NER staff reader Sabrina Islam talks to Maud Casey, longtime NER contributor and author of “The City Itself” (NER 41.1, 2020), about hysteria, incurability, and turning to fiction in a pandemic.
Sabrina Islam: I’ve read the opening paragraph of “The City Itself” over and over again. It’s haunting. You ask, “Who leaves this world gently?” You keep probing, “Who are you who am I where are we going what is this feeling inside of me why why why what does it all mean, etc.” Reading this I find myself in that land of un you speak of in The Art of Mystery—uncertainty, unfathomability, unknowing. This story too is unsatisfied with finding the point. As a writer, why mystery?
Maud Casey: First of all, thank you. You are the dream reader! Is this the part where we reveal you were my student and, so, I yours? I know you to be rigorous, thoughtful, imaginative as a reader/writer/thinker. In your story, “Nakshi Kanthas,” which was published by Prairie Schooner not so long ago, you write “There is a story in the space between the stitches.” It’s one answer to the question why mystery. Mystery has always been the draw for me, from the very beginning, before I could even name it. The seduction of the in-between, what isn’t visible, the world behind the world—that’s where it’s at for me. Who are you who am I where are we going what is this feeling inside of me why why why what does it all mean? I wonder this all day long. Writing, reading, don’t answer these questions, but they allow me to ask them, and offer the company of other minds asking them.
SI: Thank you, Maud—it’s such a delight to have you as a mentor! Next, I am curious to hear: who are the incurable women in your story?
MC: In the words of the recently departed Daniel Johnston, some things last a long time. I first came across Georges Didi-Huberman’s The Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière in a class I took in college. The class was called something like Victorian Women, and there was a section on Jean Martin Charcot, the neurologist who invented the diagnosis of hysteria at the Salpêtrière Hospital. Didi-Huberman’s book (I still have my copy from 1989!), about the intersection of nineteenth-century French psychiatry and the beginning of photography, is a mash-up of cultural criticism, archival photographs, psychiatric history, philosophy. It occasionally veers into pretentiousness, but those photographs of the women and girls diagnosed with hysteria! And Didi-Huberman’s nimble way of capturing the era and laying bare its attitudes (drenched in fake science) about women. In that book, he describes the Salpêtrière as “the city of incurable women.” In many of the hospital’s documents, women diagnosed with hysteria were often referred to as “incurables.” I loved this idea of a city of incurable women. The Salpêtrière was an enormous compound, a city unto itself inside of the city of Paris. So, a physical space that was also a psychic space—like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The city of incurable women suggests something right as much as something wrong. Of what, exactly, did they need to be cured? It echoes outward—the women diagnosed with hysteria, but then all of us, if we think in terms of desire, yearning, being alive. These are incurable conditions, aren’t they? We are all the incurable women!
SI: “The City Itself” is part of an ongoing collaboration with photographer Laura Larson. In The Art of Mystery you quote Chris Abani who writes, “This is what the art I make requires of me: that in order to have an honest conversation with a reader, I must reveal myself in all my vulnerability. Reveal myself, not in the sense of my autobiography, but in the sense of the deeper self, the one we keep too often hidden even from ourselves.” Writing is often a lonely process. How does a shared imagination work for you and your partner during a collaborative project? Are you protective of your creative space or do you find it easy to welcome others as you reveal yourself in the writing process?
MC: Writing can be so lonely (and maybe even more so because we do this to ourselves?). It was that loneliness, in part, that led to my reaching out to Laura. I was envious of poets who seem to forever be collaborating with people. Why can’t fiction writers? Also, hysteria was an endlessly photographed condition (the illness was assumed to be visible then, the way criminality was). I wrote Laura a fan letter in 2013, and she wrote back; that was the beginning of an ongoing conversation. We became a book group of two. Sometimes we sent work back and forth. She’d send a photograph, and I’d write something, or vice versa. Other times, we worked alone. At the center of everything were the nineteenth-century archival photographs from the Salpêtrière. At one point, Laura and I went together to Harvard’s Countway Medical Library—there’s a big cache of photographs from the Salpêtrière there. We put on gloves and spent a day handling crumbling glass photographic plates. It was terrifying—I was sure I was going to break them—and unexpectedly moving. Those photographic plates were made of light from the nineteenth century, light that had touched the women in the photographs, light that had traveled through time and space. Collaboration requires a different kind of vulnerability. You feel your limits, your habits, and you push against them. I’m not sure I can articulate it just yet, but I’ve learned a ton.
SI: You’ve shown interest in photography in your previous works. As a fiction writer, why are you drawn to photographs?
MC: I’m going to do that annoying thing where I whip out a quote (or open a book to find the quote). From John Berger’s Uses of Photography: “Memory is not unilinear at all. Memory works radially, that is to say with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event. The diagram is like this: [here you’ll have to imagine a diagram that looks like a kid’s, or my own, drawing of a sun]. If we want to put a photograph back into the context of experience, social experience, social memory, we have to respect the laws of memory.” Along with the archival photographs, this quote has haunted the work Laura and I have done together. Photographs contain time and memory; they are haunted. I love that. I also love the way a photograph does what life can’t, capture a moment—and all that goes into that moment, including mystery—and make it still but not static.
SI: The way you are describing time, memory, and the power of photographs reminds me of Paisley Rekdal’s Intimate. She writes, “I look and look at the photographs. The photos look back at me.” (I read this book for the first time in your class! It’s one that stayed with me.)
Let’s talk about the form of this project. You’ve written short stories, novels, and essays. How is this project formally different from anything you have done before? What shape is this collaborative project taking?
MC: An excellent question! I think the best way for me to answer is to point to the sort of work that thrills me these days, which tends to be uncharacterizable. These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy, which is ostensibly three short pieces about Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob. Mini-essays, prose poems? Who cares? The portrait of Keats begins, “In 1803, the guillotine was a common children’s toy.” Jaeggy’s mind—her attention—at work. Where is she looking? It’s surprising and thrilling where her mind goes. Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, which begins with the author throwing the manuscript into the garden and starting over. I’ve kind of lost the plot of plot. I’m more interested these days in a mind finding its way, which doesn’t mean there isn’t a shape. The collaborative project is two minds finding their way as they consider, address, imagine, and otherwise turn their twenty-first-century attention to the lives of the nineteenth-century girls and women who were patients in the Salpêtrière. More simply put, it’s a book called The City of Incurable Women, which includes linked narrative pieces inspired by the lives of those girls and women, archival photographs, and other documentary material, and Laura’s contemporary photographs (which include photographs of the archival photographs). It’s not meant to be a corrective; its aim is more impressionistic and atmospheric.
SI: If writing is an ongoing discussion with literature, what is this project responding to?
MC: Some of the books that were especially important as Laura and I began to think about this project: Nicholas Muellner’s Amnesia Pavillions, Theresa Cha’s Dictée, W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, John Berger’s Selected Essays, Paisley Rekdal’s Intimate. Then, for me, there’s the project C. D. Wright and the photographer Deborah Luster did, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, and Molly McCully Brown’s poetry collection, The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Nathalie Leger’s Suite for Barbara Loden. Jessie van Eerden’s collection of portrait essays, The Long Weeping. I’m sure I’m leaving things out. I’ve been thinking, too, about the other things that influence me—movies (currently haunted by Nothing No Better, a documentary about Rosedale, Mississippi), art (most recently, the Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future exhibit), music (a John K. Samson show in the Before Time). And also, whatever else was going on in my life during the writing of a particular book—learning to swim (I’m an adult-onset swimmer), the conversations I’ve had (with my boyfriend, my friends, family, students, strangers), the weather (meteorological, political, cultural, etc.), that walk I took, that thing I saw on Instagram, that thing I saw out my window.
SI: How does teaching inform your writing life?
MC: I want to ask you this question because I know you teach. It’s always a balance, a dance, right? If someone had come to me when I was a shy, nervous kid and said, you will spend a large part of your adult life as a teacher, I might have refused to grow up. But when I began to teach, I figured out there are many ways to teach, and then figured out how lucky I was to be teaching. All to say, it’s a big part of my life, and so a big part of my writing life. They are part of the same conversation. The conversations I have with students about their work, about books, about art, about the vocation of writing, all teach me, and I bring them with me in some form or another into the deep-space solitude of my writing life.
SI: In The Art of Mystery you write, “We don’t turn to fiction for the facts. Fiction offers relief from the facts and from that terrible word—closure . . . Fiction, after all, is a democratic art, reliant on the participation of its citizen readers, and in best circumstances, readers are contemporaneously sent back into themselves and out into the larger universe.” In the times we are living through—in the middle of a global pandemic—what do you have to say to citizen readers? Why should they turn to fiction?
MC: In the times we’re living through—when the brutal inequities that existed all along are being laid bare, when people are dying and losing their jobs, when so much remains uncertain—I’m not sure I, with my health and my job, feel right telling anyone they should turn to fiction. Whatever gets you through the day, and doesn’t hurt you or anyone else, do that. I’m not trying to dodge the question. It’s a tough question! Maybe I’m wary of making pronouncements—it feels too much like closure. Or maybe it’s that these times don’t change fiction’s value, which is related to the value of art in general, the value of the imagination. The mind at play: what a strange and beautiful thing. The fiction, the art, I feel most passionately about, asks me to attend to the world differently, to listen, to pay attention to a mind finding its way. It reminds me of all of the minds finding their way in this world, which is overwhelming, but still useful when the world is at its worst. The writing and the art I love most cultivates the sort of patience and attention that surprises and delights, and so allows us to surprise and delight ourselves. I think I’ve just used many sentences to try to convey what William Carlos Williams said in one line about the news and poetry! What he said, but fiction, and all the arts, too.
SI: I deeply admire your sensibility. Thank you so much for your time, Maud.
Maud Casey is the author of four works of fiction, most recently The Man Who Walked Away (Bloomsbury, 2014), and a nonfiction book, The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions (Graywolf, 2018). “The City Itself” is part of an ongoing collaboration with the photographer Laura Larson called The City of Incurable Women.
Sabrina Islam is from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She spent her early childhood in New York, Connecticut, and Florida. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland, where she teaches college writing and creative writing. Her stories can be found in Flock, Acta Victoriana, Prairie Schooner, and the Minnesota Review.