Novel Narratives for a New Readership. Interview with Isabel Waidner

14.11.2019 :: Artikkelit, nro 98

 

Isabel Waidner is a German-born author living in London. In June 2019 I interviewed Waidner about their work as a writer, editor and academic working on queer experimentalism. The novels Gaudy Bauble (2017) and We Are Made of Diamond Stuff (2019) were published by Dostoyevsky Wannabe, an independent press focusing on new experimental literature. We Are Made of Diamond Stuff was shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize. Waidner is also the editor of the anthology Liberating the Canon (2018).

 

Joonas Säntti: A politically effective literature is still often thought to be realistic and immersive, often directing the reader’s empathy towards a particular marginalized group. Experimental literature, on the other hand, is often considered “difficult” and too complex to address or persuade readers, apart from aesthetic delights. Do you feel that it is still more of a challenge to establish experimental writing as political?

 

Isabel Waidner: Interesting point! I think that, naturally, outsider experience and experimentation with grammar and literary form should go together, it feels logical. Historically, this has happened in US and Canadian innovative poetry to an extent, and New Narrative writing for example. In England the opposite is true. Literary experimentation was quite divorced from politics, and especially from the experience of sociopolitical marginalization. This has complex and various reasons — the elitism of British publishing and literature contexts being one of them. I’m with the brilliant Jennifer Hodgson who, quoting another critic, Lorna Sage, says that “realism was simply a way of keeping the working class in its place”.

 

Säntti: Do you think literary experimentation can work on the worldview of its readers? What kind of role does creating cognitive confusion or estrangement have in this? For example, in Gaudy Bauble, your first novel, you use a kind of restriction, where agency is distributed between chapters to some marginal, extremely non-human and weird agents. We meet “characters” like fibreglass animals, green chalk outlines, art deco-carpeting and t-shirt prints. In your creative writing thesis you point out how you have set yourself “the task to detect the most marginal actors on and beyond the page” and make them relevant for the plot[1].

 

Waidner: Prose techniques will certainly affect readers, but I’m not sure this affect can be predicted, exactly, or generalized. It’s true I’ve experimented with a conceptual constraint in Gaudy. The particular constraint I set myself is very vague and subjective, however, so I’m using it to ridicule the idea of conceptual writing ‘eliminating’ the subjectivity of the author.

 

Säntti: This also has political implications. It seems that you are criticizing the discussions about avant-garde being so often simply blind to power structures and positions of privilege. In a research article you suggest that the currently dominant ways of understanding conceptualism tend to disregard those experimental works, whose authors ”cannot and do not want to divorce semantic content or signification from authorial process”[2].

 

Waidner: Yes, absolutely. In my PhD and the article you mention I tried to identify some of the normative structures enacted in various avant-garde writing practices, asking what forms of subjectivity does a writer or poet actually produce or enact while writing. So apart from a piece of writing being overtly political in terms of content, there is always already a politics implicit in experimental writing practices – and this politics is often conservative. One argument I make is that the dichotomy between semantic content and authorial process staged in many conceptual forms of writing marginalizes content-led experimental work by female, BAME, queer and working-class writers.

 

Säntti: I’m thinking about the title chosen for the anthology that you edited in 2018: Liberating the Canon. This is an interesting title, because it doesn’t set itself ”against” the canon. But what is being liberated?

Narratologist Susan Lanser makes the case that ”novels attempting queer representation”, often written by queer-ish authors, have been particularly important in developing new narrative techniques. Looking back at the western canon, it seems that both realist and modernist innovations are often ”dominated by outsiders”, she writes. Think Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Colette, Thomas Mann, Djuna Barnes. But also, coming closer to our times, there’s Monique Wittig, Kathy Acker, writers like Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus changing our perception of genres like essay and memoir… And in “Fantomas takes Sutton”, you mention Cortázar, whose “closetedness” was news to me!

So maybe the canon is already surprisingly queer?

 

Waidner: Cortázar’s closetedness or alleged bisexuality is nothing more than a rumour I’ve decided to run with in “Fantomas takes Sutton”. People are doing a lot of work queering the historical avant-garde canon, drawing out existing queer potentialities. Great! But personally, I’m interested in queerness at the intersections with race and class. Most of the writers you mention above aren’t just white and middle-class, but upper-class. Any resultant canon might be relatively queer in the way you describe but it requires a lot more liberating!

Returning to ‘liberating’ in the title: I don’t think it’s possible to exist outside of the dominant discourses. I might decide to set myself against whatever the literary canon might be, but canon would continue to operate as a normalizing construct. The title is also a nod to the liberation groups doing important work in terms of decolonising British universities and social justice movements more widely.

 

Säntti: I’d like to continue about the problems in canonization. One often discussed example is the notion of a separate “female canon”, which many women writers have criticized. Back in 1989 Christine Brooke-Rose wrote about the double oblivion faced by experimental women writers: “one safe way not to recognize innovative women is to shove them under a label, and one such is ‘woman writer’”. Also, she writes that feminist critics too easily interpreted re/presenting the female viewpoint as somehow experimental and innovative in itself.[3] In the 21st century, might queer writing be in danger of becoming another such stamp, another institution?

 

Waidner: 30 years after Brooke-Rose’s quote, I think we can safely say we have never quite made it to a queer or even ‘female’ canon. I agree that labels including women’s writing, but also science fiction, chick lit, romance, etc., are ideological grids that function further to marginalize ‘nontraditional’ writers, like female and working class authors. All of the writing I’m interested in now works across traditional genre distinctions precisely because they can function in normative ways. But I think some “labels” are useful to describe to potential readerships what and who they’re about to read. I’m not into the idea that the identity of the author should be irrelevant for the reader.

 

Säntti: Yes, I can see why certain labels are important and enabling! But I still want to discuss this further: isn’t queer too easily understood as something by and about gender and sex minorities, ignoring what is queer in the sense of ambiguous or challenging? Perhaps there is a danger of essentialism, as in: ”they are a queer subject, therefore they have a queer point of view, therefore what they write is queer”. Thought this way, a novel about trans characters written by a non-trans author is inevitably problematic. Do present-day discussions focus too much on who is doing the writing and not enough on what is written? To mention one example, you have championed Brigid Brophy’s In Transit (1969) – a fantastic novel, I must agree, and should be more widely known – yet hardly written by a trans person?

 

Waidner: You pack a lot into this question! To start at the end: Brophy wasn’t a trans writer but I don’t think In Transit is a trans novel. A genderqueer novel, maybe, fits better?

 

Säntti: True! It’s an important difference here.

 

Waidner: In any case, I’m not particularly interested in reading a trans novel written by a cis author. Not one bit, actually. Opinions divert around writing fiction from lived experience or not of course, but for me, writing like everything else comes with responsibilities in terms of situating yourself. Actually, the more pressing issue should be that queer, trans, Black, POC and working class writers should be allowed to write and publish about all sorts of subject matter through their experience of marginalization, and not just queer and trans subject matter as seems to be the case.

And to end at the beginning of your question: LGBTQI+ writers don’t necessarily share a subversive politics nor adventurous literary taste, it’s true. My preference of course is for a queer writer to produce challenging (queer) work.

 

Säntti: Not one bit interested? I often wonder whether we can ever know the queerness in others. If so, how? Even less can I know the queer potential of texts in advance. For me, it is still so important to discuss books apart from the cultural identities connected to their writers and often given to them from outside. As you said, marginalized people do not necessarily share a subversive politics or poetics. So why assume that some others (like many heterosexual wo/men) can only think and write ”straight”? I can understand it’s dangerous when a cis author claims to represent lived trans experience in fiction – this makes minority histories just material for someone in a privileged position. But surely there are other ways of writing that respect these differences. And people do change, all the time. So a writer can appear cis in 2015, and as something completely different in 2019.

 

Waidner: I agree to an extent. At this particular historical juncture though, where trans, queer, BAME[4] and working class people have been and keep being marginalized within literary publishing contexts, I want to see what forms of literature become possible now that it is actually us who write the queer work – we write differently and with an urgency, which is exciting. I don’t mean to essentialise queerness or transness, as you say, people change. But the sheer ability to change is often based on privilege and it is precisely those who are unable to change, or who are seen to be fixed or stuck in their identities, who don’t get a word in edgeways.

 

Säntti: In Liberating the Canon, you write about the need to combat conservativism and nationalism. You also write that to accomplish this we have to change our perceptions about literary innovation. What really interests me here, is how you want to politicize what counts as literary innovation: “The writing itself has to transgress the various structures through which the avant-garde literary canon has perpetuated itself and its exclusiveness.”[5] Can writing in itself accomplish this?

 

Waidner: Yes, I want to politicize literary innovation. In the UK, establishment publishers are keen to be seen to diversify, but it’s just not happening, not really. This is for a variety of reasons, but one of them is their disregard for writing that diverges from mainstream literary form. What we write will not look like the writing that publishers are used to seeing, and, crucially, it shouldn’t, it mustn’t. It will not look like writing that publishers assume sells, but the thing is, it does! Sales figures for literary fiction are dwindling, whereas our work, grassroots queer and innovative writing, sells. Some of the highly innovative work that is growing in popularity now stretches the rules of what traditionally is seen to be ‘literary quality’ — but ‘literary quality’ can be normative and I’m glad that what counts as good literature is changing.

Experimental literature can have a much larger readership. My work seems to be taken up by new audiences which haven’t necessarily been engaging with literature as it is, for example working class readerships or the queer youth. Books by writers including Caspar Heinemann, Mojisola Adebayo, Jay Bernard, Huw Lemmey, etc., sell well. The anthologies published by grassroots publisher Pilot Press sell well, even without any of the publicity or distribution infrastructure of an establishment publisher. The regular event series Queers Read This I co-curate with Richard Porter at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London sells out each time. This is an interesting, arguably unprecedented moment in ‘British’ queer writing…

 

Säntti: To return to your own writing, I feel that the experimental literature and loosely conceptual elements in your work are connected to an aspiration of re-imagining humanity and the borders of the human. Taneli Viljanen, a Finnish non-binary author, has written how ”credible characters are a form of xenophobia”,[6] which I think is a clever way of summarizing how realist fiction diminishes humanity. While meeting the fully ”rounded” and psychologically motivated characters in traditional fiction, the readers are perhaps comforted by this representation of the human and not able to see – or to even ask for – things that do not fit the traditional notion of characters. So I can see some similarities to what you’re doing.

 

Waidner: Ah! Brilliant, yes – I do hope that writing can challenge some of the assumptions of what even counts as a human, of what a subject or fictional character might even be. These things aren’t fixed but historically specific – at least if you’re a Foucauldian. I get what Taneli means by a credible character, which is often implicitly a very particular subject, a psychologised subject who is the sole agent of change in their own lives and the storyworld. And yes, this is a conservative kind of subject, likely xenophobic, and the exact opposite to the kinds of relational subjects which I have tried to describe in my work.

My partner, Lisa Blackman, is an interdisciplinary body scholar and I’ve learnt a lot from her. In these interdisciplinary fields of study, the boundaries of the human are always up for debate. I’m interested in writing the human in relation to others, human and nonhuman, not as the individualized subject we’ve become accustomed to. We should not give up challenging the subject produced and normalised under neoliberalism, which is a supposedly distinct, autonomous and voluntarist subject, which is basically a fantasy of a subjectivity and unlivable to many of us. It’s based on sheer privilege, to start off with. It’s also politically perfectly dead, as those at the bottom of existing power hierarchies won’t ever effect social change on their own.

Säntti: Reading Gaudy Bauble, I was also won over by the cheerfulness and hopefulness of its affects. It felt like presenting a sort of utopia already living inside the present, as a way of collectively re-inventing what counts as real. Apart from the characters, the narration and the “voice” is very queer. I mean for example plotting, surprising changes in focalization, the prose rhythm, typographical exceptions, the mixing of languages, multimodal elements, contradictory appendixes all creating this queer mix. Can you recognize these as the modes of feeling you wanted to create when writing Gaudy Bauble? And are they very different now, with We Are Made of Diamond Stuff?

 

Waidner: Thanks for appreciating the queerness of Gaudy! It’s definitely my queerest book, and I would second everything you’ve identified. I’d say that We Are Made of Diamond Stuff retains some of the joy, humour and vibrancy of Gaudy, but its connections to mainstream politics and present-day Brexit reality are stronger, so there are elements of critique and struggle in there that were only touched on in Gaudy. I see humour and exuberance as a queer survival strategy.

I wanted to make Diamond Stuff more accessible, and even give it a kind of narrative pull – while retaining the more ‘distractive’ or ‘sideways’ poetic registers, too. That was the challenge, and this balancing of narrative pull and poetic distraction has become part of my practice. I have stuck pretty much to the perspective of the I-character in Diamond Stuff, while in Gaudy Bauble, the perspective was very much distributed, as you said.

 

Säntti: I would also like to ask a ”critical question”, and coming from Finland, this means I have something to complain about: you name a lot of trademarks, mostly clothing brands like comme des garcons. Their stuff is expensive. Queer theory is often critical about representing queer as a lifestyle or an identity, and in my opinion for good reasons. It easily ends up profiting capitalist consumer culture. Queer becomes something to “be”, an indentitarian group of cool people wearing cool things, not so much a becoming or a work-in-neverending-progress. So kindly help me get it: why all the adidas trainers?

 

Waidner: Good complaint! This is a class issue. The working classes display their ‘wealth’ on their body, whereas the middle-classes spend their money on interior décor, or property. I’m generalizing but you get the idea. The middle-classes see the wearing of expensive clothes as consumerist or even vulgar, as displaying susceptibility to consumerist ideologies which the middle-classes see themselves as resistant to. In Gaudy Bauble, I’m mainly fantasizing about clothes I couldn’t afford. Think of the queens in NY ballroom culture in the 80s inventing their own versions of Gucci, Chanel, all the high fashion houses – that’s Gaudy.

Säntti: Interesting, and it also helps me to understand some of the similar solutions in We Are Made of Diamond Stuff. Your new novel is very openly political about here and now, especially nationalism and what the Brexit era means for those who do not “fit” into narratives about Englishness. You’re suggesting that forms of racism easily seep into the fabric of everyday life, and even inside different subcultures. Like the islamophobe homosexuals who can’t understand how this would be possible in their case: “They’re not racist (they say), they’re progressive” (WAMODS, 39).

How long have you been writing this novel? Has Brexit changed your plans as a writer?

 

Waidner: It usually takes me about two years of obsessive and hard work to write a novel. I started this at Christmas 2016, that is, after the EU referendum result – Diamond Stuff was always going to be a Brexit novel. One of the arguments that the novel makes is what is news to precisely no one, namely that racism and colonialism pervade absolutely everything. This is what structures of oppression do, isn’t it, they structure our existence.

 

Säntti: Why the Isle of Wight? Does this place have a special meaning for you and did you know right from the start you would use these locations and their inwrought history, like the zoo once known as the “slum zoo of Britain”?

 

Waidner: To follow on from the previous question, racism and colonialism pervade everything, including the actual landscape and infrastructure of the Isle of Wight. Because of its location off the South coast of England, the Isle of Wight has a long military history – military structures and architecture are basically integral to the fabric of the island, including Victorian forts in the sea (to prevent French invasion), and the ruins of a rocket launching station on top of a cliff. Even the Isle of Wight zoo you mention is situated in an old military bunker. I also chose the Isle of Wight as a setting because it lends itself to exploring class hierarchies in British society more widely. But I do also visit that area very regularly to spend holidays with my partner who’s grown up down there.

 

Säntti: This choice brings me to a last question. You seem to me a writer who wants to activate readers. Also in the sense that you want us to look things up, to step away from the moment of reading to do research: on why American military abuses indigenous mythology; or just who is House Mother Normal, partly hijacked into your novel from B. S. Johnson. Would you agree? Or am I am being a “bad reader” looking for excuses for my wandering mind?

 

Waidner: No, you’re the perfect reader! This is exactly the kind of engagement I’d want to affect in my readers. I love what you say here. Also, this is how I like to read.

 

 

1 Waidner 2016. Experimental Fiction, Transliteracy & Gaudy Bauble: Towards a Queer Avant-garde Poetics. University of Roehampton, 78.
2 Waidner 2018. Christian Bök’s Xenotext Experiment, Conceptual Writing and the Subject-of-No-Subjectivity. Configurations 1/2018, 44
3 Brooke-Rose 1989. Illiterations. Ellen G. Friedman & Miriam Fuchs (eds), Breaking the Sequence. Women’s Experimental Fiction. Princeton University Press, 63, 67.
4 Black, Asian and minority ethnic.
5 Waidner 2018. Liberating the Canon. Intersectionality and Innovation in Literature. Waidner (ed.), Liberating the Canon. An Anthology of Innovative Literature. Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 18.
6 ”Uskottavat henkilöhahmot ovat ksenofobiaa.” Viljanen 2012. Narratiivisten rakenteiden väärinkäytöstä. Fiktiivinen essee. Markku Eskelinen & Laura Lindstedt (toim.), Mahdollisen kirjallisuuden seuran vuosikirja 2012. MKS, 17.

 

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