Rikki Ducornet spent her childhood in Cuba and Egypt. In addition to a Lannan Literary Fellowship, she has also received grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Eben Demarest Trust. She has written novels, poetry, two collections of short stories, and two children’s books (Phosphor in Dreamland and The Word Desire). Her novel The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition was chosen as a 1999 best book of the year by the Los Angeles Times, and her novel The Jade Cabinet was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Ducornet has also been a panelist on the NEA Literature fellowship board. After living in North Africa, Canada, and France, she now teaches creative writing at the University of Denver.
The Rail’s Ellen Pearlman—whose book Tibetan Sacred Dance was recently awarded a 2003 Banff Mountain Culture Grant—sat down with Ducornet this past spring at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.
Ellen Pearlman (Rail): So how does a character appear to you?
Rikki Ducornet: Well it varies, but in one of my novels it began simply one morning with a French Nazi in my head. The only way I could get rid of him was to write the novel, and he sort of splutters and spits his way through the Manichean book. He is the voice of death and his father is a life-giving voice and they do something like a Punch and Judy act back and forth, like a cosmic ping pong.
In the Fan-Makers Inquisition, I wrote the first chapter and I thought, good lord, I have this fanmaker, it is taking place during the French Revolution, I have to research all of the history of the French Revolution, I have to re-read all of Sade, because the fanmaker is a friend of the Marquis de Sade. I have got to find his letters, there is just a lot to do here, but she was so powerful that I just trusted her and decided to go with her.
Rail: So these characters come to you in a way fully formed out of your imagination?
Ducornet: The problem is giving them a lot of room, being ready for that voice, being worthy of it. The one book where that didn’t happen was the Jade Cabinet. All of a sudden a character named Memory appeared and then suddenly the book was her and it was a memoir. Then everything fell into place and I began writing very quickly.
Rail: How much revision do you do?
Ducornet: I revise as I am writing and there are moments of grace. Before I send a book off to be seen by a publisher it has been what I call polished by the moon, revised 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 times. Some of that revision is minor, some of it is major, but it has gone through a lot. I find I can’t write well unless I have good writing behind me so I don’t move forward until I have it. I need it as well because a book is always a place to think and in early drafts, I am not thinking very intelligently, very originally. I need more drafts to push the ideas towards clarity, including the characters.
Rail: Do you think in scenes or do you think in voice?
Ducornet: Both. For example my first novel was precipitated by a dream. Another was by an almost waking dream, akin to a hallucination. Those were kicked off in part by very powerful scenes in my mind. Certainly I think in terms of scenes often, but the vehicle is always the rhythm of a particular voice or voices.
Rail: You had been a potter and a painter. Did you always write, or did it come to you suddenly?
Ducornet: I had begun a novel in college and had, as many people do, a very bad experience in a creative writing workshop. I was a painter and told I was writing like a painter. It was implied this was a tremendous putdown and I only started writing years later when lines of poetry began to appear in my drawings. I was interested in a coup d’etat that had taken place in Greece and was reading about a case of brutal torture and that really tossed me into my first book, a dark little book of poems and short fictions dealing with the problem of inhumanity. I started the novel really late; I believe I was about 40. I knew that I had found the vehicle that I needed and wanted and so I haven’t stopped since.
Rail: And what compelled you into writing the novel about the Marquis de Sade?
Ducornet: I had read Sade as a 16-year-old and puzzled over him. I had read him as an 18th-century humorist. I had read Swift’s "Modest Proposal" and came to Sade after that and saw Justine as an extension of it. Sade was in the back of my mind for a long time as the paradox of an unfettered imagination that was profoundly fettered by obsession and the dogmas he was attempting to disrupt.
I was traveling in an area in Mexico where Bishop Landa had pulled down pyramids to build monasteries. When I started writing the book, because of the fanmaker appearing full-blown, I thought that it would be very interesting to have a book within a book and bring in Sade as the false monster confronting Bishop Landa who is the true monster responsible for the genocide of the Mayan people and the burning of their books.
Rail: Do you find that there is any kind of thematic thread that runs through all of the work?
Ducornet: Freedom and responsibility and the risks and delights and responsibilities of the unfettered imagination. How we drive our children mad, how we are irresponsible to the liberty of one another. The ease with which we go to war instead of trying to reinvent the world in such a way that there is room for its variability and mutability.
Rail: What is Gazelle about?
Ducornet: In some ways it is the most autobiographical book that I have written because it takes place in Cairo in the early 1950s and I was there then with my father. The father in the book is very much my father, the mother is someone else’s. The narrator is not me but she has had many of my experiences as a child. It is a story of a family in Cairo in the ’50s and an artist who is a perfume maker. I think it is a good time for this book to be coming out. The male Arab characters are extremely life-giving figures. It is also an alchemical book both aesthetically and philosophically, because it is about transformations, and awakening to the sexual soul.
Excerpt from Rikki Ducornet’s Gazelle (Alfred Knopf, 2003):
(When her mother leaves her father to "walk" the streets of Cairo, and her father forgets himself in games of chess and war, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth ponders Schéhérazade’s words, "It is good for a girl to be with a man," and finds comfort at the shop of Ramses Ragab, a master perfumer dedicated to resurrecting the lost fragrances of the past.)
The Battlefields of Shiraz
It was my thirteenth summer. Father and I entered into a symbolic relationship with Mother of such intensity that even now I find it almost impossible to undo the mental knots we tied in our attempt to restrain her. That summer the city of Cairo took on the mystical and metaphysical features of one of those cryptic Roman paintings so prized by scholars in which each element has an allegorical significance: we saw signs of her everywhere. And I, who had finally managed not to think about her too much, I thought about her all the time. Her naked body rocking with laughter was the glyph beneath which the city pulsed; it haunted our nights—Father’s and mine. When I visited the museum with Father—and, like the war games he played with Ramses Ragab, these visits took place in the early morning—I expected to see her materialize in every room. This was foolish; as much as she loved the Sporting Club, Mother hated museums. But I wanted to see her; I wanted her to return. I chose to petition an admirable lion’s head in room 46. I wanted Mother back not because I loved her (I think, in fact, that I had come to violently dislike her), but because it was unbearable to know she was unleashed, like a force of nature.
I wanted to keep my eye on her, to watch her eat in that absent way she had, to hear her voice rising and falling in the night, to stumble upon her barefoot, her mind elsewhere, pacing the hallway before dawn. I also left instructions with a lion-headed waterspout. Understand that I had chosen lions only because of the fabulous head in Room 46—its beauty and size. Once that decision had been made, I found myself appealing to lions whenever I saw one. (Like Venice, Cairo was riddled with lions.)
After our visit to the museum, Father and I would find a garden and a quite place to sit. We sat, often in silence, and sometimes for hours. Or we would take a long walk, to the Suq el-Nahassin, perhaps, to wander in the stunning cacophony, the sound of hammers making it impossible to think, the brass and copper trans and barber’s basins, dazzling in the light of late mornings, making it impossible to see.
"Egyptians," Ramses Ragab once said to me over breakfast (it was a habit of ours to share a late breakfast when he and Father had finished their game of war), "have always believed in magic." This all-pervasive way of seeing and being in the world had taken hold of Father and me. "When I was a boy," Ramses Ragab said also, "my grandfather once sent me to Khedr el-Attar to buy a powder made of salamanders— a cure, or so he thought, for impotency."
Father and I would explore Khedr el-Attar, too, reeling under the influence of things we could not name but which filled the air with the scent of vanished times. The streets smelled of new soap and then, suddenly, of lamb kidney toasting over open fires, reminding us that we had been wandering all day. Stumbling out of the maze of streets, Father would hail a cab and off we’d go to the Komais Restaurant, or the Paris Café. There, while waiting for dinner, we would gorge on pickles, Father mopping his face with his handkerchief and more than once muttering: "She’s been here." Then, I too could smell Mother’s perfume. When, after dinner, he overturned his empty cup and asked our waiter to read his fortune, the waiter said: "Your heart is empty," proving himself a worthy reader, "and it won’t be filled for a long time."
I do not think Father was aware of how irrational he had become. He would look to the street and the sky for signs, signs that were the indication of Mother’s movements, revelations as to the tenor of her moods and the nature of her thoughts. For the most part, Father, if clearly eccentric, appeared to be as rational as ever, but then something would occur, evidence of the—I can find only one word—superstitious nature of his thinking. For example, one morning as we loitered in a park, we saw a battle between two turtledoves. The female, coy as a cat, stood by. Father said: "Your mother is like her. She will not wander far." And it is true, she was in the vicinity. She had taken rooms in the somewhat worn but elegant Hotel-Pension Viennoise, on Saria Antikhana, not far from the museum.
I did not see it then as clearly as I do now; after all, I too was infected. But the empirical capacity of Father’s mind—which had so often in the past impressed the world—had been violently disrupted. This new version of Father was more and more often incompatible with the old. However, it was summer and he was able to blame his odd behavior on the heat. Because, to a certain extent, he was aware of it. Just after the incident with the doves—we were crossing Soliman Pacha Place—he clicked his tongue as if to scold himself and said: "What nonsense I am speaking!" Caressing my cheek and grinning in that winning way he had, he added: "How exhausting summer is!" Yet, despite such moments of lucidity, Father persisted in what I can only call this new peculiarity of thought—peculiarity that at the time was part and parcel of the mysterious world around us: Cairo, its fabulous museums, the fantastical sprawl of Egypt, the desert so near at hand, Mother’s maddening absence, and soon: Ramses Ragab’s Kosmètèrion! That summer there was no such thing as ordinary thinking. The Universe had gone topsy-turvy, and the profusion of games—for they took place several times a week—was just a small part of it. We did not know it yet, but Mother was taking on the attributes of myth. It should come as no surprise that I once awakened from shattering dreams, my heart pounding, to find Father in the kitchen nibbling toast. We had both dreamed the same dream: that we had been bandaged up like corpses! (And surely this explains—why has it not occurred to me before?—my life’s delight in liberating mummies from their gum-infested cloth to see the caramelized flesh clinging to the redundant, yet invariably startling, bone!)