I “Think” Therefore I Write Fiction
A cursory Google search of “interiority and fiction” produces a litany of exhortations: “What Film Cannot: How Interiority Saves Fiction,” “Fiction’s Inner Landscape,” “Interior Landscapes: Creating Depth in Fiction.” Over the fifteen years I’ve been teaching, I have looked out at untold rooms of eager, budding fiction writers and claimed that access to another being’s interiority is what separates fiction from all other arts. How many times have I scribbled in the margins of someone’s plot-driven short story draft: “I wish I had a bit more access to this character’s psyche?” I have, without much hesitation and probably not enough forethought, worshipped repeatedly E.M. Forster’s claim: “We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way . . . what we call intimacy is only makeshift. . . . But in the novel we can know people perfectly.”
Yet, the project of interiority—the notion that we have internal emotional lives that govern our bodily actions—is relatively new in the span of Western art. Prior to the seventeenth century, interiority was tethered to a concept of the soul. Plato contended the body acted as a container for the soul, releasing it upon death. For Medieval theologians, interiority provided a guiding voice leading you to salvation or leading you astray—think Martin Luther’s “inner word” versus the “other word” of God. The notion of an inner, reasoning, individualistic self, guided by one’s own sensory perception and steering that perception toward the truth, begins with Descartes. And it’s not an accident that we can link, nearly simultaneously, an interest in our “internal” thinking self to the innovation of the novel as an artistic form—maybe the premier and most widely practiced artistic form. (Yes, film and television reach a wider audience but are created by a very small group of people.) Fiction’s mimetic function has always been to portray the mind as it supposedly really is: the force that marshals bodily experience and transforms and enlightens. As Ian Watt notes in The Rise of the Novel, “Modern realism, of course, begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses: it has its origins in Descartes and Locke.” In the Western war over the mind and body, fiction has come down on the side of the mind as the expressive root of human truth.
On the other hand, the twentieth-century project of fostering understanding and acceptance of queerness is one that has substantially focused on performativity and the integral connection of desire to the lived experience of the body. Starting with Foucault and tracing a lineage through theorists such as Monique Wittig and Judith Butler, sexuality, gender, the mind, the body are all historical, cultural, and political constructs. This isn’t to say that desire doesn’t exist, only that, as Butler puts in in their groundbreaking essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” “One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body.” Most of these theorists also stress the body as both a singular experience and as a collective entity. Not only can the mind not be separated from the body, but one’s body can’t be separated from any other body.
The Sins of the Eye
This notion that the novel as a form is best suited to psychological realism goes some way, perhaps, to explaining why queer art and the queer body have gravitated towards theater, film, and visual art. For one thing, the queer mind has been too long considered by mainstream culture as diseased, deviant, thwarted, stunted, duplicitous. Any narrator in possession of such a brain would be supremely unreliable and, therefore, unknowable. In addition, the novel, broadly, is a mainstream artform. For most of literary history, the gatekeepers and the critics have been cis, male and straight. A queer writer, therefore, easily risks being filtered through straight experience and consciousness and, thus, misread. Take, for example, the way that Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a novel that is extraordinarily insightful in its depiction of the way that culture cruelly forces both men and women to perform gender and sexuality in order to survive, was reduced in early, positive reviews to a novel about the “rareness and difficulties of love.” Queer fiction has for the better part of the twentieth century flourished on the fringes: the pulp or experimental, the memoir. Perhaps this is the uneasiness captured toward the end of the great, queer novel Dancer from the Dance, when the protagonist warns another younger, gay man:
Never forget all these people are primarily visual people. They are designers, window dressers, models, photographers, graphic artists . . . and they value the eye and their sins . . . are the sins of the eye. And being people who live on the surface of the eye, they cannot be expected to have minds and hearts.
The sin, though, has always belonged to the straight eye—the eye that so pathologized the queer “mind” as to render it incapable of capturing reality, much less any truth. Furthermore, the novel, particularly the twentieth-century novel with its emphasis on individual psychology and bound by the limitations of material production, has never been multiplicitous enough to capture the vastness of the LGBTQ+ community and experience. I’ll admit that Lukács’s positing of the realist novel as a product of the “bourgeoise mind” bored me by about the third essay insisting such, but that doesn’t mean I think he’s wrong. The queer mind, deeply traumatized and only very recently acceptably bourgeoise, will for a long while yet make up a narrow sliver of literary production.
The Short Story Cycle as Embodied Collective
Enter the short story and the short story cycle. The short story has always been about the collective body just by the simple fact that short stories rarely exist alone. And, certainly, the short story has been foundational to any fiction writer from a marginalized group who wants to prove that a readership exists for their work. Hence the dream trajectory for most budding twentieth- and twenty-first–century writers: Establish first that some well-received literary magazine, or even better yet, a mass-distributed “glossy” like the New Yorker or Esquire, wants your work. Quietly publish your collection. Win a major prize (because—wink, wink—your collection will not sell otherwise). Then publish a widely read novel. Voila, your once marginalized consciousness is now expressing mainstream truth.
The means-to-an-end fascination with the short story, though, obscures its more important cultural and literary function. It has for the last century been the way—particularly with the privileging of first-person and third-person–limited points of view over omniscience—for a writer from a marginalized group to represent the lives and truths of their larger communities. It’s this second vision of the short story that’s at the core of two recent debut collections: Corinne Manning’s We Had No Rules (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020) and Bishakh Som’s Apsara Engine (Feminist Press, 2020).
The opening story of Manning’s We Had No Rules looks, on the surface at least, like the sort of coming-of-age story that populates much of queer literature. But the story from which the collection takes its title centers on a protagonist driven not so much by a need to reconcile a burgeoning sexuality as a desire to free herself from her repressive family and locate her lost sister and ensure she is safe. Her sister is safe, living in New York, working as a paralegal, and sharing an apartment with two roommates. The narrator’s sister is willing to take the narrator in if she abides by one rule—not to have sex with her roommates. It doesn’t come as a surprise when this rule is quickly broken. What is surprising is the radicalness of the climactic fallout which hinges not on trauma or conflict but on the revelation of both the beauty and precariousness of the sister’s existence and the real reason the rule existed: not a fear of sex but a fear of being cast out yet again and lose both financial and physical protection.
These themes—safe harbor versus the need for reinvention, community versus individual desire, the pleasures of the flesh versus loyalty—form the firmament of all the stories in the collection. In the “The Boy on the Periphery of the World,” a young gay man desires only to spend the rest of his life in wedded bliss while the object of his desire wants to follow his uncle’s seemingly anodyne advice to enjoy some time living on one’s own. The uncle it turns out is “totally” in his fifties and gay and, on first introduction, makes clear what he actually means. “Being monogamous so young is like dancing on the periphery of the world, don’t you think?” Again, though, Manning shuns easy conflict and hinges the story’s tension on an innocuous, if immature, joke told at an AIDS banquet. The final revelation is hallucinatory, almost fabulist: a room full of ghosts.
The stories in this collection smartly explore not only the way that queerness transgresses boundaries but is also contained by them. In one story a genderqueer professor rehashes a dated, clichéd, narrative of seduction, recasting themselves in the traditional predatory, and male, role, leading to the demise of their one sustaining, queer relationship. In another, a middle-aged lesbian whose late-life recognition of her sexuality caused the end of her straight marriage is spurned by her queer daughter. In the words of the daughter, angry at her mother for her earlier choice to express her sexuality and, thereby, shatter the family, the real choice is not between straightness and queerness but love and sexual freedom.
The AIDS crisis and the tension between an older, possibly closeted generation, and a younger, probably cossetted generation haunt all the stories. For all the price it’s paid, the older generation has never been queer enough, and the younger generation isn’t free enough yet of influence to practice humility or generosity. But what makes the collection truly remarkable to me is Manning’s repeated refusal to present the reader with any single, fully realized interiority. That’s not to say that we don’t have access to the narrator’s thoughts—all the stories are told in first-person after all. But the stories arcs are not so much driven by the typical desire-action-consequence structure as by a series of negotiations, trespasses, and uneasy truces not fully understood by either party. The characters are wounded and narrow-minded in their woundedness; they are frustratingly unsalvageable. Not one of these characters changes their mind or has a major or minor epiphany. And yet, they are not the least bit unreliable. They are very human.
Manning’s characters do experience brief glimpses into other people’s pain but only long enough to shut themselves down to anything that might appear to be full recognition. Through all this Manning refuses to provide any type of explanatory narration—a wise gay elder, for example—for an outside, straight reader. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, pass your copy on to someone who at the very least managed to enroll themselves in that rare section of ENG 101: The Literature of Queers.
Bishakh Som’s graphic short story collection Apsara Engine definitely and unapologetically dispenses with interiority. There is nary a thought bubble to be found in these graphic short stories. Little contextualizing narration exists and is usually voiced through some form of epistolary exchange. Som is uninterested in capturing a totalizing psyche and far more interested in the indeterminate body. In the opening graphic story, the protagonist transforms via a fantastical tale about a mermaid from a (seemingly) white woman to a (seemingly) South Asian woman. Is the protagonist a person of color imagining herself as a white woman in her own fantasy, or are am I, the reader, assuming she’s a white woman? In another story, “Throat,” one character parades her latest acquisition: a part animal, part child being that is voiceless and, therefore, entirely dependent on owner’s ability to verbalize its needs. Is this child/animal hybrid being held captive? Is it victim or actually feral and cunning? And what to make of the humanoid head’s faint, seeming resemblance to a South Asian child? Is this a tale of the colonizer infantilizing the subaltern? The comic seems gleefully willing to claim all those grounds and spurn any such reading as unnecessary and overreaching.
Bullying, specifically, one character forcing another character to act out, or confront, a grand narrative, is at the heart of many of the stories of Apsara Engine. For example, in the story “Pleasure Palace” a white tourist continually forces himself on an older, elegant South Asian woman out of a desire to experience the (unnamed) country they both inhabit more fully. The story’s revelation when it comes is one of the most pleasurable experiences I have had reading a short story in a long time.
Som like the great cartoonists of our time—Spiegelman, Bechdel, Sacco, Tomine—forces the reader to spend as much time looking as reading. And if we’re patient, and thorough, the text reveals for us connections that might have been easier if we had had a central interiority to guide us but are all the more valuable for having been discovered with careful engagement. Som like Manning of course risks alienating audiences. All the reviews I’ve been able to find of Apsara Engine are rapturous and rightly so. But a few also appear mildly befuddled and reference the ‘cryptic’ nature of the stories. I wondered about that. Life for most of us is cryptic. But this brings us back to Forster’s unabashed celebration of the central merit of the novel. In its ability to present a psychology that can eventually be decoded, it provides the surety of the easily earned assumption. By refusing to offer us this, Manning and Som are staking a new and radical, if uneasy, ground for contemporary literature.
This is where I admit why I’ve been thinking about interiority at all. As a fiction writer, I’ve begun to examine my participation in the project of presenting other people’s interior lives as if I myself have lived them. That’s not to say my attempts weren’t honest and empathic. Only that I no longer believe empathy and good will are enough. Also, as a writing instructor, and the occasional professor of Western literature, I’ve spent nearly two decades decoding “master” narratives—heavy emphasis on the word master—for younger writers and scholars, pointing out misogyny, racism, and white supremacy even as I defended teaching those books. What have I been doing? More to the point, what have I been unwittingly complicit in?
This doesn’t mean that I believe that interiority or fiction should be dispensed with, just that I personally need to examine what both mean to me. Manning and Som’s work don’t feel brave necessarily in subject matter—a well-established queer literature exists—but in their refusal to pander to their literary audience, to provide anything that looks like false intimacy. (Credit also goes to the small, independent presses that support this work. Arsenal Pulp Press isn’t even an American press.)
There’s a strange moment of confluence in We Had No Rules and Apsara Engine. In Manning’s short story “Wallaby,” the protagonist of the opening story reappears as middle-aged, the owner of a barely functioning farm near Seattle. The protagonist visits a neighboring farmer who is raising exotic animals as potential pets and, against the wishes of the neighbor, allows a baby wallaby to briefly, and harmlessly, chew on their hand. The moment is uncommented on by the narrator but is prominent enough to make the reader briefly uncomfortable. Som, in the story “Love Song,” reintroduces the feral child-being from the earlier story “Throat.” The main character of “Love Song” feeds it a sandwich, an apple, and then their own finger. That moment, a rendering of a hand missing a finger, dripping blood, caused me to cringe. I can’t help but infer from both these passages a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you moment. But that’s the bitter reader in me; the reader long sustained on what was always too easy to know. There exists by now another reader, one older, wiser, arguably more generous about her flaws, one able to admit that a moment of fleeting discomfort is the least she owes in the face of the far too long ignored, the far too long unperceived and unknown.