David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by E.J. Koh’s much anticipated debut novel The Liberators, an elegantly wrought family saga of memory, trauma, and empathy, and a stunning testament to the consequences and fortunes of inheritance. Spanning two continents and four generations, The Liberators exquisitely captures two Korean families forever changed by fateful decisions made in love and war. Says Tayari Jones, “Spare, beautiful, and richly layered, The Liberators is dazzling.” Adds Ed Park, “You won’t know what hit you until the final, perfect image.” The Liberators is available now from Tin House. I’m unusually excited to share today’s conversation, not only because of Sofia Samatar’s return to Between the Covers or Kate Zambreno’s long overdue first appearance on the show but also because this is only the second time ever I’ve had a collaborative pair on the show before. The first was about a decade ago, Leni Zumas and Luca Dipierro for their novel in 64 cards called A Wooden Leg, a collaboration of image and text of writer and visual artist and a collaboration with chance and happenstance with a “book” that really had no fixed order, so our conversation became one about constraint-based writing and non-normative forms of storytelling. Today’s conversation’s concerns are much different I think as both our guests today are writers, each writers with distinct styles who are often working in different genres, who are now writing a book together through the shared voice or the shared point of view of what they call the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere. Their book is about the ever-elusive and hard-to-define phenomenon of tone in literature, something that despite its difficulty to name may be the very thing that defines our reading experience, even perhaps the reason why we seek out certain writers in certain books. But their investigation of tone also by extension becomes an investigation of the relational, the communal, the collective, the collaborative, and thus it reflects back on the nature of their own collaboration, and how from their point of view, all writing is collaborative and collective. If you don’t normally check out the bookshop associated with each episode, this would be the week to start as it is the largest one yet, given how much Tone engages with and is indebted to so many other books. But there are two books in specific that today’s conversation on Tone uses to enrich our understanding of it. They’re both collaborative books in and of themselves, both books written by two people as one voice: The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, and The Hundreds by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart. For the bonus audio archive, Kate and Sofia extend the spirit of their book and our conversation into a set of alternating readings by them, a call in response between Kate and Sofia where Kate talks about, and introduces, then reads from a given work, whether something by Renee Gladman, Bhanu Kapil, or others and Sofia responds to Kate with a reading of her own from everyone from Nella Larsen to H. Bustos Domecq, the shared pseudonym of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares when they wrote together collectively as if one. This almost becomes an episode in and of itself. It’s over 40 minutes long and joins an ever-growing giant archive of supplemental material from a late-night reading of favorite works by Bhanu Kapil to a writing exercise by Lucy Ives to long-form conversations with translators and much more. The bonus audio is only one possible thing to choose from when you join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. There are many other things from the Tin House Early Reader Subscription to rare collectibles from past guests to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. Every supporter at any level receives the supplementary resources with each episode, with everything I discovered and used to prepare for the conversation, the many things referenced during it, and suggestions of where to explore once you’re done listening, and which this time, with today’s resource email to supporters, this time includes surprise music, music that is missing from today’s episode, something that will make sense once you’ve listened to the conversation. Every listener-supporter can join our collective brainstorm of who to invite next on the show. You can check this all out and more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Kate Zambreno and Sofia Samatar.
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. One of today’s two guests, Sofia Samatar, was first on the show seven years ago now to talk about her second novel The Winged Histories, a book that both interrogates and celebrates the genre of high fantasy. Since then, Samatar has published her story collection Tender and the collaborative book with her brother, the visual artist Del Samatar, Monster Portraits, a finalist for the Calvino Prize. Most recently, she published her memoir The White Mosque which interweaves the story of Mennonite and Muslim encounter in Central Asia in the 19th century with her own trip to Uzbekistan, and her own Somali-Muslim and Swiss-German Mennonite heritage. A polyvocal work of memoir, history, and travel writing, the White Mosque received the Bernard J. Brommel Award for Biography & Memoir and was a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Samatar’s essays, fiction, and criticism have appeared everywhere from Strange Horizons and Uncanny Magazine to The New Inquiry, Conjunctions, and The White Review. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and translated into eleven languages. She holds a PhD in African Languages and Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied modern Arabic literature and she teaches African literature, Arabic literature, and speculative fiction at James Madison University where she is a Roop Distinguished Professor of English. For our second guest, Kate Zambreno, this is her first appearance on Between the Covers but hopefully not the last. Kate Zambreno is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction including Green Girl, Heroines, Book of Mutter, Screen Tests, and Drifts. Most recently, she’s the author of a study of Hervé Guibert, To Write as if Already Dead, and The Light Room, a meditation on art and care, on caretaking as mothering, as public health, as the public commons, as shared green spaces, a book of which Nobel Prize winner Annie Ernaux says, “Kate Zambreno has invented a new form. It is a kind of absolute present, real life captured in closeup.” Sabrina Orah Mark adds, “The Light Room is a miracle, a wooden box with a golden clasp filled with the specimens of all our most precious, disappearing days.” Zambreno’s writing has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to Granta to the Paris Review and has been translated into seven languages. Zambreno is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction and Chair in Environmental Writing at Sarah Lawrence College and teaches graduate non-fiction at Columbia. They are both here to talk about their latest project, the collaboratively written book, Tone, out from Columbia University Press, a book written together but with one voice or point of view called the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere. Jackie Wang, author of Carceral Capitalism and The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void calls Tone, “A gorgeous inventory of baroque intensities, spooked consciousnesses, vibrational affectivities, and shifting moods—written in and through precarity’s duration. The Committee has convened to remind us, in shimmering and intricate prose, that all thinking is collective thinking. In the doorway of thought: a ‘we’ steps into the weather of literature.” Two-time Between the Covers guest Cristina Rivera Garza adds, “Just as the world laments the apparent lack of insightful literary criticism as well as the dwindling number of venues that support it, here comes the dazzling Committee to Investigate Atmosphere with a piece of criticism like no other. Written collaboratively and in luscious, piercing dialogue with students and peers, Kate Zambreno and Sofia Samatar set out to interrogate the question of tone from every angle imaginable: what it is or might be, how it wraps around the human and non-human, how it affects work and space, rooting readers in territories through specific prepositions; why it has proclivity for windows and community. Reading thickly and in context a to-die-for selection of contemporary creative and theoretical works—including, lo and behold, texts in translation—the Committee reminds us that often we read books less for plot, character or setting, and more for the quality of atmosphere, seeking—quite simply and quite momentously—to ‘breathe that air again.’” Welcome to Between the Covers, Sofia Samatar, and Kate Zambreno.
Sofia Samatar: Thank you. It’s nice to be back.
Kate Zambreno: Yeah, it’s nice to be here. It’s nice to be here with Sofia, to be here together.
DN: Yeah. This is only, as I was telling you, my second time having two guests. The last time was over a decade ago. Prior to reading Tone, I hadn’t thought a great deal about what Tone was and I had defaulted in my mind to the notion that it had to do with voice, that it was a quality of voice in your book almost immediately, then I think consistently throughout makes a convincing case that it’s something else, something shared, in between, relational, or atmospheric and definitely something collective, and communal rather than equality of an individual. You quote at one point Fred Moten who said, “I always thought that ‘the voice’ was meant to indicate a kind of genuine, authentic, absolute individuation, which struck me as (a) undesirable and (b) impossible.” “Whereas a ‘sound’ was really within the midst of this intense engagement with everything: with all the noise that you’ve ever heard, you struggle somehow to make a difference, so to speak, within that noise. And that difference isn’t necessarily about you as an individual, it’s much more simply about trying to augment and to differentiate what’s around you. And that’s what a sound is for me.” Before we talk about Tone in a collective sense, I guess I wanted to stay one moment with my false notion of voice or perhaps Moten’s true notion of sound and ask you a couple of questions about how you went about writing this together. My questions are both conceptual or philosophical and practical and logistical. For one, I’m curious if you were aiming for a third voice or a third sound that was somehow both of you and neither of you or whether you wanted to allow a different musical syntax when each of you wrote. Kate, you had mentioned that one influence for the book was another collaboratively written book The Hundreds by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, and in a public event that they had about that book, they said that collaboration is a meeting of minds that don’t match, yet my reading experience is one where the sound feels like it has a continuity. When the two of you say in the book in one voice, “Thus begins the body of the text, our body,” it feels like you might have aimed for a certain unison of sound. If you indeed were looking for a shared third space, how did you or didn’t you divide the work? How did you edit each other if you did? Were you editing each other’s sentences toward a third sound? Or is there some other methodology entirely that you went about creating this together?
KZ: I want to think about just first, this idea that voice is individual or that when we read literature, we read an individual. I think that’s so much within how we view, I mean the novel now, how we view literature now is about everything as being the author and the individual. I think that is so much the cult of capitalism influencing how we think about reading and literature. I think one of the impulses in general behind this project was not to deconstruct voice—I still think voice is important in writing—but to think about literature as collaborative. By its essence, literature is a collective feeling, it is a collaborative feeling, especially when you’re dealing with translated literature, you’re dealing with many voices and something like what Fred Moten calls an ensemble tone, so I think we’re playfully desiring collaboration that’s more formal than the collaboration we already felt as readers and writers with each other, and with other readers and writers. This idea of the voice as being individual really inspired by Moten, Harney, Berlant, and Stewart, I think that was what we were playfully and formally trying to deconstruct. That literature isn’t already an ensemble thing. That’s not already a communal thing. When we’re reading, we have our voice, we have the narrator voice, then we have possibly a translated voice. There are already so many voices. I just want to start with that.
SS: I think another way to think about it is okay, let’s say we are talking about voice, let’s go with individual voice, where does it come from? It comes from other voices. It comes from literature. I think that’s why in that wonderful Moten quote about sound, his statement recognizes that there’s nothing that originated with you. You arrive into sound, you arrive into the midst of sound, sound is already there, then what the individual is doing is playing with that and how can I insert myself into this sound, and also being infected by it, contaminated by it so that for me, I find my writing absolutely shifts depending on what I’m reading and I’m pretty sure that that’s not just me. When you talk about the question, David, about the committee in Tone and is the committee a combination of voices, is the committee a third thing, I think that the voice of the committee comes from the two of us being deeply inspired by each other so that there’s a kind of contamination or a cross fertilization that is happening between our voices throughout the text. That is what develops a third thing which is the voice of the text. When we had our launch event over the weekend for the book, that was the first time I realized that part of what’s very strange in talking about this book as opposed to anything else I’ve written is that I feel like in a sense, it is written by this third mixed entity which is neither Kate nor me but is the sound that arises as we work together.
KZ: I’ll even take that and add to that that the committee is not just us, Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno. The committee is a swarm of others, a contamination of other voices who are also reading the text, so already the committee is not just us. There are all these other anonymous users as we joke. There’s already a plurality. I think the fact is Sofia and I are always inspired by other voices when we’re writing, we’re always inspired by reading, we’re readers first and foremost, so much for both of us in our separate then now communal practices is about the act of translation, so there are so many voices in this text. I know you want to get at the how but the first stage was collecting mostly Fred Moten, then also Moten and Harney quotes and rubbing them together in a space together and thinking what is this friction of rubbing these quotes together and what is that bringing up, so already, it’s not us at all in this. There’s the committee of our elective affinities, then also the reader is always there, the plurality is always there and to us, that contamination, as Sofia is saying, is beautiful. Beautiful. It’s sacred.
DN: It reminds me that there are these moments in the second half of the book that are very particular, that you can tell that they’re from one of your pasts or one of your childhoods, not the other but the sound doesn’t differentiate or split, it’s still the committee. We don’t know, if we don’t know you, whose memory it is. It’s being spoken as if it’s both of your memories or the committee’s memory. That also happens in The Hundreds with lines like, “My sister, Peg, remembers that our mother made us get short haircuts.” We don’t know if that’s Berlant or Stewart. It feels like that’s doing something, it’s making something wobble or pointing at an instability perhaps, maybe about self or about voice because it never tips its hand to where’s the origin of this. Maybe it’s skeptical to the question of origin.
SS: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of skepticism toward origins, which I think is part of our interest in work in translation because when you read in translation, you foreground the question of origins in a way that bursts everything open and pulls everything apart. It makes it very clear that you can’t establish that single origin for anything. I did want to go back also to the question that you asked about did we edit each other’s sentences because the answer is no.
DN: Okay, that’s remarkable I think, I mean given that it feels so smooth, the voice of the committee feels smooth to me.
KZ: I think that there are so many Lauren Berlant feelings in Tone. I think that we started thinking about it, if my time is being really confused but I think it was around the time that they died and they were always like a mentor to me, just in terms of their work but also I actually did study with Lauren Berlant when I was a completely different person a very long time ago. I think there was that sense of an elegy and a communication in it, and we were so drawn to The Hundreds, what is going on there, what is it like for two “I’s” to reside next to each other, then what is it like when “we” happens, when there’s a “we,” this idea of speculative practices as being a plurality. Unlike The Undercommons which is subsumed under a “we,” The Hundreds invites more friction. I would say the beauty for me is less the smoothness. Smoothness is so professional and polished, everything being smooth but it’s the friction, it’s the irritation. It’s the fact that we are rubbing next to each other and trying to see what happens, what is that irritation or that friction of collaboration. That interests me and there is a mysterious quality to The Hundreds that is opaque and I think this idea of the “I” and the opacity of it or the “we” and the opacity of it, that trickiness I think we were both drawn to.
SS: Very much so. It’s very playful. When we started, I think the beginning of the book makes it clear that somebody was teaching Larsen’s Quicksand in a class and I was teaching it in a graduate seminar, and Kate was like, “Oh, I love that book. I want to read that book with you,” and we started reading it together and we started writing back and forth about it so much that we eventually had to shift that conversation out of our email and into a Google Doc, which eventually became this book as we continued to read other texts together. I love that idea of friction because there’s so much in it because friction, it is the rubbing together, it also creates heat, it generates energy, and it also makes a sound. Friction makes a sound, so I think that’s a wonderful description of what happened as we began writing together. Then playing with this idea of the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere, there’s also a friction there between the rogue approach to genre that we had where we really didn’t decide what genre it was or think about what genre it was. There’s a friction between that and the ordinary or conventional ways about writing about literature within an academic context. The fact that this book is written by people who are working in academic institutions but is absolutely chafing against the more common academic ways of writing about literature, I think that there’s an important friction there also and that play is absolutely fundamental to that.
DN: What you just said, Sofia, something that I really love about the book is that each of these chapters approaching tone in a different way and no matter how philosophical or conceptual that investigation becomes, we’re always also situated in your lives. We were told how much time has passed since you last talked or a given chapter might be situated in a classroom with your students, with a given set of questions you might have related to tone in a given text, they’re present with you in an open space with your students within the book, so you’re gathering around a book within the book together in an academic setting is one possible iteration of a chapter. Despite the book having the voice of a committee, the tone created by the committee’s voice doesn’t really feel top-down or pedagogical because of this I think, because we’re in a place of inquiry, we’re in the middle of things. It makes me think of the interview at the back of The Undercommons where Harney says that he uses his repetition to show that he’s playing with something rather than finished with it to indicate that they’re rehearsing and that you might as well pick up an instrument too which I really love, and I feel like that applies to Tone. I wondered if maybe we could just spend another moment with the chapter Fog, or A Gradual Accumulation which is where we find ourselves picking up an instrument with you, with your students around passages of the Harlem Renaissance, Novelist Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, which you’ve just mentioned and you ask them about the tone of the passage, and they agree that it is a gray or a gradual accumulation or an ominous fog and you ask where does the tone reside, and what are its signs, and your students or some of them point to clouds and storms which feels maybe too obvious or reductive when you guys contemplate that as a reason for grayness. You go on to think about the absence of images in the passage and the absence of anything indicating life, and maybe that absence is the grayness. But I guess in a larger sense, if we were to step back from those questions, is there a reason why we open the book with Quicksand as a good place to begin around tone? Is it simply because, in a way, that is the origin story for you moving to a Google Doc together as you have these great email threads around your shared love of the book? Or is there more to why we might enter this multifaceted investigation starting here, starting with Larsen’s book?
KZ: I just want to say that I think actually, this is the playfulness, I think one of the passages you just read you attributed to Sofia but I’m not sure who wrote it actually, right? [laughter]
DN: That’s correct.
SS: Me neither. This happens to me all the time.
KZ: We assume that it’s Sofia but even though it was Sofia actually teaching Quicksand, it’s not totally clear, like we are writing all of those Quicksand passages together, so it’s like it becomes a speculative practice, the teaching of Quicksand where we both take on the role of the teacher. Quicksand is also a novel, it’s a novel of so much. Sofia can speak about this initial irritation that led to us realizing that there were so many sparks and friction for us to write through. But Helga Crane is a teacher who is alienated from teaching and alienated from her students, alienated from her campus, and awash with ambient racism and patriarchy. Most of the works we write about in Tone deal with alienation, melancholy, and exhaustion from academia, if not all of the works; Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear translated by Susan Bernofsky, Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate translated by Katy Derbyshire, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and Quicksand. There is this desire for us, following Moten and Harney, to develop a course of study, as they have said, like playing music, there’s that whole quote from Fred Moten that we quote like, “A study can be dancing together, talking together, reading together, just being together.” We wanted to develop a course of study that somehow felt good, that answered back to the alienation we felt in different ways with the idea of academic study or the idea of the oppression of a classroom. I think the collaborative vibe that we felt with our students throughout this and the fact that we view the students as collaborators in this is part of both of our desire for teaching to feel playful, experimental, and a course of study. I think this work is just part of that but also the works that we read deal with that alienation and that exhaustion, and we try to answer that back with good feeling.
SS: Yeah. A huge part of the good feeling comes from the collaboration and we’ve spoken together about how different it is publishing a collaborative work, and how much more excited we were about Tone being published than works that we’ve written with just our own name on the cover, how good it feels to work together, to be together and to acknowledge that as something that is valid rather than having to reduce everything down to a single name. When you ask, “Why begin with Nella Larsen? Was it just an accident of the way things happen to happen?” I guess I have two answers to that. One of them is that I’m not sure that there is anything so near or simple about what just happened. I think that there can be something very powerful about a work that is of its time, that is tied to its time, and that acknowledges the passage of time and the way things did actually happen. That’s a move away from a universal, like this is something that I’ve written that is for all time, therefore maybe there’s something not quite high or important enough about the everyday ordinary life. I guess I would push against that a little bit and be like, “No, there’s something very amazing about acknowledging those moments of time and going with that in a work of theory.” The other answer that I have to that question is that reading Nella Larsen’s Quicksand alongside Sianne Ngai’s chapter on irritation in Ugly Feelings in which she writes about Quicksand and writes about irritation as the organizing tone of that novel, it was a strange experience reading Sianne Ngai’s chapter on Quicksand alongside the novel because in Ugly Feelings, we have this argument that there is a global irritation which also becomes the irritation of readers with Helga Crane, the main character because she doesn’t really say what she feels and she wanders from place to place, and it’s like, “What’s wrong with her?” Then this actually becomes irritating for readers. Kate and I did not have that experience reading this book. I’m irritated with everybody in that book except Helga Crane. [laughter] She’s the only character that I understand and I think everybody else, they irritate me. This raises a very interesting question about tone which is like, “Is the blue that I’m seeing the same as the blue that you’re seeing?” question and that seems to call for collaboration in a very direct way. It seems almost silly to go and write a book about tone by yourself without anybody to interact with and bounce things off of, and involve another perspective in your talking about tone because otherwise, you could be just in a random chamber by yourself and you can’t tell how it relates to what anybody else is thinking. Because that experience of reading those texts seemed to really call for collaboration, I think that’s also part of the reason that it becomes the first chapter.
KZ: I also think that Nella Larsen was such an important writer for both of us. Quicksand is such a work of ugly feelings. It is such a work of tremendous feelings. I think this distance between how she was reviewed at the time or how she can be read in some way has just induced this powerful, contradictory feeling for us. It was like this powerful thing that we felt we had to write into. I think with literary criticism, it has to be a work that feels so open and so powerful that you actually feel like you have to write through it. I don’t know if I’ve really framed this to Sofia before but Nella Larsen was supposed to be in Heroines. I did tons of Nella Larsen research and I felt like I needed to know more about her life, her fascinating life, everything that happened to her as a librarian and a writer in the Harlem Renaissance, and the plagiarism scandal. She was always like this writer for me that I hadn’t written about, who I had wanted to write about. I think with the work that I write about in Heroines, these modernist works by Anna Kavan, Jean Rhys, or Jane Bowles, they are these incredibly powerful works of intense sensitivity and feeling which were often viewed as hysterical or viewed as rubbing people the wrong way. To think about how can we actually theorize a work where irritation or annoyance within a narrator is actually a form of practice, that a narrator who is beginning to actually react to an environment that’s paralyzing and literally insane, and insanity making but is also a passive narrator, these works of this time have such an incredible potency. I think Quicksand also in how it deals with class and Blackness, all these forms of alienation, femininity, it’s such an incredibly powerful text. I think for both of us we felt it had not maybe been read with as much love as it should be.
DN: Well, even already today in our conversation but I also think even already in the first chapter of Tone, tone doesn’t become more clear, it becomes more mysterious or it multiplies in meanings right away. You wonder if it’s a mood or a form of shared feeling. You think of it as a sound, a tone that is auditory but also even here as a skin tone, quoting Christina Sharpe who writes of slavery as atmospheric density and anti-Blackness as climate or weather. I like how you connect the notion of skin tone, of something covering a surface and thus rendering it opaque, then connecting that to the right to opacity as it manifests in Larsen’s book, and as you just mentioned, Kate, the notion of passivity as a form of resistance. We have a question for you from someone else that doesn’t relate to these questions of skin tone. But I’m placing it here because I feel like it has some loose affinities with this chapter, this being a question about clouds, like the clouds in the passage in Quicksand but in this case, about the cloud that is the shared space on the internet, a space of meeting and, in your case, collaboration, and also this questioner’s ambivalence to the cloud which reminds me a little of the refusal of Helga Crane. Otherwise, it’s entirely its own thing. The question is from Barbara Browning who people will recognize as the ukulele player in the outro for the show for many years up until a couple of episodes ago. Her blurb for this book was even cloud-centric, so I’m going to read her blurb first. “In this subtle, haunting study, ‘the Committee’ investigates what it means to write both of and on the cloud. Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno gave themselves over to the nebulous space of a collective reading and writing practice, seeking neither plot nor character, but rather that most indefinable of literary qualities: tone. Joining them there is eerily calming: ‘Someone else has entered the chat. And so here we are.’ After three years of constant, anxious reminders that we are breathing each other’s air, try as we might to remain particular, there is something immensely gratifying about surrendering to this pronoun of our plural, historical intimacy.” I’m also just going to say that in addition to the question Barbara asks, she also plays a ukulele cover for us of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now which I’m going to play to the guests. [laughter] But due to copyright, licensing, or whatever that would involve, it’s not going to be on the show itself, so you’re just going to have to imagine after Barbara’s question that you’ve heard a ukulele rendition of Joni Mitchell afterward, which they will have heard, so here is Barbara’s question, then her performance.
Barbara Browning: Kate and Sofia, you know how much I loved reading your book, and when David asked me to ask you a question, the first thing that came to mind was about your process. You did something that I find very difficult myself which is to say I love collaborative writing but I’ve never done it on the cloud. So, unable to formulate a very coherent question about that, I resorted to what I often resort to which was, “Well, maybe I’ll make a ukulele cover,” then I thought, “Well, which song?” The first thing I thought of was The Rolling Stones, “Hey, hey, you, you, get off of my cloud,” then I thought maybe that was a little brutal, so I thought of Jimi Hendrix Little Wing, “Well, she’s walking through the clouds with a circus mind that’s running wild,” then finally, I came to, probably too predictably, the song that really seems to encapsulate my own ambivalence about the cloud, Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now and that’s what I ended up making for you. But I guess if I’m to phrase this as a question, it would be around that question of ambivalence and whether any of those songs, whether Jimi’s fantastical, playful version, The Rolling Stones’s aggressive version or Joni’s ambivalence, which of those would speak to you and your experience of that process?
SS: That was so beautiful. I am so sad that not everybody is hearing what we just heard.
DN: It’s amazing, isn’t it?
KZ: Is there any more joyous and mischievous writer right now than Barbara Browning? Hi, Barbara.
SS: She’s amazing.
KZ: I wish it was like a call-in, so we could actually talk to the people calling in. I hadn’t been in touch with Barbara Browning for a while. We did an event when I’m Trying to Reach You came out and Heroines came out. It was one of those panel things that had that panel feeling to it, that lonely panel feeling where nothing is really said. You wish more was said. But she knitted booties when Leo was born and sent them to me. [laughs] But I was really happy to be back in touch with Barbara Browning and to be able to send her Tone because then she sent me this amazing story she wrote which is partially inspired by her deep friendship with Lauren Berlant. I think that her work deals so much with collaboration and playfulness. But it’s true, it’s like Moyra Davey’s postcards, this idea of like in the mail, like the playfulness is in the mail, like mail art or like recording ukulele covers. It is different than operating only through technology in some ways.
SS: Yeah. I think this great question about, “What’s your orientation toward the cloud? Is it the aggressive one? Is it the fantastical one? Is it the ambivalent one?” it definitely is a question that draws one toward the ambivalent one because that enables you to say, “Well, it is fantastical and it is aggressive. It is all of those things.” I have thought quite a bit about these uses of technology, especially since COVID. I think Kate and I both have–
KZ: I was just thinking about your writing about Zoom boxes, the writing about Zoom, Sofia.
SS: Yes, yes, I was thinking about that too, a piece that I wrote called On Dwelling that was thinking about traveling, about not traveling, about not flying specifically, and about how that changes experiences of being with others. If you, as I am, are not really flying anymore, then you use the technology to do these meetings. I’m certainly ambivalent about it, I think because I want the error, I want the mistakes, I want the randomness that often happens when people are together.
KZ: The chattiness.
SS: The chattiness and just unplanned sh*t, like things that fell or like you’re going up to the podium and you slip, there’s a giggle from the audience but it’s a warm giggle. It’s like, “Oh, oops.” Whereas in the Zoom box situation, I have felt that any kind of accident or anything that goes wrong is seen as something really bad. It’s like, “Oh, we are so sorry. We are having technical difficulties.” Whereas in person, if you knock your water glass over onto your papers, there’s much more sympathetic like, “Oh, we’re in the world of objects and things happen.” The idea that we are now in this technological space that we are supposed to have control of and if you don’t, it’s like there’s something wrong with you, that you couldn’t manage these things that are created to take all the errors out and to give you this smooth experience of watching somebody’s face on a screen, I’m definitely interested in pushing against that.
KZ: This is why when I teach, even over Zoom, which I try not to so much anymore but we also are expected to constantly now, we’re expected to be always working even if we are not traveling, but I always allow for chattiness. I always let everyone just chat and gossip because I think that’s such an important thing, to let students just talk to each other as opposed to this hierarchical model of me talking at them. Barbara, this is a subject that Sofia and I talk about a lot. We both are, like most people, very concerned about climate change. We’ve both made different commitments to not travel right now for various reasons. We’re thinking like, “Is this what we’re left with, is the Zoom box?” or “Is this what we’re left with, are these more smooth–” Again, for me smoothness is something that’s too polished or professional, like these smooth modes of communication. But I do think there is possible, like when I had Bhanu Kapil do a Zoom lecture on the animal at Sarah Lawrence when I did my year-long lecture at the animal, which was over Zoom, the entire year, the only reason I was asked to teach a literature lecture is because they needed someone to do it, I was not a literature scholar but it could be over Zoom, so there was no space on campus, there was no room, there was no lecture hall to do it in, so I did over Zoom. There were so many glitches, there were so many accidents. But Bhanu did some marvelously, hilarious performative things with the Zoom box. I think there is space for play with these forms. I think it’s important to know that and to think about the fact that Bhanu, Sofia, and I and others met online and the comment box was its own performative space, so we are used to thinking of the internet as something to f*ck with. Can I say that? [laughter]
DN: No, you can totally say that.
KZ: I could have said that in a lot, lot, lot more articulate way but thinking of that space as performative and not professional, not that everything has to be smooth and that there can be an incredible intimacy achieved through commenting on a blog or having a blog post, and that sense of scale and intimacy, and thinking about writing for others, we did online in our community together, in our own other various communities. This is a longing for the blog which Bhanu and I have also spoken to each other about, a longing for the weirdness of the blog, a longing for something to feel amateur ongoing performative. I think we carried that energy and that longing for mistake and for accident into the Google Docs with each other. I think it was a way to say and I think this is what many of us are still asking like, “How can it feel like a blog?” or “How can it feel like a comment box?” Because the thing is we were writing to each other. We were read. It was incredibly intimate and incredibly playful, so I think tone was a natural extension of that. I just want to say one other thing is that when we’re dealing with people who are overworked and who are often precarious, precarity comes in a lot in Tone, you have Zoom possibly for a meeting space, you have the Google Docs possibly, like these are organizing tools now and they’re not great, and maybe we would prefer in person but it’s what we have. This technology also enables people to collaborate together and to be collective. They’re tools of capitalism that we should be deeply suspect from and we’re alienated from but they’re also tools of collectivity.
DN: I’m going to take these things that you just raised. I think it’s a perfect segue into bringing us back to the ways you “fuck” with the academic in this book. I’m going to make a collaborative question monster. [laughter] Because you start the book Tone with a framing that is academic in its most, broadest strokes even though each of the sections are undermining it at the same time. We start with an abstract, then a page of keywords; affect, ecology, collectivity, vibration, architecture, fog, dust, rot, snow, light, distance, echo, pressure, gesture, and blur and that is followed by a significance statement. You’re framing the book with the structure of academic papers, yet very obviously not presenting something academic, not just because you aren’t putting forth and proving an argument or that much of this is actually set in a classroom or the setting of your lives as overworked, underpaid, and perhaps undervalued teachers and mothers exploited under capitalism. But using the voice of the committee also and opening with an abstract, and a significant statement places us in a miasm of academia while at the same time taking academic language and the expectations we have for it outside of its normal context. I think of the two collaborative works we’ve been touching upon, The Undercommons and The Hundreds, and how they both share this in different ways, how Moten and Harney said, when they were on the Millennials Are Killing Capitalism Podcast about The Undercommons, that they wanted to write a book about study, not about the university, to rescue Black life from Black study, that the university has always been a place to regulate thought, not liberate it. And Berlant, and Stewart say about The Hundreds that they wanted to resist the academic tendency toward categorization and putting things in boxes. That they wanted to abandon the tone expected in academic writing. Berlant and Stewart, they’re asked, “Does this book produce knowledge?” and they say, “It produces inspiration,” and they argue that affect makes worlds. In light of this miasm that I’ve created, I’m going to put together two questions from two different people and I’m going to play them back to back as a double-voiced collaborative question. The first one is from one of the co-hosts of the literary podcast One Bright Book, Frances Evangelista. It’s a podcast that actually mentioned Tone in an earlier episode this year for their most anticipated books of 2023, so here is Frances’ part of the double question.
Frances Evangelista: Thank you, David, for the opportunity to pop in and ask a question today. I am a huge fan of the work of both Sofia and Kate, and an even bigger fan of their relationship as it is put forward in their work and what I can see of them talking back and forth in interviews and things, that relational component. They’re always talking about how that comes through in this first-person plural in Tone. One of the things I think about in terms of being a writer, a thinker, someone that’s engaged in literature, and being a mother at the same time, there’s always this pull about whether you choose to be one or the other. I can remember those days of nursing my kids and trying to read with a book in my hand or trying to write with the other, the freehand thing, and trying to create that space where both things could exist at the same time. This work speaks to a bit of that about where we belong and where our space and which collective is and how we reframe those collectives. That being said, it’s not much of a surprise that my favorite section of Tone, which was fantastic throughout but my favorite section was Guest Lecture, or Reports to an Academy. It’s ironic too that I’m sitting here speaking into what equates to an owl. Like in that section of the book, I’m speaking into my cell phone kind of into a void. There’s this one section, “And wasn’t this what had first inspired our investigations? The possibility of immersing ourselves in the space of literature, unsystematically, recklessly, and together with a merged in opaque utterance that would displace the demand for individual authenticity. The ways we had been taught to write about books would fall away: the claims to expertise, the recitation of the right names in the requisite order, the mannerly close reading, the painstakingly defended yet modest conclusion, then the writer’s name and the title of her institution.” It goes on from there. It’s all the things we’ve been taught to expect, all of the things that we strive to fulfill and as you noted, we become those impostors when we don’t quite get there. But then at the end of the section, you delve into something that you call the thin piping. If you could explore that a little more for us, that would be amazing because the way this concludes too when we’re talking about the sheen on that bare landscape, that silent hall on that text, how do we create that collective out of a place that’s been so heavily scripted like academia or some portions of the writing world? I guess that’s what I’m most interested in if that makes sense. Thank you for responding.
SS: Thank you so much, Frances.
DN: Holding in mind the end of Frances’ question about finding a collective in an overdetermined space, our second question is from past Between the Covers guest Elvia Wilk. She was on the show for her novel Oval which is a conversation I still think about many years later. Since then, she’s written the essay collection Death by Landscape. She actually gave me two questions to choose from and normally, I would have chosen to play the one from a very different part of the book. But I decided to have Frances and Elvia’s questions harmonize instead because I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they both gravitated to the same place in your book. I think it’s speaking to something central about it, this relationship to the academic.
Elvia Wilk: Hi, Kate, hi, Sofia, this is Elvia. I was lucky enough to be at your book launch in Brooklyn last night. Congratulations. Afterwards, I spent the evening with two friends and we talked all night about Tone, so the conversation lives on, and this feels like a good argument in support of the idea that tone and tonality is conversational and emerges in the friction between viewpoints, subjectivities, and approaches. I have a lot of questions that I could ask you but I wanted to focus on one thing that really struck me in the chapter Guest Lecture, or Reports to an Academy where you talk about Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons. Their work underpins much of the book, it’s under the book, and there’s a quote from them where they say in regards to academia and writing, and the publishing industry, “There are lots of people who are angry and who don’t feel good, but it seems hard for people to ask, collectively, ‘why doesn’t this feel good?’” Just so much of what we do doesn’t feel good even though it should, we have all the ingredients in place; creativity, solidarity, friendship, collaboration, idea-making in the classroom, and beyond, some infrastructure for intellectual exchange. But man, the conference space feels bad in the body, and what this chapter is doing is talking about, well, there’s a light lampooning of academia which I appreciate, there’s also a description of what a body feels like at a lectern or giving a talk or in a conference room. The whole book, it’s born of conversations you had in classrooms and that you’ve formed this shifting committee on atmosphere. There’s a little bit of like academic institutional framing to the whole project but what comes out or what emerges to me towards the end in this chapter specifically on the academy is a consideration of the tone of the places in which we work and the way that the tone of those infrastructures and institutions makes it really hard for us to create work with other tones that are not shaded; the color of the conference room, the smell of the Xerox machine, the weird hierarchy set up at the lectern. This book seems like or feels like a project where the two of you wanted to create a space with different tones, that your writing could take on different tones. I’d love to ask you about the relationship between the spaces that we create, the tonalities that they lend themselves to in our work, and how we have to create different spaces for making if we want to write work with different sorts of tones.
KZ: Thank you so much, Elvia. I just want to say when Frances was talking, I turned to the page and my page fell out at the galley, then my AirPods fell out, then other things fell out so I literally started deconstructing which seemed really important somehow. [laughter] Also, when we met Elvia, Elvia asked me to smell her purse, we lampooned this odor regulation and Aviary, or Animal, that chapter and I was thinking of the good hedonic tone, the hedonic tone of these questions, like how good they made, can I say us feel? How good they made us feel.
SS: Absolutely, yes.
KZ: I want to start by saying that there was a question by the wonderful Claire Fallon at our event about what chapter we are or something like what tone we are, and Sofia said that I was Lighted Window but I actually think I feel the most akin to the Guest Lecture chapter. This idea of precarity and feeling like a guest reminds me of Bhanu’s amazing line, “It’s exhausting to be a guest in someone else’s house forever” in How To Wash A Heart. But that feeling of exhaustion and alienation but trying to find some sense of mischievousness or pleasure outside. We deal with Renee Gladman in this chapter and Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear translated by Susan Bernofsky, this idea of every conference is a circus and the desire to enact real conversations about literature, the awkwardness, and alienation of these settings, I want to say that the scene that we’re lampooning at the beginning of Guest Lecture, because I know my employers won’t listen to this, I feel I can be more specific, that it was an event that the book I published on Hervé Guibert was a Columbia University Press book which is technically one of the institutions where I am quite precariously employed in a very untenured way where they were ostensibly celebrating me and brought in Sofia to this place but this is not an institution where I’ve been recognized in any way, so there was a bubbling hilarity to the event for both me and Sofia, then Susan Bernofsky was on the panel but on Zoom. Susan Bernofsky whom I think of for her Tawada translations and her Kafka translations, so she was the perfect elective affinity and co-conspirator. I think much like the friction and energy of Sofia teaching Nella Larsen, there was a real beauty to, I mean Columbia University Press has been amazing and they’re very separate from the University but this idea of us speaking into this smooth owl-like animal to project this to Zoom and there were a few of my grad students in the audience, lovely, wonderful, supportive grad students but very few people in the audience, so I think that absurdity felt so perfect. It felt like this perfect way to think about Gladman in Calamities which is so much also exhaustion with academia and that guest feeling, and to think through Memoirs of a Polar Bear. I guess I will end this by saying that I am not a scholar. No one has ever called me a scholar. No one has accused me of being a scholar. [laughter] I think I take joy, I try to, I have to take joy at my outsiderness and deep precarity at these institutions that very precariously still temporarily host me even though I’ve been at both for a decade. The question of finding a language outside of academia, that’s really the only language that I do have.
SS: That’s wonderful, Kate. That’s amazing. It brings up so much and both of those questions are also just so rich. I think there’s the outside of academia that Kate has just mentioned and there’s also The Undercommons, and The Undercommons is inside academia and the idea of The Undercommons is finding those spaces and finding those cracks where you can exist. It is written to people who are toiling in the underbelly, to graduate students, to postdocs who don’t have a permanent position, to adjunct professors who live in precarity, to assistance of all kinds.
KZ: And to academics of color at these institutions.
SS: Academics of color, absolutely. To me what I’m thinking about together inspired by those questions is the idea of The Undercommons, it’s an idea of finding spaces that are small within something that is large, so there’s something inherently fragmented about it. It’s somehow about fragments because it’s about cracks, it’s about existing in the cracks and finding those little spaces. In the Guest Lecture chapter which I also adore, I feel very close to it, an important figure there is Kafka. The first question mentions the thin piping, like what is up with the thin piping? The thin piping is the piping of Josephine, the Mouse singer in Kafka’s story, then also in that chapter, Red Peter is a very important report to an academy with that very formal diction of honored members of the academy which always reminds me of that. It’s recorded somewhere in Kafka’s journals that he had to open a meeting for whoever he was working for or institution he was working for and his first line as he opened the meeting was something like, “I must open the discussion this evening with a regret that it is taking place.” [laughter]
KZ: It’s like that formal diction, it’s also like the Walzerian formal diction that’s kind of servile but is in some way deeply playful.
SS: Yeah, there’s joy which is what I wanted to get to about this idea of finding the collective in the question, “How to find the collective in an overdetermined space?” There’s The Undercommons, there’s the fragmented space that one is existing in, then there’s something powerful and there’s an agency in taking the features of academic writing that we are writing against the abstract and the keywords, and the significant statement which we actually mind journals about meteorology for those because we were playing with that atmosphere idea. There is a joy to that which is about a melancholy pleasure of the very things that you’re alienated from and that very academic tone, the tone of the academia that Elvia is talking about in her wonderful question, there is something sadly sweet about taking those things and viewing them as fragments so that the abstract, and the keywords, so that they don’t play their usual role, they don’t become signs of expertise but they actually become almost like old broken toys that you’ve found in some thrift store and you’ve brought home, and you’re now cobbling together some kind of collage or something new with them. They exude something that is very sad, yet also pleasurable in a way. We were so drawn to these characters, to the characters in Memoirs of a Polar Bear and to Kafka characters who are sadly caught in this broken circus, yet they have attachments to aspects of the circus as well, so then it becomes how can you take that I guess what would be a position of repair thinking of Sedgwick’s essay on paranoid versus depressive positions, that depressive reparative position where you say, “I’m going to collect the pieces of this disastrous thing that can, in their broken state, become a sort of comfort, a cocoon, a sense of shared pleasure with another, something that is broken and put back together again is part of what’s going on in that chapter.
KZ: And with Sedgwick, there’s so much that the depressive position—and this is something you’ve been saying to me over the years of our friendship—that the depressive position is one of love. It’s a position of deep love. I think the whole Tone project, perhaps originated with Sofia teaching Nella Larsen, I think this year-long animal lecture that I deeply loved and deeply bonded with my students over Zoom, taught while I was this environmental writing chair, which is completely meaningless and does not confer any stability or contract, whatsoever, doing this over Zoom when I had a newborn, I literally had a newborn as I was teaching this and I would put the Zoom on dark, and I would be nursing like an animal while I would be teaching Kafka and Memoirs of a Polar Bear, I think that melancholy commingled with joy, me being the guest lecturer because that’s our category at Sarah Lawrence which is what we’re currently trying to organize about, it’s just we’ve been called guests forever. We’re guests even if we’ve been there 20 years. It’s just this category of a person. I think that’s why we were so also drowned to Seasonal Associate by Heike Geisler and Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, like all of these sub, sub positions, like the sub-sub, like what happens if you’re not viewed as real under capitalism? And so much of us are viewed as temporary, so much of us are not viewed as real or we are the distinguished guest lecturer which, Sofia, you’re going to go travel to play that part next week. I think we are finding some joy, like what is the actual conversation we can find. I remember at a Colombia faculty meeting, the full-timers talk for three hours, the adjuncts must attend the last 15 minutes and sit in this circle around, and can’t speak, then afterwards, everyone is invited to cocktails, served by the graduate students and none of the full-timers go. Only the guests are there, only the adjuncts are there and I remember chatting with people about Tone, chatting with Katrina Dodson who translated Clarice Lispector’s The Buffalo that we write about in it, and being like, “This is the joy.” The chattiness, the irritation, these little actual conversations, that’s the joy.
DN: I want to also echo Frances’ loving the way you’re relational with each other publicly. In your Orion interview, Kate, Emily notes that Sofia is the most intimate and least fraught relationship in your book The Light Room and notes how you’ve corresponded in past works too. She characterizes her text messages to you within the text as like little life rafts that feel outside the time and space of your otherwise chaotic, if also cozy, domestic sphere. You say, “Sofia is the most brilliant person I’ve ever known, and with that there is also such care, such attentive thinking and feeling to the world. She’s a genius who also lives an ethical and thoughtful life. I think she’s the only person who I can complain about my domestic sphere to, who I can tell about my children’s medical appointments or financial pressures, but who then also holds my writing life as dear and important and worth protecting. This is an invaluable gift for me. I also credit Sofia with getting me involved in thinking through the collective and climate, its grief and potentials for a radical optimism.” Long ago, Sofia, you wrote a piece when Kate left social media called Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork. Part of it reminds me of Tone when you say, “I thought maybe you left because you couldn’t stand the climate.” “Later I questioned my use of the word ‘climate.’ When is something a climate, and when is it just weather? I began to think about gathering, accumulation, cloud formation, warm and cold fronts, collectives, crowds, and money. I began to think about gravity, which a teacher of mine once described as ‘the fact that matter likes to hang out together.’ I loved your blog. It gave me a shock when it disappeared, as if I’d expected to land somewhere and then just kept falling.” Then later you say, “In your absence, I mourn mostly because I don’t know what you’re reading. Because of you, I read Roland Barthes’s lectures on the Neutral. I would describe your blog, and your whole presence on the internet, the way Barthes describes his elusive ideal, the Neutral: as a field of non-paradigmatic intensities. ‘Non-paradigmatic’ is a boring word, but it’s important. It means what can’t be codified, what doesn’t lend itself to code.” And later, “I considered you a friend. And then, we had so much in common. We shared so many passions, and we were marginalized—if I can call it that—in similar ways. Most of all, I thought, we shared a tone, an outlook, a sensibility: the internet’s version of the timbre of a voice. I felt most like myself when I was retweeting you.” and “The first time you responded to me, the first time we really talked, I turned silver all over the inside of my skin.” Thinking about this intimacy you’ve forged within your books and outside your books across space and time, and how you’re now inhabiting the “same voice,” the committee essentially facing outward together towards us as a one that is also a two, I guess I wanted to ask you about audience or address if you have a sense of who you’re addressing together, if you’re doing a writing toward or not. And if so, toward what or toward who? As a lead in, I wanted to read how Sofia started her interview at the Roanoke Review where she read from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s book Audience Distant Relative.
you are the audience
you are my distant audience
I address you
as I would a distant relative
as if a distant relative
seen only heard only through someone else’s description.
neither you nor I
are visible to each other
I can only assume that you can hear me
I can only hope that you hear me
Talk to us about address or audience in Tone if there is an imagined audience as you write it.
SS: Well, first, I have to say that the face that I made when I say from I think 2017 when I said that we shared a tone, the face that I made just made Kate burst out laughing because I had forgotten what I had said in that essay and just how much that essay is about tone, weather, accumulation, and cloud. It’s like clearly a lot of this has been part of our conversation for a really long time.
KZ: I just want to point out that Sofia has been writing me love letters for a long time that she then publishes online. [laughter] That’s what they are really. Everyone thinks me as always the one pouring out my love to you but you, you really were the one who started this love letter. That’s what it is.
SS: And it is ongoing because the book that is coming out in 2024, Opacities that’s coming out in I think August now is the date 2024 from Soft Skull, my book about writing is essentially one big love letter. It is based on our letters, it’s based on our epistolary relationship, it’s dedicated to Kate.
KZ: We’re really just very in love with each other and then living these different lives. [laughter] We don’t know how to cross the boundaries. This is just one epic love affair.
DN: I love it.
SS: And perhaps this is an answer to the question of audience and address, which is basically like we’re writing to each other. Because to speak for myself, if I’m writing to Kate, I’m not thinking about the fact that maybe this will become a work that is seen by other people because, in the beginning, it’s just not. It’s just our exchange. Rightly or wrongly, it feels like enough so I don’t really think beyond that as much I guess while it’s happening.
KZ: I remember this is the same period of time in which I was writing Drifts, and that’s when we really actually began a correspondence because you did comment on my blog and we did have a friendship and mutual admiration, obviously had a sense of elective affinities but we had never really formalized it. But I think you were the start where you started writing these pieces, they’re not actually about me and that’s what’s interesting about what I think of is the twin pieces which is Why You Left Social Media: A Guesswork and then the piece you wrote called Kanai Mieko that Paris Review published. That was also the first piece that Mensah Demary published, the Why You Left Social Media who has now worked with you on The White Mosque at Catapult and then will be working with you on Opacities at Soft Skull, so that’s another collaboration that started from that. I remember people would see me on the street, it was like the thing that people spoke to me about when they saw me, when I saw other writers or readers like, “Oh, Sofia wrote an essay about you.” But the thing is that everything that you do, there is such a trickiness with how you’re playing with autobiography and biography in that piece. This is why you have this whole active multi-book genre of Opacities because it’s very tricky because you’re really also writing about yourself and so there is this blurring. I think this was one of your first experiments using me and using our collaboration as this ventriloquism much like Sebald performs thinking of Michael Hamburger and Rings of Saturn, which is also this scene that I’m fascinated about that I have seemingly written about over many works thinking about you often but where we’re doing this like playful sense of correspondence, correspondence in this ghostly spiritual way. But everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s about you.” I’m like, if you actually look at it, I am not the scholar of African literature that you’re writing about in the Catapult piece.
SS: And you also don’t have gray hair.
KZ: I don’t, yes, exactly. [laughter]
SS: But I do. That was like I was describing myself and I’m saying you and trying to get into this idea of what happens on social media and the way that other people, when you put their voices into your feed, you are you because of all those other pieces that you’ve built into this feed.
KZ: I remember reading the piece and I felt this tickle. It felt like a friction, like a tickle. I felt like itchy like, “Oh, you can do this.” It felt like a delicious wrongness like I get reading Ban en Banlieue, Bhanu Kapil’s work and her blog where she performs this like reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Dictee at the beginning or publishes her notes that she wrote about reading various blogs and there’s such a name dropping gossiping to that that’s also so deeply loving and in effect creating communities and deciding this like gatekeeping world of corporate publishing, this is not who we’re writing to, we’re actually writing to our elective affinity, some who might be alive and some who might be each other. I think there was this moment in these various blogs where many of us, and I think this is this idea of community where like, “No, we’re writing to each other. We’re not going to obey this scarcity model of competition. In fact, we’re going to make something beautiful about it.” I accidentally discovered the email that you wrote me, that Kanai Mieko piece which was not a prose piece at first even though it was so beautiful where I said, “I cannot read Kanai Mieko.” I cannot read this, what was it, the scholarly article about her?
SS: Yeah. You can read Kanai with no problem. There was a scholarly book that wrote about her and you were like, “Ugh.”
KZ: This like hands in photography. So you translated it for me and then there’s that beautiful moment where you’re finally watching Sans Soleil which of course I write about in Drifts, you watching Sans Soleil with me and you note that the Japanese woman on the train at the end of Sans Soleil looks like me. You and I had not met in person at that point. I think that’s the origin of us, like this flirtation, the collaboration. The acknowledgment that we live in very different places and we’re quite different in many ways but there is this like, “Of course, we’re reading things together. Of course, we’re writing things together.” All the time, Sofia and I discover we’re reading the same book and thinking about like Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body in collaboration. We’ve ceased being startled by these ghostly correspondences and we began to put each other in each other’s works.
SS: Yeah. Although it took a long time, it took a number of years before we would stop freaking out like, “What? You’re reading that? I’m reading that. How did this happen?” and we finally said, “You know what, we need to just stop yelling whenever this happens because it just seems to be all the time.”
KZ: Like sorry to Keith and John but the secret is that we’re in love. [laughter]
SS: You heard it here first.
DN: Alright. This is great. This is a good segue because I want to return to this notion of we but I also want to look at what are some of the risks of a “we,” not the risks between the two of you necessarily but just a “we” and the world. But first of all, just to return to thinking of address and thinking about the “we,” I think of Sofia’s The White Mosque, the line, “What is any identity but a story that a community swallows whole,” and then in the Kirkus Review for the book that says, “Reaching beyond all state and religious boundaries, Samatar is ‘always saying we,’ incorporating more and more of humanity into a growing inner circle.” Or, Kate, you thinking about the work of David Wojnarowicz saying, “His work, his ardent first-person, is radiant with others, ecstatic and contemplative and howling with fury and grief. To me he is a model that an ‘I’ can be thinking toward the collective, can be thinking toward the crisis of one’s body and time, as well as mourning and caring for the world and others.” I love how you both explore I think the liberatory power of the “we” or the exploded “I” here and in your works. But I also think of the dangers that some writers, especially writers of color, explore around the “we” because of who is always, in an unspoken way, excluded from it. Like if we think of Whitman’s “we” connected very explicitly to nation building but excludes the indigenous or the Mexican, or Dionne Brand who says in The Blue Clerk, “I do know that the bodies that we inhabit now are corpses of the humanist narrative. Awful corpses. And when we appear on the street, that is what we are appearing as. So, I can only give you this view of it. We inhabit these bags of muscle and fat and bones that are utilised in the humanist narrative to demonstrate the incremental ethical development of a certain subject whom is not we.” So I ultimately want to ask you some questions about this and the risks of the “we” in relation to Sebald eventually. But before I do, I wonder if this prompts any thoughts for either of you as you do this “we” project and thinking about the “we” often not being as inclusive as it seems to project itself as.
SS: Yeah, this is clearly something that’s enormously important. In my writing, I’m thinking specifically of the essay Standing at the Ruins that was published a few years ago in The White Review, which is about climate change and emotion and how important it was in that essay to be very specific about who I was talking about when I said “we,” that like, “Look, I’m talking about the middle-class industrialized nation living in the suburbs. This is the very specific ‘we’ that I’m talking about when I say these things.” I think that that’s a very important move. I also do believe strongly in an aspirational “we” and a “we” that understands that it has not occurred yet but that is reaching for a new kind of toward community building and is inviting or offering new kinds of collaboration and has a hope for maybe a future “we” that does not exist yet. While recognizing the importance of defining a “we,” part of my desire to keep a space for using first person plural does come out of what I express in The White Mosque, which is like I’m always saying we, and I always know that the group I’m saying we about, the groups that I belong to, whether it’s Somali or whether it’s North American Mennonites could very easily say to me, “No, not you. You’re not us. We are something other than you.” When I write “we” or that aspirational “we,” it’s also a hope for myself, it’s almost with a buried question mark like, “Well, I hope you’re going to let me in. I hope it’s okay that I’m saying ‘we.’” That’s why I want to hold that. When it comes to the “we” that is in Tone, the Committee to Investigate the Atmosphere, what I think is important about that “we,” which is neither a universal “we” nor necessarily an aspirational “we,” this is a very small “we,” this is a “we” that is like these two people tapping away in the cloud, and that I think is something that’s important to recognize, there’s something about the smallness of that “we” that works I think against those universalizing or nationalist tendencies that “we” can have.
KZ: I agree with everything that Sofia said and Standing at the Ruins is such an important essay and you do so much work also going so specifically into the local and the historical with that and moving through so many different time periods. I think it’s that work is to think of communities and their very specific local historical moment that I think I’ve been thinking about as ecological, like what does it mean to write ecologically? It means to have a gaze upon others and to try to recognize the other even if it’s the animal in all of its specificity. I also want to say RIP, White Review, when we have this conversation about all these publications that can publish such brilliant and urgent writing, as well as conversations, it really quite dwindling. It’s so sad. Also the fact that they didn’t get an Arts Council grant. Again, this idea of these places not being funded and how to find these other spaces. I don’t know, I think that the “we” of Tone is obviously us, even though I’m contradicting what I said before, [laughter] I think it’s a “we” but it’s also in these little moments where we’re referencing, thinking about Frances’ question, we’re referencing our different moments, these were playful yet intentional moments where we’re gesturing to obviously we’re speaking from different spaces: what are these different bodies, situations, spaces, landscapes? At the end, we go into different memories and different spaces. But I think the desire for atmosphere, the desire for what Heather Davis calls an atmospheric commons, I’m circumventing this specific point of view question, to think that an atmospheric commons is also just recognizing that we are breathing the same air together. We are all breathing, we are a “we” even though we are also so specific and we have so much difference to us, we are a “we” as opposed to being in these individual bubbles. I think the desire for collectivity is a desire for everyone to be in their own glorious specificity, historical specificity but also a desire to have a sort of awareness that we are sharing this atmosphere together. I think there’s a longing in Tone towards the ecological and towards thinking about how are we thinking with as opposed to just thinking alone, and also we think of the “we” as being dangerous, the “I” is also in a way, the exceptional “I,” the hierarchy of the “I,” so what is the right point of view? I don’t know. Sofia and I, if we’re going to continue with this, which we’ve been thinking about, one of the things we were thinking about was writing about “I” and “we,” what are these points of views, they’re all tricky.
SS: And how much does “we” also recognize, I love what you just said, Kate, about how we are breathing the same air and I think of the moment in Tone, there’s a point where we’re writing about a sick child and we’re breathing this air, we’re breathing this viral air at times, and you had a sick toddler and I had a sick teenager. In Tone, it’s just a sick child but how much, even in our different spaces, we are actually breathing the same air.
DN: Well, let me take this into questions around Sebald’s writing and the one place in the book where I found myself arguing with the book. First, I just want to preface it by saying that I love Sebald’s writing but I want to think about the notion of what’s included in a voice because ever since I learned about his relationship to his obscured Jewish sources when I was preparing for my talk with Daniel Mendelsohn, I felt so uneasy. To be clear, Daniel Mendelsohn, Jewish and from a family who mostly didn’t survive the Holocaust, he felt like regardless of methodology, Sebald’s remarkable art on behalf of Jewish memory will endure on its behalf because of its remarkableness. But the whole fictional arc of Austerlitz’s life as one example and many of the small details were not only taken from a real Jewish woman’s life, Susi Bechhofer, but from her actually published memoir about her kinder transport experience and taken without permission or attribution. She even sought acknowledgment writing an oped in The London Times titled Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Best-Selling Author, and many other Jewish people’s lives were appropriated without attribution in Sebald’s work and some of them were quite resentful of how they were portrayed. One Jewish painter whose life found itself in The Emigrants called the project a narcissistic enterprise. There are articles on this. Judith Shulevitz’s article for The Atlantic “W. G. Sebald Ransacked Jewish Lives for His Fictions: Why did he lie about his sources?” and a New Yorker article “W. G. Sebald, the Trickster” whose author says of Sebald, “The author’s deep, even hypnotic identification with his subjects—what Angier calls his ‘imaginative sympathy’—might also be called theft, another instance of German plunder.” But what sticks with me is that he positioned himself as the conscience of his country, so much so that he chose exile from it, and yet he stole from Jews and obscured that he did, and as a non-Jewish German author positioning himself in a moral way to the atrocities of his own people. I feel like he owed it to the sources and to Jewish memory, in borrowing Cristina Rivera Garza’s terms, to disappropriate his materials, to make clear the materials. It was in this chapter of the book—and this only because of not from my experience of reading Sebald but from my experience of preparing to talk to Mendelsohn—so it’s in this chapter of the book and only in this chapter when I found myself arguing with lines like, “To read Sebald is to read a library of the past,” or that Rings of Saturn comes from the redemption of inferior objects, or the comparison of Sebald’s mode to Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading where the impulse is additive and accretive, when the creation of his collection of fragments feels like it comes also from erasure and obscuring. But I also feel like in exploring his tone, you do hint at this subtext often and regularly, you say the tone of the Rings of Saturn is from a great height and that tone operates in Sebald like a filter. There has to be a consistency like a glaze or that a bird’s eye view abandons landscape so no detail is visible. That reminded me of a speech Jorie Graham gave 30 years ago that I quoted back to her the last time we talked where she says, “The opportunities afforded the human soul by the acceptance of a limited view which the making of choice entails cannot be overestimated, it seems to me. One is created by limited point-of-view, by the suffering it entails, in a way that one cannot be simply by the overall mid-air view we now think of as ‘understanding,’ because it is a condition in which action is by definition impossible -the action of interpretation as well as the action of moral discernment. At the very least, both capacities should be present in us at once. Particle and wave. Left-and right-handed paths.” I feel like both of you are concerned with archive building about indebtedness by lineage and I think your modes of being are not in any way hovering over life in a midair view or a bird’s eye view so that the details disappear. I think that’s the opposite of what both of you are doing. I do think you capture Sebald’s tone really well and it even hints at the obscuring, I think, with this notion of a glaze. But I guess I wanted to just, in this very long way, disappropriate my misgivings about his project in the gesture of his project and hear what you had to think about it because it feels like it’s connected to maybe the dangers of the transcendent or the universal or the disembodied hovering over a space.
KZ: Well, I didn’t read the biography. That was something we talked about when we were writing this chapter, Sofia. I think you did, I didn’t. But I will say the sense you have of Sebald’s ethical project with Jewish lives seems apt and rich and there’s a lot there but we don’t write about Austerlitz or The Emigrants in Tone and Tone focuses on Rings of Saturn. We focus very specifically on the effect produced in Rings of Saturn. The quote that you named about what is produced here is of different voices, we are not speaking about Emigrants or about Austerlitz, we’re not speaking actually about Jewish histories. I get the larger point of his ethical project and how he utilized ventriloquism. I think Austerlitz is really more of a composite too. Also, Walter Benjamin is a huge inspiration for Doc Austerlitz. But we are focusing on this travelogue Rings of Saturn and what we are specifically speaking of is the Baroque labyrinthine quality of different centuries and that quality of the voice. But we also bring in critics to Rings of Saturn in that chapter and we engage most specifically with Mark Fisher thinking about how Sebald views Suffolk as kind of misery porn, isn’t actually there, isn’t steeped specifically in the landscape there, and is in fact always using the landscape and the kind of misery of that landscape, which Fisher finds quite beautiful to go into so many different histories. We’re engaging very specifically with that critique because we’re thinking very specifically about Rings of Saturn, which is quite different from The Emigrants and from Austerlitz. But I will say that part of Sofia’s dialectic through the years has been discussing Rings of Saturn and discussing the appropriation of voices in Rings of Saturn. But there’s less the issue, which is a very valid issue, of how he appropriates Jewish history in Rings of Saturn, more his chapter on Joseph Conrad and the Congo and how he’s thinking about the archive there. Or also even the twinning with Michael Hamburger. But I would say something can be ethical and can be ethically dubious but that doesn’t also make it art. Art can be about fact, and art often is ethically gray. But I can’t speak for the specific accusations there.
SS: I would just add that in addition to engaging with the critique that Mark Fisher makes, we also make our own critique of Sebald in the book, which is around this idea of collection and collecting, and how this project of bringing together all of these different voices can be seen in a number of different ways. One of them is that appropriative aspect of collecting, which is very much linked to the colonial project to collecting countries or museum collecting and the kind of colonial archives and museum archives, or to the idea that Susan Sontag writes about in On Photography.
KZ: Right. There is that moment that Sontag writes about using that famous photograph of the bodies of Bergen-Belsen, the discovery of the bodies. Yeah, there is that although we don’t engage specifically with that.
SS: After we’ve written about the possibility of seeing collection as reparative, then we write these relations might be reparative as we suggested but they also might be aggressive expressing the hunger for power Susan Sontag perceives in photography the urge to freeze and shrink reality into collectible items and then quoting Sontag, consciousness in its inquisitive mood. I did read the biography so there’s definitely an awareness of the problems of the project which are yes, maybe specifically rising to the surface in Austerlitz and The Emigrants but also, I mean it is an issue that runs through Sebald’s work as a whole.
KZ: We also say that the work is used as a train for mere departure for fugue states into past genocides and epochs like how he uses [inaudible]. I don’t think you should look to me or Sofia to defend Sebald. I think we’ve always had this rich and complicated sense of him as an author and I think his use of archives, the fact that he doesn’t stage the archival encounter, the fact that the trickery in which he hides like Austerlitz, it’s all very, very gray, it’s all very ethically labyrinthine. I do think there can be something that happens online, I remember there was like this quote about Anne Carson that circulated and people were like, “Why is this person complaining in a room?” I think something can circulate online or someone can read an interview and then they can just make this judgment about an author who has this very rich, very complex, very loaded body of work. Sebald, yeah, he completely idolized often a colonial past, his obsession with great hotels. There is this like romanticism to him that’s so suspect but we’ve always loved him and held him suspect. There’s always that. [laughter]
DN: I guess that’s where I find myself too. To be clear, I wasn’t expecting you to align and defend but I was just curious because I felt like the ways you describe the Tone seem to have that ambivalence around the project at the same time or an uncertainty about the project at the same time.
KZ: It’s so tricky to take on voices of others, to write about the lives of others, to write about atrocities like he does, it’s so tricky, I can’t defend it. I find it fascinating. I find his project so fascinating and ambivalent. I’ve always been filled with such great quantities of ambivalence. But for us, and maybe this is a problem to think of Sebald’s style, we wanted to ask, “What is the tint?” Maybe that tint, the blueness of the tint that is this romanticized veil, there is something so romanticized also about Rings of Saturn, like so Victorian. It’s so complicated and yet I still love it. [laughter]
DN: I want to make sure we spend the rest of the time with my favorite part of the book, which is also something that Kate has been nodding towards throughout the interview, which is your engagement with the non-human and the environment. Kate, as I mentioned before, you credited Sofia with your deepening engagement with these concerns and The Light Room is in part a celebration of green spaces and you take your classes outside the classroom, as you’ve mentioned, you’ve taught a class called After Nature that troubles what nature writing is, and your meditations in that book on polar bears and beluga whales because of their long periods of nursing feels like another way you move to a “we” in the best sense of it, which extends I think both to the pandemic and forest fire smoke and the way we share air, that our shared precarity is shared because we share air. When I hear lines from Tone like, “Tone, as in sound, stands for the oral, the presence of the speaking body. It indicates what is absent from writing. Tone is the absent presence.” When I think of tone as the absent presence, somehow I want to relate tone to shared air, or when Harney in The Undercommons says that the concepts they use are a way to develop a mode of living together, a mode of being together that can’t be shared as a model but rather as an instance. Or when you quote Renee Gladman from Prose Architecture saying, “Language has an energy that eludes verbal expression; this is a reflective energy, language dreaming of itself. I encounter these energies in the space between words, between sentences, in the crossing of passages, through the hum of thinking or imagining that shapes the language I’m reading or writing.” Then the committee asks, “Is tone the dream of language?” I think of you putting forth that if Tone concerns ecology, then it is about making space for relation and that perhaps Tone is not language, is outside language, is pointing to the body that is speaking the language and the other bodies that share that space with it. But it’s also I think not not language. I particularly love the chapter Aviary, or Animal, the one that follows the favorite chapter of Frances because it points to so many texts that resonate with me, whether Bhanu’s Humanimal, Kafka’s Animal Stories, Ted Chiang’s The Great Silence, Clarice Lispector, Tawada, and many more. At one point, you ask, “What would a literature look like that decenters the human as sovereign, as center of the narrative perhaps even away from the anthropomorphic idea of voice.” But I love how these meditations arrive ultimately at odor as tone like you and Elvia smelling the purse at your book launch, which again, brings us back to shared air, otherness in Kanai’s story Rabbits is marked by an intense odor but also she says, “The smell comes from deep within me, an odor like that, of an unseen bird flying under my nose,” and this confusion of inside and outside self and other is one of air. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o says, “which is more me, my arm, or the air. You can cut off my arm and I will live.” This isn’t really leading to a question per se but I love all the provocations in this section. “Could tone be a pheromonal signal?” you ask, are the Japanese novels that you look at in this section a form of glandular literature? Donna Haraway saying that the term humanimal is a linguistic way of paying attention to the way humans and animals comake each other in the making of history. Or maybe most provocatively enduring Deleuze saying “To become animal, we must dismantle the face,” and by extension, you saying that killing the face is the way to enter the pack. I have a question that follows this that’s going to be Sofia Samatar-specific, so maybe I’ll ask Kate this question, if you can talk more about Tone as the dream of language or a shared air, odor, or comaking a voice with animals or killing the face to join the cross-species collective, to join the pack. What does any of this bring up for you around this part of the project of Tone when we’re crossing the species barrier so to speak?
KZ: One of our original elective affinities that we realized later is that Kanai Mieko, are we saying Mieko Kanai, there’s so much in terms of how Americans call her name.
SS: Now people are saying Mieko Kanai.
KZ: Mieko Kanai’s story Rabbits, I read, I didn’t take many literature classes as an undergrad a million years ago because I was a journalism student but I took this class called Japanese Women Writers and I actually read Yūko Tsushima, which The Light Room is so inspired by and I read Mieko Kanai, I read her Rabbits in this collection called Rabbits, Crabs, Etc., and it turns out Sofia had also read this story in the same anthology, Sofia?
SS: Yes, and loved it obsessively.
KZ: So both of this, and in some ways, the work is so much one of doubling and blurriness. It’s so much a story inspired by Alice in Wonderland, is very keeping with that specific time period. There is the sense of being a writer in it, the sense of writing. She always meditates on writing in such an interesting way. But I think that there’s always been a longing, and we both teach it despite sometimes our students’ revulsion because it is a very grotesque piece, I think there has been this longing to write about the story and to write about rabbits. I have been thinking about a lot of these ideas that you mentioned for some time. I’ve been working on this series of something called Zoo Stories, one of which was just very proudly killed by the New York Review of Books so I’m very proud of that. [laughs]
DN: That’s awesome.
KZ: I think these are questions, David, too of silence, like how does silence work within a text? What does it mean for a work to have like an ensemble feeling? I think this is through Kafka’s animal parables but then also just thinking about the anthropo-scene, thinking through the anthropo-scene and how we center the human in literature. We center the individual, we center the human in literature, and what would it mean to have a different way of thinking, to think about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s idea of an indigenous knowledge, of listening experiments like what would a literature look like that was reciprocal that didn’t center the human. A lot of these stories we’re looking at, like Katrina Dodson’s translation of Clarice Lispector’s The Buffalo, are really just asking like what is this collective body? Is the animal or the bird actually seen? We look at the opening of the second part of Rings of Saturn where there’s the demented quail and there’s also the taxidermy polar bear and this question, this is guided by this beautiful journal article that I had read, is there reciprocity in the gays here? Does the Sebald narrator actually see the polar bear or does the polar bear just represent something? There’s a lot of ambivalence, I think, to this question but I think there’s also, so much of the project, a sense of optimism like can something feel collective? Is reciprocity possible? How can we decenter possibly the human? That Donna Haraway quote that you gave, that’s actually from an interview and she does this marvelous thing where she like links her hands together like the humanimal is when we come together and she links her hands. It’s a different way of thinking and I’m really drawn lately to thinking about how we can rethink these patterns that we had. It’s true, Hiroko Oyamada’s work has such a merging of the animal, there’s such a sense of the animal as being part of life, but I think much like we talk about reading Rings of Saturn with some ambivalence, there’s like beauty and ambivalence to these works we’re writing about here where asking “Is the animal seen?” I think becoming animal in Deleuze and Guattari, we’re also looking at critically. Is the animal a metaphor, this idea of becoming, this multiplicity we’re yearning for? But where does the animal actually fit into it? I feel like it’s a very open space in this chapter where we’re asking all of these questions productively and putting them next to each other but I don’t think there are easy answers. It’s a very open system.
DN: Yeah. I think it’s the highlight chapter for me. Just to add on to your thing about does Sebald see the polar bear, you also have the instance of Barry Lopez choosing not to take the photograph of the polar bear. Maybe that’s even connected to collecting in a way too and capturing. But around this question of what is the animal in the work, I wanted to ask a question to Sofia specifically as a fantasy writer around the imaginative and the humanimal. Fred Moten in The Undercommons says, “You can either talk about it as having a kind of toolbox or also talk about it as having a kind of toybox. With my kids, most of what they do with toys is turn them into props. They are constantly involved in this massive project of pretending. And the toys that they have are props for their pretending. They don’t play with them the right way – a sword is what you hit a ball with and a bat is what you make music with. I feel that way about conceptual and theoretical terms. In the end what’s most important is that the thing is put in play. What’s most important about play is the interaction. In the end, it’s the new way of being together and thinking together that’s important, and not the tool, not the prop.” He isn’t talking about fantastical writing here but it feels akin to doing so and his own engagements with the myth of the individual or the notion of having a shared body include his lecture on Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas called Transubstantiation and Co-substantiation, which I explore when I talked with Adrienne Maree Brown. But thinking of a toybox instead of a toolbox as a way of thinking, I also think of something you said in your conversation with Kate at The New Inquiry where you’re both meditating on the Midwest and on the tone of the Midwest, and there you say, “Recently, I was reading Space and Place by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. ‘What is a place?’ he asks. ‘What gives a place its identity, its aura?’ He goes on to quote a 1924 letter from Niels Bohr to his fellow physicist, Werner Heisenberg, written at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore. Bohr writes to Heisenberg, ‘Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? …Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak quite a different language.’ As a humanistic geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan is interested in that language: the way objects become invested with the symbolic. For him, this is what transforms an abstract space into a human cultural place. It’s an entanglement of the human and the nonhuman, a haunting, a romance.” Lastly, at the Roanoke Review talking about your co-authored book Monster Portraits, you say of imagined monsters, “Lately I’ve been thinking of them as ‘the human non-human.’ Of course they’re non-human–that’s probably the most important thing about a monster or a beast of folklore, that they are non-human. They are there to represent the non-human or to get outside of the ordinary human mode. And yet they are not non-human in the same way as cats or coral reefs or bumblebees, right? Those are non-human things that are here in the world with us. The creatures that we imagine and make up only exist within us; they only belong to the human. So they are at the same time absolutely not human and extraordinarily human. There’s nothing more human, really, than these monstrous creatures that only exist in our imagination.” I love this. Thinking of all this, I was hoping you could talk about this project of Tone and the chapters that engage with the non-human with this lens, not the true facts, true facts that are also seemingly fantastical, the true facts that we share air, that maybe air is more us than our arms, but the trueness of these imagined spaces that you’re nodding towards and that a lot of these authors in this chapter are they’re creating creatures or making animals do things that they don’t do.
SS: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it speaks to something that seems fundamental to Tone to me which is that mingling of the human and the non-human in a sort of Deleuze and Guattarian assemblage which involves both the material and the virtual. As Kate and I talked about in our conversation about the Midwest which you mentioned at The New Inquiry, it’s both the material landscape and the place but it’s also the stories that have been told about that place and it’s the imagining of that place which does belong to the human and to the human imagination. I also really love the toybox over toolbox that you mentioned at the beginning of that question, the importance of play as something that is so fundamental to Tone, which is also about entering into that space of sound and doing what you can with it, again, from this undercommons or sub-sub-position, there is a materiality, there is something that you have arrived into and you did not make it and you’re not in charge of it. Yet at the same time, there are ways that you can intervene, there are ways that you can take what you’ve been given, and you can use it as something else. You can use the bat to play music. I think this is something Kate and I have tried very explicitly and very consciously to do is to use what we have in our institutional setting to our advantage. We’ll be like, “Well, let’s find a way that we can take what we’ve been given or take what’s offered as this like lecture experience, guest lecture experience and then how can we play with it? How can we use it to play music? How can we make it into something that is going to be ours?” Fantasy is absolutely fundamental to that. You have to be able to dream up something that is on the outside, to connect with that outside, and to something that is beyond what appears to be the materials at your disposal because it is that virtual element, the imagination, the dream space that enables you to transform, at least, to some small extent the conditions that you have been given and that you did not necessarily make.
KZ: I think it’s interesting thinking about fantasy, some of the works we are writing about here are speculative works like the factory. But I think it will be a slow process, especially because we’re trying to think of something that would be a new form. Sofia and I are always interested in our own work and then together is like what is the form and also what is necessary. Is this necessary that we write a book? I think this is what Lauren Berlant gives us too, that there’s so much in Lauren Berlant’s conversations or interviews where the theory can be spoken about and I think we tried that with the Midwest. It was a way for us to be together and to be thinking together. But I think as we continue to think about atmosphere, we’re turning even more to fantasy, to this idea of the fantasy novel and also the dystopian novel, to think about what kind of complicated utopia is necessary to actually imagine multiplicity and to actually imagine mutual care. We need fantasy for that. What are some of the works we’ve been thinking about? Tove Jansson’s Moomins and ecological collapse.
SS: Jacqueline Harpman, I Who Have Never Known Men which is an amazing book.
KZ: Or Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, to imagine the utopia within apocalypse. I think that’s the space where starting with this Midwestern conversation, we’re trying to imagine, “Can we continue this speculative practice? Can we continue these experiments in plurality albeit in a different form?” Maybe it is just a conversation or they are just interviews but can we imagine a space that is an atmospheric commons? I think we need fantasy for that.
SS: This reminds me, I feel like I should mention, I haven’t even told Kate this yet but at our event over the weekend, the writer Brenda Iijima came up to me and mentioned, “How interesting it is that Kate and I have this collaboration when Kate is such a non-fiction writer and is basing her work on her life and I am this fantasy writer writing things in worlds that I’ve completely made up,” and I said, “Yeah, I think that is interesting.” I think what’s happening is that Kate is a non-realist realist and I’m a realist non-realist.
KZ: Yeah. [laughter] I don’t identify my gender as being a non-fiction writer. That is not how I personally identify. It is what I’ve been constrained into teaching.
SS: And your work is always speculative, all of your work is speculative. Book of Mutter, going all the way back, to me, when I read your work, I see it as fundamentally speculative and really on the outside of any kind of what I think of as a realist tradition.
KZ: Well, I think this is why we keep on talking about Lauren Berlant. This was a conversation or an essay that was just published online about genre trouble, like what does it mean to trouble genre now? I think we are looking for that awkwardness as essential and many tones. You said something so good about this, Sofia, like many tones like to think through reality now, that we are in absurdity and tragedy at the same time. We need to think through tone and to think through genre.
SS: Yeah, and to think about inconsistent tone because we live in a completely it, the tone is totally inconsistent that we live in.
KZ: Of course, our genres have to be as well. To actually think about realism is speculative now, like these realisms.
DN: And I feel like as we’ve touched on them many times, one of the ways or one of the main ways this book is troubling genre or breaking genre is the academic genre. I’m excited by that. I think Cristina Rivera Garza is doing that. I think Christina Sharpe is doing that and many other writers but this busting out like the significant statement begins, “We are still unsure, at the present time, whether we can make the statement for any significance,” which I just love that the book opens this way. [laughter]
KZ: We pissed off the Publishers Weekly reviewer though. We really pissed off Publishers Weekly.
DN: How much time do you have?
KZ: I have time.
DN: Okay, as we go in these conversations, you know when there’s a time limit, I abandon questions improvisationally based on what’s already been said. If we have time, I have a question about the Publishers Weekly Review.
KZ: I’ve only read the first line by accident because I’m so used to mean reviews, which is fine, but if I read them, it infects me.
DN: Well, I’m kind of mean to myself.
KZ: Don’t read the whole review, please. I’m so sensitive.
DN: No, I don’t want to read the review. Let me see if you even want to answer it, if you want me to. Okay, my question was going to be, again, about the negative review you got from Publishers Weekly that ends with the line–
KZ: I don’t know how it ends.
DN: It ends with the line–
SS: Mute your computer.
DN: [Laughs] It’s just two words. You’re going to survive this, Kate.
KZ: Oh, my God.
DN: It ends with the line, “This perplexes.”
KZ: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Who is this person?
DN: I don’t know who this person is but I’m not saying that they would like the book better, this reviewer, this anonymous reviewer, if they understood how your book was situated in the world. I have no idea if they would like it better. But it feels like they don’t have a context for what you’re doing, including in relationship to the academy, and that they aren’t aware of a lineage of books doing something similar. Bringing myself into this, it reminds me, the first time I interviewed Sheila Heti 12 years ago, I had no idea the context and tradition she was writing from, it was as if it had fallen out of the sky without a context. To be clear, I love the book, and it was How Should a Person Be? She’s been on three times. I think it’s still a good interview, the first one, but not me bringing any real depth to the conversation that I think I did when we talked about the last two. Similarly, when Sofia and I talked many years ago now too, and we touched on academia, the difference between diversity initiatives and anti-racism, which I asked from a place of complete ignorance and naivety curiosity, earnest curiosity but also I guess I would say a sense of cluelessness at that point, so thinking of your significance statement, we are still unsure at the present time whether we can make the statement for any significance, I’m not sure I disagree with the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer when they say, “The meaning of Tone–”
KZ: David, you’re reading us a mean review. [laughter]
DN: No, this isn’t even mean.
KZ: My god, this is the opposite of a [courtship]. [laughter]
DN: No, this isn’t even mean. They say, “The meaning of Tone becomes even less clear as the volume predes.”
KZ: Sounds like a compliment.
DN: Whether it becomes less clear or not, I feel like the various explorations definitely don’t build on each other but rather sit alongside each other sometimes compatibly and sometimes less so, and then it feels like to me it’s by intent. I think of my conversation with Kate Briggs about her book This Little Art’s welcoming gesture to all in relationship to translation, her engagement with the amateur and the uncodified, and also talking with Bhanu about how Lauren Berlant’s writing about Bhanu suggests failure as a praxis in her writing. Your gesture of continually asking questions that you don’t have the answers to and that the book only begins to explore feels in relationship to this to me and Bhanu’s love of blogs, notebooks, and diaries feels connected to your love of those things, Kate, where your last book could even be viewed as a love letter to these provisional forms outside the world–
KZ: Everything I write is a love letter to Bhanu. Everything. Everything is a love letter to Bhanu.
DN: These provisional forms that are not making conclusive statements, that’s often not where you would do that. If this reviewer were aware of Briggs, Bhanu Kapil, Moten, Harney, Lauren Berlant, or Kathleen Stewart, at a minimum, their opinion would be rooted in an awareness that you weren’t failing at something you were trying to achieve but rather, you were oriented differently to failure and success. I don’t know if this rings true to you and I apologize about any harm I’ve caused by reading parts of the review.
KZ: No, no. Oh, my God, I heard so much worse.
SS: I did read the review and I really thought that most of it, aside from the first line, which was terrible, but most of it was a compliment.
KZ: That it’s dull. That we’re dull.
SS: That was bad, forget that part.
KZ: We’re a lot of things but we are not dull.
SS: No, we’re not. [laughter] When I read it, I thought, “If I read this negative review of a book, I would be very interested in that book,” because everything it says about being non-conclusive, being outside of expertise never like just come out and say what Tone is, that’s what I would find inspiring and generative about such a book so I would rush to read that book.
KZ: Yeah. What is a Publishers Weekly anyway really? The thing is that some of these review places are, and Sofia, I feel like I’m quoting you quoting Sedgwick, these are paranoid places. They’re paranoid, it’s not a reparative view of reading. I remember when Heroines came out and Heroines got pilloried but then also loved, it was very confusing, it’s very confusing to have both exist at the same time, which is why it’s hard for me to listen to either negative reviews or overt praise. I tend to not be able to listen to any of it. But remember Anne Boyer on Twitter back when we were all on Twitter said something like it’s really hard to write for a specific community but having those review you not know your community at all and not know your tradition at all. That’s when I always get, I’m going on a tangent, but I get so fed up with even the idea of autofiction being only this dominant mode. This idea of like, “No, we’re writing in many different traditions and very different awareness,” and Sofia and I are writing in some traditions that overlap like new narrative. Dodie Bellamy, we write too quite lovingly in the book and some that don’t overlap. But we are writing to communities and we’re writing very rigorously in the space of the minor and the thinking of a minor literature, which encompasses process, becoming, the amateur, the notebook space. This has always been our space, which I would say is a space against capitalism and homogeny, against the individual genius author, and towards community. I would say that Publishers Weekly is a trade publication that says, “Buy this book. Buy this book, don’t buy this book.” I reject these terms. I reject the terms of Publishers Weekly.
DN: Yeah. Well, I feel like you’ve grandly succeeded at creating a book that is generative, inspiring, and welcoming us to pick up the instrument and ask the questions with you. It was really great to be with you both today.
SS: Thank you.
KZ: Thank you, David.
DN: We were talking today to Kate Zambreno and Sofia Samatar, otherwise known as the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere, authors of Tone from Columbia University Press. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Is there anything else you want to talk about that you would want to shoehorn in or anything you feel uncomfortable about that you want to talk about that?
KZ: I was surprised the Publishers Weekly came up. That was fine.
DN: Are you okay?
SS: No, it was totally fine.
KZ: No, I’m totally fine with it. Yeah, I’m totally fine with it. It was great. Yeah, it was great. This is the problem with review organs dying up. There’s been such a problem like people have pitched this book or even pitched my last book and I’m sure also The White Mosque and there seems to be this idea like publish the takedown. Without a doubt, I feel I could peg the identity of this Publishers Weekly reviewer.
DN: Oh, wow.
KZ: No, not like who the person is.
DN: Oh, really? No. Okay.
KZ: But like who the person is. [laughter]
SS: But that type.
KZ: It’s a dude. It’s a dude for sure.
DN: Some of my favorite conversations go meta. I’m glad we included it because the conversation with Kate Briggs, we spent quite a bit of time on the Benjamin Moser.
KZ: Moser review. I remember her saying she had to lie down on the floor after that. She was just lying down on the floor.
DN: Yeah. That was intense to talk about it.
KZ: Yeah. A lot of us who write first-person have gotten those just devastating reviews and I think they’re often written by men, they’re not always.
DN: Sheila Heti, when we talked about Motherhood, a lot of her really terrible reviews were by women.
DN: We went into that, which was so fascinating to talk about the way she was being infantilized in a certain way, like the threateningness of her book to some very intelligent female critics–
KZ: Well, I think there’s this idea of doubt. Doubt is showing weakness and doubt is not performing your genius and doubt is not performing like knowing everything in this production of knowledge.
SS: And it’s refusing to be a guru. It’s refusing that position of like guru on the mountaintop which we absolutely refuse completely on purpose. It’s not that we failed to make get to the top of the mountain, we’re like, “Screw the mountain. We have no entrance on the top of the mountain.” [laughter]
KZ: Right, and maybe knowledge can be something that’s mutual and discussed. It can be chatty. It can be conversational. It can be intimate. That is I think the space of study as opposed to I know more than you.
SS: It’s a space of thinking. It’s a space of thought.
KZ: Yeah. As opposed to I know more than you, I’m going to perform this knowledge for you. I have this like theory that there’s like work, contemporary literature by people who did really well in debate, although, Sofia, I bet you would have done really well in debate, but still.
SS: I never did debate, but maybe, who knows?
KZ: People who did debate, which is also a class thing I think, people who did debate, people who are so good at debating and performing knowledge, they become critics usually, very brilliant critics, right? [laughter]
SS: This has never occurred to me.
KZ: The critics love the writers who perform this knowledge, which is essentially pretty oppressive. I know. I’m lecturing at you. I am a genius. And the critics are that. They went to the Ivy Leagues. They want an excuse to show their brilliance. So if someone has stuttering like Susan Howe’s stuttering “I,” they’re full of doubt, they admit vulnerability, they admit not knowing, they look at not knowing as an actual space of knowledge. That’s very threatening I think to the American critic who’s a product of the Ivy Leagues.
DN: How would you guys feel about me leaving that last part in?
SS: Fine with me.
DN: Okay, because there have been times when I’ve let the tape, I mean with permission, obviously, like Sheila Heti right after I end up closing the show and I had this really funny back and forth about Jewish versus Christian storytelling, that became the best part of the interview for people and it wasn’t in the interview but we just left it in as the outro music rolled.
SS: Happens all the time. That’s the chattiness. That’s the extra, the after the interview is sure.
DN: Okay. We’ll leave it in.
KZ: But also Bhanu talks about confidence. Bhanu said about a study of confident, like why are some writers so confident and have such this idea of confidence? But I think it’s the tradition, it’s a community feeling to say, “Let’s discuss together. Let’s think with each other,” as opposed to “I know everything. I am sovereign. I’m going to perform this knowledge at you.”
SS: Yeah. In Opacities, that’s coming out next year, in talking about our relationship, I say at one point we exchanged confidences and confidence, like putting those two things in the same space that you’re exchanging confidences, you’re being vulnerable with each other about your life and you’re also giving confidence to each other as well confidence that you’re not being given in spaces outside of this community, this small space that you’ve created.
DN: I love that so much. Thank you.
KZ: Okay great. Thanks for doing this, David.
SS: Thank you. Thank you so much.
KZ: Bye, Sofia.
SS: Bye. Great to see you.
KZ: Yeah, of course. Bye.
DN: 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 Kate Zambreno’s work at kzambreno.com, and about Sofia Samatar’s work at sofiasamatar.com. For the bonus audio archive, Kate and Sofia contribute a 40-minute call and response of readings talking to us about why they chose what they read and interweaving each other’s readings into a beguiling hole. This joins many readings, craft talks, conversations with translators, and more, including from many people mentioned today: Dionne Brand, Christina Sharpe, Bhanu Kapil, Elvia Wilk, and others. 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 the conversation, 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 to 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. Find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Beth Steidle in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank past Between the Covers guest, poet, musician, composer, performer, and much more, Alicia Jo Rabins, for making the intro and outro for the show. You can find out more about her work, her writing, her music, her film at aliciajo.com.