canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Profile: Nathalie Stephens (NathanaŽl)

We are walking backwards into our lives. Our cities are incensed. They fester on our thighs. And we lick at them in garish immoderate delight.

Nathalie Stephens (NathanaŽl) writes líentre-genre in English and French, and is the author of a dozen published works, most recently Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006), Je NathanaŽl (BookThug, 2006 / LíHexagone, 2003), L'Injure (l'Hexagone, 2004) and Paper City, (Coach House, 2003). L'Injure, was shortlisted for the 2005 Prix Trillium and the 2005 Prix Alain-Grandbois. Imminent with Nota Bene (Montrťal) is an essay of correspondence entitled LíAbsence au lieu (Claude Cahun et le livre inouvert). Nightboat Books (NY) will publish The Sorrow and the Fast of It in 2007. The recipient of a 2002 Chalmers Arts Fellowship, Stephens presently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

This interview was conducted by email in fall of 2006 by Nathaniel G. Moore with files from Krysta-Lee Woodcock.


TDR: If language were a double edge sword, what is on either end of the blade?

NS: My experience of language is quite otherwise. I am not sure that language can be reducible to a binarism like this, with a clearly defined line partitioning it into distinct halves. Nor is the distinction between an inside and an outside in language, a here and a there, consistent with the kinds of fluctuations, the sort of pliability and porosity it is exposed to, through the body and its articulations. Certainly, the Cartesian project of language is one of containment, delineation and repression -- determinedly so -- but on closer inspection, and when approached as a furtive, mutable, entity, it reveals itself quite quickly not to be revelatory, nor to be so clearly mappable, located, in any one place. And so as for the ontological question, the is of the thing, I don't understand it as articulable, nor even as desirable to articulate. The saying of it, the putting into language of the thing it might be, runs the risk of fixing what cannot be fixed, for having already run out of itself.

TDR: How long did this particular work take to put together?

NS: Time is difficult to account for. There is perhaps no chronology to the work. Other than the body's own chronology which is suffused with and suffuses the book. I am being difficult. My hesitation comes from this : that I am not ever certain when a book begins, in part because I am distrustful of the whole notion of origins, but also because I reject the moment of inscription as the moment of the book's inception. To speak of a line of time is to adhere to a temporal construction that is incessantly belied by things that cannot be accounted for, in and outside of language. In some ways, it is possible to say, I think, that language has no time : that is, it is out of time, it has no time of its own, it is timeless. It is also marked by time much as is the body. There is an indistinction that takes place. And so of this work about which you're asking, I might say that the manuscript arranged itself like this, in a kind of gesture toward undoing itself, an accretion that was also one of erosion. I could say : I made it. But this would only be true if by the same turn I acknowledged that it made me. Back and forth like this.

TDR: Do you think an artistís mental landscape is threatened by urbanization, the creation of physical structures?

NS: I could answer : No. Flatly. I would want first to understand what artist is in relation to city and how the mind is a landscape, what a landscape is and what distinction can be made between physical and non-physical structures. What is a structure? My own artistic practice presses very closely against the city and its built things, in hesitation, with fervour, horror, often, and some degree of a kind of madness. I worry that the urban / rural distinction is misleading. And hesitate to project a Romantic ideal of something approaching the Sublime onto the thing called nature, of which we are a part, of which we are ... apart. Rurality does not necessarily offer the kind of environment that makes for an exigent art practice, nor is it without its own measure of threat. Just last week, in the middle of Iowa, I wandered off a hiking trail onto a shooting range. Is it possible to escape built things and the violence in them? Our own violence?

TDR: Is the process of acknowledging or identifying "sacrifice" a theme you explore in your work?

NS: Not necessarily. I am troubled by the religiosity of the term "sacrifice". It's one I'm not comfortable with. And certainly, the foundational sacrificial gesture involves a disengagement of the self in favour of a hegemonic power, in the Torah, a petulant "God". Is it possible to think "sacrifice" away from theology? I fear these terms offer a convenient hatch away from personal implication. Is that not one of the job's of religion?

TDR: When you're writing do you know before you place pen to page what language is going to come out?

No I don't. Not unless I am responding to a specific request. The languages present themselves as they need to, each and both with increasing difficulty.

TDR: What is the process of translating your own work entail?

I used to say of self-translation that it was redundant work, a repetition of sorts, and unnecessary, because in the doubling, I lost parts of myself. I am not sure now that I feel this way. The work of translation allows for a different reading of the work, and enables it to move through me again, differently inflected. It makes foreign and less recognizable while also pulling it in a little bit deeper.

TDR: Can you describe the writing process for your book Je NathanaŽl, (Book Thug, 2006) what inspired it, Gide influenced it, and how perhaps the two books complement one another or don't?

NS: What is perhaps most curious, in the context of my writing practice, about Je NathanaŽl, is that it is a translation without a "source" text. This is a notion, in translation theory, that, along with "target text" is very problematic and one that I have critiqued quite extensively elsewhere. In the writing of Je NathanaŽl, I could not decide which language best suited the body of the text, nor could it decide for itself. Such that, in addition to wanting -- failingly -- to hermaphrodize the French language (in Book I, "L'autre corps" / "The Other Body"), and to offer response to Gide's Nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth), my desire to read and write translation / translatability / transgendering as echoes of one another became (dis)embodied by an indistinction in languages : I was unable to choose one body of language over the other. Eventually, I decided to pull the whole text into French and to publish the English subsequently with Book Thug. Even though the Book Thug edition indicates "translated from the French by the author", there is in fact no first text, just as there is, perhaps, no first body (of desire), but a multiplicity of trajectories, many of which smothered in favour of One, to suit the approved constraint of social, heteronormative discourse. Both books are translations, and not necessarily of each other, such that neither can claim the space of "origin". The work came out of me undecidedly.

Gide's Fruits of the Earth is perhaps the most beautiful expression of desire in language that I have yet encountered in literature. He addresses the work to NathanaŽl, an imagined young man to whom he would teach fervour, and the impermanence of any single one experience. To be able to move through and not stop at a single thing. Even the book which he has written, he urges NathanaŽl to throw it away once he has done with it. But NathanaŽl never comes into being in Gideís work. And so my project began there, with the recognition of the misuses writers make of their personages. What does it mean for NathanaŽl -- unrealized -- to remain trapped in the pages of Gideís book? Is it possible for him to be freed of it? Might I be able to open that passage? And in doing so, do I not catch in the same bind?

Je NathanaŽl is my expression both of desire for NathanaŽl and of desire to be NathanaŽl. It is at this moment that I began to open to questions of the transformable (untranslatable) body. Of articulations of desire that are not bound to the homo-hetero, male-female dichotomies. The questions remain questions, and this is as it should be. But Je NathanaŽl, and other texts from that time -- All Boy, for example -- mark a turn in my work to face language, and the body, differently.

The Book Thug edition, as an object, is graceful and spare. Jay has a great ability to listen and respond to a text and we share a similar book aesthetic. It is not irrelevant that Jay has himself a relationship to a literary tradition that informs my own -- early 20th century French literature -- and so we are able to meet at points outside of the crass market dictates of North American publishing. Book Thug has many strengths, and one of them is Jay's willingness to resist and disrupt the complacency that tires so much of Canadian writing. There is a kind of freedom there, that I find so seductive, and deeply intelligent.








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