Daphne Gottlieb is known for fierce queer and feminist poetry that bleeds, bites, and leaves marks. Her work often engages with dark subjects, but never without a strong current of humor shining through. Gottlieb has won many awards, including the Acker Award for Excellence in the Avant-Garde, the Audre Lorde Award for Poetry, and the Firecracker Alternative Book Award, many Lambda Literary nominations, and has performed with the likes of Michelle Tea and Lydia Lunch. Her latest work, Saint 1001, is perhaps her most daring yet; Gottlieb takes on the infamous One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, or as she calls it, a “cultural pastiche and…a textbook example of Orientalism.” Her novel sutured together dozens of cultural references including Fifty Shades of Gray, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Lolita. Saint 1001 is the story of S, a young woman dealing with trauma while searching for sexual encounters off Craigslist. What she finds is a whole lot more—the weight of centuries of universal white male narratives, brilliantly stripped of pretense and decoded by Gottlieb for the reader. As we follow S through this funhouse of sexual experiences with a rotating cast of lovers, we watch her explode and reinvent narrative as she maps out a path to something like freedom.
Arielle Burgdorf: I noted a variety of possible influences for Saint 1001: Kathy Acker’s punk collage/plagiarism, Anna Joy Springer’s The Vicious Red Relic, Love, and Dodie Bellamy’s The Letters of Mina Harker, Lynda Barry’s Cruddy, to name a few. Can you talk about your literary influences?
Daphne Gottlieb: Well, you nailed a DNA, a cohort of sorts: Three out of the four of us have lived or live in the SF Bay Area—Kathy Acker has always been my north star; I was lucky enough to be at the same party she was on one Christmas, where I made a blithering fan girl idiot of myself. Anna Joy and I were in a writing group together in the mid-90s called “Snack Blabbeth.” And Dodie introduced me to my current publisher. It’s pretty self-evident that the three of us have an interest in found/appropriated texts, and gnawing at the edge of the “feminine.” Cruddy is on my list of desert island books, as well as my list of books I’m scared to read again because they hurt. Guilty as charged. To your list, I’d add Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, Marc Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and Dennis Cooper’s Sluts. I also want to add in Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, and everything by David Wojnarowicz. I don’t think there’s a straight line to the last two, but they are in the DNA, patron saints of some kind.
Saint 1001 is a novel written as letters. What drew you to the epistolary form?
A whole lot of the book revolves around the ideas of presence and absence. It takes a presence, an “I” with the intent to connect to write something to another. And given that this book is also about connection, I can’t see how else it could be written. On a meta-level, every book is epistolary, right? A reaching out for connection, a message in a bottle.
Yes, absolutely. Every book is an attempt at connection, however subtle.
Related to this idea of presence and absence, how do you view J’s role in the novel? Obviously he holds great importance for S in certain ways, but he is also largely absent. So in another sense, you could argue she doesn’t even necessarily need him and he’s a blank canvas for S.
Well, as it says in the beginning, his texts are redacted for privacy. But it’s true that we don’t see (presumably white) men silenced in this manner in our culture often. Is he a tabula rasa? Inevitably, since there’s no reaction, no response. Even so, he clearly influences the course of the narrative, her reactions and actions. Does she need him? There’s a lot on that on the last page.
Do you have a favorite letter, or one you’re most proud of?
I have favorite moments and characters more than a favorite letter, but the letter that matters most to me is the letter in which S goes to the gynecologist. It was the first piece that I wrote that the book grew around, but more importantly, it did what I asked it to do while I was writing it, like all the writing muscles I’ve grown in my lifetime were moving exactly the way they were supposed to.
You do an amazing job of balancing the formal and academic (footnotes, theory) with the low-brow (dick pics, pop culture). How do you make writing that is both challenging and accessible?
My mother was my best audience because she would say, “I didn’t finish college. I don’t know what this is about.” I would know that it was time to go back and open it up. In part, that’s what the footnotes do, right? Give a point of entry. You can google Judith Butler, if you really want to know. If you don’t, skipping over it won’t hurt—you won’t miss anything except for a shadow, an inference, an echo. If I’m writing something, it’s to share it. There’s no point in jargon or elitism. It’s not to keep people out. It’s to let them in.
At first, S has a lot of difficulty writing clearly about her experience with sexual violence. Her PTSD also seems related to holes in time, structure, chronology, and memory. What do you think the role of narrative is in healing from trauma?
Pulling together a coherence of the sentence “It was not my fault” is everything. The role of narrative is putting together the sentence after you find the words. But narratives aren’t only for healing trauma—there are more victim-blaming narratives out there than survivor narratives. If you’re going to saddle yourself up with a story, you’ve got to make sure it’s the right one, even (or especially) when it’s antithetical to the stories the culture keeps at the ready.
The Casual Encounters section of Craigslist acts as a kind of portal for S. She can summon lovers, but she also has space to choose and interact with them from a safe distance. What do you think has been lost in the elimination/policing of this space (and spaces like it)?
The difference is losing a conjuring and gaining a catalog. Today, you can find the person who looks like the person you’d want, but they don’t have words to build you with, to follow you like a map. They have a photograph where they feel cute. You might delete them later. What’s lost is the opportunity to show yourself (or catfish yourself) from the inside out.
I remember reading the back page of the Village Voice, and the personals, back in the faraway. A bartender sent me a “missed connection” there once. They had a can of dog food behind the bar that I commented on. The bartender wrote, “You said my bark was worse than my bite. Let’s get together and discuss it over a can of Alpo, dog-eat-dog.” I mean, it’s 30 years later, and I remember that (and the bartender, too). Does it make sense if I say that’s what’s lost?
Yes, that intangible quality of memorable exchanges.
I got some of that loss too from S’s parade of jobs—nanny, barista, barback, hostess. A magical/romanticized time when you could live in a major American city on very little money and spend a lot of time making art.
These are all jobs that someone young and transient with only a little bit of experience can nab. There are, of course, fine dining servers and high-end nannies, but I’m really talking about the entry level, and the path between job and career. To me, these labels are incidental for S, and at that time of (young) life, they’re relatively interchangeable. Her identity is not her job. Her identity has much more to do with cheap beer and loud bands and crafting and time spent with email. But S trades them all in for the label “patient,” which is not a career she would have chosen.
But I think, too, that it’s salient that S is able to do these things without ever subsuming herself and her being to what she does for money, particularly because it changes so often.
At one point, S writes about Frankensteining a quilt together, which struck me as an apt metaphor for the book itself. How did you conceptualize form as you were writing?
Just like that—the Frankenstein, this inchoate monster: call it our brain. Call it the Akashic book. It grabs texts (sometimes our own histories) and overwrites our experiences because it’s the closest approximations we can come to, the guides we have to understand what we haven’t experienced before. Then we change them, overlay them, make them ours, move forward, leave them for someone else.
The Frankenstein form also felt very queer to me. Do you consider this a queer text in any way?
Just because a character is straight doesn’t mean that the text and the author are. As queer authors, we are lifelong scholars of the straight world and in re-presenting it, we queer it. But there’s also the queering of form: I could go on about a fragmented narrator, the inappropriating of the book’s sources; in stealing a text that was a cultural pastiche and is a textbook example of Orientalism and picking it up and turning it and shaking it and kicking under the hood; by presenting transgressive sexuality. By violating and/or subverting conventions of a fictional (straight, white) text, we queer the text.
So is the main character queer? Hell no. But the book flies an orange hanky a mile wide.
Arielle Burgdorf is a writer, translator, and PhD student based in Santa Cruz. They have work published in Tasteful Rude, Maximum Rocknroll, Crab Fat Magazine, X-Ray Literary Magazine, and others. They were a Lambda Literary Emerging Fellow for 2021.