Margo Berdeshevsky: We share a passion for image, both the linguistic and photographic. Yours: silhouettes against uncertain skies, shapes that unseat the reading mind and that continue to haunt. We share a lyricism that is not always, often not, beautiful. A willingness to approach violence done and remembered. We share a willingness to enter domains where spirit(s) feel as potent as story, and where the body and its uber-real sexuality insist on being present as skin and menstrual blood and bile. Also, perhaps, we share a yearning for sanctuary. If such a thing can exist.
In A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be, there will eventually be a hospice. The images are darkling, often macabre, over- and under-toned with deathly blues, and the half-light/half-dark skins of its people, both in color and in the words’ tone. Somewhere in my reading of this semi-surreal book, I found myself turning to read Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” I needed to reread “The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.” To remember such lines in that poem as: “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been in love with easeful death…” Your book seems to hover between that drowsing numbness and a magician’s capture of raw and frightening story-ing. Before I could continue my reading of this soul-stark novel, I needed to find Keats’s opening stanza:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk […]
I had to wonder, again and again, as did Keats, listening to the buried, hidden song: “Do I wake or sleep?” A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be seemed to me a book to also drift in. To die in, and to revive, half in love with death and half with life, as it moved between the dark cyan and blue photographs and the raw narrative of some of your family and ancestors, those you name “marginalized and persecuted inhabitants of Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee…”; dead now, but who won’t remain buried. The stuff of nightmare, yes, but also the stuff of prose that goes beyond genre, of a tale that cannot occlude its own love of image, and so it welcomes it, and lures readers into somber designs and an America that it daringly evokes. An America that holds the author’s ancestors: “the institutionalized and the protesters—were all sent home in disgrace to avoid any press or public attention.”
In the novel’s earliest pages, sentences like the following promise that there will be no comfort here: “They ate even their very own fingernails, with salt, and the clipped nails of their babies. The nails were very soft. The dirt under their baby nails was milk chocolate. Their teeth were always clean from eating rocks and sticks and nails but there was never anything to smoke.” Soon after, we discover we are far from delicate telling: “The girls placed the bodies of the men in stacks on the back porch to drain before they wrapped them in the giant leaves of the tobacco trees and hung them on iron hooks in the smokehouse. The girls’ pussies tasted of sassafras. They were beautiful fat naked dancing girls who fucked each other for free….”
We will come to know Maw, a guardian, a jailer, a caretaker for the sick and birthing and dying, a woman who was once left, but would never be left again. “The god of emissions and tears and discharges.” About whom it was whispered that she was “passing.” Maw, abandoned, “barely off the birthing bed, her gown still stained red with the uterine inks—” Maw, who sings dark songs to her baby girls…a character drawn with a scalpel. “Maw, the god of ringworm and lice.”
We will find, as she did, a man who made her babies with her: “Lafayette saw that they were some terrible angels—even the blood that rushed to the underneath of their newborn skin couldn’t disguise their origins in some other world than this—they nearly glowed.” But Lafayette becomes a man who “began to worship the four inch slice of closed yet open flesh that runs between a woman’s legs.” A man who “can pretend that his penis is all of him and that when it’s inside their mouths he himself is dancing down their rosy throats and feeling the billowing curtains of their lungs with his fingertips. And all is pure.”
And their progeny, a daughter who nurses because she can and must, another “too white for negro, too negro for white. Too alone to belong, and so familiar to the secrets of the South that for all her visibility, she remained invisible.”
And so, chapter after chapter, a novel-in-images comprising half-known songs of both sacral (if not sacred) and profane. And a novel that is as close to poetry as to fiction. A fiction of ancient grief: “larger and longer and bigger than the women, it went back to ripped apart continents, to the center of the earth, it fed on magma of loss, its lava the only trace of injustice in the void…”
And the images spaced throughout: photographs of dark and silhouetted blues that eventually turn to magentas and eventually to greens that suggest a growing, until they return to the initial haunted-night cyan and blues. All silhouetted, but burning and bleeding into a future where the blues and the reds overlay and layer. Each story you paint is like a very very slow orgasm that wants (if I dare to interpret here…) that wants to find some kind of a holy home.
“There are secret things for destroying at the proper time. Things precious and fragile for shattering.” Or, is there, in fact no corpse to put in the grave that is not made, while ghosts depart?
The final sets of haunted photographs smear into sunrises. Or are they sunsets? We remain unsure. “The worst might not last and the best could come true.”
“Once upon a time there was a big white house on the hill, an evil house, some folks say, though nobody really knows for sure where it went except to say that not all the people who lived in or near that old white house ever came out alive. African slaves. Our family. The patients when it once was a hospital….”
“Once upon a time our parents flew up from a place where once there had been flames, and smoke and ashes, and they called it sanctuary. They thought all was over, and then it wasn’t.”
What a book!
A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be has done its work. Here are some questions: What made/makes now the time—in your own life, and/or in American history—to write this book?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: I started working on this book twenty years ago and it has been a continuous process and presence in my life for two decades—I have always been writing this book, even before it took shape on paper. And it has always been time, and always will be time, to continue to turn over our own soils and the soil of American experience and see what bones and seeds emerge. There is a difference, however, in writing and in publishing. There are many books like mine languishing in the desks of gifted writers all over the country…the crucial point to me is what makes now the time to publish this book.
My vision for the book was always clear: at its best, Americana writing is fertile and exhilarating but since childhood I rarely found myself or anyone I knew feeling at home within the limited boxes it had to offer. Commercially acceptable “Great American Novels” are book-shaped boxes that slice off anything that doesn’t fit their geometry of American experiences, American histories, American identities. A long time ago, American publishing decided that the simplest route through the labyrinthine American experience was to close its eyes and hold tight to two or three threads—typically white, male, and heterosexual. Yet now the increasing majority of Americans traverse a vast and unmapped cobweb of thousands of threads. A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be reaches out to an underground of American writers who work to expand that spiderweb, rather than to tidy it up with the vacuum cleaner.
To a culture—and American literary industry—socialized to perpetuate and police segregation, it is no longer excusable to suppress the fact that most of us dwell at the nexus of a complex multiplicity of concurrent selves: multiracial, multisexual, multigendered, multieconomic, and so forth. Enfranchising only three threads is inexcusable—it is high time that the arachnophobia ends and publishing embraces the cobweb as the most advanced architectural structure that we have as an art form. American literature (and Americana literature) is at a crossroads where it can offer sublime adventures along the spiderweb, or else atrophy inside the vacuum.
The time to publish is now—frankly, because although the book was first taken by the visionary acquiring editor Anitra Budd at Coffee House Press, it was publisher James Reich at Stalking Horse Press whose imprint supports a different kind of American writing. (Perhaps, as a Brit, he is less hidebound or intimidated by our continent’s unique literary fears). He let my voice flow freely throughout the labyrinth of form, identity, structure, history that is my own—his approach is rarely the case when that voice goes off the map of what is saleable, or what is familiar, or comfortable. I have yet to find an intersectional writer who has not received a trunk-full of perplexed correspondence from editors expressing their inability to envision how to make a profit from anything other than (1) a reductivist narrative of identity, experience, structure, and voice that has a pre-established consumer base and (2) a story that an airport bookstore would successfully market to its commuters.
Margo Berdeshevsky: Is it over, or is it only now beginning?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: I’m still uncovering secrets and ambiguities in my own family—the basis of my book—as more and more data about obscured American experience becomes available thanks to the hard work of so many people toiling to expand the portrayals of our worlds. But the characters themselves, and their adventures, reached a point in their journey where they found routes off the map. They made their own routes, and I am happy to see them travel on without me. What happens to them as they encounter readers and witnesses and fellow travelers—I hope Sweet Marie and Whitey, Lafayette and Skinny Jones and the Jazz Girl and Maw keep in touch from time to time!
What’s beginning is a more conceptual and poetic odyssey into the question of how traumatic memory navigates timespace. Historical wounds do not, contrary to popular truism, heal over time and space and disappear. The trauma of injustices—genocides, death marches, hate crimes—cannot just be paved over with a new Starbucks parking lot. So the project I’m working on now is a constellation of stories, poems, and essays that work towards figuring out how we as a species can interrupt this hideous möbius strip of sadistic hate, stop inflicting mortal wounds on the usual suspects, and learn how to heal the wounds on our socioemotional bodies rather than hiding them till they turn gangrenous and are amputated. It’s a gory analogy, but our self-created legacy of cruelty has turned against us all. So what’s now is to lift up my eyes from the viciousness of Virginia in the 1930s and map out the signposts that have guided hatred to trample us for centuries.
Margo Berdeshevsky: In your “Notes on Methodologies,” found at the books end, you speak of subverting “suppression surrounding how society and the state defines normalcy and humanity.” You speak of the government’s attempts to police and control the “problematic” body. While such a statement speaks terribly to our present moment, where do you look for countervailing hope against such evil and such control?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: Despite my story-poem collection being entitled The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, I don’t put much weight into hope. It’s a plastic carrot for a starving horse—wait and hope, wait and hope—and is not especially empowering. There is a passivity in the concept of hope, and I’m critical of it. We must stretch our equine necks out for a far more potent antidote to what you refer to as the force of Evil. Hope is too easily crushed. I suspect that Evil created Hope, knowing that it would never be a successful opponent. We’ve just been strung along by it because we tend to freeze or flee into a terrified superstitious faith in hope, rather than to acquire more empowering tools with which we can fight back when we are overwhelmed by pain.
These tools are Agency and Divestment and Elevation—actions rather than aspirations. Divestment is a major source of support to me now: we have the ability to remove our support and investment from sadistic and exploitative forces. That’s called Agency. And once we have Divested, and we have Agency, then we can begin to access the higher ground. As Michelle Obama said, “when they go low, we go high.” The view is better. The signal fires can be seen from outer space. We can see what’s coming and get ahead of it. We can flank it. We can obstruct it. We can create more ethical and empathic communities at these higher elevations.
Margo Berdeshevsky: I’m curious to hear you respond to the question you pose in those final page notes: “How can my role as artist—and the audience and reader’s role—transform the voyeuristic ‘tourist-witness’ encounter into an engaged ‘activist-empath’ relationship”?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: Americans—including American readers and editors and writers and publishers—are conditioned to be passive, to be consumers whose purpose lies in being the first, the fastest, and the best at gobbling up whatever slice of cake is tossed off the palace balcony. First, envision the ten thousand-yard queues of people waiting for the doors to open at big box store sales; second, envision the social media feedback loop of sterile memes that signal outrage but are only placebos of noise; third, envision the witness who stands inert at the scene of the crime. What these have in common is at best passivity and at worst the mesmerized crowds at the coliseum watching the last lion die in agony. In the context of trauma—this is the freeze response. In the context of humanitarianism, this is complicity in, as you called it, Evil.
An activist-empath relationship for anyone (including an artist) requires a commitment to systematic work that begins deep inside by repairing our own tattered psyches, while also cultivating the work ethic to track down the tools needed to heal instead of hurt and the relentless courage to stand in honor, kindness, generosity, and integrity no matter what carrots or sticks, predators or distracting pleasures come our way. This is far from exhaustive, but an artist-empath must commit to a fundamentally ruthless process of self-knowledge, the excavation and ethical navigation of wounds both given and received, the determination to present tangible reparations for wrongdoings, the ongoing daily practice of divestment from any and all forces of abuse and hate, valuing enlightenment above comfort, choosing connection over self-protection—in essence, becoming comfortable with being outside of our comfort zones, and become active agents in our own evolution.
Margo Berdeshevsky: You write about how the knots of colonization and slavery, with its resulting secret births and lineages, is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle. Absent a reinvention of our shared civilization, which requires a confrontation with its sins of dehumanization, what do you turn to for endurance?
Quintan Ana Wikswo: I turn away from anyone and everyone who polices or exerts censorship or control over my own integrity. I turn away from all forces that erode, threaten, or try to incapacitate my right to exist, or even my ability to exist. I turn towards beings who have suffered significant trauma, existential pain, and persecution yet continually emerge and re-emerge as loving, trustworthy, reciprocal, giving, stalwart, ethical beings. I turn towards people—both living and dead—who seek to reach as far as possible beyond the limited values or truisms of their era or milieu. I find great strength through communing with everyone who has worked to stay present and honorable in adverse conditions that, without diligence, would otherwise trigger primal predatory behaviors.
I also watch clouds. I follow thunderstorms. I actively divest from my own timespace—reading physics books, separating myself from the here and now and going into dreamtime. I spend a lot of time in bed with my pack of hounds. I have begun an active practice of seeking out folx who are farther along the path than I am and can offer me guidance on how to better navigate this existence. I have never felt especially human, or felt any sense of belonging to this planet, this body, this time, this lonely yet collective enterprise of living. Maybe I take a perverse strength in being a human rights worker who does not particularly like being human.
Before the Drought immediately evokes the very best of praise songs—praise songs for the bruise, the unanswered question, the body as sepulcher, the rising and falling rhythms of seared images on breathing flesh. It sustains the lyricism of a bleak beauty that howls the concurrent melodies and disharmonies of existence.
It is a travelling book with its hands deep inside the corporeal erotics, reaching out into bodily terrains that one might call the sublime abyss. It is vaginal, this abyss that you write through, around, within—a site of darkness, creation, tensile strength, compression and expansion—a tunnel that is reached through the infinite fingering of a furled strand of DNA: “Why have a woman in you—skin / Why not a bone mountain / Why not a better prayer than this one / if you won’t answer, skin of my skin / skin of my woman-ing— / There are knives that might.”
Bone and flesh are tectonic mountains throughout your book—heaving and straining, always in a violent motion that is fundamentally frictive and abrasive and upheaved, yet with a wake of lyricism, of nubile poetics. A vulture’s spiral of petit mort and then the blood swept dawn skies. It is an expertly achieved seductive rhythm.
You mentioned that you couldn’t travel far into my book without excavating Keats. At first, your work drew me to Hélène Cixous, Audre Lorde, Aimé Césaire, and Clarice Lispector—their tenacity and endurance to strategically claw their way through the viscera of language until they hold their own uterine hearts contracting and expanding in their hands (and that of the reader). Then I turned to Maurice Blanchot’s underappreciated The Writing of the Disaster, where he writes about reading: “You have to cross an abyss, and if you do not jump, you do not understand.” This led me to your line in “Whose Sky, Between”: “a tiredness of how well we mourn.” Your work shares with Cixous, Lorde, Césaire, Lispector, and Blanchot this sense of indefatigable capacity to jump into the void with a jouissance that defies the presence of despair and exhaustion. The ferocity contained in some souls to descend into the enigma of emotion, erotics, violence, grief, desire, memory, and rebellion.
I would be quite happy to call your book a collection of battlefield poems from the slit of the Maginot Line, for they are love poems and murder ballads, where the enemies and allies often inhabit the same body. You bind together and tear asunder the moments where embodied emotion runs at a fever high. Animals—moths, snow geese, starfish, albatross, panthers, locusts, crows—leave tracks in which you invoke girls’ menstrual blood alongside “a color not spoken in wars.” Warfare traverses your collection with a ruthless demand for attention. I wonder, is embodiment itself a kind of violence? What would be the antidote to this violence, and is an antidote necessary?
Margo Berdeshevsky: It is a battlefield that we have been born to inhabit. And yes, I’ve been addressing the subject for a very long time. Was it my earliest flower child passions? Yes, but so much more. You ask if the embodiment is a kind of violence. When we speak something aloud, we do give it energy. We bring it to life. That’s one of the subtle dictates of magic. But in these times, I feel I dare not—NOT speak of it. because, of course, if not now, when? And if I do not speak of it, who else will? I feel an obligation at least to being one voice in my own time. And so I dare to use what voice I have. War is still, horribly, our global reality. That hasn’t changed since all the ancient myths, and the present greed for boundaries and power.
In the poem “Yes the Lights” I invoke our past wars: “I know. C’est la Guerre.—They said so then. they say so now.”
And there’s a verse in my earlier “But a Passage in Wilderness,” in a poem called “Best Love and Goodbye”:
Opposite of silence, the ash tree.
Opposite of hate, peace, quietly, in a time of war.
How many wars are in the collective memory? I don’t remember.
When can I write the poem without the word whore in it. I said war but I am
corrected because I have once again complained
I have come to believe that the battle is both external, and yes, internal, too. Because until we might both name and confront and challenge the battle between enemy and ally in the self — I see that we will continue to be at war with those selves outside our own bodies. We have been trying like hell to learn to be humans capable of peace, for how long? How many millennia? And we have yet to learn. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: You asked me about the veins of Americana that run through my book—your own book has many nods to the global French literary corpus that seem to intentionally push that attraction to erotics and existentialism to a more ferocious, and even ravenous, climax. Is there such a thing as a national literary corpus? Is this book a form of intercourse?
Margo Berdeshevsky: At its best, I believe that much literary art, its products and/or byproducts might aspire to be in a hungry conversation with itself and with other works. I believe that my own works are in an ongoing conversation amongst themselves. (Much in the way that works in a single room in a museum hiss and whisper and converse with one another.) At its best, I can call that intercourse, if the conversation leads to a real communication, not to mere friction of bodies or souls.
I’m often hungry (ravenous) for contact. For a spiritual contact that might mean survival. And, I’m profoundly pessimistic about being well fed. We’re all starving to make it through the nights of our time. That is what you might call my own ferocious existentialism. If your question is wondering if France has a national literary body, I’d agree. The authors you kindly ally me with (above,) are certainly cells of that body. But the romanticism of the Franco Renaissance body is not the same flesh as the aching and shredded body of Camus’ Sisyphus, or of today’s rather dry French intellectualism, or its contemporary poetry that mostly imitates and reinvents the Language School and the New York School.
As to Franco literary erotics that please me, I might actually turn to Duras’ “The North China Lover,” rewritten when she was much older. It is a book remarkably more erotic than her earlier “The Lover.” But if my “Before the Drought” allows for a form of intercourse as you suggest, I will be content, in the “now.” That is, I say with some humility, my hope.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: You write: “and thank you for your human eye not / other than God’s I think, or mine…tell me I say what’s lost.” You also write: “Keening with the fallen/ And that is not enough.” Is there such a thing as redeemable loss?
Margo Berdeshevsky: In these times, I’m not at all certain of redemption. But our humanity and its quest to learn what is enough and what is too much remains an obsession for me. In the poems you quote from, I tried to look at the process of aging and at the loss and the love that we (I) confront. Also, I tried to see the way we grieve for the fallen. I don’t know if my (our) grief is enough at all. But it is a beginning for an honesty that is needed for humanity to begin, for the hundredth, the millionth time, perhaps—to begin its climb.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: You wrote about my book: “each story you paint is like a very very slow orgasm that wants (if I dare to interpret here…) that wants to find some kind of a holy home.” I am unsurprised that, given our intersecting sensibilities, you zeroed in on a conscious decision to construct my prose narrative as a female multiple orgasm (a spiral) rather than a novel’s traditional narrative arc (the male ejaculation). Your collection feels like an extended wartime furlough during which orgasm after orgasm seeks the seams of some sort of egress. That there is something that we try to exit in our existence, and yet instead we keep arriving, arriving, arriving at it. Is there an egress?
Margo Berdeshevsky: Ah. Yes, we are often trapped, both in our own life spans, and in our own bodies. Orgasm, we hope, frees us, even for the moments that it lasts. Women know that such egress and such release can last longer, and can spiral, as you say, more than any mere physical catharsis. We even dare to imagine that it may lead to depths, and to loving. Or at least we hope so. We need so much more than an explosive release in order to be freed from what our lives seem to chain us to.
As one way to speak to this, let me quote these lines from another poem in Before the Drought, the poem “Whisper.”
Why does my skin want me in her
does she know she’s holding a woman in?
Not burning does she ache when the wildfires shout
Does she know how many Septembers she’s given
Am I nailed inside her, cell by cell
pale veil sewn womb to sky
— is she mine or am I her
pet cobra whispering like rocks
in the streambed for more passion more
tenderness more friction more killing —
That poem is not a conclusion. But it is a way for me to hold a question aloft. And maybe, to allow an asking of the next, or the next question.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: Both our books have a brothel sensibility to them—a gritty sexuality that has traditionally been off limits to female writers in the literary industries of both America and France. While we share a different agenda, The Story of O was famously published by a French woman on a dare using a man’s name, because of the conviction by her male colleagues that an educated, intellectual woman could not express the potency of erotic sexuality. As a writer who pushes into and through this long forbidden zone, have you encountered any particular boxes or fences that resisted your leap across them?
Margo Berdeshevsky: So far, no, other than my own inhibitions. And those, I have my own challenge to overcome. While I haven’t written a contemporary Story of O, under my own or under any pseudonym, I find that readers of my work are sometimes enthused by my ventures into such zones. One very proper young Japanese man heard me read the poem “For Sisters Everywhere, Even On Saint Valentine’s Day,” which explores four very young girls taking their own virginity in order to own it. The young man came to me afterwards and admitted he had never heard anything so shocking, but he loved it. I was properly pleased.
The critic Sven Birkirts wrote of my FC2 book of stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, that I understood “how eros is a form of intelligence as well as a drive” and that “she also declares the 8th deadly sin: the refusal of intense experience.”
I pray this, Quintan: May we both have more such hearers and readers. We have most recently entered a new global conversation. A dangerous one, some will believe. We are, I suspect, for the coming time, going to teeter between a new and terrifying and yet demanding Puritanism, and a confrontation with our collective sexuality. Between what we encourage as brave and healthy, and what we must reject because it has robbed us of our human dignity. Between such polarities, may we still leap or fly, and write following our calls to both beauty and grit? I hope so, for all our sakes.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: You write: “I don’t know / What bandages to fold, what wounds to wrap.” Yet this entire collection is a kind of wrapping, binding, and then the bandage is changed and what lies beneath becomes revealed. I wonder if you do know. What wounds need wrapping, if we had the proper bandages?
Margo Berdeshevsky: I can say this: I believe the severest wound I know, (although I’m as deeply at a loss to close the festering or to remove the poisons we are heir to,) I believe that wound to be our collective humanity. Our challenge (and so often our failure) as humans, as voices in our time, is to address this humanness we are made of, twisted as it is and has become.
And our (my) quest remains how the hell to be human, woman or man, as life forms that are capable of care for ourselves and for us each.
I’ll quote just one more line from the last poem in “Before the Drought,” because it contains the optimism for healing that I cling to. I want to trust that it is so, that creation knows how to heal itself, and us. I’ve studied healing for much of my life. I don’t know. But I so deeply want it to be so.
Each poison growing in a forest
lives beside its antidote, we said.
I am still eager, I said.