April 17, 2024

Literary Conversations 1 – Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom on the Novel, Tragedy And Sacrifice (Roger Green)

Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom in conversation with Roger Green

In this new series of Literary Conversations, New Polis general editor Roger Green engages with contemporary writers on aesthetic and thematic trends in their work. The initial conversation is posted above, followed by Roger’s reflections on the conversation below the transcript.

Steven Dunn is the author of the novels Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2016) and Water & Power (Tarpaulin Sky 2018). He was born and raised in West Virginia, and after 10 years in the Navy, he earned a B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Some of his work can be found in Columbia Journal, Granta Magazine, and Best Small Fictions 2018.

Selah Saterstrom is the author of the novels SlabThe Meat and Spirit Plan, and The Pink Institution, as well as the book of essays Ideal Suggestions: Essays in Divinatory Poetics. She teaches and lectures across the United States, and is the director of Creative Writing at the University of Denver.

Literary Conversation 1 Transcript

Roger Green: All right, we’re here with Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom. Thank you both for being here. My name is Roger Green, I’m the general editor of The New Polis, and we are going to jump into some questions that I had in this new series where I’m kind of interviewing authors whose work I find compelling, but authors, hopefully, who know each other’s work a little bit, and asking them some questions with vitamins in them. 

So, for my first question for both of you, both of you write novels, and so, I wanted to ask, to what extent do you actively engage with the genre of “the novel,” and as you engage with the form are you actively, or consciously in discussion with “tradition” or the history of the novel itself?

Selah Saterstrom: Well, I can maybe get the conversation started with just a couple of off-the-cuff thoughts. I mean, I think that writing in the form of the novel is going to always put me in conversation with the history of that genre, and that can be conscious or unconscious. But to say that it’s it doesn’t have that context, takes it away from complexity and the opportunity to radicalize the conversation and move it forward. So, I think that working in that form is always in conversation with that form’s very complicated history.

Having said that, when I’m working, I rarely think about like, oh, I’m in conversation with the history of this form of the novel. For me it’s about first centering, privileging, and listening to the visitation that is the work, and making choices on its behalf, including formal choices. So, that’s kind of the dynamic I feel primarily engaged with. But of course, that dynamic is always in conversation with the form and its complexities.

Steven Dunn: Yeah, same for me, too—for my own history with the novel—I didn’t read a lot in like middle school, high school and all of that stuff, but I started reading again and realized, like I’m tired of novels and that’s only because I knew what one thing was, like what a novel was. And then I actually read Selah’s The Pink Institution, and it was called a novel and I was like, oh, I like novels again. So, writing and reading there helped me out.

But I was so happy that that was called a novel because it gave me permission to write what I wanted. And I realized it was like the length of it and then, I think, having a class with Selah, where she was saying that “novel” means “new” and discussions on the novel. So, I think it’s a big term that can hold all of these different things. So yeah, I am in conversation with it, in a way, because I am writing it but knowing that I think that this term, “novel,” can hold a lot of different things inside of it.

Roger Green: Yeah, so knowing each other’s work, do either of you have a sense of what you think the other one is doing in their work, in terms of the novel?

Selah Saterstrom: Well, I’m such a fan and a student of Steven’s work and revisit it often and, you know, a novel has the possibility of being a revelation that continually unfolds and reveals and discloses new options and is a space of emergent strategies. So, in that sense from my experience of Steven’s work, and a lot of work that I love, is that the work continues to deepen and evolve the paradigm that is the novel, I guess.

Roger Green: So, both of you tend to compose to the page—that that seems something that comes across—and, in a really persistent way—I think, more so with Potted Meat, for Steven, Potted Meat does seem to work in a kind of linear fashion, up to the character kind of finishing school and going off into the military—I wouldn’t say that plot is necessarily the main thing that holds either of your works together. It’s not like, you know, if you took an elements of fiction class and you did like plot, setting, characterization, theme, and perspective or something like that, plot would probably be lower if you had to rank them one to five—from my reading, I didn’t know

So, it seems, then, that that’s really different to me than some other writers out there right now—and I’ll talk about them and maybe in another question—but there is a sensibility to you two as writers and an aesthetics of how some people might have to think about, “how is this a novel?” 

Steven Dunn: Yeah, that question comes up a lot, and just going back to Selah’s work—and I say this all the time, so I feel bad about saying it again, but it’s important to me—what I learned from reading Selah’s work, and things like it, is plot being a space. So, thinking of like the novel in a plot as a space, like a burial plot, or a garden plot. So, it’s like, what has to be done in this book. That’s kind of the extent that I’m thinking of plot in a way. I’m sure there are some elements of how people usually think about plot that come in there, but I’m not necessarily, prioritizing those things.

Selah Saterstrom: I love what Steven just said. Like Steven, I can appreciate that there are books about what plot is, etc. but my first identification with plot is always connected to funerary rights, you know the place of the grave, the underworld. So, I think of plot in relation to the underworld, and the underworld, for me, is a zone of being initiated into the holy darkness. 

Therefore, when we’re talking about something like plot, it’s a very contemporary trend to standardize this idea of plot in terms of narrative, but what uncertainty teaches us, again and again, is that plot is a zone that is actually profoundly unfixed. So, this idea that plot has to be a certain way or that plot has maybe been valued in mainstream publishing, I’m like okay that’s cool and I’m also like, what is that reifying? Because, you know, I think what narrative teaches us is about how to be with uncertainty, it’s not about regulating uncertainty. And sometimes conservative or traditional conversations about plot forget that uncertainty is the heart of plot

Roger Green: I think that that darkness, and on that theme, might be a good moment to move to the next question which is the question of tragedy. And this is just something that I’m thinking about very much when I’m reading both of your work and outside of your work—so this is something I’m pondering in general. If people have read other things that I’ve been writing on The New Polis, the stuff on Peter Pan and Dionysus and sacrifice, or the stuff last year—I did a series on Adorno and Horkheimer and their book about questioning what enlightenment is and where it comes from and how fascism comes out of the enlightenment, so there’s a broader discussion to be had about this. 

But if I think about tragedy itself, and how the word kind of means “the goat song.” Broadly speaking in literary history, in an intro to literature class, you have classic tragedy, which is kind of the nobly born or the highborn hero, the king, the Oedipus type of person, that figure is replaced in modernity with the so-called common person. It could be like Pamela or the big novels of the 19th century, it could be Jane Eyre—who’s sitting behind me on the shelf right now—the novel becomes a place that provides space for tragedy or that tragedy occupies—I don’t know how I want to put that. 

Tragic conditions in your work, both of your works, surround the characters and your novels. And one might say they engage even with coming-of-age themes—at least in my reading of your work. There’s also a kind of materiality to the conditions and a starkness to the language that defies traditions derived from the bildungsroman or that kind of 19th century experience novel. So, I wondered if you guys could talk about—I don’t know that you probably consciously think I’m writing a tragedy or something—at least the way that tragic conditions show up.

If we talk about Slab, Selah’s most recent book, the disaster is a major part of what’s happening in the book, right—seemingly something like a hurricane but probably more abstractly just the disaster. And in Potted Meat … well the title itself, right, the way that potted meat shows up throughout the course of the book, there’s like a materialization of these mixings of very different types of starkly contrasted materials throughout and lots of visions of this. I’m thinking about the dog in the basement and cleaning up the dog shit. 

I’m thinking about how there’s almost a kind of fabulism in Steven’s work. There are sometimes that it reads like a folk story or like almost like a Cinderella story, like doing the chore of the coal and having the coal fire burn out. And up through like the entire novel the stepfather is just like, “do this work, do this work” right, so it adds an element of materiality—not to say that there aren’t dreams of ninjas and things going on. 

So maybe we’ll start there, how do you engage, or to what extent do you engage with tragedy in your writing?

Steven Dunn: Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned the materials because I feel like maybe growing up in poverty, that’s what you have are your material conditions, your materials and the emotional quality those things have. I really wanted to have all of those things in there for whatever they said. And sometimes those things carry more complex reasons than I may be able to name as a child, or as an adult, but having these objects in their context says something else. 

So, yeah I’m just thinking about, like if something is a small can of food, right­—a small can of potted meat—how important that thing is. It maybe fed five kids for one summer lunch if you stretch it with mayo, or something. So, there are these other, bigger conditions that you can’t name while you’re in the mess living. And sometimes these objects have joy attached to them and they have … yeah, I don’t know, it’s just like getting these things that say a lot.

I forget what the book is called, I don’t know … vibrational matter … so it’s about how material has an emotional quality 

Roger Green: Yeah, that’s Vibrant Matter, maybe? 

Steven Dunn: Vibrant Matter, yes!

Selah Saterstrom: Yeah, when I first was thinking of that question, I was thinking of Tillie Olsen’s story of measuring out her lines enough that she could memorize them while doing domestic duties and I think that materiality absolutely is part of the production of writing. Which, I also want to say, I hold the vision for a coming-of-age story that is rooted in poverty, that is written in lusciousness rather than a spare narrative style. Really, again I would go back to, every story, every visitation has its unique request in order to become.

All of which is to say, the material reality connection to writing is absolute, and writing is also labor, and for a lot of us writing is connected to education, which was a way out of poverty. Which, you know, becomes a very, very complicated experience.

Roger Green: In my reading of your work, partly what I mean is, of course, the materiality of language itself, where there isn’t necessarily a lot of metaphor or overt symbology going on. I remember when I was in high school I really liked The Catcher in the Rye—and I still like J.D. Salinger, I watched the recent documentary—where you learn that the ducks flying away symbolizes some sort of lost innocence, or like in The Great Gatsby when you’re in first-year college classes and it’s like, oh, the gray eye is looking over the dusk of the wasteland and it’s after World War I

That kind of thing doesn’t seem to be what’s exactly happening in your works. Rather, if I take Selah’s book as an example, writing itself shows up as a theme—writing shows up as recipes throughout Slab and Tiger, the main character, is having this discussion with Barbara Walters, which sort of seems like it’s this sort of fantasy thing going on in her head. But what are they fantasizing about? Well, these recipes. 

Then there is a recipe for the red velvet classic, right. But then there’s the discussion of if a bride were to serve red velvet classic at her wedding it would be a slutty thing to do …

Selah Saterstrom: True story.

Roger Green: So, there’s always this turn towards that material condition and then, of course, the turn to and here’s a rest a recipe that every southerner knows, and the recipe then is the lyrics to “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Selah Saterstrom: Just a quick response to that, it’s interesting you mentioned The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Those were two books I didn’t read until I was an adult because of my public school, education in in rural Mississippi, and being in and out of the system, I read those in graduate school. But what I did read a lot of was The Bible and I heard a lot of The Bible and so language for me has always been kind of I would call eucharistic adjacent. 

It’s like the word that became flesh it’s in the mouth, it’s in house, it’s embodied. So, thinking of materiality and language, it’s always felt very, very embodied. It’s felt like an animating principle. So, I don’t know if that speaks to what you were talking about, Roger, but anyway, yeah. 

Roger Green: Well, I’m going to have a question about sacrifice in a minute but maybe, I don’t know if Steven had thoughts on …

Steven Dunn: Yeah, I think for me too in school sometimes it was like what’s the symbology of this thing?—I forgot what we read in high school, but it didn’t feel close to my life experience or neighborhood. I’m not saying you can’t learn things outside of those things, but I rarely read things from black people or black communities growing up, for some reason—although we lived in a black town for the most part.

I wanted the language to be as close as possible to the way we talk, and the stories we tell each other, and what we valued as a community, but also like some of my personal things that I value as an individual. That’s why I wrote the ninja story, because I’m fond of it. But we all told that story growing up, like remember we had the ninjas. But it was like a thing, it became its own symbol in our town.

So, I wanted the language, the symbolism for the language to be its own thing, as close as possible to our town and our language. And usually, in a lot of books black speech is relegated to dialogue. It’s not trusted to tell the story. I don’t know what the perception of it is but, for some reason, a lot of black speech does not do the work of narration in books, it’s relegated to dialogue—which dialogue is fine, too. So, that was another thing I wanted to do with language was like pull that outside of dialogue to narrate and do whatever the job of narration is.

Roger Green: Yeah, and this ends up a stylistic choice, neither of you use quotation marks for example, right? 

Steven Dunn: Yeah.

Roger Green: Selah brought up the bible and I’m thinking about that church scene in Potted Meat and the way memory is working in memorizing these passages from Matthew—I believe—and then that turn—that’s exactly what I’m talking about—towards this other kind of materiality, towards having memorized this Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song. So, it’s doing the material thing, but it’s also doing a community thing. I feel like there are two aspects to African American community life that are being shown in that.

Steven Dunn: Oh, yeah totally. Yeah, like The bible, we’re down with The Bible and we’re also down with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Both of those things are equally important in those moments amongst peers and with community people we respect. So, yeah.

Roger Green: And, of course, Lamentations in SlabSlab in some ways is a meditation on Lamentations from The Bible.

Selah Saterstrom: Yeah, definitely. And prior to, all around, and throughout writing that book I was translating Lamentations—very slowly and terribly. It was more of a being with and a reading than a legible translation. But I’m very interested in the way lamentation transmutes into celebration.

Steven Dunn: We’ve talked about that before with the second line, how that’s so important to both, like celebration and lamenting at the same time. Yeah, I don’t know, I feel like that holds it all, because my grandma was from Louisiana, so I grew up with that type of lamenting and celebrating as a way of being.

Roger Green: I want to push us a little bit further here, down this rabbit hole of sacrifice and that element with tragedy, and something Selah said a few minutes ago when you were talking about the materiality of language or the word made flesh. There’s a great book on sacrifice by Guy Stroumsa, called The End of Sacrifice, where he’s talking about the fall of the Temple—the Second Temple in Jerusalem—and the diaspora, that this is what creates—because classically there’s no concept of scripture, right—these formations of things. So, the Torah is something that you literally open up and it’s kept in a cupboard, in what becomes rabbinic Judaism, where there’s an opening up and the text is kind of like the guts, the interior, of what would have been in ancient times a sort of sacrificial animal. It’s a really beautiful book. 

And so, I asked that question about tragedy but, I’m thinking about sacrifice and for people who don’t know this this might sound very, very weird but, for example in religious studies, there’s a scholarly discourse that does not think of Jesus as being sacrificed. So, Jesus was executed, like George Floyd was executed. That was not a sacrifice. 

And later on, as the communal entity that comes to distinguish itself as Christianity—and the writings that get associated—then there’s this narrative situation that gets cast back onto this guy who got executed by the Romans. So, there is something about what we do with sacrifice that has to do with narrative at a very core level that I’m interested in in both of your works. 

This goes back to a Roman law and a lecture that my colleague Cleo Kearns gave last week in another kind of online format, called Incite Seminars—so if you’re watching this check out Incite Seminars, there’s one on sacrifice—and so, in some of the elements of sacrifice for Cleo, she says it’s a formal act of setting apart, of relinquishing and destroying something of worth with the intention to open communication with the spirits.

So that’s a kind of pack definition. I’m not going to read off all of the elements, but there are a couple that I think are really interesting when we think about our current social situation in the U.S. One is that in Roman times, at least, slaves cannot sacrifice. The reason why slaves cannot sacrifice is because everything about the sacrificial act must be willing.

Now, whether or not that is actually what happens in a situation, I don’t know. If you like, you know, ask the bull do you agree to this and the bull’s like [yeah], I don’t know that that happens. But the idea, at least, in the theory of sacrifice is that the so-called victim must be willing to go, and if you’re in any kind of an enslaved situation you would not be able to do that because your will is not necessarily your own.

So, I think about this a lot lately because of the Movement for Black Lives, for example. I think about it a lot in Water and Power, Steven, in your second book, and this choice for the character to go into the navy, and what does it mean. You know, thank you for your sacrifice is a theme that shows up constantly in that book in the various different perspectives that are presented in that novel. 

Then, we have this character of Preacher and we have an active engagement with Hoodoo culture going on in Slab and that being and intermeshed with other forms of writing, like the metaphysical postcard game, for example, or with tarot cards themselves. So yeah, I just wonder what you guys think about sacrifice in your work, or in each other’s work, or—and I just talked a lot—if any of that sparks things in your brain holes.

Steven Dunn: Your questions are making me rethink what you put your email about sacrifice and what you just said. I’ve been negative towards it, so I’m reworking my own feelings around sacrifice, but just from like being in the condition of growing up in poverty and like what gets sacrificed, you know, light bill or heat bill … right. I remember my mom, with food stamps, would have to drive to a gas station and buy like a five-cent piece of gum just to get enough money for gas—to get the change from a one-dollar food stamp. 

That’s a sacrifice but not necessarily a choice, I feel. So, sacrifice has been something negative to me. Or how people in power, like you say, have cast back the idea of sacrifice, like in the military—like oh, they’ve been sacrificed. So yeah, I’ve had negative issues with the word sacrifice, or the idea. So, thank you for giving me those new things to think about.

I haven’t intentionally thought about sacrifice, but I’ve thought about those conditions which get called sacrifice and I write about them to kind of—I don’t know—stretch them out and see them for what they are in those specific contexts, like the military and poverty and blackness.

Selah Saterstrom: Yeah, it’s interesting to hear Steven’s initial reaction to sacrifice as negative because I had kind of a similar response. It’s just interesting, thinking out loud here, one of the things I will never forget about Katrina is, on the Mississippi gulf coast, which was really leveled at that point, before FEMA was there, the military was there recruiting. So, the first water that came into my mother’s community of Waveland, Mississippi—it had been days—was from an 18-wheeler that Oprah Winfrey sent down and yet there was already ready-to-go rhetoric around recruiting for the military. 

And, when Steven was talking, I had that recollection. And, you know, I think the thing about sacrifice—just examining my own reaction to it—is the sacrifices that are made, for example when one is in an impoverished situation, the difference is between thriving and surviving. And any system that requires an individual to ally with dynamics or belief systems that require that individual to diminish themselves or dim their light is rooted in poverty consciousness and a lack paradigm. And I think a lot of people you know associate sacrifice with that kind of lack paradigm, understandably.

You get to a place where you don’t want to just survive but you want to thrive. And so, if there is a system by which sacrifice is operating where everyone is a willing participant—I mean, I think that there are probably examples of that—I think they are few and far between and I’m suspicious of them. Because in my own experience, most systems that require a person to relinquish any access to liberatory options rarely … I don’t know, I’m going down a rabbit hole, the rabbit hole of sacrifice to use your phrase, Roger. But, yeah, I don’t know. It’s tricky.

I think sacrifice is one of these ideas that we can talk about in this religious sense of something set aside, but to go back to your earlier point about the material reality of the lives of human beings, ideas of sacrifice are complicated.

Roger Green: I talk frequently with Tink Tinker, who’s written some articles for the website, and Tink and I have developed this language around the term Euro-Christianity, which is a term that we use to talk about whiteness—what people call whiteness—while acknowledging that whiteness is this kind of historical construct that’s rooted especially in the pseudoscience of the 19th century. So, we’ve got to talk about whiteness, but we also want to talk about it in its broader white supremacy and how that is embedded with this phenomenon called Euro-Christianity, which we do not call a religion, because religion is kind of Christianity’s terms to say “you’re this religion, you’re this religion, you’re this religion, and we’re the real religion.” So, we use it as a descriptor for a social movement rather than a religion.

Tink is an Osage man and he’s particularly sensitive to the ways that people talked about, or colonizers talked about, native people not having religion. All of the first accounts are that they don’t have religion, but then later on there are these forms of Indian religion that are somehow less evolved. And then they want to talk about things like human sacrifice with Aztec people, for example, which we get very one-sided stories about whatever is happening there.

But it gets thrown into this sacrifice concept of something set aside, set aside, set aside and for Tink, he’s like, native people don’t do that, we don’t set things aside, it is not separated out, we don’t have religion. But now we have these scholars coming back and telling us what Native American religion is. So, this is just an ongoing question of how do we talk about whatever practices are that people have, without using some sort of concept of religion. 

Or, to take another example, a couple weeks ago somebody sent me on Facebook, NPR did a story about white supremacy in Christian churches in the U.S. It took two churches—one was a black church and one was a white church in town—and the African American people had left one church and started another church and how much they don’t talk to each other and they’re just down the street from one another. 

So, what the idea of an entity like the church might mean—I can’t know because I’m an outsider—but whatever the so-called Black Church might be, when people use that terminology, or when we talk about James Cone or Black Liberation Theology, whatever that phenomenon is, and the role that is going on in African American religious contexts, is not the same thing as the Euro-Christian context. So, I’m not just calling out Christianity, necessarily. Neither would be Coptic Christianity in Egypt, for example. That’s not Euro-Christianity.

But I feel like there’s a poetics of sacrifice to the Euro-Christian matrix that asks people—or that doesn’t really ask, but pretends to ask, maybe in the army or navy recruitment situation, it’s an ask or it’s like you’re supposed to volunteer, but we know that there’s something deeper than that. So, then it makes you think, whether or not this thing that people call religion is something that only the Priestly class can do and that Lamentations or Malachi in the old testament—it’s like the people are being punished because they’re not giving their best animals for the sacrifice. That’s one of the problems that makes the desert god mad at them.

I’ve kind of rambled a little bit there but … I feel like, you know Jacques Derrida has a whole famous essay on the pharmakon and substitution, and post-structural theory does a lot with that kind of substitution stuff. But in some ways, I feel like with writers like yourselves—that’s why I keep coming back to this materiality of the text—and yes language is all about substitution at one level, but these are not Greek tragedies. Whatever work of the tragic is being done—and yes, you’re dealing with characters in very impoverished environments—that blending, like you said, of the celebratory and the tragic, I want to say that that’s unique if we were talking about novels.

Maybe in a minute I’ll compare it to something somebody like Elizabeth Strout, but I just talked for a few minutes and I don’t know if things resonated or didn’t resonate.

Selah Saterstrom: Well definitely, and you know it’s interesting, something that I’ve been thinking about a lot is this place, this idea but this place of the charnel grounds. And I feel like we’re really in it, I feel like we’re always in it, and I feel like it’s always like kicking up flares and so forth. It’s a place that is beyond binaries, it’s not the good or the bad. It’s the good and the bad. It’s the spectrum.

It’s a place of flux where the pain and suffering of our inner connectivity is revealed alongside the void, through which maybe strategies will emerge by which we can attune to that paradox in a way that doesn’t kill the entire planet. So, I guess—not to go off on a tangent—this idea of tragedy, lamentation and celebration, is in everything simultaneously. I think one of the things that wants to come through this sieve of all of us, more than ever before, is multivalence—you know, multiple modes, multiple intelligences, multivalence. So, I think tragedy is stitched into every moment, and also it’s opposite and what is beyond its opposite. 

I don’t know. I don’t know if that in any way connects into this conversation in a meaningful way. But I think that this idea of tragedy, and setting things apart, and thinking back, Roger, to what you were saying about Tink, that you know we don’t set things apart, I think there’s something to that. This idea of skillful will, which is using everything, you know, working with everything to create the most poignant result inside of a tremendous uncertainty. Like I said, I’m not sure if that if that even makes sense.

Roger Green: It sounds like you, at least on some level, you’re thinking about this stuff in relation to your work, that there’s some sort of active thing. I’m trying to think of examples and there’s a kind of intergenerational thing going on throughout Slab

The book is really complex on so many different levels because it sets itself up talking about itself as a stage or stage productions. It deals with film and movies. So, there are different kinds of stages. It is on a concrete slab, right—the context of tiger being on the slab.

But then, what we get immediately, is 40 miles away Preacher is walking on a beach somewhere. So, these things that you could do if you had a film camera, maybe, and you could cut things together, but you could never do that on stage. So, what is happening in the book is undermining the idea of perspective itself that way. And then, as we get towards this engagement with tarot cards and futures and pasts, time and temporality is being really, I don’t know, stretched or played with.

Selah Saterstrom: Yeah, I think you know that’s just about this desire to bring a multivalence through, in a way. 

Steven Dunn: That the stage—I mean the slab—is flexible, right? Like, so much is happening on the slab and it shifts, and it becomes anything. Which, it seems like a rooted thing, right. A slab. The word itself is hard but the actual workings of the book is that it becomes everything.

Roger Green: I’m struck by the elements of sacrifice, especially, like I said, in Water and Power, Steven. But my mind, right now, is going to the relationship between the main character and his sister in the book, and the sister has a dead twin, and the dead twin materializes in this visit. And, at least for me, when ghosts are appearing in these types of contexts I have to think of Beloved, I have to think of Tony Morrison and what does it mean to have another half of a self that has left or a daughter that has left, that grows but comes back. 

That’s not with what happens with this little girl, but it’s this moment of surreality or this break of something transcendent in an otherwise highly materialistically focused text. I wonder if you had thoughts or want to talk about that scene?

Steven Dunn: Yeah, what you said, like those moments for me too, and just thinking of like the character or with the dead sister, how much also ghosts are always around—so, like often visiting death and talking about dead people. Growing up my grandmother would always see the ghost in the house, there was always somebody who’s her husband or a child, there were always ghosts in our house. And then with, say, my sister growing up, too, there was always this talk of her twin. So, my sister was pretty sensitive, I think—yeah, no she was pretty sensitive—so it’s this sense that my sister is both people now, in a way—like she is two people because her twin is not there.

So just having these moments in life, I wanted that space to be in the book, too. Like everything is very grounded and dirty and real and everything, but there are these other minor things, stuff that comes and goes, ephemeral things.

Roger Green: Yeah, so, at least in the way that you’re talking about this, and I know Selah and I have talked about this a lot—especially with The Meat and Spirit Plan, Selah—it seems like, in our conversation, you’re kind of owning the characters as part of your actual life experience, like an actual sister. You’re using “my sister” and it’s like, she has a double. 

So, what that does with the distinction between author and character … and this is not like Kiese Laymon’s book, Heavy, which is it sets itself up as a memoir, yours is framed as a novel, I mean it says that it’s a novel. So, I’m wondering about that in terms of characterization and autobiography. Are there breaks in that for you? Does it not really matter?

Steven Dunn: Oh man, I’ve been slipping a lot lately. I think at first, I was trying—yeah, even when I first answered this question—like the character blah blah blah. I’ve been slipping a lot lately and I’m just like, you know what, I wrote it, a lot of it’s based off my experiences and stuff. Like, I have a sister but that’s still not the sister in the book, which is different. Yeah, I have a sister who had a twin and she died, but the book is still something different. So, my relationshipwith that is for the book. Yeah, that’s funny. I can’t remain professional—I don’t know if it’s called professional or not—but I can’t do it for some reason.

Roger Green: And people have often confused you, Selah, to an annoying extent, at least from our conversation. They assume that you are these people, that you have a tiger suit that you wear around the house.

Selah Saterstrom: Which, I also do. That’s the problem, right? Or that’s the complexity. I mean, I can recall being on a panel in the last five years, with three other men on the panel and they were all asked about their characters, and the one question I received was about me, as if it was really a question about a character in my book. But it was framed directly as if it was personal. And there’s a long history of that happening with female identified authors. 

And it wouldn’t be energetically accurate to call the novels non-fiction because there’s an alchemical process in the space of those projects becoming books, in that I’m collaborating with something that animates my personal material beyond even its own boundaries. So, it wouldn’t be accurate to call it memoir. And yet, there are real flesh pieces of me in my books, for sure. 

You know, back to your opening question, in a way, about the novel, it’s like what Steven had said then—the novel can hold so many gestures and it can hold contradiction, it can hold dissonance, it can hold parabolic narrative dynamics. But, yeah, I have often been mistaken for characters in my books, and I understand that, and it’s also more complicated than that. But where it becomes problematic is when that error becomes a kind of mode of judgment that has professional, real-life consequences.

Roger Green: So, I’m wondering if that—I don’t even want to use the term hybrid, between autobiography and novel—but the paradoxes of what you were both just talking about, seem to be something that is going on in your work that is not going on in someone like Elizabeth Strout’s work, like My Name is Lucy Barton. So, where this is coming from—I’m not meaning, too much, to pick on Elizabeth Strout—but I got asked, last year, to review a book, like a peer review situation, on American fiction, post the 2008 housing crash. So, it was very much about material conditions, and it was by an Eastern European—I’m not going to name the place—but it was by a scholar working in an Eastern European context.

And the economic scholarship in this book was just excellent, it was amazing—so, if I’m saying critical things about people’s work, I want to give some due praise—but one of the things that I found missing myself, being somebody who works and lives here in the U.S. and engages in actual writing communities producing literature, is that the material conditions in which we are writing are very much contextualized by the national discussions that are happening right now around the movement for black lives most recently but, you know, they took down Columbus statues in Columbus, Ohio, The Redskins finally gave up their racist name this week. So, there are those contexts and then there is what we call in higher education, inclusive excellence, where we have a spectrum of race, gender, ethnicity, gender expressivity, sexual orientation, nationality, age, ability/disability.

This whole list of categories that we’re supposed to attend to as teachers working in a situation, but, weirdly, those categories also seem to be showing up as the social drive in National Book Awards, in the broader literary landscape. So, for me, in that broader national context, when I read a book like Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, which is very much about white poverty in Appalachia, and … 

The context of the book, if you haven’t read it, is this woman who gets sick and her mom, from Appalachia, comes to New York City to visit her. And this character has a job where she’s always looking out at the Chrysler Building, so there are these symbols—like that hard symbol thing, the Catcher in the Rye symbol thing—like oh, okay so you’re looking at capital. That’s definitely going on. And the book is very plot structured, it’s very centered. 

But it also feels, to me—and maybe I’m just critical right now about this—that, in the broader context, it’s kind of like this statement that there are poor white people, too. Which already, in a fucked up way, just assumes that African American people are all poor, for example, because it’s already done this kind of thought work. Or that minimalization, my family didn’t own slaves.

One of my students, last week, they read “Letter from a Region in My Mind” by James Baldwin, and a young man said that James Baldwin is reverse racist. So, I had to deal with the ill logic of assuming that people are on a kind of platform where you could just reverse one thing for the other. That ignores history and asymmetry of power relationships. So, that’s a little bit of trying to contextualize for a wider audience. 

It seems to be driving literary production in the industry. It seems to me that mainstream books that are maybe more plot driven are getting—I can’t remember the press, it’s a big press or a bigger press that Lucy Barton is on. I’m wondering if there’s a power differential between writers like yourselves who are having that kind of paradoxed voice context, where it’s blending the autobiographical and the fabulous or the fictional. 

Is that what keeps you guys outside of the mainstream? I mean, it doesn’t keep Claudia Rankine out of the mainstream to do Citizen, but maybe that’s a different thing. Citizen is not novel, too.

Steven Dunn: Yes—well, my agent is trying to sell my books to the mainstream, and if the creative people of the big press say okay, then it gets sent to the financial people or the marketing department and, a lot of the times, that’s where the no‘s usually come from. So, it’s usually an issue like, our readers won’t recognize this as a novel or there isn’t enough character development in the third part of the book and the character grows up too fast. Some of it’s insulting because like, wow, we do grow up fast because of some things and I wrote that.

So, yeah, I think it is the issue but, what Selah said about regulating uncertainty, or whatever, like plot regulating uncertainty. So, all of those things keep me out of the mainstream. And length of a book. A novel has to be, whatever, 70,000 words, so it’s not a novel and can’t be sold as one at a bigger press.

Selah Saterstrom: Yeah, I mean what a big discussion and—I want to be mindful of our time—oh, my goodness I have a lot of thoughts about it and also very few thoughts, in a way. Which is, you know, I don’t know about industry. I Mean, I know in the sense that I see it happening and I observe it and sometimes I really feel sad about it. 

One of the narratives I’ve been looking at, in terms of my identity as a writer, is I think for a while I carried around a lot of shame that I wasn’t “more well-known” than I am. And I’ve recently really realized, to go back to a previous part of our discussion, that to continue to live like that is to ally with the belief system that requires me to diminish myself by staying in a space where I’m re-inscribing my shame.

And the truth is, every book I have written, I have written to the very best of my ability, even past, slightly. I’ve given my very best and I and have not been very savvy to careerism and professionalism. So, it’s like oh, I’m not a good caretaker of my kingdom because I don’t know how to advocate for myself and sell myself as a brand. All of which is to say, I’m just really saying, fuck that.

And I do see that there is a tradition of people working in these kind of “hybrid” forms, which like you, Roger, I kind of reject that idea because language is a hybrid medium, and every form is hybrid. But whatever. I understand it as a category, I get it as a category.

But we can look at the career of, say, Michael Ondaatje, his first two books. We can look at, you know, I think there are a number of people we can point to who are working in similar modes, that have had “mainstream success.” So, I don’t know. All of which is to say, I’m just trying to, non-judgmentally, observe and participate in this process of publishing without increasing my own shame. And it is a work in progress.

Steven Dunn: Yes, yes. It is very tough. And I’m kind of in a place now where I just need to write what I need to write and maybe it’ll be on the big press, but I’m not necessarily striving for that always. I mean money would be nice, if people get money from that. I’ve heard they do, you know, I don’t know. That would be cool, but I don’t know. Like, I have a job, I have a decent life outside of that. 

So, yeah, it’s not a goal and I also don’t want anybody on my books talking about it as a tour de force, really. You know, that’s kind of what happens. I’m just being funny, but you know it happens.

Roger Green: Well, I think I will wrap it up here, and say thank you so much for both of your time. But I think what I’m getting at is, even sort of beyond the success and non-success of the mainstream versus the marginalized, arguably, with the conditions of literary production, one could read—I mean one would, I think, especially have to read—Potted Meat in terms of the ways that African American identity is important to understand. It’s important to understand that moment where the young white girl asks what the X on your hat stands for, or asking the little girl from Africa, who doesn’t speak English yet, what things are like in the motherland. There is being forced to color with the crayon, to color the white girl’s skin brown, at home.

So, what I’m getting at in both of these books, and Preacher as a character in Slab, is I think race is something that is important to the ways that that these books are structured thematically, and gender, for example, or at least sexual orientation, especially in Water and Power where we’re talking about sexual assault, we’re talking about “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military. So, what I’m saying is, I feel like these categories of identification are clearly at work in both of your works, and those categories are at work in kind of mainstream literary production.

but I wonder, is that just the product of what it means to be writing and taking in our culture in this moment and writing in the moment? Or, is it more or less of an active thing for you in your writing lives? Or, is it merely a reflection? You know, like, when Laird Hunt writes Neverhome, for example, which—I love laird’s writing—but it’s this kind of gender bendy type of story that could talk about a kind of transgender, or at least a very ambiguous kind of gender that themain character is going through, being a woman and going off to fight in the civil war and leaving the man at home, and “passing” as a man in that in that book. 

So, it’s all over the literary landscape and I don’t think that Laird Hunt is doing that in a contrived way. I think he’s walking a line. He’s maybe like playing with his skill as a writer to be able to write convincingly in that kind of a context. So, I only use Laird Hunt as an example, that I think he has to be consciously doing something like that.

So, it’s not necessarily bad to be conscious that one’s doing that, or make your work contrived or something. I’m just wondering to what extent, for you to as writers, that becomes a part of the writing process itself.

Selah Saterstrom: Well, I think that, you know, the joke is, like writing gives you endless opportunities to practice non-attachment. And I think that’s really true. I think that sometimes I want a character to see beyond what they can see, and that’s an ego check moment, whereit’s like, this writing isn’t a stage for my ego to have to spin out, it’s about, rather, being in service of this visitation that necessitates this type of telling which may not align with what I had hoped for, or what I had even wanted, or what I thought the book was about, or the character was about.

So, it’s just trying to stay true and aligned to the visitation which is the book. And if I let that guide me it cuts out a lot of bull shit. 

Roger Green: Any idea where the visitation comes from?

Selah Saterstrom: No, I mean, I’ve been writing about lately, I’m working on an essay and I’ve been writing about Diderot, who’s been a main character for me for many years—who I’ve been engaging with for many years—and he talks a lot about nothingness. But, etymologically speaking, if you follow the tendrils down and deep into the guts of nothingness what you find is that, rather than absence, there is an overwhelming presence. It’s a plurality of intensities.

So yeah, this idea that Diderot suggests, wherever there is nothing read that I love you, read animation, read engagement. So, all of which is to say, that’s just something I’ve been thinking about in relation to some of the thoughts that you’ve been asking us about.

Steven Dunn: Yeah, and for me, writing in those themes, or whatever it is, it’s old stuff. It’s a lot of old issues, you know, things passed down, people I’m involved with. I ran into a problem with Water and Power where I did a reading at a school and one of the students asked me how did I navigate being perceived as transphobic, and I was like, oh I didn’t know that. But I had to check myself like maybe it is. 

They were talking about the story where the guy is in Thailand you had a ladyboy. And I called it fiction, so it’s basically like that is my imagination since I called this fiction. But then, the story is from a friend of mine. So, there’s another issue with fiction and non-fiction, I guess. So, I was like, man, if I would have called this book non-fiction and say story is from a real person and maybe I would’ve placed the blame elsewhere, I don’t know 

But I had to deal with that and check myself, like maybe this story is transphobic, and just listen to what people had to say. But me writing that is consciously, constantly being aware of my friend’s issues, and our lives, and things he dealt with, and what he wanted to share. So, it’s still just like coming from something old and lived, in a way, that, in the context of the book, takes on something else and goes maybe beyond what it is, and beyond my experience, and his experiences.

Roger Green: I think that we’ve talked a long time and I’m really, really grateful and thankful for you spending time with me and engaging with my question.

Steven Dunn: Yeah, my kid won’t go to bed. I’m in here and he keeps coming back, so I’m going to tend to him. So, thank you all so much. 

Roger Green: Yeah, I’ll let you know when this is all posted, but thank you very much. 

Steven Dunn: Alright.

Selah Saterstrom: Awesome. Thanks guys, good night.

Reflections on Literary Conversation 1 (Roger Green)

Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom, two novelists currently working in Denver, Colorado, share many aesthetic sensibilities. In this post, I want to particularly focus on material approaches to language that I see in their work, arguing that what they bring to the novel is a notion of cultural dissent. As I’ve recently been discussing concerning the goat-god Pan in Victorian and Edwardian literature, I am particularly drawn to the ways both dissent and desire-toward-power are simultaneously embodied in literary works and discourse about them.

In a series of posts last year, I reread Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, exploring how philosophers and social theorists rely on literary texts and implicit concepts of what “Literature” is and does. Static and transcendent concepts of “Literature” were increasingly called into question during the late twentieth-century. As Daniel Boyarin summarizes in Carnal Israel, the approach known as New Historicism integrated earlier Marxian historicist approaches to literature with aestheticized New Criticism, which treated the literary text as an art object (14).

European poststructuralist tendencies had been compelled to some extent by American New Criticism with talk of the “author function” (Foucault, 1969) and “The Death of the Author” (Barthes, 1967). Intertextual focuses helped to “secularize” the concept of “Literature” from its place in bourgeois notions of art that signaled the inequities of France’s Third Republic. Writing Degree Zero, as Roland Barthes put it, sought approaches to language capable of engaging with “the apparatus” (dispositif) situated in what Louis Althusser Althusser called “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970).

If “writing,” as opposed to “Literature,” were to succeed in displacing underwritten bourgeois capitalism, it would presumably have to effect language (langue) at a deeply semiotic level — yet at a level at which, according Barthes in Elements of Semiology (1964), could not posture as exceeding or “above” linguistics, as Ferdinand de Saussure has supposed, but rather only within language itself, because we only have access for discussing meaning or the making of meaning within language.

The conception that “there is nothing outside of the text,” popularly attributed to Jacques Derrida arose in this milieu. What was lost on many in American literary studies, in attempts to make a method out of “deconstruction,” was Derrida’s claim that “deconstruction happens.” This was derivative in some ways from Erwin Schrödinger’s paradox of a cat in a box because it depended on the act of observation itself. It was simultaneously indicative of culturally Jewish approaches to textuality.

The dissent embodied in Derrida’s thought, as well as the French context’s willingness to support “the literary” alongside “the scientific,” was largely lost on American literary publics, who frequently accepted liberal humanist notions that implicitly supported their own romantic view of “spirit.” Rather than critiquing or seeking to produce language against an “apparatus” as the French did, Americans took a more “providential” approach to the implicit cultural critique within so-called “French Theory.” In doing so, the betrayed their own allegiance to eurochristian capitalism no matter how “Marxian-materialist” they claimed to be on the surface.

The situation created very privileged notions of “dissent” and a discourse of convoluted “theory” that in many ways could be dismissed by New Historicism’s more pragmatic approach to materiality and history. But what I think was lost in this moment was precisely an aesthetic approach to the literary which gave itself over to social scientific conceptions that had been advanced in an Americain context that tended to divide the “hard sciences” from “the humanities ” — an entirely different context than post 1968 French contexts which attempted to put literature, physics, and psychoanalysis into equal dialogue with one-another.

The so-called “culture wars” and “canon wars” of the 1980s, from a 2020 perspective, read more like the co-opted relegation of what Deleuze and Guattari had called ‘difference’ to the mere repetition that would produce “identity politics.” This was exacerbated in the neoliberal multicultural movements of the 1990s which too easily bought into notions of liberal progress while simultaneously rejecting “theory.”

The rejection of “theory” through a soft approach to “New Historicism” could self-congratulate on the basis of a kind of textual “materiality” that could be mirrored through identity-oriented positions (feminist, African-American, generally “marginalized” voices), and this impulse fueled liberal impulses toward “Inclusive Excellence,” which sought to “acknowledge difference” against the more cosmopolitan impulses of “multiculturalism.” Inherent in the colonized concept of Inclusive Excellence is the inherently liberal (eurochristian) notion of social progress.

Critical Race Theory rejected such optimism and black feminist thought in particular has been able to critique eurochristian notions of the human while attending to transgenerational forms of embodiment.

In contrast, the embodiment of “Inclusive Excellence” has often had more to do with status-quo versions of liberal (eurochristian no matter the “color” of who expresses it) rights-based dialogues about “humanity” than it it does about any kind of recognition of difference or otherness. It presupposes a “virtual reality,” and “infinite” liberal space that is inherently able to accept “new articulations” of identity. This has been a particular problem of liberal-oriented identity claims within an LGBTQIA spectrum against classic queer theory, which resisted the politics of recognition.

Moral posturing within neoliberal terminological screens, as Wendy Brown’s rereading of Foucault on governmentality attests, has had the effect of “undoing the demos.”

One result is that transgressive queer theories and practices that embraced ambiguity against the relegation to what we now call “identity politics of recognition” now have to contend with liberal desires of “representation,” as José Esteban Muñoz has articulated in Cruising Utopia. Queer and black feminist thought share approaches to embodiment that have become especially meaningful in twenty-first century literary production.

In the late twentieth-century, the relegation of “the literary” to the social sciences within American institutions meant the farming out of any concept to sociologically-derived notions of “habitus” and “praxis” that de-aestheticize even as they re-politicize works of literature within eurochristian rights-bearing frames of reference. Such assumptions rested on new historicist and poststructuralist disdain for ‘Literature’ because any aesthetic concept of ‘Literature’ always already adhered to regressive notions of social class.

In Radical Tragedy (1984), Jonathan Dollimore astutely critiqued christian humanist essentialism in literary studies that had prevented scholars from seeing the dissent at work in Shakespeare and his contemporaries. As he argues,

The crucial point is surely this: essentialism, rooted as it is in the concept of centered structure and determining origin, constitutes a residual metaphysic within secular thought which, though it has not entailed has certainly made possible the ideological effect: a specific cultural identity is universalized or naturalized; more specifically in relation to social change this residual metaphysic is activated in defense of one cultural formation, one conception of what it is to be truly human, to the corresponding exclusion of others. (Radical Tragedy, 258)

As Daniel Boyarin notes in his study of sexuality in Talmudic texts, Stephen Greenblatt prefers the term “cultural poetics” to “new historicism.” To me, the distinction is crucial. As Boyarin says, cultural poetics is “a practice that respects the literariness of literary texts (that is, texts that are marked by rhetorical complexity and for which that surface formal feature is significant for their interpretation), while attempting at the same time to understand how they function within a larger socio-cultural system of practices” (Carnal Israel 14).

While part of me embraces the “secularized” notion of “the Literary” brought on by twentieth-century theory, one broader result in the US has been the rejection of any study of literature as a social value outside of “positivistic” social sciences. For example, I teach at an underfunded “urban” university where most of my colleagues embrace status-quo notions of “the literary” along transcendent and universalized conceptions of “humanity” because most of our students see in a dogmatic way that becoming “well read” will increase their social mobility. Part of my work is to ethically disabuse students of the notion that knowing anything about “literature” is gonna “get you” anywhere while also conveying its ongoing importance as cultural poetics.

In the conversation above, I very much have my Introduction to Literature students in mind. This summer, we have been focused on the theme of tragedy and sacrifice. The emphasis on tragedy was in part an educational tool to convey broad shifts in literature as it moved from Greek drama to the novel. In his 2004 Preface to Radical Tragedy, Dollimore writes,

Far from being liberating, the humanist aesthetic has become a way of standing still amidst the obsolete, complacent and self-serving clichés of the heritage culture industry, the Arts establishment, and the m market-driven humanities education system. The aesthetic has become anaesthetic. (xxii)

For me, the work of Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom implicitly share this critique. However, both Steven Dunn and Selah Saterstrom convey in the discussion above that writing was for them a way out of poverty. At the same time, the conditions surrounding literary education in the US are entirely unsustainable. While more people benefit from the liberal (inclusive humanist) policies regarding higher education since the 1960s, institutions themselves increasingly disregard the humanities precisely because those who might benefit are those who have been historically deemed “not human enough,” what Alexander Weheliye has termed habeas viscus as opposed to habeas corpus.

Education has often been a pretense to “citizenship” with little acknowledgment about the conceptual trappings of such “citizenship.” The more “inclusive” education in the US became, the greater the reaction between conservative “traditionalists” and “great books” conceptions established themselves against “multicultural” cosmopolitans who, in their dogmatic adherence to liberal forms of “inclusion” implicitly relied on a virtual “infinite” political space that could, in universalist and eurochristian terms “include” everyone, so long as they could all hug it out within a politics of Sameness rather than difference.

Traditionally marginalized students could really give a shit about such politics. The situation for them is simply about surviving, even if it alienates them from the communities from which they came.

Steven Dunn’s Potted Meat generally documents the childhood and adolescence of an unnamed black protagonist. In some ways, the book reads like a a folktale. The boy is treated badly by his stepfather, constantly yelled at and told to do chores such as lighting a fire, cleaning up dog shit, being a nurse to an incontinent grandmother who frequently mistakes him for her deceased husband. At one point, he’s punished for standing up for his little sister, who like him both recognizes the injustice of the situation and the futility in being able to do anything about it.

My mom tells me to pull my pants down and bend over the stool. She’s having a hard time choosing between the belt and the extension cord. Until my stepdad says, Use this, and gives her a big stick. I think of how to draw a face on my Etch-A-Sketch. (23)

Artistically motivated, the boy’s creativity goes largely unnoticed by everyone except his sister. He fantasizes about becoming an apprentice to a Ninja and going to Japan to study. As Dunn says in our conversation, there really was talk in his down of a ninja prowling through the night. The boy decides to go find the ninja.

My back against a tree. Peek around and see him leaned up up against a rock with his back to me. The fire is dying. He knows I’m coming. Ninja, I whisper, its me, your faithful disciple. He doesn’t turn around. Ninja. Master Ninja, I have come to learn the ways of the night. He doesn’t move. Move closer. His mask is on the rock. He has an afro. I peek over his shoulder and recognize his face. It’s crazy Percy from down the road. A needle stuck in his forearm. (31)

Stark realities such as this break into the child’s imagination, but he remains resilient, even open-hearted, though not necessarily hopeful. In Dunn’s second novel, we see an adult version of the boy who leaves for the Navy at the end of Potted Meat, as his stepfather is yelling at him to fix a sink. Read as a sequel, Water & Power ironically finds the character stationed in Japan for a time.

Water & Power is less centered around one character’s perspective, however. It acts as a kind of ethnographic account of military life. In both books, an oppressive and constantly hostile condition traps an individual who perseveres. It is not a moralized account of the qualities or “ethic” of perseverance. It is just the way things are, and the way things are is unjust.

When I teach Dunn and Saterstrom, students tend to use the word “real” to describe their work. There is a candor to the language that would not, however, fall under the description of “realism.” Indeed, as with the place of fantasy in the ninja story — both the boy’s and the town’s fantasy — there are brief moments of enchantment. At one point, the boy, his mother, and his sister visit the grave of his sister’s twin.

My mom gets on her knees and pulls the roots and moss and poison ivy from the crumbled headstone. She says to me sister, like she says every year, Here’s your twin, died three months after yall was born. I look at my sister. her twin walks up and stands next to her. They are holding hands. My mom says, Why God why. I ask my mom again why she died. She just died, she says. (39)

The brief moment of enchantment is not magical realist or supernatural. The tone is matter-of-fact. The boy observes, inquires to his mother, and receives a kind of deadpan answer. We later learn that the twin’s death was largely the result of their abusive father, so that any kind of longing for his biological father on the boy’s part is mixed in tragedy.

In another post, I have dealt with the divinatory poetics in Selah Saterstrom’s writing. But alongside Steven Dunn’s we see a shared materialist sensibility to their work. Saterstrom’s latest novel, Slab, largely tells the story of the final moments of the life of a young woman named Tiger and a preacher who puts her to rest.

As Dunn and Saterstrom discuss in the video above, they think of plot as a space, “like a burial plot,” as Steven says. Saterstrom concurs. “My first identification with plot is always connected to funerary rights. You know, the place of the grave, the underworld, and so I think of plot in relation to the underworld and the underworld for me is the zone of being initiated into the holy darkness.”

In her semi-dream state, Tiger is being interviewed by Barbara Walters on the subject of cooking. “Of all the cakes, I love most red velvet. Barbara, did you know that if a Southern bride serves red velvet cake at her wedding it’s considered a slutty thing to do? True story. It’s the equivalent of wearing a red dress to a funeral when you have been the mistress to the man in the casket” (72). Recipes show up as a form of writing throughout the book.

Red Velvet Classic

Get a thorn from a white rose bush.
And a box of Betty Crocker red velvet cake mix.
Acquire a jar of gold, magnetic sand. Goat milk, fresh if
you can arrange it, you will need a whole cup. And bowls:
two small, one large, glass, and clear.  We shall need a
towel too.  Petition that the dram correspond to the nine
conditions, and a bench, of chapel length, and a man’s bed.
Warm the wax.  Form one portion of the wax into
the shape of him.  Form one portion of the wax into
the shape of you.  Bake the red velvet cake using
black hen eggs.  After it springs from the pan, knife the red,
steaming bread and slip in a dead relative’s lock of hair.
Bury the cake in your backyard, under a tree, whole,
With birthday candles on top burning.  Balm, enough to
coat the entire sarcophagus, and wash your slips in blue
water that has within it one pinch of saltpeter. And after
you have done these things, all these goddamned things,
you will be done with it, you will be done. (76)

Clearly, hoodoo culture is at work here, and part of that culture is necessitated on what Saterstrom calls “skillful will.” One may not have much, but the materials matter. Just as Dunn remarks in the video on the theme of potted meat and the the way the can’s contents can serve as a meal multiple kids if stretched with mayonnaise or a few other things.

In “Notes on Fiction and Philosophy,” Brian Evenson laments the sensibilities many readers bring to recent fiction.

Probably our biggest difficulty with acknowledging fiction’s present involves the insistence of the models of the past, which, like Melanie Klein’s part objects, we have internalized and which seem to speak to us from within with a voice of authority. Thus, to move to an understanding of late 20th and early 21st century fiction, the first step is to move out of the 4th century B.C.: to let go of the Aristotelian notions that still dominate most thinking about fiction in writing workshops today. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the institutionalization and burgeoning of writing programs here has been that most of these programs are much less interested in pointing to fiction’s present—let alone fiction’s future—than in preserving fiction as an eternal past tense. Discussions of setting, plot, character, theme, etc., their parameters derived from Aristotle, seem hardly to have advanced beyond New Criticism’s neo-Aristotelianism; and when a workshop student says “I didn’t find the character believable,” usually the model for believability is firmly entrenched in 19th century notions of consistency that have probably less to do with how real 21st century people act (not to mention 19th century people) than with specific, and often dated, literary conventions.

Dunn and Saterstrom appear to have performed just what Evenson calls for. Saterstrom says in our conversation above that “what narrative teaches us is about how to be with uncertainty, it’s not about regulating uncertainty.” Mainstream publishing appears to be “reifying” something else.

At least part of that reification is determined by social conditions, and I often tell students that studying literature is about how we track social desire over time. From a materialist perspective, the production of literature in any given moment operates in symbiosis with material reality, and the struggle within that materiality, as Marx might say, is what produces consciousness itself.  It seems clear that current literary production in the United States reflects social desires expressed as values in (neo)liberalism.

This occurs both within academic and mass market publishing contexts, where themes of gender expressivity, race & ethnicity, sexual-orientation, socio-economic class, and nationality – the lists of “Inclusive Excellence”in higher education — are part of the power structure of “getting published.”  For example, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton draws on issues related to impoverished white people, yet for me, marketed as it is to a wide audience around or in the wake of Claudia Rankine, Jesmyn Ward, Tommy Orange, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kiese Laymon (to pick celebrated writers across some literary genres), it comes across as minimizing broader national discussions through a white exceptionalist rhetoric (“we’re poor too,” “my family wasn’t rich,” “I never owned slaves,” etc.). 

This is not to pick on Strout’s work in particular, but to note the material conditions of literary production in the current landscape. Clearly, themes of race, class, and gender permeate all of these works, but I would argue that work of Dunn and Saterstrom resists “mainstream” sensibilities particularly through stark materiality in language and the privileging of thematic concepts aligned with private desires rather than public symbols.

However, these “private desires” are not premised on characters who are individual “subjects,” so the work of the desire exists at a community or “cultural” level. Amid these conditions and expressed social desires, their work at the level of language pushes toward different ways to be.

Perhaps one of the most indicative aspects of this work appears in our conversation as Dunn “slips into” the heavy blending of self-experience and fictional qualities of the work. Calling the work fiction or a novel does something to the register of self, and as Dunn says, there is a kind of permission that the novel as a form allows him, but it was in reading Saterstrom’s Pink Institution that he could see that he liked novels again after becoming bored with them in school.

Both Saterstrom and Dunn mentioned feeling uncomfortable with my question about sacrifice. For clarity, here is what I asked them in email as a primer to our conversation.

According to any of the bullet points below.  How do you see sacrifice at work in your own writing?  Feel free to talk about either your process itself or thematic content in your work. My colleague, Cleo Kearns, who has a nice Incite Seminar on the subject, defines sacrifice as: a formal act of setting apart, relinquishing, and destroying something of worth with the intention to open communication with spirits.

By “something of worth” she means something living, whole, intact, and likely decorated.  With respect to Christianity it falls under a category of “work” rather than “grace.”  The specific protocols must be followed because the stakes are always high. Below are mostly Cleo’s criteria.

• It can be used to seal oaths, establish hierarchy, open spaces for divination, engender paternity (baptism), discharge debt, blur human and animal relationships.  Done with intention, sacrifice has a specific purpose.

• It’s done between and among volitional participants, including the “victim,” who assents to the sacrifice.

• It opens a pathway from the ordinary to the non-ordinary.  It is not only metaphysical but theological.  You have to kill or destroy your emissary as it’s sent across worlds.  Death becomes a portal to send something through, moving it out of common use, changing it as it is dispatched to another domain.

• The killing of humans was considered the ultimate sacrifice.  It is paradigmatic of the victim who has great value or worth.

• It is often capable of masculine reproduction (think Zeus and Dionysus).

• Blood is highly adaptable to sacrifice.

• In principle, sacrifice must allow substitutions.

• It’s a question of connection between different realms.

• Spirits depend on humans.

• Both sides depend on substitution.

• To make it work there must be some non-arbitrary proportion between the sacrificed and the need.

• Money creates a problem. Gods cannot be bought out or tricked.  They can deny.  The spirits don’t want to be mechanical.

• Slaves cannot sacrifice.

In their discomfort with the theme of sacrifice, Dunn and Saterstrom push their writing and language away from highly dramatic, formalized ritual and the tragedy of tradition. Dealing with the tragic, however, as a condition — in Saterstrom “the disaster” and in Dunn poverty and racism — their characters move through a hostile world, surviving, and occasionally thriving. I thank them both for joining me in the first of hopefully several discussions about literature on The New Polis.

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.

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