Monday, April 21, 2008

Interview with Selah Saterstrom

Sorry for the weird spacing on the first post...hopefully this one works!

April 21, 2008

Hi there –

Thank you so much for reading and engaging with my work – and for these wonderful, thoughtful questions! I will do my best to answer them…

1. What does the color pink signify in this work?

I often find that the logic for a work arrives embedded within the work…so I often also look to the work for clues about its becoming - the ways the narrative should be sequenced, formal considerations, thematic considerations, and so on.

At some point while writing TPI, I wrote a poem. It didn’t work with the book and couldn’t be included, but for some reason it held a dynamic – a kind of energy – that I knew was essential to the book I was trying to make. So it taped it above my desk.

In that poem there was a line: the pink institution wrap-it round spell. As I was completing the book, I realized that the reason I had the poem above my desk was because the title was embedded within that line. “The Pink Institution” is a kind of metaphorical umbrella which cast a ring around multiple ideas about institutions: the institution of “history,” the institution of marriage, the institution of the Law, the institution of familial relationships, and so on.

The color pink – for me – is associated with Crepe Myrtle trees. In Mississippi, during spring, these trees release small, detailed pink petals in huge abundance. So much so that as a child I used to consider these petals a kind of snow – and it does look like that, as if it is snowing pink petals. I kept thinking of that image while writing, and also the color pink represents a feminine space for me.

One of my concerns was to give visibility to stories/voices that were historically marginalized, and to an extent, this book is dealing with women’s narratives. I was thinking about how these marginalized narratives, when told, offer alternatives to the “history” we are given (in books, in other places). So “the pink institution” on one level also refers to a feminine kind of narrative space.

2. The book is extremely visually appealing; why did you use such a non-traditional style/form to tell this story? Or rather, how does that unique structure change/complement the meaning of the story?

I started out writing this novel with this idea that I’d write a book that behaved in the ways I thought, at that time, books should behave. Eventually, I gave up on that plan because it just flat-out didn’t work! The work suffered. My mind was busy generating strategies for how to tell the story, meanwhile the actual story was hiding out elsewhere, in the details that made up the stories.

When I stopped imposing an order on the book and surrendered all that I thought I knew about this story and really listened to the work – that is, attempted to see the logic it had within it and on its terms – that is when the formal aspects of the book came together.

In this case, the forms erupted from the content out of necessity. For example, in the first part of the book there is a great deal of negative/blank space between words/phrases. In terms of the narrative, this is the “oldest portion” of the family’s history – and so those negative spaces give visibility to the gaps, breaks, and fragmented nature of memory, of the passage of time.

This book required that the form and content mutually illuminate and realize one another. So when thinking about memory, for example, I created a form that works like memory works – a form with gaps, a form that includes the fragment as a dimension of consciousness.

3. In our class, we talk a lot about the use and significance of white/blank space on the page, and to me, space seems to play an important part in this novel. So, I was wondering, for you, how does white space function? How does it interact with the text?

I’m a big believer in “the gap” – the “blank space.” I find it in text, but also in the world. For example, abandoned parking lots are gaps. The walk from my apartment to the grocery store is also a kind of gap. Furthermore, I think the universe uses and fills these gaps. I’m always looking for found text when I walk around. I am energized by a writer and artist to consider the potential divinatory significance of the signs, traces, and fragmented notes we find in the gaps. Being vigilant to gaps keeps me asking questions, keeps me engaged, embodied.

In terms of text – gaps/blank/white spaces – these can signify various things within the book. They can be places that give visibility to silence, for example. I don’t think of silence as the opposite of language, but as one of its aspects. It can also give visibility to memory, its processes – the gaps therein, and so on.

I often feel that the gaps within our texts are haunted – littered by the traces of things that are absent (but of course this is a kind of presence). And I guess, on some level, I believe in genuflecting to “the dead” – the “no-longer” (that which is transformed into a new kind of presence). Like an eraser….you can remove words, but you are left with the marks of erasure: the sign that something was there, then wasn’t (which gives it only a different version of presence).

Perhaps this is a way for me to engage with a kind of spectrum-based consciousness within my work…trying to create work which genuflects to a resonate complexity – the complexity of what is seen and heard, and the complexity which is not seen or heard, but is nonetheless present.

4. Was it hard for you to know when to insert the "tableau" in between the stories, and why did you make it a point to include them?

The tableau idea came from a Southern Confederate Pageant that took place in the town where I grew up. This performance was put on for tourists and was a series of vignettes introduced by children (dressed in hoopskirts), holding placards which had a small, descriptive narratives describing each scene which was about to be performed. These scenes were meant to depict what life was like before the Civil War (which, according to this production, was nothing short of paradisal, a mythological Eden).

Growing up observing this performance I was very struck by it as a form, and as a form used to write/present history – a history that of course left out vital narratives in exchange for a kind of public dreaming which very much felt to me like a public form of mass-numbing out. In other words, I thought it was messed up and that it continued a kind of violence. I began to consider how the ways in which history is framed is itself a mode of violence.

So this book provided an opportunity to work with that form – the form of the tableau – but in a transgressive way. I wanted to see what would happen if that form were applied to a very different kind of narrative, one that didn’t reinforce a mythologized “history” but revealed portions of history that had been ghettoized.

5. I appreciate the values that peered through the novel of the south and the church and things of that nature. What value did you most want to highlight?

Hmmm…I’m not completely sure I understand the question, but if I’m on the right track here…I’d have to speak again about history – who gets to tell it and why…and my desire to create a kind of alternative to the history that was given or on offer. A large part of this project was exploring what happens when the stories we relegate to the margins are liberated…when silence and painful gaps are given visibility within the story.

I also wanted to juxtapose “ghost stories” - horror stories, if you will – with the horror stories of abuse, addiction, and so on. Ghost stories were celebrated in my family, and in Southern culture in general, and I wanted to explore the relationship between ghost stories and other kinds of “hauntings.”

And I was very interested in how patterns bloom across time and space, through various fragmented fields, and multiple generations (of living, of memory). How does addiction look here and how does it look there? I was interested, in other words, in how certain threads persist through lineage and culture. I was interested in observing this pattern language.

7. What do you hope readers will take away from The Pink Institution?

Well, I guess what I hope people take away from this book is what I hope for in terms of what they’d take from any book.

On a good day, a book can change your mind. At times, a book can deliver you more deeply - more poignantly - into your existing questions (I’m thinking of Kafka’s notion that literature can work like an axe to break up the frozen sea within us). A book can give you new questions. It can enrich your engagement with the human condition in some way. I don’t know that I’ve done so with this book (or ever!), but it is what I hope for.

8. Do you consider yourself to be an Avant Garde writer? If so, why? If not, why


I think the term Avant Garde is very fascinating – the history of that term, and the literal translation of that term (forward-looking).

In terms of the literal translation, I note that many forms emerge after atrocities and are sometimes called Avant Garde (for example, the constraint based writing that emerged after WWII as well as Butoh - the form that emerged in Japan after the Atomic bomb). Often the gaze of these forms isn’t only forwardly oriented. These forms ask a variety of questions, such as: how do we give visibility to radical absence, now? In other words, I think of such forms as looking in all directions at once.

Of course ‘Avant Garde’ means more than its literal translation or the way I’ve considered it in the above paragraph and all of which is to say, I’m delighted that your class is investigating this question of what Avant Garde means. This seems like a very good conversation to be having at this time – this moment in the world.

I have found the term “hybrid” helpful – this idea that I do something (with language) that uses the synergy of multiple genres (poetry and prose, for example. I don’t consider myself an Avant Garde writer, which I suppose doesn’t mean much – as I don’t consider myself any kind of writer in particular, though some words (such as ‘hybrid’) are useful.

Part II

1. What do the black and white pictures throughout the novel represent? How were they chosen and what are they supposed to evoke from the reader?

They genuflect to the idea of the “scrapbook” or the “memory book” – the visual, family history. They were also images/snapshots that I had around me while writing the book – so there was this way that the pictures held an energy that was congruent to the narrative and it felt right to include them.

Each reader will have their own experience with the images and how they work in the text – so I don’t think I can say what they are supposed to evoke from the reader…but I’d add that the synergy between text and image, in general – the energy that erupts from the proximity of the two – is one that I find fascinating, and I often like to bump images and text up to one another for this reason – to see what else might be revealed.

2. The theme of objects: Childhood, Motherhood, and Maidenhood, serve as reoccurring themes throughout the novel appearing in list form, what does this serve to represent? Is there significance to the ordering of these objects in lists?

In terms of the ordering, I tried to do it chronologically: first we are children, then maidens, then mothers… . This helped to structure the time-line of events for the characters that section of the book focused on, so that we, through “snapshots” or “object details” watch them grow up and acquire identity.

3. What is the significance of the book's cover? The image of the hanging pig reoccurs throughout the novel on the chapter pages, what is its significance?

This is really up for the reader to decide as it does not have a specific textual reference. The pig image works like a metaphor works, in a way. It also points to something, it suggests. But there are no actual references to slaughtering a pig in the book itself.

The image of the slaughtered pig actually comes from a Eudora Welty photograph in which she photographed a hog-killing (she was a marvelous photographer and her images are full of the uncanny, the sublime).

I work a lot with images (and used to teach Text/Image Arts) and find that when I’m working on a project I often make or locate a visual that feels like the visual-form of what it is I’m trying to express in words. The cover was a collage I made – and the text, to an extent, was an attempt to give words to that image.

The pig is painted an old piece of vellum from a book about moths. I overlaid this vellum on top of a janky Xerox photocopy of a photograph taken in the hometown where I grew up (the individuals in the photograph are tableau participants).

4. The confederate ball program guide, with all its "text smears" is meant to serve as an authentic artifact to set the scene, why did you choose this particular event/object?

That text came from an actual program guide for the tableau I discussed earlier (in the first set of questions). It is an old copy, and had become somewhat ruined over time – so where I wrote “text smears” – those were places in the original artifact that had been lost to time and water damage. Eventually, through the process of editing, I tweaked my own text, but that was its origin.


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