"The Internet works like the subconscious": An interview with Barbara Browning
Caty Simon is an activist and multi-platform blogger who we assigned to interview Barbara Browning via email about I’m Trying To Reach You. This interview contains spoilers, but you should read it anyway. It also contains a footnote.
CS: First question—Maybe it’s too tedious or too politically correct to mention it, but the racebending in this book is more convoluted than the genderbending in a performance of “As You Like It” during the Elizabethan era. What does it mean to be a white person writing a mixed race man who deals with intrusive Stupid White People questions about his life and art? What does it mean for you to write a mixed race character who notices a paucity of other people of color in the spaces that he’s in, or gets tired of children asking what exactly he is?
BB: This may be a long answer, sorry. It’s a big question. I’m kind of surprised somebody hasn’t asked it before. Well. There are some ways in which my narrator shares certain parts of my personal history, and also my present, and other ways in which he’s obviously very different from me. He identifies as a gay black man. But he’s also roughly my age, was raised by a single white mom in Wisconsin (as was I), is a “former dancer” who transitioned into dance scholarship (like me), he’s what we might politely call a member of the “overeducated” class (um, me too), and at the time of the story, he’s living in my apartment, eating my food, watering my plants, and staring across the garden of my building at the balconies of my neighbors. We also share a few neuroses, and a couple of traumatic experiences. There are ways in which we’re quite different. He’s more uptight about sex, and a little more personally discreet, but we find a lot of the same things moving, or funny, or sad. I feel a lot of love for him, in a protective way. He is, in the words of a performance theory dictum that he quotes, “not me, but also not not me.” I say this just to let you know my own feelings about Gray, but you asked about the political implications of making this choice, choosing this narrative voice, and I kind of want to answer it two ways - both in relation to my personal and writerly trajectories, but also in relation to fundamental philosophical questions about first-person narration and identity.
Okay, first writerly choices. My first two books were academic monographs. The first was a study of Brazilian dance (I lived for many years back and forth between Brazil and the US). That book was what one might call a “self-situating” ethnography - that is, there was a lot of first-person narrative involved, some personal, some political. I felt I needed to address the fact that I was a white woman from the US writing about black culture in Brazil. Some people said at the time that the book was “novelistic” - indicating, I think, the prevalence of personal anecdote. My second book was more theoretical and also more global in scope. It again took up African diasporic cultural forms, but this time I was exploring the metaphor of “infectious rhythm” in relation to a literal pandemic - that of HIV/AIDS. It was a book that wanted to connect the political dots in the way that the pandemic was being narrated. My point was that seemingly benign figures of cultural contagion were actually linked to virulently racist configurations of black people as being the source of literal contagion. It was a book in which I really felt it would be inappropriate to occupy significant space telling my own story. (It’s actually, to me, the more novelistic of the academic books, though, in terms of structure.) Anyway, I still needed to situate myself, but I secreted any personal information in the endnotes. I’m sure many readers never looked at it, but the last endnote of the introduction says a lot - maybe too much, though surely also not enough.
So, I only realized it recently, but the same thing happened when I began publishing novels. The first one I produced not as text but as an audio novel. It’s floating around as a free download (www.whoismrwaxman.com) - I have no idea how many people ever listened to it, but it’s pretty bloggish - kind of straight up the story of my life at the time, with the names changed, but everybody recognizable, including my son, who produced so many great, acerbic observations I just had to write them down. I wrote another manuscript shortly after that in which the narrator, well, resembled me again, though there were some wacky invented plot elements. That one’s not published, though it was the one that turned my editor on to my work. The first one he published was The Correspondence Artist, which came out in 2011. It’s once again narrated by somebody who resembles me, but she lets you know she’s unreliable. It’s a pretty exhibitionistic book. My mother allowed as how the writing was good but she was mortified by the explicit sex. :/ I think this is part of why Gray ended up being somebody who refers to the sex act as “having a cuddle.”
This is an oblique way of saying that there are reasons I identify with Gray - lots of reasons I identify with Gray - across race. It’s not that his race is incidental, to him or to me, by any means. But the way that race (or nation or age or gender or class or sexuality) separates us and brings us together can be very complicated.
But since we’re on the topic of identity and narrative voice - here’s an interesting conundrum. You may know that The Correspondence Artist won a Lambda Award. I love the Lambda Literary Foundation, and I was thrilled to win a Lammy. My book won in the category of “Bisexual Fiction.” The Awards (or nearly all of them) are categorized according to the sexual identity of the dominant character in a work of fiction, not the author. I’m not sure if “dominant” is the word they use, but you get the idea. The foregrounded character. In The Correspondence Artist, the narrator is a woman, but you’re never sure about the gender of her lover. You’re also never sure about the lover’s age or ethnicity - these things change too, and pretty dramatically. Also, sometimes when the narrator corresponds with her lover by email, she (the narrator) makes reference to her “hard on.” That is, part of her erotic play with her lover has to do with destabilizing the ways she refers to her own sex (by which I mean both gender and naughty bits). So really, the narrator and her lover are only verifiably “bisexual” in the Freudian sense of the term - that is, it’s unclear if they have sex with people of the same sex, but they each have a complex gender identity that shifts over time. Looking at the various possible categorizations for that book, I think “Bisexual Fiction” was the most appropriate, but better, of course, would have been “Queer Fiction.” Maybe even trans, though surely that would have raised some hackles.
So, I just submitted I’m Trying to Reach You for this year’s Lambda Awards and I had to choose a category. Well. As I said, the narrator identifies as a gay man. I guess you’d say the primary erotic relationship is with his boyfriend, Sven. But he has an obsession with a weird middle-aged white lady dancer on YouTube who happens to be me, and ultimately you come to understand that she is involved in an erotic relationship with a lesbian electric guitarist. And this romance isn’t just a titillating spectacle for a voyeuristic narrator: it turns out to be the founding myth of our national poetics! They are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman! Sorry for all the spoilers. I never mind spoilers because I never read for plot. Maybe the editor (hello Emily) will want to head plot-sensitive readers off at the pass if you publish this paragraph. Anyway, the question then is: does authorial self-referentiality matter? Does the national mythos matter? Is this a work of Bisexual or Lesbian Fiction? Is Walt trans? I ended up submitting the book as Gay (Male) Fiction. The administrator of the prizes also thought this was appropriate, since Gray is the narrator. And Gray is not me, but also not not me, just as Emily Dickinson is not me but also not not me, and Walt Whitman is not my lover but also not not my lover. Again, it’s a really queer book, but the point is kind of to trip you up about what you thought you knew about gender anyway.
Oh, the last thing I’ll say on the subject (sorry - it’s a big one, narrative identity!): I noticed that a woman on Goodreads said something like, “I was reading along in the beginning thinking, okay, a woman wrote this, there’s her picture, she’s a white lady, the narrator’s a white lady. And then suddenly she says something and you realize she’s a he. And then a few pages later you realize he’s ‘brown.’ I think the author could have been a little more up front about this.” :) It made me happy because in fact I thought everybody would pick the book up, read the back cover, and know they were dealing with a woman writer speaking through a male narrator. Which is a drag, actually, because if you didn’t know the author was a woman, you’d probably assume that an unmarked first-person narrator was a man, but if you knew she was a woman you’d assume her narrator was too. And if you didn’t know the race of the author, you’d probably assume the narrator was white. That’s pretty insidious, of course - it’s the way sexism and racism work. I’m not saying this woman on Goodreads was racist or sexist, I’m saying the fact that we make these assumptions signals that we live in a world that presumes that an unmarked voice is white and male, and that women and people of color will generally be writing from a limited perspective. I guess that’s obvious. But what I was saying about this comment was that it made me realize something else about ebooks - because I can only assume she read it as an ebook if she didn’t get the back jacket copy that explains who’s narrating. I love books, print books, and my own optimal experience of reading this book would be in print, with short breaks to periodically check out the Internet connections that the narrator’s making. But I do think that decontextualization is an interesting side-effect of the ebook…
Last tiny note on your question - Gray isn’t offended by kids who ask him if he’s black. He says it’s an innocent question, and it is.
CS: Of course many novels have been published “post-Internet,” but few of them have been “post -Internet” novels the way I’m Trying To Reach You is. The entire text is composed of Gray’s interactions with various machines, from his computer to his Iphone to his Ipad to his Stairmaster reporting back to him about his heart rate. Even his correspondence with his HIV-positive long distance lover is often reduced to texted emoticons.
In I’m Trying To Reach You, characters even offer tech support to other characters. (I haven’t read about a lot of tech support in novels, have you?) When a character attempts to kill herself, she even buys the bottle of Percocet she uses off the internet. The characters watch their movies on Netflix, and get their career advice off of Academic Wiki.
Gray, the protagonist, seems constantly preoccupied when it comes to interactions with his friends and colleauges face to face, and only truly passionate about an obscure set of Youtube video dances and the personae the commenters on the videos take on. He is rapt and absorbed, yet totally incapable of interaction even here—he doesn’t do more than lurk until the very end of the book, An idealized writer’s internet makes an appearance here, where screen names are high minded references (“FreeTheVassals”)
BB: (actually, GoFreeVassals, which is an anagram for Leaves of Grass.)
CS: … The comments turn out to be quotes from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and a comment thread and a series of YouTube videos hides clues to a murder mystery. Not only is the internet an oasis from the outside world, in which he’s plagued with money issues, worried about his career, and scared that his lover Sven might get sicker, but Gray’s particular internet is even a sheltered space away from the “usual pontificating, gay bashing, and existential philosophy” one is wont to find in internet forums.
Beyond all that, the text itself was all about form faithfully following content, It was so littered with the anxiety of influence, so hyperreferential, that one got the sense it would’ve been strewn with hyperlinks if it could be. I felt it was all too fitting that this was the first book I’d ever read on a Kindle, a medium in which I was invited to underline the text, to leave notes talking back to it, to interact with the text the way one would on many webpages. The text was practically a website already. I feel that despite finishing the book, I have not yet known it completely, for I haven’t clicked all the links—that is, researched all the references—the novel suggested I should.
What are your thoughts on the “post-Internet” novel?
BB: Well, we really live in that world now, don’t we? I’m certainly not the first person to incorporate electronic media into fiction. People started writing novels on cell phones a while ago. Japanese writers were on it. Jennifer Egan tweeted. There’s a ton of fiction initiated on blogs, some now emerging on Facebook. I love what the Internet allows in terms of research and self-expression. In relation to my fiction, I love what it allows me to do to both provoke and then extend my writing. After I wrote The Correspondence Artist, each of the four fictional versions of my lover established their own email addresses and then their own YouTube channels. The one that was an experimental filmmaker posted some of his experimental shorts. The Nobel Prize-winning Israeli novelist posted a radio interview with her adult son (in Hebrew) on what it was like growing up with such a famous mother. The one that was a Basque separatist had a kind of hissy fit online about Slavoj Zizek. The Malian musician played “Girls Girls Girls” on the kora. I think those videos got, oh, maybe a dozen hits. I put them up to entertain myself. To me, the best if most clichéd metaphor for what happens on the Internet is “a message in a bottle.” I love that about it. And I also love going down rabbit holes.
CS: Gray says, about his own rabbit holes: “In fact, I pretty much feel like I’m always doing research.” The novel perfectly captures the dance of procrastination practically every American who works on computer goes through—justifying whimsical google searches as “research”, losing time on the Internet without knowing quite where it’s gone (“I did that for 45 minutes before I decided to let myself go on the Internet for a minute. Famous last words”), struggling to be productive and knowing one isn’t, despite any lies one might tell oneself (” I knew as well as you what I was doing , and I knew it meant my ‘productive’ time was over for the day”). This routine is overwhelmingly familiar, yet I’ve never seen it documented in fiction quite like this before. What were you trying to say by including it here? “What else could I watch? The Spongebob Squarepants dance? Something with cats?”
BB: This is exactly what I mean about rabbit holes. I love them. I don’t find them a waste of time at all. The Internet works like the subconscious - I’m sure somebody’s said that already, it’s so obvious, I just can’t think who it would have been. The point is, this is how dreamwork works: you wake up and think, “Why the hell did I dream that my 2nd grade teacher was masturbating my dental hygienist?” If you were in analysis, you’d probably be able to figure it out if you really wanted to, just like you could probably eventually figure out why YouTube thinks some SpongeBob SquarePants video is related to Natalya Makarova dancing the dying swan. I do like to understand some of the connections, and for others to remain mysterious. This is how I feel about my subconscious as well. And I never really find it a waste of time. If you think about it, you always find something out. Gray seems to be wasting a lot of time, but in his quiet way, he’s figuring out how to deal with the fact that the people we love die. I really don’t think that’s a waste of time. Also, for the record, I really don’t think looking at art (MJ, Pina, Merce) over and over and over, trying to understand what it’s trying to tell you, is a waste of time. I think it may be the most meaningful thing we do. I tell my graduate students this all the time. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about this.
CS: The private and the public are weirdly blurred in this book. On one hand, Gray feels proprietary about a Youtube channel that is open to all. (And who hasn’t felt that, feeling special for reblogging a choice bit of content on tumblr that few people have noticed?) On the other hand, Gray is embarrassed witnessing exchanges in a comment thread that feel strangely intimate to him despite the fact that they’re published in a nominally public space. To further convolute things, there’s an aura of surveillance throughout the book as well—Gray is deeply affected by a recent viewing of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and often feels watched, in fact, he often feels that public internet commentary is directed specifically to him. (He acknowledges that he is “projecting”, “cathecting”, but it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.) That is, when he himself isn’t catching peeks of his neighbor on a stationary bike through his window. What are you trying to say about public and private spaces here?
BB: I have a lot of empathy for stalkers. We all tend to use the term with irony now, because it’s become so easy to access information about people, or even contact them, we all do it more than we used to. It can be creepy of course, but can also indicate a kind of care. When I’ve cathected onto certain YouTube posters, the affection I’ve felt for them (that young girl who does the SpongeBob dance tutorial, a college kid who used to post videos of himself dancing to his iPod in shopping malls…) has been real! I sent the shopping mall kid an academic paper that I wrote about him. I think he dug it, though some of the theory seemed to go slightly over his head. But he was glad I’d watched, anyway.
I am a big proponent of what I’ve been calling, in the last year or so, “inappropriate intimacy.” Care for a link on that? I wrote about it in relation to an ancillary project - my ukulele covers. Just because somebody’s doing something in public doesn’t mean you can’t experience it in an intensely personal way. That’s always been true. It’s just gotten a little easier.
CS: Can you comment on the irony of Gray being so deft in his specialty, performance theory, yet being incapable of recognizing famous lines from Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson?
BB: It’s often hardest to see a clue when it’s hidden in plain view. But also, in Gray’s defense: he wasn’t an English major - he studied dance. Actually, I studied comparative literature. I read mostly French literature in college, and Spanish and Portuguese. I didn’t read all of Dickinson and Whitman until I was a grown-up, on my own. For a long time I felt pretty alienated from American culture, so I didn’t really steep myself in its history. Gray has this too - he also spent years living outside of the US (when he was dancing with the Royal Swedish Ballet). Plus Emily Dickinson really wrote like a YouTube commenter! All that weird syntax, so many dashes and exclamation points! And, hello, you appear to be a smarty-pants but you also missed that “Leaves of Grass” anagram…
CS: I’m Trying To Reach You is also steeped in film noir. Sven and Gray devour “Notorious”, “Rear Window”, “The Woman In The Window”, and “I Want To Live!” on Netflix. What is the significance of this theme?
BB: Research and aesthetic interpretation are a lot like film noir and also a lot like psychoanalysis. You’re trying to figure out what things mean. There are a lot of red herrings. Sometimes it’s more interesting when you’re wrong. Also, those movies are so great.
CS: Of course, that’s what utopian about the internet, but also creepy,” your protagonist notes at one point, ” this possibility of jettisoning one persona for another.” In fact, in the middle of the novel, all of the commenters that Gray has been following blithely change their screen names to prove it. So, I’m Trying To Reach You is at one level about the malleability of personality on the internet—for example, we only discover the gender of one of the major players at the very end of book. On the other hand, the novel is also very much about the primacy of persona—the Internet heightens cults of personality by providing an endless cache of information about a person’s life and works, and Gray immerses himself in one personality after another—Pina Bausch, Merce Cunningham, Les Paul. Do you think you could elaborate on any of this?
BB: The split in the middle partly has to do with the thematic “game change”: the shift from the serial deaths of great dancers to what appears to be a new slew of expiring electric guitarists. The anagrams indicate different aspects of their personae, but they remain Emily, Walt, Jimmy Stewart and his pal “the Duke.” Hey, speaking of anagrams, did you figure out Gray’s middle name? Gray and I probably both overdid it on the clues - we were just having so much fun. But to try to answer your question a little more seriously, I’m sure this is related to what I’ve already said about creating alternative personae through fiction in which one is perpetually not me but also not not me. And I’m sure that’s got something to do with hedging one’s bets against mortality.
 Obviously, I’m putting it in a footnote here for the same reason I put it in an endnote there: “On February 14, 1990, a misinformed, extremely assertive counselor from the New York State Department of Health told me that my HIV test result was ‘definitely’ a false negative. He deduced this from the positive test result of my lover, and the extent of my likely exposure over the six years of our intermittent relationship, which had included a pregnancy. In the ensuing months, the experience of trying to secure adequate health care for him (he was an uninsured artist and a legal alien) taught me a great deal about race, class, and ethnicity in the medical system. But that practical lesson was part of a much larger realization. During the period of my uncertainty as to my own HIV status, it became clear to me that if I died of ‘complications from AIDS,’ then HIV would merely have been the vector of other forms of virulence: homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and class oppression - despite the fact that I was an overeducated white woman in a heterosexual relationship…. There are two reasons to state this quietly, in an endnote. One is the patent inappropriateness of my claiming too large a place in a narrative which ultimately so far exceeds my story. The other is that my lover, while he lived, chose to remain discreet about his HIV status, and I have tried to honor his discretion. His motives were complicated - some of them will become apparent in the course of this book. For political, cultural and personal reasons, utter silence is not possible for me. But I have been compelled to respect it, and to try to understand it.” (Barbara Browning, Infectious Rhythm, p. 196).