Eternal Present: An Interview with Amina Cain

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THE EXPERIENCE OF READING Amina Cain’s novel Indelicacy is kind of like that of meditating on a painting. Like a painting, the world in Indelicacy is stripped down. The time period seems to be an eternal present. Objects are few, and yet each is so alive it becomes a marvel. A leaf on a table, blue veins in an arm, earrings like drops of blood. On its surface, Indelicacy is about a writer who cleans a museum, then marries a rich man whom she comes to hate. It is about her friendships and her pleasures, such as looking at paintings and swimming in the sea. But it is not so much a book about these things but rather the experience of these things, of being alive and doing these things.

My favorite books are those that make their own worlds, that create a feeling in me as I read that I have not felt before. Another book like this is Anna Kavan’s Ice, which also presents a kind of mirror-world to our world. One of the themes of Indelicacy is writing, its difficulties and pleasures. The narrator Vitória says:

I thought and wrote and by evening I had only managed a single good paragraph. Another person would have written five pages. But I liked that paragraph and that gave me hope.


And maybe more important, I began to feel that I could see my writing […] somehow in between. That I had made a new thing.


Amina Cain has made a new thing with Indelicacy. We spoke about her process and her work through Google Docs.

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KATE DURBIN: I want to ask you first about how long it takes you to write something, because I know you are a slow writer. I can feel that slowness when I read your work and it is something I love about it, how deeply you go into things. Can you talk a little bit about your process?

AMINA CAIN: I am a slow writer indeed. At times it’s bothered me, but mostly I accept it and understand that I need that slowness to get where I do. It can take me a month of writing to “find” a short story, and then another couple of months to really write it. With Indelicacy, it took me a year to get to the real space of it, meaning that I did a lot of writing in that first year that doesn’t appear in the novel now, but that was the only way through. A lot of writers say they like the beginning of a project the most, but I find it torturous, a year of writing that’s more like a pre-beginning. I like what follows when I actually enter the space — with Indelicacy that meant another three years of writing and revising. Revision I actually do like and don’t see as a separate thing from writing itself. I revise from the very beginning, which writers are often warned against doing, but it’s when I get to go furthest in.

Speaking of going deeply into things, there is a quality to Indelicacy of a painting. The narrator writes about paintings, and there are moments in the book where works by Goya and other old masters are beautifully, kind of digressively described. Also, the book itself reminded me of a painting, with a sort of spaciousness around events and objects that reminds me of the way a painting shows a moment in time, a moment surrounded by suggestion and shadows. Did you look at paintings while writing Indelicacy? What is the relationship between painting and writing for you?

I did, yes. I’m always looking at art, especially when writing, as it inspires me as much as literature does. So I did that kind of casual looking while I worked on Indelicacy, and sometimes was drawn to write about what I saw. I also visited several museums to look more formally at paintings, like the National Gallery in London, where I spent a couple of blissful days, and The Frick Collection in New York. One of the paintings I write about in the book, The Amateur of Engravings by Honoré Daumier, I saw one day while walking through the Hammer Museum. I also allowed myself to buy art books, on Goya and Caravaggio, et cetera, which felt very luxurious.

When I was doing my MFA in fiction at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, we were encouraged to explore text and image in our work, but I’m not someone who can draw or paint, or do anything visual, really, and don’t have the desire to. I think my professor in the Artists’ Books class I took was very disappointed in me, as I made terrible-looking books. My desire has always been to try to do something in writing that a painter does, or a video artist, or a dancer, or a musician. I’ve wanted to see how close I could get to another form through writing, so I’m glad that Indelicacy reminds you of a painting.

It was good for me to study writing at an art school, and I loved my time there. Many of my close friends at SAIC were artists, and when I watched them work on their paintings and sculptures and film/video and sound projects it never felt far from what I was doing too. I would go to Goat Island performances (most of the performers in that group, as well as the director, taught at SAIC) and leave them in a kind of ecstatic daze. I so much wanted to write like they performed. Also, as students, we were given free admission to the Art Institute, and so far it’s the only museum (outside of the Wexner Center for the Arts, where I worked at the information desk and coat check when I was in college) I’ve had such a close relationship to, that I would visit every week, sometimes just to sit in one gallery for an hour. I had my favorite rooms, my favorite works. The museum in Indelicacy is very much inspired by the Art Institute and the time I spent there.

It’s interesting that the museum in the book is inspired by a real-life place you’ve spent time in. Blake Butler described the world of Indelicacy as being “strangely ageless.” There is no modern technology, and there are things like horses and carriages. I am thinking, too, of Angela Carter writing fairy tales in the 1980s, creating a landscape that referenced the Grimms’ and Perrault’s fairy tale landscapes but was very much her own luscious, contemporary thing. What was the process like for you in creating the world of your book? Did you consciously decide “no cell phones,” or was your process more intuitive?

It was more intuitive. When I was writing the stories in Creature, I noticed that I kept wanting to create these settings that had elements of the past and present both, and then when I got to Indelicacy I seemed to want to explore that some more, take it up again. At first, there were a lot more contemporary details in the novel, during my pre-beginning phase, and it wasn’t until I let the setting and situation and narrative voice tip more into a kind of past that I was able to really get going and find my way. In my fiction, I usually create a space I want to spend time in, and for whatever reason, I also like to combine things, or put them next to each other — time periods, cities, images. I’m interested in what happens visually when you bring particular images together, how you can evoke a tone or feeling that way, and if the setting is fairly emptied out, those few images that do appear are able to mean more than they would otherwise because they are all that can be seen, by me and by the reader. I think a lot about what a scene looks like, not just in describing it, but because I enjoy this visual aspect so much and want to linger there, want to linger in its possibilities.

Maybe in certain ways, I also wanted to escape aspects of the present in writing the novel. I never felt like I was addicted to anything until the internet and cell phones and social media came around, and I don’t think I could have handled it if they existed in this novel too.

I also want to spend time in the world of your novel. And although you didn’t include the distraction of social media, Indelicacy deals with other practical challenges writers face, such as economics. Early in the novel, Vitória writes at night when she gets home from cleaning the museum. Later, she marries and has a room of her own, à la Virginia Woolf, but her husband and housekeeper insist on calling it the sitting room, not her writing room. Indelicacy reminds me how precarious it is to write, how many things must come into balance. It makes me think of who is allowed a voice and who isn’t. And it articulates a specific kind of freedom writing offers, a freedom to become fully oneself. How did you come to this theme in the book?

I’ve always been interested in freedom, both in feeling it in my own life, and wanting others to feel it too, and in trying to understand what it actually means. I remember once saying to a friend, maybe almost 20 years ago now, that I felt free, and her response was: You’re not free. She wasn’t being mean, she was just always very blunt about voicing what was in her mind and had strong ways of looking at the world. I don’t know if she was right or wrong, but when I look back, I do think I was freer then than I had ever been or am now. I had very few inhibitions or fears and was very open — everything felt open — and everything felt possible. None of this really had a lot to do with writing, more so experience, though it did also happen to be the time when I found myself as a writer, so it’s actually quite possible it had more to do with the freedom I felt then than I realize. At this point in my life, it’s very true — writing gives me the freedom to be or become fully myself (when it’s now more of a struggle), and I think that’s the case for many writers. It’s amazing writing can do that. And writing gives me a space to revisit and spend time with these questions I have about life, and with the phenomenon of experience that I hope resonates for others too.

Freedom, in all its different forms, is a great privilege, of course. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I reference in the novel, reminds me of that. So many have had, and will have, their freedom stolen from them. I don’t have the same barriers to freedom that Dana does in Kindred, or even Vitória. I think in writing Indelicacy I was interested in that desire and movement toward freedom, in imagining what it would or could look like for Vitória given her situation in life combined with who she is. I’m as interested in the desire for something as I am the thing itself, and her desire shapes her too. And as she goes further into writing she also goes further into who she will become; for her these two things are always parallel, inseparable from each other.

The way you intertwine writing and becoming is something the novel does so beautifully. I connect to Vitória when she says: “I will die if I can’t write and then I will have wasted my life.” I am also curious to hear you talk about your interest in layering other books into your own, such as Butler’s Kindred and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. These are both books about writing, or writing toward other books, such as Jean Rhys rewriting Jane Eyre’s “madwoman” in the attic. They also happen to be two of my favorite books.

In addition to that connection to writing, all four of the books that make their way into Indelicacy deal with violence in some way, and with trauma or damage, and while writing I was thinking about how violence (personal and historical) leaves traces or parts of itself behind that while we might not be able to literally see, doesn’t completely disappear, affecting how people (and characters) feel in their day-to-day lives, and the relationships they have with each other. I wanted to try to work with those traces of the other books if that makes sense, I suppose as a kind of haunting, and of remembrance. I named my four female characters after characters in those four books, not with the idea of rewriting them, but to honor them.

Kindred and Wide Sargasso Sea are two of my favorite novels as well, and with Indelicacy I wanted to formally acknowledge how important the books I love are to what I myself write, and to my process of writing. I had a realization a few years ago that in a way I owe my life of writing to these books that have moved me to respond to them. It’s that classic thing where you read a book and all you want to do after reading it is write, because it stirs something up in you that might not have gotten stirred up otherwise. I know that I write differently because of these books. I don’t at all feel that anxiety of influence other writers sometimes worry about. Instead, I feel an ecstasy of influence. The few times I’ve heard writers say they don’t like to read while writing, I’ve not understood it. I mean I do, but I don’t relate. For me it’s about lineage, and community. I feel I am in a lineage with the books that make their way into Indelicacy, like Kindred, Wide Sargasso Sea, Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark, and Jean Genet’s The Maids. And I feel indebted to those writing today with whom I feel in kinship, such as Patty Yumi Cottrell, Kate Zambreno, Renee Gladman, Danielle Dutton, Bhanu Kapil, Sofia Samatar, and Suzanne Scanlon. I feel hugely inspired by the work you’re doing too, Kate, with your book Hoarders and your art/performance project Unfriend Me Now!. I feel lucky to be writing during this time, among all of you.

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Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles–based artist and writer whose work focuses on popular culture and digital media. Her fiction and poetry books include E! EntertainmentThe Ravenous Audience, and the collaboration ABRA. Her work has been featured in The New York TimesArtforumArt in AmericaThe American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.