I literally pulled Paisley’s brilliant memoir off the shelf at random in the Strand Bookstore on a recent visit to my old neighborhood in NYC. The subtitle caught my eye, because beyond memoir, another of my primary interests is photography. I am well known for my enthusiasms and I can legitimately be accused of hyperbole here, but I swear this is true: it’s one of the best books of any genre I’ve read in a very long time. I suspect this information will spark your interest, too: the cover photo is one of Edward S. Curtis’s renowned photographic portraits from his 20-volume work (late 1800s-early 1900s), The North American Indian. A striking image, it is of a Zuni spiritual man; his face is half-covered with a blanket or shawl. The author of this book is a contemporary American poet and writer; her mother is Chinese, her father is Norwegian. She turns the word “intimate” inside out in this extraordinary look at family history.
SL: There was so much to admire in your book, I hardly know where to start. Admire is probably the wrong word—for me, the real indicator of how powerful your writing is in Intimate: An American Family Photo Album is how frequently I stopped reading, to think through what I had just read. So many important threads are woven together here about gender, history, ethnicity, family, how we remember, how we see, the narrative power of photography. So many signposts of intimacy. I’d like you to tell us about what set you off on this journey. What were the initial compelling forces for you to write this incredible memoir, and in such an innovative format?
PR: Thanks for your interest and praise! First of all, the book was only meant to be a series of poems based on Curtis’ portraits. But as I did more and more research, I realized that I couldn’t say all that I wanted and needed to say about these photos just in the poems without bogging the poems down too much. So I began to write an essay about the problematic nature of how we read Curtis and his images, which I thought would solve the problem, but then it turned the whole thing into such an academic exercise that the heart was gone. So finally, a year later, I sat down and really asked myself why I was so interested in these photographs and what they meant to me. And that’s when it became clear that there were some interesting connections between Curtis’ vision of modernity, masculinity and race and my own father’s. From there, it became a book about the ways in which we imagine some people as in or outside of modern American progress, and the ways in which we “allow” (or force) people to be white or non-white according to our notions of what should constitute an authentic racial identity, of any kind.
SL: Despite the fact that Intimate is not an overt memoir of your growing up years, I would like to introduce this passage that illuminates something about your parents. Perhaps you can use this as a jumping off point to tell us whatever you’d like—whatever you think is important—about the family that created you. Also: I keep wanting to quote from your book; this gives me an excuse to do that.
“My father’s passion is history. Particularly now the history of the West, a story of violence percolating under layers of other violence in which–on the surface at least–there are no clear protagonists. It was a vision of history resolutely different from the one I was taught at school, which my father called sentimental and worked to improve. He passed me books and articles, quoted details that revealed the nation as a palimpsest of rivalries and bloodshed, one story superimposing the next. Whereas school encouraged the idea of a single narrative working towards its inevitable conclusion, what fascinated my father was chance–the realization that the same event could culminate in different theories of meaning. …
My mother’s idea of history is the reverse: there was only ever one story. What can you do to make yourself happy? she would ask, time and again, as my father was laid off from the trucking company, the teaching positions. What can you do?
My father never knew the answer.”
PR: One thing I’d say about this passage is that, growing up, I was haunted by the ways in which people’s identities were tied to so many things outside of their own personal understanding of themselves. Men were often identified by the work they did, by the success they did and did not have, women were defined by their family relationships and looks, etc. etc. If you are biracial, your identity is often in constant flux: you are supposed to “be” or “become” what the observer sees in you, almost regardless of how you identify yourself. For some people who see me as white, they get flummoxed, even angry if I talk about being half Chinese. For others who see me as primarily Asian, they tend to focus on me as Chinese. While issues of race and gender may very obviously hurt women of color, they don’t leave men unscathed either. I think my father, married to a very successful Chinese American woman at a time when it was still expected that a man—especially a highly educated white man as he is—should be the bread winner, was very tough for him to deal with occasionally. My father had a lot of career disappointments and difficulties and, compared with my mother, is more tentative about taking risks. I think, as much as my mother and I and other characters in the book have struggled to understand our mixed or hyphenated identities, my father has also struggled to understand his particular place in America.
SL: Here’s the question that goes to the heart of your book. My goal in these interviews we do with authors of memoir is neither to reveal the particulars of the narrative, nor to review the quality of the writing—my goal is to somehow give our audience a glimmer of why the book excites passion in the reader, in this case, me. As mentioned above, I picked up your book at The Strand because I have long been intrigued with photography. When I saw the book cover, I recognized it as one of Curtis’s photographs. I have had mixed feelings about Curtis’s work, based on my own intuitive reaction to photographs I am drawn to, or not, but truthfully knew little about the photographer himself. When I realized that your book included an exploration of Curtis and his world, I walked to the counter and purchased it. Can you give us an example of how these two personas—Paisley Rekdal and Edward S. Curtis—manage to dance down the aisle of memoir together?
PR: Wow, this IS the question of the book! Without going into a dissertation-length answer, let me say that my feelings about Curtis are very divided. The negative aspects of Curtis are legion: he was egotistical; monomaniacal; willing to fake or doctor photos to achieve his project’s aesthetic and, yes, racist claims; selfish; unethical with his workers at times; and oftentimes politically delusional. Curtis was also inventive, creative, passionate, committed to fighting for native rights when he saw real injustices being done, self-educated and self-motivated, and someone who I believe really did love many of the people that he photographed. His project is deeply problematic—from any standpoint—and yet imagine what we would have lost WITHOUT those 40 years he spent taking those thousands upon thousands of images. As much as we deride him, rightly, for getting so much wrong, he also got a lot right, and without him, the cultural erasure of Native Americans would have been even more devastating. Yes, the images are problematic. But those images, also, are necessary to have, as they teach us much about the respect and dignity inherent to these ancient cultures, but also much about how we, as white Americans, wanted to think of ourselves in opposition to them. In the book, I compare my father’s vision of himself, race and American masculinity as oddly similar to Curtis’ ideas. But I, too, am someone who is “like” Curtis, since I am creating a series of portraits of people who, for better or worse, I have manipulated. Alexander Upshaw, in my hands, is not the real Alexander Upshaw. I don’t imagine I could have ever gotten him right, as much as I tried, and I know that—as someone who is not Native American writing from the perspective of someone who is—I not only risk misrepresenting another person’s cultural experience, but have probably appropriated this experience in some of the worst ways, as much as I tried to avoid it. In this, I am like Curtis, which I acknowledge in the book. Empathy isn’t enough, which I think we all know and understand—it’s why Curtis’ claim that he was “intimate” with the people that he photographed comes across now as so specious. But without empathy, we risk promoting invisibility, erasure; we risk forgetting the ways that our political and artistic cultures are deeply tied to other people’s political and artistic culture’s. Whatever negative light I shine on Curtis, I shine on myself. And, frankly, on whatever reader who might respond unthinkingly to Curtis’ project. That’s one of the complicated dance steps that I hope I make in this book.
SL: Finally, I have to quote from your book again. This is one of the passages I mentioned before that made me stop. Or, as I prefer to express myself: it knocked my socks off. In fact, the whole train of thought you develop about beauty beyond this quote, is brilliant, as it pertains to “exotica,” like the Native American and to women. Could you expand a bit more on the politics?
“What strikes me now about the Curtis photos is how their beauty makes the vanishing of the American Indians seem not only inevitable but impossible to protest. (This, Curtis writes, is one of the stages through which from the beginning the Indians were destined to pass.) Though his sitters may be starving outside the frame, they look so attractive inside it: to be moved by their beauty replaces having to move politically on their behalf.”
PR: Some of the many books that I read in preparation for writing this book were about the power of aesthetics: in particular, the ways in which a beautiful monument or photograph might provide the viewer a kind of catharsis so powerful that the viewer feels the work is complete: that the events and issues that the work of art “represents” have been resolved simply through the creation and viewing of the art work itself. When the subject of the photograph is suffering and political injustice, the beauty of the photograph might have the strange effect of “resolving” the represented crisis through pleasure, rather than through any incitement in the viewer to become more politically aware and active in the world outside the artwork. When you think about how Curtis photographed so many tribes who were living in poverty, on reservations, in terrible situations and yet never showed what their current life was really like— preferring, instead, to photograph his subjects looking as if they were living in a pristine world entirely apart from white Americans—you can see the problem. It’s hard to fight for the rights of others when the injustices done to them have been rendered invisible. Beauty draws us in, but it just as often obscures.
SL: Paisley answered a last question about memoirs she recommends with this:
PR: I always love Marguerite Duras, anything by W.G. Sebald (depending on whether you count him as a memoirist) and I’m reading Autoportrait by Eduoard Levy right now.
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