Online Edition: Summer 2011

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Flirting with the Unfamiliar

an interview with Alta Ifland

  by Rachel Levy

Alta Ifland’s collection of stories, Death-in-a-Box, was awarded the 2010 Subito Press Prize for Innovative Fiction. Lyric, grotesque, and subtly humorous, the stories in Death-in-a-Box are at once highly conceptual and surprisingly dramatic. Ifland is also the author of a bilingual (French and English) collection of prose poems, Voice of Ice (Les Figues Press), and a collection of short stories, Elegy for a Fabulous World (Ninebark Press). Her prose and poetry has appeared widely in magazines and her website can be found at www.altaifland.com.

Rachel Levy: What I find so exciting about the stories in Death-in-a-Box is that no matter how many times I read them, they maintain an uncanny sense of unfamiliarity. In part, I credit this experience to the way your work challenges expectations for short fiction; it seems that you deliberately favor voice over character, conceit over narrative, and abstraction over concrete description. Is challenging the reader’s expectations something you consciously set out to do?

Alta Ifland: Absolutely not. A few times in my life I wrote stories in which I consciously experimented with a form, but—not accidentally—most of these stories weren’t very good. I will use here an expression I normally hate because it is generally used by Republicans, who argue they know something from their guts. Well, I wouldn’t recommend using your gut when you make judgments about the life of the polis; in literature, on the other hand, a good story or poem is written from one’s guts—that is, from a dark place which doesn’t necessarily follow everyday logic. This means that, when you write, you write because whatever comes to you—and it’s something that comes from somewhere else (rather than something you do)—comes in that particular way. I should add that I don’t believe in some kind of “muse.” I use this expression “comes from somewhere else” in opposition to the idea of “craft,” i.e., the idea that to write means to craft something by using certain techniques and working very hard (a puritan idea). Crafting is, certainly, an important part of what a writer does, but it is the most inessential one. For me, to create means to open yourself to something else and to a somewhere else. You may call this “somewhere/something else” “the unknown” or “the sacred” (which is different from “the divine”) or “mystery” or “silence”—you may even call it “God” (though, personally, I wouldn’t use this word).

Now, to come back to your question, the problem with “the reader’s expectations” is: what kind of reader? Who is the reader? I always write for an ideal reader, and that reader is me.

RL: And what about William Carlos Williams’s notion of leaving the reader naked—or, as I experience it, momentarily breathless, a term I’ve stolen from Paul Celan? Is it unreasonable or inappropriate to demand that every story leave the reader in a momentary state of exposure?

AI: Well, obviously, you can’t demand this from every story—even in the case of the same writer. But I think a writer should at least aspire toward such a beyond, and if he/she does, then the reader will notice. Every true literary piece is a transgression because it transgresses the realm in which we normally live and it pushes us into the unknown.

RL: I’d like to talk about your use of the personal pronoun “I,” particularly the way this “I” manifests and speaks in two first-person stories, “Twin Sisters” and “False Memories of Not-Myself.” Both narrators have lost their twin siblings, and these losses become manifest in the respective narratives not only as black holes but also as “imaginary doubles” (a phrase from “Twin Sisters”). The effect is quite haunting, and seems more endemic to poetic utterance than to the fictional narrative. In other words, where I expect to find character (and everything that term portends), I encounter in your fiction only a speaking voice, an “imaginary double,” an estranged “I.” The Changing Man in “False Memories” suggests that the narrator should see a psychiatrist, but I get the feeling that these stories work against psychology, or exist in the absence of psychology. How do you conceive of the reader encountering such absence? What is the desired effect?

AI: This is the problem with the “average reader.” Most readers still have the expectations instilled in us by the literature that was being written about a hundred years ago—psychological novels. And when they read something that is simply not written in this tradition they appropriate it within the only tradition they know. By the way, most book reviewers are, from this point of view, like “the average reader.” This kind of (mis)appropriation is, as far as I am concerned, a problem of literacy (or lack of it). It is simply the result of the fact that most readers—and this includes many writers—don’t seem to be aware of the fact that, in the history of literature, psychology existed only for a limited period of time, and that this is not the only way of writing literature. As an example, imagine that one would read “Little Red Riding Hood” with the expectations of psychological literature and would blame the “author” for not giving us a lifelike description of the girl’s feelings and state of mind. Even the most uneducated kind of reader knows that fairytales were not conceived in this way, and it would be stupid to have such expectations of them. And yet, fairytales can be very profound and insightful.

I don’t really have an effect in mind, but probably, if I were a reader, I’d say that I feel both a feeling of estrangement and of identification with the narrator—at the same time. For me, feeling two opposite things at the same time is part of what literature should inspire, since literature is in its essence ambivalent.

RL: In “No One’s Voice” you describe “an impersonality of the voice,” which you call “the essence of true literature.” What do you mean by that? And is that what you strived to achieve with these first-person narrations in Death-in-a-Box?

AI: This is a very good and difficult question. I mean, difficult to answer in several words. I once wanted to write a book that would answer the question: what does it mean to create (and, specifically, to create as a writer)? I never wrote the book, but I did a lot of research and gathered a lot of quotes from many different writers of various nationalities, and some of the greatest 19th- and 20th-century writers have made statements to this effect: Borges, Mallarmé, Flaubert, Lispector, Beckett, Calvino. In many writers it’s not explicit, but the idea is there in indirect forms. It is a desire that is, I think, specific to monotheist cultures, and represents a (conscious or unconscious) identification of the writer with an Absolute, God-like force. It is, of course, specific to modernity—so my statement about “the essence of true literature” should probably be restricted only to this period.

I didn’t really have a particular goal in mind when I used the first person. I think I usually use the first person when I identify more with the character, which is not to say that what the character does or feels is necessarily something I did or would have done.

RL: If “true literature” achieves an impersonality of voice then what happens when a writer falls short of this achievement? Or, in other words, is there such a thing as “false literature,” and can you describe it?

AI: I think any writer falls short of this achievement because absolute impersonality is, shall we say . . . divine? If God could write he would achieve absolute impersonality; we can only strive toward it.

I would call “false literature” the literature written with another goal than that of literature itself. I mean, “true” literature is, or should be, pure insofar as its goal is itself; but if, when I write, I follow some formula that has been successful before, or I write something because I was told that this is what “the readers” want, or the agents, publishers, literary juries, etc., then, what I write has another goal, which will eventually corrupt my writing. Of course, none of us is entirely pure—Kafka was probably one of the few writers who could claim purity—but we should strive toward that. (I know I am using a lot of obsolete, maybe even slightly ridiculous, words here: “purity,” “divine,” and I feel the need to put them in quotation marks; but it may be that one cannot really believe in Literature unless one believes in some obsolete notions.)

RL: I’d like to discuss the role of place and/or placelessness in your fiction. Many stories in Death-in-a-Box take place in unspecified or vague locales. Setting is sketched in, it seems, only when necessary—and even then, I feel as if many of these stories exist in the timeless and placeless world of the fairy tale. Signposts abound, however, when one shifts one’s sense of place from “geographic” to “literary”; names like “Fernando Pessoa,” “Clarisse Lispector,” and “Yasunari Kawabata” serve to chart out a literary landscape of sorts in which the stories exist. Do you consider Pessoa, Lispector, and Kawabata to be your countrymen? What other writers and artists inhabit your literary homeland?

AI: I think the question of place, and in particular that of origin, is one of the major questions in literature. Literature used to be written from a particular place, and the writer used to be a voice that spoke in the name of a people (think of Hugo or Goethe). Today it would be ridiculous to claim that you represent a nation—except maybe in some so-called “emergent literatures.” Most writers today are displaced: many of them literally, others figuratively. But this doesn’t mean that the question of origin is still not important. This question is essential to any act of creation: there is a reason why all creation myths are myths of origin. The desire to create is, I think, unconsciously tied to the desire to go back to an origin. This may or may not be our birthplace. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard links the desire to create to the desire to go back to the place where we first engaged in daydreaming (daydreaming being viewed as our first creation because it takes us to other possible lives we might have had). He gives the example of the space where, as a little boy, he used to daydream, and says that whenever he feels compelled to write, his mind immediately takes him there. The desire to go back to an origin is one of the primal human desires. Now, if you are a writer who comes from a different country, going back to an origin obviously means going back to your birthplace. In my case this is often true, though I should add that the “origin” is always mythologized. I am not a big fan of realist, literal descriptions of places. I think a writer with a strong voice twists the real in a way that transfigures that particular place, it takes it from its particular environment and, by bringing it closer to the dream-world, paradoxically, it makes it more universal. Think—in painting, for instance—of Van Gogh: he always painted “real” landscapes, but the result is not realist at all. Or think of fairy tales: they are so universally accessible because they don’t follow a realist logic.

And, to answer your question: yes, I do consider Pessoa, Lispector and Kawabata my countrymen—but simply in the sense that we share the same (literary) space. Pessoa was, by the way, the first modern writer who claimed that his nation was his language. And Celan, whom you quote, not only doesn’t have an origin—his “roots” are in the air, as he says in a poem—but he didn’t even have a (single) mother tongue. His first languages were German and Yiddish, but later he mastered perfectly Romanian and French, and he was a very good translator from the Russian. He could have written in several languages, but he only wrote in German. Why? Because one can only be a “true poet” in one’s mother tongue (his words). The poet who didn’t really have a mother tongue and a place of origin was very faithful to his supposed mother tongue (German). This is not only Celan’s paradox: it may be the paradox at the heart of any “true” writer: the knowledge that any origin is a myth, but, at the same time, that in order to create you need some kind of grounding.

Other artists/writers who inhabit my homeland? Among the Americans: Saul Steinberg (who was, by the way, the emblematic artist obsessed by the impersonality of the creator—think of his obsession with masks and faces covered by plain, brown, paper bags), Steven Millhauser, Lydia Davis.

RL: Does conceit play a large role in your creative process? Many stories in Death-in-a-Box (i.e. “House of Time” and “Going Back”) use strong fictional conceits to communicate meaning and to structure narrative. Do you begin with conceit? Can you speak a bit about your process?

AI: The answer to your first question would be “sometimes”—though I am not sure this is necessarily good for a writer of fiction. Having lived in France and written and read in French for most of my life, I can’t help comparing that literary tradition with the English one, and I can say that the French tradition is much more open to ideas and abstractions than the American tradition. I’ve had this discussion with other American writers and they don’t always agree with me, but I think I’m right: English literature is generally more dramatic; the stories are more plot-oriented, and the plots are much richer. If in this country you write a story or a novel without a plot, and which is very cerebral, it is categorized as “experimental,” while in France this is very common. This is not to say that contemporary French literature is better—on the contrary, I think most of it is pretty bad—but it is more open to ideas. But, paradoxically, because abstraction or conceit is less common in American fiction, some American writers value it more than they probably should. I mean, a writer could have great ideas, and yet, be a very bad writer.

Now, the two stories you mention, “The House of Time” and “Going Back” were not written in a way that tried to prove anything—and I think this is the trap of a writing that would begin with a conceit, as you say. “The House of Time” was inspired by some other story—a very different story, in fact—by a Russian writer whose name I don’t recall. It was a realist story that stayed in my mind because of its atmosphere, and it had to with a house in which women gave birth in early 20th-century Russia. This is the way I begin many of my stories: inspired by the rhythm or the atmosphere of another story I read. But my stories are so different from the stories that might have inspired them that no one but me would know their origin. And “Going Back” was simply an inner monologue. I just put on the page the thoughts that came to my mind at that particular moment.

I think your question hints indirectly to another question: what does it mean to “tell a story”? It seems to me that for many American writers “telling a story” means describing things and presenting characters in various situations without any critical reflection, as if one couldn’t tell a story while thinking critically. On the other hand, contemporary French writers have the opposite problem: they think too critically, that’s why they are bad storytellers (with the exception of their writers from their former colonies, who come from oral traditions). There has to be a balance between critical or analytical thinking and poetic or synthetic thinking. One doesn’t exclude the other.

RL: So which contemporary writers and/or theorists are you reading at the moment? Are there any new writers who inspire and challenge you?

AI: As a graduate student I read a lot of French and some German philosophers (I studied continental philosophy in France). Not any more. I now read mostly contemporary world literature. There are some very interesting writers in Japan, Hungary, Poland. Many of them are women in their forties. I’m inspired by writing that can accomplish two things at the same time: take me to a different place (this would be an “entertaining” function) and make me think. Usually, people think of these two functions as separate because they associate the first with “escapism” and the second with hard work (critical thinking, etc.). But for me they aren’t separate—maybe because, like Bachelard, as a child, I spent a lot of time daydreaming, and daydreaming is an activity that combines escapism and imagination with thinking.

Or, another way to answer your question: the writing that inspires me is literally writing . . . that inspires me. What I mean is that whenever I read a writer who triggers my admiration I immediately feel inspired to write. That particular writing makes me want to take a pen in my hand and create something similar. That’s why I think it’s dangerous to read bad literature: in the end it will “inspire” you, i.e., it will put its bad mark on you. We are what we read.


Click here to buy Death-in-a-Box from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Death-in-a-Box from Powells.com


Click here to buy Voice of Ice from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Voice of Ice from Powells.com


Click here to buy Elegy for a Fabulous World from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Elegy for a Fabulous World from Powells.com