Art & Writing

How does AN Artist become ?

Gedanken darüber findest du hier. My thoughts on that here.


Writing Influences

I have been working on my Künstlerroman novel cycle since 2009. At that time, novels about – shall I say, ‘plural identities’? – suffered from the ‘Sybil’ taint: their reception was colored by psychological humbug from the eponymous 1973 novel. In recent years, with the acceptance of gender categories and non-categories, novels with dissociative protagonists are being taken more seriously, as Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater demonstrates. 

For decades one work has inspired me consistently: Music-Study in Germany in the Ninteenth Century by Amy Fay (1880). Over the years I dipped into Fay’s epistolary account of the “trials and difficulties with which a girl may meet when studying art alone in a foreign land” and felt less alone whenever I did. I appreciate in her work not only details on music and famous composers, but also the approachable, chatty tone of an American girl.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, stood model for me as unreliable narrator, one who repeatedly changed his chronicle over decades of writing and re-writing six volumes of Memoirs (1807-1832). His friend, Cassanova, as well as Georges Bataille and the confessional poets gave me encouragement to focus on extreme moments of personal (sexual) experience and trauma.

In The Nun's Story (1956), Kathryn Hulme showed me it was possible to write authentically about religious life (and rejection thereof), without being syrupy. (Had I really been up on my game, I might have noticed Denis Diderot’s Memoirs of a Nun published in 1796.)

Regarding the scope, flow and voice of a Künstlerroman, I learned much from James Joyce, Teju Cole and Karl Ove Knausgaard. ‘Confessional’ writers and artists (Louise Bourgeois) gave me permission and daring. Finally, I drank in the contemporary surreal tone of Haruki Murakami.

I’ve read that ‘the right comparative’ title is important. How about: Paris Choice: Where DaPonte’s Memoirs Meet Portnoys Complaint and Sylvia Plath?

Where might one find my novel in a virtual bookshop? Perhaps next to works of Japanese authors like Junichiro Tanizaki or Yuko Tsushima, near Japanese-German author Yuko Tawada or Japanese-American author Ruth Ozeki. Perhaps near authors of ‘autofiction’ such as Collette, Hélène Cixous, Christine Angot, Marie Darrieussecq or of immigrant literature like Junot Diaz. Perhaps in the music section or next to Sybil… and hopefully with a publisher venturing to push boundaries of genre-canon and diversity. (October 2018)

‘Transgressive’ and ‘Cruel’

I recently posted influences on my writing above. I left out influences I might characterize as ‘difficult’. But the genealogy of influences is missing an important branch without them.

First, ‘transgressive fiction’. According to The Atlantic Monthly (December 1996; Word Watch; Volume 278, No. 6; page 128), this is “a literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premises that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge… It has its roots in the works of such authors as William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade.” One place where I explored the premise of “body as site for gaining knowledge” is my story “Papyri und Tatami”.

The Oxford Online Dictionary defines transgressive as “relating to art or literature in which orthodox moral, social, and artistic boundaries are challenged by the representation of unconventional behavior and the use of experimental forms.” I’d say that Burroughs and de Sade don’t just “challenge” artistic boundaries: they throw “unconventional behavior” in your face. In that sense, the writing doesn’t just challenge, it crosses over – it wounds – traditional boundaries, such as the traditional boundary between writer and reader.

It was not my goal to wound the reader. But some of the episodes I felt the need to write about were so horrific, I couldn’t relate them without risking wounding the reader. Part of me feels badly that I risk hurting my reader. However, I found that I could not authentically relate the experiences in my grasp without doing so. Because such experiences cross boundaries. Thus, elements from my reading of transgressive writers like Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Georges Bataille or Henry Miller found their way into my pages. (Such elements can be found in the writings of authors Virginie Despentes, Christine Angot and Ottessa Moshfegh, to name a few contemporary examples.)

Second, ‘Theater of Cruelty’, such as I understand Antonin Artaud’s intention. I am not the first to point out the similarity between the Surrealists’ automatic writing and stream of consciousness writing. Poet René Char, on whose cycle “Hammer without Master” I base the structure of my novel Paris Choice, has roots in the Surrealist movement, as does Artaud.

Robert Vork wrote, “Speech on the Theatre of Cruelty's stage is reduced to inarticulate sounds, cries, and gibbering screams, no longer inviting a subject into being but seeking to preclude its very existence” (2013, “The Things No One Can Say: The Unspeakable Act in Artaud's Les Cenci”. Modern Drama. 56 (3): 306–326, quoted on Wikipedia “Theater of Cruelty”).

When I first began writing my novel cycle, episodes flowed onto the page in unstructured passages. I found that when I later tried to structure them, they often lost the meaning I felt they had in their original rough form. I have edited out most such confused passages; but, sometimes I feel writing the incomprehensible is the only way to convey the loss of meaning and orientation taking place inside my protagonist. So, some of those passages have reason to remain. (December 2018)

Christa Wolf on Poetics

The word poetics is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning to make. Wikipedia tells us that poetics is a theory focusing not on the meaning of a text, but rather on how a text's different elements come together and produce certain effects on the reader — how does the author make her texts? In my case, the elements that come together include my past career in music and media art, my life experiences growing up in California and travels thereafter, my identity disorder, and so on...

One of my models is Christa Wolf’s Cassandra (published in East and West Germany in 1983) and her protocol of Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics, Conditions of a Narrative. I paraphrase literary critic Jane Housham: “Cassandra stands for the female writer who struggles to be heard. Further, her guilt at her part in crimes and betrayals stands for [the author’s] lifelong sense of implication in [society’s] errors and delusions.” Why do I identify with Wolf's sense of guilt and implication? Because for years I went along with all the deceptions and unethical practices in the music business. I had been taught that these were just part of being a musician, one had to develop a thick skin. After all, being a musician wasn't being a monk. Many of us feel torn by the compromises we make in order to advance our careers. This is surely more acute for a 'career' in the arts.

In Conditions of a Narrative, Wolf gives background and motivating factors for her novel. “I cannot offer you a poetics. Mainly I want to ask you to follow me on a journey. I employ various subjective forms of expression.” To me, Wolf is saying here, I have no concepts or theories to offer; just walk with me and feel what I feel, see what I see—you will find me using many different ways to express myself. To which I might add: Self, how do I express thee? Let me count the ways.

In her third essay Wolf traces the vice grip between life and subject matter. "The literature of the West is the white man’s reflection on himself. So should it be supplemented by the white woman’s reflection on herself? And nothing more? … Is it possible to conceive of beings endowed with reason who do not know how contemporary man is divided in to body/soul/mind, who cannot understand this division? Cassandra [Juni Shimata] experiences this divisive operation alive and in the flesh. That is, there are actual forces in her environment which, as the need arises, require of her a denial [dissociation] of part of herself.... Narrative techniques, in their closedness or openness, also transmit thought patterns. I experience the closed form of the [novel’s] narrative as a contradiction to the fragmentary structure from which (for me) it is actually composed. The contradiction cannot be resolved, only named.” (All quotes are compressed and taken from Jan van Heurck’s English translation re-printed by Daunt Books/London in 2013.) Thank you, Ms. Wolf. {2014}

Dissociative Protagonist?

My protagonist, Juni Shimata, suffers from DID (dissociative identity disorder, commonly called 'multiple personalities'). I have shown parts of my manuscript to divers docents. Two of them have suggested that the storyline about the woman conductor and her travails is fine. But couldn't I leave out the part about her being dissociative?

Dissociative personalities got a bad name back in the days of Sibyl (I prefer Dr. Nijenhuis' analysis); and my impression is that publishers shy away from any story dealing with dissociatives. It might be pulp fiction! But seriously: who cares today? How about Homeland's bipolar protagonist Carrie Mathison? And what about the news that Benedict Cumberbatch is slated to portray severely traumatised Patrick Melrose in the eponymous novel cycle by Edward St Aubyn—who was himself severely traumatised?

Here's my case for St Aubyn's being dissociative. St Aubyn doesn’t explicitly that he is dissociative, but his biography with massive drug addiction, his running around from place to place, unsuccessful marriages, endless therapy, suicide attempt all point in this direction. Most particularly I point to his description of dissociation during the child rape scene in his novel Never Mind: “He (Patrick) did not know who this man was, it could not be his father who was crushing him like this. From the curtain pole, if he could get up on the curtain pole, he could have sat looking down on the whole scene, just as his father was looking down on him. For a moment, Patrick felt he was up there watching with detachment the punishment inflicted by a strange man on a small boy. As hard as he could Patrick concentrated on the curtain pole and this time it lasted longer, he was sitting up there, his arms folded, leaning back against the wall.” That, as far as I am concerned, is a great description of a dissociating moment. And this novel series about a dissociating protagonist is now to be made into a TV series staring Benedict Cumberbatch.

So why shouldn't my protagonist be dissociative? {March 2017}


I recently heard the Guardian Books Podcast on autobiographical novels. And it exasperated me... (more to follow) {March 2017}

next project

Text: Vanessa Araya; sound: Martin Laliberté; visuals: Manuel Müller

I began writing the novel Paris Choice in 2012. It was conceived as project for the two semesters I was enrolled in New York University's newly created MFA in Creative Writing at their Paris campus; it is a sequel to novel I have been working on in German since 2008. Somehow, it's just not getting finished...and I am setting myself the deadline end of 2017 for a completed first draft. 

My initial intention back then was not to write novels, but to write interactive stories for iPad (see below). After my colleagues Martin Laliberté (sound), Manuel Müller (visuals) and I had finished the short clip above, I realized how vast the undertaking is to produce interactive (participative) audio-visual material. My health continues to decline. And so, sadly, I am no longer working in that medium. Sniff.

The clip is also available free, in its interactive form, on iTunes/iBooks.

Back around 2012, when I had taken a few writing courses, learned what a novel exposé is and had elaborated one, this is how I conceived the multimedia aspect might be for my "iPopLit":

How It Began