Dearest Chiasmus visitors:

Please indulge yourself in reading this interview with Gina Frangello by Lidia Yuknavitch. These two are forces to be reckoned with...

Chiasmus Staff

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LY: One of the deepest pleasures inside your text for me is underneath its many skins. I say that because I see a first layer of skin as Freud's original text, in which he provided a case study on hysteria and pretty much a roman a clef on a bisexual woman named Dora; I see a second layer as the character of Kirby exploring psychosexual identity; another layer seems to expose gender, sexuality, and violence in a neat little knot; and I suppose a last layer for me is the heart of the matter, the family romance as Freud articulated it, deconstructed a la Gina's hand. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you so beautifully, violently, and in the end, skillfully through these layers?

GF: Well the first thing that’s important is that I actually came to the Dora case study, Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, very late in the game of writing about these characters. So in a way all the other ingredients were already there, just without that frame. I had written about Kendra in series of short stories, most of which were published, and had also started a draft of the novel from Kirby’s first person point of view, prior to deciding to use Freud’s case study to structure the plot. So in a way, what appears to be the first layer—about Dora and hysteria—is actually the last layer, if that makes sense. Kirby was already a bisexual or lesbian character (depending on perspective) and Kendra was already involved in an S/M relationship with her father’s law partner, and there was already the contention and enmeshment between the twin sisters and their complicated, differing opinions of their parents, and the “family romance,” so to speak, of their father, Henry, being both in love with Kendra and hating her, and being indifferent to Kirby—though in the finished novel his indifference to her takes on a more ominous tone than it did in the earlier draft and the stories. So all of that was there, and I had this background in psych—I had a master’s and was a practicing counselor for a few years before going back for my grad degree in English—but it wasn’t until I was in literary theory classes that I actually read much about Dora. Contemporary psych students aren’t exactly devouring Freud case studies these days. It was the French feminists—Cixous and such—who got me interested in Dora; they compelled me to go investigating and to read Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. When I saw the similarities between that case and the stories I had written—the novel I was trying to write—it literally blew my mind. I went back and re-envisioned the entire project using Freud’s “novella” as a framework, and it opened things up for me in a huge way. In a scary way—the consistency, I guess, of how a woman writer in the late 1990’s could be working on fiction that essentially held the same psychological and emotional plotline as a case study written nearly 100 years earlier. That obviously not nearly enough had actually changed—yet enough things had changed that I wanted to explore those too: who Dora would be today.

LY: Since we've both been attracted to Dora, I'll show you mine if you show me yours...heh. My attraction to Dora is born from an interest in how certain stories
about women and sexuality become axiomatic for a certain definition of female behaviors. In the case of THIS story I felt literal pain and sadness...that the story of a real woman's experience had been so badly misinterpreted, used as clinical case-study,
promoted as definitional truth. It's as if her truth, which for me is her body, was WRITTEN over. Perhaps written out of existence. So that's my obsession with her. What's yours?

GF: You’ve hit on something very real there in the way that stories become axiomatic—yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to articulate in how shocked and disturbed I was when I found out how many parallels there were between the fiction I was writing and this 100 year old case study, in terms of the way women have always faced and continue to face certain forms of violence and categorization, and those seem to be eternal over time even though the specifics of “plot” change. The way women are, consequently, misrepresented or written over is a core part of that. Like I said, I became interested in Dora largely out of an interest in French feminism, which I liked in many ways because its language was so much more compelling to me than traditional American feminism—and because it was sexier; because it didn’t disdain desire and seemed to empower previously disempowered women, like the hysterics, by recasting their suffering into a symbol of rebellion against the patriarchy. To me as a grad student, the French feminists made the hysterics sound sexy and brave; they saw the hysterics as symbols of rebellion and language outside the patriarchal order. I think I wanted to believe that and so I came to share their obsession.
The thing is that, as my obsession led me to investigate more, I came to believe that a lot of their perspectives about Dora, and hysteria in general, were entirely too optimistic and in some ways influenced by their own positions of intellectual privilege and power, in a way that made it hard for them to get how fucked-up and miserable and ineffectual the so-called hysterics—and Dora in particular—really were as would-be rebels. Cixous would write, “The hysterics are my sisters,” but it came to seem to me that, in a reductive way but one that makes my point, the Desperate Housewives of the world are more the heirs to hysteria than are the fierce powerhouse intellectuals like Cixous. I don’t mean this as a way of criticizing Ida Bauer (Dora’s real name) so much as to say that the feminist theorists who appropriated her turned her so much into a symbol that she ceased to be a person almost as much as she had when written about by Freud. They glorified the hysterics, and in doing so they erased some truths just as Freud had, albeit in a more flattering way. To give a concrete example of what I’m talking about: a lot is made out of the way that Dora confounded Freud with her bisexuality and how Freud ultimately failed to realize that Frau K, not Herr K, was the real object of her attraction—and that may well be true. It was a failure on Freud’s part, and on Dora’s it exemplified her inability to be classified through patriarchal assumptions. But what the feminist theorists never really get to is that, while Ida Bauer walked away from Freud, walked out on her treatment—she did not go on to lead in any way a rebellious life. She married, and she continued to suffer from her debilitating physical symptoms for the rest of her life. She was bitter and unhappy and died relatively young. She was proud of the fact that Freud—whom she viewed as a great man, in much the way so many people view celebrities as great today—had written about her in a case study. It was her claim to fame, so to speak. When interviewed in her later life, she bragged of it as a great accomplishment. So while I don’t deny that the hysterics, including this woman known as Dora, were suffering from symptoms induced by their inability to cope with the misogynistic laws imposed on them, I think that they were still primarily their own victims, as well as victims of the men of their age. They held the same beliefs that were destroying them. Likewise, their symptoms debilitated them; they didn’t bring down the patriarchy, or even one man like Freud. These were primarily broken women, duped by the system even if their bodies subconsciously rebelled. Their rebellions were not effective. Feminist theory has recast that to some extent, and it’s done so in a beautiful and provocative and very compelling way, but it’s got more in common with myth-making than with the real women who suffered from what psychoanalysis labeled “hysteria.”
I became disheartened that these women were being reduced to symbols by not one school of thought but by several. It struck me that fiction—what is overtly fictional, like the novel—was the only way to really explore Dora anymore; that the truth of her as a real historical woman has already been reduced and recast beyond repair. And my only hope of exploring her was through the lens of a new era, through new characters who didn’t purport to translate directly. I wanted to honor her but also depart from her.

LY: Interestingly, your novel intertwines traditional narrative tropes and forms with quite radical content innovations (at least that's what LIDIA thinks). Can you describe what use-value traditional narrative/novelistic forms hold for you, and what made you want to ... "disturb" them with your content?

GF: Yeah, I never really set out to write an “experimental” novel or anything. In my graduate program, that was really big—a lot of the students, especially when I first started, were into anything innovative to the point of basically eschewing any kind of “plot” or even traditional character development as banal and idiotic, vestiges of a dead form. I thought a lot of what was coming out of my program was linguistically fascinating and smart, but much of it left me cold emotionally. I still, as an editor and writer, find a lot of avant-garde fiction frustrating if it doesn’t offer me characters who come to feel like “real” people I can get attached to—by which I don’t mean I have to like them or find them “nice,” but I have to care about them—and a plot that gives me some clue as to why this particular story is being told at this particular moment, and what is at stake, and that moves. On a very fundamental level, whether it’s a “traditional” perspective or not, I believe fiction needs to entertain the reader and get her or him involved in the story if it’s to have any hope of getting its larger points across. I love many novels of ideas—for example, I love Kundera, he’s probably the writer who’s had the biggest impact on me, especially before he started writing in French—but I don’t have much interest in fiction that puts those ideas before the people who live within the pages. I wanted Kendra and Kirby to be real women, real sisters, contradictory, full characters, not just the embodiment of a contemporary analysis of hysteria and psychology. I’d have cut that Freudian framework before cutting the things that made the characters live and breathe for me as individuals. So in that sense, I would have been an unlikely candidate to write a novel that was all about conceptual or linguistic innovation, without the utilization of traditional novelistic forms, which I’ve always found valuable.
At the same time, the disturbances of the traditional forms, as they may exist in this novel, were just as organic to me because they seemed a necessary, intrinsic part of the story. At its core, this story is a sexual, dark, secret one. I think what is really at issue—at stake in the literary world—is the dumbing-down of literary fiction, and this push, which has become even more rabid post-9/11 in the United States, to make fiction palatable and “inspiring” and positive. That terrifies me. That literature, especially by women, is increasingly facile and feel-good, and hesitates or even refuses to tackle the darker side of humanity and our world. Not to say there aren’t dozens or hundreds of writers out there who are writing challenging, gritty, real literature, but they are having a harder and harder time breaking into print. You can get away with it if you’re already famous—I mean, if you’re Roth or Doctorow or Coetzee or Atwood or Morrison, you know, these are real writers, brilliant writers, who have experimented with form and who have tackled some of the most terrifying issues out there—then you can still find an audience, a big one, with the support of the corporate publishing engine. But if you’re some new chick, everyone wants you to write The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, or at least if you have to be a little bit depressing, The Lovely Bones. They want something that will be the pick of all the book clubs with the suburban women of a certain age who want to read something they think is kind of smart and edgy, but that in the end offers them all the palatable resolutions—that, you know, heaven is like summer camp and good girls will marry their grade school boyfriends and bad men are impaled with icicles and mothers who leave will return, and that it will all be okay in the end. To be clear, I don’t dispute the right of some novels to read that way, or think that makes them not good on an individual basis. But when there’s this large-scale homogeneity and white-washing of literary fiction, that scares me. There is a huge emphasis right now on morality in this country, and it shows in the fiction that’s being published. One of the biggest sins a woman writer can commit is writing about characters who are not “sympathetic” in the sense of not being a plucky heroine who, if anything bad happens to her it’s because she was the victim of some predator we can hate who’ll no doubt be punished in the end. The publishing industry has decided this is what America wants, and I can’t say for sure whether they are correct or not, because the general public is so bombarded by the big corporate media engines that drive chain bookstores and nationwide media-driven book clubs, that most general readers don’t even know about indie publishing and other alternatives to the novels that have the biggest publicity pushes behind them. Fiction hasn’t gotten to the point yet that the music industry or the film industry has in terms of the independent record label or indie film being recognized by the general public, no doubt because literature itself is so endangered today. I mean, let’s face it, despite the astronomical sales in the realm of literature, a hell of a lot fewer people read The Lovely Bones than went to see Titanic, you know? Even literary fiction that is coming from the mainstream houses and may seem whitewashed to some of us in indie publishing is still radical from the perspective of what most people expose themselves to. According to the NEA, less than half of Americans read any book last year. Not just literary fiction—not just fiction at all—but any book. So the industry is in huge trouble, and so is the American public.
All of which is a long way of saying that if you write graphic sex in a literary novel, or you write women characters who are as intent on destroying themselves as any man could be on destroying them, or who decide to forget men altogether and sleep with girls, or who want to be hit as a kind of catharsis instead of finding a nice therapy group for survivors of whatever—well, that is by it’s very nature disrupting what is passing for the literary novel right now. I think there was a lot of innovative and radical fiction coming out in the early or mid 1990’s that would never fly now. Even Kathy Acker found a relatively wide readership in the 90’s, whereas I would almost hate to think what would happen if Acker were, let’s say, 20-something years old now in 2006 and writing her first novel. What was considered disruptive has shifted because of political shifts. I didn’t think my novel was all that “disruptive” when I wrote it, but the response of the corporate publishing industry—one editor literally said she had to keep putting the novel down and leaving the room it was so disturbing, but that’s a whole other story—finally convinced me otherwise. I think that says as much about the industry as about my work.

LY: I very much admire your drive to multiply discourses in your novel--case studies, letters, journals, citations/fragments, lyrics, lists, dialogue, internal monologue, dream. And I get the feeling that these cannot "speak" the story alone, that each interrupts and informs the other in a kind of heteroglossic orgy. Before I get carried away, can you describe how and why your novel insists on these interwoven linguistic devices?

GF: On a very basic level, contrary to the way some might classify this technique, I would consider this kind of form to really be “high realism” in the sense that real lives—perhaps particularly women’s lives—are informed by so many different kinds of dialogue with the self and others. We live in a world where popular culture, like song lyrics and sitcom episodes, constantly intrude on our inner monologues, our dreams, our conversations with friends, relatives, lovers and therapists. Obviously my novel had a particular necessity to concentrate on dreams and on some citations from Freud’s work, but once that got started, it seemed there was already a whole culture in dialogue with those ideas and that they had to be included too. Most of my quotes in the novel are literary ones, but My Sister’s Continent also takes place at the same time as the Clinton impeachment and the echoes there seemed too good to pass up. It seems to me that when “traditional” fiction is so relentlessly linear and plot-focused as to ignore all these other influences, becoming really narrow and hyper-focused, what is created is anti-realism, even though it isn’t labeled as such by the industry. So really, at the heart of it, I was just trying to get at all the things that echo in the minds of actual people: the way we document ourselves and frame ourselves. It wasn’t a very theoretical agenda, but really a very practical one in that I was trying to portray full characters, and these things are part of anyone’s life.

LY: Do you think innovative writing by women in particular has a chance in hell of surviving a market-driven publishing machine? How? And for what purpose?

GF: Well, I sure went on and on about my feelings about the publishing industry already. Through my work as an editor at Other Voices/OV Books, and certainly through my experiences with My Sister’s Continent, I’ve become convinced that it’s predominantly indie presses right now publishing dark, challenging work by new writers. I guess the only thing I can add here is that I truly believe that pendulums swing all the time and that the publishing industry as a whole is still—though this is small comfort—far less corrupt and co-opted than most other corporate industries in the sense that most book editors still get into the business out of a love of words and reading. If you just wanted to be a rich fuck or whatever, you wouldn’t go become an editor at Dial Press, you’d go to law school or you’d start some bio-tech company or you’d go work at some Halliburton equivalent, right? The corporate publishing industry is in a bad, bad place right now, and most people fully immersed in the industry are willing to verify and articulate that—they know it’s true, and they’re tap-dancing for shareholders and for the country’s current moral fervor and mass fear and hysteria. They’re doing that, and it may sicken a lot of writers and readers and indie editors, but at the core they are still holding on and believing that books are relevant, which is more than can be said for any other industry. They aren’t making reality TV shows or drilling for oil in Alaska, they’re reading. Meanwhile, while these people hold onto some small but vital amount of their integrity, independent presses are popping up all over the place, offering a crazier, total, almost masochistic integrity by working for free to publish work that will almost certainly never make much money but that feels vital to those of us in that community—that feels like real political action and like something we can’t live without.
I am bugged by the fact that some of the best and biggest indies like Akashic and Soft Skull seem very predisposed to work by men and the kind of topics that men feel are political, and give far less attention to writing by women. But I also believe really strongly that women writers and editors are still finding and will find ways to be heard. I believe this state of our country is temporary. If I didn’t believe that, I guess I’d have to move to Canada or Amsterdam. I don’t think we can have a Bush in office forever and I don’t think 9-11 can continue to hold the American people in mute fear permanently so that we all want to be anesthetized by easy, light things like brain dead TV and chick-lit. Innovative writing is always—by its very definition—going to be somewhat fringe, but I believe these crazily dark days in publishing will pass and we’ll see a return of the kind of climate that makes room for many voices and styles in publishing. For those who will never fit in to that niche, the indies will continue to thrive, and a positive change in the larger literary climate can only benefit us too. At the bottom line, people have been saying the novel was dead for over 100 years now. Okay, so the novel is maybe on life-support. The industry maybe has cancer. But writers and readers have defied predictions of death for way longer than I’ve been alive, and I don’t see any real reason to believe that will change now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

RIGHT ON. very cool commentary about women and writing...in fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen this much commentary on women and writing (Gina, Jeanne, Cris).

9:17 PM  
Anonymous David Walthour said...

Check out Gina's website www.mysisterscontinent.com for more info and an excerpt from the book.

6:37 AM  
Anonymous hoochiemamma said...

Hey I just bought this book from Chiasmus and what an unusual read!! Most contemporary fiction written by women seems to follow a certain set of tropes that are, at heart, cliche. At least from my point of view. What the author says in the interview confirms my reading experience--that this story starts with conventions of character but then tweaks it with history and psychology and the discourse of psychoanalysis, fantasy, dream, sexuality.

Worth the read--for readers who don't want fluff from women authors!

5:07 PM  

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