Interactions of late have none of the physicality and poetry they used to. Everything now is an email or a video chat, removing nuance and context from so much of our lives.
So, let’s say Nick Jaina and Tatiana Ryckman are waiting for their clothes to dry in a laundromat somewhere in Buffalo, where Tatiana lives, or in Oakland, where Nick lives.
They have known each other for years, first meeting at a park in Austin, later swing dancing at a hipster club, and then linking up in Cleveland in the summer of 2016 to cover the ominous Trump-dominated Republican Convention for different publications. What they saw there was disquieting, but also surprisingly optimistic—the idea permeated on the outskirts of Cleveland that there are people working on the broken parts of this world despite whichever tyrant is controlling the airwaves.
Jaina and Ryckman both published new novels in 2020, during what felt like “the thick of the pandemic,” though at this point we all know that remains to be seen. Jaina’s Hitomi (Modern Mythographer Press) is a tender document of obsession of a band of musicians driving around the country in a quest for fame. Ryckman’s Ancestry of Objects (Deep Vellum Publishing) is a wickedly gorgeous poetic description of the depths of emotion on the other side of the male gaze.
So, they are tumble drying their clothes. Real, actual housewives are on the television yelling at each other. A bag of Wheat Thins sits between them.
They are an hour into a conversation about love and the journey of “releasing [themselves] from affectations,” as Jaina puts it in the afterword of his novel.
[All illustrations by Nick Jaina and Tatiana Ryckman]
Nick Jaina: You know, we all grow up with this juvenile reaction to the world, where we define our personality by the things we hate, and we think we have to be the first to shoot something down. And then we get older and we realize that our personality can be shaped by the things we love.
I believe that becoming a better writer is synonymous with becoming a better person, so this quest is really important. Can I love more things, people, and places around me? Can I find that love and express it in my characters, even if they are in a difficult situation and they don’t necessarily like their life?
Tatiana Ryckman: I feel that way, too. But it’s not how I came to the idea of “releasing myself from affectation.” In my previous book, I Don’t Think of You, I realized how scared my narrator was, and that those were really my fears. Writing that book felt like dying because I had to confront and kill these parts of myself through the narrator. I didn’t let myself hide how ugly being in love can be. Many of my friends know this, but I basically haven’t written fiction since I wrote that book. It was too depressing to discover how much artifice I’d been trying to protect myself with.
So, for this new book, I had to go back to this old, scared text from my youth (because I wrote Ancestry in 2013), and rewrite it without all that fear.
There’s a line from the book where the narrator is beginning to grapple with this idea, or at least that we all have fears, and that they change us. She says, “But who are we in any other context? The fear that David is a counterfeit—that he is empty, that he is less real than we’d hoped, that he is some human machine—pales in comparison to the fear that we are the fraud.”
That’s interesting. I found that it was much easier to “hide” from myself when I wrote my memoir, Get It While You Can. I could kind of put on a little show, and make myself look cool, even if I was showing embarrassing moments. I was behind the curtain still and putting on a little puppet show about my life, in a way. But with fiction, our darkest secrets are revealed in how our characters talk. If we have prejudices or ignorances, they’re really exposed because the characters feel like obviously fake people.
Say more about someone feeling “fake”—this is something I think a lot about in art and in life. I don’t mean in a grand, judgmental way; as if I’m so authentic and everyone else is a phony. I mean… sometimes someone will make a gesture or talk in a way that doesn’t seem like it’s really them, and I get kind of freaked out. Like, everyone is hiding all the time. What are we hiding from? What are we afraid of? Is it each other? How can I be a person that other people don’t need to hide from?
I think there’s this idea that the way to stop hiding—to not be afraid—is to not care. But I think that’s just another affectation. Maybe the trick is really to care better?
I think we’re all like dogs in the rain. Culture gives us no real direction for how to be authentic, loving people. All our messages are from advertisements and we have to piece together some kind of truth.
Like Ian says in my book:
“I am in love with the breeze behind a curtain, mistaking it for a love of the curtain itself, going online and searching for more of those curtains to buy, forgetting about them, receiving them in the mail three days later, opening up the box and saying, ‘What the fuck is this?’”
And it all comes to bear if we write a novel, because all those biases and ignorances and stereotypes just become untenable in presenting a story. I found I really had to build a lot of conviction in myself when writing fiction, to really live in that more feminine-associated space of living for someone else, and supporting other people. I felt like I had to support my characters with every ounce of my energy.
But I agree with you that the only direction is to care better, as you say. Even when all the forces in the world seem to be forcing us to numb ourselves.
Both of our books deal with the male gaze and objectification of women, and they explore a process of letting that whole dynamic play out, instead of the depiction of the male gaze in film, which is usually used for titillation. I think you and I move past the initial excitement of attraction in our books, to all the awkward details of being coveted—even though the outcomes for our characters are very different.
That’s an interesting point.
My narrator does become a sexual object, but she’s also aware of it. It’s just another way she’s torturing herself as she flails. She’s looking for an exit strategy and will take whatever she can get, and her vanished mother and overly critical grandparents provide scapegoats, while David promises an escape route. At least, that’s part of the transformation that I wanted for her. It was starting to hurt, to see that she could not exist in the moment, and was always ruminating or projecting or fantasizing, and I just wanted her to get to a place where she could exist. Which isn’t to say she’s cured, just… a little bit better. And I think a part of that is getting out of her own experience—actually thinking about someone else.
There’s a scene where she’s in the bath and she is struck by the feeling that the human suffering is insurmountable. But for her it’s also a hopeful moment because she is finally thinking of the suffering of others. She says, “We are crushed by cosmic grief caused by our inadequacy to traverse the gaping maw of human indifference… There is nothing we can do, but the Sisyphean impulse is there to push against it senselessly.”
Yeah, I think that’s similar to Ian. He wants to escape, but also be seen. And I do that think in order to heal, some people have to disappear and do it in quiet.
Exactly. My narrator’s constant refrain is that she longs to be seen, and David sees something, but it’s not her. And I think she hitches her wagon to the possibility of him, even though she doesn’t really like him—and likely doesn’t see him, either.
I also think in our books we both employ these ugly vulnerabilities—an extension of that idea about refusing affectation. I like those moments when everyone looks bad and the reader kind of has to guess, “is the author in on this, or did shit just go off the rails?”
I wondered when I was reading your book if your main character even likes this guy that she’s longing for, because what people call “love” in our culture is really more about longing, and holding this image in our heads of a person, rather than being present with a person and getting to know their favorite kind of tea and how their mother is doing.
Was that idea of misunderstood images of love central to your idea of the story you were telling?
It literally didn’t occur to me that it could be another way.
Actually, let me say it this way:
For her to like him, he would have to be a different person. And he was the person who showed up. And that felt honest to me, because that is often the guy who shows up. The story is what to do, how to have agency, when that’s who shows up to “save” you.
It seemed to me like a very careful document of a crucial aspect of being a woman. Many women have all this male attention around them, and in Ancestry of Objects you take one specific iteration where the woman just kind of allows this male attention to go further and further, and it feels uncomfortable to her and to us, and it’s definitely not romantic, but it is also a very real and common experience for women, where they feel like this hollowed out vessel for a man’s desire.
I should have asked you to write the description for the cover.
When Ian pronounces his love for Hitomi, do you think he’s doing a little bit of that “longing without sitting and asking how her mother is doing”? Or do you think his love was genuine?
He’s not being totally present with the actual person in front of him. We all have so much emptiness and grief from living in this culture that we’ll kind of take what’s in front of us and try to mash it into something else.
“I am in love with a whisper of a voice, and when the voice is full, it loses me. Or I am in love with a shouting voice, but not normal conversation. Or I am in love with your handwriting but not your typing.”
So, he’s definitely interacting with the idea of her as much as he’s interacting with her.
That was how I read that dynamic. But it’s complicated because we like Ian, and are tempted to believe him when he pronounces this love, even though it seems more about his needs than about her actuality.
Relatedly, I was struck that both of our narrators are longing for someone that could be dead or alive, someone with whom they may have had or been able to have a more “real” kind of love—Ian longing for Robert, and my narrator for her mother—there’s this long chase for someone they don’t have access to. And there are little artifacts or memories that make those people real—for my narrator it’s this little box of trinkets she found in her grandparents’ room, for Ian it’s these remembered conversations—even though they aren’t on the stage when the narrator is confronting them emotionally.
The main guiding thing that made me want to write Hitomi was to tell a kind of love story that I didn’t think I saw depicted often, a story of someone getting along with someone, and how one person thinks everything could be perfect if the other person just woke up. And all the while the person in love is actually in this parallel reality where they’re not matching up as much as they think they are.
It’s left ambiguous what happens to Robert, but in my mind, he’s a very spiritual and sensitive person who literally couldn’t bear being in this world, and Ian is facing a similar dilemma. So, this young, female version of Robert fills that space. But he doesn’t ever necessarily get Hitomi.
I want to spend a moment with that idea that people fall for someone and think it’s unrequited love, when really, they’re longing for someone who’s not there. Because I think that’s super, super common.
I think we all fall prey to it, but are better at seeing it in others.
I guess while I was writing the book, I felt like it was a more unique story true to my life. I had this way of matching with people in my own life and then it not working for what I thought were inexplicable reasons, but now that the book is done, I can see that story clearer for what it is.
I learned in writing this book that what feels good to do as a writer is not necessarily what’s best for a subtle, nuanced, grounded story. It feels good to give characters big speeches and have them use brilliant metaphors and be very self-aware of their emotional state. But it makes for a better story when the characters are more in the dark, and more inarticulate, and contradict themselves.
Did you ever consider something more dramatic in your book, like the narrator confronting the wife of this man she’s been sleeping with, or an argument between the narrator and David?
No, I didn’t think she’d ever meet the wife. She never posed enough of a threat for the wife to hunt her down, and she didn’t care about David enough to chase him. She spent the entire affair knowing it was ending. And I think her refusal to fight with him was a way of making him powerless. Her lack of interest was literally the only card she could play. For better or worse, I think apathy is a potent power play.
The narrator alludes to this at the end when David comes to her house to end things and she shows no emotion. She just says, “I’m happy things are working out for you.” And then thinks, “He is Relieved and Surprised, but there is the unspoken: Hurt. Wanting only to have meant more to us than we to him.”
Oh, that’s really brilliant, yes.
I really wanted to live in this space of ambiguity with both Hitomi and Robert, and a lot of people don’t like ambiguity in storytelling. It works better in songwriting. I can tell by the questions some people have asked that they want to know more definitively what happened to Robert.
I know that Robert had trouble living in this world. His speech about the oppression of the Material World sums it up.
He says that we can convince ourselves we don’t need to interact with Dream Land, but that our body doesn’t know that:
“Your body doesn’t listen to mechanical time, or laws, or cultural taboos. So your body seeks out that balance no matter what. So it wants to be in Dream Land half the time. Now. There are conveniently still eight hours of our day when it is acceptable to sleep. And even that is being shaved down. But still, even with sleeping and dreaming, I suspect our bodies try to find more of that sweet, sweet Dream Life somewhere. And maybe that creates problems in a world so occupied with the material.”
To me, the particulars of whether he walked into a river or hanged himself aren’t as interesting as knowing that he was really brilliant and really suffered for his sensitivities, and he wasn’t in a stable place.
In my experiences working with composing music for dance, I can tell that people are addicted to Hollywood storytelling forms and they get frustrated when a piece of art doesn’t fit into that formula. People would come up to me after dance performances saying, “I don’t think I got it.” And I just wanted to say, “It’s okay. If you thought something was beautiful, then that’s enough. There isn’t always something to get.”
The ambiguity re: Hitomi is a little different, right? Because she’s right there and Ian can’t make the kind of connection with her that he wants to—the kind of connection that would sharpen her edges and make her a little clearer.
It’s really telling when in New Orleans she hangs out with one of her old friends and Ian can’t even edge his way into the conversation. Like, her reality is so at odds with his, and he thinks they have this special thing, but… Some people are just kind of Special Moment Factories, and they make a lot of people feel special.
Yes! Ugh. I’m thinking about all the Special Moment Factories I’ve known, and my little moments of delusion…
But I think if we’re honest, you and I are both that kind of person sometimes too, right? It feels immodest to say, but it happens.
Well, I think I have been that for some people. But it’s not flattering and it doesn’t make me feel “special.” It’s strange to see someone connecting to something that they think is me, and I’m like… no… you’re sticking your finger in an electrical outlet behind a photograph of me. I’m actually way over here.
Right, that’s the whole deal. When you’re on the other side of that longing, you can see how the facade is paper thin.
But it feels so convincing from the side of delusion.
This makes me feel so tenderly toward people. We are so fragile and misaligned.
Nick Jaina’s first novel, Hitomi, is an exploration of love and grief. It is currently available on audiobook at Amazon, as well as in book form at nickjaina.com. His memoir Get It While You Can was a finalist for the 2016 Oregon Book Award. When there’s not a pandemic he likes to perform musical readings in living rooms, libraries, churches, bars, galleries, and anywhere people listen. He currently lives in Oakland.
Tatiana Ryckman is the author of the novel, The Ancestry of Objects, a novella, I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do), and two chapbooks of prose. She is the editor of Austin-based publisher Awst Press and has been a writer in residence at Yaddo and 100W. Her work has appeared in AIGA, Tin House, Lit Hub, Paper Darts, Barrelhouse, The Rumpus, and other publications. Tatiana can be found on airplanes or at tatianaryckman.com.