As part of an ongoing series about Breaking the Rules, I invite Wendy S. Walters to answer a few questions about her latest book, Multiply/Divide from Sarabande Books. The biggest rule is that of the holiday weekend and Wendy kindly broke that rule by getting back to me this very weekend. Thank you, Wendy, for your insight and for your essays.
As I mentioned earlier, I curate a section for Essay Daily called “Breaking the Rules.” Your latest book from Sarabande, is a perfect fit for the series. Not only do you break a lot of genre rules, you also seem to be breaking a larger rule, or rather, instituting a new definition, of book. Usually, the term book not only implies a given theme held together by the rubber-band of a solid title, but the term book usually specifies a particular genre. I suppose we should begin with the question of that big rule break right off the bat. Why did you want to collect both fiction and essay together in one genre-defying “book”?
WSW: I do think the present moment is a fine time to reconsider what a book can do. Multiply/Divide defies genre because it considers institutions—theologies, nations, categories of identity—that are fortresses with falling walls.
But I did not want people to get confused about whether the pieces were “true” or “imagined” so I included that introductory note. Because my methodology throughout the book is very similar, the pieces are not so different. All of the works are deeply indebted to research. For nonfiction I employ facts to explore a topic and at other times I use fictional “data.”
The title, Multiply/Divide, gives the reader some access to theme, but on a mostly metaphorical basis. How does the title encapsulate what you’re trying to do with genre? How do you see it signaling the themes in the book?
WSW: I thought of the title as an ongoing sequence of motions—an object moves forward into an expansive space and then, as it enlarges it is unable to maintain its integrity and separates into fragments. That kind of progression has always felt very American to me, in part because the idea of America, as revolutionary upstart and empire, so often exceeds the ability of its citizenry to live by that idea.
I was trained to write academic essays and to do traditional scholarship, but in that field I also had a problem staying in the lines, in following a singular tradition or engagement with a philosopher or theorist. I struggled with academic writing because its stylistic obligations were never technically explicit enough for me. I enjoyed the processes of research and investigation, but when it came to writing the critical essay, the expectation that I would constantly need to interrupt my train of thought to cite a reference that could not be fully considered within the argument felt clumsy and unrefined. Many years later, I found nonfiction to be a more forgiving practice in its syntactical expectations—at least when I wasn’t intentionally trying to write “in the tradition.”
In the first chapter, “Lonely in America” you have to breach some rules of politeness to get to the story about where the slaves had been buried. You had to ask uncomfortable questions, where the discomfort that they should have felt transferred to you. How annoying is that and what kind of mental acrobatics do you need to do to make yourself stay the course while rationalizations, back-pedaling, and buck-passing swirled all around you?
WSW: One of the things I tell my students is that no one dies from discomfort. People die from neglect, violence, cruelty, disregard, disdain, dehumanization and other practices that helped to define the peculiar institution of American slavery, so I guess I felt no damage in asking the local historians about the burial site. It was also not as if I was uncovering a new story, as it had already been widely reported on by New England newspapers and public radio. It felt risky because I wanted to get the story right.
While reporting I didn’t feel annoyance at their evasiveness. I did feel confusion because I didn’t understand how some of the people I was talking to could talk about people as if they were not people. I wanted to know more about their perspective despite my own discomfort with confronting the facts of slavery in New England. I knew if I didn’t keep going I would be complicit in allowing this history to go unread.
“Cleveland” is the first fictional piece—How do you—or do you—signal the reader that it’s fiction?
WSW: It’s funny—early confusion around this piece is one of the reasons I wrote the introductory note for the whole collection. I was surprised when people read that story as biography, but on a certain level I didn’t mind the misperception if it made them more likely to engage with this investigation into a world in which black women go missing without a trace.
I love “In Search of a Face”—the fragments, dashes, white pace, one-word lines—how does poetry inform this project?
WSW: I suffer from a kind of myopia that tells me that all forms of writing are poetry—though tweaked by constraints a little here and there. So I would say that this project is poetry, though manifest under formal expectations found most commonly in nonfiction. By that, I mean that I think of prose as a subset of poetry. Perhaps this is one of the ways I break the rules?
I love the braided elements of “Post-Logical Notes on Self-Election.” Here, you include sections about Barack Obama’s election as president, online dating, geography, Franz Fanon, gay marriage, the framers of the constitution. Are all essays fundamentally braided ones? How does this one push the boundaries of the braid?
WSW: Thank you. I’ve mentioned that I came to writing essays as a poet with scholarly training, and sometimes my understanding of the terms associated with the genre of nonfiction feels a little out of sync with the discussions about the field. I think of almost everything I write in terms of associations, and the question before me is whether those associations can be established through detailed bridging or if the jump/rupture/juxtaposition serves the project better than a graduated argument? A gap created by a sudden shift in narrative trajectory interrupts chronology. When one is dealing with topics such as identity, nation, ethics, or belief systems, the lacuna also dislodges expectations of value and shifts teleologies to include new conditions of possibility. In my nonfiction writing I am interested in documenting what currently is recognized to exist as well as offering my interpretation of how that same data or evidence might generate a whole other reading of what might be.
To the specific issue as to whether all essays are braided, I guess my answer is—I don’t know! The employment of motifs and images throughout makes me think that all essay are poems. I actually think that all literature is poetry and I have a schematic for this that I teach. If I am wrong about this, I do feel that all writing is poetry manifest through a set of constraints. Thinking about the essay as a form of poetry frees me to move away from the formal expectations of argument—the lyric essay, the reported essay, the personal essay do not rely on it—when the subject matter demands that I focus more on connections than categories.
In “Cowboy Horizon” you use the ‘we’ point of view in what seems to be a short story. How is the we different in fiction from the we in nonfiction?
WSW: The “we” is the Constitutional overstatement and communal self that serves the legend of America, an amalgam of imprecision. It is supposed to imply complicity in the project of empire rather than a shared community. I have no idea about the how the second person employed in fiction and nonfiction differs—if it does. Aren’t nonfiction and fiction mostly different methodologies? Nonfiction attempts to illuminate a conflict by revealing evidence that can be verified. Fiction attempts to illuminate a conflict by revealing evidence that can and cannot be verified. Of course, that is too simple, but so are many of the expectations of genre.
I love how “Manhattanville, Part Two” yokes together the growth of your son with the gentrification of Manhattanville and Harlem. I also love how your son loves each individual building and you use the buildings as points of departure to share history. How awesome that your son and you together made this essay. I don’t have any questions. I just want to say it’s awesome.
WSW: Ha! Thank you.
I love the speculative nature of “Norway.” In what way would you consider “Norway” speculative nonfiction as much as speculative fiction?
WSW: I was trying to get at the simultaneous experience of exile and colonization, so for me it’s definitely speculative nonfiction. A few readers have characterized “Norway” as a parable or fable, though it feels very true to me.
This question has me thinking about speculation and if a kind of theoretical reasoning should be considered nonfiction or fiction. What place does the speculative occupy between them? If it is a liminal space, threshold, or boundary then is the speculative a bridge between truths or realities? To invoke the speculative involves engaging risks for the nonfiction writer, most notably accusations of conjecture and a loss of regard for the initial idea if the speculation fails. But if one believes, as I do, that narrative and language leave a trace even once disproven or disregarded, a material presence that manifests by increasing conditions of possibility, then the speculative functions as a foundational gesture in any kind of narrative expansion.
And, finally, the connective tissue to me between each of these essays and stories is the idea of burial and exhumation. Do you break rules by exhuming lost stories? If so, how important is it to break the rules so that what’s buried is allowed to see the light of day?
WSW: The rules allowed the story to be buried. As a writer I serve the story, so I guess when I bring it to light, I am breaking the rules.
Wendy S. Walters is the author ofMultiply/Divide (Sarabande Books, 2015) Troy, Michigan (Futurepoem Books, 2014), Longer I Wait, More You Love Me (2009) and a chapbook, Birds of Los Angeles(2005), both published by Palm Press (Long Beach, CA). Forthcoming projects include a book of essays to be released by Sarabande Books in 2015. Walters was a 2011 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Poetry, and her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Bookforum, FENCE, Harper’s Magazine, and elsewhere. She has won a Ford Foundation Fellowship, a research fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution, a scholarship from Bread Loaf, and multiple fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. She is a founder of The First Person Plural Reading Series in Harlem, a Contributing Editor at The Iowa Review, and Associate Professor of creative writing and literature at the Eugene Lang College of The New School University in the city of New York.
Nicole Walker is a contributing editor here at Essay Daily, a nonfiction editor at DIAGRAM, co-editor of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, and author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt, This Noisy Egg, and Microgram.