Vlad Savich: Dear Readers, so let me introduce to you.
The one and only Jessica Sequeira!
Jessica, please tell us about yourself. Is someone able to tell a about person better than himself?
Jessica Sequeira: O dear Vlad — I’ve always wanted to start an interview with ‘O’ — you’ve sent a smash of a question my way, rather than a nice soft lob. Does a person know herself better than anyone else? Let’s say the answer is ‘yes’ for the sake of this interview, leaving aside veils of illusion and gods wiser than ourselves. At the moment I’m someone in a room with a kitten dedicated to chewing the computer cable. Someone trying to understand the world through reading, writing, and translating. Someone asking ‘what if’. Someone poking at her own emotions and interpretations to see what they yield, beyond the obvious.
VS: The speech of a cat consists of sounds, and human speech is from words. How do you think why we need words for? In my opinion to deceive each other.
JS: Just as a cat makes a variety of sounds — meows, yowls, purrs, hisses, wails — human words can take on many forms for many purposes. Deceit is one, as you say. Fiction can be a stage performance. There is a certain illusion inherent in words since they are neither images nor music. For the purposes of affection, other forms of communication work more effectively. The cat can be friends with the mosquitoes, as in Nicanor Parra’s story ‘Gato en el camino’. For mysterious reasons, however, I am drawn to words. They can do many things beyond the creation of falsehoods — they can embark on flights of the imagination, thread perspectives, express emotions, capture beauty, inquire philosophically, sing spiritual hymns, reflect love, play with historical explanations, rework archival sources, approach beauty, make jokes. Surely you can add to this list.
VS: In the future, I’m sure speech will disappear. What kind of communication will be I don’t know exactly. Maybe you know, Jessica?
JS: A kind of pure thought in vibrations, perhaps similar to those of earthquakes. A non-human cognition that includes us within it. I can’t imagine a complete silence.
VS: A Muse helps men writers, and who is helping women writers?
JS: Rather than muses and inspiration, I like to think about illumination. I feel in the mood to write when I feel faith in literature — after reading a beautiful paragraph, watching roses being strewn, slicing my spoon through a tres leches cake, etc. This doesn’t have to do with being a woman or a man, but with being an organism attuned to the surroundings.
VS: Dostoevsky said «Beauty will save the world» How do you think? What will save the world and should it be saved ?
JS: I do love that line by Dostoevsky. At the same time, perhaps it might be counterbalanced with a line by Henry Miller, who was wary of the idea of saving anything. “Certainly paradise, whatever it be, contains flaws. One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” Toward what paradise is beauty aiming? Are there others? Should one aim to redeem this life for paradise at all? Perhaps a quiet accompaniment of oneself through writing is enough. Or the creation of worlds that reach the specific individuals or communities they need to reach, without any pretensions of salvation. Since I’m citing people here, let me linger over the phrase by Lawrence Durrell, “the heart-beat of time itself”. If one can reach the heart-beats of others, in time — through witty phrases, thrilling plots, honest confessions, or even portraits of beauty — the “saving” bit may come to seem superfluous. I don’t know if this is a good or evil thing; perhaps it is beyond any conception of good or evil.
VS: We live in a strict regime prison, which is called “Our body”. When will we be free?
JS: I’m not sure that I am particularly attached to my specific body — I do enjoy inhabiting it very much indeed, but I wouldn’t mind inhabiting the body of a butterfly or horse either. Perhaps “freedom” is the transition to the next body.
VS: «the transition to the next body»
You mean I will be transferred from one prison to another. According to you we won’t be free! Then what do you mean by the word “Freedom” ?
JS: To inhabit a body and engage a mind — these are forms of freedom, not prisons. Vlad, if you’ll spare a minute for a verse:
There once was a being so free
it had no body — liberty!
Without ear eye nose mouth
it thought, why not head down south —
tho’ what toes shall I dip in the sea?
VS: What is more important for a writer?
1/ Life experience of the author.
2/ Writer’s fantasy.
3/ Something different.
JS: Writing is a bit like a miniature water park, the kind that children sometimes have. Something has to push off the little boat, then everything gets going: the raft glides along for a stretch, then goes over a waterfall, whips round some palm trees, flips a lever, makes a wheel spin, glides along for another stretch, topples over another waterfall. Of course something has to give the original push: this could be anything, from an absurdity glimpsed while walking down the street to a lively passage from a book. I don’t write directly from life, but real life triggers speculation. Then the water park of the imagination takes over. Just today I walked past a restobar called ‘El Límite’. The limit of what? A story might start from there. I passed a huge Greek urn — really enormous — on a stranger’s front lawn. What could it be for? What’s inside it? Real life generates fantasy all the time; the boundary is porous.
VS: How do you think that you’re writing today will be interesting tomorrow?
JS: Whether or not my own texts are ‘important’ tomorrow, I hope that the interest in inner life they represent will be. Whether that’s in a story, poem, or essay doesn’t matter. There’s a pleasure in following one’s own thoughts, as well as in imagining the perspectives of others. It’s a way to get past the outer surfaces of the world, the overwhelming deluge of information. There’s a feeling I have — I think many people have — that this life isn’t it, that there’s some meaning beyond eat, sleep, procreate, die. This angst might be exaggerated in a more global, fast-paced world, I don’t know. But the portrayal of inner worlds is one of the most interesting things our species can do. We’d be much less interesting if we lost those individual thought processes and interior landscapes.
VS: I would like to become a hero book. Like Sancho Panza in Don Quixote or someone else.
JS: Excellent pick! Sometimes I’d be Mowgli and sometimes Miss Marple.
VS: In a Pushkin poem, an old man and woman have been living poorly for many years. They have a small hut, and every day the man goes out to fish. One day, he throws in his net and pulls out seaweed two times in succession, but on the third time he pulls out a golden fish. The fish pleads for its life, promising any wish in return. What would you ask this fish?
JS: I’d ask for an end to cruelty, to all animals including people. Cruelty is something I don’t understand and am not sure can be understood. Reading certain books and translating some contes cruels, I recognize that there are writers who have explored the aesthetic pleasures to be found in the cool observation of suffering, as experienced by the narrator or other characters. I really am not sure what to think of this fictional cruelty. My wish for the magical golden fish would be a world with as little cruelty in reality as possible.
VS: You would like to be goldfish and fulfil the desires of people?
JS: If I were caught and released just once, it might be interesting to be a goldfish — though I can’t say getting scooped up in that net sounds fun. To be caught multiple times, though, would complicate matters. What if someone wished for warm sunshine all the time, and someone else wished for cold weather with snowflakes? You see the complications. Perhaps it is better not to be a goldfish at all and instead work within the limits of what some cosmic fish has already determined for our world.
VS: Do you think political correctness is a form of censorship?
JS: The censorship of political correctness is the censorship of the imagination. Political correctness isn’t so much an evil in itself as a default to the lamely humdrum. To be politically correct is to snuggle into the cushion of cliché where one might have built a whole new sofa. It’s negative theology: evil as the absence of good. The sin of political correctness is that it’s damn boring. What is the opposite? For me, it’s not people sticking up their middle fingers at the institution, or giving too-abstract lectures on rights and dignity, or launching four-letter affronts at their president or prime minister of choice. These kinds of assaults tend to be just as dull and predictable as what they attack. As Bolaño put it, ‘The empty speeches of the left bore me. The empty speeches of the right I take for granted.’ The opposite of political correctness is the creation of new imaginative worlds, ones that without rejecting tradition freshly reinvent it, beyond boiler plate.
VS: Why Do People Lie?
JS: To say what’s convenient in the circumstances. To seek something for one’s own pocket. To gain time. To avoid hurting another’s feelings. To fit in like a zebra on a zebra crossing. With so many good reasons to lie, it’s a wonder people are honest at all. Some mysterious attraction in honesty is more powerful than all the logical reasons to deceive.
VS: Perhaps this isn’t a question for the writer, however I will ask. People to climb on high trees like monkeys, swim in deep water like fish, crawl on the ground like snakes but why can’t they fly like little birds?
JS: Human beings would be monsters or gods if they possessed every single physical ability. They make machines to simulate the abilities they do not have. And at night they dream. Flying is common in dreams — supposedly it represents freedom — but that’s not what I mean. Dreaming itself is a kind of flying.
I remember a children’s book assigned in school that I really liked, Wings by Bill Brittain. A boy sprouts wings and learns to use them. The descriptions of his excursions, swooping and gliding and doing turns, over the ocean and beside the other birds, are really beautiful. So flight is possible.
VS: Leo Tolstoy (I’m sure you know him) didn’t like Shakespeare’s plays. I can’t say that I don’t like Shakespeare’s plays too but many times I read and watched the play of Hamlet and I don’t understand what is Hamlet about. What is your opinion of Hamlet? Is he a fighter for power, a humanist, a poet or an idiot?
JS: The figure of Hamlet is a snippet of computer code that wants to escape from its programmed functions. Hamlet is desperately trying to make something of his life beyond the scripted roles written for him by others — his tragic role as son of an irate ghost seeking to wreak revenge, his royal role as prince of Denmark, his romantic role as wooer of Ophelia, his defenseless role as character appropriated and reinvented by the pen of a plot-minded playwright named Shakespeare, hell-bent on a good story. Hamlet the character exists beyond these roles and beyond the play itself. With all the pesky demands of drama hovering about him like gadflies, he becomes the anti-gadfly, and continues to do nothing.
For the contemporary reader, this indecision is quite attractive, as most of us have identified with it keenly at one point or another. There is also a kind of Desert of the Tartars-style delay, if I can commit this anachronism, for of course the delay in Desert of the Tartars is not what inspired Hamlet, but the other way around — though it’d be fun to speculate the reverse. Reflecting instead of acting creates a great deal of inner torment for Hamlet, but it is his way of striving to stop time and transcend his roles, when everything in his surroundings demands that he act decisively, take clear stances, make firm decisions in the manner encouraged by Forbes magazine.
On the other hand, perhaps I’ve got this all backward — perhaps Hamlet is not the indecisive one trying to slow down time in a quick bloodthirsty world, but rather a Clockstoppers-style character whose mind races so quickly it creates the illusion that everything else moves slowly. The ambiguity of the kind of irony that Hamlet represents is itself a form of irony. In any case, there is no doubt that Hamlet is the Shakespearian character best adapted to some sort of science-fiction story that plays with time and discards straightforward plot.
VS: The poet and the state. What can you say about the role of the poet in the state and the role of the state in the life of the poet.
JS: Are you asking if the poet ought to be the one pulling forward the train cars of the state, or the one dancing on top of the cars like Shahrukh Khan in Dil Se? Both positions are caricatures of course, but I feel that any conversation in the abstract about either ‘Poet’ or ‘State’ is a caricature. For me there is no necessary link between the two, and the more that one theorizes about the link, the more opaque it becomes, giving rise to brute patches of color rather than textured detail. The word ‘role’ is also a milky reduction, suggesting a nebulous sort of obligation on the part of literature — to whom or what?
The comparisons are not random. Today I have an eye-exam and have been requested to remove my lenses for the 24 hours prior. This means that the trees are all green patches and the cacti lined up on the balcony seem to throb. My mother was technically blind before she had an operation to correct it, and the idea of blindness terrifies me.
But back to your question, which I will answer while squinting — I think that excessive abstraction can similarly be a kind of blindness, or at least a wax layer over the attempt to see things with ambiguity or shadow. Poetry and statecraft have both been romanticized as the highest forms of human expression, especially in 19th-century romantic texts, which thought of them as ways to kindle the seed of potential into its full flowering form. I used to love such abstractions, but these days feel more affinity with small precisions, and have come to suspect the appeal of big yet murky declarations.
VS: The language of mathematics and music is universal. Maybe we need to create a universal language of literature. what do you think about it?
JS: Perhaps one day I might write a story from the perspective of C.P. Snow, who is still best known for his ‘two cultures’ thesis about the abyss between scientific and literary knowledge, but whose Strangers and Brothers series I suspect contains far more rarities and invisible trajectories than we recognize. The story would begin with a slightly melancholy Snow looking out the window into a landscape that contains the icy crystals of his name. (If I ever actually write the story, this weak joke would probably be cut.)
Meditating on the question of universal language you mention, he would think about how despite its particulars, language is based on universal structures, such as the way that a phrase transitions to another, or plays with the variations on inherent grammar. He would think, too, about how although expressed in different ways, the emotions of literature are universal. How could one create a universal language for literature equivalent to that of math or music? It would require not just translators, who come with their own aesthetic complexes and cultural backgrounds, but some way for readers to get inside the head of the writer herself.
Snow decides that he will get together with some of his friends, an X-ray crystallographer, a physicist and a medic, to create a ‘universal language machine’. This machine will enable readers to not only understand words, but in some way enter into the original mentality and experiences of the writer, so that while reading it is possible to access both the writer’s feelings and those of the characters described, whether they be engineer, firefighter, ballet dancer or soldier.
‘Ulm’ is what I will call this universal language machine, thinks Snow, after its acronym. Incidentally this is also the name of the city where Albert Einstein was born. (This too-perfect fact I would probably also cut.) The technical challenge would be formidable, but Snow is sure that he and his friends could pull it off. But would such a machine be desirable? Or would readers prefer to continue as they do now, accessing books through their own filter of interests? Those who speak of a universal language refer to translatable ‘universal writers’ or translations aiming at ‘universal books’, but would it be desirable to create ‘universal readers’?
I don’t know how the story would end. Perhaps Snow would wonder about the possibility of a similar machine called ‘Ulm II’, built to access the mentalities of scientists. Or perhaps he would look out the window at the falling snow, and hope that both chemists and book critics could see the flakes, understand their molecular compositions, and remember a number of scenes of snow from stories, while simultaneously knowing that their own minds are far from universal, that their observations contain rough eccentricities, and that their constant crossing of the abyss from particular to general is likely far more interesting than any of Ulm’s totalizing mechanisms. Snow would make himself a cup of tea, and do nothing, and it would be a happy ending, I think.
Ah, this was a long answer…
VS: What is more important in our life?
2/ Science. I mean physicist or a lyricist – 1/ Einstein 2/ Shakespeare
JS: Last week I found a book called On Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, written by Ignatius L. Donnelly and published in 1882. The author has all kinds of fantastical things to say about the scientific underpinnings of Atlantis in history. Later on, it appears that the author’s interests turned to Shakespeare, and he wrote a book called The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in Shakespeare’s Plays, arguing that the plays were penned by Bacon. The ‘pseudoscientific’ ideas of the imaginative senator are right at the boundary of fantasy and science, and that is where they start to become interesting from the imaginative perspective.
I admire those fantasies in which a certain rationality makes inventive leaps seem realistic, which instead of romanticizing non-thinking explore the strangeness of the given. I admire those scientific discoveries in which a speculative originality fills reality with wonder, following the data to unexpected places. Of course this could result in pseudoscience, but it could also produce new ways of thinking. It would be wonderful to encourage the limit area, to get rid of the false binary between fantasy and science — to invent more fantasies that take reason in a new direction, and more reasoned approaches unafraid to make a leap into the unknown.
VS: Thursday, March 8 was International Women’s Day. Do you think a world with the same-sex people it’s possible? I mean a creature that includes masculine and feminine traits?
JS: For me, a “creature that includes masculine and feminine traits” is known as a human being. I look forward to when the ideas of “masculine” and “feminine” are not pre-defined roles or sources of anxiety, but rather options which one might choose whether to embody or not. The truth is, I’m not really sure what masculine and feminine traits are. A writer like C.G. Jung, who offers so many interesting ways to think about time, dreams, history and memory, also had some quite essentialist ideas of masculine and feminine psychology that seem to me simplistic. Somewhere I read that this romanticization of the feminine was a response to the overly virile culture of war he lived through. In any case, the talk by some of his followers about earth-goddesses and warriors makes my brow wrinkle. Nor do I think that it’s so obvious women write one way and men another — which is why certain ideas of “women’s literature” don’t really interest me, and even seem to reinforce certain dubious essentialisms. Of course there are issues like domestic violence, access to legal abortion, contraceptive practice, and so on that affect women in particular, but I’m not sure that discussing them in terms of “feminine traits” is helpful. Of course, this might have to do with my cultural perception — I grew up near San Francisco in a place where I felt it was my brain being ogled and not my body, where science and math were heavily pushed, where my mother bought “tomboy clothes” for my sisters and me, where everyone I knew was pretty open-minded, and where gender was never really discussed — it was just sort of assumed you could do what you wanted further down the line, so long as you took care of yourself. Likely if I grew up somewhere else I’d have a different or stronger idea of what “feminine” means; living in Buenos Aires and Santiago, for example, I have felt those essentialist expectations of hombre and mujer more strongly, as well as the counter-cultural reactions to this dichotomy. All of us are creatures with both masculine and feminine traits, but the extent to which one worries about emphasizing one of them, or tries to give the traits nuance by seeking to transcend this dichotomy, or prefers to set the conversation aside to focus on other topics altogether, depends on personality and culture.
VS: I mean, you’ll have sex with yourself and have children from your relationship. Don’t need to change a woman (man), cheat on her (him), pretend that you’re in love.
JS: If it were possible for a male and female to exist in one body and feel attraction for one another, as you suggest, perhaps we would have to rethink what love means. According to your scenario, it does not seem that there would be any freedom in the choice; as I understand it, this would be an ‘arranged’ situation. The complications of romantic love in the contemporary world usually have to do with the freedom of choosing a partner, who might later choose someone else. Yet many people would not give up this freedom. Your scenario of a man and a woman in the same body does not seem to involve this choice.
For many people, I think love also has something to do with directing one’s affections outside the self — that is, outside one’s own mind and body, into the world. Romantic love is anti-solipsistic; it seeks to transcend the ego rather than regress into it. Your scenario of a male and female in the same body would remove this mysterious quality of directing oneself toward a body foreign to one’s own, which however much you might love it, is ultimately unknowable.
VS: «is ultimately unknowable” However, this is our future. You don’t you think so?
JS: Hm, I won’t pretend to be an oracle.
VS: I’ve always thought that the writer is an oracle. Isn’t it true?
JS: Last week I predicted that today I’d talk to you about hermetic utterances. I won’t bother you with my divinations and prophecies (though do beware of a flying shoe, the color yellow and any mention of the state of Florida.) I thought of going into oracle work full time, but it’d be complicated. So many writers want to be soothsayers that it’d be a crowded field. The multinational tech company Oracle might sue me for rights to the capital “O”. Past and present are tricky enough — prescriptions for the future, too? I can speculate in jest, but there are already so many Jacob Rees-Mogg types out there, eyeing one another earnestly to say: “This is where we’re headed.” The writer can be anything she likes, a jester, a jotter, a journalist, a jazz singer, a jovial reader of the crystal ball. She can talk and talk if that’s her yen, say nothing, deflect the response. For the true oracle knows when her second sight needs a siesta.
VS: Thanks for the interview, Jessica. What do you want to wish the reader of QM?
JS: Thanks, Vlad. I loved the conversation. To the QM reader: Get thee to a coffee stall!
Jessica Sequeira is a writer living in Chile.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.
Image: The Jungle Book, Walt Disney Productions, 1967