In a certain kind of family, members exert a strange mastery over each other, one that sometimes results in Spinoza’s idea of the sad passions–forces that keep us from acting in our lives, that stir up disappointment against things we don’t even remember, longing, hatred, and self-abnegation.
Veronica Gonzalez Peña’s second novel, The Sad Passions, is told by five women: Claudia, her four daughters, Rocio, Julia, Marta, and Sandra, and in one chapter, Sofia, Claudia’s sister. Each voice is distinct and afforded humor and dignity, but the stories they tell overlap, compete, and complicate the reader’s understanding of this Mexico City family. Claudia, sympathetic despite occasional passages that read as if shouted from a vortex of mania, describes a brief institutionalization:
“They tied me up liquid, and they held me down solid and shoved something cold and hard into my mouth and then they gave me those shocks in the head.”
Claudia’s daughters don’t have a chance–the mother reigns central to each daughter’s demons and understanding of her own desires. Rocio, the eldest, retreats, vague, nervous, and obsessively self-doubting, into a remarkably sane marriage. Julia disappears, is given away to a family member in the States, and as an adult, seems to make sense of her past through an immersion in the study of artists such as Hans Bellmer, Francesca Woodman, and Ana Mendieta. Marta speaks of the extravagant violence of her life in staccato, sarcastic phrases, and Sandra, the youngest, is a strange, lonely poet with a searching, slightly unhinged voice, whose words conflate the subterranean ruins of Mexico City, with sex, with love, and with her sisters.
The boundaries between these sisters are porous. Speaking of Saturn, the god that devoured his children, Sandra circles back to her own blurry understanding of the distinction between herself and Julia, who she barely remembers: “Small girls get confused and decentered. Because, how could I be sure that she was not me?”
In an interview with Bomb magazine in 2013, Gonzalez Peña writes, “The fantastical has always existed in storytelling, but the expectation of it is oppressive.” Oppressive, certainly, not to mention tired. “Boring,” was the word the author chose later on in the interview to describe the set of magical aesthetics often imposed upon writers of Latin American origin. Gonzalez Peña’s novel, on the other hand, confounds expectations about the shape a Latin American novel about women and family can take, by engaging with specific human strangenesses like mental illness and the phenomenon of having sisters, and with the largeness of Mexico’s history, in a contemporary voice that does not rely on familiar tropes. Take for example, the passage in which Sandra writes of the room where her great-grandmother dies:
“A place to come from, but nowhere the fully living are ever supposed to end up. The now defunct silver mines are no more than a few dozen miles away. There is a small river just outside of town. The town itself is peopled by very pretty girls and boys, the mixed descendants of all those who came to mine that silver, the beautiful mestizo offspring of heedless greedy digging.”
There’s nothing fantastical in this description; though the language is lyrical and rich and strange, Sandra’s observations are rooted in the physical world’s natural strangeness, and in the acuity and artistry of her character’s perception. The introduction of magic into this setting would be redundant. These observed images are chosen, historical, poetically precise, neither accidental nor decorative.
In an interview with Largehearted Boy, when asked for a song representative of her novel, Gonzalez Peña submitted “Por que te vas?” from Carlos Suara’s wonderfully dark 1976 film Cría Cuervos. In the film, the song plays while three sisters dance in the house where both parents have died. The song is creepily sunny and 1970s, but its lyrics are downright lonely, and capture the small, sad dance that children of difficult parents often make around the mysteries wrought upon them. As the novel’s Julia writes: “We were always trying to get at hints of what it was that drove the adults’ unpredictable lives.”
I sought out the author at the end of 2013. Veronica Gonzalez Peña and I exchanged a pair of introductory emails, and I called her on a December morning. When we spoke, the writer was driving somewhere outside of New York City. She was busy–having recently moved to New York from Los Angeles, she was adjusting to a different artistic community, another climate, completing a film, and preparing to present work at the Whitney Biennial. Her voice is exceptionally warm, given to generous asides about her eleven year old daughter, and about her friendships and collaborations with other artists like Chris Kraus and Dan Graham.
After speaking with Veronica Gonzalez Peña for the first time about the women of her novel, I thought of the following stanza from “The Master,” by HD, a poet Gonzalez Peña mentioned as a personal favorite:
I did not know how to differentiate
between volcanic desire,
anemones like embers
and purple fire
like red heat,
and the cold
of her feet
Veronica Gonzalez Peña and I continued our interview over email, during the long, bitter winter of 2014.
The title of your book, The Sad Passions, comes from the epigraph, a quote from Deleuze on Spinoza: “The sad passions always amount to impotence …” What are the sad passions as defined by the universe of your novel? How would you describe the way the sad passions exert their control over the women of your book? And what do these sad passions have to do with the life force, desire, and creativity of these characters?
The Sad Passions are those emotions, or passions, which keep you from acting. They exist in the space of reaction, so there is no freedom in them; they are things like sadness, longing, self-abasement, guilt, anger. The women in my novel, Claudia’s daughters, are all living in reaction to their mother’s madness. They are furious, vague, wounded. Yet I believe two of the characters in the book, two of the sisters are attempting to break free of this reactive space, and into something more active, a life lived in and through choices, as opposed to in reaction to a terrible past …
That childhood sense of mystery is all over the workings of this novel. I’m reminded a little of Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, and the wild, wonderful, logic-creating interiority followed so precisely in that book. As children, the daughters of Claudia are left to sort out the effects of the adults’ choices upon their lives. As Julia says, she was always “trying to get at hints of what it was that drove the adults’ unpredictable lives.” As a result, the reader’s understanding of this family’s reality is constantly shifting–an exciting place to be as a reader, but a choice not without risks for the writer. Can you discuss how this structural layering and meting out of information took shape in the writing of your book?
I wanted the book to be something like the experience of discovering one has in life, of deferred understanding, those moments when you think you have the thing, and then a new piece of information comes in and you realize you know nothing, really. I inserted Claudia’s sister’s voice, Sofia, largely for this effect. You think you are getting one thing, and then this new voice sets everything spinning once again. I know it is a difficult space to put a reader in, because it is this space of tension, of not knowing, of not being clear what or whom to trust at any given time, but I hope it’s rewarding too … in this way the act of reading becomes a process of discovery, it is active and in the end you aren’t handed any answers, but, hopefully, you have had an experience, and if the writer is good, and the reader is lucky, it has been an artful, emotional, and intellectual experience as well. I repeat scenes in the different points of view for that unsettling effect, but also as a constant reminder that no one version is ever it … I mean, this seems so simple and essential a fact, and yet it seems people forget it over and over again. I guess I would say this shifting point of view, and what it implies has been a driving force for me since I began writing … a shifting POV and a circular narrative are my two favorite tropes … they are simple, effective, deep, and complex all at once.
And, of course, Julia’s leaving would affect all of these sister’s differently; it seems so simple and clear that it would have to, that each of them would have to separately navigate that as well as their mother’s madness on their own, and that the ability to do that is something like the process of differentiation, of becoming a self … I wanted to speak to that, how one action can have life altering implications which are different for each player, and that what matters is the way you move through things, what you do with what you’re handed.
You’ve mentioned your affinity for poet H.D. Your prose is particularly lyrical, poetic, even, especially in sections narrated by art historian Julia and writer Sandra. I’m thinking especially of Sandra’s virtuosic passage about Mexico City’s history. Marta and Claudia’s sections also seem to be written with poetry in mind–both voices have a rhythmic, staccato, sound sense. Can you tell me a little bit about the relationship between poetry and your own work?
I work for that effect, of course, but it also comes naturally to me, when the work is flowing well. I love rhythm and cadence and an attention to language which I think of as poetic. I’m not schooled in it, but I do think I have a poetic sensibility. And I’m very auditory; I hear things. That matters to me, language as sound. The pleasure of that. The playfulness of repetition, which is the first joy really, as a baby is learning to speak. All of this probably partially comes from my being an immigrant, of having learned English as a child. I think my relationship to language as a thing has much to do with that; it seems almost object-like to me. I love the translational quality of language when it is made to do things a little outside the norm of usage. I like to see how far it can bend and stretch and play and still communicate. And there is no pleasure in writing like the flow you can get into when things are working right, when the rhythm and the image are coming together to peak in something; and when you can take your reader along into that experience; its just an incredible feeling…I host a reading series through this rockypoint project I do, and many great poets have read for it, Fanny Howe, Eileen Myles, Rae Armantrout, Maggie Nelson, Vanessa Place, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge … It’s an amazing experience to hear poets read their own work.
Which of the four sisters do you feel closest to, as an artist?
I have some of all of them in me, but I am closest to Julia, I believe. I studied art history, and Julia was a way for me to put some of that into a book. She’s cautious and thoughtful in the way I can be (in my best moments), but I have some of Sandra in me as well, the wilder, less arbitrated way of interacting with the world; the belief in the magical, the lyrical, the way that she is pulled by the world and feels and senses things so deeply, but then lives mostly in her head. The way that history is not formally studied but feels alive, the way that she can feel things as she moves through spaces, how porous she is; I’m a bit like this. Super empathic (most writers probably have some of this porousness). In my work I’m like a combination of both of them; I think I’m more like Sandra in the moments of terrifying openness of the first draft, as I’m just beginning to delve into and through the material–when everything is still at a very strong feeling stage. Then I’m more like Julia when I begin shaping things, in the several phases of the re-write, when I’m being more analytical, because that is such a careful, measured process (I revise and revise and revise and revise, until everything works).
And when I am making films, which is something I’ve started doing, I am more like Sandra as the story comes to me; I barely write things down; I just see things and record bits of dialogue as it comes to me, which I then shape as we film. In the filming I have to be more like Julia, when I’m directing people, as I don’t overly script things and you never know where things will go. And I’ve found that people really want more direction than I’d ever imagined giving; when you’re directing people you do have to have control over things or it can get messy quite quickly. The second part of the process, the editing and figuring the soundtrack out, and all those other post-production parts of filmmaking are more visceral for me (Sandra again); I just let things become what they need to, and try not to control things too much. Of course I work with people who understand the technology so I can give myself the freedom of this openness. It really does seem to come like a dream; I can feel when things are right … films are so much like dreams, this is what I love about making them … a film is like a waking dream.
Could you speak a little about rockypoint press and your collaborative work with other artists? I am interested in the influence your background in the arts community brings to bear on your prose. Would you consider yourself an interdisciplinary or genre-bending artist?
I started rockypoint about ten years ago because I really love working with people, and writing is such a solitary thing. It has to be, and I certainly have that side too–the side that wants to be just left alone to write. I’m in my head a lot. And can resent intrusion. But rockypoint allows for this other communal thing; also, I really believe that artists should be involved with each other, and I wanted to be able to produce things with people, to help them make things happen. And I wanted to work with both artists and writers, so I started bringing an artist and a writer together to make something new. I gave them very few parameters, fully believing that if you bring great people together and give them space they will make something wonderful. Also, I believe deeply in collaboration. I get some of these ideas from Winnicott and his theory of the transitional space, and I think collaboration exists in that space which is a space of non-ownership, it is a process oriented space of possibility…I love that–it is the space I try to create in my books between the reader and myself. (I feel that as the reader is reading, she is in a process of making the book with me, she is fully experiencing, we are sharing in something.)
So, I started out by making a book, and intended to keep making books; Liam Gillick and Heather McGowan designed that first one, and it is gorgeous, silk-screened, ten screens per page, just great; but then it became difficult to produce, so I began making prints, which is what I am doing now; great people have made prints for me, Dan Graham, John Miller, Dodie Bellamy and Raymond Pettibon, Chris Kraus and my great friend George Porcari, Nayland Blake and Lynne Tillman. A couple of years ago I started making short films with the people who inhabit my life, my friends, and I’ve made two films now, with people like Sylvere Lotringer, Chris Kraus, Hedi El Kholti, Ben Ehrenreich, Michael Silverblatt, and others…I’m currently working on the new film, which will include Michel Auder and my friend the artist Servane Mary. All this to say: Yes, I am interdisciplinary, and yes, I like to bend things, genres included.
I’m particularly interested in the way this book defamiliarizes the way a novel, particularly a novel about women and about Latin America, is expected to be structured and told. In your interview with Bomb Magazine, you write about dispensing with the boring and oppressive given norms of magical realism–an expectation that seems to arrive by virtue of the fact that you are a Latin American woman. (“I was Mexican, after all, where were the singing cacti?”). Aside from being aesthetically familiar, the politics of this expectation are problematic, especially in the telling of women’s stories. How do you continue to negotiate this territory in your work?
I’ve chosen to ignore it. I think Bolaño kind of saved us from this. I really grappled with it when I was younger, when I started graduate school. This was in the 90s, at the height of the confessional immigrant novel. It all seemed so boring to me–the idea that because I was Mexican I was supposed to write a certain way, about certain topics…. it was thinly veiled xenophobia, and it came at me from all sides. For me the question became, How do I tell a story with elements of the fantastical without going there? I mean the fantastical is as old as stories themselves, is perhaps where stories begin, but when a latin american uses that trope we are immediately categorized. Boxes are safe. Safety doesn’t interest me, not in art. The Savage Detectives is an urban story, about real people in an actual city. It’s sexy and fast and brilliant. This was fantastic. With this book the question became irrelevant.
Don’t get me wrong, Pedro Páramo is one of my favorite books. But we have to look at the mysterious in that, which is like a psychological unraveling, as a question, not a categorical answer. I’m very happy with Sandra’s sections in the book, where magic is revealed as something else, something about a character’s sensitivity, and porous relationship to the world, without defaulting to “magic,”or worse: to the category of “Latin American magic realism.”
You and I briefly discussed the Italian notion of “affidamento”–a close friendship between women, in which artistic advice and mentorship are given. Reading your book, I thought of affidamento as your characters moved into adulthood, in the unfulfilled artistic impulses of Claudia, and in the artistic investigations of Julia and Sandra as they seek guidance in their endeavors. They seem so alone in their inquiries–of course, maybe we can read this as a reflection of the natural and necessary searching solitude of an artist? Do these characters crave community, guidance, and artistic sisterhood? And do you experience this concept of affidamento at work in your writing community?
I don’t think Julia and Sandra know how to ask for that. They are still struggling with the development of the self; that’s where they’re at. It doesn’t mean they won’t get to this other place, and Julia does mention she goes into the city to see art and people there. She certainly thinks about art in a deep way, and gets some of this communing with the art she is considering for her book as she writes; she thinks about the artists who produced it quite deeply, and this is where that kind of guidance begins for all of us, I believe, through the work, in our reading or viewing or thinking about other’s work.
I, on the other hand, am always getting and giving. There is a great generosity at work at semiotext(e), an immense amount of emotional support, and I feel very lucky about being a part of that. I don’t think I could have written this book without Hedi El Kholti and Chris Kraus, and their deep support; it’s a kind of buttressing as you work. But at the end of the day, it is a solitary practice. Only you can do the day to day of it, and the work is what matters.
I like to believe that I give something back through the readings and other projects I host and curate. I truly enjoy bringing people together to make things. When I lived in LA I hosted people in my home a lot too, dinners and things; I very much like that; I’m working toward that in NY…
Nabokov’s collected Lectures on Literature turn up in this text. When Sandra, an aspiring writer, visits Pablo, a friend of her mysterious father and a poet, in Madrid, she is given the book and told that Pablo “would talk to me when we had something to discuss, when I had finished reading the book. For now he had to work.” Here we have an artistic relationship far more paternal than akin to affidamento–Sandra’s not a “real writer,” until she reads Nabokov’s Lectures and Pablo grants her the distinction. That lovable, limpid curmudgeon’s text begins with a discussion of “good readers” and the words, “My course, among other things, is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures.” This seems to speak to a fine line in this text between investigation in life and in art. What does Sandra have to learn from Nabokov, and from Pablo, about being an artist, and about becoming a detective of her own life?
Yeah, that certainly has more to do with Pablo than anything else. It serves as a portrait of Pablo, the rules he sets up for her; he’s quite rigid in his demands, in his boundaries. But Sandra is still confused about who she is at that point. She is not a writer yet; she tells Pablo she is a writer as a way to pique his interest. She is surprised by the statement herself, as it comes out of her, and maybe it comes from someplace she does not know exists yet. She certainly has an artist’s sensibility, and others have seen this in her, but she has not yet made anything. In the end to be an artist you have to be an artist. She isn’t there yet, but I hope that I am pointing to some shift in her when the book ends, a moving toward as opposed to a running away from.
She does seem to be discovering something about herself in this book, and for almost all of it she is in that tenuous place of not knowing anything, of inward searching and slow revelation, and all the confusion that that brings. In the best case scenario what she says to Pablo can turn out to be true; she is a writer; it can be something she says as a clue to herself about what it is she is working toward, or becoming. Though she is confused by the statement when she makes it, he immediately believes her, though he gives her a job to do before he will give her of his time. It’s funny that, when others see something in us that we don’t yet see … she is like a detective of her own life: as she seeks her sister out, she is seeking her self too; where does one end and the other begin? Sandra is on this search of the other which can become a search for the self …
Sexuality, especially childhood and adolescent sexuality, is explored with frankness in your novel, especially in the voices of Marta and Claudia. What do these women’s sexual selves tell us about art, life force, and the sad passions of trauma and mental illness that your book is so preoccupied with?
Sex is a violent, traumatic act for both of these women. That isn’t the case for Julia, who is in a loving relationship and reaches some kind of healing through a sexual dream, though her sexuality is confusing for Sandra, who sees her sister everywhere, even in her sexual intimacies. But why wouldn’t it be so, if she is obsessed with Julia? I think sexuality is so tied up to our selfness, who we are, that it would be a lie to say that Marta and Claudia had good sexual lives when they are so torn up in regard to themselves. Your sexuality is an extension, a part, of who you are. It says everything, doesn’t it? One of the things I wanted very much to show here, and which I felt was risky, was childhood sexuality. I tried to be very frank in that; we are all sexual beings, yes, even children. We are all thinking, intellectual beings too. And emotional beings. What is this obsession with dividing things out? Pretending that any one aspect can exist without the others, or that any one part of the self does not bear upon the others? I think that integration of the parts, of seeing it all as connected is part of this differentiation I keep referring to.
Who are you reading right now? Whose work, which texts, have you admired for a long time?
I’m reading A Place in the Country, Sebald’s essays. The one on Wasler is heartbreakingly beautiful. They are two writers I greatly admire, Sebald and Wasler, but to whom I’ve come late, just in the last four years or so. Chris Kraus is a genius, Lydia Davis can do no wrong in my eyes. Lynne Tillman has a new book out, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? which I am reading now too. Amina Cain’s newest book of stories, Creature, is weird and wonderful. But for me it is always Virginia Woolf, and Jane Bowles, and HD, and Jean Rhys; and I read Freud as literature, the case studies. And Winnicott too. I’ve just finished reading a slip of a book, Down The Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, and enjoyed that a great deal; he does very clever things with the child narratorial voice, kind of dispensing with the usual problems in that POV by making them a part of the character’s personality. Very smart. I’m eagerly waiting to get the box set of the Whitney Biennial Semiotext(e) pamphlets!
What’s next for you?
As I mentioned, I’m making a new film, here in NY; with NY artists, now that I live here. I am working on some short stories too; this is all easier for me than novel writing, which can seem punishing sometimes. I know what the new novel will be, and I am thinking around it now. It takes me a long long time of feeling something internally before I can start setting it down. Sitting down to begin a novel is so terrifying that I think I will do some of these other things first, though I do essentially see myself as a novelist.
Photos: Francesca Woodman, Semiotext(e), veronicagonzalezpena.com.