.” So we went and I have to say I had a vision of political utopia in this f*ck*ng pro wrestling show because of this one thing that happened. [laughter] It’s really profound, it’s in my next book. I’ve been writing about it for the last few months. It changed everything for me. That was the favorite of the night, the most famous duo at the moment, they’re called The Acclaimed. They’re these adorable two gay boys who are neon glitter spandex booty shorts and they’re really cute. They come out, the headlining name, like everyone is just, “Oh, my God,” and the slogan that everyone says for The Acclaimed, get into this, is “Scissor me Daddy Ass.” So 17,500 people just on their feet whole families have made cardboard scissors with aluminum foil on the blade and they’re like, “Scissor me Daddy Ass.” [laughter] People are losing their minds. I am like, “I was sorely mistaken. This is fabulous.” They run out, there’s pyrotechnics, the MC is like, “And welcome to the stage The Acclaimed.” Everyone’s going crazy. They run out on stage to do a song and dance before they’re going to fight. They start doing their little number, so drag, fireworks, song, music, everything, and then one of them f*cks up the lyrics and he’s like, “Oh, f*ck, wait. Oh, no, sorry! sorry, sorry. I messed up. We gotta start over,” and they scamper off the stage, and the MC resets, the camera resets, and they just start doing it again. In between that, the entire crowd just, out of someplace that I didn’t know existed still in the human heart, everyone just starts clapping, giggling, and laughing and they start chanting, “You f*cked up! you f*cked up!” in the most loving, caring, supportive way. [laughter] I looked around the arena and I was like, “Can you imagine if somebody said something problematic on Twitter, somebody made a mistake at work, at school, somebody said the wrong thing, and instead of shaming and punishing them, we just saw good-naturedly, we’re like, ‘Yeah, mistakes happen. You f*cked up, try it again, it’s okay.’” I really have been thinking about this. What would happen if we just included that part in the community building? Rather than that you can only do the right thing to be in this community, what if it was more like what about all the mistakes and the things you don’t yet know? That was what built us into some sort of collective.
DN: Yeah. I love that. Well, you alluded to and spoke into the essay Why It’s Taking So Long about debt and I just want to read a couple of those lines because they’re really interesting. “We’ve framed care within the context of debt—where my ‘giving’ care to you means I’m depleting my own stash, and your ‘taking’ from me means that now you owe me—and although we’ve made debt into an index of our deficiency, we’ve also made it the only possible condition of life under capitalism. To be alive in capitalism is by definition to live in debt, and yet we’ve defined debt not as a kind of radical interdependency, as the ontological mutuality of being alive together on this planet,” or I’ll say at a wrestling match, [laughter] “—which it is—but as all that reveals our worst, what happens when we fail, a moral flaw that ought to be temporary and expunged. By doing this, the omnipresence of our need is framed as a kind of weird bankruptcy that happens only to the weak—which is a f*ck*ng canard. The logic of capitalism states that the person who needs support from society is a burden on that society, but this logic can only work when the premise holds that our natural state is one of surplus—and it is not.” Then in Sick Woman Theory you say, “The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring. To take seriously each other’s vulnerability and fragility and precarity, and to support it, honor it, empower it. To protect each other, to enact and practice a community of support. A radical kinship, an interdependent sociality, a politics of care.” Weirdly, or maybe not because we’re talking about the impossibility of being alive, caring, and being connected under this structure, this all makes me think of suicide, which is throughout this book, similar to each chapter having a painting technique as the title, the narrative is regularly interrupted by historical suicide of an artist of some sort, like a drum beat from Rothko to Diane Arbus, and many, many others. We have a question for you about this from Caren Beilin.
Caren Beilin: Hi, Johanna. This is Caren. This question I have for you comes with some content information as I want to talk with you very directly about suicide as your novel Your Love Is Not Good shares the stories of the suicides of several artists across its pages in a procession and almost like these stories are the engine, or ironically enough, the beating heart of this novel. There are indeed many suicides in the arts and novels but I think more so are often about either (a) finding a reason to live or (b) depending on the speed, the cruciality, the lived experience of the writer are about the extreme sanity or the rationality of suicide in a world that worlds like this one does, and then sometimes possibly about living with this outstanding feeling, finding the negotiation or the meter in which to keep living. Thomas Bernhard comes to mind and also Octavia Butler or someone coming from that lineage such as Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and it is quite worth noting and I think important to say that neither Bernhard or Butler ended their own life and Adjei-Brenyah is very much alive, sometimes I wonder about writing about suicide as a kind of a suicide spray. I used to think, or say anyway, that you can’t really write a novel that isn’t about either a child, an artist, or both. Your Love Is Not Good is about both of those things. But now I am also beginning to think there is no novel without somehow this topic of suicide, not really, and Your Love Is Not Good seems to be surfacing this. My question for you is when did this motif of suicides come into the writing of this for you? Why is it important for you to write about suicide in a novel? What does it mean for you to speak so directly and continuously, and I would say thrummingly about this act?
JH: Oh, I love Caren. I loved her new novel.
DN: Me too.
JH: Oh, that one sentence that you pointed out, the omnibus with Anaïs Nin and the green shoes, like, “Oh.”
DN: [Laughs] It’s amazing.
JH: What an incredible sentence. She made a new world with that sentence. That’s a great question. We content warning this, I guess, because it’s about to get real deep. Suicide has been something that’s a regular, not even a visitor in my life, it’s just a regular character, a regular presence. That started because of my mother. My mother was regularly threatening to commit suicide. She did try several times when I was a child. The first time I tried to commit suicide, I was nine, and it was a really profound experience because I was nine and that meant that I didn’t know what I was doing really. I couldn’t have told you that I made a decision, it was more just it seemed like the inevitability that my life was both profoundly unknowable and the opposite. It was so known that I couldn’t bear it. It was late one night and I took what I found were, I thought, powerful enough sleeping pills in the bathroom cabinet of my parent’s room, and I took them and they weren’t enough to kill me but I didn’t know that. I laid down on the couch and I’ve been writing about this, which is why it’s so fresh in my memory, I remember so specifically starting to fall asleep and feeling suddenly like, “Oh, this is the last time that I’m going to ever have this sensation of being conscious.” I remember shocking awake and being terrified and running into the bathroom and looking at my face in the mirror. But I don’t remember what I did next. I don’t remember what I felt or decided or didn’t decide. I only know that I went back to the couch and went to sleep and then I woke up in the morning. I didn’t make myself throw up, I didn’t know how to do that. Either I decided f*ck it or I was bummed but I don’t know. My memory is then just a blank and then I woke up the next morning and I didn’t tell anybody and I went to school like nothing happened.
JH: I think what it did though, and this is something that I did put in the novel and is what Caren is talking about, during the writing of this novel, I was in the psych ward at some point because of suicidal depression, it was because of my mother. It took me actually several years out of that experience, that experience was in 2017, and it took until a couple of years ago for me to realize that it was the last time that I wanted to murder myself. In the psych ward, I think I came to terms with deciding that wasn’t going to be for me, and it had been for me my whole life. In my mind, I was like, “Well, I’m not making it past 40 because clearly I won’t be able to.” The day I turned 20, I cried the whole day and I remember thinking, “If it feels like this already, I’m not going to make it,” and then I cried the whole day when I turned 30, and I’m going to turn 40 next year. What’s also funny about this is that in astrology, there’s this ancient technique to find out when you’re going to die and it’s kind of a hoot because they developed it in an ancient world so it doesn’t really take into account modern medicine. But I learned it. The reason I learned it is because the year my mother died, I was looking at the astrology for the year and I had this zap through my body where I was like, “Oh, someone in my family is going to die,” just based on what I was looking at with the transits but it was so scary and I was like, “I’m being nuts. I couldn’t, no, this is just me overreacting,” and I just didn’t let myself think about it and I just told myself, “That’s not real and you’re not a good enough astrologer to see that. You can’t even use astrology to see that anyway.” It was that argument. Then a few months later, my mother died. Part of the regret and the guilt that swarmed me was if I had been not as afraid to look into this, maybe I could have done something either to help her or something. I learned the technique after that, and of course, the first person I did it on was her and then I did it on myself. This is hilarious, it’s a long calculation, it takes a lot of math to do, it’s not easy. Death in a chart is not one thing or even three things. It’s a lot of things that I’ll have to converge right at the same time. I did it for me and I got that I’m going to die when I’m 40 1/2, and I was like, “F*ck,” and then I was like, “But I f*cking knew it. See, I had the vibe the whole time.” [Laughter] So I called my friend who’s an astrologer and I was bummed. I was having a moment and my friend is like, “Hang on, b*tch, let me check your math. Just wait a minute,” and 12 hours later, they left me a voicemail and they were like, “I have you living to be 93.8.” [laughter]
DN: It’s a big difference.
JH: Such a big difference so I just decided that’s the true one. That hilarious William James quote that my first act of free will is going to be to believe in free will. But to go into how the novel was part of my own relationship with suicide was that my whole life, I just thought that was what was going to happen to me. I can laugh about it now and it’s funny and it wasn’t tragic either. I think that’s what I’m trying to say with this first experience when I was nine is it wasn’t grand, it wasn’t tragic. I just woke up the next morning and went to school. I think that there was something about that that just put it really close to me. There’s a line in the novel about how when life feels the most like life is this lacuna of it being really close to death, and for me, that’s been true. What’s also true I should say about my mother dying in this process is that I have a much better relationship with her now that she’s in the ancestors than when she was alive. My Korean shaman and I for years, we’re doing a lot of stuff for me to make peace with her that could not have happened while she was alive. That’s the other thing I think about being raised in a witchy family and believing in this thing as a possibility is suicide, obviously, I’m mentally ill, I’m clinically psychotic, it obviously was a thing that was an option in the most desperate moments, but it is this thing that Caren is saying, there is an extreme rationality to it also when you’re in there. I think Donald Antrim’s new book really gets at this, what’s it called? One Friday in April. It’s a very slim memoir of his time being suicidal and then being in a psych ward with depression. He talks about it as just this terminus in a very logical way to an illness, like you feel sick and this is the cure. There’s also something I guess in there for me about Camus’ main philosophical thing. I really agree with that as like this is the question always. Not to wrap it up in a nice bow but a couple of years ago, I realized, “Oh, right, I’m not going to die by suicide.” But I do think there is an interesting thing around artists self-destructing and that was the thing that started to happen in the book. I think the first one I put in there was the Rothko and the Rothko line was in it from the beginning. I remember at some point my agent was like, “We had to make a lot of cuts. I guess we should cut this because it’s just one moment,” and rather than cut it, I was like, “Actually, I think we should really expand it.” Then I went through the Wikipedia list of artist suicides. But the other thing about it is I think there is this image of the romantic self-destructing artist that I wanted to play with a little bit.
DN: Well, let’s hear a short reading, just a one-page chapter called Pieta that comes very early in the beginning.
[Johanna Hedva reads from their latest novel, Your Love Is Not Good]
DN: We’ve been listening to Johanna Hedva read from their latest novel, Your Love Is Not Good. I want to talk about the ways this book engages with abjection, humiliation, submission both as a kink and also in a diminishing way, the grotesque body horror, and one possible reading of this book being as a horror book.
DN: Oh, good. I was wondering what you’re going to think of my theory.
JH: Oh, absolutely.
DN: A horror book meant to put us in a wide range I think of both physically and morally squeamish positions, especially when you yourself have said, “In tragic times, I find horror to be the most agile, imaginative, and relevant genre for elucidating the current troubles (this is probably because horror is the contemporary incarnation of tragedy).” But before we do, or as a first step towards doing so, I have to say that even more than things like the intractable vaginal yeast infection that our protagonist has, the oral sex related to it, and the various ad hoc interventions she attempts to address it and is defeated in the face of, I actually found the most squeamish part of the book to be money and noticing that as I read. This might say more about me, who knows? But money and questions of it are ubiquitous in this book. Part of this is that the book opens in an art school where students are incredibly rich with trust funds or large inheritances who are in classes with people who are taking out mortgages on their future with massive student debt. There’s a lot of envy and there’s a lot of projection and performance going on. Part of it was noticing my own responses when this protagonist who is suffering under six figures of debt is buying all these extravagant dresses and wasting money in every possible way as part of her cosplaying being a rich artist in the hopes of ultimately being a rich artist. But mainly, I wonder if it’s simply really the taboo of speaking about it at all. Because it seems like in normative culture, you either don’t bring it up or you bring it up in a sanctioned aspirational way like tips on how to build your platform is a totally normal way to bring up something in this regard. But I remember back to when I was talking to Brian Blanchfield about his book Proxies many years ago and how he mentions in detail in the book, if I remember correctly, his adjunct teaching salary and his expenses and debts in relation to the expectations on him day to day as a teacher and how commented upon this was, it felt electric and forbidden. It feels like this is on almost every page of your novel, these details. In light of the way the details are portrayed, the kissing up to patrons and to the gallery owners, the performance of wealth, all of it seemed profoundly obscene to me and the hardest part of the book to read of anything in the book. [laughter]
JH: Wow, David.
DN: I wondered how that felt to you, I guess for me to connect body horror and the shame that’s in this book to also poverty and privilege in the book.
JH: Maybe I can just sum all this up by saying I’m born on the same day as Marx. It’s just on my mind.
DN: He’s a Taurus too?
JH: Yeah, oh, b*tch, that hair, the material is the whole vibe, that’s Marx, Taurus. Capitalist means a production, come on. I’m also born on the same day as Kierkegaard who also had great hair. That’s so funny. That’s really interesting to me. I do think it says something about you. [laughter]
DN: Well, it has to.
JH: Well, let me get at it from another approach. I really wanted to write about beauty. Very quickly, that meant I had to write about money and wealth. Because art has just forever been tied up with wealth and it’s naive to think I think that there’s some way that wouldn’t happen. I say that as a person who suffered under this naivete for many, many years. I was very like, “I don’t need money to do that.” I literally did use to call myself the anti-object artist, which is what the character Iris Wells in my novel calls herself or that’s her position against capitalism in the commercial art world if she doesn’t want to make any objects that could be sold. That was my position for quite a long time. I remember I will tell this story, talk about squeamish, I had it in my artist statement for several years that my art practice would never produce an object that could be bought or sold. Then, I was at an artist residency right out of grad school, I have six figures of student debt, and there was an open studio day at the residency that I didn’t know was going to happen when I went up there and I had been making these weird drawings for the backdrop of a performance I was going to do in a few months from then and so I just had them around. This is in the Bay Area and there was somebody who came into the studio and wanted to buy one.
JH: I literally had $20 to my name. I couldn’t even afford food when I was up there. I would just go to the kitchen where I would eat leftovers, other people’s leftovers late at night so I could eat. My partner was there when this happened because this person wanted to buy one of the drawings for $400. This is about 10 years ago. My partner was like, “But literally you have a piece of paper taped to the front door of this building of your studio that says you’re not going to sell anything. What are you going to do?” This is one of those moments, it goes in the movie of my life where all of the dramatic music swells where I went and I took the sign down and I sold the drawing for $450.
DN: Well, my disgust wasn’t coming from a naivete but I think what it is is you’re naming all of the things repeatedly, all of the transactions and all the hierarchies keep getting foregrounded and made visible, which shows something I think that is inherently obscene. The system itself looks beautiful when you look at it. You go to some gallery, you go to some museum but I don’t think you allow us very much in this book to experience beauty independent of the modes of production around it.
JH: Well, right, but for better or worse, I think I’m still struggling under Kant, which we all are, which is that the way you know about beauty is by what you find disgusting. That revulsion and disgust is actually much more important to understanding beauties and beauty. But I wanted to say one other thing about this money thing. I think Asian American culture, the kind that I grew up with with my grandmother, we talked about money all the goddamn time. That was it, that was all we talked about in fact and that was the only way of measuring life being good was do you have enough money? Are you working hard? Oh, no, I don’t so uh-oh. That was a very present thing in my Asian side of the family but not in the White side. The White side was also very working class so money was a concern and it was a pressure and a stress but it was never talked about. I think any other Asian American immigrant, first generation, second generation, I’m second generation, would understand this. It’s a very heavy climate and atmosphere in the house is the talking about money, being outright jealous of other people for having money. There has always been something to me about that kind of duality, there really is a kink for me about it. One of my favorite ways honestly to dom people, because I used to do that, I was a phone sex dominatrix for some time, and I love the financial domination. I’m very good at degrading people about that because obviously, I know about it very intimately. [laughter] I know how it feels. So yeah, there is something about money and what you’re saying, the obscenity, the squeamishness, the abjection.
DN: Well, let me ask you about horror more in the way that we think of horror, not my reaction, not my reaction to money.
JH: But this would be a great horror movie, don’t you think? Like a horror movie about just money, poverty, shame, like my card got declined and these things.
DN: That’s in this book for sure to some degree I think. But thinking about horror, transgression, and abjection and thinking about the title of your book Your Love Is Not Good, the book is bookended by dog anecdotes. But the one at the beginning where the mother has a beloved dog but one who can no longer move or even roll over, a dog that most people would put down, she somehow keeps this dog alive for years full of sores decaying in place in the living room. That love is not good. At least that seems to me like one great instance of love that is not good. We haven’t talked about the sex in the book but the stakes are not just high in the art world but also in the bed. There is a really hard-to-read scene where she brings back a younger version of herself, a fan, another sort of twin, and tries to be dominant when she’s usually submissive. It goes really sideways in a haunting way, a way that haunts her afterwards. I wanted to read a couple of things outside the book that you said and hear what you think more about how you would position this book in relationship to the horror genre. At culture.org you said, speaking of your astrological chart, “I have Uranus and the South Node smack on my rising in Sagittarius. For non-astrology people, this means the anus of the universe is sitting right on the place where I’m supposed to appear in the world. And the boiling need to transgress and rebel is against my very self. It means that I abandon my work into the world. It means that my persona, my public self, is already a ghost. It means ‘I’ is multiplied, fractured, and grown through how it is expressed. It’s why I’ve had so many names. What’s on the other side of my face is a stranger. The holy fire to me is about annihilation, surrendering to it.” Then at Art Review you say, “There’s always an overabundance with the gothic, in terms of emotion – it’s too much, too dramatic, too extreme, and I love that. It’s a refusal to just chill out and get over it. The gothic is devoted to the spectres and secrets of society that we’ve tried to repress – ghosts, haunted houses, the weird, the horrifying.” “There was always something for me in being a goth that had to do with my being an outsider to whiteness and normativity, as a Korean- American queer person, as a disabled person.” I wonder thinking about the anus of the universe squatting on you the way Anne Carson is squatting on one of your books, [laughter] how would you and in what way would you position Your Love Is Not Good in conversation with horror, gothic horror?
JH: I mean it’s just my blatant attempt to try to do that genre. The other thing that I can say for the astrologically fluent is I have three, all of the malefics in Scorpio in the 12th and they’re all retrograde: Mars, Saturn, and Pluto so I’m real kinky, like murderotic. [laughter] That’s the vibe. It’s like high goth, old Hollywood Norma Desmond kind of thing and then it’s like just the muck, the chthonic, the aphotic zone which is the bottom place in the lake where there’s not water and not earth, that’s where I live. I should maybe also say this thing about the mother character having the dog that she keeps alive for years is that actually is real. That is what my mother did to her dog. As much as my aunt being Liza Minnelli’s manager in the 80s is a defining thing about my life, that is the most defining, that my mother kept her paralyzed dog alive for four years on the floor in the house. I think when you just grow up in a house like that with the way it smelled, with the way that feeling, that kind of murky, icky feeling just permeated everything, we would open the door just a crack if someone knocked because you couldn’t have people see that. I can’t think of a more horrifying symbol and I could not put it in non-fiction, no one would believe me, it would be way too melodramatic and exaggerated so I put it in here. There’s something about the gothic, like what I say in that quote I still feel very strongly about, although I was joking lately that I’m starting to make enough money to transfer from being a teenage goth to an adult goth, which takes a lot of money by the way, [laughter] because you can see adults walking around that are still in teenage goth clothes, it’s a lot of cheap grommets and polyester and buckles in weird places. To make the transition into the adult goth, you need asymmetry and good leather, Rick Owens, this kind of thing. But there is something about the gothic that you don’t have to just wear all black, it is a sensibility. I always refer the book that changed my life in the last five years was by Leila Taylor, it’s called Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul. She’s writing from two perspectives. One is memoir of being the one Black kid at the Bauhaus concert. Normally, the gothic is a sensibility we really associate with a certain Whiteness like England, Victorian, foggy forests, women in white nightgowns kind of thing but she does this other approach where she’s like, “No, blackness, especially in America, is where the gothic horror would reside,” like in the South, Southern gothic plantation ghost stories, all of that, and then also just a Black kid at the Bauhaus concert, what could be more goth? This book really changed my life when I read it when it came out some years ago. I think the other thing is it’s just my vibe like pus, blood, yeast infection. What’s funny about the yeast infection thing is I remember a couple of years ago, Anne Boyer was posting a lot of stuff about how novels never include menstruation, which is true, real true, way too true. I remember writing in a panic to my agent being like, “F*ck, I didn’t include a menstruation scene in the novel,” and she was like, “I think the yeast infection covers it.” [laughter]
DN: I do too. I think it’s good enough for this book. [laughter]
JH: But then the other thing that I should say about that scene you’re referencing where she takes home the young fan, this scene was incredibly important to me. It was one of the first scenes I wrote. It was like a deciding factor actually in a very big decision I had to make about the book which was that my first agent found me and we’re still really, really close but she left the industry, she stopped being an agent at some point before I was finished with the novel, so I had to get a new agent and I had to do the demoralizing query process. I got down to two people in the meetings and stuff. One of them was really cool and we really got along well but she had a really big problem with that scene. She was like, “We’re going to lose editors, we’re going to lose readers. You cannot have a scene like this unless you reframe the entire novel around the character trying to atone for it.” She specifically said, “At the very least, you have to cut the line ‘I slapped the cunt.’” I was like, “Are you kidding? This is the best line I’ve ever written.” [laughter] Then the next meeting I had, it was going well and at the end of the meeting, I was like, “Hey, can I ask you specifically how you feel about this scene with the character [Leah]?” That person was like, “Oh, I loved it. It’s so important. It’s one of the great scenes that really solidifies what’s going on in the book.” I was like, “Oh, I’m so glad to hear you say that. What about the line I slapped the cunt?” and she was like, “I love that line. It’s one of the best lines in the book,” [laughter] and I was like, “Alright, signing on the dotted line.” So she’s still my agent and it’s the right decision. There was something for me about why it was so important to have. The reason why it was so important for me to have that scene is we have to see the consequence of her mother. I couldn’t spend all of that time in the beginning of the novel doing the childhood trauma and then having this person just behave fine. I really was trying to write into this place that I felt was really missing from the Me Too thing of how women can be abusers because in my life as a queer person, assigned female at birth, femme presenting person, the people who have abused me the most have been women, queer women. That was something that I really wanted this book to have even though it really feels bad. I can’t think of many books that deal with that, I mean certainly, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House did that, which I loved by the way the episode that you two did together about that book. But it was very important to me to have that scene where you finally see her, you know how trauma makes you behave weird?
DN: You think so? [laughter]
JH: Yeah. For me there needed to be something that really upped the stakes about that in a very visceral way and in a way where you saw the consequence of these things that have been done to her that have taught her how to be or conditioned her how to be and how she doesn’t yet have the equipment, the vocabulary, or whatever it is to choose differently. That’s the heartbreak that I always felt when Me Too is happening. You really saw how these men just didn’t understand why what they had done was bad. I’m not trying to excuse them but that’s what patriarchy teaches you. I just felt like that was something that I really wanted the reader to feel very viscerally in the body. Thank God And Other Stories, my editor was Jeremy Davies and he was like, “You need to really push the abjection of this scene actually. You need to not give the reader a way out.”
DN: There was no way out.
JH: That was his note, yeah. That was his note.
DN: Well, the book has an epigraph from Lispector that goes, “That horror, was that love?” and the title of the book comes from the only explicitly, let’s say uncanny or possibly supernatural moment in the book where a witch points at our narrator and says, “Your love is not good.” You talk elsewhere about how witches are always people without institutional power. This curse coming from the outside of this uber-institutional world in this book makes what she says particularly noteworthy I think. Then at the website for GLUT, the home of your sound work project which uses divination and AI but manifests as a video game, you say, “Many years ago, I went to a witch who guided me through a shamanic trance to find my inner temple and sacred weapons. When I got there it was a cave of black water on a distant moon and my ‘weapons’ were a strand of bowel, a tumor with hair, blood clots, and bits of brain. It’s always made me laugh. Years later Amazon recommended my own book to me. These two events are of the most mystically uncanny of my life. I don’t think we can talk about the mystical only in terms of transcendence. More often it’s a state of anti-climax, body horror, confusion, doom, and dread, and it is precisely this paradox that makes it mystical.” But you also describe yourself on your website as follows, “Hedva’s practice cooks magic, necromancy, and divination together with mystical states of fury and ecstasy, and political states of solidarity and disintegration. They are devoted to deviant forms of knowledge and to doom as a liberatory condition. There is always the body — its radical permeability, dependency, and consociation — but the task is how to eclipse it, how to nebulize it, and how to cope when this inevitably fails.” I was hoping you could talk to us about doom as a liberatory condition, and perhaps doom in relation to fate as if a witch were to point at you, at us, or at our protagonist and doom us by proclaiming our fate to us.
JH: [Laughs] I mean f*ck, David, these are the greatest question. You are great at this. I love it. I’ve just been listening to this podcast forever and only how many years and I’m always like, “Oh, what an amazing question,” and I just listened to it for your voice while you’re asking them and now here I am, I have to be present, okay. [laughter]
DN: You’re doomed. You’re doomed to answer this question, Johanna.
JH: Oh, okay. I feel like I want to talk about two things and I hope I don’t forget one of them. I’m like, “Which one should I start with?” Let’s do the doom one first. But the other one I want to talk about is fate and will. Will you remind me if I forget?
DN: I will.
JH: Okay. The doom thing. I started to really include this in my work some years ago when I was at the Beer and Metal Festival in LA which is one of my favorite live music experiences. What’s great about it is the band’s set up one by one in front of you and then they sound check right before they then play. It’s like the kimono is open so to speak and you just see the whole apparatus. My friend and I who always go together, we always try to guess the genre of metal based on the equipment. They’re setting up like a wall of orange amplifiers and two bases and we’re like, “Doom.” Then it’s like a drum set with a double bass and a seven-string guitar and a gong and we’re like, “Death.” It’s speed death, whatever it is. I remember we were talking about it like, “Yeah, what is the difference between doom metal and death metal?” The answer is death metal is fast and doom metal is slow. That felt really profound to me at the time. The death is fast but doom is slow. The other thing I have to say about the doom thing is I just felt better in my own life when I started to just be like, “Oh, right, we’re totally doomed.” That’s actually the place to start, not end. This is obviously very political. Think of how many communities throughout time have literally met the end of their world where the apocalypse happened and they are living in the wake of it. Part of this when I started to think about rearranging, not just spiritually but politically rearranging myself to a relationship with doom, had to do with trying to deal with what was at hand in front of me without the balm of hope. I got really high and mighty on this for a minute where I was like, “Do you understand how privileged you are to have to require hope before you can act? You know how many people have not had the luxury of hope and still had to act, they still had to get up every day and deal with unimaginable horrors being done to them and they still survived, they still made music, they still cooked?” These things. The other thing I think around doom as a starting place has to do with strategy, which is that I talked about this, I did activism for many years for money, for my living and I started to notice something which was that I could understand that what we were doing as activism had a kind of value, was the right thing to do, was the cause, or whatever it was because it failed. Activism always fails I think and that’s how you know it’s activism. This felt also very profound to me when I figured it out where I was like, “Right, if it succeeded, then what? Then what would happen? You would just be done with racism or what?” So I started to really measure how I could spiritually and politically be in relationship to trying for a better world, political dreams, ambitions, hope by the fact that they would always fail. This lately, the thing that morphed into on my mind was about doom as a strategy, as a kind of strategic tactical move which is that as I mentioned, I love the UFC, I watch it every week, I love it, and one of the things that I thought about is if you get in the ring and you know you’re going to lose, you’ll fight differently. I really do think that those of us on the “left” would be better served if we started to address the fact that we are absolutely going to lose. If our opponent is capitalism, girl, we’re going to lose. This opponent is so much bigger than us, it’s so much better at cannibalizing everything to serve itself. We are absolutely going to lose, are you kidding me? [laughter] We’re going to lose.
DN: I wish people could see your face. [laughter]
JH: Oh, my God. I was just like screaming, yelling big eyes, flailing gesticulation [spit]. [laughter] But you know what I’m saying? If we were to get in the ring with capitalism knowing we were going to lose, we would fight differently. We would have a different strategy. I don’t know if it would work. Who knows if we would actually win? But it would be maybe not as painful because you can watch this with fighters, you can watch it in real-time when you watch a fight. If someone knows that person is bigger than them, stronger than them, has a better-left hook, or knock them out already as an example, it’s a different approach. It’s a different training camp. When they’re in there, they do different things. I just feel that’s where I would hope—uh-oh, I’m hoping—where I would want us to start addressing it because I think just also emotionally, activism burnout is so real and if you are attached to this thing succeeding all the time and then it keeps not succeeding, you’re going to give up. To me, there’s a big difference between losing a fight and giving up. I’m not saying we should give up, I’m saying we need to fight differently. I’m not saying we should give up. I actually think that giving up is the worst thing you can do. That’s what I mean with doom is when you start with it rather than have it be the end, it just rearranges things in a way that takes away fear, dread, and the bottoming out when you’re just living for everything to work. Also, as a disabled person who’s regularly gone up against my physical limitation in a terrifying way of just pain and suffering, I had to do this without, I didn’t really want to start loving doom but it just felt better than it was just at some point, more practical.
DN: And I’m supposed to remind you about fate.
JH: Maybe this will go right back to the beginning scene, which has to do with the novel as a form that deals with choice and consequence and the distance between them. I can say this about fate and will, which is just gleaned from my years of reading astrology for people. I’ve been reading charts now for over a decade, I think for money it’s been a decade, and two things happen simultaneously in my mind when I look at somebody’s chart. They happen equally intensely. There’s not a priority of “This one is a little stronger than the other one,” they’re the same and they are seemingly antipodal. One is that I look at the chart and I just see all of the potential of what could happen. “Oh, that person could be an artist,” “That person could be good with their hands,” “That person might have this,” “That person might have struggled with that thing,” whatever it is, these kinds of contingencies and possibilities and what might have happened. Then equally strongly, I see everything that did happen and will happen in such a way that this has just been the case for so long that now I don’t think these two things are mutually exclusive or opposite. I don’t think they’re the same, maybe, but they’re superimposed in such a way that maybe they are the same, I don’t know. I can’t explain it and I feel like this is why I’m still interested in doing astrology for people. It’s also why I’m interested in speculation in the form of fiction or a novel is that these two things laying over each other, like one could say fate, determinism, something, fatalism, and then what agency or will will decide about it and what has not been written yet, to me these are laying over each other in a way that really shimmers and I just started to think about it as I think I’m just devoted to that shimmering. I don’t know what that means or how to explain it, it’s just that’s what it feels like to me when I’m looking at it. I feel the same way when I’m writing.
DN: Well, near the end of the book as we near the end of our time, our protagonist gets a head injury, a forehead injury which evokes Athena who herself is born from Zeus’s head motherless. I think of an interview you did at e-flux where they asked you what the name of your latest album Black Moon Lilith in the 4th House in Pisces means and you talk about how Black Moon Lilith is an asteroid that represents the place in your chart where you were most injured by the patriarchy and therefore, if you can cathart it, you will feel the most emancipation around this place. When you talk about this place where one is most oppressed, also being the site of possible emancipation, I think of how you say in that same interview, “Astrology is very good at giving language to experiences that contemporary society tends to consolidate under just one meaning. For example, the axis of illness and suffering is also the axis of ritual and care and sanctuary and sleep. There are three houses called the ‘trauma houses’—and these are also called the ‘mystic houses.’” Also, you say, “Through astrology I’ve come to think about all forms of writing as forms of divination.” In your talk How To Tell When You’re Gonna Die: Astrology for Writers, you talk about narrative as prophecy, that language creates the world as much as it breaks it. That languages are systems that humans invent to make meaning on the planet just like astrology is. You talk also about astrology as a story device like any other language. This is my long preface around divination and prophecy to ask about the future for us and for you. You’ve said America is going to end in 2024. [laughter] Interestingly, I was just at a Jorie Graham reading this last week where she said she was told it was going to end in 2030. Either way, soon. Why is this so and what other sorts of liberatory doom can we expect from you before it does end?
JH: Yeah, I mean it’s going to end in the way that it’s going to keep ending. I’m not the only astrologer that’s talking about this, it’s because America is having its Pluto return. It began in 2020 actually, which is why everything went real well in that year. This would be an example of what I’m saying of it’s not like suddenly everyone’s just going to disappear or something. It’s that a version of America will definitively die for sure. It will take years, decades, it’s a long death. My feeling is that it might feel a little bit how Greece feels now where the Parthenon is and the Acropolis are up in the center of the city and everything else is difficult. They’re very poor now. It’s one of the poorest countries in the EU. But every cab driver you have in Athens is like, “Acropolis, isn’t it beautiful?” I feel like America is going to be like that about its grand past, probably more insufferably than the Greeks. Well, as I mentioned as we began, supposedly the greatest best year of my life is next year and then it just tanks after that. I can say when I turned 30, I did make a little plan. I had a 10-year goal which was that I wanted to have four books published by the time I was 40. Actually, that was the whole plan. There were no other details. It was just like books, more than one, get them into the world somehow. Now, that will be true if I can finish the manuscript somehow between now and June 30th for the essay collection, which is also why I feel a little disoriented at the moment. That book is supposed to come out in 2024, How to Tell When We Will Die. The next record I’m also working on, I’m really excited about it, I’m confused though, it’s like I wrote a bunch of stuff on an acoustic guitar, it was a haunted returned guitar. It disappeared for 10 years. It was the guitar I learned how to play on. It was my father’s guitar and he found it at a garage sale for $50. I don’t think we’ve changed the strings in probably 40 years actually and he taught me how to play on it when I was 12. Then at some point, it just disappeared. Every couple of years, we would be like, “Whatever happened to that thing?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” Then we’d forget about it, whatever, and then last year, it just showed up on the porch and someone had stolen it 10 years ago and we didn’t know and then they returned it unannounced 10 years ago. When I was in LA this last winter, it was there and I was like, “Oh, hey.” I remembered all the songs I had written on it, dozens and dozens, and then I wrote a bunch of new ones on a nylon string acoustic like just f*ck me, what am I going to do with that? That’s maybe where the succubus folk songs, that genre will get fleshed out hag blues.
DN: No waterfall singing over those nylon strings?
JH: Oh, well, I’m trying to rough it up for sure. The joke I’ve actually had for this one is that if way across the street, a football field length away is Lucinda Williams, I’m trying to throw a ping pong ball over there and it’s certainly not going to land. [laughter]
DN: I hope it does.
JH: But yeah, if I could just make my Lucinda Williams record, I would be really pleased. But I think you’re getting the sense, it’s like I set out on this funny little task that I’m never going to really reach and then the failure, the way that I fail at it is the interesting part.
DN: It was great being with you, Johanna Hedva.
JH: Oh, David Naimon.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Johanna Hedva about their latest novel Your Love Is Not Good from And Other Stories. 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. You can find out more about Johanna Hedva’s work at johannahedva.com. For the bonus audio archive, Hedva contributes a brand new creation made with us in mind, “The Saddest Thing of All Is When a Lone Astronaut Falls in Her Suit—Who Is There to Help Her Up?” A mix of their various vocalizations and text while on tour, along with the various voices of the universe itself. The bonus audio archive 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 for it, things referenced during it, and places to explore once you’re done listening. Additionally, there are a variety of other potential gifts and rewards from the bonus audio archive, which includes supplemental readings from today’s guest questioners, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Lucy Ives, and Caren Beilin, 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 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.