INTERVIEW BY EMMA COHEN
PHOTOS BY CLAIRE MILBRATH
“But really—why don’t I feel real? What makes me feel real?”
Early into Fiona Alison Duncan’s first novel, Exquisite Mariposa, the narrator, who shares the author’s name, asks herself this question. When the norms and ordering systems that dictate our lives are so widely oppressive, how does one order a life outside of these systems? And then how does one feel real? Some answers from the narrator: meditation with a quartz dildo, her ginger cat Noo, Tilda Swinton’s explanation of her friends as “fellow travelers,” driving in an old Volvo with an artist and a pigeon, wishes fulfilled.
The veil between what is true and what feels true is increasingly hard to distinguish. One way to investigate that is to go to the source of the deception. Duncan’s narrator pitches a reality TV deal about her friends and their living space, is a celebrity journalist for a living, watches her friends rise to fame on Instagram, all the while searching for what she calls The Real. Making meaning outside of normative structures could be a way to describe the dominant force of Exquisite Mariposa. It’s also a sensory sensitive portraiture of friendships, a pattern recognition of butterflies, an engagement with class, a clocking of language viruses.
Duncan has a knack for plucking just the right detail for each frame, and the novel benefits from the otherworldly voice that appears in all her work: her celebrity profiles, artist interviews, spiritual reportings, her diary-essays or cultural commentary. In the novel she thunders and weaves enlightenments on the complicated frilliness of girlhood, walking the radioactive sunsets of LA, wading through a warbly love affair. It’s a balm on an internet-addled brain that searches instinctively for a linear trajectory to grab onto. This book presents other options. Resolving things is not the point.
The narrator of Exquisite Mariposa has the same name as you. How are you interested in talking about your book, in fictional terms?
I like the term roman à clef, which is a French term that translates to novel with a key. Montreal author Ariela Freedman reminded me of the term recently, as I was struggling to define Mariposa’s genre. A roman à clef is a fiction novel that is about real events and real people but with a veil of fiction put over it either for satirical motivations or to protect the author from legal action or protecting the subjects. There’s a secondary body of knowledge that exists, and some people might have access to that. Parts of this novel are journalistic, fact-checked, and parts are fantastical, really projecting ideals and dreams and desires. And parts are more fictitious for the sake of humour.
Is autofiction a word you identify with?
I don’t think I understand it well enough. Do you know what it means?
I think Sheila Heti’s work might be described that way, or maybe Chris Kraus’ work.
Autofiction is maybe a newer term than roman à clef. I like Chris’ writing a lot and I like a lot of the writing Chris likes: Fanny Howe, Philip K. Dick, David Rattray. There’s a whole tradition of autofiction, but I don’t know enough about the term. And I don’t know why I don’t like it, maybe because it sounds like automobile.
It’s too mechanic.
Exactly. It doesn’t sound romantic. Lawrence Weschler has spoken about how as soon as you put language to experience it becomes like fiction just by the nature of language being a slippery, trickster material, or by the nature of the imagination, memory, and consciousness. Or, I think he’s said that, maybe I embellished it.
You’ve conducted a lot of interviews. How do you go about setting the tone of your interview, and do you like the kind of strange formality of speaking with someone you’ve never met before?
I thought of journalism as a great secondary education instead of grad school. Where I could get paid to learn, to interview all these people. A lot of other interviews were assignments, so you’re simultaneously thinking of the interest of the publication, and the interests of the artist and your own interest and trying to find a middle ground. I really hate social hierarchies, so I would always just try to find some sort of common ground.
Exquisite Mariposa deals with existing outside of the dominant ordering forces of the world that we are used to abiding by, which are a lot of times oppressive: capitalism, heteronormativity, the nuclear family, having a single career path, that kind of thing. When you’re existing outside those and you get a glimpse of what the narrator calls “The Real,” it can be very uncomfortable to figure out. Are you good at being uncomfortable?
I’ve never felt comfortable in any of those systems, and my ‘critical thinking’ parents raised my brother and I to see the issues in them, such that we felt we had no options and really didn’t know where to go. Every path was corrupt. I think my brother’s reaction to that was to say say, fuck it and avoid it all, while I dabbled in many, scattered zones, some legit, some maybe-illegal, committing to nothing full on. Now, my brother and I both are doing independent art practices that are precarious. I used to be envious of people who could get into these systems and institutions, be it a streamlined career or heteromonogamy, and function within them, use the codes and succeed within them. That never seemed like an option for me, and not just because of my upbringing: job markets have changed a lot, with new technologies, we’re all trying to figure this out. But it is terrifying, maturing in this context. There is a framework for being a very young person outside of systems—some sort of rebel wild girl, or rebellious person of any ilk—but if you want to have a long life and you want to care for the people in your life and not be a burden and participate in all sorts of exchanges with others, you need to figure out a way to subsist and even provide for others. The book is about wanting to generate ‘a good life’ level resources and not knowing how to do it, cause you’re something of a social misfit, or you’re great, it’s the ‘real world’ that’s fucked up.
The way that you talk about the relationship between art and commerce in our age of becoming was something I’d never read in literature before, at least about our specific era. You can see what artists with huge followings are eating for dinner but you have no idea how they’re able to afford that. There is such transparency, but also no transparency. One passage I loved was the narrator describing social media: “Today I saw all over the world and back and forth in time. I was with friends in several countries. This is so cool, but what happens to the body when it thinks it’s experiencing all of these adventures, romances, and horrors, but really it’s sitting still?”
I’m of the generation (b. 1987) that has a memory of pre-social media and post, analog to digital. My consciousness pre-full internet immersion was very different than after, and there’s no going back. It’s just a new consciousness. I was a gymnast when I was a kid, very physically active dancer, actor. Then I became very bookish and lost touch with my body and that really fucked me up. The internet as a workplace and social space had me even less connected with my physicality; I’ve had to reclaim it. There’s a psychic toll of hyper-mentalization. It’s all visual and sonic and not tactile, it doesn’t smell like anything, we’re not accessing all of our senses.. Your heart rate might move but you’re not moving your body besides your fingers. It seems to me that would result in a lot of physical confusion. Even the trope of the super-masturbator online. You’re looking at porn and having these really intense stimuli but you’re not sweating from a vigorous thrust or whatever. Or the sweat you’re having is nerves, maybe mixed with guilt or shame. Part of the release of sex when it’s good is that you’re very physical and you’re in this forgetting of yourself with breathe and motion trance, the delirium of a good song and dance. Getting off on porn, it’s often, I think, just the eye and the genital zone that are activated, instead of the whole physical body including the energetic body. And that seems to lead to depression, a sad cum down. That’s an extreme version, but the same thing could be happening with fear triggers online and whatnot. That’s kinda what that passage is about.
I initially wanted to ask you about persona…
Everyone keeps asking me that and I don’t know the answer!
What I wanted to ask you changed as I was reading the book. Back to the idea of the roman à clef and the second body of knowledge. It was interesting reading a novel in which, for example, the character Amalia Ulman—I follow the artist Amalia Ulman on Instagram. That’s not necessarily the same person, but it’s the first time I’ve experienced literature where some version of it I’d seen in real time online. It made me reconsider asking you about persona because we are all really well-versed in persona and it’s not exclusive to artists, and there’s a lot of writers like Jia Tolentino and Natasha Stagg who are writing about online persona right now, and of course persona predates the internet.
I really like intimacy and getting close to people. I like personality. Persona is part of personality, and if people are consciously wiedling persona I think that’s really interesting, but I think a lot of people adopt readymade personas in order to survive or protect themselves, to fit in with their families, their culture; that’s dangerous… like banality of evil watch out! I’m just personally thrilled by mundane surprises and juicy quirks, who you see when you’re going grocery shopping together or how we behave in a conflict, the more everyday … you could call it Real… stuff. But I like reading about persona, and I love style, showmanship, and performance.
Maintaining a persona may be a way to maintain privacy. You share a public face that’s diverting enough so you can exist on your own terms behind it. Of course we know persona pushing can be opportunistic, a way to gain attention, status, work, money, survival. Jamieson Webster has spoken about how culture is America’s only export at this point; we are in the business of culture, and persona is a large part of that. This privacy notion is compelling to me somehow, like everyone’s a politician now. But not everyone has access to equal resources, tools, and social clout needed to self-create and perpetuate. I think this is a backdrop to Mariposa. By the end of writing it, I was thinking a lot about authority and authorship–authority as the power to author life events, life stories, to be believed in.
You’ve structured the novel in terms of episodes, presumably mirroring the reality TV show that was going to take place in the novel. Why did you choose the novel form?
I think it’s just practical. Literature is where people are down to relate emotional experiences, everyday stories, psychology. The story of Mariposa is far reaching, there were lots of little anecdotes and events that didn’t make it in. I imposed a structure on myself to reign it in: twelve sections like the zodiac, like months of the year, or like TV; twelve episodes is often how long a first season of a TV show is.. I watched a lot of TV growing up, and I was also thinking about writing for people who don’t read that much, so it’s very visual and as fast paced as I could make it. Lots of jump cuts.
The narrator talks about writing as a potentially isolating thing to engage in. Do you ever feel envious of other forms of art?
Oh, of course, that’s why I started Hard to Read and Pillow Talk and these interactive events, so that I could be involved in something that is more performative and in the moment, having direct contact with people. The events are similar to the writing, they’re about language oriented communion. I also paint for fun. Having other practices are good for your brain, but I’m not so talented in terms of the plastic arts. People are given different gifts and proclivities and it’s nice to work with them.
You talk in the novel about Mariposa, the communal living situation in LA, and the narrator also talks about a communal living situation in Montreal. Did either of these contribute to your creating communal events?
There is definitely some longing for community. If you asked people who I lived with in Montreal, they would be like, Fiona was a freak she didn’t leave her room, she was such a loner who would sit at the side of the party and watch us while we were singing and dancing. That isn’t entirely true, but I was… more of a voyeur. Like Andy in the Factory. The major metropolitan cities in America are home to very competitive industries, people go there to strive in these competitive industries—art and entertainment industries, banking, tech, etc.. It can be hard to make genuine friends or just get loose when one’s social status is precarious and your means of survival or identity. I really like it when people can get loose or connect on more basic or libidinous levels. I hope my events invite that kind of interaction. Hard to Read and Pillow Talk are also at times something like ‘the platform’ I write about wanting ‘to give’ the residents of La Mariposa. We’ve even dabbled in talk show style live television productions.
The friends who populate the novel are described with such touching details. I loved the way the narrator talks about Simone, horny and hungry for soft cheese. You don’t introduce the characters or have a specific narrative arc to their story. It’s more impressionistic.
I’m not educated in writing, and maybe I’d be a better writer or maybe I’d be way worse or not write at all if I had formal training. It’s just these types of things that I notice in or remember about people, quirks or eccentricities, their tastes and gestures. I like the idea of written portraiture a lot.
There’s one passage where the narrator talks about her and Simone having a day together, going grocery shopping. Simone describes the day to someone else and it sounds like this epic journey, and the narrator starts to understand the day they just had completely differently. Do you borrow anyone else’s way of seeing while you’re writing?
In writing and in my everyday life. One of the greatest things to me about life is that everyone has different ways of experiencing their world and if you are perceptive enough, intuitive enough, and people share with you, communicate with you, you can have access to some of their inner world, and then reality becomes incredibly lush, because it’s not just what you see and feel, it’s kaleidoscopic, worlds within worlds.
See more from Fiona Duncan here.
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