Q&A with Suiyi Tang, author of “American Symphony: Other White Lies”

An excerpt from Suiyi Tang’s “American Symphony: Other White Lies” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department on October 1, 2019. Q&A conducted by Di Jayawickrema, Fiction Reader.

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Di Jayawickrema: The first excerpt from American Symphony: Other White Lies published at The Offing is a review engaging with the work of Elena Ferrante. Your reading of Ferrante crystallized for me what I love about her Neapolitan series but had never articulated for myself. Ferrante’s subterranean power is how much she reveals without been seen, and therefore, without being pinned down — “the language of shadows is the tongue of elena ferrante” as you precisely put it. Do you also see your book as an act of gendered and racialized refusal? And if so, why did you choose to write your speculative memoir this way?

Suiyi Tang: Yes, this book is definitely motivated by strategies of refusal! I’m sort of disgusted by the confessional — disgusted meaning, of course, that I’m simultaneously repulsed by and drawn toward the form. A confessional implies conscious narrativization and is thus different from a testimony; a confessional is supposed to be an artful retelling of one’s life. But it’s also the most commonly accepted genre of writing for minoritized subjects, the presupposition being that the minoritized subject can best — and only — speak to her expertise as a minority. Such a framing demands a mode of truth-telling that both essentializes the minority subject and demands that she be accessible as an object of knowledge. How do we operate reflexivity from the periphery? There’s a difficulty of looking “back” if you’re already “behind.” So things warp; time warps, and so does the very materiality of the self — as seer and the seen.

I wanted to write about structural formations and personal experiences, but I wanted to write them in the periphery, for the periphery, and that necessitates a certain refusal to the dominant gaze. You may also say that I wanted to write with in anticipation for misrecognition, understanding of the stakes of misrecognition. American Symphony, as a book within a book, is experimental in the sense that it functions as an experiment: I have devised the book as a means of looking (back) at the body. The book is an acephalous assemblage, in which the body of the speaker (and is it my body? or is the chain of signification so impossibly alienated that body/voice/author can no longer cohere as one?) is evacuated, leaving only an assemblage of possibilities tied together by a modern, postmortem object — scattered writings, left behind by the dead girl, less corpse than a cast and evidence of an uncertain existence. American Symphony is a meditation on the agency of last words, opacities that refuse curation via autopsy, and the obstacles to veracious confession, authorship, and melancholic voices who refuse capture and disposal.

The disparate pieces of the book allude to a semi-coherent narrative, and focus only for a moment on the scattered body of S (or as she is also known, ! and ?). A chain of infelicitous disruptions angle the relationship between her editor, another S, and the provisional-“I” that “my” melancholic voice unstably occupies as displaced author. S’s subjecthood is mediated by an unreliable editorial hand, accessed only through the form of a personal mythology.

DJ: In “Review Four,” you give American Symphony a harsh review. You write: “Her words flow erratically from one page to another, tearing the stitches of genre until creative nonfiction becomes…flash fiction, or memoir, or some variation of crea/fic/tive/non/tion. But the creative is nowhere to be found, having left only disorder in its wake.” Throughout the review, you aptly capture what your book aims for and achieves, but insist that you fail in your efforts. In this review, is the speaker manifesting your worst fears, the views of imagined critics, or…?

ST: Review Four is found tucked in one of S’s journals; a cut-out she’s taped on one page in mosaic fashion. It’s written, I think, by the lover S alludes to meeting in the preface of “a story in four reviews,” the larger assemblage of which “Review Four” is a part.

It’s a terribly funny piece for me, because one could say that “Review Four” is an internal monologue of S’s own (an achingly reflexive self-criticism, of sorts); likewise, “Review Four” is the acerbic response of a critic for whom the book’s meaning is mired in personalized pathos (the critic’s inexplicable distaste for S — her precocity, presumptions, audacious loquacity). Two sets of intertextual dialogues are being conducted here: between S and herself (beneath which is a repressed question about the relation of S to myself, the “author”); and between S and her masculine lover, a self-professed connoisseur of culture who is the implied author of the review (beneath which is a repressed question about the relation between myself and the so-called “critical reader” who gatekeeps the qualifications of literary rigor).

The nature of a speculative memoir is that there’s no such thing as a “wrong interpretation” — but there are more and less generative readings, and I think “Review Four” ventriloquizes a canned response that some may hold toward the novel. At stake in this staging of the four reviews is the larger question: “what are the stakes of seeing and being seen?” This dialogic visual interaction between seer and seen is made fraught by the ambiguous position of the seer and the elusive movements of the seen. From where are is the seer looking, and how does the position of viewership impart the framing and constitution of what is seen? How can the seen evade the intrusion of unwanted sight?

Incidentally, this visual framing raises an allegorical set of questions about the practice of reading. The seer’s distance/scale/orientation/intent in relation to the subject of sight (the novel or the author) is always a political one, even if the seer/seen are — they think — one and the same.

DJ: And how did it feel to write this review? I ask as I relate deeply to the spectrum of feeling around being understood articulated here, and found it very cathartic to read!

ST: I’m so glad you found it cathartic, too. It felt great! I was terribly depressed as I wrote it, but I was chuckling the entire time. It was a delicious exercise in excavation — I’m an actress by (semi-formal) training, and as I wrote this fragment, I became acutely aware of the proximity between the literary critic and the puppet master. Ventriloquists both, really.

DJ: In your opening pages, you frame your book as a eulogy to a deceased friend named “S,” who is a simulacrum of you (I hope I got that right). I love how this form makes possible the funhouse mirror explorations of a life that follows. I also love how much work your book does on a sentence by sentence level. Many of your sentences felt to me like pebbles landing in water; I can feel how the words will continue to ripple through me. Can you speak to how the form of your work and the construction of language connects to this performance of the self?

ST: “Pebbles landing in water” is exactly how I imagine the fragmented process of self-reflection. The novel is not certifiably nor felicitously constructed around “me”: S/! and her editor, SYT, speak in and around a scopophilic corridor, a hall of mirrors, at the center of which is the reader. One of the questions I was circling around was what it might mean for a negative to look back at herself. So often I think the cacophonous feelings of being queer, feminine, and Asian American are located around a palpable gap, whether that gap is the slippage of transnational queerness, or the vacuity that always already underlines/undermines the consciously fictive notion of “Asian American,” or the somewhat dissociative location of “East Asia/East Asians” within comparative racial orders in “Asia” and “North America.” If one presses on the amalgamated identity of the “queer femme Asian American,” it/she breaks down: but from her pieces we locate a larger geography of power from which she is made and remade. A question of recognition is threaded throughout the novel, disrupting both the performance of self and subsequent reckonings with said self.

But how can language circle around this gap, or more accurately, encircle some affective truth and troubled speaking power that the queer Asian/American body may yield? Can language offer some means of proper recognition for both the speaking subject and her landscape, even though the terms of recognition are necessarily temporary and fractured? Language can offer us an archive from which we — spliced and dissociative subjects — continuously reshuffle the order and form of our constitutive pebbles. Semantics and syntax bring into being stories of migration and geography. The language of the/an archive yields a network of affective and historical traces which may reach out to touch its reader; disrupt her interpellation into the existing order.

In the case of S/SYT, the archive is a body — a body of text from which S issues her last words. No archive is complete; no archive stands alone, so the archive of texts in American Symphony also constitute a book within a book, in the same way that S is wrapped, quite literally, around herself. The postpartum nature of S’s infelicitous utterances offers additional possibilities for evasion and dissection, for any reading of her are colored by a distant sense of loss. She is unapproachable as either a whole or uninterrupted presence. Literary scholar Kathryn Hayles calls the interplay between presence/absence “materiality.” At stake in this novel is the task of inscripting gendered and racialized materialities — who inscripts? Does the dissociative inscription speak back? One comes into being as a racialized and gendered body through series of deeply ambivalent inscriptions, but one is never fully materialized nor static in their materiality.

DJ: Collages are interspersed throughout this book. Several collages feature photographs, words, and pictorial omissions i.e. sections cut out of photographs or dotted lines tracing absent faces and other body parts. How does the process of collaging interact with the process of writing for you?

ST: The collage poses a problem to the task of representation by revealing the reach of representational claims: the impossible import of totality. The collage is hugely important to my creative process: I love the tactility involved in its creation, the serendipity it yields. By enjoining sharp edges and unexpected elements in touch, the collage approximates something like a rupture to the real; a reformation of what is possible. The literary scholar Laura Winkiel writes that the collage can undo certain geographies of center/periphery as well as a hierarchy of signs. She quotes the German literary critic Peter Bürger from his seminal monograph, Theory of the Avant Garde:

The insertion of reality fragments into the work of art fundamentally transforms that work. The artist not only renounces shaping a whole, but gives the painting a different status, since parts of it no longer have the relationship to reality characteristic of the organic work of art. They are no longer signs point to reality, they are reality. (78)

Bürger is riffing on Adorno here: he suggests, from Adorno, that the real riotous potential of the “inorganic work” comes from its refusal to approximate reconciliation — between man/nature, representation/reality. The collage unsettles, so to speak, because it refigures the relation between parts and whole, denaturalizing normative figures and forming new mutations while it does so. The collage approaches the Real and entertains a semblance of speech potential in itself — in the present.

Collages also allow me to play with citational chains, pointing to them as references of reality and enjoining them to form new points of the real. I’m not trying to romanticize ahistoricity: one may realize a politicized project of liberation by grappling with historiography in the tactile manner of the collage. How do you reach toward something which is real, but not present? If representation is a task of fraudulence, how do you lie to get closer to the truth?

Finally, the collage evinces a simultaneous interplay between presence and absence, pattern and randomness. That ludic confusion, it seems to me, is the very same one engendered by the prospect of living!

DJ: What company do you see your book keeping? This could be the company of other writers in the genres of autofiction or metafiction, other artistic traditions, or something else entirely.

ST: Wow. In my dream library, American Symphony: Other White Lies sits next to Pamela Lu’s Pamela: A Novel, Amanda Lee Koe’s A Ministry of Moral Panics, the film Vive L’Amour (dir. Tsai Ming-Liang), Etel Adnan’s epistolary collection Of Cities and Women, Chris Kraus’ magnificent Aliens and Anorexia (and I Love Dick; and Torpor), Adrian Piper’s collection of writings, Out of Order, Out of Sight; and last, but far from least, Suzanne Cesaire’s essays “Surrealism and Us” and “The Great Camouflage.”

My friend (a scholar of Japanese literature) recently told me that stylistically American Symphony reminded her of writings by the Japanese postmodernist Kurahashi Yumiko. I loved this so much — in no small part because I am, like Kurahashi, antagonistic to the genre of the confessional and interested in the novel form as a hall of mirrors that dislocates the looking subject and moves toward something immaterial. I really want someone to do a complete translation of Kurahashi’s essay “Negativity and the Labyrinth of Fiction.” I have a lot to learn from her.

DJ: If you were to write a short note to future readers of your book, what would it read? And where can readers buy your book?

ST: Oh, this is so lovely and difficult! I think I will let S speak for herself on this one. You can buy the book on IndieboundAmazonB&N, and at select bookstores around the country!

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Beautiful things take time. Don’t give in to internal or external pressures. Remind yourself every day that you are a writer even if nobody believes you yet, not even yourself.