Any good student of literature will tell you that it’s never a good idea to confuse writers with subject matter in their work, or assume that a writer’s creations are necessarily speaking explicitly on his or her behalf. still, based on her work, it would be hard to meet writer Kate Zambreno and not arrive with at least a few wild assumptions about what she may or may not be like. Zambreno’s books are tricky things, often blurring lines between fiction and nonfiction or eschewing genre altogether. While the general inscrutability of her work makes it interesting, it’s Zambreno’s writing itself – razor sharp, erudite, quizzical and occasionally confounding – that has made her something of a literary phenomenon over the past couple of years (“literary phenomenon” being a distinction that would surely make her, at the very least, slightly uncomfortable). Her best-known works – 2012’s Heroines and 2011’s Green Girl – are equal parts fascinating and harrowing, each shining a light on different aspects of the female experience in a language that sounds bracingly and amazingly new.
So, it’s with more than a little anxiety that I make plans to have lunch with Zambreno at a quiet New York City diner. Having read her books – and spent a sizeable amount of time following up on the various literary references, epigraphs and allusions that are threaded delicately throughout her work – I am prepared to sit down with someone who is likely about 1,000 times smarter than me, and not keen on suffering yet another round of heavy-handed questions about feminism, postmodernism and genre. In the end, all of these things turn out to be sort of true. Yet, unlike the generally fraught characters in her books, Zambreno is chatty, effusive and one of the easiest people on earth to spend two hours at a diner with, talking about books. “I’m still really drawn to the idea of a writer as a loser,” she jokes, a few minutes after sitting down. “It’s still a little weird that people know who I am and are interested in talking to me.” When I reveal a page of typed notes I have put together in anticipation of our chat, she appears duly impressed. “I appreciate that kind of preparedness,” she says, “I also always try and have myself really together for things that seem important, but when I think about it I realise that a lot of my work is kind of reacting against professionalism. I can’t seem to help it.”
Professional or not, Zambreno’s work has steadily increased in both ambition and stature since the publication of her first novel, 2010’s O Fallen Angel. Though the book was well-received – drawing comparisons to Kathy Acker and Jean Rhys – it was the publication of Heroines by Semiotext(e) in 2012 that forged her status, not only as a writer to watch, but also as a distinctive new voice. The book is ostensibly a kind of
critical dialogue about the modernist wives, a kind of treatise on the lives of women such as Jane Bowles, Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald – women who were often dismissed or erased entire ly from literary history, or eclipsed by the men they happened to be married to. This wouldn’t be so groundbreaking were it not for the way the book is told, as a methodical journal written from the point of view of a speaker who may or may not be Zambreno herself.
By daring to include her own personal experience in the examination of these women’s lives and work, the book breaches the wall of static objectivity that is supposed to define what we think of as purely critical writing. Add to that the book’s wily structure, and Heroines indeed earns its revolutionary reputation. As a work of criticism, it is detailed, thoughtful and well-considered, but the ambiguity of the book’s speaker, and the way the book flirts with memoir, fiction, history, theory and literary criticism make it something gleefully other. To Zambreno’s credit, the book inspired both intense adoration and no small amount of disdain – and has provoked an ongoing dialogue about what the book actually is, exactly. I first heard of it after a friend taught it as a text in her lit theory class.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about how Heroines came to be,” says Zambreno. “It often gets described as having been based off of my blog, which was totally not the case. Its real origin came from this book of notebooks I kept for a novel I was trying to write called Madwife. Eventually those notebooks kind of fused with this deep desire to write criticism – mostly just to talk about the books that I was reading. But I didn’t want to do it in a standard, professional way. I am not an expert or a scholar, just someone who is in love with books. I just wanted to write about reading. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know anything about small press publishing; I didn’t know anything about feminist culture. I just started to write about all of these things… and it became what it became. Madwife eventually became a kind of nonfiction book, but it took a lot of twists and turns along the way.”
Want to read the full version of this interview? Check out the S/S 2015 issue of Bon, available in select newsagents.