Parataxis and Ponzi Schemes
MARGARITA MEKLINA and SNEŽANA ŽABIC with Andrea Scrima
Nava Renek and Natalie Nuzzo (eds.)
Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board
(Spuyten Duyvil Publishing, 2014)
Wreckage of Reason II: Back to the Drawing Board is an anthology of contemporary experimental women’s writing. The anthology, as Leora Skolkin-Smith has written,
“stands on its literary merits alone, but it also elicits questions that point far beyond its own physical presence in the publishing arena—questions primarily to do with the threatened future of experimental and literary writing itself, with the questionable health and well-being of our current literary culture and its openness or lack thereof to work that isn’t consumerist in intent.”
Andrea Scrima invited two of her co-authors in the anthology, Margarita Meklina and Sneana abić, to take part in a conversation about what experimental writing means today—beyond the marginalization the label inevitably leads to, both in terms of commercial viability and literary visibility. Meklina emigrated to the US from Russia at the age of twenty-two and lives in Oakland; abić, who eventually settled in Chicago, was forced to flee her native Vukovar when the wars in the former Yugoslavia broke out. Scrima, who was born and raised in New York and has been living in Berlin for more than half her life, soon noticed that cultural displacement was an element each of them had in common; as she began to question the effects this may have had on their various literary projects—whether it fostered a critical distance to mainstream culture, or a skepticism regarding its definition of success—she decided to ask Meklina and abić to discuss their experiences. What follows is a conversation about emigration, identity, and the many unforeseen ways in which an initial loss of language can grow into a reconsideration and regaining of language. In the process, Scrima, Meklina, and abić explore the question Skolkin-Smith poses early in her essay on the anthology: “How do experimental literary writers continue to foster their literary legacy, to offer up profound depths, language, and soul, to grow as writers willing to risk, and to toss up, around, and about meanings and connections in ways that rise above entertainment?”
Andrea Scrima (Rail): Sneana, Margarita, while you’ve both been living in the US for a long time now, each of you was born elsewhere—in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union respectively—and each of you is at home in a language other than English. My own experience is the exact counterpart of this: I grew up in New York, studied fine arts there, and then left for Europe, finally winding up in what was at the time the enclave of West Berlin. I have now been living abroad for nearly thirty years, well over half my life, and it’s given me a kind of split identity: my entire adult existence is grounded in a European sensibility, but my sense of personal belonging still tends to gravitate around “home.”
My relationship to writing goes back to childhood. When I was thirteen, I wrote a play based on the Watergate scandal, which had a huge impact on me at the time because my father was a staunch “Nixon man” and continued to support him even after all the sordid details began to emerge, all the blatant lies. There was no way to discuss these things at home, and so I suppose writing about them was a way to cope with the fact of discovering that I had a firm political opinion that was opposed to my father’s, who until then had been my main intellectual authority.
During the many years I’ve been active as a fine artist, I’ve always worked with language in one form or another, scribbling words into wet paint and incorporating sentence fragments into the images. Gradually, as I started filling entire rooms with stories in the large-scale text installations I exhibited throughout the ’90s, I came to realize that my work was taking me back—inevitably, inexorably—to writing. The year I finally received an artist’s grant from the Berlin Cultural Senate, I moved into a waterfront loft in pre-gentrification Brooklyn, woke up just before dawn every day, and wrote through into the afternoon. And after Berlin lured me back a year later, I continued to write, completing my first book in 2002, a year and a half after giving birth to my son.
In retrospect, it seems significant that the decision to define myself in a literary framework was made in a “foreign” context. I’d arrived in Berlin with nearly no language skills, at a time when very few English-speaking people lived there, and so it was really sink or swim. I set my mind to learning German and became proficient quickly, but the real change came about when I began reading German-language literature in the original. Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Ingeborg Bachmann, Robert Walser, Franz Kafka—they were all open to me now, each in their own unique voice, and they left an imprint on how I would eventually approach writing in my own language. This initial loss and subsequent regaining of language changed my relationship to words; it certainly affected my art, and I’m sure it’s influenced my writing in many ways as well.
Sneana abić: Andrea, your story strikes me as adventurous and cool—you left New York for Berlin years before the Wall fell, which, in my mind, is something a cool and adventurous New Yorker would do. In other words, you left because you wanted to, not because you had to.
Rail: At the time, it wasn’t at all “cool” to leave New York for Berlin—people thought I was nuts because everyone wanted to come to New York. But as a working-class kid, getting a tiny scholarship to do my master’s degree in Berlin, which in the days of the Iron Curtain was a very dark place in many ways, seemed like a ticket to something better, and so I flew here with a small suitcase and next to no money—and stayed. But this doesn’t compare to being forced to leave, or to the dangers of war and the exigencies of immigration that you went through, Sneana.
abić: Yes, I had to move. I’m from a small town called Vukovar, in Croatia, and writers born there almost never stay there. In fact, for some reason, they really detach themselves from their town of birth. Poor Vukovar. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Yugoslav wars started right there in Vukovar in May of 1991, and so it wasn’t safe to stay. I was 17, in my third year of high school, and all of a sudden I had to move to Belgrade. And when NATO began bombing Serbia in 1999, I had to flee Belgrade, too. Fast-forward to 2002, and I arrive at grad school in Wilmington, North Carolina at the age of 28. In the interim years, even after the wars ended, nationalists propagated the policy that my native language, Serbo-Croatian, wasn’t one language, but two or four different languages, depending on whom you asked. In other words, awful bloody wars came and went, but in the realm of language, culture, and the media, the mental war continued. Along with many of my fellow anti-nationalist writers, I resisted that mental war. Actually, it was a situation that lent itself to some good writing and camaraderie, to a feeling that resistance and art can change things for the better. But I had no idea how to make a living beyond working temporary jobs and getting temporary scholarships. I tried living in Prague at one point, and I went to grad school programs in Budapest and in Hanover, but these were always temporary solutions. After years of financial insecurity, of being a refugee, I craved not adventure, but stability. Winning scholarships and stipends to study somewhere for a number of years (first in North Carolina and then in Chicago, where I decided to stay) was more stable and more financially lucrative than anything I’d tried before—if you can believe that living below or around the poverty line in the US is lucrative. But my family back home was even poorer.
When it comes to split identities, I can’t say I feel any more split than anyone else I know. Maybe it has to do with my long, gradual switch to English as the language of my poetry, prose, and songs, a process that began while I was still in Europe. Or it may have to do with feeling like a bit of a weirdo wherever I live: I have a green card now, but a part of me will always be a refugee.
Margarita Meklina: Sneana, everything you say resonates with me. I came to the US with refugee status, too, and the $10 I had in my pocket from selling my copy of Nabokov’s Transparent Things to a university student in Russia were immediately spent on a pen in Safeway. They say that some Russians faint the first time they see all the aisles and shelves in American supermarkets. For me, poverty has always been an issue, and although I come from a middle-class upbringing (my parents were a nurse and an engineer), I feel closer to the so-called “rednecks” and “trailer trash,” to the heroes of Mary Gauthier’s songs:
Fish swim, birds fly
Daddies yell, mamas cry
Old men sit and think
Six minutes on defrost, three on high
Beer to wash it down with
Then another, a little whiskey on the side
Rail: Oh yes, Gauthier—“I got my Daddy’s blood in my veins.” And yet, somehow we all wound up becoming writers. I’m always interested in how money (and the lack thereof) factors into an artist’s or writer’s development—to what degree the inner urgency is greater than the fear and need for some kind of stability. Considering the destitution people face when they’re forced to emigrate, becoming a writer seems like an improbable luxury, an elitist enterprise that’s entirely out of reach.
Meklina: Well, after spending hours in a welfare office pleading my case just to get food stamps, it’s the working poor and the bums on the street that I feel closest to. But immigration splits people, too—when they hit American soil, some Soviet Russians felt disenfranchised, but others abandoned their past and immediately forgot all about Socialism, becoming card-carrying Republicans who embraced Reagan, Bush, and capitalism in its worst form.
During my first year in the US, I was passing out flyers on Market Street in San Francisco for a fortune teller, standing out there on the street for $4 an hour with perfect American families walking past swinging their Neiman Marcus and FAO Schwartz shopping bags. They pushed my hand away: the rich do not need fortune tellers; only the poor hope the future will bring them some luck. Later, I became very sensitive to groups like ACT UP, who worked towards making the public aware of AIDS—actually, I’m appreciative of any art that champions a social cause.
Rail: I’m interested in the ways in which the experience of living in a new country and absorbing its literature and culture—the form and syntax of its language, the different thought processes this gives rise to—have added another dimension to your writing. How did emigration affect your relationship to writing? What was it like to suddenly no longer be surrounded by your native language—did it change your work?
Meklina: To begin with, having an accent makes you a second-class citizen, although it depends on the kind of accent you have. If I’d said I was Italian or German, people would have shown me more love than they did when they realized I was Russian. I felt this very acutely—that my so-called language handicap barred me from many professions I would have been able to do in my own country.
As for writing, being a non-native speaker has its pluses. You can always say it was your artistic intention to write this or that way. You can mask your handicap and claim that the lack of language skills is in fact your writing style. Sometimes you can use it as a method. You can create a non-native persona and write in broken English—and it works just fine. As long as you don’t make the kind of blunders Nabokov did: as an entomologist, he used the phrase “horny butterfly” to specify “a butterfly with horns.” Later, as his English improved, he once commented to two students who were kissing during his lecture: “It’s okay you are spooning there, as long as you don’t start forking.”
Rail: Margarita, that’s hilarious. As far as my own work goes, I’m sure that my experience of living abroad, of learning to navigate what was initially an alien environment, has helped shape my writing. In the beginning, the sudden loss of language was disorienting. As I began to explore the effects of this loss, however, it became increasingly instructive. I learned to observe things in keener, subtler ways; I took in everything that was being communicated non-verbally. I became aware of the extent to which I’d been formed by the culture I grew up in. It’s unsettling when you suddenly discover that every cultural and linguistic nuance you’ve taken for granted up until now is more or less annulled, rendered invisible to others. And at the same time, the nuances of this new environment I found myself in were equally invisible to me, at least at first.
But because so much of my writing draws on my family’s history and on childhood, I need the emotional tie to the English language. Living outside my native culture seems to have me returning to the past with an urgency that my writing might never have acquired had I never left home. Even though I make my living as a translator and write fluently in German, I can’t imagine writing fiction in any other language than English—this is one of the differences between us. What you’re saying is that your outsider experience factors into everything that’s innovative and compelling about your writing—it’s part of what sets it apart from mainstream literature.
Meklina: When I decide to write something in Russian, I choose topics nobody has touched upon before in this language, prohibited topics that only underground online publishing would embrace. And when I write in English, I address things nobody in the US has ever thought about. To be honest, America has become a new Russia for me, a country I’d like to escape from as soon as I can. As soon as living (or language) becomes a habit, I run away. I reject familiarity—with a tongue or a country—to find a new means of expression. My life is always an experiment, and it’s a dangerous place to be because this experiment with language often turns into an experiment with my life. As I’ve already said, I feel more like a performance artist who tests her endurance and then writes about it.
abić: I can’t say that my move to the US had a definitive influence on the way I write, structurally speaking. My experience with languages goes farther back and it is richer than simply moving from one country to another (in part because I’ve lived in more than two countries). Between the ages of nine and twenty-two, I had formal instruction in Russian, English, German, Latin, French, Czech, Polish, and Old Church Slavonic. By the time I was a university student in Belgrade, I was able to read books in English, as well as speak it fluently. In university, I majored in Czech language and literature. I actually wanted to go into Comparative Literature as a grad student, but that didn’t pan out. My University of Belgrade professors were, I think, all essentially structuralists, even though it was the 1980s and ’90s. In any case, they had no use for theorists like Foucault or Barthes. As far as they were concerned, the author was alive and well, shaped by and shaping history and society.
And I still think those professors had a point, but I was ultimately more convinced by my other, more radical and up-to-date professors: I also took theory courses taught outside of the university setting by feminist intellectuals in Belgrade. I followed some of them to the Central European University in Budapest. Those professors and their best students did interesting interdisciplinary stuff. Some of the ones in Belgrade were poets, and most of them were fierce anti-war activists at the same time. It was the activist and creative elements in the mixture that I ended up being drawn to. Among these feminist intellectuals in Belgrade, theory, poetry/creativity, and activism were all equally valid. Also, the old “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” variation on the theme was big.
My instinct is that my writing is much less influenced simply by my move to the US, and much more by three early experiences: the war and the abuse of Serbo-Croatian by post-Yugoslav nationalists in the 1990s, my training as a never-to-be comparatist in roughly the same time period, and joining the feminist scene in the mid-to-late 1990s. It was the shock of war and wartime propaganda, and the resistance against it through feminism, that led me to start reading and writing in English more and more, at least half a decade before I finally moved to the US in 2002. Moving here was not abrupt at all.
Despite all these changes, my narrative prose, whether in English or Serbo-Croatian, before or after my move to the US, tends to be episodic and even fragmentary, but pieces form a kind of elliptical whole once a book comes together. My dialogue and descriptions are sparse, imagery precise, plot arcs and characters on the flat side. There is action and conflict in my prose, but characters don’t profoundly change, and no resolution takes place. My endings are very deliberate, but they’re more about openings than closures. I care a lot about the rhythm of my sentences and pieces (poetry and prose alike), and how they would sound read or spoken out loud. I write slowly and revise compulsively. I like to resist and break apart the lyric in my poetry and the narrative in my prose. I poke around the borders between genres of modes of writing. My syntax tends to be paratactic; it’s as if I like to keep clauses more or less on the same level. The biggest difference is that I can string clauses in lengthy sentences for half a page in Serbo-Croatian, whereas in English sentences have to be shorter. My writing is minimalist in some ways, but not quiet; it comes with a rebellious attitude. This is the kind of writing that most readers find quite repulsive or oblique (as I’m sure this explanation is), but I don’t aim to please most readers. Moreover, I can’t help but write like that.
Rail: I’ve never analyzed it in quite this way before, and I certainly don’t think about grammar or syntactical structure when I sit down to write, but there are certain aspects to my work that I should mention in this context. I work with fragmented narrative; I am far less interested in story than in what happens between the lines as a result of the formal structure. My writing entails an alternation between a causal sentence structure and a mode of perception and formulation that absorbs the phenomena of experience and records these without ascribing any conclusions to them. It’s an alternation between an outwardly directed perception and an interiority in which time becomes indeterminate and fluid. It’s been suggested that there might be something akin to “psychological parataxis,” which corresponds, perhaps, to a more autistic view of the world, in any case a view that is very much from the inside looking out—although the danger in calling it that is clear, because it suggests that the form of the writing has something unintentional about it, which is rarely the case. As writers, we craft our sentences carefully; we hone them down, make countless adjustments, and somehow, we manage to take this enormous, chaotic, messy experience that is consciousness, and funnel it through the imperfect tool of language to produce writing capable of tapping into layers of perception and experience that are difficult to convey in words. And then we listen to these sentences carefully, search them for the ring of truth.
Has any of this made my writing more “experimental?” All I can say is that it’s led me to explore different ways in which the raw stuff of experience can be converted into words. I am drawn to unusual types of narrative form and syntactical structure, and this is certainly inspired, at least in part, by thinking in two languages. I’m not talking about transposing a grammatical construct from one language to another; it’s not that direct. I’m talking about a deeper permeability to language—areas of subjective experience that resist words, that defy verbalization, that can only be approached obliquely and conveyed indirectly, through form. I’m interested in writing that approaches language skeptically. Sentences can be like readymades—pre-existing entities from the culture at large, common currency. It’s very hard to coax language toward the non-verbal part of your mind.
So much of American literature today is culturally self-referential—it’s about the American experience, and directed at an American audience, with little thought paid to how much, if any, of the context survives translation. I’ve always found this to be a huge liability in American writing; it betrays a kind of arrogance, perhaps ignorance, and it corresponds to the appallingly low number of foreign works published in translation in the US. We’ve become a country that knows very little about the way people think and frame their experience in other parts of the world. And because it’s become impossible for me to read a book without asking myself how much of it would remain intelligible in translation, I am drawn to works that are more universal in nature, in other words, that aren’t reliant on the reader’s familiarity with celebrities or television and media culture.
Meklina: Andrea, the “raw stuff of experience” resonates with me. I often put myself in circumstances where I don’t feel comfortable, in which both the situation and people feel unfamiliar, purely to explore how my writing and subject matter change through the experience. I wouldn’t take these risks if not for the sake of literature and language. I look for situations that offer something new, that take me out of familiar waters. The language for certain things often doesn’t exist because people don’t feel comfortable talking about them, and so when I write about prohibited or shunned topics in Russian or English—homosexual love, for instance, or the changes a woman’s body undergoes during breastfeeding and pregnancy—I try to come up with a new language to describe them.
Another very obvious experiment is that I write in both languages and observe how my complex, evolved, flowery Russian influences my monastic, stiff English, and vice versa: how the forced economy in English (because I am not a native speaker) influences my Russian, which is far too literary and not easily accessible to a wider Russian public. The subject of the experiment here is me: I observe how my tongues transform, I see the pluses and minuses, I choose the better features of each and exaggerate them on purpose. Seeing how concise my English is, for instance, I tone down my Russian, or I make my English more dramatic after seeing how a Russian audience reacts when I read my works.
Another thing I love experimenting with is collaboration. I compiled an epistolary novel with a much older man, the now late poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, who belonged to the famed “language school” that came out of the Black Mountain College; I published a queer anthology with Lidia Yusupova. I’m interested in new cultural soil, in creating an avant-garde ambience that’s not tied to soil.
Rail: Another thing I’ve been wondering a lot about is how the Internet changed your writing relationship to your homeland. In my case, I finished my first book, A Lesser Day, at a time when email had already largely replaced the formal business letter, but you still mailed out paper copies of your manuscript to publishers. I have a whole collection of rejection letters, many of them signed by hand. It wasn’t until online research became easier and social networking took off that I was finally able to find a good independent publisher for A Lesser Day, which also happens to be the publisher of the Wreckage of Reason anthologies: Spuyten Duyvil. Shortly after that, I began writing literary criticism for a growing number of online and print journals, including The Brooklyn Rail, The Rumpus, The Quarterly Conversation, and Music & Literature. So without my having moved back home, the center of my professional activities was suddenly the US—an experience that was gratifying, and disconcerting, and in any case very different from my former artist’s life.
abić: In the early 2000s, the writer Ivana Percl and I had a feminist zine in Croatia called Neo AF; it was a typical photocopied zine that was given away at anarchist art festivals and the like. When I left for the US, Ivana and I began emailing regularly, sending each other poems that would eventually become the 2013 bilingual poetry collection Po(jest)zija/Po(eat)ry, which we co-wrote. It’s composed of poems in verse, prose, and recipe form. You can follow these recipes and prepare laughably simple meals. It’s also a feminist book that calls for women’s disobedience and an end to patriarchy, etc.
Now I edit a small lit journal called Packingtown Review that started out as a print magazine, but has been coming out online only since its fourth volume. Incidentally, I’d gladly give up all my social media accounts in exchange for the return of correspondence—but I wouldn’t give up digital technology as a whole. If I live to witness the spread of yet another technology, I’ll find a way to use it to nefarious literary, proletarian, and feminist ends as my tiny revenge against everything that new technologies take away from us.
Meklina: Well, I became a computer programmer in Silicon Valley in the ’90s. I was studying COBOL and other programming languages, and their syntax had a more profound effect on me than English did. I was one of the first on Livejournal, on eBay, on AOL chats, and in the year 2000 I had about 1,500 Russian fans following me on social media websites, just because it was cool at the time.
I made a decision to emigrate to the US in 1982, when I was ten years old. This was chiefly due to the Russian tradition to oust the most creative and outspoken ones, a tradition particularly evident in literature. All throughout my formative years, I devoured works by writers who’d lost their homes and their motherland to the Bolsheviks, so I was fully prepared to lose mine. Wikipedia describes four waves of Russian immigration, starting with the 1917 Revolution and ending with the immigration of the 1990s—this is when I emigrated, and so I can call myself “the fourth wave.” The fifth wave will probably start arriving soon, with the hardening of the Putin regime and the newly introduced draconian laws against obscenity, homosexuality, and pornography. It took me about twelve years to attain my dream; I was prepared to experience nostalgia, but never did.
In Russia, they congratulate me on how well I know Russkii yazyk—they’re sure I’m an American assistant professor or something of that nature. Because strangely enough, my Russian has an English accent now, and my English has a Russian accent, so I’m not at home anywhere anymore. But I don’t miss Russia; I miss the United States of the ’90s—the Clinton era, democracy with a soul, when we all had dreams and optimism. Now, many Russian people say that America is no longer the country we came to. My own alienation always forces me to think about moving somewhere else. It’s like once you emigrate, you never really stop; you’re caught in this permanent movement somewhere, in search of your lost identity.
Rail: I know this feeling well, Margarita: it’s like once you become a stranger, it’s a state of mind you can never really break free of anymore. Coming to Berlin when I did, when it was still an enclave behind the Iron Curtain, meant having little to no contact to home. There was no Internet, no email, or Skype, or Facebook, and the cost of overseas calls was prohibitive. And so my immersion in a foreign culture became that much more complete. There was no “ex-pat” community to speak of; the post-war order was still in place, with American, French, and British Allied troops stationed in the Western sector and the Soviets in the East, but they played no real role in the culture, and certainly not in the counter-culture or the arts. So with the publication of my first book and the other changes the Internet brought about in my life, I found myself living in Berlin, but suddenly speaking to an American audience. It made me wonder if it was time to move back—but then of course I quickly realized that all the writers I knew and loved were spending most of their time alone at their desks anyway, and only occasionally meeting up here and there, mainly online. In other words, there wasn’t any actual physical place I could move back to to be any closer to them, or to American literature in general. And so to remain at my desk in Berlin was just fine, because while I longed to be immersed in the language and culture again, living at a distance afforded me another kind of perspective and focus.
Meklina: This is what the world is becoming now: all the artists I love are cross-cultural. They cross boundaries; they test limits. As for me, I’m part Jewish and part Russian, so for many of my relatives on my father’s side, Russian was a second language during the 19th and early 20th century, when they lived in a shtetl. Their first language was Yiddish! When I was young, I made mistakes in Russian, either due to my genes or the fact that I preferred to read rather than watch TV. I didn’t accent the words correctly; I still make these mistakes. And so my somewhat dubious position was determined by my biography: Russian people did not appreciate me being Jewish, and Jewish people didn’t consider me a Halachic Jew. This sense of being torn between my mother’s and father’s blood made me feel cautious and even hurt by both sides, and so coming to the US, where no one knew the difference between Russian, Ukrainian, or Jewish Russian, was a way to break free from all this and become who I wanted to be: a cosmopolitan.
abić: Margarita, you make me smile; I can imagine us being pen pals when we were little, fancying ourselves cosmopolitan intellectuals.
When it comes to immersion in American culture, I, like you, find I’m less alienated and more liberated by the fact that even some of my closest friends don’t really know very much about where I come from. They’ll ask me, I’ll tell them, but they’ll forget by the time they see me again. And since the US maintains such hegemony, no American I know finds it objectionable that I moved here and that I write in English. Of course the US would be anyone’s favorite destination!
But to return to the role of the Internet, my first published book, a collection of short stories, came out in Serbia in the summer of 1996. The same summer I opened my first email account and began using a DOS PC at a university computer lab to email a few people I knew abroad who had email addresses. Then I’d go back to our rented apartment that didn’t even have a phone line and I’d handwrite my poems and stories.
And even today, the practice of first handwriting my prose and poetry and then typing it up is deeply imbedded in me. The halted physicality of the pencil against paper is ideal for the first phase of my writing process. Handwriting is a very low-tech tool for processing language, and it’s cheap and perfect, the lowest-tech tool we have—one of the first those crazy early humans invented.
But I’m no technophobe, even though I don’t read book-length texts off the screen. I’ll download a PDF and print it out, or I won’t ever read it. But the joke is on me, because my next book, a memoir called Broken Records, will be distributed mainly as a free PDF that anyone can download. Readers, bookstores, and libraries will be able to order print-on-demand physical copies of it. But such books are not aggressively promoted, and they remain unintentional cultural secrets.
Rail: That takes us to a more restless and contentious side to all this. On top of the cultural split is the issue we all face regarding success vs. failure: we remain committed to a more “experimental,” “literary” form of writing, but know that this is almost impossible to market today, particularly in the US. To be honest, I have a quarrel with the term “experimental.” It’s a label many “literary” authors vigorously reject, because they see nothing useful in it—it merely serves to marginalize their efforts, to send a signal to the publicity department that it might not be worth putting time and money into writing that’s too “difficult” for popular taste. America, of course, is a culture obsessed with success. It’s so ingrained in us that it’s become a kind of moral imperative. And so to look failure in the eye and say, “Okay, maybe this is what I need to do or accept”—it’s almost a form of deviance. The quintessential American narrative is the rags to riches story. We want it now—the feedback, the praise, the attention, the monetary rewards. We are hardwired to want it, and it’s the single most dangerous thing standing in our way, standing between us and our true work. And I’m not speaking in terms of a romantic ideal, but the state of mainstream publishing as it exists today. Breaking down narrative, exploring stream of consciousness—things that the modernists were doing a hundred years ago—are still considered “experimental,” which is absurd. The label itself is absurd; I’m not even sure what it means anymore.
Meklina: American culture is obsessed with sensation as well as success. This also had an effect on artists and painters. Who would know Chris Burden if he hadn’t placed himself on a freeway, in harm’s way, under a car’s wheels, during his performance? I’m more interested in artists who are able to merge disciplines, for instance Marcel Duchamp and his detailed description of how his major work, Étant donnés, should be assembled when brought to a museum. Isn’t this literature and art at the same time? I believe that when we think “experimentally” in terms of language and concepts, the language itself should be simple—it’s the concepts and ideas that should be complex. I’m thinking of Hannah Wilke filming herself dying of cancer—it’s a story of her life and a visual at the same time, a combination of art and life, but also of art and writing. In many ways, performance art has been more of an influence on my writing than writing itself.
abić: Music has had the biggest influence on me, outside literature. I play in unknown rock bands, and my husband is an underground rapper. I’m drawn pretty much to all kinds of electric and electronic music with a beat and some sort of subtle intensity in vocals and instrumentation. In the US, underground rock and rap musicians have a contentious relationship with success, perfectly summed up by the incredibly successful and wealthy Bob Dylan singing a folk song about how there ain’t no success like failure, and failure ain’t no success at all. In that regard, experimental writers are like underground musicians.
Of course, if one says “avant-garde music” or “experimental music,” most of us will be able to define it as composition and performance that eschews melody, harmony, and rhythmic patterns and creates something that most listeners would deem simply “noise.” So, maybe experimental writing is what most readers would deem noisy, off-putting writing. Experimental fiction is to genre fiction what experimental music is to pop music. Genre fiction and pop music have to be well-constructed and familiar-sounding. Not necessarily upbeat, though that helps. There has to be something over-the-top about it, preferably glamorously so. Experimental stuff stretches the limits of music and storytelling into the territory of noise and silence, disorder, ugliness, even meaninglessness.
And yet, if you’re producing art, you don’t just handwrite pages and then crumple them up and flush them down the toilet. Or type and delete forever. You’re also hoping to keep hooking some readers out there.
Have I mentioned I was a bit of a weirdo? One aspect of this is that I wasn’t drawn to the West and specifically to the US because I was driven to succeed. I prefer to be in the shadows, tucked away where the stakes are low, businesswise. I come from a stock that just doesn’t know how to swim in the waters of individualism, careerism, or entrepreneurship. Had I grown up in the US, my parents would have been the Rust Belt folks who would have lost their good unionized jobs in the neoliberal era. I’m programmed to keep my expectations low.
Writing programs, which were my bread and butter, are built upon that dream of upward mobility (and possibly some Cold War scheming back in the 1950s). I remember a conversation among a group of fellow PhD students in January or February of 2008. I said something, matter-of-factly, about how the system of creative writing programs providing jobs for graduates of those same creative writing programs is unsustainable. It reminded me of pyramid schemes. But my fellow students seemed so convinced that jobs would always be out there. Now it’s 2014; we’ve all long since graduated. From that group, nobody is what they hoped we’d all become: professors in creative writing programs and, of course, successful published authors. Some have tenure-track jobs, but not the kinds they hoped they’d get.
Another scene I remember is a meeting a creative writing professor in my PhD program organized once the Great Recession really kicked in. This meeting was supposed to bolster the morale of the graduate student body. But the most uplifting anecdote they had was about a man one of our professors knew who had been writing a single large novel his whole life, from his youth into his old age, a man who never got anything published and struggled financially his whole life. The punch line about this failed American Proust was: “But! He’s still writing!” Needless to say, the parable brought the student body down even more.
Meklina: Sneana, I love what you say about writing programs! The word for them is “Ponzi scheme.” As for me, even with six books published by major publishing houses in Moscow, I still wouldn’t be able to secure one of those highly coveted positions. Speaking of Nabokov again, the famous linguist Roman Jakobson once said that to invite Nabokov to teach literature would be like inviting an elephant to be a zoology professor. It’s the same thing here: in the US, they hire writers like they hire professional football players—as an embellishment for a university. Many writers are hired not because they have pedagogical skills, but because they’ve published a book with a prestigious publisher, sometimes no more than a single volume.
Rail: So where does that leave us? From what you both say, it seems to me that it’s become more crucial than ever to formulate, again and again, how our understanding of what literature is or can be is inextricably tied to the forces impacting its publication, distribution, and reception. The commercial paradigm has so infiltrated our expectations of ourselves that we’ve lost sight of the prodigious social, moral, and political power literature once possessed, and not all that long ago. Of course there are still many, many great writers around, but when you look at what literature still means in some countries, with writers being thrown in prison because their words are too powerful, too dangerous—the difference is so vast that it’s a wonder we’re still talking about the same vocation. It’s such a contrast to the marginal role accorded “experimental writing” as we know it in the US.
abić: It seems to me that “experimental writing” as a category can only really exist in a large, late-capitalist country like the US where there are five major publishers, and countless small and tiny presses, right? In former Yugoslavia and its successor states, I think there has only ever been a distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. Within each of those categories, you could be subversive or conservative, struggling or established, in cahoots with various thugs-in-power or as far away from them as possible, marginalized or celebrated, but folks that would be considered experimental writers here would simply be writers there. I’m not sure any literary publisher in “a small place,” to borrow Jamaica Kincaid’s term, works with a profit margin.
Rail: The situation in Germany is still quite different, but many people are afraid of it going that way eventually. The American literary climate has absorbed a great deal of its basic structure from the entertainment industries—it’s gotten louder, gaudier, with writers expected to be their own impresarios, entertaining a fan base on Twitter, Facebook, etc. The very notion of reclusion, of withdrawing from the world in order to see it better, seems antiquated and even a little ridiculous. And yet—how can we articulate a single continuous thought if we don’t at least sometimes unplug ourselves from the din? We’ve become like a Greek chorus, caving into social pressure, repeating what others have said, striving to belong to the social group we think best serves our professional advancement, racking up tweets and “likes” in the hopes of finding a wider audience for our work. The fact that this is all more or less identical in structure to commercial celebrity culture is one of those things that’s so obvious as to be virtually invisible. But formulating precisely what has been lost in the process is risky business—even though we find ourselves struggling with the exact same set of concerns writers were wrestling with fifty years ago: whether our writing possesses any larger relevance to society, and what it can contribute to the greater good.
ANDREA SCRIMA is the author of A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil); the German edition was published by Literaturverlag Droschl in February 2018. An excerpt from a work-in-progress titled “all about love, nearly” was just published in the anthology Strange Attractors (University of Massachusetts Press). Scrima is the recipient of a writer’s fellowship from the Berlin Senate for Cultural Affairs and writes a monthly column for 3QuarksDaily. She is contributing editor to the online literary magazine Statorec.