Veronica Gonzalez Peña is the author of the new novel The Sad Passions, published by Semiotext(e). Set primarily in Mexico City, the book is written from the rotating perspectives of the manic-depressive Claudia and each of her four daughters. The girls’ magnetic father drifts in and out of their lives, as does Claudia — sometimes excessively present and other times despondent and emotionally impassable. Claudia inexplicably sends one daughter, Julia, to the United States, and the others spend the rest of the novel reconciling her departure.
In his review on this site, Jesse Miller writes, “The family ostensibly examined by the novel is a failed thing, constituted by absences . . . But in the place of a happy home we find a compendium of delicate configurations of family that are constantly exploding the nuclear form. These families, founded by acts of love, caring and kindness, performed between sisters, cousins, friends, strangers, between generations, between species, are not distinct from the novel’s sad passions, but born out of them, through them.” I agree with Jesse that the novel leaves a reader “somewhat battered, but for all that, intimately connected to these characters.”
This summer Gonzalez Peña moved all of her belongings from Los Angeles to New York, a trip that according to our exchange involved “crooked moving men, my belongings held hostage, and 100 degree heat in NY, this after a long drive across the country with my animals, an aging dog and half mad cat.” Despite the chaos, she graciously agreed to answer my questions by email.
The protagonists of The Sad Passions are composites of each other, the four daughters “drowning in” their mother and “shadowy mirrors” of each other. Together they form a sort of hydra, conjoined at the nexus of the collective past. What’s the significance of this enfolded subjectivity? Is the individual extricable from the social, or are we all composites of others?
The sisters are all written by their mother’s illness, whether they see this or not. And their mother is written by her own mother and father and sisters and the context all around them. For the four sisters this writing occurs in many ways, of course, as it does for all of us; the mother’s actions, or inactions, the things she does or is incapable of doing affecting them all variously.
But they experience her differently, experience factual events differently, even when they seem shadowy mirrors of each other, and the difference in perception is important. This is a core thrust of the novel: the ways in which one factual event can be experienced so variously. This is why I repeat certain key scenes in the book, from different points of view. Though the sisters may feel they are each other, they are also distinct.
There are places where things do meld into each other, where subjectivities blend, moments of doubling. We all experience this, to a certain extent, in intimacy, or in mundane ways, something as simple as hearing an account told in a way that alters how we perceive things. We are all part of one big social soup and the struggle to write ourselves, to understand and act, rather than just react to others, is one we all must take on individually. Of course, we never fully leave the soup, and the dance between the social and the individual is a constant and necessary one, inescapable.
The characters’ entanglement has implications for futurity and fate in the novel. One protagonist says, “I have to believe that things can shift and flow, that there can be motion . . . that I am not written by my past.” Another is less confident, saying, “In the war that was our family already our sins were being written out for us.” The book acknowledges an inevitable degree of contingency — is it also optimistic about the possibility of self-determination?
I think it is. I think two of the sisters are able to write their lives, or are at least partially involved in the act of writing their lives. In the book they are beginning the process, but tinges of it are there. It is not easy for them; self-determination is not easy for any of us — the act of living a life that feels made up of choices instead of inevitabilities.
Two of the sisters seem to be struggling with this, at least. Their reflections hopefully move beyond a regurgitation of a past into something that feels like motion, a moving through. They are the sisters who most directly deal with their notions of self, and it is this struggle to know themselves that hopefully leads them somewhere. But as an artist I have to be a bit questioningly ironic, paradoxical, and so I’ve made them also the sisters who seem to double each other most. It would be simplistic to be blindly hopeful.
With regards to sexuality, your protagonists are curious, jealous, frightened, longing, boastful, wounded and indifferent in endless combination. The novel offers a nuanced exploration of the complexities and private idiosyncrasies of young women’s sexual becomings. Is it right to see this novel as partly a response to the broader culture’s flattening of female desire?
Yes, I think so. Female desire is as varied and complex as we each are. It can be many different things even within the individual, even within one encounter — we all have many different modes of desire. The female as “acted on,” as the object of desire, is not interesting to me. It is not my experience, at least not the part of my experience that is instrumental to me.
Also, an aspect of manic depression that does not get spoken about much, but which is very real and has huge consequences in a lived life, is sexual boundary-lessness during periods of mania. In a place like Mexico City in the 1960s this would have been very problematic. A woman without the boundaries or sexual mores of the repressive society around her was a lost being. For without even a semblance of a relationship to those boundaries she is not capable of understanding her sexuality, much less instrumentalizing it in the mode of the women around her.
This has consequences in the book not only for Claudia but for her daughters. Of course, Claudia is an extreme version of a push against strict social mores with regard to female sexuality. But she is an extreme case that makes the argument for, or at least illustrates, the suffering caused by that repression. And Claudia is not a revolutionary — she does not understand any of this herself, and so much of her guilt and anxiety is centered around her own unconventional sexuality. Her daughters are not fully comfortable with their sexuality, either, but it is there and they are aware of it and they live in and through it; they can think about it, talk about it. Claudia only once tells a story about her own sexual experiences, but her desire is ever present.
In the book I touch on child sexuality too, which is something that does not get written about much. This subject terrifies people, but that terror has much more to do with adults’ relationship to child sexuality than to any given child’s own experience of it, which is an extremely vulnerable yet innocent exploration of the individual relationship to the body.
Julia, an introvert with an abstract relationship to the physical world, is a critic of contemporary art. In turn the book contains many experimental passages in which she invokes specific artworks. What business does art writing have commingling with fiction? What can fiction learn from the languages of art and art criticism?
Julia moves from the intensely internal and emotional to this abstract thinking, using it almost as a shield. I love the way W.G. Sebald does this in Austerlitz, how that book opens with this very detailed look at the fortress and how that turns (it is only after many many pages that we begin to realize it is turning) into a metaphor of the self, the ways in which Austerlitz shields himself from his own history, the fortress of self-fortification, the fortress of self occlusion, of hiding.
A friend saw Robert Barry speak recently. He is the artist at the beginning of one of the Julia chapters, the conceptual gas artist. This was after I’d written the book, and apparently Barry gave this great talk about his work, which ended after a couple of hours with a confession of his unexpressed love for a woman at the gallery which had helped to produce those pieces. It was a moment of fragility and tenderness and complete vulnerability at the conclusion of this long abstract discussion about his ephemeral work: the abstract falling into the personal, the personal becoming abstracted.
I love that — the thing that is so intense and painful that you have to live a life glancing sidelong at it, and are surprised when you are, once again, somehow, in the midst of it, wondering how it is that you led yourself there. I love the way that the intensity of emotion can get suffused into the objects around us. Of course, this can be dangerous too — there are people who can only live in and through objects — beware, for these people are all around us.
Your story takes place over many decades and multiple generations, elaborating an extended family tree. In what way is the novel meant to work as a double history, telling the story of Mexico from colonization to present alongside the story of this particular family?
It is both, of course. It is a story about colonization as a specific instance, the lived experience, and the subtle and not so subtle effects that this history has on a family. The family is not necessarily aware of these effects, but they are nevertheless written by colonization in a very significant way.
Sandra is immersed in the place, and fascinated by the history of Mexico City, the layering that is Mexico. She loves the way you can see this history piled upon itself, everywhere, all the time, the modern bumping up against the colonial and the ancient indigenous cultures which are still fully active in Mexico, each element rubbing up against the others constantly, time collapsed. In her own family the history of colonization rubs against her present circumstances in much the same way, the French great-grandparents, and the German industrialist who lures her grandfather away from Mexico City, having written her present; her mother’s too, and her mother’s anger at her father for leaving the family drives much of the novel. All of these past events write the present.
More directly, less metaphorically, there are stories of this colonial history sprinkled throughout the novel. Maximillian’s building the wide avenue, Reforma, for Carlotta’s golden carriage. When Sandra has a breakdown, fearing she is her sister, she goes to spend time in an old colonial mining village, and talks a little about this history, and the beautiful mestizo children born of it. The search for her sister is tied up in this murky influence of the past. Sandra is the site where all of these histories most vividly come together for the reader, for she is aware of some of this history and graces us with it.
When Julia is sent to America, the U.S.-Mexico border becomes both a symbol and a literal exacerbation of a preexisting condition of familial fracture. How do you conceive the role of national borders in this novel with regards to more psychological questions of displacement?
The story of the exile is very compelling to me. A life of exile is a life lived in longing, sadness, desire, a constant sense that things are not fully right. Nostalgia and memory drive my work, as an impetus for production as much as gnawing subject matter, the thing that drives my characters. And as a writer, a sense of outsiderness is always with me. I have an almost sick tendency to put myself in that exiled position, even as I long for something more central, long for people all around me. I am constantly casting myself out, and then searching for the center, only to cast myself out yet again.
The cover of the book features a Francesca Woodman photograph, and the novel ends with Julia’s remarks on the spectrality of Woodman’s work. In many Woodman photographs the subject (usually the artist herself) is shadowy, translucent, or otherwise ghostly. The world rendered by Woodman is one comprised of traces, revenants, ambiguous presences. To what extent is haunting a thematic foundation of this novel?
Absence is everywhere in this book, and a sense of hunting for the thing you can’t reach is central to it. This is what desire is. The girls are constantly hunting for their mother, she for her father, he for something missing, too. The sisters who stay behind when Julia is sent off search for Julia, fill that absence with their thoughts, their stories, their desire — directly or indirectly. They are compelled. Even Marta, who seems to hate Julia, can’t help but speak about her; her narratives are constantly collapsing into Julia. And Julia, her stories, even when they are the abstract writings on conceptual art, collapse into the missing sisters, the absent mother.
The spectral being, the missing mother, or father, or sister, is what drives this book. What is a search if not a search for the missing? And the search is the essential story, no? The thing that drives. From Telemachus’ search for his father, to the grail, to Freud’s internal quest back to a primary instance, which doesn’t have to have ever existed, he tells us . . . as long as a story can be made to rise up around it . . .