“The Evening Interviews” is an ongoing series of conversations with the 21st century’s most exciting writers and artists, conducted by Uni and Chloe Zola Volcano, two kittens who live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. These interviews are edited and organized by their friend and helpmeet, Scott Indrisek. The cats blog regularly about contemporary fiction at Shit My Cats Read.
Tamara Faith Berger’s most recent novel, Maidenhead—winner of the most recent Believer Book Award—is a bold and explicit coming-of-age story that’s sure to shock and titillate even the most world-weary kittens. It’s the sort of raw, brave writing that you humans should be reading instead of obsessing over Marie Calloway. We recently e-chatted with the Canadian provocateur, discussing in the process such topics as Abu Ghraib, Ariana Reines, porn, and how shame prevents humans from fornicating with strangers in public places.
UNI & CHLOE: What is “transgressive” to you? What can be achieved by transgressing taboos, both in life and in fiction? (Is this a stupid question? We’re just kittens.)
I think for a human being, transgression is being in the middle of an illicit act—illicit meaning something either you’re not supposed to be doing or something that [you’re doing for the] first time. Transgression is the commitment, whether conscious or not, to the completion of this illicit act, whether it takes one second or one year. Transgression is the commitment to getting to the point where the experience of the “wrongness” or the disorientation of the illicit act can be even vaguely understood. No one gets any medals for transgression, that’s for sure! I read somewhere that addiction memoirs can be like porn for the unaddicted; I think addicts definitely understand transgression. Also, seeing Corporal Lynndie England holding a man on a leash at Abu Ghraib, that’s some real transgression there–both her act in real life and my viewing of it. Real transgression makes you feel sick and alone. Transgression in fiction maybe leads to a double or inner life. I think this double/inner life is worthwhile, even essential, as a human being for grappling with things that push you.
You took a long break between your first two novels (now collected and republished as Little Cat and Maidenhead). What were you up to? Had you stopped writing? What inspired you to write a third novel and revisit the territory of female sexuality?
I didn’t stop writing over the years between books. I had a baby for some of that break with all the attendant devotion that entails, but mostly I was just having a hard time with writing. I think that most of my stuff is crap, i.e., unformed. So I was struggling with Maidenhead for most of the years I was working on it because I thought it was steaming dog shit (not cat shit, which I imagine is formed and hard?) I sometimes feel like I’m done with writing about female sexuality, but porn is kind of addictive and I still find things in it that I am curious about in its relationship to sexuality IRL. Porn is a benign addiction in my opinion, unless you’re Michael Fassbender via Steve McQueen or a thirteen year-old boy thinking teenage girls love anal sex.
We asked Chris Kraus to turn us on to some amazing women writers who should be on our radar, which is actually how we came across your work.
I should mention my gratefulness to Kraus for originally reading Maidenhead, which happened through Sheila Heti’s connection; I know Sheila from Toronto worlds. Anyway, the moment of receiving Chris Kraus’s blurb was one of the most incredible moments in my writing life—like a piercing! Post Kathy Acker-era in my reading life, Chris Kraus has been lucid and essential.
If we hadn’t been spayed, we’d dream of one day having little girl kittens ourselves who’d grow up to write books like Chris Kraus’. In any case, perhaps you could extend that favor and recommend a few more novelists (living or dead, male or female) who might not be on our shelves?
I just read Iosi Havilio’s Open Door and I didn’t want it to end. It was hot and lonely and terrifying and it made me want to behave badly. I recently loved Elena Ferrante, more hot and lonely and terrifying stuff —Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment. I really love Ariana Reines, of course, both Coeur de Lion and Mercury. I don’t even know what to say about her but that I hope for her Bilderberg-style international domination. Jacob Wren’s Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed is totally unique and in-the-moment. I just finished Jowita Bydlowska’s art-horror feat of a fuck-you memoir, Drunk Mom, which I woke up in the middle of the night to read.
Reading your work makes us feel alternately scared, thrilled, vulnerable, dirty, and ecstatic. Do you feel any or all of these emotions when you are writing?
I have a long-standing repulsion of horror films, and those emotions you mention are the kind of feelings that come up in horror. Sure, I like to feel thrilled and dirty and vulnerable when I write. It might happen five or ten percent of the time.
We’re girl kittens, so we’re reading your work from a female perspective, obviously. How do things change (if they do) when a male reader (like Scott) is experiencing your work?
I don’t know. But I’m glad you kitties are girls. I like females a lot. And in the past I’ve said that I write mostly for them. Lately, however, I do love it when men aren’t scared or turned dead inside by my skewered visions of what a male does. That’s thrilling, that’s when I feel thrilled more than five or ten percent.
For us cats, sex is pretty damn simple. We don’t spend lots of time thinking about it; it’s not so confusing; we certainly wouldn’t have enough material to write an entire novel about feline sexuality. But it clearly seems that humans have a harder time with these things. How does such a normal activity—something that everyone does, really—end up this convoluted and dramatic for you humans?
If I could just fuck a stranger in an alleyway on my way to work and have it be done with, I would. This option doesn’t seem to be available though, because of human shame, domestic or maybe civic pride and our shrinking reptilian brains.
What would you be doing if you were not a writer?
I’d be delivering babies as a midwife, or controlling women as a pimp.
TAMARA FAITH BERGER: I don’t know you at all, never stroked you, so my questions for you are about cats, in general. Last summer, a six-year old child was cat-sitting in Newfoundland with his mother and his mother’s friend. The cat was named Fatso, a squashed-faced black Persian. Fatso and the child bonded immediately: Fatso was the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night for eight days. Fatso was amenable to being cuddled, chased, tickled and talked to by the child. Even the litter change was joy. Unfortunately, due to his mother’s rush, the child and Fatso did not get to say a proper goodbye. And so when he got home, the child was inconsolable. He wailed desperately for the absence of Fatso’s body, fur and being. “I finally found a friend who understood me!” he cried. Recently, the child revealed that he still thought about Fatso all the time.
UNI: I’m not crying. I just got some dust in my eye.
Can you tell me anything about how cats say goodbye? Is it possible that this child’s first love is imprinted in Fatso’s memory, too?
CHLOE: As a species, we’re easily moved, but also prone to stoicism. It’s a survival mechanism from generations of abandonment, rotten shelters, street life, bastard youths who think it’d be ‘hilarious’ to tie a lit firecracker to your tail, etcetera.
UNI: ‘When I say goodbye I wave with two paws / The wind tonguing the fur on my innermost ear / Later scritch-scratching the litterbox pan / As I fruitlessly attempt to murder the past.’ That’s from a poem by the undersung late 20th century Persian cat poet Jamal el-Sudal. I think it means something.
CHLOE: We’re losing the plot here. To answer your question, Tamara: It’s almost certain that Fatso’s soul changed its contours to fit the loving presence of this young boy, despite the latter’s apparent tendency toward co-dependency and smothering emotional overload. It’s also doubly certain that ‘Fatso’ is a horrific name for a cat, especially one who is already dealing with the stigma of a squashed face.
My other question: How do you feel, as pussies, being homonymic with the cunt?
UNI: To risk an unintentionally phallic metaphor: It’s a double-edge sword.
CHLOE: Sometimes we get really excited about the semantic and literary possibilities here. Other times we’re left giggling on the floor, sophomoric as drunken frat boys.
UNI: ‘Pussy’ is such a delicious word. We’re really happy that a group of Russian activists forced the New York Times to print it over and over again, for months.
CHLOE: As for the See You Next Tuesday term, our fur still sticks up a bit when we consider typing it. Are we prudes? Do we need to evolve by pawing open doors that frighten us?
UNI: This is maybe a nice place to end, considering that sensation in light of your own work: Language’s ability to conjure desire while creating a sort of beneficial discomfort. A productive unease.
CHLOE: And for the record, Tamara, I’d fuck strange cats in alleyways too, if I could.