In the spring of 2013, the CSUN chapter of Sigma Tau Delta hosted a student conference titled Worlds Between. Early in the day, one student presenter, Karlee Johnson, remarked that an interstice is not a “void to get lost in but a prism to navigate;” later, she wondered at her own observation – what’s so bad about getting lost?
When I first came across the Interstitial Arts Foundation at the 2009 AWP Conference in Chicago, I felt as if I’d finally found the literary home that had eluded me for the better part of a writing life that began at age sixteen when I read Moby Dick and stopped writing for five years. In this way, my writing life ended in the moment it began, making me an early practitioner of what Enrique Vila-Matas would later describe as the “Literature of the No.” The literal silence would last only half a decade, but the underlying sense of not being good enough would persist for years and manifest itself in many ways in my writing, such as my unending struggle to master the prevailing aesthetics of the day even as I fiercely resisted them. What I longed for was a language and a form, or at least a way of telling stories, more consonant with my own experience and whatever inchoate thing was driving me to write.
But, like my students later, this struggle was routinely confounded by the writing world I found myself in. From the high minimalism of the Stanford Workshop to the manly Western ethos of Montana, where I lived for a while and where it seemed that every story must feature a man and his horse, the narrative strategies and sensibilities available to me were persistently inimical to my own writing desire.
Later, at the University of Utah, it was all about language.
Don’t let anyone tell you stories are about language, I wrote in an early work there; stories are about love, for love is everything, and so are stories.
And this may have been the first time I embedded my resistance in the writing itself in a move that I would later learn to call “contradictorily coherent.”
What follows is an attempt to articulate the history of both my writing and my teaching as they have been defined by such contradictory coherence, as well as what happens if we stop trying to hold things together and slip instead into the spaces that open up and out between them. It is also an attempt to document how powerful it can be to take students into those spaces with us.
California State University, Northridge, where I ended up, is a large, urban, multi-ethnic university at the western edge of Los Angeles’ vast San Fernando Valley. In recent years, my teaching has relied heavily on the idea of contact zones to help students re-examine their own experience of both writing and education. The metaphor is adapted from the work of Elaine Showalter and Mary Louise Pratt, and I have written at length about it elsewhere. Here, it is enough to imagine, as we do in class, various permutations of Venn diagrams to illustrate the changeable shared spaces where dominant and muted groups come together. Whether we see these as shared (heterogeneous) spaces as repressive (Showalter) or fraught (Pratt) and the discrete (homogenous) spaces beyond their intersections as liberatory (Showalter) or self-affirming and safe (Pratt), the conceptual model they represent remains stolidly binary. The interstice provides an alternative to this either/or and opens up new possibilities that have proved especially powerful for my students. For if my own writing life has been defined by both resistance and struggle to find a writing conversation where my work might fit in – or to escape a place where it clearly did not – one thing students do know about any literary conversation they have ever been exposed to is that it does not include them.
As a teacher I have long tried to model the rhetorical strategies of autoethnography, using gender (the one marginalized category I can speak to with authority) as a metaphor for all the different kinds of marginalization my students manifest, but in recent years it has been generative to re-construe these strategies, at least in part, as interstitial. For autoethnography, which asserts the privilege of one’s own idiom in selective collaboration with the language of the master, is born out of contest and struggle, and while this may also be true of the interstitial it is not inevitably so. The interstitial may, instead, be conceived as intransitive, a space that does not act upon or end up anywhere else than where it already is, not liminal or in any way prescriptive but free and open-ended and ongoing. And all this feels completely natural inside a classroom which is itself constructed as an interstitial space between what I used to think I was supposed to represent – authority, mastery, certainty – and what I learned I could be when I gave myself, finally, permission to speak – tentative, explorative, becoming.
In another essay, “To Fill With Milk,” I assert that interstitial art can be powerful not because it takes place in or constitutes a contact zone of resonance for students but because it moves slyly aside. There, I revisit Heinz Insu Fenkle’s Introduction to Interfictions as an important contribution to the developing poetics of the interstitial, specifically his claims that interstitial writing is both bi-locational and self-negating – not coincidentally the same twinned principles that have sustained me in my own writing. As a bi-locational practice, the interstitial manifests precisely the kind of both/and multiplicity that made writing possible for me in the first place – i.e., writing that was both self aware (about language) and seductive (about narrative, or “love”). And as a self-negating one that renders the interstitial no longer interstitial the moment it becomes recognizable as such, it confirms my own experience that the most interesting thing is always what we don’t know how to do yet or can’t quite understand. Finally, because the interstitial, like any genre, can be understood at least in part as description (what it looks like), position (where it comes from), and motivation (what it aspires to do), it helps articulate questions of writing itself, a first step in framing a poetics which, as Rachel Blau Du Plessis says, “gives us permission to continue” (156), even as it helps to shine a clear light on the challenge – and the promise – of whatever in the world may be coming next.
Conventional creative writing pedagogy aims to train students how to replicate extant models of good writing – what Barthes calls the readerly text (which already exists), as opposed to the writerly one (which does not). Because almost all of us learned writing like that, we mostly teach it the same way, and we know how gratifying it can be when student work begins to resemble work we admire (or, more perniciously, our own). When I was coming up, without even really knowing it, I aspired, like almost everyone else, to write like Ray Carver; these days, George Saunders rules. And however much I love both these writers, just as Carver’s aesthetic turned out to be largely inimical to my own, Saunders’ may or may not resonate with the multi-ethnic working-class Angelenos who populate my classrooms. Promoting singular models of good writing without also promoting the critical capacities to understand this practice and locate it within a larger discussion of what writing is and how it moves through the world works relentlessly to reduce what is possible on the page and so to silence students, when at least one goal of the creative writing classroom should be, instead, be to open things up. The poetics of the interstitial offers an exciting avenue to do so.
This brings us to meaning itself and, at least in in the Western world, its essential dependence on binary logic. Mostly, this is so “natural” seeming we don’t think very much about it – so “natural” seeming, in fact, that students tend to greet criticism of the concept with confusion and resistance. However, once the binary is framed as loaded and hierarchical, students take note. From there, it is an easy step to the whole new world of intelligibility that opens up when we choose to reject the inevitability of the either/or. Any refusal – however metaphorical or wishful – to affiliate with either the positive or the negative pole of an opposition – the is or the not – aligns us, instead, with the in-between, where both sides of the binary may be seen through a new lens that reveals clearly what could not be seen before. And students get this. They get it, at least in part, because, unlike the treacherousness of the various contact zones that have defined their lives, this new space is not a contested space, nor an isolated one, but a free and communal one where anything is possible, up to and including the claim not just to speak in our own voices, but to do so together and to one another.
In Cesar Aira’s Ghosts, an immigrant Chilean family lives as caretakers in a half-completed luxury highrise apartment building, a vertical world without walls. Here, the only other inhabitants are a boisterous crowd of naked and luminous ghosts visible only to the adolescent daughter, Patri, by virtue of a thin sprinkling of floury white dust that covers their otherwise transparent forms. All of the ghosts are male and all sport penises of extraordinary length and dexterity. The novel takes place on the last day of the year and much of the text involves the family’s preparations for their New Year’s Eve celebration. Patri cooks and tends children and muses on her various encounters with the ghosts, whom she finds both intriguing and seductive, even as she struggles to decide about an invitation they’ve extended to attend their own New Year’s Eve party. Mid-way through the book, Aira interrupts the text with a long theoretical discourse on architecture and the housing habits of aboriginal peoples from around the globe, including a complex disquisition on circles and centers. And when he returns to the action, the heat is oppressive, the wine – which the ghosts cool by drinking – abundant, and Patri’s dilemma has heightened. By the time she decides to accept their invitation, it’s the stroke of midnight, and as she steps from the roof of the building, a single ghost dives to follow her down just before re-ascending to hand over her eyeglasses to the astonished and grief-stricken family.
Patri is gone – but where?
Naturally, students imagine her plummeting to her death on the streets below, but just as the novel opens out into an interstice at its center to consider the problems of centers themselves, it ends with another – in the space, between rooftop and street, old and new year, adolescence and adulthood, life and death, heaven and earth. In spaces such as these it is not necessary – or even possible – to choose. The interstice is a space of possibility in which the outlines of the heretofore known are not just visible but also mutable.
There are lots of reasons why this space is as potent an imaginary space as I have ever encountered, in writing, yes, but also in teaching. Because the interstitial can be understood at least in part as resistance, it helps frame guiding questions about the motivation and location of both poetics and agency. And because it’s self-negating, it helps stimulate discussions about sustainable writing practices. And it does so with a sense of play and curiosity and resolve, a little bit like stepping off the roof with Patri, to embrace our own private ghosts.
Two persistent lessons of my teaching have always been that the single worst thing we can do in our writing is write the way we think we are supposed to write, and that the single most sustainable practice in writing is always to be writing what you don’t know how to write. As the artist Vasa has observed, art is what happens in the “mistakes we make when we are doing something we don’t know how to do.”
One way this might translate itself into the classroom is to teach what we don’t know how to teach, a strategy I used recently in a class on literary precursors where we read conversations between contemporary writers and the writers they explicitly invoked in their work. The reading list included three pairs of witers – Ricardo Piglia (The Absent City) and Macedonia Fenandez (The Museum of Eterna’s Novel [The First Good Novel]), Jose Saramago (The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis) and Fernando Pessoa (The Book of Disquiet) – as well as two lone outliers – Enrique Vila-Matas’ (Bartleby & Co.) and W.G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn). The latter two were included because I wanted to examine the idea that Sebald might be said to lack a singular precursor, and because Vila-Matas’ book, a compilation of footnotes on a non-existent text, documents practitioners of what Vila-Matas calls the “Literature of the No” (writers who have stopped writing). Although I didn’t see it at the time, this class had its own precursor a decade or so before: a course in which I asked students to identify two favorite stories – one by a living and one by a dead writer – and to write a story to go between, a practice we referred to as literary sandwiching. Last fall’s project, similarly, asked students to identify a precursor of their own and to write themselves into a space between their work and the work that had influenced them. Both experiments were exciting and productive, in large part, I suspect, because they depended on a sustained investigation of an interstitial space and the permission to find a voice in it.
These days, I have come to think of this space as a site of wonder that lies between what is already known and what can’t possibly be understood or even imagined. But unlike prior models of what lies beyond the various contact zones we all occupy, this is not so much a space of separation (nurturing or liberatory), but of convergence, where all manner of forms and expressions can play out in the absence of contest and the freedom of unfettered possibility. Trained, like most of us, as approval junkies, students sometimes find this new space as intimidating as it can be intoxicating, so to help them negotiate it more seamlessly, I enter it with them. I like to teach books I haven’t read before as a strategy for discovering them with my students. And I teach, as I read, mostly works in translation, which are not just new to students but also shockingly unfamiliar in their affiliations with literary traditions and cultures students may never have encountered or even imagined. This approach to what we read extends the writing conversations available to students beyond current literary fashions, and helps create a more expansive sense of what counts as literature in a globalized century.
Over the course of the last several years, I’ve taught a long list of titles that include:
Ghosts and The Literary Conference, César Aira
The Other City, Michal Ajvaz
The Ninth, Ferenc Barnas
Coda: A Novel, Rene Belletto
Distant Star and By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolano
Cosmicomics and Six Memos for the Next Millenium , Italo Calvino
The Autobiography of Red and NOX, Anne Carson
My Two Worlds, Sergio Chejfec
Pricksongs and Descants, Robert Coover
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
The Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck
Against Art: The Notebooks, Tomas Espedal
Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Eduardo Galeano
Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal
AnimalInside (The Cahiers), László Krasznahorkai
Girl in Landscape and As She Crawls Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem
Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman
Europeana: A Brief History Of The Twentieth Century, Patrik Ourednik
The Absent City, Ricardo Piglia
The Book of Disquiet, Fenando Pessoa
Blindness, Jose Saramago
The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, George Saunders
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, Gaetan Soucy
Dreams and Stones, Magdalena Tulli
The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugresic
Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas
Accident, A Day’s News, Christa Wolf
Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler
Bonsai and The Private Lives of Trees, Alejandro Zambra
And, of course, for anthologies, Interfictions and Interfictions 2, Trampoline, Paraspheres, New Wave Fabuliusm
Many of these books I have encountered for the first time along with my students, and so I offer this list not as anything definitive, but as a reflection of a teaching methodology that is as informed by exploration and experiment as both my writing and my reading. I offer it because, after more than a quarter century in the classroom, however tired I have become of my own classroom stories, the books are always fresh. Some, I return to over and over – Sebald, Piglia, Ugresic, Calvino. Others are bright new surprises for both students and me.
It’s no surprise that this list is filled with writers in translation, and that the books themselves are full of interstices. I’m told by my students that a lot of them are about cities and a lot of them are about walks. Sometimes there are also trees, and memory, and history, both natural and human. And sometimes there are portals, and sometimes characters – and we – step through them into the wondrous open-endedness of now.
Selected Works Referenced
Bakhtin, M. M. “Epic and Novel.” Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. Ed. Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick Murphy. Durham: Duke UP, 1988. 48-69.
DuPlessis, R. B. The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Fenkle, H. I. (2007) Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. Boston, MA: The Interstital Arts Foundation.
Haake, K. (2013) To Fill With Milk: Or, the Thing and Itself. In Key Issus in Creative Writing, Ed. Dianne Donnelly and Graeme Harper. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters
Minh-Ha, T. (1989). Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality, and Feminism. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Popova, M. Brain Pickings. http://www.brainpickings.org.
Showalter, E. (Winter 1981). Feminist criticism in the wilderness. Critical Inquiry 8.2 (Winter 1981): 179-205.
Weschler, L. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
Memory of the Process
By Sean Pessin
I remember in one of the last worlds I had bought furniture from IKEA. It was a desk with one of those bookshelves that are not designed for books. You hear about this? IKEA said due to declining book sales, the company decided to manufacture shelves that optimize the holding of other objects in addition to standard book sizes. The shelf’s external dimensions: 31 1/8 x 15 3/8″ x 58 5/8″ (79 cm x 39 cm x 149 cm).
These new shelves are very popular with record collectors because old vinyl slides right in, upright and comfy. This new purpose for the bookshelf complicates the assembly; most of IKEA’s furniture is DIY and requires the consumer to take manufactured pieces and assemble them accordingly. To make convenient space for records, one has to appeal to that form. Each shelf must be bifurcated. So when I went to put the shelf together, I had this on my mind – the fact that one whole side of my desk is designed in conspiracy against my end-project – to produce writing. Well, the kind of writing that I have grown up on, that I read and respect, the kind that ends up on paper that I didn’t have to buy.
This desk conspires in the demise of my dreams, yet I endorse it, mostly because it is a very attractive desk. The lines of its form are sleek and minimal, following an aesthetics of inaesthetics. In these pieces, there is both no wasted space and only wasted space. Not a single inch is exhausted on doing anything but occupying an area. These simple elements of design probably have more to do with supply chains and production than they have to do with higher-order concerns for art.
The assembly of this desk is what I take away from the experience of buying the desk, not the begrudging acceptance of the gradual decrease of importance writers suffer at the hands of ideological factories and market concerns. IKEA furniture seems to manage. It is just a particle board with fancy lamination: the amalgamation of different fibrous materials and plastics and industrial glues and rubber bits and low-grade metals. The desk is just these things in pleasing, practical shapes. I do wonder, even now, if the practicality of the desk, complete with its anti-book stance, doesn’t remark in some way on the impracticality of dreaming of books in an age where the Kindle can house all the books I could ever read in 7.5″ x 4.7″ x 0.45″ (190 mm x 120 mm x 11.4 mm). What kind of space is there for a physical book in that kind of library? My average book is over twice that size per volume.
I swear I assembled the desk without interruptions of thought, except for one: The IKEA construction design is exactly how I think we are taught to write. All the parts are technically in the box, awaiting assembly, anxious for it. And we purchase the parts, hoping that they conform to a certain arrangement that makes sense to us, that replicates or represents what it is that we wanted when we bought into the thing. What we crave is form, despite the fact we could, if we wanted to, do whatever the fuck we wanted with the pieces that, to IKEA, represent a desk.
Katharine Haake was an interstitial writer long before she knew to call it that. Her fiction includes two novels – a future eco fable, The Time of Quarantine, and a hybrid California land narrative, That Water, Those Rocks – and three short story collections –The Origin of Stars, The Height and Depth of Everything, and No Reason on Earth. Her work has appeared widely in literary magazines. A regular contributor to the scholarship and theory of creative writing, Haake is also the author ofWhat Our Speech Disrupts: Feminism and Creative Writing Studies. She teaches at California State University, Northridge.