There Is No Such Thing as Apolitical Writing: an Interview with Anthony Tognazzini

Anthony Tognazzini’s short story “Neighbors” can be found in the newest issue of Recommended Reading. Tognazzini was kind enough to answer some questions about his writing process in the interview below.

Katie Barasch: “Neighbors” is written from the rarer ‘first-person plural’ perspective, which is often difficult to accomplish as successfully as you have here. I can’t imagine the story being told any other way. Did you always intend for “Neighbors” to be narrated from a collective ‘we’, or did this particular perspective reveal itself during a later revision? Are there specific characteristics of fiction that you believe operate best in first-person plural? Additionally, are there other stories or novels told in the collective voice that inspired you?

Anthony Tognazzini: The earliest draft of this story was written in 3rd person omniscient. It described the home life of a strong-willed single woman, and the tone was distant and weirdly evaluative. In subsequent drafts I tried to discover who was making those evaluations, and that’s when I settled on the idea of the town as narrator. The story began to see with the eyes of the town, to think with its collective mind, and the first person plural became a way to explore groupthink. The change in point of view also changed the main character from Sheila to the town. If the story’s working right, it’s the warped psychology of the town that’s put under the microscope, even as the town scrutinizes Sheila as if through a microscope.

The first person plural perspective only came to me after half the story was built, so that voice, or a specific example thereof, didn’t spark the process. But there are great examples of the point of view. I love The Virgin Suicides, for instance.

Barasch: There’s a wonderfully wrought, pervasive sense of dread and unrest in “Neighbors,” often humorously conveyed. I can’t help but pick up on themes such as surveillance in our modern age, as well as conformist vs. nonconformist tendencies. Was this story perhaps influenced by a particular concept or event? How was it initially conceived? To what extent do you consider this a feminist story?

Tognazzini: The story wasn’t influenced by a specific event, but I think it registers a range of fucked-up currents in our culture. Violations of civil liberties, serial rape, abuse of police power, racial hate crimes, the way that these practices have been institutionalized and affirmed. Recent news has been full of horrible, specific examples of each, and events, like Ferguson, that are still on everyone’s mind.

The dynamic in these events seems to involve someone in a position of social privilege — economic, racial, or gendered — trying to contain and control that which is different or perceived as threatening. The practice of profiling or “othering” recurs. When the townspeople became the narrator of “Neighbors,” it was immediately clear that they were speaking from this privileged, othering position, and also that they were afraid, so I tried to explore what that was about.

It’s a feminist story in that the thinking of the town, which includes women, is strictly patriarchal; the town expects certain behaviors, a performance of straight, subservient femininity. The townspeople are equally fascinated and repelled by Sheila’s difference. They fetishize and demonize it until the final scene when their obsession drives them to commit a violent act. It’s an act of desire, but the desire is for conquest and control.

Excuse me for interpreting my own story. I worked on it over four years, so I thought about it a lot. I believe stories should remain somewhat mysterious, and I didn’t set out to address these issues; they rose to the surface as I wrote. Agenda-driven writing is to be avoided, in my view, but we’re also living in a socio-political moment that needs the attention of every sensitive, awake individual. I considered myself apolitical when I was younger, but that’s just ignorant and foolish, especially for a writer. There’s no such thing as apolitical writing.

I’m reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts right now, and it’s a patient, thoughtful call for freedom, for a plurality of social, personal, and sexual identities. Nelson votes for a world in which the binary of normative vs. transgressive is collapsed altogether. The idea is paradigm-cracking, and pushes against the resistance of most of the rest of the world. That’s a worthy uphill fight, in my view. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has a similar effect. When books like these are published, I feel hopeful. It sustains my faith, however desperate, in the moral function of literature.

Barasch: One of the strengths of “Neighbors” is how little we know about our narrators. Readers see Sheila through this carefully constructed lens, and it’s a fascinating plot device. And yet, if you will, indulge me for a moment: how do you envision this ‘we’? Who are our narrators?

Tognazzini: They have small heads, wobbly bodies, crooked legs.

Barasch: Your bio for BOA Editions says that you’ve lived in a variety of locations including Texas, the Philippines, Spain, Germany, Indiana, the Czech Republic, and New York. How have your diverse travels affected your writing?

Tognazzini: I grew up in a military family so we moved around a lot. I’ve continued that itinerant lifestyle as an adult. Travel has changed me, and helped me see the U.S. from different perspectives, but I think its more direct effect on my writing is probably an imaginative restlessness and the use of different voices and styles.

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