Gail Scott’s most recent collection, Permanent Revolution: Essays (Book*hug Press), reads backward. It begins in the present, with Scott’s experiments in language taking her to Paris, San Francisco, and, most recently, Obama-era New York. Part two returns to Montreal, where Scott got her start in the ’70s as a writer, journalist, translator, and editor; in these older essays, Scott evokes the polyglot community she built with Nicole Brossard, Louky Bersianik, and France Théoret, sharing bottles of wine, arguing about Maurice Blanchot until midnight, and reading issues of Tel quel in the back of a Volkswagen van.
With variations on every way a sentence could be, Permanent Revolution has few constants, though it always makes room for friendship, politics, and language. It could be feminist, it could be queer, but it evades a fixed identity. It’s liquid and subtle. As probing as Gertrude Stein, as lusty as François Rabelais, as analytical as Luce Irigaray, Scott seems forever in motion. Places and ideas fly by, leaving Scott’s readers wondering, like the curious revelers in Édouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera: Who is she?
I first read Scott in Paris in 2010. It was late summer, the apartment on the rue Jacob was shaded, dark. I had her fifth book—My Paris, written in present participles—a hypnotically shattered memoir of six months in the city, where Scott is wandering, loving women, and reading Walter Benjamin on a canapé. It wasn’t until 2017 that I heard Scott read. She’d been invited to the University of California at Berkeley by the poets Daniel Benjamin and Eric Sneathen for a conference on New Narrative, a group of queer friends in San Francisco who wrote strange novels full of philosophy and desire. Wheeler Hall was cool in the heat of California’s October, and poets crowded in to hear her, the windows opened to camphorous eucalyptus and the sweet nocturnal rush of Strawberry Canyon. Scott’s voice was polished, smoky, English, French, Canadian, unplaceable. She read from her forthcoming book on New York, Furniture Music (Wave Books, October 2023), a lush conjuring of poetry, community, and protest in Lower Manhattan in the 2010s.
In August of 2019, I finally made it to Montreal—Scott’s home of many years—but not before spending all of June and July fervently reading Heroine, her first novel. Has there ever been such a first novel? Its protagonist arrives in a new city in the “bottomless” ’80s, speaks the wrong language, and makes a whole new way of being. It’s a lucid romance of militant politics, borderless Eros, resistance in language, and flaneur aesthetics. Thirty years later, when strangers on the street in Montreal stopped my then boyfriend to tell him—in French, and very politely—how beautiful he was in his six feet, two inches of Gaultier Femme, we knew it was still Scott’s city.
After a briefly bilingual correspondence, Scott and I mostly used English, which she said I spoke so correctly it sounded like my second language. (It isn’t.) Between New York and Les Cantons de l’Est, near Montreal, we talked over Zoom about whether pleasure is political, why she’s never wanted to be a feminist icon, and what it means to write from pure desire.
I. An Absorbent Language
THE BELIEVER: We’re speaking English. But we could have been speaking French. You grew up in a bilingual community near the Quebec border, and your most recent book, Permanent Revolution, describes this liminal space, lamenting: “In my town, Montréal, QC, it can feel like the French language is the survivor of 2 colonial impulses, Euro-French + continental English.” Do you think English deserves a future in North America?
GAIL SCOTT: I laughed when I saw this question, thinking of francophone cohorts in Quebec, who would surely be tempted to shout a resounding “Non!” English has brutally sucked the energy out of peripheral groups—Indigenous people, for example, where the effort to impose English was actually homicidal. James Baldwin, who spoke the most elegant English imaginable, said he was speaking an enemy language. For me, writing mostly in English in the French part of North America, the chastening contradiction is that English is a great language to write in because it’s so elastic and so absorbent of other cadences, other argots.
BLVR: You worked for the Montreal Gazette during the October Crisis of 1970, when the minister of labor and the British trade commissioner were taken hostage by the Front de libération du Québec. Your first novel, Heroine, set ten years later, includes many “felquiste” sympathizers, organizing in solidarity with Quebec’s traditionally French-speaking, anti-English working class.
GS: Sympathizers not with terrorist methods, but with the felquiste manifesto of liberation for Quebec’s francophone working class. English tried very hard to dominate French in Quebec, and almost succeeded in rubbing it out until that whole Quiet Revolution and post–Quiet Revolution period I write about in Heroine. One of the issues with writing on the cusp of another language is the ethics of doing this permeable thing that English does so well. When I wrote Heroine, I decided I was going to write a book that wouldn’t make me ashamed with my francophone friends or my anglophone friends. I wanted to be socially consistent and in context, as opposed to doing a performance that basically ripped off or exoticized another culture.
BLVR: I guess the queer aspect is that speaking in other languages allows for code-switching, masks, masquerades.
GS: I know that when I’m talking to my francophone friends, I’m not the same person as when I’m speaking to anglophones. In writing, this has meant trying to find the form or scaffolding that allows for an open reading of my work. This interest I have in languages predates feminist and queer factors. Yet it very much overlaps with queer performance—the notion of speech as performance is very present when you’re switching languages.
BLVR: There’s a certain rhythm to your speech—in English, in French—and your engagement with language strikes me as profoundly sonic. It’s like you’re listening while you’re writing.
GS: Montreal has a different sound than any other city in Canada. I walk around Montreal all the time listening to people talk. When I was teaching at the University of Montreal, I loved to listen to the students, because they had the greatest slang—a way of slipping and sliding over language that was witty, self-aware, savvy, and porous, but not in the least deferential.
II. “Writing as Pure Desire”
BLVR: Your work also draws on forms of dandyism and flânerie from francophone culture. At one point in Permanent Revolution, your English-speaking niece is incredulous that you’re related to her, leading you to feel—in your “pointed boots,” “black-+-white-striped sweater,” and “at the moment trendy pants, cut wide at the hips + narrow at the ankles”—like a “misplaced dandy.” Your work is political, but dandyism is about pleasure. Can pleasure also be political?
GS: I came along in the ’70s, when my milieu in Montreal perceived the hedonism of ’60s counterculture as lacking in political definition. One of our questions then, which I still find crucial, was: How can you democratize access to pleasure? Certainly problematic if you are doing three jobs a day to make ends meet.
BLVR: Pleasure seems to be everywhere in My Paris. Let me quote you: “Waking… A couple of tartines. No thought of lunch. Ditto way of moving. Trimmer. Red mop smooth. Strolling to Palais-Royal. Former home of Colette. Old hedonist. Knowing how to take pleasures of the body.” Your evocation of Colette here seems not incidental.
GS: Yes, at the same time as we were trying to politicize everything, we began speaking of writing as pure desire. It was a Barthesian idea that seemed to pull in two directions at once. The thing that troubles me is that the pursuit of pleasure too often gets grounded in single-issue identity politics.
BLVR: Did you ever face resistance from your political communities because of the jouissance that drives your writing?
GS: Jouissance is a good word, it’s totally jouissance, in the sense of losing the self in the pleasure of the process. When Heroine came out, another writer said to me, “This isn’t a feminist novel. The women don’t get along!” That was a raw comment. I haven’t made it my goal to do the radical feminist anything; it’s not who I am. Without multiple intersectional solidarities, there’s practically always a backlash. There was a hell of a backlash against feminism in the ’90s, and I’m worried it’s going to happen to the Indigenous movement. As I say in Permanent Revolution: “rage accumulates.”
BLVR: I remember you quoting a critic whose bewildered response to My Paris was that it must be some kind of “lesbian aesthetic.” Without wanting to assign you an individual subject position as a “queer writer,” I wonder whether being in queer community allowed you to engage with the pleasure-politics dialectic outside the puritanical, heterosexual left.
GS: The pleasure-killer was less puritanism than good old male-dominant heteronormality. Feminism started me down the slippery slope of demanding what I had always already wanted: freedom to dispose of my body, my drives, as I saw fit. Twenty seconds later I was in the lesbian camp. Also, Quebec is a francophone society, and there is a certain attention to pleasure—to dress, to food, to beautiful writing, to beauty itself—that’s articulated very differently than in Ontario, for example. French literature was so instructive in that regard, be it Colette, [Roland] Barthes, [Marguerite] Duras, even that old Protestant [André] Gide, especially when he writes of queer desire. But is this pleasure political? It’s hard to say, because isn’t pleasure about being in the moment? I’m in the bath and I’m having a great time—is this political?
BLVR: I was reading Permanent Revolution on Riis Beach [in New York City], and when I saw that title [“The Smell of Fish”], I turned to my boyfriend and said, “Woah!” It’s an adventurous book—a polyphony of essayistic forms. Do you know the poet Anne-Marie Albiach?
GS: Oh yes!
BLVR: She describes the breath of the poem, the body of the poem. Your prose always takes different shapes, almost like the varied approach of a lover.
GS: The essays in the second section of the book came from my women’s writing group with Nicole Brossard and company. We wanted to project, in language, and without embarrassment, our own physical impulses. We knew this was a matter of form, that genre limits had to be crossed, that theory was part of the picture—[Monique] Wittig, [Julia] Kristeva, Irigaray. But also Barthes and [Jacques] Derrida. For me, a watershed book was Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s book about the Baroque in reference to Walter Benjamin. At the same time, just before I wrote Heroine, I was reading [Sigmund] Freud. I was very interested in the relation between body and language, and very conscious that he wasn’t doing it right as far as women were concerned. Speech for me is very close to the body, and speech is infinitive in the sense that it’s always rearranging, retorquing, uncovering what is not quite conscious.
III. La Sujette
BLVR: Do you accept the idea of “women’s writing”? You’ve alluded to some of the dissonances you feel with contemporary identity politics, the complexity of your subject position, your resistance to and your escape from—
BLVR: I was going to say the category of women’s writing, but that too! You write in Permanent Revolution, “I don’t think we have talked enough about the feminist/queer cusp.” Earlier theorists like Wittig—whom you quote as saying, “Lesbians are not women”—really paid attention to specific social constructions of identity. Now it sometimes seems like everyone has to have a possibly intersectional but definitely fixed subject position, and the work of art is expected to represent the subject position rather than question it.
GS: That’s exactly my problem.
BLVR: How do you negotiate this more rigid moment in identity politics?
GS: You notice I cite Eileen Myles in the epigraph. I love their “I’m the gender of Eileen”—what freedom that gives everybody on the spectrum! Because we’re all a little different in some respect, you know? At some point in Permanent Revolution, I call myself a “FE-male.” What I’m saying is, I’m a woman, but I’m also a lesbian. I’m not necessarily a whole girl, even though I look like one. I have these different drives going on. I don’t see how you can defend this identity versus that one. We’re all moving and we’re all evolving as we understand more about these things.
BLVR: How do you see your books tracking that movement over time?
GS: For me it comes down to various attempts at breaking the back of the commodity novel, with its heteronormative, nineteenth-century emphasis on the individual psychology of characters around the family. It has to be broken down. It has to let in air. All my novels are an experiment with that. In Heroine, you have the spiral allowing the reader to be looking at the story from different angles all the time. Then in Main Brides, you’ve got the woman in a bar, and as she’s becoming inebriated, she’s imagining the stories of other women, but you don’t really know if it’s other women or if it’s her, so there’s fluidity between the figures. In My Paris, I tried to reduce the “I” to the smallest unit possible. To do that I used the present participle, because if you omit the active part of the verb, there’s no big “I” left anymore—it really makes the text porous. And then in The Obituary, I tear it all apart, so you’ve got Rosine as the lesbian in the basement, as the fly on the wall, and also as the body on a bed.
BLVR: Presumably the complexity of your position also evolved from the Montreal feminist theory group you belonged to with Brossard, Louky Bersianik, France Théoret, Louise Cotnoir, and Louise Dupré. In your essay “The Virgin Denotes,” you recall: “We wanted to circumvent logos. Without somehow abandoning a towering lucidity.” How did you evade the masculine borders of theory?
GS: I feel like I got my theoretical education outside the university—in the left, and in the feminist movement. One advantage we had in Montreal was that we could read this stuff before it got translated. We were just gobbling it up all the time. The air was thick with theory and politics. And as feminists we were having no truck with masculine shortsightedness. We could decide to read only women philosophers for a time. But we were also well-informed. I remember I went on a camping trip one summer in a Volkswagen van. I spent the whole time reading back issues of Tel quel. It was a problem for me to leave the van. As for our writing group, once a month for about eight years we would get together. We would have a subject of conversation, half-playful but also serious. One of the ones I remember was “la sujette.”
BLVR: The female subject?
GS: Playing on the idea of the female subject as the writing subject. But then we would each write a semi-theoretical text—in French. We would have croissants, coffee, and discuss the texts. We would bring in all the stuff we were reading, and argue about what Kristeva meant here, or what Duras or Barthes or Blanchot meant there. Once we’d finished talking about the texts, out came the bottles of wine. I remember one meeting that went from twelve noon until twelve at night. You can’t get a better education than that. It was such a great period. We were also trying to relate our reading and writing to feminist and social practice, because a lot of us were militants too. Louky [Bersianik] was the one who came up with the expression écriture-au-feminin [writing-in-the-feminine]. We didn’t really like [Hélène] Cixous’s écriture feminine [feminine writing]. Some of us were lesbians! And we were like, Are we “feminine”? It’s like thinking there’s something already there that you can describe. What is the feminine? We don’t know. We don’t know what the masculine is either. And Louky said, “I prefer the term écriture-au-feminin, because then you have the masculine as well as the feminine.”
BLVR: Because the noun for “the feminine” is masculine in French?
GS: Try explaining that to an anglophone audience! But it’s true. Putting it that way left some air and left some flexibility in the term. I think after a while both Nicole [Brossard] and I used the term less, but at least it was a stage. The feminine certainly still interests me from the point of view of desire and from the point of view of language.
BLVR: Several of the group’s essays are collected in Theory, A Sunday. In the introduction, Lisa Robertson elegizes the Montreal scene as “mythic and galvanizing.” What were its other reverberations?
GS: With women from English Canada, I cofounded a magazine called Tessera. We decided to piggyback on other literary magazines around the country, some French like La nouvelle barre du jour, as well as CV2, out of Winnipeg, and Room of One’s Own in Vancouver, which allowed the discussions that were happening in French to seep out in translation.
BLVR: Were there intersections with gay writing communities? If I’m not mistaken, Yves Navarre lived in Montreal for part of the ’80s.
GS: For some reason, that era in Quebec and the one just preceding produced a lot of queer writers. Marie-Claire Blais, for example. My immediate milieu in the larger poetry community had a lot of gay writers with whom we constantly collaborated. André Roy, who is today one of Quebec’s most important poets. Jean-Paul Daoust. Michael Delisle, whom I translated. They were definitely part of the scene. They weren’t in our group, but they were around La nouvelle barre du jour.
IV. An Unstable Avant-Garde
BLVR: I was surprised to read in Permanent Revolution that you carried [Samuel] Beckett in your old, battered steamer trunk full of manuscripts and notes.
GS: The thing about Beckett was that I wanted to be taken seriously for my writing, because the work seemed to get reduced to a label: Feminist. Lesbian. Leftie. Whatever. It’s not that I wanted to win the Nobel Prize—that would never even have crossed my mind. But I wanted to be an experimental prose writer whose work was takenseriously. I don’t think those labels are as reductive and problematic now as they were when I was a young writer, but then it was really a way of saying, Well, she’s good enough for what she is, you know?
BLVR: You write that your readings of Duras, Kristeva, Stein, Wittig, Brossard, Cixous, Emma Santos, and Sophie Podolski “confirm what we already feel—that to express the shape of our desire, our prose must lean toward poetry.” I wonder how you negotiated the genre policing that seemed to have accompanied the gender (genre) policing.
GS: Poetry still teaches me how to write prose. I suppose my dream has always been to accomplish something of what poetry accomplishes, but also of what the novel accomplishes, because for me the novel also allows a social insertion, a working out. All of my novels are written in a social context that bears discussing. Every period requires a different kind of experimentation. Another writer whose work I love—and this won’t surprise you—is Viktor Shklovsky, especially Zoo, or Letters Not about Love. There is always the roar and insecurity of political rupture. As for policing the gender/genre thing, it’s an ongoing battle in terms of institutional acceptance. There is prose and there is poetry, and never the twain shall meet.
BLVR: You talk about Zoo in Permanent Revolution.
GS: That line of Shklovsky’s, “If a line continues without breeding with the non-esthetic, nothing is created,” represents for me what a novel can do that poetry, probably, has more difficulty with. That’s one reason I’m still a novelist. Anyway, I couldn’t write a poem to save my life.
BLVR: I don’t believe you.
GS: Or what I would consider a poem, anyway.
BLVR: Another context for Permanent Revolution is your encounter with San Francisco Bay Area writers Robert Glück and Carla Harryman. Here, too, the problem of story returns, with Language poets trying to dismantle first-person expression, and New Narrative writers queering it, putting in theory and body. How did the New Narrative group change your relationship to language?
GS: I got to know the San Francisco people in the ’90s. One of my big problems in Quebec was that most of my friends had this principle that you shouldn’t get too involved with English. So I hardly ever got really good feedback from my francophone cohorts about my English writing, and I was starving after a while. Meeting Carla [Harryman] was a big moment. She’s a poet but she writes a lot of prose and I love her performance work. I see a kinship with Beckett. Then meeting New Narrative people like Bob [Glück], Camille [Roy], Kevin [Killian], and Dodie [Bellamy]—and, on the East Coast, Eileen [Myles]. It was just so thrilling for me. I knew that my work wasn’t ever going to look like theirs exactly; it was coming from a different place. But I knew that we had things in common, not the least of which was the relationship of our queerness to our writing.
BLVR: I’m interested that you didn’t mention Bruce [Boone].
GS: You know, I only met Bruce once. But having said that, I don’t think his contribution is nearly as well known as it should be.
BLVR: I ask about Bruce particularly because he has such a complex engagement with French literature. You know he translated [Georges] Bataille and Pascal Quignard.
GS: I certainly recognize a kindred spirit in him. I have the impression that the juncture between art and politics happens around the same place in our writing.
BLVR: Excluding New Narrative, it seems like a lot of North American avant-garde poetics in the ’80s, ’90s, and maybe 2000s weren’t grounded in real political community and became somewhat arid or academic. Are avant-garde writing procedures always politically liberatory?
GS: I think we have to stop expecting the notion of avant-garde to be a stable notion. Looking back at some people who have performed avant-garde functions, [Ezra] Pound opened doors in poetry and then became a fascist. Avant-garde for me always has to be viewed in context. There can be great stuff coming out of a certain moment, like Dada, or the surrealists. We owe so much to André Breton, but feminists don’t like him, and he was homophobic up the you-know-what. He made René Crevel totally miserable.
BLVR: You’ve translated a number of friends, fellow travelers—Théoret, Lise Tremblay, Delisle. In translating French texts into English—“that dominatrix,” as you call it in Permanent Revolution—how did you avoid alienating their cultural difference?
GS: Certainly there’s never a complete transition from one space to another. Essentially I grew up with Franco-Canadian culture and language from about the age of eight. It’s not as if I were translating Podolski from Euro-French. These translations with Quebecois writers were very collaborative. I would write a few pages, and then we would sit down and have a drink—that always helps.
BLVR: I wish we could have one now. I’m sorry we’re on Zoom.
GS: Well, it’s five o’clock somewhere. But, you know, France [Théoret] particularly—as you can see from reading the “Virginia and Colette” essay—was really my beacon, as I was hers, for many years. Our relationship was so intense. So it wasn’t hard for me to translate these people, but it would be hard for me to translate people coming from another place. Even New York or Paris is more difficult.
BLVR: Is writing instrumental for life, or conversely?
GS: I can’t really separate the two. I think about language all the time. An hour doesn’t go by that I’m not thinking about writing. Not even an hour. And speaking of pleasure, this is it.