At my first sight of her, she sat at the end of a grand oak table, her stance suggesting a cabaret’s wisest, funniest, and most world-weary chanteuse, her Toto-like dog Onofria peeking out of a sack. How rare to meet such an ineffable force: Quintan Ana Wikswo might well be Rilke’s peer, a host of salons in fin-de-siècle Paris. An artist sprung out of a wild land, she catapulted into early advocacy for human rights, working with peers along the Mexican-American border, a period in which she learned gender violence from every unfortunate angle, including the survival of a traumatic brain injury resulting in temporal lobe epilepsy. Temporarily deprived of the ability to use language, Wikswo began taking pictures with an old war camera of decommissioned military zones within international sites of genocide. Once language fully returned, she started pairing text with image, work for which she has won countless awards. Her debut novel, The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press), speaks from the strangeness that Harold Bloom and others call a necessary component of significant literature. On the night when I learned of my mother’s extreme illness, her studio offered welcome. When her book arrived on my transom, it offered even greater welcome, proof of lyricism articulating a few of the lost dreams of history. And the canine companion? Onofria knows when Wikswo enters a fugue state, helping bring her unusual human the anodyne which keeps this original spirit offering her very original alchemy.
EDIE MEIDAV: Since all interviews in support of your provocative book The Hope of Floating question, at the outset, your use of image and text, and you suggested we instead begin with something a bit more biographical, might you give readers a telescoped history of your life in terms of queerness and the bending of identity which helped inspire this particular book?
QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO: I didn’t attend formal schooling until high school, and ran wild and alone in the southern backwoods wildernesses. Most of this time was shared only with trees, rocks, bobcats, rattlesnakes—I was fortunate to have certain unbounded territories to develop my sense of self on all levels. I had opportunities to create a kind of mythos of the psyche with a few witnesses, a few critics, a few allies.
I was a strange child, like many children who don’t fit easily into categories. Like most people, as I got older I learned this exotic self-deterministic terrain also contained centuries of humans’ draconian policing of each others’ sexual, gender, erotic, racial, and economic identities at every possible opportunity. There were cruel punishments for transgressing one’s assigned identity—whatever that might be—and resplendent rewards for following the rules. It felt vital to make strategies for locating the places inside oneself that are off the visible map, and to learn to fight for them on every level. I hope that we are reaching an era when the survival of one’s true self doesn’t depend upon it remaining invisible. Where our bendiness, and complexities, and metamorphoses are visible, and navigable, and fully inhabited.
I love the idea of queerness, both in terms of gender and in its other meanings. I didn’t even hear anyone speak about queerness or homosexuality until I was about sixteen, and two older friends came out as queer. When the words and slurs were explained to me, the recognition of those feelings and desires in myself began to sing. This was a jubilant moment to hear the first existence proof of my previously unproven theory: (1) there were others like me, and (2) we each have our unbounded, unpoliced states from which we can transform into our true selves.
When these friends came out as queer in the 1980s, I felt like they had suddenly escaped something that tries to contain all of us, even though they suddenly faced violence and hate. The book is really about that existential risk to survive when one has left the map and gone into what might be hostile and lonely and unfamiliar territory. And about how we make new maps for ourselves, and the metamorphosis that is entailed in surviving and changing as we orient ourselves to a changed self, a changed view of reality. Something which is not easy but which I believe is necessary and worthwhile.
MEIDAV: How does your concept of suffering relate to these unpoliced states?
WIKSWO: These true-self states typically emerge under trauma and suffering and loss, yet our true selves are often bigger and more magnificent and often more terrifying and huge and mysterious than we can imagine. Dangerous and sublime. Suffering can be an event that breaks apart the codes of reality that contain us, offering us a chance to see something more profound in the cosmos. I’m not romanticizing suffering, but I do think it is one of many portals into dramatic self-metamorphosis, and so it figures greatly in the book.
It’s not like entering into these unbounded states is anything but terrifying. There is a pain and suffering in living against one’s true self, and that is also inherent in attempting to live a true self … especially if that involves the intersection of sex / gender / race / class. People get killed. People also fall in love and know joy beyond measure. Know pleasure beyond comprehension. There is exhilaration, and devastation, and discovery.
For centuries we have lived with the very narrowest policed definitions of who we must be. They have changed over time, but there is always this ideal human, the normal human—and the non-normative human. We suffer consequences according to how we do or do not fit into these categories. We are now on the cusp of a new cosmos in terms of people rejecting the policed boxes of gender, or race, or whatnot. People, including myself, are entering hundreds of thousands of new states of being that haven’t been possible in recorded memory.
The book surrounds this fascination with transformation that comes through the will to survive pain and loss. To take that leap from destruction and annihilation into a great mystery. A snake who sheds skin. A rock that cleaves itself in half. It hurts to exist. Sexual and erotic self-discovery—the ethics, the vulnerability, the impossible losses and unpredictable victories—I wanted to write about how we can more than survive … we can transmogrify. And a tumble into the abyss or into the sublime is a risk that many of us take each day.
MEIDAV: Since outside of this space we talked about having something of a back-and-forth conversation, I’ll share this, which may explain some of the particular magic I see in your book’s imagery: when I was younger, I spent hours seeing first glimpses of narrative in the flashing light and shaking branches of trees: power stories, dominion, submission, last-minute petitions. I was near-sighted and undiagnosed, seemingly, for a long time, and feel that much of what is my habit, a metaphorical cast of mind, began with many trees or perhaps with one friendly tree in particular.
And for me, in your book, the photos act as my childhood trees. Because your prose is so lyrical, because it has has such an allusive, labile quality, the photos behave as a sort of inchoate, physical absorption for the words and their disruptions. The way text and image interact reminds me of what the expansive folds of cloth in Renaissance painting were meant to do: the image acts as a projecting screen for inquiry and consciousness.
Is there anything you’d like to say about your childhood experience and how it might link to your use of text and image?
WIKSWO: I suppose this sounds terrible to say, but if undiagnosed nearsightedness influenced the nature of your perspectives that reveal themselves in your books, then I’m grateful to that tree. Perhaps what I’m inching towards is the value of epochs in our lives where we aren’t normalized. You didn’t have “normal” vision, and it released you to develop your own vision. Altered, askew, and perhaps with a slew of unfortunate consequences but undoubtedly endowed with a few gems—like a penchant for metaphor—that make you the artist you are today.
By virtue of being largely alone in the woods, my childhood conversants were the animals and rocks and trees as well, which soon enough began to speak through their visual behavior—I could read the moods of the birds as they entered mating season, or the sluggishness of a frog about to hibernate. These were visual communications. I remember at some point standing in the tomato patch and watching the horse try to reach her neck into the vines. Inside my head, the monologue became that of the horse. I was looking visually, and hearing words. Her situation seemed infinitely more interesting than mine. For a long time, I referred to myself in the third person—not, as I recall, because I felt such distance from myself, but because I always felt I was a character in the story unfolding around me in the natural world. It seemed absurd that I be at the center of it, since I clearly wasn’t.
I had a favorite path and routine. I would go visit the remains of abandoned slave cabins and plantation houses and pioneer shacks, and check on the graves scattered in the hollows and ridges. I learned the gravesites because few of them had stone markers—maybe a rock, or a wooden board that had rotted a century ago. But often their loved ones had planted flowers around the head and foot of the grave, and they were misplaced varieties of plants. Often the earth was sunken about the depth of a rotted wooden coffin, so I could see the size of the person buried there. A lot of children. These were visual experiences that required detective work, and the narrative came along in my mind simultaneously. The story and the image could not possibly be separated—each inextricably linked to the other. The extrapolation of mysteries and consequences.
The daffodils on one child’s grave would bloom every April. I would go there and read what I could understand of Jane Eyre, and think, “She sat at the grave, reading an ancient book, and the tick wondered whether he would go undetected long enough to find his way past her socks to settle in for an afternoon snack of blood.”
Metaphysically, this sort of prismatic location of self in the natural and social world was only heightened later on in my early adulthood, when an undiagnosed brain injury resulted in the tangling of my verbal and visual cortex. Often a seizure will cause one half of my brain to send quite vivid and fragmentary, disorganized messages to the other half, which then exchanges its own transmissions. This magnificent if sometimes frightening exchange of words and images means my brain does not always easily perceive agreed-upon reality—it will draw its own conclusions from the data it has at hand.
For instance, the near-identical nature of the sky when it’s above me, versus when it’s reflected in the surface of a lake. That can take hours to unravel, cognitively and metaphysically. Or my prosopagnosia—an inability to recognize faces—makes the desire to form a consistent image of a person quite connected to my intent focus on perceiving and memorizing the rhythm of someone’s speech, the intonations within their questions, the length of their sentences. I will recognize them later by their language, and will likely have imaginatively constructed a face to go along.
MEIDAV: The advent of epilepsy after your trauma on the Mexican-American border seems to have heightened what was already an interesting blurring of every boundary—perceptual, cultural, sexual—in your temperament and environ.
WIKSWO: I think the epilepsy and its effect on blurring boundaries is also about how any kind of otherness forces us—or gives us the opportunity—to exist outside the common perspective, the conventional experience. All the characters in the book find themselves in situations where they are suddenly outside of conventional reality or expectation—nothing is neat and tidy anymore. It’s blurry, and fragmented, and the environment becomes queer.
MEIDAV: I wonder, given the richness of your experience, whether or not you have ever imagined an ideal reader?
WIKSWO: I’m very curious about your own ideal reader, but mostly I want to know if it’s changed over time … perhaps from before you were sharing your work publically, versus after it became widely published. I feel like many writers have developed this prêt-à-porter ideal reader, in the sense of a ready-made, perhaps elusive etheric companion with whom you feel communion, or by whom you are understood. For whom your perspectives are relevant and compelling. That’s what I started out wanting. But it’s changed radically over time.
After working in post-conflict zones and aftermath regions where “the official story” is complicated, and nobody is who they seem to be, and reality and memory change over time, I realized that allies are elusive creatures. Sometimes an enemy is a friend. And vice versa. So my ideal reader is not exactly the person most delighted by my existence, but rather is someone who is surprised and perhaps disconcerted by their attraction to my work. Curious. For instance, someone detests cauliflower and then ends up surprised to enjoy its presence in their otherwise comfortably habitual potato soup. My most thrilling moments as an artist are when someone lands within my world and, after her initial disorientation, finds herself wanting to sit awhile and see what’s really happening here.
Don’t get me wrong—I need as many allies and likeminded fools as the rest of us. But I do find it immensely rewarding when someone tells me they were startled to like my work—“This is way out of my wheelhouse but it made me cry and think about things …” I don’t like to make people cry, but I do love it when I find authors or art that completely rattles my world. Our worlds need to be periodically rattled. Doors blown open. Windows found behind plywood. When we lose our glasses and just see the beams of light coming in, and perhaps accidentally walk right past the mailbox and stumble into a meadow we never even realized was there before.
MEIDAV: Ah, fellow prosopagnosiac! I do find it interesting how verbal cues immediately construct a face that before that moment remained merely affectionate or quizzical. And as for ideal readers: I suppose my first ideal reader was an imaginary friend, a little laughing boy I recalled from kindergarten with whom I probably actually never spoke but to whom, on hot summers shut in with an unusual midwestern grandmother, I would confess in whispers. This little boy named Matthew was, to my mind, cupped in my hands in such a way that I could tell him all that had happened before quickly stowing him away under the couch if anyone so much as entered the room.
This act—the furtive confessional—is probably not so different from the way we write, whether it is by hand, typewriter, or with the act of turning on a computer to open a file. Whatever the case, many of us may hope we manage to whisper at the edge of taboo, writing the rim of whatever we permitted ourselves the day before and then shutting it away, trying to give it time to form into something more solid than imaginary. My hope is that from all these shards of possibility, a writer’s subjectivity might magnetize some category of nuance or understanding in her reader. I am grateful to Matthew, wherever he may be, because his laugh made me imagine someone eternally amused and joyous about receiving my confession. My current ideal reader is someone with a life complex or simple who, whatever the case, cares about the sound as much as the heart, sense, and ethos of a story and place. I imagine someone who lets all rigid understanding be shifted while reading. Simplest to say: I’m looking for an open spirit ready to be complicit.
As far as the full specificity of aesthetics go, I love the detail about Don DeLillo punching in the keys hard on his manual typewriter and caring so deeply about the serifs’ appearance on the page. Which leads to a next question for you: what voices, beyond all the ghosts you just cited, influenced your strong, kinesthetic voice on the page in Hope?
WIKSWO: Yes, I share that love for the typewriter and nearly all my work is composed that way. At first it was an easy way to write in the field without electricity, but at its essence, I love the percussive nature of the keys that forms the rhythm of my thoughts and influences the rhythm of my language. I love the inability to edit or take back words once they are inked on the page, which prevents my own brain from editing what I’ve said. A level of honesty and intimacy emerges when I know that I cannot delete a line or a word without that redaction being obvious. So much of my work is about resisting erasure, and I like the symmetry between methodology and ideology.
I suspect my voice is very influenced by the languages and accents that I grew up around in the American South—every town had its own accent, and it became easy to trace someone’s mother tongue to their town, their hollow. People around me of African American, Gullah, and African Diaspora descent whose phrasing and sentence structure was amalgamated with English. The borderland speakers of a hundred different indigenous and native languages, mixed with Spanish, mixed with English. The Amish and Mennonites and Scotch Irish with their traces of medieval European words, intonations, and vanished languages. My mother’s family’s thick South Carolinian and Virginian accents; my father’s family’s New York accents.
Grandmother tongues. What is passed down generations. Communities that had emigrated to the South months or decades or centuries ago and became pockets of remembered languages and accents long since discarded or evolved in their mother countries and geographic communities of origin. We would go to jamborees in Appalachia and barely understand the words being spoken.
Then there was the intense influence of backwoods protestant Christianity on my early life. I grew up in small Sunday gatherings in people’s living rooms, where everyone read the King James’ Bible out loud sentence by sentence. The differences in accent, rhythm, and pronounciation were profound. Some people summarized in their own more comfortable tongue. We struggled over the meanings of arcane words that demanded our contemporary adherence.
That—combined with the homeschooling—meant a lack of standardization in how I envisioned language structure, a patriotic disregard for grammatical rules if they counterindicated the values of your community, and a joy in making up words, creating mishmash words from multiple languages, and using English as a malleable tool to express coded meanings in regions highly policed along lines of race, class, and ethnicity.
Perhaps my favorite voice influence was my father’s laboratory, in which non-English speakers from Sri Lanka, Korea, China, and Holland would arrive with their own versions of English that I preferred to my own. They would express so much consternation at their mistakes, which I found beautiful, and individual, and evocative. Glorious poetics emerged through what they would cringe at and try to correct. I always refused to correct them, selfishly.
At a certain point—probably around my exodus to California and Seattle in my mid-twenties—I felt a pressure to correct my own accent into something that was as close as I could find to normalized American English. It was partly volitional, partly to erase traces of my own origins, and partly a desire to be taken seriously as an intelligent person—many of these accents are synonymous with ignorance and disenfranchisement.
I still am asked quite regularly by strangers about my first language. And in my writing, there is often the assumption that I am translating my words from some other language.
MEIDAV: I find myself going back to a lexicon of trauma which electrifies your work and life. You may no longer be in touch with many of the brave workers with whom you did human-rights work along the US-Mexico border, but I wonder if this book represents your wish to write something approaching such a lexicon, or if you find yourself writing about trauma in some other work you may be creating?
WIKSWO: I am in touch with most or many of those I worked with, and we occasionally compare stories that don’t match up. This is why nonfiction to me includes an element of fabulism. How can we agree on a single reality, or a single truth, and should we privilege that over the prism of metaphor, concealed truths, secrets that can only be spoken through allegory? I’m currently halfway through writing a new book I’d like to call fabulist nonfiction for that very reason. It’s called Out Here Death Is No Big Deal surrounding gender violence as part of a legacy of genocide along the US-Mexico border.
In terms of a lexicon, I’m interested in conversations around how societal and individual trauma can be connected more clearly to the experience of injustice. This is the lexicon of trauma that interests me: the matrix of injustice and the suffering of the individual and collective body, mind, and psyche. You cannot have a nation built on slavery and genocide and not expect generations of trauma to ensue—that cannot just be pushed under the rug. Gay marriage is now legal, but what about the centuries of American lives traumatized by being imprisoned, electroshocked, fired, killed for having partners of the same sex? How do we rewire a global culture in which the female or female-identified body is visually portrayed in a way that simultaneously celebrates and censures gender violence, and a society in which it is socially acceptable for the female body to be routinely tortured?
I have another book nearly completed called Mercy Killing Aktion—written in Europe over five years—that considers the multigenerational body in the aftermath of genocide and human-rights traumas, where the ideal social body attempted to destroy the subhuman social body. Much of it surrounds the cognitive and existential struggles of second- and third-generation descendants of both perpetrators and remnant survivors—each of which groups is wrestling with questions of trauma, injustice, and conscience.
How to write books that propose other maps beyond the disastrously failed ones we have? There is no one map for this, there is a spider web. These kinds of books are spider webs and fortunately there are many of us trying to make the new maps, and to bring our webs together. It’s potentially an exciting time in literature, as long as publishers think they can sell enough of these maps.
MEIDAV: What are the varieties of hope conveyed in your title?
WIKSWO: The title comes from the witch trials, where women accused of witchcraft were plunged into water. If they sunk and drowned, they were innocent. If they floated, they were witches and were burned. The title is a kind of call to arms—to hope to float. A kind of cry of rebellion, of declaration of self, a refusal to give up, no matter what the cost. That floating is being a witch. Being an outsider. Enough of us float, and maybe that changes things.
In terms of hope in a context of loss and trauma, I’ve said many times that I don’t believe in hope in the passive sense. Especially within the injustice-trauma matrix. I believe in transformation and metamorphosis after trauma. There can be no magical healing, no fantastical return to what was before. Hope requires brave action, serious strategy, tactics, sanctuaries, and allies; and then hope can bring evolution, metamorphosis, transformation, liberation. That’s the kind of hope I believe in.
MEIDAV: I love the technique of defamiliarization, making the familiar strange, as if viewed through an alien’s optic, in your answers above as well as in your work. And yet you come from such an interesting fantasia of the States, one with the hybrid roots of this country: when you describe your childhood, I feel you have landed here in the twenty-first century having bypassed the twentieth.
WIKSWO: I have a favorite practice where I sit down with someone and say I feel as though I have some sort of object that’s been embedded in my chest that is just hitting at me and hitting at me. They never guess it’s my heart. Or that there is a network of really hard structures, like I-beams, that go down all my limbs and around my middle and tiny ones are even in my ears. Or that I feel as though there are millions of tiny tubes filled with electricity that have been inserted throughout my body. It’s just another way of describing bones and neurons, but unless we are children we are accustomed to talking about agreed-upon reality in agreed-upon ways. We can all relax into familiarity and normalcy and communion. This is probably comforting, if primal or even primitive—it shows we are all using the same map to navigate the same territory. Except of course we’re not—we are always trying to translate our intimate perception map into something that our milieu and era have decided is normal.
The book is about stages in life when reality begins to go off that map—where what someone experiences defies their ability to describe it. That’s what abstraction, and metaphor, and even forms like fairy tales are intended for. Because once we fall off the map of what we and others expect from reality, we are changed forever. Exactly like my characters.
MEIDAV: Perhaps as a final question, though I’m sure it will open up to much broader landscapes, what is your secret or open hope for someone coming away from Hope? Above, you mentioned the jubilation in having a name for queerness presented to your adolescent consciousness; the name called forth aspects of your being, the “unpoliced.” My hunch is that you see your task as not so dissimilar to Adam’s: in a strangely defamiliarized garden, you name the animals. Your lyricism calls strange collisions into being as if to get your reader to see the sublimity in terror as well as the terror of ominous, conspiratorial structures behind the patina of everyday life.
WIKSWO: Perhaps shamanism or quantum physics is more helpful than Christianity in this context. I am interested in the task of bending and altering the conventional knowledges, whether that’s how to love, who to love, what kind of book to publish or read, or how to navigate trauma. I am interested in a multiplicity of realities, rather than a one-way gate in and out of a garden. Perhaps an existentially radicalizing shaman mesa sanctuary school is what’s needed, and a true farewell to Eden and all its propaganda.
My task would be to sort out how we can have a certain existential agency that is not limited to conventional reality. That fundamentally, we work harder to find more reasons to challenge the normalized state of reality.
I think most humans encounter the void, or a suspension of reality—a time in life in which we are alone in a very complex process where everything we knew as familiar or comforting is suddenly eviscerated. There is no map. Anything could happen. Who will we become?
These are shamanic states, in a sense—the netherworld of the body, mind, and psyche that many of us discover lies between the tidy patina of conventional reality and the utter inscrutability of the cosmos. Maybe for some readers, the book makes that shamanistic experience of necessary metamorphosis inside the void a little less lonely, a little more filled with possibility, and perhaps something that speaks to beauty, and hope, and the sublime.
Quintan Ana Wikswo (@QuintanWikswo) has long been active at the intersection of art and social justice. Her conceptually based interdisciplinary work integrates fiction, poetry, memoir, and essay with her original photographs, performance, and video. A former human-rights worker, she uses salvaged government typewriters and cameras to navigate known, unknown, obscured, and occluded worlds where crimes against humanity have taken place and whose complex histories involve the intersection of gender, disability, queerness, and race, with a special focus on human-rights aftermath issues. Inhabiting the intersections of sexuality / gender, warfare / power, and mythology / shamanism, she creates sites for investigation of existential questions about humanity, our societies, and how we can navigate beyond the boundaries that contain us. Her several books include the acclaimed collection of photographs and stories The Hope Of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press). She has presented multiple live performance works and solo museum shows in New York City, the Berlin Jewish Museum, and elsewhere. Her work has appeared several times in Conjunctions’ online magazine.
Edie Meidav (@lolacalifornia) is a senior editor with Conjunctions, where her fiction has also appeared. The most recent of her three novels is Lola, California (FSG). Her story collection Kingdom of the Young is forthcoming from Sarabande in 2017, and Dogs of Cuba is her novel in progress. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, and has received, among other honors, Lannan, Howard, Bard Fiction Prize, and Whiting awards for her research and writing.