Katie Kitamura (The Bat Segundo Show)

Katie Kitamura is most recently the author of Gone to the Forest.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Hoping not to fall in a pool of ash.

Author: Katie Kitamura

Subjects Discussed: Similarities between Gone to the Forest and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, how courage is often confused as a sentimental quality in fiction, reversing character dimensionality to make points about colonialism, straying from influence, Elfriede Jelinek, Herta Müller, moving away from long sentences, deliberately writing in a misogynistic voice, the NYPD ordering women not to wear skirts at night, how vivid voices can transcend unsettling narrative modes, the dangers of writing from a repugnant perspective, the morality of the authority, not being a violent person and writing about violence, The Longshot‘s fight scenes, empathy, the Flaubert writing maxim, training in classical ballet, not looking at the book once it is done, not reading the violent parts of Gone to the Forest aloud, Japanese for Travelers, tracking the Kitamura descriptive trajectory across three books, reinforcing stripped down sentences with metaphor, considering ideas beyond the human, why Kitamura finds fiction more freeing than nonfiction, writing The Longshot with a rhythmic physical quality in mind, Kitamura’s difficulties in writing first person, how first-person characters reflect an author’s character in revealing ways, truths revealed through a concentrated third-person mode, the burdens of feeling self-conscious on the page, choosing removed topics for fiction, the death of Kitamura’s father, differing notions of grief, being sucked into a pool of ash, how humans become absorbed by the physical landscape, the relationship between land and power and property, the charisma of a dying man, the misnomer of “peaceful death,” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, the marks of grief, how translated works of fiction sometimes provide greater human truths than Anglophonic ficiton, China Miéville’s Railsea, awkward language and the virtues of badly translated fiction, Clarice Lispector, attempts to talk in the pouring rain, active thinking (or the lack thereof) within fiction, Embassytown and linguistic theory, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, mosquitoes that chomp on Our Correspondent’s forehead during an interview, political unrest (and its duality within Gone to the Forest), how volcanoes serve as inspiration for fiction, and mixing differing countries and differing times and differing histories into an invented world.


Correspondent: I was reading this book and, in the first few pages of Gone to the Forest, there’s this reference to a radio, as well as a house sitting on the edge of the river. And as someone who is reading all the Modern Library classics, including Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, I said to myself, “Hmmmm. Isn’t that interesting?” And then I read a reference to “Sargasso weed,” which made me say, “Oh! Maybe this is sort of a Jena Rhys/Wide Sargasso Sea response to Naipaul.” And I’m wondering about this. Because there are certainly a lot of similarities to A Bend in the River. You have, of course, the unnamed country, the rebellion, the subjugation of women, a not so bright condescending young heir. You also, however, feature this vicious volcano, a dying father, and a terrible gang rape. And so I must ask you, first and foremost, was this at any point intended as a Jean Rhys-like response to Naipaul? How was A Bend in the River a starting point for this book in any way?

Kitamura: I read A Bend in the River before I started writing the book. I don’t think it was necessarily formulated as a response to it directly, although I like that reading very much. And I would love to think that I’d written a Jean Rhys-like response to it. I mean, I think partially the reason you get that sense of Jean Rhys against Naipaul is because the book is trying to write from the fragments of this long legacy of colonial literature, in particular. And Jean Rhys, more generally, is a writer I admire incredibly. Not just Wide Sargasso Sea, but also all the other novels. So her prose style, her directness, her sense of melancholy — I think courage is a word that could easily sound sentimental in the context of fiction, but there’s incredibly courageous fiction in writing about women. So, yeah, it’s not direct, but it’s probably in there in some way.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about such side characters as the Wallaces, who reminded me also very much of the historian and his wife in A Bend in the River. You have a situation where they’re described as “marginal people of no interest to his father” — his, of course, being Tom, this protagonist who mimics the scummy figure in A Bend in the River. They immediately ask Celeste to prepare a meal for supper. And I’m wondering. Because the Wallaces to a large degree don’t have that dimensionality that you would normally expect from the imperialist/colonial type of figures that tend to populate these kinds of novels. I was wondering if the Wallaces were an effort on your part to invert the dimensionality, giving more dimensionality to, say, people like Jose, as opposed to these imperialists who really assume that all natives are there to be immediately put to work and so forth.

Kitmaura: I think the book as a whole, the context of it, is pretty wide. Because it’s a combination of multiple colonial settings and multiple histories. So it’s this fragmented collage-like panorama. It’s not set in a specific time. Therefore, it includes multiple times. So I think against that, I wanted to focus very, very tightly on what happened to a single family — and ultimately with Celeste and Jose, although they are servants, they are also family — on this farm. So all the other characters outside of that became secondary in some way. And also, I suppose it was a novel that’s about power and not just some relationship between whites and non-whites, but also class between the different white settlers. So I think in that particular characterization, I was interested in drawing the distinction between how the old man, the father in the novel, perceives himself against the other white colonialists. And now he makes distinctions. So in a way, they are just a foil to the old man’s arrogance.

Correspondent: You mentioned reading Naipaul before writing this book.

Kitamura: Yes.

Correspondent: And the question I have is, well, to what degree did you know that it’s time to stray? “I’ve got it in my head. I’m very familiar with what he has done and now I can carry on with this more metaphorical or more minimalist approach to metaphor.” At what point did you detract from Naipaul? And at what point was he just not even necessary?

Kitamura: I mean, I think the unnamed setting in that novel is so distinct. And the way he handles that is very distinct. And I knew that I wanted to do something that was not simply unnamed, but also completely imagined. So that was a kind of distinction I wanted to make from what he had done in that novel. The themes that he writes about honestly are critical, but the prose? I was never influenced by his prose style, for example. There is a host of other writers — really, European female writers — that I was much more influenced by.

Correspondent: Such as who?

Kitamura: For this particular novel. It’s kind of a funny thing where it changes almost with each project.

Correspondent: That’s no problem.

Kitamura: Your toolkit alters slightly. I think I was reading a great deal of Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller. And what I was interested in is that they don’t write these beautiful long sentences. They really break language in a lot of ways. And that was what I admired, what I thought was so striking about what they were doing, and I was also curious to see if that, in some way, could be used specifically to address a female subjectivity. So there’s the sequence: the rape scene in the novel, which is one of the more difficult parts of it. There’s a lot of breaks and fragments in that particular section. And I think there is such a long tradition of male narratives and male narrativizing, and I wonder if that hasn’t been made accessible to women in quite the same way historically. And I wondered if that was partly why this fragmentation was interesting to me and why I tried to use it.

Correspondent: I wonder if the fragmentation, especially in relation to this rape scene, was interesting to you, specifically because, well, one reads it and one is, of course, appalled by what’s going on. But at the same time, the sentences are informed very much by this need to present this as relatively normal in the confines of this catastrophe. It seems to me that you’re someone who probably who will really work and work and work to get that acceptable level so it tests the reader and it suggests almost, I suppose, a cultural relativism or a moral relativism in the way that you describe that action. What did you do to get that particular balance that I’m detecting here? To get that situation where, okay, I come in and I’m appalled by it. But at the same time, I’m also being forced to look upon this as “This is part of life.”

Kitamura: I wanted to create — the purpose of this rather extravagant volcano explosion was to create a space where social rules were being suspended and where you would see, in this case in particular, a man taking advantage of that suspension of laws. And I remember before I started writing that sequence to get the voice of it right. I wanted to try writing in a misogynistic voice, which I thought would be an interesting experiment as a woman. And I initially thought would be a difficult or an impossible one. But, in fact, it’s so easy. Because misogyny is everywhere around you. And the language of it is everywhere around you. And so some of the things, even that the girl says, are invisible quotation marks. She is kind of quoting in language of chauvinism that she has grown up in. And I know it’s a kind of morally ambiguous scene. She, to some extent, seems to instigate what happens. But what I wanted to really look at was — well, I completely, as you probably will guess, disagree with the notion that all women can in some way provoke any kind of sexual violence.

The Bat Segundo Show #476: Katie Kitamura (Download MP3)

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Wide Sargasso Sea (Modern Library #94)

(This is the seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Under the Net)

In Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay in which Dyer describes his reading habits. He writes about a late stage wade into Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. “I could make neither head nor tail of the first part,” notes Dyer. “[B]ut, since the book was short and the end in sight almost from the first page, I finished it and realized that it was indeed the masterpiece everyone had claimed.” It’s safe to say that this knowingly superficial take, coming from a man who has offered similarly ridiculous thoughts in relation to David Foster Wallace, is woefully insufficient, even if it does come from a posturing Englishman. To adjust Dyer’s own metaphor into a framework which renders the length of a book extraneous, I think that judging any author against the promise and the propinquity of the last page is the cry of a miscreant, one either disinterested in literature or, as Scott Esposito has recently suggested, trolling so that he can move more units.

As someone who has recently confessed his own blind spots and “allergies” in relation to Jane Eyre (along with a willingness to confront this aesthetic resistance), I feel it incumbent to report that Jean Rhys’s masterpiece placed me in such a great trance that approaching it like some notch to be etched on my belt or miscomprehending the first part never entered my mind. If anything, I wished to comprehend it more. It could very well be that the silly ambition of this project has forced me to become obsessed with some of the individual volumes. But when I read Wide Sargasso Sea a second time, I had to stop myself from reading it a third time.

By contrast, when I read Jane Eyre in January, I felt no such impulse. I wanted to scream very much in the manner of Bertha, throw the book against the wall, and then try to understand why Charlotte Bronte drove me crazy while perfectly amicable and intelligent people continued to enjoy Jane Eyre (and its overwrought cinematic adaptations). It will be at least ten years before I attempt to read Jane Eyre again. Why should this be? I suggested in my Jane Eyre essay that Rochester was my entry point, yet Rochester is an absolute scoundrel in Wide Sargasso Sea. In considering both books, I find myself pitying him in Jane Eyre while loathing him in Wide Sargasso Sea. (It isn’t enough for Rochester to pluck her surname; he must change her first name too. We know this in both books, but the gesture means something different in Wide Sargasso Sea, perhaps because Rochester is there to answer, and often not answer, for his actions.) Yet strangely enough, I can compartmentalize these two feelings, perhaps because Rhys’s book stands as firmly on its own two feet as Bronte’s. Rhys has the benefit of being complementary, but I somehow came away feeling that Jane Eyre was the volume inspired from this one. Bronte’s line of Rochester making Jane Eyre “love him without looking at me” is expanded upon in exceptionally cruel and interesting ways by Rhys. “Look at me,” says the scheming Christophine to Antoinette. “Look in my eyes.” Did Rochester pick up such obeah from Granbois? Was such magic enough for Jane to hear that of Rochester from afar, speaking “in pain and woe, wildly eerily, urgently”? Or were all such women he encountered susceptible to the look? (An idea for a grad student: Rochester as a 19th century Zoolander?)

Unlike Jane Eyre, I found Antoinette is an immensely sympathetic character. I truly believed that she could run away from Rochester, yet I couldn’t believe this of Janet. Antoinette not only suffers terrible abuses (a girl swipes her only dress at a bathing pool for mere pennies, her mother disowns her, she attempts to love her husband and he takes her money), but, if we are to believe her perspective, she is demeaned by nearly every side character. She is called “white nigger,” “white cockroach,” and beke. She is presumed mad by lineage, with her new hubby Rochester one of the biggest boosters of this hysterical theory (on flimsy evidence too). Yet isn’t it a bit mad for Rochester, even if he is suffering from a fever, to echo all of Christophine’s words when he is being rightfully condemned? To call this a double standard is an understatement. Unlike Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea gives us multiple perspectives (the never named Rochester, Antoinette, and the transformed “Bertha”) with which to assess the action. Yet the additional vantage points creates something oblique and tantalizingly incomplete.

But even though this book leaves so many questions, there’s a good deal of potent imagery, much of it startlingly specific. Consider the family parrot, Coco, who tries and escape a fire — the conflagration a case of vengeful arson after Antoinette’s new stepfather (one Mr. Mason) says some impetuous words easily overheard — to the dilapidated home in Coulibri in the book’s first part. Coco’s wings have been clipped by Mr. Mason after he “grew very bad tempered,” even though he sits quietly on Antoinette’s mother’s shoulder. Coco’s death is clearly a sign of things to come:

I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.

We know, of course, that Antoinette will be doing a good deal of screeching herself as Bertha. Coco is hardly the only bird in the book. Later, when Antoinette leads Rochester down a very bad road pushing past the boundary of Granbois, Rochester hears a bird whistling “a long sad note.” He asks, “What bird is that?” But Antoinette is too far ahead to hear his question. Later, Rochester encounters a moth so large “that I thought it was a bird.” Does Rochester see birds (or women he can crush) in every half-feeling being? Once Antoinette is past the point of no return, Rochester has this to offer:

I will listen to the mountain bird. Oh, a heartstopper is the solitaire’s one note — high, sweet, lonely, magic. You hold your breath to listen…No…Gone. What was I to say to her?

That this comes after Antoinette has tried to explain her personal history to Rochester is especially stinging. “You have no right to ask questions about my mother and then refuse to listen,” says Antoinette during one key moment, after Rochester has met with Daniel Cosway about some adulterated family business that may or may not be real. What is Rochester’s reply? “Of course I will listen, of course we can talk now, if that’s what you wish.” Rochester tells us that he listens to Christophine. But he only listens in self-interest, only because what she is talking to Antoinette about is “dangerous.” Long after that, Rochester declares, “Sing your songs, Rupert the Rine, but I’ll not listen, though they tell me you’ve a sweet voice.” It becomes quite clear that Rochester listens only as a scarcely practiced marital obligation. But given the fact that he’s boffing the servant Amelie, he’s hardly a man of duty. (Not especially a gentleman on the subject of getting it on with the missus, Rochester notes, “Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was — more lost and drowned afterwards.”) Alas, as Antoinette learns from Christophine, Rochester has English law on his side. And if that means Rochester sleeping in his dressing room, so be it. Having fleeced the pittance left, Rochester’s view of Antoinette is somewhat akin to the high-pitched voice opening up Swizz Beatz’s “Money in the Bank”: “She ain’t got no money in the bank / She be walking round acting all stank.”

Of course, Rhys had a great deal of time to think about Antoinette. Wide Sargasso Sea was the book she offered to the world after nearly thirty years of anonymity. As it turns out, she wasn’t entirely slacking off during that time. In a letter to her daughter on March 9, 1949 (which I found in Lilian Pizzichini’s biography, The Blue Hour), Rhys was to write:

If I could earn some shekels I’d fly from damp and bloody Beckenham and finish my book. Oh God if I could finish it before I peg out or really turn into some fungus or other!

I think of calling it The First Mrs. Rochester with profound apologies to Charlotte Bronte and a deep curtsey too.

But I suppose that won’t do. (I’m supposing you’ve studied Jane Eyre like a good girl).

It really haunts me that I can’t finish it though.

The above letter counteracts the familiar claim that Rhys took nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that Rhys was commissioned to write the book in 1957. A crass numbers man might do the math. If Rhys was thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea for 17 years, and the result is a 170 page volume, then that’s ten pages a year. How much of the book did Rhys write in her head?

Some early critics of the book expressed their resentment at having to know a good deal of Jane Eyre before “knowing” Wide Sargasso Sea. A critic in the Sunday Times, knowing nothing of Rhys being born in Dominica, hoped that Rhys would return to “an aspect of life she has observed and experienced rather than by annotating” Bronte. Such variegated views tend to undercut the distinct possibility that with great cogitation comes great literature.

Next Up: John Fowles’s The Magus!