I had the pleasure of reading an early version of What Are You in 2020. At that point, I was wrestling with my own conception of what a book manuscript could be—how could I balance a reader’s expectations with my own interests in philosophy and theory? How could I create clear character acts yet raise more questions than answers? As I followed Lindsay’s narrator addressing the Universe itself in a string of letters that would never be answered, I was immersed in a voice that asks big questions and trusts the reader to ask still more while reading. A few months after reading it, I dug out my own abandoned first hybrid manuscript and worked to give it new life—and it became my first book.
Since I read that draft, I had known I wanted to interview Lindsay about What Are You (Clash Books, June 14, 2022). It was wonderful to be immersed again in her bold work and to correspond for a month about climate change, suffering, “the market,” and all the other realities that this book confronts and teaches us to live alongside.
It’s taken me so long to begin writing to you—the mixed emotions of putting a book out into the world can be quite overwhelming. For me, it’s been a pleasure to return to What Are You during this time and think about both our smallness in relationship to the forces beyond the human as well as our potential to be large, to confront them and make ourselves in relation to them no matter how monumental the task may seem.
What Are You is a book of confrontation—its very title addresses the Universe and asks it to explain itself and the cruelty it enacts upon humanity and of course the narrator. I want to talk about one of the guises that this ‘you’ wears—that of nature. You write, “You were the earth itself, and you were always killing me. When the vines gather their strength and band together to choke out the trees, do the trees think, This must be love? When the moss covers the rocks, do the rocks say, Thank you, I need you?”
Your first book, I’m From Nowhere, is about a woman reeling in grief while living on the precipice of climate disaster; it is a story of personal and collective loss that cannot be healed, only experienced in flashing moments of beauty and ecstasy and wild pain. On that note, I want to ask you about the way this book rejects the anthropocentric idea that “the universe is here to support us.” Were you thinking about climate change as you wrote this book? What does it mean to confront nature as a killing force, not just something that we kill or are killing?
Let me know how you’re doing during this tumultuous lead-up-to-release time!
No apologies allowed! It’s a wild ride to put a book out into the world. It’s hard work, emotionally. I think your book will have a long, complex life, and I think you’ll keep figuring out how to accompany it in the world, in the ways that feel right to you.
I love your thoughts and questions here. They’re helping me see some developments in my work that I hadn’t quite seen yet. When I wrote I’m From Nowhere (over the course of about six years, if I’m remembering correctly), “climate change” as such was very much on my mind. I wrote Nowhere the way I did, in part, because I was grieving. I was understanding and processing that life as I’d known it in the late twentieth century would not be life going forward. Stability is usually an illusion, and I was finding that I needed to confront how I’d accepted some aspects of that illusion as truth. And I was grappling with how much suffering climate change and its attendant atrocities would bring about. And how avoidable much of that suffering probably was, if warnings from 30, 50 years ago had been heeded. And how responsibility for all of it shakes out. I saw how pointless it was to expend energy trying to think of myself as blameless—I understood that to a certain extent, I had let the world down. I could never have single-handedly stopped the oil companies from drilling in the Arctic, but I had not yet deeply understood that I am of the world, and its suffering is my suffering. So all of that was expressed in I’m From Nowhere, my version of a “climate change novel,” perhaps.
By the time I was writing What Are You, I had begun to ask bigger questions, more unanswerable questions, not really about the human’s role in the world, but more about the nature of the force that is life. (Or maybe I should say Life.) I wanted to think (and feel) about it in all its glorious messiness—everything from the way bacterium eats bacterium (which we could theorize as violent consumption) to the way forests communicate underground (a kind of stealthy cooperation) to the way a non-native plant can restructure and reorganize an entire region of the planet, and everything moves and shifts and changes and develops in relation to it (maybe what Deleuze and Guattari would call a despotic regime of signs). All these complexities can’t be ignored. I think I couldn’t bring myself to create “characters” and “plot” the way we usually think of them, because individual expressions of Life (a person—that is, a potential character) and the dramas that unfold within that individual expression are only artificially separated from the vast movement which is Life. In What Are You, I dissolved the subject, the individual, the human. Why not? A subject does have to reappear from time to time in the book—there is an “I,” no matter how fluid it is. I think this was a further development in my thinking and feeling about life and the universe, and it was some kind of partial refusal of anthropocentrism. I see hints of my desire to abandon anthropocentrism in I’m From Nowhere—it is only nonhuman animals and the landscape that can really draw Claire out, move her or speak to her. She seems to feel the earth’s expressions as her own—the punishing intensity of the heat, the release of the first monsoon, the impossible reality of containing massive dualities (vastness and utter insignificance, light and dark, good and evil, kindness and cruelty). What Are You takes that a few steps further, I think, enacting it more than describing it.
I hope that speaks to your thoughts and questions 🙂 How are things going for you now that the book is out there on its own?
I’m feeling so much better now that the book is out! I had so many fears about what might be, but those have dissipated quickly. Even those that have come to fruition seem less consequential. One of my biggest concerns was that people will read it as a memoir, and of course, they have—but I am learning that it’s not always easy to accept that something can be both personal and fictional, vulnerable and constructed.
I think your book is able to transcend these dichotomies through what you say—eschewing a traditional plot and “enacting” rather than “describing.”
I love your explanation of this progression in your work—from grief over the end of life as we know it to embrace of Life’s self- and world-dissolving movements. There is something spiritual or at least philosophical about the embrace of the inexorable bond between whatever we experience as “I” and the destructive and creative forces of Life. This fits into an intellectual tradition; I think of your essay about John Dewey in the Uncontemporary Review, where you discuss how Dewey helps us see the division between self and world, art and life, as “man-made.” You write, “I have lingering questions, however, about whether Dewey is romanticizing what happens when the difference between self and world dissolves.” Leo Bersani also comes to mind; after his death in February, it was so interesting to see that his ideas have informed your work (he played a big role in my dissertation); in his version of jouissance, self-shattering is produced through sex (and other modes of impersonal intimacy), enacts a violence on the ego and relationality as we know it, and also provides an “ecological ethics, one in which the subject, having willed its own lessness, can live less invasively in the world.”
If What Are You ultimately arrives at a place of acceptance—even ethics—it takes a route through emotionally charged ambivalence in encounters with a “You” that are by turns erotic and threatening. “You” first makes itself known through encounters with lower-case yous: “The first you—maybe the ür you—who holds the additional honor of being the first you to ever threaten sexual violence…you were the prototype.” A few pages later, you write “All these years you have asked me if I’m ready to suffer—winking at me, like Toughen up, baby.” Do the narrator’s early experiences with sexual violence harden the shells of an imagined self, reducing her ability to be “fluid” and to accept entanglement with life? Or does the jouissance of any real encounter with Life simply require a path through suffering?
Without traditional characters or plot, the relationship between speaker and addressee still unfolds as an abusive romance—what made that dynamic so central? And how did the epistolary form reveal itself as the right mechanism for its unfolding?
I’m so glad you feel better now that the book is out. I think we’re in a moment of crisis regarding truth and information and their dissemination, and I think a lot of people are applying their concerns about it to art. They’re reasonable concerns when it comes to politics and economics, but I think they’re mostly misplaced when it comes to art. People act like autofiction, for example, is some new monster or a sign of some great decline in the literary world but that’s just ridiculous. We’ve accepted the roman à clef since at least the 17th century.
I love your thoughts and questions here, as usual. A few things come to mind:
1. Erotic experience has a dangerous edge because the clear distinction between “I” and “you” disappears, even if just for a moment. The danger is not necessarily that the “I” will be destroyed, per se (though at some moments in the book, that is the precise danger); it’s that we can see the arbitrary nature of many distinctions we make. Erotic experience is beyond lust—it’s a profound moment of contact and connection and it rocks us back on our heels because it shows us that we are the same. To me, “thou shalt not covet” is not about lust itself being shameful. It’s about the consequences of pushing someone far enough away from us in order to have them as the object of our lust. It’s about refusing to be in communication, in a way, because it becomes uni-directional. It’s about having a particular relation to the world that is centered on acquiring and possessing and keeping, which is one of the more sad and servile ways of living in relation to other people and the world. (Bersani has so much to say about this!)
2. Every little girl knows something about one of the dark secrets of human behavior. She knows what it is to be simultaneously fetishized and dismissed. She knows what it is to be made into an object in order to be celebrated as something she probably is not, and she has little say in the matter. And that shapes a person in a number of ways—ways that have to eventually be unearthed and understood. I like how you call it “hardening the shell of an imagined self” because I think that’s right; the effect is that one becomes unable to move, unfold, get entangled with life and remake one’s multiple selves over and over. (As I type this—I’m not joking—someone in the next room is listening to Elvis Costello and I can hear the words from “This Year’s Girl”: “you want her broken with her mouth wide open / cause she’s this year’s girl.”) I can only say this in retrospect, but I now know that the book needed to begin there. It needed to perform the surgery that Anne Dufourmantelle says we must perform at the site of any significant wound: examine it, clean it, and sew a new skin over it so it can heal.
3. I think I needed the immediacy of the epistolary form. I needed to be honest about the book as a crazed attempt at communication. I want new dynamics, new relations, new ways of using language, new attempts at communication.
And—to try to answer all your questions—I think there’s a lot to unpack in how suffering shows up in my book. I’m not certain I should be the one to do it, but I can try. Should we talk about that next?
Yes, let’s talk about suffering! I’ll say a little about it first—
This is such a powerful thread through the book—its surgery on the wounds of the past. But the book is also willing to unsuture and even embrace new pain in pursuit of understanding; that is, to suffer: “I can’t go around…shaving off whole parts of me…in order to believe the story—the boring lie—that I’m not drawn to danger and pain as a means of testing and strengthening and understanding myself.”
Throughout, suffering is described as “burning,” which of course has the implication of the erotic you talk about, contact and connection (the other Elvis’s “Burning Love”). The term is also related to the moment of climate catastrophe we talked about earlier, the world on fire. These meanings entwine: “I just want to hold hands with you as we watch the world burn, knowing we burn next.”
In this book, embracing suffering is not like the typical self-help advice that circulates in memes and popular discourse to “embrace our fear.” To embrace fear is to participate in a narrative that we will triumph. To embrace suffering is something else—to understand that our fear may breed more fear, our discomfort more discomfort, and acknowledging and living in that reality can equip ourselves to live in and through suffering as it unfolds—as you say, to make and remake our many selves in its context.
There is a power and a defiance in this embrace: “I have learned, like every galaxy, to be the producer recycler destroyer of all energy.” This cycle is not painless, but it is endlessly productive—one product being the work of art, the book itself. The role of the artist in fact seems to pose a threat to You, to those big forces that impose suffering: “there has always been a cost to having me. One day you’ll see it.” This is something I’d love to hear you talk about—the defiance and power that comes from a result of embracing burning (especially as a writer).
It also leads me to a very simple question about your writing process—what was it like to write this, to confront the limits of language in trying to grasp and give form to these big questions?
I’m pretty sure you know what a rare gift it is to be read with such care and precision and wisdom. I feel really honored by these questions. Really. This book fucked me up a lot; I’m not joking when I say that I let it kill me. And now, a year and a half after final edits and shaping, as it’s about to be published, I feel like it’s letting me give birth to myself again. A new collection of selves.
To answer your questions, I’m thinking about the difference between intensity and suffering. I think a lot of people conflate intensity with suffering and go out of their way to avoid intensity—intense fear, intense joy, intense pleasure, intense pain, intense heat or cold, intense introspection, intense curiosity. (And on the flip side, I’ve always known and felt close to those who are intensity junkies.) Just think about how people will describe something as “intense” in order to mark it as separate from normalcy or regularity. I sense that many people want a kind of eternal sameness. Smoothness or predictability, maybe? But then of course it drives them crazy. We are complex creatures and we need to confront complexity, otherwise we’re kind of like Border Collies stuck in a small room.
At the beginning of the book, the narrator conflates intensity with suffering. But by the end of the book, there’s a deeper understanding that intensity and suffering can and must be separated—especially if intensity is to be sustained over the course of one’s life. And there’s another understanding: that suffering is always transformative, but it doesn’t offer redemption. I think about this a lot. I wonder how many lives are limited by a belief that suffering has redemptive power. “Once I suffer through it, I’ll get my reward. It’ll all make sense.” But no, not necessarily. That’s not how life works. I think the book explores how attempting to avoid intensity (after making the mistake of conflating it with suffering) leads to a kind of inability to see suffering for what it is: sometimes necessary, definitely transformative, but not redemptive.
As far as the process of writing it—confronting limits, as you say—I was in the grip of something. Many somethings. It marks a very brutal, beautiful, difficult and ultimately liberating period of my life, even if the “I” in the book is not always (or not quite) me. I think coming up against all those limits (in language, in thought, in emotion, in experience, etc.) required that it take the form it took. Autotheory? Autofiction? Lyrical essays? Epistolary fiction? My editor and I had a hell of a time trying to figure out what to call it in order to describe it to the distributor, to bookstores, to anyone. (At one point, he said, “Editing this feels like editing a prayer” and I think I laughed.) I am very grateful to this book for everything it taught me, and is still teaching me. I still feel close to it, even though I have enough distance to talk about it the way I’m talking about it now (which would have been impossible one year ago, for instance). I’m a little sad to let it go. But it’s time.
I suppose this is where the defiance and power come in. I lived the book into being, in defiance of genre and easy categorization, not just as a physical artifact or a product, but as part of my life. I have to live the kind of life that defies easy categorization and genre—that accepts and seeks intensity and burning—and what little evidence I have to show for that, in the form of a book, contains some kind of power. What kind, or how strong, I don’t know yet. That remains to be seen. But I do know that I broke loose with this book—broke free in real ways. And I hope it can spread that around a little bit. Inner freedom is very important, though we don’t talk about it much.
If there’s any line in the book that is definitely “me,” it’s the line about wanting to hold hands as the world burns, knowing we burn next. The fleeting beauty and connection and intensity of that moment and that gesture—grabbing someone’s hand, watching it all go to hell, seeing the fires approach, holding hands anyway—this is what writing, for example, feels like for me. It’s stolen pleasure. It is its own reward.
It’s really my honor to get this insight into your work! This is something so crucial both to life and to art—to understand that “intensity and suffering can and must be separated,” and it’s wonderful to think about the narrator’s initial thirst for knowledge at any price as never quenched, but forever changed as that separation occurs.
We’ve touched a little on the subject of the form—both your lack of interest in creating fictional characters, and in these terms I know we’ve both mulled over, “autofiction” and “autotheory.” If you’re willing, I’d love to hear a little bit about the way the book ends. In the last two chapters, the narrator contemplates her potential death in a new way amidst a pending biopsy: “What is left to lose when you go from the biopsy to your daughter’s school, retrieving her at the end of the day, and she hugs you with her four-year-old intensity and honesty?” This experience seems to bring the narrator to a place of certainty and peace: certainty that making and caring are key to living in the midst of churning intensity, and peace in the knowledge that the speaker does know You (in fact, well enough to stop thrashing in its throes, and to focus on a new project to, “protect what is in you that gives you love.”) Was this ending—this knowledge—something that had to be lived through before it could be written? Did this ending feel “right,” or were there other possible endings?
Another question—the kind of defiance you speak about seems so essential in a landscape where a certain “smoothness” is the default not just in people’s desire but also in their expectations of art. One thing in the book that is quite important to me, personally, is Chapter Thirty-Four, where you write, “It will take a lifetime, but this is what I will tell myself. Do it wrong. DO IT WRONG. You’ve never done it right, anyway” and a few pages later, “Be afraid. Do it anyway.” How do you find the courage to do it anyway at all stages of what can be such a fraught process: beginning a project, sticking with it, and putting it out into the world?
I find I’m getting a handful of questions along these lines with this book (something like: how did you decide to ditch certain familiar forms and take up others, and how did you find the courage to stick with it), and this is my most honest answer: I did what felt right, thinking “fuck it, I’ve got nothing to lose.” In the years when I wrote this book, many loved ones died, I had a couple serious health scares myself, the world came apart and then came apart some more (is still coming apart…), I underwent a lot of difficult change personally and professionally, and so “What will the market make of this?” was very far from my mind. The reader was always there with me—I love the reader, though I will never presume to know what they want or need. But “the market” as such was not with me. I had no room for it. I did what felt right, I did what I wanted to.
This book is me breaking free, knowing it’s never a simple thing. Getting free is hard, continual work, never done. (It will take a lifetime!) But I’ve studied and practiced diligently for so many years in so many ways—all the living, all the schooling, all the working, all the patiently listening and absorbing, all the waiting. I believe I was finally in a place where I could see how the form is *not* my master (as I think the market teaches us, to our detriment), and that if I didn’t find ways to make the form my own while living in close, generative relation to it (I am not its master either), some lights in me would go out. It was a life or death situation. I know how melodramatic that sounds.
Doing it “wrong” was my only option. And it means so much to me that you understand and feel the necessity of that—it’s very gratifying to know it reached another person who has similar concerns. Doing it “right” would have meant wearing someone else’s skin, and while I appreciate the utility of masks (and their inescapability), with this book I was more interested in expression than being “right”—which to me is often mostly about manipulation of image, manipulating others, masking up. (Which of course has additional meanings now, since the pandemic.) Too much manipulation of image gets in the way of expression. Both are creative acts. It’s a question of balancing where the creative energy goes.
I can’t remember if I imagined other possibilities for the ending. I know that when I wrote those lines about the narrator wanting to paint the bruises on her skin everyday, welcoming that as a reminder to protect what it is that gives love, it felt necessary. So much of this book was intuition. I think I know the limits of intellect fairly well by now. And writing is an expression of love for me, no question. The love is there in the book, as it’s here in me, as I hope it can be in the reader who wants to receive it.