• To Say Nothing About Our Joy: A Conversation with Chris Campanioni

    Chris Campanioni received the International Latino Book Award for his debut novel, Going Down (2013). Since then he has published with five different presses, Once in a Lifetime (Berkeley / Floricanto Press, 2014), Death of Art (C&R Press, 2016), Drift (King Shot Press, 2018), re: verses (The Operating System, 2019), the Internet is for real (C&R Press, 2019), and A and B and Also Nothing (Otis Books / Seismicity Editions, 2020). Though his books range from different points in his academic, literary, and personal career, there is a central nerve that connects them all. He bends form and genre — marrying both poetry and prose.


    DAVON LOEB: Cross-genre literature is gaining attention and is becoming a genre in itself. While you are a poet, in so many ways, you are not — you are something else. I think it’s important to challenge the sometimes very binding notion of genre. Besides being a nonfiction bestseller, A and B and Also Nothing is also a literary critique, an exploration of rhetoric, and a rich and intimate personal narrative. How does this book bend genres? Why was the malleability of form important in this collection? Why is Gertrude Stein such a vital point of discovery?

    CHRIS CAMPANIONI: I want to linger on this “something else” you index. A and B and Also Nothing was indeed published as literary nonfiction but while I was making the text, I’d always conceived of it as a translation. From the American to the American. The “sometimes very binding notion of genre” can also be an invitation to appropriate its parameters and associations and expectations. I think A and B and Also Nothing is the first book I’ve written where there are no formal breaks, no signals or demarcations between modes and moments; it’s very much a narrative, as you describe here, that tries to mobilize the “also” of its title to re-create the experience of consciousness coming to a froth. I think that’s a recipe that involves Gertrude Stein but Henry James, two writers who occupy seemingly distinct timelines and aesthetic movements. How to write into these gaps but by inserting myself, too, within this literary history. I was very conscious of wanting to converge generic markers and modes but also to confuse quotation with narrative voice-over, and “autobiography” with daydream, mythology, observation, fiction… it was important to me that this book be transparent and porous, generous to a fault; what I wanted, I remember writing into the text, was to reclaim not only the marginal but the miscues and omissions. There’s something thrilling and something vulnerable, I think, when we’re invited to be with an artist during the moments where composition moves in ways beyond (below, underneath, etc.) the text proper; to be in those hypnotic moments — haphazard, methodical, fragile… and so attuned — has always felt to me like a rare gift, and I’d want to give that experience back, which is one of the reasons why I imagine if there’s a time signature for A and B and Also Nothing it is one that is always set in the “now” of the reader, a temporal frame that is entirely conditional and innately displacing. I have to admit — Am I allowed to say this? At the risk of sounding absolutely egocentric — I am sort of addicted to reading that book, because every time I slip inside, the narrative shifts. And what I always wanted was to produce a book that doesn’t end in publication but begins there.

    How do you think the literary landscape is changing? Think of lyric essays collections like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and short story collections like Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Life of Church Ladies, both National Book Award finalists; do you think books like these are fighting against a tradition? How do these books or books like this struggle with form and genre? Where does your work fit?

    These are all important questions to consider, and questions that I am, right now, turning over in my head — especially that last one. I’m grateful to have my next project, a memoir in essays organized as a scrapbook collaging historical details, narrative reportage, media theory, photography, poetry, and personal narrative, under representation with the luminous and thoughtful Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency. The conversations that I’ve had with Akin throughout the process of collaborating on our proposal for The Great Forgetters: A Memoir of Exile have been illuminating to say the least. Despite the fact that editors are, more and more it seems, publicly asserting their desire to create spaces for work that challenges the conventions of genre, I think that the vast majority of major publishers, and even the larger “independent” presses, are still tied to an idea of art as a blueprint that insists upon its own reproduction — the cultural filter of the comp titles which the literary market requires and relies upon is only an explicit example. So I think the endeavor then becomes to produce a work that works with and works on these conventions, so as to try, under our system, to reorganize the source code of legibility/eligibility. The way pop culture — mass entertainment — can be redeployed alongside the avant-garde, and not merely read, but acted out, as a form of transgressive politics.

    So much of your writing is an exploration of a body — a body of literature, a body craft, a body of art, and also, your body, a lover’s body, your reader’s body. How does your writing occupy this space, as if always an extension of yourself? Why is your writing anatomically driven, either on structure and form or on bone and skin? To give specific context, your poem, “in & out of jean shorts (the reel catches)” published in Catapult Magazine, is an example of a dissection of a body of work, Manuel Puig, as well as the narrator’s actual body. You write, “…everything that comes even everything/that evades me) — is it me/is it Puig is there any difference?/The opposite of authorship/is feverish attribution, my tendency/to assume all thoughts/I have belong to everyone/& doesn’t…” Why is this attention to the physical self so apparent? But also, why is there great value on the self in constant relation and connection to other selves, like Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Manuel Puig?

    I’ve often thought that to write an autobiography one would first and foremost have to write about all the other people — friends and strangers — all the other lives that have come into contact with the author in question. I want to complicate the “first-person” of memoir and life writing but also the overwrought idea that all we come from is necessarily ours; I think it has to do with the authority (or authoritarianism) of the author-artist, the lie of the individual (genius), the assumption, more specifically, that all writers of color are condemned to the mode of autobiography, that we can only write about ourselves and in writing about ourselves that we can only center our trauma; to say nothing about our joy. So yeah, I place a great value “on the self in constant relation and connection to other selves,” as you describe so well, and I want to try to avoid the trap of prescription but I don’t think any artist can produce a body of work without being in close communion with so many others, strangers and friends and the song by Perfume Genius — a remix, by another band named Boy Harsher — that came on the Spotify radio as I receive your question, and this remains true whether or not we acknowledge it within the text, as I so often want to do: to give the experience of composition back to readers, which is to say: to look back at the voyeur. In this scenario — in all scenarios — I’m not sure if I’m the one looking or being looked at. I write about the body because the body is all we have and yet I often hardly understand my body; sometimes this lack of clarity is frustrating and sometimes I want to retain the mystery of my body, like the mystery of all bodies; after I contracted COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, several strange things began to occur throughout my body, many of them still with me, which I guess is another kind of communion. To be in touch with your complications. To write about the body is to write about these failings, which are never not truly a failure. I don’t ever want to pledge fidelity in my mode of autobiography — whether I’m writing prose or verse — but I think writing about my body has given me a glimpse of what it might mean to write in a way that is true and close to me, to whatever and whoever I am in that moment. And to assemble an autobiography out of the scraps of other people’s lives is born out of a kind of fidelity, too: a devotion to misrecognition — “feverish attributions,” as you quote — but also to resemblances and empathy.

    Like most writers, your identity is woven into many different roles and responsibilities: author, editor, educator, and model, each of which you continue to occupy as one of the numerous building blocks — the joints that assemble Chris Campanioni. And though these parts — these gears and cogs seem different; I believe they are not; I believe they are all married and operate together; that they inspire each other. As a model and writer, your body is on display, a physical and emotional nudity of the self — a body in time, imitated through vision and through verse. As an educator and editor, you’re a cultivator of learning, listening, and storytelling. That being said, how do you believe these roles communicate, connect, and necessitate who you are, professional and personally?

    I return to the body or the body returns us, I guess, to language and experience. Readers — I’m not sure how many — thought it strange that a writer would ever work as a model, but aren’t all writers models? In the sense of our attendance to the movements demanded by a pose? — to present, to affect, and even to oppose, through careful reproduction? What is writing except the means of display, and also: a system for displacement? I remember writing that and I wanted to remember it again, so I repeat it here. I’m not sure if these different “gears and cogs” that operate together are married but they surely inform one another and work in tandem to produce something that would not have been possible without some attempt at multiplicity. What I’m after is not synthesis or union but the multiplication of differences, and I guess that’s true whether or not we are still talking about art and writing. I know that as I developed as an instructor I developed as a writer and as I learned more about performance and about everything that happens between the periodic flash of exposure I learned about ways in which I could make my writing operate as a re-recordable VHS — to confuse modes of meaning or pose alphabetical text as something else entirely: a recipe, a haircut, a mixtape, an itinerary — lately I’d been asking my students to think about their projects as installations and the different passages, verses, vignettes, chapters (etc.) as exhibits.

    Before our last question, I want to dig deeper into something you previously said, “…that all writers of color are condemned to the mode of autobiography, that we can only write about ourselves and in writing about ourselves that we can only center our trauma; to say nothing about our joy.” This statement troubles me, because it’s true — that writers of color cannot tell our stories without trauma being indefinitely tied to our work — trauma in relation to a body in constant conflict with the present, past, and future — that where a body exists is a space of institutional and systematic challenge — that we, writers of color, cannot write freely about anything other than trauma because being of color, the expectation is that we cannot feel joy, feel real joy, as you’ve pointed out to me in our earlier discussions: that if we’re not writing about trauma, then our stories don’t seem real. I only write about my body untethered to some hardship if I’m writing fiction because I know it is not publishable — that editors and readers don’t value my work the same without my race and ethnicity attached. And I know that sounds cynical, but it’s reality. Sometimes, I just want to write about being a kid riding down a flight of stairs on an old mattress — about walking on a beach — about tumbling in the high grass of an open field, but who cares? If this story is not driven by the history of trauma that lives within me and my ancestry — that being half-Black and half-Jewish-white, then this story does not matter. And while this is part of my identity, it is not all of it — and it’s important for readers to know that we, people of color — we, who are “others,” are multifaceted and can experience life with joy and also with unquestionable, inextinguishable, and incomparable pain. Why can’t publishers, editors, and readers read Black and Brown joy? Why does our joy need to be inherently fictionalized? How does being a child of immigrants, parents from Cuba and Poland, shape what stories you can and cannot tell?

    Outside of this interview — if there really is an inside — we’ve talked a lot about this. I think it requires that we return to the fraught nature of representation but also expression; a scenario in which we feel like we need to beg permission to write about our lives as people of color and as members of historically marginalized communities without having to naturalize or center our marginalization. And in a sense, publishers and editors — a literary publishing industry which is mainly white and male — can only read us through our trauma, which is to say that we are only legible through our trauma. This cycle of dehumanization, fetishization, and assimilation happens daily; every time I see a call for Latinx writers, I understand implicitly that editors are looking not for Latinx writers so much as for work about being Latinx, which, within this statute of limitations, is about being Latinx from the white perspective. Years earlier, Kwame Anthony Appiah, writing during the expansion of refugee studies in the early 1990s, described syncretism, and understood the clamoring for diversity, the genre of the neo-traditional, and the intensification of aesthetic individualism as a consequence of the international exchange of commodities. While “neo-traditional” art may get produced in Africa, or elsewhere in the Global South, Appiah makes it clear that it is art that is produced for the West. Likewise, writers of color should ask ourselves: who is it we are really writing for? We are not only written; we, too, write ourselves — not always from our own perspective, but from the perspective of the people in power. In 2018, Jonathan Marcantoni, writing on behalf of the Independent Publisher Book Awards, selected Death of Art as one of the ten Latino books that “go beyond the Latino label.” Last year, Ruben Quesada at the Harvard Review included A and B and Also Nothing among the eight books of 2020 by Latinx poets that “transform and provoke American history and its relationship to our present moment of cultural upheaval” by addressing the complexity and diversity within and across the Americas. Nonetheless, I don’t know how successful I’ve really been in establishing a sense of autonomy over my own work, my own representation. I do know that I’ve made some very self-conscious decisions about what I’ve decided in the past to “fictionalize” as a novel or story. I do know I wrote Going Down and Drift, alongside another project-to-be-named, as novels, largely written in the third-person, because I did not yet have the agency or confidence to claim my voice as my own; because I did not think editors and readers could read my experience in the world of the newsroom and the world of fashion as anything other than a fiction. And I know this, too, from the many letters I received from agents who could neither read Going Down’s manuscript as nonfiction nor understand that its model/journalist protagonist was actually a man. In their communications, they always misgendered “Chris” as “Christine.” But that’s another story, or really, another chapter of the same story of cultural norms and rules defined and then designated by the vast network of agents, editors, publishers, and readers.

    Our last question, which I will keep reasonably very short. Tell us about your new project. Tell us about working with Akin Akinwumi at Willenfield Literary Agency. Tell us about where this narrative — this life of Chris Campanioni — is going next.

    As I’d mentioned earlier, Akin has been a remarkable guide. I’ve been very fortunate to have placed my work in several distinguished venues in the past, but I’m completely unfamiliar with this contour of publishing; I’d never worked with an agent before and I’ve never worked with an editor at a big trade publisher, and so I’m still learning, still figuring out where and how I fit, or how I might be able, even, to open up a space for my work and other writers’ work. I’m interested in conceptualizing a genre of work by children of exiles that I call “post dictatorship generation.” My preferred method of conceptualizing is post facto; to write it in and so provide retroactive evidence for myself and perhaps also for others. For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to write a book in which correspondence — between a “creative writing” and a “critical theory,” or any other addressee — takes the place of plot, and I think that’s why I read The Great Forgetters, similar to earlier projects like the Internet is for real and A and B and Also Nothing, as nothing but a notebook, understanding that a notebook has a volume which can carry every literary mode within its architecture: novel, memoir, essay, poem, abstract, pamphlet, or any other. I’m still trying to figure out how to translate this kind of aesthetic temperature for a much larger, mainstream audience. What seems paramount here, what I want to try to hold on to, if I hold onto anything, is the idea that this book can tell a story that is aware of its mediations, its formal, generational, and geographic movements, a tailoring that is about focusing but also and intrinsically about cutting… and that I can begin a memoir by writing letters to Walter Benjamin while on the trail of his seven-year exile, and commune with the long-dead German Jewish philosopher as we traverse the same coordinates; to allow for the coexistence of my interviews and interactions with refugees and asylum applicants and shelter directors and my notes on the 1980s film Death Becomes Her, or the contemporary phenomena of The Real Housewives, because at its core, The Great Forgetters is about dislocation and displacement, and representation is nothing if not an irremediable absence.