Shifting the Subject: an interview with kari edwards

kari edwards

by akilah oliver

kari edwards, winner of the 2002 New Langton Art's Bay Area Award in Literature, is a poet, artist, and gender activist. Her artwork has been exhibited in museums throughout the United States, and her writing can be found in journals such as Aufgabe, puppyflowers, and The International Journal of Sexuality and Gender Studies, as well as in the anthology Blood and Tears (Painted Leaf Press). The author of the chapbook a diary of lies (Belladonna Books), and the poetry collection post/pink (Scarlet Press), edwards' latest book is the experimental novel a day in the life of p. (Subpress, $12) which inspired much of this interview.

a day in the life of p. plays with gender construction and the impossibility of a stabilized identity. What is most important is not merely that the novel does this, but how—because it plays with multiple subjects, it lodges itself into a semiotic field of recurrent references, however, because the references aren't located in a reliable "character," the subject does not dictate the action, and vice versa.

So the writing raises some interesting questions. How can one play with (un)gender/ed identities without relying solely on theory or on the authentic "I"? Can we place a novel within the framework of transgressive literature based on both its queered subject matter and on its structural intent? Or to borrow from both Derrida and southern Black American speech codas, what exactly is it about this kind of fiction that troubles the waters, that does nothing to lessen what Derrida calls "essential predicament of all speech and of all writing, that of context and destination"?

With these ideas in mind, I spoke with edwards in January 2003.

akilah oliver: A quote from Luce Irigaray comes to mind: "The transformation of the autobiographical I into another cultural I seems to be necessary if we are to establish another ethics of sexual difference." What was your intent in playing with the subjective I?

kari edwards: I cannot imagine writing an autobiography that is nothing but linked anecdotes—it takes a certain amount of fiction to create a subject that's not a subject but traces like voice, like music, that glides through the memory without becoming a situated subject. So it seems logical that the new autobiography should be a form of fiction, an assistant to get to the truth. The cultural "I" that I'm working with here is the book itself—the book becomes a sort of exploration of my cultural "I" through fiction, a way of learning to understand myself through their/my language that constructs me.

ao: How does the shifting subject play with the idea that gender is socially determined, biologically repressed?

ke: Gender is one of those things that is assumed to be solid, where in reality it is both a social construct and a personal choice. And like everything else gender is neither solid nor permanent; it's only permanence is perpetrated by the state, family, or the church. So the shifting narrative is more representative of life, which goes against the idea put forth by Judith Butler that gender is a performative repetitive pattern which is nothing more than an assembly line of identity. I think identity is more fluid than that. With gender, would we have gender stability if there were not the oppression of gender-centric behavior?

ao: What do you think about how writers like Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg, both of whom you mention in previous discussions about your work, subvert or refashion personal narratives of gender?

ke: I think both subvert the narrative in that their work can be read from many different directions. Both of their works could be autobiographical. They could be how-to books. Both of their works are a direct extension of gender fluidity.

ao: In what way?

ke: Leslie's book is fiction but it gets into whether it's really about Leslie or not, which opens up the text; Kate's book has everything from plays to poetics and I think that also doesn't pin it down to what kind of book it is. In some ways I think that's some of the most exciting personal narrative that I've read. In p. there is a certain autobiographical nature to it, but the I is in doubt at times.

ao: Do you ever use the marker "I"? I don't remember seeing that.

ke: I do use the marker "I" but it's always a fictionalized "I," and in this particular book I guess this feels more cinematic. Very rarely do we see from the interior point of view of the "I" in cinema. This interior "I," that is so present in literature, seems to have disappeared with the voyeuristic gaze of the camera.

ao: Well, the thing about voyeurism—the other trained on the imagined "I"—is that it's not only external; voyeurism is reciprocal in that I am always aware of the gaze, and in that awareness I engage it. Is this also indicative of a political objective and if so, is a day in the life of p. a kind of newly politicized literature?

ke: I'm not quite sure what political objective means in this case. That is not to say p. is not political—I'm not sure how in this day and age to live and not be political—in some sense, by the act of writing it becomes political. That's not to say all writing is political, or maybe it is: I guess either you're supporting the hegemony or you're challenging it.

ao: There's an implied violence that gender wrecks on identity, especially when one thinks of role playing, the medicalization of sexuality, etc. When is violence not violence? There is something sexy about the knife on page 30, for example.

ke: To me this goes back to some of what the Marquis de Sade did. The violence in some of those books was an open-ended form of eroticism, but what's important is it was in books. So when is violence not violence? That's not such an easy question to answer. I was going to say, to the extent that violence is not directed at someone. But on the other hand there's a history of text that has ignited violence. So the question is, does it harm someone? But even that seems to be a loaded question.

ao: The kind of descriptive and implied violence running throughout the text of p. is also dreamlike. What is it that you're doing by using mutilation, scarification, and rape as part of a bizarrely recognizable topography?

ke: It's all dreamlike. Looking back on any situation that has enough intensity to be remembered is dreamlike no matter how violent the situation. And it could be that this is all a dream; what is the difference between dreaming and waking? Maybe we want to think there is a difference, but anything other than the present is a dream—it is our imagination recreating that moment. We live in a land of violence, in a time of violence, where the definition of rape has to be expanded. Are we not all being raped by the incessant need for commodity? Are we not all being raped when thousands and thousands are killed and we never know? Are we not all being raped when a 17 year-old is murdered for not fitting some illusionary gender norm? How could this be anything else but a horrible dream. On the other hand, what is fiction but a dream extension of our reality?

ao: Is the novel a critique of systems?

ke: Yes, and I do see those systems—family, capitalism, the corporal restraints of gender and time—as violence against the subject, but stated in such a way that it seems necessary for the creation and protection of the subject.

ao: Do you resist a certain easy genre classification of the book?

ke: On some levels—at the same time I see this book in the novelistic tradition, especially as it relates to those writers who challenged it in their time: Rabelais, Cervantes, Acker, and others. On the other hand, it could be a poetic form as well. Again it goes back to the book reflecting my "I," or how I go through life.

ao: There's a bit of word play in the book that lends a satirical tone, e.g., "Dr. Fraud" for Freud. What does word play do for you?

ke: It's a form of irony, a way of creating a multiple reading within the text. It could come from my training as an artist, where the object one is working on has to be addressed on many different levels from aesthetics to concept. I think it is all a matter of how to create a horizontal or multi-layered text. Instead of reading it in a left-to-right fashion, one can to read it on different planes. I also like a good joke now and then.

ao: a day in the life of p. seems to consciously break the rules of narrative development in the way certain poets would. Do you consider the book to be a "poet's novel"?

ke: it seems to me that on some level, poetry attempts to get to a deeper truth by trying to describe the indescribable. I guess that's what p. seems to be doing. The other aspect of that is, if this is a fiction that somehow reflects myself, how could I be a linear narrative? The idea of a linear narrative is just another form or another illusion. Having to take the train to a certain destination is all very linear, but during those moments one never knows what will happen, so I am interested in how you write that.

ao: a day in the life of p. also critiques and comments on its own process as part of the narrative dialogue. How do you think that challenges a reader to "read" differently?

ke: It's another way of breaking down the fourth wall—Laurence Sterne used that technique in Tristram Shandy—but it also acknowledges what's taking place between the reader and the book.

ao: Speaking of ways to read, throughout the text you use bold words and phrases. As a reader, I can choose to read the bold text sequentially, with or outside of the rest of the text, and another narrative focus emerges. Were you trying to create that kind of textual layering?

ke: Yes, I was doing this intentionally, as a text within a text. This also becomes a visual element, which is similar to some hypertexts on the Internet. I think now that computers can do so much with text and images that not to use these tools in the creation of a piece of art seems like not using all the tools available. And at times it seems not to use these tools in a visual manner would be to risk falling into a logocentric unconscious.

ao: There's references to numbers in p. which might seem arbitrary. How do numbers and equations work for you as a writer?

ke: I just see numbers and equations as another language. This could also be true with some net language, such as the @ sign.

ao: It seems that the multiple use of tools or conceits can create a kind of density for the reader. How concerned are you with accessibility?

ke: I was just talking with someone about that, and the definition of self-indulgence in relationship to the theater. What is accessibility? I was walking down the street the other day and heard a couple talking and one of them said, "I never read a book unless it has pictures in it." What is accessible? I think it was Theodore Roosevelt that called Nude Descending a Staircase an exploding shingle factory or something like that. I think what's more important is the level of honesty of the writer or artist and how to define that, though it too seems indefinable.

ao: Can you talk about what that language is for you?

ke: I think naming things can be a tool for both liberation and oppression. So for me language becomes a tool that can be used and then destroyed or reused again in a different way. I think for someone who may be coming out for the first time—as in coming out transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or gay—language gives them a position from which to say "oh, that's that," but the problem then is it becomes "that" for eternity. I am a that, which is nothing but artifice and surface.

ao: Within the medium of words, how do you lose language?

ke: Well, I may be fortunate or not to be dyslexic, so I have the ability to look at an object and lose its name; for a moment I'm in the presence of that object. I guess the same goes for gendered individuals. I no longer see it as male-female, but the person in front of me; it could be that they are male or female but I never try to fix them to position.

ao: Let's talk about this thing called "gay literature" how it's stuck in an ÔI' position...

ke: That's the failure of gay literature: the constant need to identify, the innate victimhood of "I am this," a frozen target to be ghettoized into the back of the store.

ao: Is the victimized identity necessarily a static one? Is the opaque identity freed from historical narratives of gendered bodies, racialized bodies, and so on? I guess I'm thinking about the "moving target" as a way to subvert the marginalization that can result from an over-reliance on identity politics.

ke: I think there's an implied victimhood in gay literature in that it seems to be narcissistically repeated as if it's on some kind of tape loop, one coming out story after another after another. Very rarely do I read about the radical side of challenging the hegemony.

ao: There are those of us who have often lamented about the ghettoization of gay literature, about its apparent need to write in recognizable codes that reference an imagined common identity and community. It seems p. breaks with these codes. Do you think that is at all liberating for gay literature, or am I presuming that a text by a queer person immediately falls within a kind of dialogue about identity?

ke: That's what I was saying before, that by labeling it gay or queer means something. I think it's more important to embody the sense of queerness in the text without labeling it as queer. To me on some level it is no longer queer if it's a thing of pathology, of justification, or of placement. True queerness seems more a way of being, so I think in p. I was trying to the write that sense of queerness without naming it.

ao: So how does the book expand or challenge the notion of what queer or gay writing is or can be?

ke: I think gay literature has to move beyond the typical narrative. As long as there is a continuation of this narrative form—"I am this," "this is what it's like to be me"—then on some level it seems to retard any maturing of the literature.

ao: Is this critique we're leveling at gay literature valuable?

ke: I do think it's valuable to challenge anything that becomes an institution, and "gayness" has become institutionally accepted in this society, which has both its good and bad points.

ao: It's seem that out of this critique of gay literature—how it has marked itself in temporal, recognizable bodies—the question of time arises, time as a marker that contains and limits. Can you talk more about that?

ke: In the Middle Ages, the bells would chime at certain times for prayer and to donate money, so there's a certain kind of control. Time is one of those unspoken controls put in place and never questioned. We buy and sell time for time off. We're paid our value by the hour. Time has become another commodity, when what time is really is relative, no matter how we try to corral it into an absolute. So I think that's one of the issues I wanted to address. What is all the time in the world?

ao: What's next, what are you working on?

ke: I am working on a novel based on Joan of Arc's life and the history of literature—in a sort of limited fashion.

ao: Who is your community of writers? Is it important that writers have a community?

ke: I never think of a community of writers. I think of a community as those that are in my circle. Some are writers, some activists, some artists, or whatever, but there seem to be shared views.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003