I first saw Barbara Browning when she was naked, one hand extended to open a shower curtain, in our shared dorm bathroom, when we were both in our late teens. Barbara wore her hair short then, and her compact little body was so unapologetically whole, not a series of parts in the way I considered my own body to be. Somehow, in the coming days, which were the last days of my sophomore year, I convinced Barbara to endlessly say words that began with the letter “B”, because I loved the way she said it. She had a way of expelling the B sort of like a P, but in a caressing, slow way—I could watch her for hours saying “bubble” and “best”. I suppose you could call it falling in love.
My first films were about dreams I’d had, and Barbara was my muse. She played a sleepwalker, Eve in the garden, a demented art historian. She danced naked, covered only in shredded paper, or wearing a mask of cheesecloth. She emerged naked from a freezing pond. She was game, her body was a triumph, she was like a little animal. We lived together in New Haven, and later in Brooklyn. Sometimes we are separated for months, but our closeness never dims. We don’t fight. We accept each other as we are. We have known each other for around thirty years. We still seem young to each other.
REBECCA MILLER: Barbara, the first thing I want to talk about is your approach to using people from your own life as characters in your books, especially The Gift. You have such an unusually ethical approach in that you actually ask people if it’s okay that you use them, and often let them read the parts of the book they are in. I wonder if you do this because, though you change our names (in my case very slightly, from Rebecca to Rebekah), you don’t pretend we are fictional characters: you present us as real and you write the truth as you experience it.
I never ask permission, I just hope certain people don’t read or watch my work. And mostly I love the people I use, like you, so it’s a loving portrait, and I don’t have to hide. Anyway, maybe can you talk about the delicate balance of “fact” and “fiction” in your work? Do you feel this mitigates the element of vampirism that dogs all writers’ souls?
BARBARA BROWNING: It’s funny you use the word “ethical,” because my narrator recounts an episode in which her smarter, more politically committed students do some eyeball-rolling over the suggestion that her nervousness about hurting or offending her characters is a question of “ethics,” which they regard as “weak politics.” Just to put things in perspective—while there’s a bumper crop these days of writers who teeter-totter at the tipping point between fiction and nonfiction (Knausgaard, Heti, Cole, Lerner, etc.), that’s been going on for a very long time. The obvious European examples are Proust and Duras, but it’s an important aspect of African and Caribbean fiction as well (Head, Kincaid). Have you read Bessie Head’s A Question of Power? If not, can we read it together? It’s harrowing, but it’s amazing.
When I first read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, I said jokingly, “I think I’ve found my evil twin. And by evil, I mean male.” Meaning, I’d done something quite similar in The Correspondence Artist—we both had an approach to autofiction that drew attention to its own devices—except he seemed to feel no compunction at all about roping his intimates into the game. But of course there are plenty of badass women writers who have the same apparently coldblooded attitude—Chris Kraus springs to mind. I don’t think my “ethics” are in any way superior, but as you know, I’m constitutionally nice. I say this in The Gift: my own mother called me “saccharine” when I was a kid. So yes, I tend to ask for permission.
There was a major revision I had to make on this manuscript to accommodate somebody’s request not to be included in it, which is part of why it sat in the sock drawer of my computer for a long time, until I felt I could rewrite those parts. But in general, I’ve found that most people like being fictionalized. More often, the anxiety they express is that after they’ve been written into a novel, I’ll somehow be “done” with them—but for me, writing someone into a novel is never about forgetting them. If anything, it’s a way for me to hold on to people I love. You get that, though. As I wrote in The Gift, “Rebekah’s not worried about whether I’ll keep loving her; she understands these things. I’ve been a minor character in any number of things she’s written.”
RM: You certainly have. In fact, I would say you have been a major muse in my work all the way down the line. I think perhaps the idea of the writer as someone who “uses” people is itself suspect. It makes the writer into a sort of predator—maybe even an abuser—whereas what you seem to be saying is that writing about someone or incorporating aspects of them into fiction is very often an expression of love, as it surely is when I write about you or aspects of you. But I think that a kind of love can be expressed even when the person is not painted in a totally flattering light. Under the umbrella of “love” in this case I’m including attention, focus, fascination, and the warmer aspects of the emotion. Writing is a way of connecting to people, and the writer sculpts in flesh. We only have other people, the sensual world, to clothe our ideas in.
I haven’t read A Question of Power. I’ll read it if it isn’t too theoretical. As we both know, you’re the brainiac in our friendship. I’m put off somewhat by theory, and yet reading The Gift I do feel that if anyone can get an instinctive type like me to understand theory, it’s you, because you sensualize it. I don’t mean sexualize—though there’s plenty of sex there, too! But you find a way to cloak theory in compelling narrative. Could you talk about your approach?
BB: Oh, as for the first part of your answer, of course gentle parody is often an expression of love! My “brainiac” tendencies got a nice, tender skewering in your film Maggie’s Plan, when Julianne Moore delivered some choice, pretentious lines from a lecture I delivered on Pussy Riot. (My colleagues thought I should get promoted to full professor on the basis of this portrayal.) A Question of Power is not theoretical! I know the title makes it sound like it might be, but it’s the most naked, human book you can imagine—though it tells you at least as much about power, sex, madness, and surveillance as any political theorist does. Head narrates her own psychotic break—or what was diagnosed as such. The end is astonishing. I’m ordering it for us. Should we mention that we have our own little book group? Anyway, yes, for me, reading some theory is just as sexy or poignant as reading some novels. There’s a passage in The Gift that paraphrases a weird little seminar given by the psychoanalytic theorist Wilfred Bion, and to me it’s one of the most surreal and moving parts of the book. Sex, well, yes, I also like to write about that, and think about it. In this book, I was trying to think very hard about what it might mean to make love to music. Not in the sense of putting on a Marvin Gaye record and having sex with somebody, but to actually think about the possibility of making love to music—as an extension of the person who made it. There are several prostheses that appear in the narrative. A silicone leg, a dildo, a violin bow. Fingers. At one point, the narrator is exchanging texts with her friend, a trans artist who says that he can feel with his dildo. He says, “It’s an extension of my body,” and the narrator responds, “My body is an extension of my body.”
RM: “My body is an extension of my body.” I marked that. Could you explain that please?
Also, I’d love to read A Question of Power for our book club. Let’s think about the snacks we’ll serve.
BB: I ordered two used copies of A Question of Power. As I said, it’s pretty harrowing, so we may just want to discuss it over a stiff drink. (But if we have snacks, they should be vegetables, and we should eat them outside. There’s a kind of redemption the character Elizabeth seems to find in gardening.)
“My body is an extension of my body” just means it’s hard to say where a body begins and where it ends, and eros teaches you that. Also that the parts are sometimes not what we think they are. In that exchange the narrator says, “I said that I’d once had a lover who sometimes affectionately wrote me about my penis the morning after we’d made love. (She was referring to my fingers.)” And I tell that story of Rafe Biggs, the quadriplegic man who learned to have an orgasm through his thumb, where he still has some sensation. But I also love the image of that beautiful carved snakewood violin bow as a prosthetic extension of the body. In my novel, the musician, Sami, describes using it to play the “sweet spot.” It’s one of the dirtiest passages in the book.
RM: On cue, I growl when hearing the name “Sami.” But back to your explanation, which is beautiful. I was listening to a radio show about a famous French Catholic geologist who lives with his wife and six kids in an intentional community built for people with mental illness. He talks about having understood the word “communion” only when he found himself looking at a dying child in India and not flinching, but understanding that they were both somehow the same person. This brings me to porous ways of thinking about identity in your novel, but also to the question of cosmic love.
In your book, you have a strikingly lenient attitude toward identity: Sami could exist as he says, or he might not, but it doesn’t really matter. Olivia doesn’t exist, but she feels most like she does exist when you cry on her shoulder listening to your real lover shred guitar (this is one of my favorite moments in the novel). You claim to be telling the truth all the time, yet how are we to trust that completely, when this is a novel filled with sleights of hand? And so I can’t help wondering if there is some sense of an illusion of identity—a feeling that all people are each others’ illusions—at the heart of the novel, but also a heartbreaking mystical sense of oneness that goes beyond the facts.
BB: Hm. The scenario of the intentional community of cosmic love sounds like a movie you might make, except there would be some sort of Buddy Hackett-like character doing his stand-up routine in a corner of the enclave.
Well, in addition to being “saccharine,” I’m also pretty compulsively honest. (You, on the other hand, sometimes fib a little to get out of awkward social situations, but you’re so bad at it you end up telling some completely implausible hairy-dog story and then knocking over your water glass in embarrassment.) But—uh-oh, here comes the theory again—I’ve also read my Nietzsche and my Derrida and especially my Lacan, so any time I hear myself saying to my students with any kind of authority, “The truth is…” I break off the sentence and smile at them.
All you have to do is walk into a bar and have somebody start telling you the story of their life to realize that everybody, to some degree, is an unreliable narrator—especially of him or herself. I try very hard to be honest in my fiction, again not because I find that morally superior but because it interests me, what that means, to try to be honest in fiction. I talk about that in this book—that is, the narrator explains to someone who’s lied to her, “Even in my fiction, if I say, ‘This really happened,’ then it’s true. It really happened.” If she tells you something that didn’t happen, she says, “This is fiction.”
What was narrated in the book was what I believed as I was writing it. There’s a character in the novel, Abner Berg, who finds the whole story suspect. That is, he thinks the character Sami may be misrepresenting himself—but for a while, he even mistrusts my narrator. In an exchange of emails on the topic, she writes Abner, “You keep putting [Sami’s] name in quotation marks, and I have to acknowledge that there’s reason for doubt, and I can’t be 100 percent sure he exists, and I have to kind of make fun of myself, both when talking to you and in writing the book. But I’m about 98 percent sure he exists, and I think he’s very largely the person he purports to be. As much as any of us are. Which is maybe on average 95 percent true. Not because we’re 5 percent liars but because we can’t see about 5 percent of ourselves.” That’s the obvious thing that dawns on you if you hear somebody’s life story in a bar—or you hear a dear friend rationalizing something, or you hear yourself talking to a psychotherapist.
But it’s interesting you used the term “sleight of hand,” because in the book, someone sends me an article about a pickpocket/conceptual artist who always tells people he’s going to use his sleight of hand, and then when he steals something he shows it to the person and gives it back right away. If there’s any sleight of hand in this book, it’s like that.
RM: You’re right about the French Catholic geologist living in the intentional community with his wife and six children. It’s pure comedy when it comes out of my mouth, but I assure you when Krista Tippett did her interview it was highly serious, and I thought I was listening to it very seriously, but I just didn’t manage to convey it that way, as usual. Which leads me to the humor in The Gift. It’s got a wry wit about it, a kind of toughness at times, which reminds me of your mother and her dry, flat delivery—and yet it is also a deeply feeling story…
BB: Well, you would be better equipped to gauge what I’m about to say than anybody, since you’ve known me since we were practically girls and you know all the characters involved. You’ve always been a goofball (last night, lying in bed, I burst out laughing, remembering that huge banner on the French Canadian conference hotel in Maggie’s Plan that says, “Welcome Fictocritical Anthropologists!”). But I’d say it took me a while to grow into my sense of humor. My mother always had a very dry, acerbic wit. When I had my own kid, it was evident from the moment he popped out that he’d inherited that. Seriously, they put Leo under one of those warming lights in the hospital, like the ones they use to keep french fries warm in fast food restaurants, and he was lying there with an expression of high irony. As you know, he’s still got that. I thought it had skipped a generation. But I started writing fiction when he was about eight or nine, and I found myself copping some of his moves, and indeed, I started to hear strains of my mother as well.
That was in the wake of September 11, when the world suddenly seemed irrevocably sad. Of course, I don’t refer just to that day, but to all the military violence we could see on the horizon, and what that would produce, in turn. And aside from seeing that, and trying to articulate it, it felt to me like the only way to survive the sadness of the situation was to watch Peter Sellers movies. Leo and I did a lot of that in that period.
The writers I love tend to be a little funny and a little sad. I think I’m also looking for that sweet spot. My narrator says that at the end of the book—that she wanted to show you the way she saw you: beautiful, damaged, and less freakish than you thought. I don’t mean you, Rebecca, or even Rebekah, but the ‘you’ addressed by the book, whoever that is. “I wanted to show you that. I wanted to make you something—maybe a little charming, maybe a little funny, or sexy, a small song, or a dance, or this novel.”
RM: Funny how babies are definitely expressing emotions and humor almost from birth. My oldest boy had this smile he’d use on me that was definitely encouraging me as I tried rather desperately to execute my new domestic identity. It was a humorous, encouraging smile he still uses on me now that he’s going to college and I’m still struggling with the practical side of life. Your novel is sad and funny, but it’s also wildly optimistic politically. Your view of communism is loose, to say the least. But I so love the idea you have of giving away your gift—as an artist. There’s a kind of utopia embedded in the book, I feel. Am I right?
BB: Um, yes. About both utopianism, and also my freewheeling and very possibly irresponsible use of the term “communism.” I referred already to the fact that this manuscript sat for some time in the sock drawer of my computer, and in fact there were several reasons for that. I wrote it in the wake of the Occupy movement, which was, to me, a time when many people’s political imaginations seemed, for a moment, to open up (in fact, I don’t think that’s entirely over, though of course there have also been some disappointments). Just as I was finishing the first draft, there were also several upheavals in my personal life, which you know about—but among them was the sudden, unexpected passing of my dear friend, José Esteban Muñoz. The epigraph to my novel is taken from his last book, Cruising Utopia:
Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of the moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.
After José died, I printed those lines out on little cards and gave them to people with three suggestions: they could write them with a Sharpie on the wall of a public restroom; they could raise a glass, drunk, in a bar, and shout them out to their fellow patrons; or they could whisper them into the ear of their lover, before, during, or after sex. (By the way, if you’re reading this, I still suggest you do one of these things. Or all of these things. Or something else you can imagine for yourself.)
José taught me a lot about how important it is to be utopian—politically, artistically, and erotically. He also used the term “communism” with a certain freewheeling attitude, though as a Cuban American raised in Hialeah, Florida, it had different ramifications for him. Anyway, yes, the book is about gift economies, about artistic gifts and collaboration, and about how eros teaches you to go beyond a scarcity model of wealth. That’s the great line from Lewis Hyde: “In the world of the gift,” Hyde writes, “you not only can have your cake and eat it too, you can’t have your cake unless you eat it. Gift exchange and erotic life are connected in this regard…” When I teach this passage to my students, I always bring in a cake and we eat it together.
Hey, do you want to ask me about the dance videos?
RM: Oh, and: How could I forget? The videos. I love them with a passion, and I’m not kidding when I say they’re brilliant and original and mesmeric. Maybe I love them especially because you were my first movie star, also naked, as in these. I actually feel a kinship, as the director I was then, with the work you’re doing now.
BB: In fact, that’s what I wanted to tell you: that I had this revelation about the imagery and your early films. It took me a while to get there, but then suddenly it was so obvious. A few months ago, I was invited to pose some questions to the filmmaker Barbara Hammer at a screening of her most recent film, which is about Elizabeth Bishop. I’m a huge fan of Hammer. Her website describes her as a “pioneer of queer cinema,” which she certainly is, and also of formal experimentation. (For me, those two achievements are related, or maybe even the same thing.) Anyway, she is also extremely generous, and when I mentioned that I sometimes made small videos to illustrate or extend the borders of my fiction, she began to ask me about them. When I said they were minimalist, a fixed camera focused on movement in tight domestic spaces, she said, “Oh, so you must love Chantal Akerman.”
I suddenly felt really ridiculous, talking to Barbara Hammer about Chantal Akerman, who indeed I really love. I’m constantly telling my students they have to watch Jeanne Dielman, and I wrote about a scene from another of her films in my last novel. But I myself am, as you know, a total diddler when it comes to cinematic technique—I shoot my videos with the internal camera on my MacBook, in the Photo Booth app, and just crop and filter them a little in iMovie. To have Barbara Hammer actually talk to me about my videos was like having Gerhard Richter talk to me about something I might have doodled on a paper napkin. Still, I was happy that she’d intuited my love of Akerman. It was only part way through writing The Gift that I realized that I should have been influenced by Yvonne Rainer’s films as well, but to tell the truth, I didn’t know them. I watched Hand Movie after I’d been making little films of my own hand dances for some time.
And—this is the funny part—it was also only after the fact that it dawned on me that some of these videos bore such a marked resemblance to some of your early film experiments. Remember the one you shot of me dancing on the beach, near the home for blind people? Was that on Long Island? It must have been around 1985. Naked from the waste up, with a tutu, and my head wrapped in gauze. I wear a similar outfit in some of the dances I made for The Gift! Obviously, your imagery got seared into my brain. You were all into Jung at the time, and making movies out of your dreams. Which makes a person wonder if maybe you just made her up. That would serve me right!
Did I mention that I love you? I love you.
Barbara Browning teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University. She is the author of the novels The Correspondence Artist (winner of a Lambda Literary Award), I’m Trying to Reach You (short-listed for the Believer Book Award), and The Gift. She also makes dances, poems, and ukulele cover tunes.