First we have to ask about your name. We love it. What’s the story behind it?
I was born in the United States, but I grew up in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Spain, England and Singapore. I am of Iranian, Dutch and Scottish descent. My parents met in Tehran right before the 1979 Revolution—very inopportune timing. Their life together, and consequently mine, began under the sign of political turbulence, exile, and drift. My name bares a trace of that legacy. And I would hasten to add that this legacy has more to do with a sense of being from nowhere—something I like to explore in my writing—rather than any sense of being an “immigrant,” with one particular loss or leaving as my frame of reference.
Your current project, The Catalan Literary Landscape is an exploration of notions. A journey intersecting between landscape and literature. What are the top five landscapes that are undeniably linked to literature for specific reasons that motivate you to keep on writing and sharing your work with the world?
For me, literature is landscape. Landscape happens to be an extraordinarily mutable, dynamic surface, and one that, much like the novel, registers the passage of time. That being said, I am particularly interested in the ways that literature and landscape disappear into and mirror one another.
I felt this sense of mimicry and vanishing very strongly in Jerusalem; it is impossible to separate that landscape—which is full of wounds and sutures and bathed in a mysterious light—from the scriptures. Tuscany is another good example.
In Florence everything is an event—walking down the Lungarno, drinking wine in a plaza, getting dressed simply to sit somewhere as if on display like the statues. Florence is a relentlessly aestheticized space; it is an open-air museum. In some ways, Florence, as a singular entity, doesn’t exist,or it does, but we can’t perceive it outside of its representations in literature and art. What I see when I look at a city like Florence is a kind of kaleidoscopic after-image of its representations throughout history. What I see is a translation of a translation of a translation….a copy of a copy of a copy, or all the copies of the textures and tenors of its surfaces in an infinite regress. It’s treacherous surfaces all the way. Basically, what I am saying is: Ceci nes past Florence! We can’t be fooled.
Then there are the forbidding landscapes: deserts, or the Midwestern rustbelt with its stubborn, glacial winters.
New York, Jerusalem, Florence, Barcelona, London, Paris, Los Angeles…those are landscapes of dramatic literary proportions. I am drawn to them, but what I am most fascinated by is the palimpsest of narrative and images that obscure these very cities. I am interested in reading the city as artifice, as a novel, and vice versa: in thinking of the novel as landscape and/or architecture.
What gave you the idea to start working on Fra Keeler? What was the toughest point of the process: planning, writing, editing, getting it to the right hands or something else entirely?
When I write my head is empty. My approach to writing is intuitive, visceral. It’s difficult to descend to that space; it’s like entering a trance. I have to leave behind certainty in order to enter the dark forests of writing.
With Fra Keeler it took me a long time to find the voice. I started the book with a feeling, a mood. I chased that atmosphere for a hundred pages over the course of a summer. In the fall, I threw those pages away. They were too intellectual, I hadn’t gone down deep enough. After that, I found the voice. And once I did it was like tapping into a healthy vein. I wrote the book with my eyes closed in six-minute spurts over the course of a year. I let the voice have its way. I didn’t interfere, even if it meant sitting down in my living room blindfolded with my dog staring at me perplexed. It was later, when the book had found its shape, that I went back to comb through it sentence by sentence.
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"...Just then I propped myself up on one elbow, and saw a puddle a few feet away. It had certainly rained. The fact that it had rained, and that I had suspected as much, gave me courage. I should get up, I thought, and then I thought the light from the sun is amber, even though when I was lying down it was more see-through gold, but now, propped up on my elbow, I thought to myself, I can see that it is amber, thick and dense as honeyed milk. But I couldn’t get up, despite the light and all its tricks of color, because the realization that I could go to sleep not blind and wake up blind stirred in me a severe distrust. Because when something happens once, I thought to myself, there is no telling that it will not happen again. Because that something has carved a pathway for itself in the world, regardless of consequence or prior event. As in, an event can happen without any prerequisites, which is to say that one can go to sleep not blind and wake up blind. Which is to say there is such a thing as an event without predecessors, a phantom event, an event out of nowhere, I thought, and sealed my lips..."
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"...Everything slowed down. There is a last time, I thought, for everything. I began to dream. In my dream, everything faded. A last moment, a last breath. The world closing down around the thing. A mouth closing around an object. The sky closing in on a body. Everything folds into darkness. People die, objects cease to exist, trees vanish. I felt my heart skip up to my throat in the space of my dream. I am choking, I thought..."
* * *
"...When I bent down to stack the papers, I thought the sensation I had had in my brain earlier was the same sensation I had once felt when I shook a pomegranate near my ear. Or, not exactly a sensation, but a sound. That when I shook the pomegranate it had made the same sound as the sound my blood made when it swiveled in my brain, and that both sounds led to the same sensation: of something having dissolved where it shouldn’t have. I went over the memory, from when I picked up the pomegranate to when I shook it near my ear: I had squeezed the pomegranate by rolling it, had pressed into it with my thumbs, juiced it without cracking it open, because it’s the only way to juice a pomegranate without any special machines. All the juice was swiveling about inside the shell of the pomegranate, channeling its way around the seeds the way river water channels itself around driftwood. When I put the pomegranate down I could still hear the juice working its way around the seeds that were dead without their pulp. I had squeezed the pomegranate till the pulp was dead. I could invent a machine to juice pomegranates, I thought, and not just pomegranates but persimmons too, some very basic, cheap tool people could use in their homes, and then I imagined a thousand people, all wearing their house slippers, juicing their pomegranates and persimmons for breakfast, and I thought, never mind, no doubt someone has already invented it..."
Danielle Dutton, the founder and editor of the press, wrote to me and asked if the manuscript was still available. At the time I was living in Girona, a remote Medieval city in Catalonia. I remember the day I got her email. I had just come back from a convent in the hills of Sant Daniel where I was hoping I could rent a cheap room to write in. I was disappointed; the nuns had rejected me. In the evening, I received Danielle’s email. It really turned the day around. She told me a few people had mentioned the manuscript to her and suggested she might like it. She did, and it all worked out beautifully. Even though I never got that writing room in the hills, I was (and still am) grateful that Fra Keeler had found such an exquisite home.
Your interests include “contemporary European, American and Middle Eastern fiction; hybrid and cross-genre novels; gender and disability studies; theory; 19th century travel narratives; Iranian cinema; New Wave cinema; and silent films.” Amazing! But how did these interests develop? How are they relevant and what makes them important for regular readers to explore?
We live in a globalized world where everything we do is interconnected. It seems strange to have to make a case for the relevance of international literature. And then there is our basic humanness, which for good or for bad remains a constant, shared fabric despite our shifting national boundaries. I am referring to the first part of the list here, which I recognize is still limited in scope despite its reach. The rest of the “interests” are randomly generated. Thankfully, what I am interested in is always changing. I suppose I would ask in return: Is there anything that isn’t relevant to literature, assuming that literature is about living?
Who are some of the contemporary authors and artists whose works you enjoy? Why?
There are too many to list here, but hopefully a short list of who I’ve been reading over the past few months will shed some light on the question: Clairce Lispector, Ben Lerner, Cesar Aira, Elena Ferrante, Enrique Vila Matas, Josep Pla, Walter Benjamin, Kafka, Jean Philippe Toussaint, Graham Greene… As for the why:there is something about the rhythm of their language that is hypnotic and that allows me to begin the descent into writing.