The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue
Books In Conversation

Edie Meidav with Andrea Scrima

Forms Which Can Startle Us All Awake

Edie Meidav
Another Love Discourse
(Terra Nova Press , 2022)

Andrea Scrima (Rail): I read your new book, Another Love Discourse, in a state of high emotional alert, and when I finished, I went back to the beginning and started again. It’s a rare luxury to read a book twice, but I felt I needed to revisit the narrator’s self-scrutinies, the overall process of transformation she undergoes throughout the telling, because I was so mesmerized by the form the first time around that I was afraid I’d missed something along the way. After all, this is a story about the demise of a marriage and the emergence of new love and its new emotional geometries—not necessarily everyday occurrences. We don’t have to get into the question of fiction vs. nonfiction here—to my mind, these categories are inaccurate, and even the term “autofiction” often obscures what the language itself achieves. Because it’s the form of the writing, even apart from the emotional revelations, that gave me such pleasure. Can you talk a little bit about the reasons behind choosing Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse as your inspiration, your template?

Meidav: Exactly how we create depends so much on early ruptures, doesn’t it? As if our creativity hopes to become suture. Some kind of fractal structure seems to inform also how we read, a replicative habit which could probably be plotted as some kind of algebraic equation: reading equals trust plus belief and that x factor which a writer uses to carry us into some parabolic future in which we understand. I always loved the idea of Alice Munro tending to write stories non-sequentially because she also reads dancing about, rebelling against linear order in order to find the authentic story. 

In my case—and as might be true for so many of us—as a child I lacked any truly central organizing authority, any interpreter credibly and wholly explaining the world out there to my innermost self, and therefore also lacked a clearly defined springboard against which to rebel. So you could say early circumstance inculcated a certain interest in margins and the white space, the unexpected as it occurs in text and life, an attitude oriented toward all that is lateral or relativistic.

You know how often some of us find who we want to be by what we push against? Those who feel most alive as activists often seem to rise from the most clearly defined authoritarian, if not wholly oppressive, family structures. I admire them! Yet in my case, the world arrived filtered, never wholly explained, which probably partially lent me the curse or talent of dissociation, all of which made my earliest aesthetic tint a bit dreamy. 

This aspect of attention—what was I doing, all that time, gazing out windows?—may also connect to some marrow-deep habit, borne maybe from ancestral Talmudic commentators, of loving to dwell in life and text from the margins. 

You know the pleasure you might feel when you find writers who speak with a certain impulsivity: you know those who allow themselves the bold, unexpected gesture? I don’t mean those who employ stream of consciousness but those who work in an astounding freedom from shame, which then lends permission to the reader. Someone could probably write a dissertation on strong matrilineage, refutation of expulsive theory, and literary bombast. But for whatever it is worth, my gateway to Barthes was Mythologies, which I loved for its intelligent playful impulsivity. Whether or not childhood made me crave those who write with a generous spirit of openness, attentive to the broken frame, or ruptured, hybrid narrative that speaks to our time of turmoil, one which allows multiple voices into the margins and blank space of a page, I will say I am a devotee to the ruling logic of Barthes’ famous punctum.  

When the pandemic first hit in 2020, I was teaching A Lover’s Discourse in a course called Confessions and Rants (within the UMass Amherst MFA). The form of Barthes’ book—the invitation you might feel in its openness—tickled my imagination in an aleatory fashion. I used them as if they were Eno’s Oblique Strategies, offering prompts I used to survive those bleak early and later days of our collective isolation. I am no Barthes scholar, but I felt myself—as so many have—seen within the urgent self-articulation of A Lover’s Discourse. Barthes was trying to survive his cage; we are trying to survive ours.

Rail: Yes, he speaks with the lover’s compulsion to confess—but there’s also a formal austerity, an almost geometric pattern to what he’s doing: he creates an entire vocabulary to parse out the mirror reflections of his love and its projections. There’s a similar formal complexity at work in your book, but apart from your nod to Barthes in the way the sections are divided and named with a word or phrase that taps into embedded emotion, your approach feels far more intuitive. 

A Lover’s Discourse is, to my mind, about the incommunicability of the innermost self to the Other. The voice that speaks is pained and lonely; at times it feels that the discourse is an appeal to that molten core from which all need issues forth: the child and its tyrannical need. Another Love Discourse has, for me, a different emotional coloration. On the surface, it’s about the tidal pull of love and family, about the precariousness of our closest relationships, shot through with grief and with fears of inadequacy, illness, and death. But while it’s a love song to the beloved, it’s also very much a literature of the neglected self. It’s almost as though you had to invent a new language to, if not better understand, then perhaps give breath to those churnings within begging us to listen to our unheard inner core. 

Meidav: Thank you—I am so glad you emerged with that reading! Incommunicability: yes, the very heart of the matter! 

Some of us forever stay introverts with social skills—perhaps most of us who find ourselves in this reading and writing clan. And say you are one of those whose language abilities formed inside metaphor—I seem to think mainly in metaphor—say then that when you try to speak some inner truth to another, when you aim to believe any word acts as a true sign, that it can come from your private trove of association and travel out into the commerce of the world and actually mean something of the original to another person—what an act! You dare send some little envoy out from your inchoate pre-verbal being out through all your mycelial or synovial or ancestral layers to another and hope to be understood? What agency, what trust in any speech act, what faith! (Forgive me—the complexity of the above is my wee homage to your saying “literature of the neglected self.”) 

In terms of the images used, a friend recently asked me the following question: with all this AI surrounding us, where can any of us find our punctum? The idea used in Another Love Discourse, as borrowed from Barthes’s Camera Lucida: the punctum is that detail in an image which pierces our heart, beyond any societal system, which brings us into visceral connection with the photographer in the moment. About the photos in the book: they are mostly by this wonderful Dutch photographer, Cecile Bouchier, who with great enthusiasm engages in a kind of outsider art in the desert along California’s Highway Five, creating large-scale pieces and a plethora of Joseph Cornell-like boxes made of animals she has found dead which she then places in Goya-like narratives—each box has such a strong punctum for me, and I wrote to and from their piquancy, the punctum in each. And was happy to work with her to bring about the book’s cover, the sweet owl who sees all, gazing at us with entire layers of bandaging swathing the book.

Rail: I have an odd little coincidence to report: I happen to be in Florence, outside the city center south of the Arno, where there are some rather large plots of land nearby with pines, cypresses, olive tree groves. Last night, I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of an owl. I don’t know if I’ve ever actually heard an owl before, apart from recordings. And then another night bird whose song I couldn’t identify answered it. Can a coincidence be a punctum? It very much feels this way to me. 

Edie, so much of your book is about the tender rootedness of all being. The lines connecting the narrator with her mother, her grandmother, her daughters are strong but fraught, and in constant need of care, reevaluation, reaffirmation. This isn’t at all central to the novel, but I’d like to ask you about it anyway—there’s a point in the book where the narrator describes herself as a “gay man in a woman’s body.” This really jumped out at me. You’re essentially writing about marriage, motherhood, friendship, and profession—and all the ways we perform the myths of gender and the feminine “in drag.” The book isn’t a work of theory, of course, and you do all this in a very subtle and often playful way, but the Barthes quote you refer to at some point—“The great problem is to outplay the signified, to outplay law, to outplay the father, to outplay the repressed—I do not say to explode it, but to outplay it”—brings this to a head. What was this quest about, beyond uncoupling the binary in all these constructs? 

Meidav: One of the great paradoxes for me, having come up in the particular waft of the politics and Buddhism of northern California, was whether or not claiming any identity serves as an act of strength or mainly a reification of ego. I felt early that it might be better to exist on the hyphen between any binary, to embrace dislocation as an existential state. Part of this orientation has to do with the following: like many, I grew up feeling my socialization as a female, which can mean growing up as a being precociously sexualized by others— [it] was a form of drag as much as any other. Various female shamans came along to induct me into what it meant to be female, and I believed them some of the time, until I did not. The character in the novel grapples with a similar question. You can know what it is to wear the drag of the responsible adult, mother, breadwinner, other, and then find yourself wishing to shuck the garment of others’ expectations.

Rail: Another Love Discourse feels, to me, like a successive shedding of skins, like an animal-level metamorphosis. But do you feel that it’s also, in some ways, a COVID novel? I usually avoid these categories, and as novelists we’re probably not all that interested in capturing a zeitgeist—the actual labor of writing, of pulling something out of the self, really extracting it, excising it—is far more laborious, operates on its own timeline, seeks out its own strange paths. But I recall that you began this book with the excerpt you sent to me in May or June 2020, when I was editing the “Corona Issue” for StatORec and asked you to send me something that you were in the process of writing now, in this startling and bracing time. I remember that you were still rewriting it after I began editing. And so the book was born in this incredibly fraught and in some ways precious time, when we really didn’t know what might come next. 

Meidav: May I just say here that you really served as such a wonderful early reader of those scraps; what was then, truly, my survival rope up and out of the zeitgeist! Had you not created the project, this book would not have emerged, I wager.

Rail: It was my survival rope as well—and a privilege to be a part of the genesis of a work I love and admire so much.

Meidav: The larger question may always be, for any of us: how do we link with the creative spirit? We need these moments of connection with our fellows—through art or any other means. Recently, we all were deprived of so many carnivalesque joys! And then, really, any creator can wonder: why bother adding to the market? Does it not seem like hubris to bother making in a world already so filled with bric-à-brac our seas overflow? Yet we keep returning; we crave this one little thing, and this truth applies to those who bake pies or paint masterpieces: we wish to create a simple form which can speak of the singular subjectivity we know amid all the vast silence or busy human complexity. 

Right now, it looks to me as if most creators are trying with greater innovative zeal to locate the joy of our time, to find striking, extraordinary forms more representative of the way our contemporary memory works. 

Since in this period we all knew a collective blow to our memory, put into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep, deprived of the stratified mnemonics of outside physical space and our usual daily concord with others, we may feel more intimately some of Barthes’s experience. In his case, having suffered so many stints of sanatorium life, he had a strong yet ambivalent craving for the easy shoulder-rubbing commerce of cultured cafés. Like Roland, we too wish to be among our fellows, to whisper into their ears, to create forms which can startle us all awake, and this hope was mine, too, for this particular book in a more obvious way, perhaps, than with my others.

Rail: For you, the time of the pandemic also overlapped with serious illness. 

Meidav: Yes, the book was written while and after, last May, a Lyme spirochete, the Great Imitator, tunneled its way through my brain; I write you now from inside an aftermath which acts as some kind of private corollary to this phoenix time of ours: a strange neurogenesis in which new and, let’s hope, more positive connections are being formed for us all. 

I’m happy to report, this act of writing has stayed intact even as the act of speech can leap, as if on Autotune. Pure truth: as I finished that last sentence, though I am at a dining table, a carpenter ant, hitchhiking here in the semblance of one safe zone, bit me—hoping for wood. 

From our current vantage, it looks as if we collectively created a boat of a society and set ourselves on a perilous course, believing we possessed dominion, acting as if we could forget the Romantics and overcome nature, yet now cannot hide from the waves that keep slapping us silly or overboard. 

In the case of Lyme, in one day you might have a dappled morning walk with a beloved person and meet every form of tiny disease-bearer, especially these ticks with their population blooming due to climate change. In every sense, I mean the following: nature keeps reminding us we cannot give up on it. Today, Earth Day, I danced with some people in our town center; we had an astonishingly fun time of provisional community and temporarily felt better; and whose awareness was raised? The unborn microbes?

Yet to return to this idea of a literature of the neglected self, and to how I really wished to answer you, before the carpenter ant sent me into a doom spiral about joyful celebration amid futility: writing both requires and tilts me toward faith, and this book offering serves as a document of trust in our greater community, which could mean the hope of finding an excellent reader or three. 

The writer Medha Singh just reminded me of this bit from Brodsky’s Nobel speech: “A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete a tete, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.” Such warm immediacy: this was what I wanted with the reader, and hence used truncated forms, interruptions, direct address. Do you have this hope as well? Letting the reader feel just a bit less lonely, getting a chance to be seen by the text, in the sense of that Stendhal axiom:

Ah… a novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet. And the man who carries this mirror in his pack will be accused by you of being immoral! His mirror shews the mire, and you blame the mirror!

My problem with this Stendhalian concept rests in its binary presentation. Today, I prefer how Ondaatje picks it up with Hana’s perspective in The English Patient, which used to be one of my favorite books

A novel is a mirror walking down a road… Many books open with an author’s assurance of order. One slipped into their waters with a silent paddle… But novels commenced with hesitation or chaos. Readers were never fully in balance. A door a lock a weir opened and they rushed through, one hand holding a gunnel, the other a hat. When she begins a book, she enters through stilted doorways into large courtyards.

Maybe I wanted you as a reader to enter a stilted doorway into some vast expanse of communion.

Rail: And share in the azure skies and the mire of the puddles. 

Meidav: Yet no doomsday, not yet.


Andrea Scrima

Andrea Scrima is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, 2nd ed. 2018); the German edition (Wie viele Tage) was published by Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria in 2018. The German edition of her second book, Like Lips, Like Skins, will also be published by Droschl in the fall of 2021. Scrima has works in several anthologies, including Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil) and Strange Attractors (University of Massachusetts Press). She is the recipient of a writer's fellowship from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs and writes a monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily. She is editor-in-chief of the online literary magazine StatORec.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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