Larissa Pham’s Pop Song reverberates and ripples. While the writer and artist’s first book, Fantasian, concerned itself with identity formation—what constitutes the self, and how much of the self is forced onto us—her debut work of nonfiction emerges from a hunger to know the world. The blueness of the Taos sky becomes a route to reckon with the irreconcilable distances between people and places; the self-flagellation of Catholic saint Gemma Galgani a jumping off point to honor trauma as a looping process rather than singular event; a Louise Bourgeois sculpture an avenue to accepting surrender as a “stepping-stone” to “wholeness.” Wandering from New Haven to Provence to Mexico City to Shanghai, Larissa refigures herself through porousness, immersing herself in the textures of each place she visits, before leaving to arrive yet again.
I spoke to Larissa over the phone, in the midst of my own escape to the Southwest. We talked about reimagining the homecoming, admitting messiness, and why art shouldn’t need a moral justification to exist.
Tal Milovina: I want to start by asking about the form of the book. Pop Song is a collection of personal essays, but you’re much less interested in interiority than a traditional memoir. At one point in the book you write about ekphrasis and, throughout, it feels like you’re rewriting your memories by way of criticism. How were you thinking about memoir for this text?
Larissa Pham: I was really resistant to calling it a memoir for a very long time. At the time of writing, I was twenty-seven. I was like, “it’s my fucking Kurt Cobain year.” There was nothing that I had that was so interesting, that anyone would want to read a book about. But I was really interested in topics and themes—in looking at certain phenomena, and observing specific things about the world, from multiple angles. A lot of that did come through by way of criticism, and I think we would be lying to say that our perspectives as critics aren’t influenced by who we are. When I write short criticism professionally I do dial it back in terms of inserting myself into the narrative but, for this text, I felt that the work would benefit from having an “I” be present. I did read a lot of memoir while writing Pop Song.
What were you reading?
Maggie Nelson is a huge influence. I mean, I have some problems with The Argonauts but, as a text, it’s very revolutionary; its willingness to disclose, and the way that criticism is incorporated into it. I was reading Kate Zambreno, and reread Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which is not strictly a memoir but definitely influenced this book. I read Heidi Julavits’ Folded Clock. A lot of books by white women, frankly. I wanted to give myself the permission to write about my experiences and observations with that same kind of candor.
Your decision to write in the second person—to an unknown “you”—makes it feel more like an intimate conversation though, rather than a book about an “I” in the way that the memoirs you mention do. Is the book a love letter? An experiment in relationality?
The whole book is basically me vibrating against the world. A huge part of that is my relationships with people. When I started drafting, I was at a residency in Taos, and I kept writing towards this figure of the lover, which is very Barthesian. It was kind of an assumed figure, but was also based on a person with whom I had these experiences. I wouldn’t say that this book is about this person necessarily, or even about the idea of a lover, because I don’t think I’m theorizing in a way that A Lover’s Discourse is, but this relationship is a fabric of the text. There’s this trend in literary fiction of a sort of invisible narrator and—it sounds silly to say this but—I didn’t want my book to feel like it had main character syndrome. Even if it’s a first person narrative, there was this unconscious effort to make it a more symbiotic text.
If anything, place feels like the book’s main character.
When I first started conceiving of this book there was a lot more travel in it. There’s still a lot of travel but, morally and ethically, especially as I started writing during the pandemic, I wanted to complicate what a book about travel means. I don’t think my relationship to place is ever going to be the same. My relationship to borders and movements is never going to be the same. Reconciling that was interesting: the meat of the book was going to these places and trying to find something, and also really wanting to experience what those places were, and their history, and their context.
It’s such a bizarre time to be writing—this moment when we suddenly had to learn new ways of connecting to each other, which is also a major theme of the book. Did quarantine change how you were thinking about the text?
I wasn’t thinking about it quite so much at the time I was writing. I finished this book in a matter of months, which is insane to me, but that’s just kind of how the production cycle worked. It became this very condensed experience, and I think it was reflective of exactly where I was at the time. I don’t have the range to even imagine what my relationship to the text would be like in the context of not living through a pandemic. It’s so beautiful that you pointed out this theme in the book of wanting to connect with something. Of looking to art to find something. Moving through the pandemic, this text is also going to be that for people, which is nice to realize.
Movement is also a major conflict in the book: that travel is a human right and also a site of ongoing violence. There’s a moment when you’re in Taos, right after the 2016 election, and you say you cannot find “a way to convey eloquently the massive, ongoing unfairness of it all”—it all being American imperialism.
When I was writing the book I had to be very careful to not circle the drain. This is something that I’ve come to understand from my days working at The Anti-Violence Project, where we were always talking about the ways systemic violences interact with each other to make even more violences. It was really hard to have these conversations without circling the drain, getting stuck in how bad everything is. It’s this weight—this very oppressive, late capitalist, white supremacist weight—that everyone feels, both in America and globally. Again, I’m circling the drain. But I do believe that borders are fake, and that people should be able to migrate and move and travel respectfully. Wanting to write about my meaningful experiences with these places was a huge impetus for the text, and grappling with my experiences in those places became equally important—because if I left that out it wouldn’t be true to why I was there. I was being challenged in these places.
When I first wrote the New Mexico chapter it was for a column at The Paris Review and I didn’t really have political context for the text. I don’t even think it was clear that I went a couple months after the election. But when I was revising it for the book I realized that this was actually a huge part of why I was there. Taos brought me very close to thinking about American imperialism; it was so much more visible, and everyone was engaging with it, in a way that felt really meaningful, and of course imperfect. It was a place for me to talk about my own feelings of political displacement, as the daughter of Vietnamese refugees in America. Literally there’s no place for me in the world.
Is avoiding “circling the drain” a way of honoring the messiness of the experiences you’re writing about? You use repetition throughout all of your essays—there are loops of violence, but also of song, and critical theory, and memory, and even self.
I think of my term “circling the drain” as such a pessimistic one. I think of it as a reminder to allow yourself to experience things other than crushing despair when thinking about the state of the world. But at the same time, the circling is maybe an acknowledgement that we’re always moving towards it, we’re always working within its boundaries, its constraints, its areas of effect. Circling in terms of a structural method, thinking about cycles, I don’t know how much of it was conscious, but I do know that I don’t tell the book in a chronological fashion. Part of that is that thematically it just made sense to have essays about topics and feelings, which meant that an essay like “Dark Vessel” actually has moments that take place after the breakup but it comes in a way before it, because I’m also talking about intimacy and voice and silence. It feels immersive, but that’s also how we live our lives. My therapist loves to remind me that I was a baby once, and I have to be nice to the baby that I was. So much of this book is about recovering from trauma, so writing about it in a literary fashion would be fake; healing is not a linear process.
This idea of reparenting ourselves—to be honest about “how we live our lives”—reminds me of a recent piece you wrote for The Nation, about the book review and, in your words, the contemporary trend towards “self-awareness as a literary tactic.”
It’s hard because I did agree with a lot of the critics I was writing about. There were a lot of good points being made. But I think what those critics were writing against was this idea of “messiness is absolution.” It’s complicated and therefore I am so enlightened for telling you it’s complicated. That’s a fair response, but I also think that to critique something for its inconsistencies, or look at something with a fine tooth comb for its politics, is just not good for anyone. It requires ideological pureness, or flawlessness—but people have flaws. I wrote The Nation essay having written this book, and my biggest desire coming out of that piece of criticism was for people to just be a little more open about their stakes. To be vulnerable, and for it to be OK to be vulnerable about our own lived realities. Postures of defensiveness don’t really teach anyone about how the world works, or how we react to it. In such a complicated time, hearing from as many people as possible who are being really honest about how they live, and how they choose to live, and how they survive, and how they choose to survive, seems like the best way of doing things.
“Being a little more open about our stakes” also seems like another way of asking how we can be together in more intimate, authentic ways. I was struck by this idea in Pop Song: the devastation that we might never know what other people feel, and the question of how we might best understand others’ emotional experience, or communicate our own.
Wow. I do feel a great sense of devastation at the fact that I’m never really going to know what someone is really thinking. We can use words to express ourselves, but words are just as imperfect as any other thing. When you spend a lot of time with an art form that isn’t verbal, you realize how much gets left out, across all mediums. And that’s why we have more than one, why we listen to music, and write songs.
In this book, I didn’t really have any arguments I wanted to make; I wanted to write down things that felt true. I reference some theory, but I don’t consider it a work of autotheory in any way. There’s such power in observing, especially from a gendered and racialized perspective, and so I found solace in the text not through arguing for a way to exist politically but just by describing something that felt real. Just to be seen. You don’t need to be told what to do, or what your position should be; just to read something that feels right is very impactful. If I could just get it right, get the details right, if I could make sure that every moment I was describing was captured properly, then I felt like it was a success.
My first book, Fantasian, was very much a text about being dissociated and high and in your bathroom looking at yourself in your mirror, like “is this really me? Could this be someone else?” Pop Song is more like being in the world, having your hand on your heart; you’re walking around and you’re like “oh my god, here’s all this world that I can experience, I’m going to be really porous and let it flow through me.” I did a lot of research about the world while writing this; I learned a lot about the world.
If this is a book about being able to enjoy the world—to sit in an embodied experience of art and song—it’s also about the ways art is made stale by capital. The shitshow that is art fairs.
Loving art was a huge part of why I became a socialist. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and I spent a lot of my youth really arguing for the arts. Arguing for why they should exist. For a while, I was writing a lot of reviews where I was talking about why art should exist and why it matters, and I think that’s fine, but really I think that there should be no moral justification for art. There doesn’t need to be. People should just be able to make things and express themselves because they want to. Having spent time in the art world, and in the literary world, both of these institutions are just absolutely run through with capital. I can only write this book because I got the book deal, I only see art in galleries because it’s the art that has risen to the top of consciousness. There are markets behind everything. It’s really easy to become very fatalistic, when thinking about art, especially when you’re at an art fair and it’s just a nightmare. Everything is so expensive—you pay $30 to get there and nothing looks good.You’re like, I cannot believe I’m looking at a Helen Frankenthaler right now; this is horrible. It’s just the worst experience ever and it makes you feel so used. You’re looking at this work and ordinarily you would have an amazing experience with it, or maybe you made the work and had a very authentic experience making it, but within the structure of capital it’s always going to be influenced by that and reduced to that.
It makes me think about that Anne Boyer interview, where she’s asked what the biggest impediment to her writing is, and she says capitalism.
If I am going to advocate for a life with the arts, and in the arts, I can’t do that without also advocating for living wages and healthcare and education for everyone—all of those things that lead us to all having what we need. I don’t think ethically it makes sense to love art and also not acknowledge that, in order to make art, a lot of things have to go well for you. It shouldn’t be that way.
Thinking about galleries as the place where art can emerge under this system, how did you choose the pieces that you write about in the book?
A lot of the structure of the book came from ideas that felt sticky. The old Stevie Nicks demo that my friend Harron showed to me, that stayed with me; her performance stayed with me, so I needed to have a chapter about it. And then that chapter grew to include James Blake and Frank Ocean. It was really about a feeling, and then looking for work that I had a personal connection to that was in line with what the essay was trying to say. It’s funny, it’s not very convenient that everything I’m looking at is in line with what I’m trying to say, but it’s tautological, because the work influenced what I was thinking about. Writing about Louise Bourgeois in Shanghai was because, when I was there, I saw the show, and then that put me in the headspace to think about her work. So I draw on her memories and those ideas, and also interpretations of her work when I go back to that time in the chapter. If I had seen a different show, maybe it would have been a different narrative. I wanted to bring in everything as I encountered it, in a way that felt authentic to the text.
Tal is founding editor of ATM, an online magazine publishing at the intersections of criticism, art, and community organizing. Their writing has appeared in TheNation, Bookforum, COMPOST, Autre, and elsewhere.