“ALI RAZ IN CONVERSATION WITH VI KHI NAO: On birds, coffee, and the transformative edge” – curated by Vi Khi Nao

Ali Raz’s work has appeared in 3am, Plinth,  Occulum, Journal 69, Queenmob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere.


VI KHI NAO: You concluded your Hitchcock-inspired piece “The Birds” with the following line: “Feel the boot that stomps endlessly over the human face.” Did the ending arrive before you started the piece? Or did the chaos of thoughts, rather than the sequencing of analysis, provoke the violence of this conclusion, which is most fitting for a piece designed to intersect with cinema, physics, birds, and diagrams? Why did you choose to end in such a starling-violent fashion?

ALI RAZ: Vi, thank you for reading this piece and for describing it as you do. You are the most astute and generous reader I’ve ever encountered, so it’s particularly humbling to see you engage with this piece and pick out its last line.

I didn’t begin “The Birds” with an eye to ending on that line, but I did have it knocking about my head for some time. There’s the Orwell line that goes something like this: “If you want a picture of the future, image a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” I have always loved the unending violence of that image: boot, human face, forever. So it felt fitting to end with an image that had been with me for a while.

I wonder why this line stood out to you.

VKN: Well, although I did not expect you to end with “Feel the birds that shit endlessly over the human face,” I was surprised at the asymmetrical stamp between boot and human face as an un-institutional way to cleverly tie violence with violence without involving birds or murder. Also, I think on a deep metacognitive level, the act of writing thoughts down often feels very Orwellian, violent, in the way you have quoted Orwell to reference Hitchcock.

Speaking of writing, can you talk about your writing ritual? Does it look like a Bates Motel? Or is it like a “large flocks of starlings [who] form moving birdclouds called murmurations?”

Was “The Birds” born in days or months? When I read it, it felt like months have passed through me, the way snow gets blown into the rusty engine of the human soul. Did you feel different after you wrote it, Ali? Can a piece of writing, especially one you produce rather than read, alter the cinematic composition of your anthropological being?

AR: I wish it had been birds shitting over a human face. Less violent, more humiliating. Writing as Orwellian: I sometimes think of how even unpublished writers already have an audience in the form of the NSA and co. So much for writing as private, personal, or freeing. The page is spying on you! My “writing ritual” is coffee. Is it like the Bates Motel? I hope so.

“The Birds” came out in a few hours, then was tinkered with sporadically. It was very quick. It is interesting to me to hear you say that you felt an expansive time in reading the piece. We must be on different readerly timezones.

I felt absolutely different after it was over: happier, mainly. But this only means that I was not happy just before I sat down to write it. Writing can do this: purge you, similar to taking a shit. This is only to say that I don’t understand it. Whatever it is. I have a feeling you would agree with this too, that writing really does have a transformative edge. Le Fanu, the dude who wrote about vampires, said a thing to this effect: everyone who writes something, writes it on something, meaning under the influence of some substance that is working its effects through the writer. But Le Fanu was writing about green tea.

VKN: In your piece you wrote, “In The Birds, Hitchcock denies the neatness of coherent explanation.” In life, or in which aspect of your desired life, do you wish or welcome the neatness of such? You studied anthropology as an undergraduate and got your MFA in Fiction at University of Notre Dame—do you feel your educational attires lend your imagination to tidiness and coherence?

Whenever I think of coffee, I think of liquor that has been blackened by a pen and not by time or sugar or fermentation. Not to sound like a dark roast, but I wish I had been on a cocaine-like drug called green tea when I wrote. Alas, Le Fanu, you are so way ahead of me. Which only leads me to ask you the most inappropriate of things: if there is one thing you must hate about Hitchcock, what would that thing be? And, would you marry him?

AR: I was encouraged to think highly of uncertainty and unknowables i.e. a rigid framework would not have been particularly welcome in either my anthropological or fictional forays. This was very exciting. But it is also frightening (“The Birds” is often called a horror movie, including by Hitchcock, and as unlikely as “The Birds” can seem as a horror film in terms of subject matter, I think this is what the label gets at in relation to such a film: the horror of uncertainty, the horror of not being able to answer your own questions). There’s a tendency in the humanities to sneer at even the wish for certainty or stable ground beneath one’s feet. But then, if one is like me, one goes into the world and finds, to one’s horror, that thinking is not required under capitalism. If I wished for coherent grounds and neat explanations, it would be in answer to this question: how to live in a capitalist world, not merely to ‘survive’ (though even that is no small accomplishment) but to, you know, live.

Yeah. It’s a dark roast like that.

I would not marry Hitchcock. He could be quite mean, it’s said. What I hate about his films is what is most obvious about them: the frequency of sexist and racist reference.

I must ask you, Vi: why is coffee like inky liquor to you?

VKN: It produces intoxication in the moment and can be a mistress of the writing life. In the same way as the life of a cigarette when an actor smokes or spends it in a film. It’s both sexy and pathological. If both Hitchcock (your mean, ineligible husband) and Tom McCarthy (one of your favorite writers) were to sit across from each other in a coffee shop and discuss your “The Birds”—what would be the first thing they say about it?

AR: I was reading McCarthy’s Satin Island at the time of “The Birds.” Somewhere there’s a library copy of Satin Island with scribbles about birds in a margin. So I would hope McCarthy, if he were to have to coffee with Hitchcock, would whip out that marked copy and point out how cool it is to find those scrawls on a page that has nothing to do with birds. Hitchcock, I believe, would make a smart assed one-line quip with crude undertones.

VKN: I think McCarthy would notice Hitchcock lifting up his shirt in the middle of the conversation and say, “Why does your belly button look like Ali Raz’s literary fractal? I better not let you film that!” At any rate, how come you do not invite much of a social media footprint? Or are you one of those writers that shed their feathers?

AR: Facebook makes Ali sad and Ali does not like to be sad. I like Twitter a lot: it has these flourishing communities of intelligent, fun, and interesting stuff. Just scrolling through it, one comes across tons of nuggets and factoids to follow up on. It’s great. That’s all I want from Twitter right now. I like my feathers quite a bit and hope not to shed them for some time yet.

VKN: Why does FB make you sad? And, what are you working on right now? Can you talk a little about some of your literary endeavors? What does your work aspire to be? Do you think it’s important to produce groundbreaking work? Or do you think a writer’s place belongs in the bathroom, a place to flush shit out? What is your literary vision?

AR: Facebook as a platform seems to actively create a spectacle of around-the-clock sociality that thrives on feelings of exclusion and loneliness. Just a few years back there was the revelation of how Facebook had manipulated users’ feeds to study effects on mood: pushing positive images in some people’s feeds and negative images on others’. Beyond the clear sickness of such an experiment, I think it goes a long way in revealing how malleable we become when we log into this fishbowl of other people’s emotions. Probably there are many who feel no such effect and love their FB: these folks are sturdy stalks and I would like to take a peek into their brains.

I’m working on a thriller. I’m calling it “Frenzy” for now and it is almost complete. In it, someone gets sucked into investigating a serial killer whose case has long since been satisfactorily closed. It’s about films and paranoia.

Someone like you, Vi, produces groundbreaking work on the regular, seemingly on the fly. You’re never not doing it. I admire the continuity of your process, how pieces splinter off from one another in endless generation. I would aspire to that kind of persistent engagement. This is not dissimilar from shitting, which must happen every day and is catastrophic when halted.

VKN: When the opportunity is allotted to me, I am excited to read your “Frenzy.” I hope it comes out into the world soon. Also, I feel the same way about FB, Ali. You captured its manic depression so well. Let’s gravitate to your piece again for happiness. Towards the end of your “The Birds”, you wrote, “You just lift the skin off experience, and there’s numbers underneath.” If a computer were to unbutton your shirt and peel a fist-sized piece skin off your heart like a door, what numbers or mathematical equations would best depict the content of your current heart?

AR: Damn. Computer sex. Such a sicko machine would probably find 1s and 0s in senseless repeats, not unlike its own bleak heart.

I know you love numbers. Which numbers are you made of, Vi?

VKN: The morse code of the moon, Ali. Speaking of viewing the same moon, I am interviewing you while I am in Iowa City and you are in LA. I am told that Johnny Depp is dropping by for a short visit on USC campus. Have you bumped into any movie stars lately? If you were to recommend a book to a movie star, which book would you suggest? And, why?

AR: Depp never showed. Therefore, I am still waiting for my encounter with the stars. Regardless of who it is I meet, and whether or not they are a movie star, I would tell them to please read John Haskell’s I Am Not Jackson Pollock. It’s a slim collection of short stories. It’s written in prose that sutures the line between fiction and nonfiction. It has this delicate beauty that is hard to find elsewhere: a unique prosody.

VKN: I Am Not Jackson Pollock is a great book. And, Depp is not đẹp for not showing up. How horrifying! Since you are into horror movies, what, then, actually terrifies you? And, being that you are at USC to pursue your Masters in Cinematic Arts, it would seem logical to ask: if you were to recommend a movie to a movie star, what movie would that be?

AR: Creepy crawlies get me. Large machines. Loud noises. Specters of insanity.

Movie stars should watch Mulholland Drive for spiritual and emotional protection.



A Folio of New Work by Ali Raz

Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016, the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016), and the poetry collection, The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University.