Falling Into the Unknown: An Interview With Quintan Ana Wikswo, Author Of The Hope of Floating Has…
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Quintan Ana Wikswo’s debut book of stories and images, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far, is an intoxicating read that feels at once universal and personal, comforting and jarring, ethereal and earthy, and after reading it once I read it immediately again. And then I read it again. And then I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone I know.
And then I wanted to talk with Wikswo about how she managed to do all that.
A former human rights worker, Wikswo now uses salvaged government typewriters and cameras to navigate unexpected corners of the world — often seemingly mundane or obscure places where she reveals a multilayered complexity of time, space, and emotional history. Many locations are forgotten or overlooked sites where crimes against humanity have taken place. Wikswo writes stories from these places, attempting to put words to the places themselves and the peoples who’ve inhabited them, bridging in her work the liminality of human experiences, making stories that read like poems with images that don’t serve to illustrate the text, but to deepen a reader’s feel of it.
The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far is a successfully ambitious bending of form that takes the reader beyond the expected in both literature and art. There’s a lot of bending in Wikswo’s work — time, form, genre, narrative, historical record — which encourages the reader to explore the territories we may not have encountered in more familiar forms of story collection. As she says, a “disruption in the familiar invokes a questioning of the habitual.”
A month after the release of her new book, and after a busy season of launch events, Wikswo took a moment to answer my pressing questions about her work.
Sarah Dohrmann: The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far is an intriguingly unconventional story collection — in all ways, these stories defy the classification of a standard fiction text. There are painterly, abstract photographs, and the fiction often reads and looks more like poetry, with sometimes only one line or fragment of text on a page. The narrators and characters of the stories are nameless and their genders are undefined. This slipperiness conjures the reader into a dreamlike, abstract space that nonetheless grabs us with the conventional aspects of stories, like narrative, plot, emotion.
Quintan Ana Wikswo: I’m fundamentally obsessed with the way we humans actually experience story — the narrative of existence. This is a slightly different focus than priorities of “the craft of fiction.” For me, writing is the desire to convey the kinetic beauty of visceral, messy passions of our lives and experiences — the shifting abstractions of memory, the contradictions and disharmonies of shared reality, the awkward internal juxtapositions of trauma — where beliefs and feelings and perceptions are a tangle that defies the story arc.
Arguably, the conventional aspects of story are an attempt to organize the human psyche, to combat the disorganization of it that I find so compelling. Narrative, plot, and emotion are present when we walk to the corner bodega. But the rest is almost a secret lodged inside the mind that we will never adequately convey to another living being, and perhaps not even to ourselves. These secrets are fragments and wholes, fantasies and fears, and we might spend the rest of our day trying to make sense of what we felt on the way to the bodega. That’s the unconventional aspects of story — trying to accommodate all the messy bits that don’t fit into what’s expected.
Most of all, I find it rather horrifying to think of forcing a reader to perceive something — a place, an event, a person, a feeling — exactly as I see it. I’m devoted to the niceties within the art of writing, but can’t seem to bring myself to pin down the wings of the psyche.
SD: The forms of the stories themselves look different from most short stories, too — they look more like poems. In “Holdfast Crowbiter,” for example, the young woman is learning to bite the heads off birds as she stands alone hungry at a seashore without fish. Rather than approaching it as a traditional narrative, you’ve left wide empty spaces in between sets of lines. This is typical for all the pieces, and meanwhile images are interwoven throughout that create additional breaks and pauses in the narrative. What surrounds your choices to actively disrupt the expected structure and form?
QAW: I am intrigued by artwork of any kind that leaves the participant ample space to create an idiosyncratic, intimate relationship to the conjured world. Not so much to step into a pair of shoes that are waiting for me at the lintel of the artwork, but to tread through it barefoot and unsure of the path. There’s something of mythos to that — to go into the unexpected without a map. Empty space does that. Disorientation forces us to orient ourselves. I think we are all capable of that, once we get over the surprise.
The Crowbiter is hungry, and yet there are no fish. She must orient herself to a disconcerting reality and locate new abilities within herself. And so she grows. She acquires a skill — a gory skill perhaps, but one which feeds her family which otherwise would have starved.
As she stands there on the shore, her mind goes blank at the lack of fish. At the failure of the expected. At the consequence of starvation if she does not go off her map of the known. There is an internal pause in the psyche when we must re-conjure a world. We hesitate with the choices and absences of choices when we must occupy an unexpected gap in our comfort or knowledge. I am curious about those internal moments of psychological arrest. These are pivot points where choices are made. Where we feel the ache of our ignorance, or the excitement of unforeseen possibility. The use of photographs are intentional pauses in the pace of the narrative, exactly so the one holding the book can be released from my language and have a personal adventure in the space left open.
Nowadays, much of human written expression is not so dissimilar to taking the nine hundredth trip to Disneyland. Maybe there’s a new ride? They changed the formula for the funnel cakes?
As for the rest of my choice — much accessible and lucrative literature has become codified by iterative commodification. We read the same forms and structures over and over again, forgetting that once upon a time the short story was scandalous. Poetry was reserved for oracles and prophets. Nowadays, much of human written expression is not so dissimilar to taking the nine hundredth trip to Disneyland. Maybe there’s a new ride? They changed the formula for the funnel cakes? Snow White has a different scarlet dye in the fabric of her costume? With all due respect to the sensory rewards of tradition, we can’t grow — either as a discipline or as people — without pushing beyond them. I’m not sure my book pushes beyond as much as reaches out towards a wider tradition that calls upon ancient forms of human expression. A handprint on a cave wall. These kinds of adventurous enigmas that we can ponder — the fertile liminal space between communication and perception.
SD: There’s a universality to the work, and yet the voices feel deeply personal and resonant. It’s a bit eerie, because the universal and the intimate are often places where we struggle to reconcile our reality with a broader one. These feel like your experiences and your stories, and yet they feel somehow mythic and parabalistic. I don’t know how else to phrase it, but to ask: How’d you do that? Was that intentional and if so, to what purpose?
QAW: In my list of fundamental obsessions, I believe in something I can only call speculative nonfiction. For years, I worked with conflicting testimonies and oral histories of survivors of genocide and crimes against humanity — they might each speak of the same event, and yet there was an intimacy to their own voice that challenged the universality of what they’d all experienced. Sometimes authorities would begin to question the “truthiness” of an oral history when this line between universality and individuality became too prominent. But I care deeply about how the private psyche navigates a common experience.
These stories are drawn from historical events — behind each allegedly fictional story is an event that truly occurred in time and space. “The Double Nautilus” was drawn from my own time spent in the early days of the building of the Hadron Particle Collider. This construction exists as fact and history, but it was also an experience in which I had my own idiosyncratic tragedies and triumphs. In between the commonality of history and the individual specificity of experiencing history is a huge mystery. I love that space. The individual within the machine, each snowflake melting into invisibility.
In the first story, “The Cartographer’s Khorovod,” I was interested in how to make a nonfiction story sound like fiction. I can tell you that everything in it is true. But it still reads like make-believe. I don’t support the lines drawn between genres in literature, or disciplines. We are simply not that tidy, nor are our lives.
If someone asks a combat veteran, “what was it like to kill someone in battle?” the soldier’s official answer is nonfiction. But the words that go through the soldier’s brain, if decanted, might seem more like a poem, or a dream, or a story. Remembered through fracture, through metaphor, through the language of dreams, or prismatic internal processing. That’s my territory. That’s what I care about.
SD: There’s also a stream-of-consciousness feel to the work, yet it feels highly controlled, too. What’s the relationship between these two elements — one that feels associative, even free, and the other that keeps time and place and historical record in order?
Our society has privileged the coherent as a means of establishing authority.
QAW: This is probably where my decades working in the field of human rights trauma probably comes into view. Our society has privileged the coherent as a means of establishing authority. Even on a more mundane, everyday level, when we talk to an emergency room nurse after an accident, or a police officer after a dispute, we experience simultaneously the immense difficulty of placing our perceptions into a coherent form, and the immense pressure to do so quickly and convincingly. Most of us are familiar with the look of distrust when our coherent story changes. We can identify with those split-second moments when we must adjust and calibrate our psyches to quickly fill in the right bubble on the standardized question of, “what happened?”
This is a cognitive, and a biological, and a social codification that begins in childhood. We are taught not to leave cause for confusion or contradiction. We are to be coherent at all times. People who cannot speak coherently are assumed drunk, or mentally ill, and are promptly placed in institutions of one kind or another. Yet each of us, every night, experiences dreams that defy coherence. Then we wake up, and button it up with our workday uniform.
I’m interested in those buttons. The ones that we fasten without thinking, and the ones that we force ourselves to fasten. What happens to us when the buttons fall off. In The Hope of Floating, each character has come to the end of the line of what makes sense. All the characters are scientists who experience the failure of their map to describe their territory. I think scientists, like preachers, are fundamentally fascinating in their obsession with trying to explain and order the profound mysteries of existence.
A crisis of faith, or a failure of a hypothesis, is this breakdown in order versus conceptual association, or even chaos. Why did my child die? Why is the earth not flat? These points represent a schism of comfort and trust in the human psyche that I want to address in every way possible. What happens when we fall into the unknown? What lives in the fissure between the known and the unknown?
SD: I feel like a lot of noise is made about clever art — art that comments on itself or points and laughs at life’s idiosyncrasies, or it’s so abstract and intellectualized that it’s clever because it’s insider in some way. To my mind, this is an act of intellectualizing. Your stories are deeply emotional, touching on subjects that many readers would rather avoid: femicide, genocide, erotic exploitation, etc.. What’s it like to make work that challenges a reader to feel? What responsibilities are inherent to that task, if any? Can you talk a little about emotionality in art-making?
QAW: I don’t set out to make emotional art. I sally forth into the areas of our psyches that nobody wants to talk about, and in that terrain I stumble upon emotion. It has led me to suspect that I was wrong in thinking nobody wants to talk about these things — it’s that over thousands of years we’ve constructed a constrictive society in which the forums for vulnerability are dangerous places to inhabit. We spend huge parts of our limited incomes telling our secret suffering to a paid professional therapist — even that tiny opportunity has only existed for a hundred years or so, and still faces stigma. Before that, we told our priests, and were often rewarded by being told that we would burn in the hellfire of eternal damnation.
How public must we become in order to receive justice? Immensely public.
There are huge repositories of individual and collective pain in human society — something we are forced to acknowledge in situations such as Ferguson, or Emma Sulkowicz dragging her mattress through NYU for months on end. Where, exactly, are we supposed to take this kind of pain? How public must we become in order to receive justice? Immensely public. And yet it is in public that witch pyres were built, and lynch trees roped up. We have been conditioned to hide anything that might disrupt, dismay, disconcert, or discomfort. Us, them, whomever.
My first two solo museum shows were surprising to me because the work was so personal I was astonished that major public institutions would create space for it. Then I began making friends with museum guards, who would tell me that people would sit on the benches and cry. I was dismayed, and then the guards would say, “oh no, they come multiple times to cry there. They say it’s the place they feel comfortable doing it.”
We need more opportunities in which we are able to express a broader range of human experience besides obedience, shopping, and escapism. I don’t know what those look like, or how they operate, but I know that it goes hand in hand with making changes to the brutality and punitive nature of our states. Is prison the best place for an emotionally devastated heroin addict to experience emotion? Should we all die with only our psychologists knowing who we truly are?
Perhaps my artwork is emotional because I create it in places where emotions were punitively destroyed. I sit for months at an execution range in rural Czech Republic and then I write, and I make pictures. I sit for weeks at a site where my neighbor was raped in the desert. I don’t go there looking for emotion — I go there looking to understand. And since these things are beyond understanding, beyond rationality, all that’s left is the inchoate presence of emotion. And that, perhaps, is what makes it onto the page.
SD: There’s a lot bending here — time, form, genre, narrative, historical record. What say you of all this bendiness? What do you hope the reader to get out of it?
QAW: I hope the reader is encouraged to take a vacation from familiar constraints. It may or may not be enjoyable, but I hope that a disruption in the familiar invokes a questioning of the habitual, and perhaps some encouragement to those who cannot find a place for themselves within the boxes built for our containment.
SD: In the back of the book are notes on the methodology behind each story, which is unusual for a work of fiction. Why did you decide to include these notes?
QAW: That brings us back to the situation in which the family is in the emergency room, and the nurse wants to know about the suspicious bruise, but there’s only room on the form to say, “accident.” Or when someone says, “I go shopping at Barney’s all the time and security never checks my bag on the way out.” Or “why can’t I sit on the subway with my legs open?”
Storytelling, like emotions, like trauma, like love, is rhizomatic. These are uncontained stories.
I create my work through an intricate process of fieldwork that involves hundreds of bystanders, each with their own stories, each contributing to the context of the site or the situation that has drawn me in. The methodology is for them. It’s also for me. In “The Kholodnaya Voina Club,” the story tells about cold war test pilots who have crashed into the ocean and died, and live as ghosts underwater. This is a perfectly self-contained story that has its own satisfactions. But my context was my grief over someone I loved who was a cold war test pilot, and crashed and died, and still lives as a ghost within me. That’s my context. Behind each story is another story. Behind each consequence is another consequence. Storytelling, like emotions, like trauma, like love, is rhizomatic. These are uncontained stories. The methodology is a testimony that all stories carry on their lives without us, beyond us — they allude and invoke qualities that are extend infinitely over time and space and inhabit the human psyche in ways that cannot be contained.
As a child, I remember white people going to the beautiful grounds and gardens of plantations to have picnics and get married. Context lives in its own terrain, often wrapped up in secrets and stigmas and silences. There are many silences in the book which I placed there to suggest that something is missing, something is unsaid. Because that’s how our lives operate. And yet I felt a responsibility to provide context, to provide a few clues for the pretty trees. For the gaps within the gaps between the spoken and unspoken.
The images accompanying this interview are original artwork by Quintan Ana Wikswo and appear in The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press).