A Conversation with Vanessa Veselka

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Photograph by Alyssa Loh

I sat down with Vanessa Veselka in a small, yet airy, café in New York’s West Village. The dining room was buzzing with chatter and classical music, and every once in a while we had to pause in our conversation to accommodate the grinding of the nearby espresso machine. Ms. Veselka was remarkably self-possessed, but not preening. Her dark hair was held up in a half-ponytail, and she was wearing a black t-shirt with cap sleeves that curled and flared along the edges. In the center of the t-shirt was an image: a blue-skinned Hindu god, encircled by licks of flame, with skulls and flowers strung around its neck. There were some visible tattoos. Her manner, however, was rather formal—almost professorial (though as the discussion deepened, a Southern drawl began to inflect her generally Mid-Atlantic speech patterns, making them somehow honeyed). She was sharp, empathetic, and insightful, and cultural and political theory texts were as much a touchstone as her home state of Texas. 

Ms. Veselka has an unusual resume. Not only was her novel, Zazen, recently awarded PEN’s 2012 Robert Bingham Prize for first fiction, but her writing is appearing this month everywhere from Tin House and Guillotine to GQ. Both Zazen and her article for GQ, “Truck Stop Killers,” deal with issues of control, gender, and survival. The central issue of Zazen, according to Ms. Veselka, is “sitting still when you’re on fire,” and her piece for GQ is a chilling elaboration of this theme. In it, Ms. Veselka recounts her attempt to uncover the identity of a serial killer from whom she barely escaped as a teenage hitchhiker. Ms. Veselka’s investigation opens onto a broader contemplation of the politics of curiosity: “It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims.” During the course of our conversation, Ms. Veselka imparted her unusual and sophisticated take on identity—and its role in the construction of contemporary American life and the American cultural imagination.

Uzoamaka Maduka: Your recent article in GQ and your novel Zazen circle around some of the same themes. Primary among these themes is the idea of control. In Zazen, it’s first introduced in through [the protagonist] Della’s preoccupation with self-immolation…

Vanessa Veselka: If I were to reduce the entire book to one statement, it would be this: can you sit still on fire? With the whole world around you burning—and you don’t know where to go—can you sit still on fire?

UM: The narrative structure itself can be seen as “self-immolative.” At bottom, there seems to be this deep pain, this real intensity of feeling in Della—and yet the surface language is distant, controlled, masking…

VV: And the early criticism I got on Zazen, when I was looking at agents and things like that, was about Della’s emotional distance. “Well, she never really touches down.”

UM: Really?

VV: “She never really emotionally connects.” We have many, many emotionally distant male characters, from Holden Caufield to the narrator in Hunger, who have this extreme interiority—and yet they are not critiqued for being unemotional or passive. Whereas women characters are expected to show vulnerability very early on, to cry in a particular way—to let you in to their emotional world. Unless it’s a genre piece, a female character is expected to be likable.

But Zazen is a novel without a love story—without a specific love story. There are very few novels that don’t have a love story that are also considered to have a plot. So, I went through a period of wondering: “Is plot just love story?” When people [said of Zazen], “This has no plot,” how often were they just saying, “This has no love story”?

That said, there is a love story in Zazen— a Heathcliff-style love story—but it’s [Della’ relationship] with the world. She’s trying to figure out how much she can engage with world, how open she can be to the world, how vulnerable she can be to the world. There’s this sense that this isn’t intimate. There’s this psychological hang-up, a holdover from Freudian analysis: “That’s not the deepest issue! We’ll find where your mother went wrong!” But the political is personal—and that’s been lost. I mean, for Della, there are of course “emotional” parts of her life that lead to the intensity and focus of [her situation and her narrative], but the dominant thing she’s struggling with is the world around her. How do you act? What is right action in a world where you can see the endpoint of every strategy? In many ways, her intelligence doesn’t serve her, doesn’t allow her to live in the moment.

UM: Well, that’s interesting, because these things with which Della is wrestling—these things that make her, as you say, an atypical female characterare in some ways archetypal female struggles: figuring out how to reconcile your intelligence to the world you’re in, how to barter your own intimacy with the world around you, and communicate yourself in this world.

VV: Oh, I agree. One of the aspects of Zazen that was natural to me was to have almost all of the characters be women. And yet it doesn’t get included in “women’s fiction,” and I performed very poorly in women’s grant polls.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’m sure some of it is just, “I hate your work.” But when it comes to funding, there all these incentives [to tell a certain story. There’s a narrow view.] And so women’s fiction is almost made into a genre: okay, you can talk about rape; you can talk about abuse; you can talk about your first job after you’ve been married for forty years; you can talk about re-entering the workforce; you can talk about raising your children; or you can talk about coming to a generational understanding of the human experience. But that’s where “women’s writing” ends. So even if you’re a female author, and almost all of your characters are female, if it’s not geared around a guy or a heterosexual love story, it still doesn’t count as “women’s fiction.” 

I’ve actually had people say—I think their intentions were good, and generally when they’ve said this they’ve been somewhat drunk, and are saying it with a certain amount of tenuous modesty—they’ve said, “So, I don’t know how to put this, but you write like a dude.”

UM: Interesting.

VV: It is interesting.

UM: Is it offensive?

VV: I think I understand what they’re trying to say, so it’s not offensive to me. I think what people are sensing is the tenuous versus solid sense of authority on the page. I had lot of very strong women models. And so anything I’ve done I’ve always done with a certain amount of—maybe unearned—authority. And since men, especially white men, are privileged in this culture, are associated with authority…

UM: …you’re a “dude.”

VV: Right. I can come up with an opinion instantly, and state it with full authority. Nobody should listen to me. (Laughs.) But for somebody who has never had that model, there’s a tenuous nature to the way they approach their art. They could be better than me, they could be more brilliant—but it’s going to have less feeling of authority. And I think, in this light, it’s a legitimate critique. It speaks to our cultural endowment of authority, to certain perceptions of authority and the sense of possessing or not possessing authority.

And this same friend of mine, who teaches writing, also made a similar point. He told me, “I’ve never run across a man in a workshop who doubts their right to a story.”

And he said, “Almost every woman I’ve met, no matter how badass, or how aggressive in some way, and talented as a writer, at a fundamental level struggles with whether or not they have the right to tell the story they’re telling.”

UM: And you…?

VV: I have the same problem. This came up actually with the GQ piece. When I was beginning my own personal investigation [into the identity of this serial killer I had encountered] and was calling the FBI, I was really looking for a place where somebody said, “You got it. You don’t have to think about it again.” And I couldn’t find that place. I wasn’t sure if it was my story to tell. I didn’t want to take up the space of these women who had actually been seriously, physically harmed by people. I had all these concerns about my own authority to tell this story. I was afraid of my problems with my memory. I was afraid of being credible. I was afraid I might tell it wrong.

UM: Right, and to go back for a moment—I’m interested in what you were saying about the way your writing is received as a woman, because one of the consequences, unwitting consequences, of this kind of approach with these good intentions of seeking out “female writers” or “black writers” is to kind of ghettoize these perspectives.  There’s a woman’s voice; and there’s a black voice; and there’s a gay voice. But, although it seems to be inclusive, it’s also so saying, “this is how you enter, this is how you speak, and this is how we’re going to accept it.” And “this is where the women’s voice is, this is where the black voice is, this is where the gay voice is, and we’re done.”  And it’s almost like a white man always has this wonderful playground of the imagination and he can do whatever he wants, but when you’re a woman, well, “this is when you speak.”

VV: You know, I was in a class, and a bunch of students and I were talking about Marx,  and someone said, “I just don’t get fetishization of capital—what does it mean to have fetishized objects?” And I looked at him and I said, “It’s Portland!” Everything is fetishized, everything is marketable, everything is consumed—and always in the most narrow sense. In Zazen, too, the universe Della is looking at is a constellation of identities, where identity and the marketing of identity is so much bigger than the collective sense.

UM: There’s homogeneity of difference.

VV: And it’s also in the way we talk about it. This sanitizing of language of difference—it’s a problem.

AM: It becomes almost oppressive in a certain order.

VV: Yes, and it only defines certain experiences. For example, I tend to say “black,” but on radio I don’t, in interviews I generally don’t—it’s a reaction to this social pressure. And yet a lot of my black friends hate the term “African American” because it doesn’t always apply—it’s not everybody.

AM: Right. It’s an odd one for me, personally. It was a shock for me at a certain point to realize I was truly African American.

VV: Well, yes you are.

AM: But I thought: Well, I’m not African American because my family is Nigerian, so I guess I don’t fit into it. And then later I realized, having been born in America to Nigerian parents, I am literally both African and American. And so it’s strange, the fact that the term is so drained of its actual meaning and its actual content that to even make it literal becomes almost absurd.  Because on a certain level I am not African American—I’m more African in terms of the way that we use language.

Now, race is a big part of this identity knot being untangled in Zazen. How does race enter into your writing and work?

VV: This may sound terribly high-handed, but unfortunately, it’s true. You know, everything I write about circles the question: “Does this American project work?”  “And what is this American project?”—and I don’t think you can talk about America without talking about race.

UM: That’s refreshing to hear. I often feel there is a lack of conversation between black women and white women about the strange patriarchy that persists in the black literature, black art—the black community, in general.

When you look at these periods of “social progress” for blacks, you note a real denigration of women. There’s this real misogyny at work, but there’s also nowhere for a black woman to go. In a sense they’re kind of just phantomized. She goes towards the feminist movement, and doesn’t find herself there. She goes towards the black movement and—“not me,” again. And she just kind of evaporates. She’s a fiction of American life.

VV: There’s commentary all through Zazen about—and she says it rather acerbically—whether the real bottom is race, class, or gender. I think I’ve come to a point where I have to say it’s gender.

UM: Really?

VV: I wouldn’t have said that before, but I think that in every racial community or economic strata, the woman is below.

UM: Let’s shift gears for a minute and go to the article you wrote for GQ. Its focus was very different than similar kinds of articles. One of the most interesting lines of the piece, for me, was “It seems our profound fascination with serial killers is matched by an equally profound lack of interest in their victims.”

VV: I’ve been thinking a lot about curiosity, specifically white male curiosity as a form of colonialism. Recently, a male friend of mine said, “I really think this particular photograph should [accompany your article in GQ.] I was curious about it.” This was graphic, violent sort of image. And I thought, You should investigate that curiosity. Because I wasn’t curious about it. Your girlfriend wasn’t curious about it. And again, this is a very good friend. And he meant it very honestly.

But after that, I began to think: there’s something about curiosity in general that needs to be examined—this idea that one’s curiosity deserves to be satisfied. I often see media operating with that assumption—“Well, people deserve to know.” No, they don’t. What makes anyone think that their curiosity deserves to be satisfied just because they have it? What form of privilege is that? It’s ridiculous.

At a certain point, it’s like: I don’t care if you’re interested in this story. I’m bored with it, with my own myth, and I don’t really want to talk about it. So why should I spend my life, my energy writing it for your satisfaction?

UM: And there does seem to be this thing—and I think especially for women or for minorities—where answering to the demands of curiosity can actually suck everything out of you, because there’s no end to the questions. There’s no end to the things that somebody wants to know.

VV: Right, and that extends into other areas, as well. People asked me after reading the article, “Do you think it was Rhoades?” I have two answers to that. The technical answer is, probably not. I just don’t see enough evidence that it’s him or anybody else. But the true answer is, I’ve lost the sense that it matters. Whether it’s Rhoades or somebody else—that is totally irrelevant. That’s not a relevant answer. And this desire we have to use papier-mâché to layer on and create a sculpture of mystique around the identity of a serial killer… We keep trying to build their identity, their identity, their identity. Who gives a shit about their identity? The truth is that they are common.

I think that, when we make them un-human, these psychopaths—that, in some way, their brains don’t fire and function the ways ours do—we exempt ourselves from seeing how common they are: that they’re not unique. I was proud that, in the end, when I had finished [the GQ piece], I felt that I’d diminished Rhoades—made him smaller, rather than scarier. More pathetic. And I’d made the women more real.

UM: In your article, you mention that there was only one word for female hitchhikers, which everybody used over the CB radio—and that was “beaver”. It meant primarily “prostitute”, but it was used for any woman—and, anyway, as you write in the article: “The general rule was that you were a prostitute until proven otherwise. And then you were still a prostitute.” It was interesting to see this attitude was not confined to men. It was also present in the women, the waitresses, who would kick you out of restaurants, rest stops…

VV:  Well, so often the responsibility for passing down the structures of oppression is left in the hands of other women. They are held in place by women. Here’s how we survived.

UM: And this is the way that you’re going to talk about yourself. This is the way that you’re also going to present yourself in order to remain palatable within these structures. And it’s really terrifying that there could be no difference between a prostitute and a hitchhiker. That—

VV: Not to denigrate either.

UM: Right, not to denigrate either. But it’s strange how this was—and also the narrative that they leave about you, in order to make you safe or seem like somebody who doesn’t deserve to be in this position, or to be hurt. That seems so…

VV: It was remarkable to see that it was women who were carrying on this tradition. The waitresses were worse than anybody. They were the ones who would push you into that situation. You couldn’t sit at the counter or strike up a conversation or find out if someone was a safe ride. You had to be by the fuel station or the showers or these places that were very, very dangerous, to be able to have those interactions.

This is how women survived: by stratifying who is safe—who is given a certain position—and who is not. So in terms of women’s liberation from the patriarchy, I think too much attention is given towards changing the minds of men.