“Daughters live in places the men cannot access”: A Conversation with Lindsey Drager, curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Lindsey Drager 2015 copyLindsey Drager is the author of The Lost Daughter Collective (Dzanc, forthcoming 2017) and The Sorrow Proper (Dzanc, 2015), winner of the 2016 Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Award and recipient of Silver in the 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award in Literary Fiction. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the College of Charleston, where she teaches in the MFA program in fiction. I recently had a chance to ask Lindsey a few questions about her new book, her current projects, and poetic language in fiction.
Kristina Marie Darling: First of all, let me express my admiration for your work. In both of your novels, lyrical language is brought to bear on what might otherwise be purely academic questions: the end of the book as a physical object, the impending obsolescence of our literary vocations, and of course, the place of the female voice in this shifting textual landscape. With that in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the relationship between critical inquiry and what might be described as poetic language. What does innovation on the level of the sentence make possible for a writer thinking through academic material? Are there insights, even in these scholarly contexts, which can only be conveyed through the behavior of the language itself?

Lindsey Drager: Part of the goal with this project was to aestheticize scholarly language in order to expose the myth that in the academy, the personal is entirely divorced from the professional. Most of us who go into the humanities do it because we want to be reminded often—daily, really—of what it means to be human. Yet we maintain this image of the scholar as cold and stoic. My interest is in the seeming dissonance between that very personal, private desire and the work itself, which is couched in language that is traditionally characterized as distant and aloof. What does it mean that the term academic has become synonymous with detached and esoteric, especially for an artist who calls the academy home?

The truth is that research is deeply personal—it requires an intimacy between the scholar and the material, but it also requires an intimacy with others in the field—long-gone and still living—whose work one has recycled, recalibrated, or re-negotiated. A bibliography is actually quite an intimate document, a catalog of the people and texts that you’ve spent time with and synthesized, that have entered—quite literally—your work. In this way, the critical is inherently creative, generative, an act of making. Part of my ongoing project is to expose the critical/creative binary as fallacious while also pairing it with other sets of dichotomies that are, to my mind, equally fluid: men and women, parent and child, work and play, past and future. I’m trying here to expose the soft tissue of the soft sciences, to reveal the human at the root word of the humanities, which is, after all, in the business of teasing out the strange work of being a person. You put it beautifully when you say that language behaves—much of my interest has been to reveal how language behaves in certain environments, and what forces are—overtly or obliquely—governing those behaviors.

KMD: Throughout The Lost Daughter Collective, we are presented with fragments of imagined academic disciplines: wrist studies, room studies, and ice studies, to name a few. I’m fascinated by the way that scholarly writing is revealed as projection, a manifestation of a purely interior drama. Not only are academic arguments revealed as wholly subjective, but they are intensely intimate, a character’s inner life made suddenly visible. What sparked your interest in crafting fiction about academic life? Could you speak about the relationship between these character’s projects and your own experience in academia?

LD: As an artist who believes the critical can create and the creative can critique, I’m interested in the question of how art is crafted, disseminated, and governed by the institution of the academy. I’m reaching a point where I’ve spent more of my life in universities than out of them, and what I have learned is that I need academia to fuel my work: the interlocution that happens in the classroom, the fact that my students are constantly pressing me to articulate what is often allusive and ephemeral about art making, the interdisciplinary conversations that unfold across campus, the access to an exhaustive library. However, I also recognize how the academy directs and manages who we are and what we do as art makers. For example, the ways a tenure clock places temporal boundaries on what and how one creates. And so my relationship with academic institutions—and I would assume many academics feel this way, as well—is a complicated one. As such, I’ve started to explore in my work what it means to be a product of and participant in this environment and community. In The Lost Daughter Collective, this takes shape as a Wrist Scholar (a thinker who studies the place where the hand and arm meet in order to reveal that the wrist is a social construction) who dismisses his daughter’s art work—first shadow puppetry and then ice sculpting—as “play” when it is in fact her rejection of his instance on managing the language she uses to describe her body. I’m also working on a piece in which a professor of Youth Studies submits as her scholarly output for tenure a child that she adopted and raised. The professor argues that as a scholar in the field of Youth Studies, there may be no better research project than undertaking the raising of a child; however, the committee challenges her by claiming this is not scholarly or creative output, but rather “mere parenting.” The piece’s central conflict then is how to get the child peer-reviewed.

In both these examples, I am aiming for satire, but I’m hoping to raise very real questions about how we place value on the work we do in the academy, and how that territory gets slippery as our ideas about scholarly and creative output grow increasingly more multimodal and embodied.

KMD: I was struck by the muted violence in many of these fictive academic communities. Throughout The Lost Daughter Collective, we are offered papers by women whose loss we mourn, formal studies by girls who have gone missing indefinitely. The Lost Daughter Collective subtly and powerfully speaks to the ways that female voices are silenced within scholarly conversations. Could you say more about the ways gender politics surrounding these academic forms of discourse? What does fiction offer as an alternative space, a place where genre boundaries, and the structures of power surrounding them, can be renegotiated?

LD: This is such a great question, and one that I feel like I am constantly thinking through and around, as an academic, as a woman, as an artist. The truth is that—and I’m not saying anything we don’t already know here—as in many institutions, the academy rests on patriarchal scaffolding, and while we’ve come a hell of a long way, that past still lingers, vestigial. For example, if you are a PhD candidate, it’s difficult to also be a pregnant woman. For example, if you are young-looking and small in stature and identify as female, your experience and authority and credentials will be sometimes subtly and implicitly, often overtly and explicitly questioned and critiqued.

But I do wonder if there are practices and behaviors we can avoid or adopt in order to make the space of women in the academy larger, and capable of more. One that comes to mind immediate is this: we can stop apologizing. To deans and department heads, to colleagues and students, we need to stop saying, “I’m sorry” for no discernable reason. I hear this at meetings and in hallways, both out loud and more covertly through body language, both as a graduate student and as a faculty member, and I’m guilty of it myself. We apologize, for having to miss class to go to the international conference, for not volunteering to be on the search committee because we have edits due on our forthcoming book. I think this starts with treating our female-identified graduate students differently, but I also think we have the agency to overcome these attitudes and behaviors with some careful forethought.

I also think it’s crucial to recognize the perhaps invisible ways gender dynamics play into our current relationships as women authors. In the academy, we rely on mentor-mentee relationships that echo a kind of parent-child dynamic. My own mentors are all white, straight, cis men, who are significantly older than me, and I have come to see them as paternal figures in my growth as a thinker and creator. As such, I see my evolving identity as an author always tethered to this strange father-daughter paradigm that the academy fosters. It’s not an accident, then, that the women writers who haunt The Lost Daughter Collective—Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mary Shelley—were women authors influenced in complicated ways by their fathers, who all happened to be also scholars: of literature, theology, and medicine. And their work, if you look more deeply into their oeuvres, provides it’s own narrative of how their voices were amplified or silenced by men. I am not just talking about “The Yellow Wallpaper” and A Room of One’s Own. Take for instance Mary Shelley’s 1819 Mathilda, which chronicles a young woman’s incestuous relationship with her father, ultimately leading to her suicide. The book was not published until 1959 because her father, the writer William Godwin, kept the manuscript hidden for fear that it would be read autobiographically. Or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, the story of a utopian society populated by only women who reproduce asexually, which was published serially between 1909 and 1916, but was not published in book form until 1979.

So on the one hand, there is a rich history of women voices being governed by men, not just the men in their immediate lives—fathers, husbands, doctors—but also through their literary output and publication, through the male-dominated publishing industry and by the male pseudonyms they wrote under. Yet there are also many women authors today who have experiences like mine, where men have sanctioned my work and voice. The question is how to negotiate these relationships so that we aren’t being silenced, but we aren’t being—for lack of a better term—“daughtered,” where women are exercising some agency over not just what they say but how they are heard.

KMD: Your work has a distinct metafictional quality, as each paragraph reads as a miniature deconstruction, a reflection on its own limitations and possibilities. I’d love to hear more about how you came to metafiction. Which literary texts sparked your interest in crafting prose that reflects on its own making?

LD: I am very much about the business of telling, of exploring narration and narrators. I am interested in crafting a world that is ours estranged, just unfamiliar enough for readers to think they aren’t implicated. From my work as an editor, I’ve become conscious of a trend to create works of fiction that read like scripts, where action and event take precedent over how the story is told. These are stories that have grown out of a history of being told that “showing” is preferable to “telling” without consciously examining the fact that narrative has as its root word narrate, to tell. When we say “show don’t tell” what we really mean is that we want what we say to be implied rather than explicit, but because we continue to use the term “show,” the field is now saturated in fiction that wants to be film. Perhaps as a response to this, I find that I am increasingly interested in writing fiction that wants to be always and only fiction and wants to remind the reader of this; fiction that is aware of its identity as a work of literary art, that treats the page like a framing device rather than a conduit, that treats language as its material, not just its medium.

Because of this desire to engage in telling, to privilege the act of narrating above all else, I find I can’t quite avoid also exploring why and how the telling happens. Here opens a prism of questions that I am constantly working through and around and over: Who has the authority to tell? What gives them that authority? How do readers become complicit with or resist certain forms of telling? I think we think of writing as political, but reading is, too: what you chose to read, who you chose to read, how you chose to read.

KMD: There are several parallels between your first book, The Sorrow Proper, and your latest novel. We see a recurring fascination with textual economies, and the myriad ways that they shape language. The treatment of time, also, is quite comparable: we are situated in the near future, so much so that it feels almost present. We feel implicated in the making of a world that has not yet come to pass. Could you speak about the relationship between the two fictive dreamscapes you’ve created? Are they different parts of the same imaginative topography? To what extent is the novel a recurring site of engagement, a life-work?

LD: I absolutely believe a novel is a life-work, an ongoing, evolving apparatus designed for reader and author to mutually cope. I know I am writing the same book over and over and I know I will be for as long as I can write. There are writers who aim for range, who want to question and explore as much as they can, and there are writers who are haunted by a single set of questions that they spend their life trying to work out. Because every book I write fails (even though I also know they are, as Zadie Smith puts it, “my best self”), the next book tries to occupy the fissures the previous book couldn’t. I think that’s why I am so comfortable identifying as an experimental writer, because it recalls the idea of experiment, which always invites and sometimes embraces, failure. The experiment is always more interesting if the hypothesis is wrong because that means there’s more work to be done. And isn’t that the whole project of art making? To enter with a vague sense of the conclusion, to be severely disappointed by what you end up creating, to then go at it again, despite the fact that the outcome will very rarely match the anticipated result. To make art well, you can never be satisfied, and that is a quality I think we share with scientists: we are both driven by curiosity in order to tease out possibility, even if the possible is never fully realized.

KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?

LD: I have two projects on the horizon: the first is a satirical novel about the relationship between homelessness and artistic freedom. It follows a “text artist” (who might be a writer) who is accidentally let into a visual arts colony (that might be a veiled homeless shelter). The project grew out of my experiences working at a day shelter for those struggling with homelessness in Denver, Colorado. There I met men who were using art as a way to tell their stories, stories they felt no one was hearing. The project takes up the question of how to ethically promote “outsider art”—work produced independent of artistic communities, academic institutions, and other formal systems of production, often by those marginalized through their status as cognitively disabled, mentally ill, incarcerated, enslaved, or otherwise systemically oppressed.

I am also working on a book-length essay about the body on public display, and am doing a lot of research on the freak shows that traveled the U.S. from about 1860 to 1940 before they were outlawed, along with the rise of the “ugly laws”—also known as “unsightly beggar ordinances”—that, in the late 19th centuries right up through the 1970s, forced the homeless population, who were often physically and mentally disabled, to be law-breakers by their very presence on the street. I’m threading this historical research with a more personal exploration of my experiences with a transgender family member.

While the projects seem radically different, they both have at their core the same question: How do we respond to the invited stare? How do we ethically look, especially at those who are not like us, especially when looking is our primary means of satiating curiosity?

But of course, they are also projects that continue the questions that my previous books posed: What does it mean to have a body, to own a body, be a body, be bodied? How is that body constructed by others when it enters the public arena? How is that body governed by time, both the literal constructs of the temporal (bodies move always toward decay) and cultural periods, zeitgeist (bodies, depending on era, mean differently)?

In other words: How are our bodies—like our books—authored and read? It’s a question both timeless and timely here in the opening weeks of 2017, which is of course, the magic of story: tethered like a shadow, it evolves (or devolves) right along with us.
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of twenty-seven books of poetry, most recently Ghost / Landscape (with John Gallaher; BlazeVox Books, 2016) and the forthcoming Dark Horse (C&R Press, 2017). Her awards include three residencies at Yaddo, where she has held the Martha Walsh Pulver Residency for a Poet, as well as a Hawthornden Castle Fellowship, a Fundacion Valparaiso Fellowship, and three residencies at the American Academy in Rome. She is the recipient of grants from the Whiting Foundation and Harvard University’s Kittredge Fund. Her poems appear in New American Writing, The Mid-American Review, Poetry International, Passages North, Nimrod, and many other magazines. She has published essays in Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Iowa Review, The Literary Review, Descant, and elsewhere.