Friday, October 5, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Nathalie Stephens

Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) writes l’entre-genre in English and French. She is the author of a dozen books including, The Sorrow And The Fast Of It (Nightboat (US), 2007), its French counterpart, …s’arrête? Je (L’Hexagone, 2007), Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006), Je Nathanaël (l’Hexagone, 2003) and L'Injure (l'Hexagone, 2004), a finalist for the 2005 Prix Alain-Grandbois and Prix Trillium. Je Nathanaël exists in English self-translation with BookThug (2006). Other work exists in Basque and Slovene with book-length translations in Bulgarian (Paradox, 2007). With Nota bene (Montréal, 2007), there is an essay of correspondence entitled L’absence au lieu (Claude Cahun et le livre inouvert), the self-translation of which is forthcoming with Nightboat (US): Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book). Stephens has guest lectured and performed her work internationally, notably in Sofia, Barcelona, Ljubljana, New York and Norwich. The recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship and a British Centre for Literary Translation Residential Bursary, she was the keynote speaker at the 2006 edition of the University of Alberta's Annual Translation Conference. Stephens has translated Catherine Mavrikakis and François Turcot into English and Bhanu Kapil, Gail Scott and Andrew Zawacki into French, with a translation of work by Hélène Cixous forthcoming. Stephens presently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It didn't. That was perhaps what was most sobering about it. The boundary between book and no book didn't enable me to cross it or any other boundary. There was no here to there, just the body registering further silences, I might sometimes say humiliations. It is maybe disingenuous to say so, now that there have been this many books. It is not, I think, an exaggeration to say that they were already there. Not as Jabès would say, that the body unfolds the book that is waiting to be written. It is not remotely that prophetic or determined. But that I moved toward the thing that was waiting; itself a form of movement. The movement enabled that encounter, the waiting that I anticipated, presumed, made possible the convergence there of what is arguably an impossibility.

2 - How long have you lived in Chicago, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I have lived with Chicago since 2002, though I entered the city proper as a resident two and a half years ago. I could measure time in deaths, disease; or else in encounter, friendship; gardens, architecture. The number of falls -- historical and communal. Geography is one way of measuring distance, the many encroachments, and yes, a form of inscription, a way of approaching textuality, of moving through text. But it is not ever limited to the place where I am. Rather, it is cumulative, and the madnesses emerge with those accretions. The littoral imitates the body's permeability -- is this gender? Yes, of course it is, but it transcends the body proper (body parts), the physiological body, making light of our theoretical lamentations, pushing thought past tissue and holding it there; there, being not ascribable to a single (singular) form or articulation. The holding patterns (nation, text) reveal our own subscriptions to nationalistic (genealogical) litany; this is not a call for dissidence, but a manifestation perhaps of the insidious overlap of lives and the constructs that seek to contain them in distinction.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

There are no poems anymore. There have not been for some time now. Not that form of encapsulation. I distrust what calls itself poetry -- any genre delineation. Genre pre- or proscription is territorially suspect, the germ of othering, faction. These arbitrary separations reinscribe -- or at very least suggest -- the implicit violences of imperialist, nationalist discourses, and carry with them the usual scourges of complicity and collaboration. Defined in this way, a text -- circumscribed by genre, in a language that reinforces these exclusions -- becomes (is) an occupied territory. Such a position, the positioning of genre, is ontologically untenable, and in my view dangerous.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Am I comfortable locating the questions in time? Pulling at the relational strands that belie the carapaced text? The affective dimension (dementia) of the unexpected. The arbitrary delineations of place. Darwish, for example: "Now where is my where"? A short list of questions reveals nothing, nothingness: absence, place, possibility. These may all be questionable questions, but none are answerable. And it is this exhaustive unanswerability, this positioning of subjectivity at the edge of multiple abysses that make of text (desire) an elusive gesture, anchored only to itself, and pulling whatever remains into its wake.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

The difficulties accrue. It is as though the self were pulled more and more thinly across the spine of each new book. The fragilities more visible, the implications multiplied. It is likely not so; the making of books hasn't changed, but my relationship to this process has, and with it my awareness of the compromises, the vulnerabilities, the surrender of a relationship to language in a context that withholds more than it offers. Art is not what it might have been; and whatever liberties or generosities I had first imagined I might find there are a veneer for the same filth that characterises most human endeavour. What was to have been a way of touching touches me now incontrovertibly, and not always reciprocally. This, perhaps is a kind of devastation; it is also the formulation of an ethics which is not ever separate from the painful questions from which it arises. Such that the binarism (harder-easier) does not apply. Simply the book is complicated by our relationships to it.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

This afternoon.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

The turn is inward. It is not so much a matter of going toward any one particular thing, but of inviting movement (back) into the body. Writing seems ironically to exist in direct contradiction with the movement (walking, for example) that enables it. In this respect, it is not a form of stillness, but a struggle with(in) the body's desire for reach. One winter, I walked up and down the shore of the Kantauri Itsasoa. This movement did not bring forward a book; it isn't causal in that way. It reminded the body of a thing it is always already forgetting. Language is in this way a form of treachery.

12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Of the Cahun essay or Nightboat and recent Hexagone books (The Sorrow And The Fast Of It / ...s'arrête? Je), I can say this: that the membrane is ever more thin.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I want to say friendship. Which of course includes all of the above. It is a threshold become possible. The possibility of a threshold.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This is an impossible question. The obvious answers to which are explicit in some of the work. Still, at the moment (and the moment is never still): De l'évasion (Lévinas), Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté (de Beauvoir), L'Intention poétique (Glissant).

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Sit still.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Forgive me for turning this question against itself, but as I read it, I am drawn away from it by the word occupation, in light especially of a new book about André Gide and WWII, the subtitle of which is A Writer's Occupation. This leads me again to the question of territoriality, and the ways in which we inhabit (occupy, claim, or possess) the spaces (such as language) that may very well be in control of us. The question thus reformulates itself in my mind as: What would you occupy, have you occupied (instead of this thing which you already occupy)?, the ethical tremor of which provokes a kind of terror. Because like it or not, we are all, to some degree, occupants. Occupying, and being occupied. And so driven by the circles we draw around ourselves.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

This is embarrassingly typical: L'étranger.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

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