An Interview with Caren Beilin
In Caren Beilin's new novel, The University of Pennsylvania, Olivia Knox, daughter of a gelatin mogul from Bethlehem, PA, has a rare condition called womb duplicatum -- continuous and excessive menstrual bleeding. The blood is relentless in material and metaphor, contaminating Jewish bathing pools and flooding a college dormitory. Beilin reimagines Pennsylvania's founding as a love affair between William Penn and the Quaker George Fox, the aftereffects of which are erotic and violent, expressed in strange, raw, ecstatic language.
Recently I had a chance to talk with her about her provocative new book.
I know at one point you considered eliminating plot and character from the novel, but now they're quite present.
I've been working on this for eight years and only in my last revision, right at the end, did I think, Oh, my characters are all at the University of Pennsylvania together. For the longest time they were only figuratively there, or in my mind they were there, but they were different ages, or ghosts, or ideas. It takes forever for a writer. Oh, they're all there. They could meet, and touch. For me, boredom pushed a lot more plot into this novel. I was bored so wrote erotically and erotica requires a who-now-what-now-where-now. Where I was coming from three years ago: I was tired of brilliant writers being forced by publishers or culture or themselves to forgo the outlandishness of their prose for the fit of plot. The cog. Contiguity. Sense, revelation. For me, I have always felt, You want plot? Here's a plot. A writer was compelled (because of culture, because of her life, because of you, because of other books, because of the war, because of what isn't a book) to make this. It's the story of her thinking she has to.
Thankfully, the outlandishness of your prose remains. Like the compound words you've invented and scattered throughout the book -- "moonbutterous" or "murderwater," or when you use "littlesisters" as a verb.
I want to write in what Bakhtin calls internally persuasive discourse -- a language that turns its sounds (and meanings) through the ferality of your spirit. These compounds became the loci of that urge and when I wrote them, it always felt like growling. Moonbutterous blackbread (which is a way to describe the asphalt outside of WaWa at night) has been a point of division among my readers over the years.
You also don't restrict your language to any single mode of address, so characters speak the same way the story is being told -- even historic figures like George Fox and William Penn pop off in the same way. We've talked about this in the past, the idea of a "master voice" and how this was part of your conflict with characters in general.
I have resisted ideas of real characters who speak in real ways. I don't get what's rewarding about trying to make a match between a designation of person on paper and something you've seen on TV or in life. I always have loved the dialogue of Thomas Wolfe's characters, its high elegant formalisms of passion, often a bit wooden, that would have had nothing to do with the way you'd talk if you were educated like that or whatever. But that was Wolfe's way of saying, No, this is mine. My book, my feeling. I was different than my upbringing.
The fleshiest part of a piece of paper, for me, isn't in character-as-real-person but in what the writer can't help, the incorrigible weakness. My weakness was this master voice, I wanted to use it everywhere regardless of writing teachers.
Can you talk more about your interest in Fox and Penn?
I have so much interest in Fox and Penn! At Quaker camp, we sang a song about George Fox that I still sing. It's the only song I fully know. I'll share the chorus:
Walk in the light, wherever you may be.
Walk in the light, wherever you may be.
In my old leather britches and my shaggy, shaggy locks
I am walking in the glory of the light, said Fox.
All the ideas in this song are what make me a merry Pennsylvanian. The lyrics go into detail about this light that is of higher value than books and pistols, and darkness; there's an ocean of darkness but I walked in the light. I love this line. It's abrupt. "But I" -- defiant. It's like a defiant humility.
I'd like to ask about transgression in U of P. There's menstrual blood everywhere, stoppering up toilets and flowing through dorms and transforming Jewish bathing pools into "murderwater," and the cultural fear of that. The character Antigone has sex with the stone sword of a statue, horses are brutally slaughtered and deboned. There's also corrective uterine surgery. And those are just the headlines. You're surfacing all of this deep sex, gender, violence, death content.
I just saw Maggie Nelson read from her new book (coming out in May), which details her giving birth (I was actually having an anxiety attack while she read, she describes her placenta as a bag of whale hearts). I'm a major fan and got to talk to her afterward and someone at a recent reading, she had said, was sort of chiding her for being too graphic (I might be getting this slightly wrong, she probably didn't say the word chide), and she said, which I absolutely loved and started nodding dopily and vigorously, that women's bodies are, for some people, a problematic site, I'm paraphrasing. A problematic site for graphic description. For this, we can't go too far, see too much. All the hidden, private, unseen, untalked about pregnancies in the world, let alone in the world of literature -- how cool to bring out the placenta now! Yes, show us the placenta, thank you. I guess I'll talk here about the menstruation in my work. A major conflict (there is conflict!) for my character, Olivia, is that she has a rare condition called womb duplicatum, a double womb, which causes her to bleed profusely and continuously. She suffers a problem of excess, some major de trop. Menstruation is something so neurotically hidden, literally pushed back inside of women via tampons (in Olivia's case, around 8 at a time), and hidden in language, too, as euphemism, my friend or aunt or whatever, but seriously, Trey, blood is flowing out of us. Every time I've read scenes about Olivia's insane amount of blood, the insane de trop feeling of blood in, on everything, women come up to me and tell me: that's how my period actually feels, I have an inordinately heavy one. Everyone is feeling like Olivia, inordinate, we all feel so too much. And then there are other hidden things, like the clitoris, which I write about a lot. To hide something (here I go aphorizing again...) is to maybe scalp it of its pleasure potential. So I want to name and describe -- and also, T, I want to bleed all over men who say there's no difference between men and women, I want to bleed period blood all over them. Because we're different. Our experience is different.
I'm thinking of Hélène Cixous impelling women to write themselves through a return to their bodies..."Everything will be changed once woman gives woman to the other woman. There is hidden and always ready in woman the source; the locus for the other... Text: my body -- shot through with streams of song; I don't mean the overbearing, clutchy 'mother' but, rather, what touches you, the equivoice that affects you, fills your breast with an urge to come to language and launches your force; the rhythm that laughs you; the intimate recipient who makes all metaphors possible and desirable; body (body? bodies?) no more describable than god, the soul, or the Other; that part of you that leaves a space between yourself and urges you to inscribe in language your woman's style." Cixous's ideas are wonderfully realized in U of P. In writing woman and women, menstrual blood, the clitoris, you offer so much complexity, suffering through the culture's misogyny and gynophobia and their internalizations, while at the same time fantasizing about the ecstasy of the possible and celebrating pleasure in femininity.
"The intimate recipient who makes all metaphors possible and desirable" -- so much of my joy in writing is about the possibility in language to contort and create, to make anything. Metaphor is that magic. I have a game with the poet Jacob Kahn about this. We text each other two things (like: A bison is a bicycle), and have to make that, with words, possible. So, a bison is a big bicycle. A banana is the outersack of a slug, is a burlap slug (that's Jacob's). A deer is a rabbit pulled into shins. You can pull anything. Anne Carson has a very wonderful essay called "The Gender of Sound" about man's desire (through history!) to regulate women's speech, both in its tone (high-pitched) and its content (too much). Men in our society can act like this, like regulators. Carson writes about it as an interest in self-control, which of course, is an interest in the self, a bounded, certain, walled-in self. Because you have to be so bounded to be so platonic, to be some kind of virtuous genius boy.
Anyhow, self-control, control over women, what's the difference? And this is really topical right now, oh boy (boy!). These poor nurses trying to care for Ebola patients, mostly women and lower-class women, too, underdoctors, and knowing that they need more protection and that the patient needs more care -- and they are really in the guts of the hospital system, so they really know -- but they are cassandra-ed. Nobody will listen to them, not well enough. And now they're infected. And I think about Elliot Rodger's mother, who warned the police that her son was dangerous and might hurt people (this is the guy who went on a shooting rampage initially aimed at sorority women in Isla Vista this past summer). But I've a feeling, the police profiled her as a hysterical mother, a woman, and they didn't listen, not well enough. They went to the boy's house and talked to him for barely a few minutes. She was overly worried. She was overly a woman. A woman is overly. I sent out my manuscript and got comments back from editors that described my metaphorization as overly conflated. Moonbutterous blackbread, you bet! My character Beth can barely speak without exclamation points, she's overly everything. Everything is so uncontainable. The self is!
My female writer friends and many of my male writer friends know the feeling, of a regulator in the room. Don't be too much. Don't mix language up. Be clear. Use your plot. Have a point. One character is not the other character is not you. If I don't understand you, it must mean you are not understandable. It does not mean I have not listened well. Well, it does. These poor nurses. Anyway, I'm not comparing myself to a brave Ebola nurse, but that I have a feeling about what is happening to them. To be treated like a hysteric, and for this to be noted, too, as negative. To have the feeling that you are spewing deafness onto men, and everyone. One thing about Cixous, she wrote about ecriture feminine, a woman's writing, but she did not say that only women were writing in this mode. She felt Genet wrote ecriture feminine. And I feel, especially today, that many many men write with women. There is a kind of writing, though, that writes against us, that boxes us down, and a kind of editing and publishing, too. Maybe here would be a good place to say thank god for my press, Noemi Press, and my male, by the way, fiction editor there, Mike Meginnis, who was interested and intuitive. These days, there's all this incredibly inspiring crossing over, lots of fluidity and fun that I still can't wait for.
You've mentioned Maggie Nelson. Who are some other people you looked to for guidance when writing U of P?
Claire Denis. I wrote much of this novel to the Trouble Every Day soundtrack by Tindersticks. Trouble Every Day is a film by Claire Denis that swathes and bruises and blues and reds and utterly blackens the screen with blood that is bitten out of men and women. Talk about hidden, what is hidden but blood? Just under the surface, writing is so much of this, just trying to touch the undersurface. And Denis, she just drags it, hauls it, splashes it out. Writing is this for me, trying to find out how to touch, to touch the thing you want to. In this work, it did become content oriented -- about trying to touch things, characters touching each other or actually fucking a statue. So Claire Denis is a central inspiration. I think of her as a high sensualist. She chooses, in her films, the senses over sense. A cultish chant of images over plot, or point. Her latest film, Bastards, I can't get out of my mind. It's so confusing. The actors look like one another. Too much. What is happening? There's all these dull colors. And then, bloody corn, glinting. And this Tindersticks song (she always uses them) that just seethes into that corn. There's an eroticism in her films that doesn't behold itself to reason. Or goodness, or clarity. Only the corn is clear, and hard and wild. Outlandish object. Objet!
So, her. Her, her, her. And the musician Bonnie Prince Billy. He's in my writing. Just the gentle. The gentle and the strange. And the weakness, that he sometimes chooses a weak way to sing. A strange mispronunciation, or low bent sounding. I think Maggie Nelson is brilliant, and maybe someone else in this book is Inger Christensen, particularly her long poem "alphabet." Robert Duncan's Roots and Branches, all that glowing dark pastoral, that he writes totem to totem, cow to sun to root to branch to star. And really, the astronomer and writer of a very old astronomy textbook, Geography of the Heavens, Elijah Burritt. His preface, which was wiped away in later editions, because it must have been too poetic for a textbook, or for children, but his love for looking, of being alone and looking. And really, Penn and Fox also. Such tenderness and elegance in their letters, such separation from the others. And magic, for me. One of the years I was working on this, aimless, in the dark about it, living with my sister and her husband in D.C. while they went to real jobs doing real things every day, and I'd just go out in 100 degrees to the Library of Congress and show up drenched from just riding the metro to the rare books room, and I was reading a memoir of one of this country's first surgeons, a Philadelphian, feeling nothing, and scared, to be doing nothing, and I had been reading about this person for so long, but never this memoir, and here learned, in its first sentence, that his birthday is my birthday. I almost cried. I felt astonished and magical. But writing is this, is deciding it is magic. That it could do anything and is blessing you. Is deciding it all means. And that it means everything.