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Anna Joy Springer’s The Vicious Red Relic, Love (Jaded Ibis Press) is a powerful book of love, trauma, loss, and forgiveness, as well as an exploration of a specific period and place in feminist queer history. Readers are guided through 80s/90s San Francisco, arranged in a series of conceptual forests, by a spray-painted tinfoil elephant named Blinky (or Winky). The main character, Nina, uses Blinky/Winky to communicate with the dead: namely [Gil,] her ex, an HIV-positive mentally unstable lesbian who died alone of an intentional overdose. Through letters, diary entries, poems, and re-tellings of ancient texts, Nina tells Winky (and readers) the story of her complicated and sometimes damaging relationship with [Gil].I interviewed Anna Joy Springer, former punk rocker and current professor at UC San Diego, somewhat reluctantly: the spell of her book is so powerful that I did not want to break it. In the end I composed the interview in layers of questions, building to coherency as I worked through my own hesitation to acknowledge the book as a work of craft and artifice, of theory and brilliance, instead of having sprung, as Springer suggested of [Gil], perfect, intact, and armed from the forehead of the author.
Like a fairy tale– a powerful one, that deviates from simple notions of good and bad, and draws deep on the roots of joy, love, terror, and loss that shape human experience– I wish that this story was true. Or, at the very least, that I had a Winky/Blinky or two to myself. (Anticipating this, Anna Joy does provide instructions for creating one in her book.)
Forced to accept her work as, after all, a mere book, I managed the interview; here is what she had to say on crafting, theory, her work as a professor, domestic violence within lesbian communities, BDSM, and forgiveness.
On the front cover, The Vicious Red Relic is described as a “fabulist memoir.” What about fabulism resonated with you, that you chose to write some of your personal experiences through this medium?
This isn’t really a story about my personal experiences, though that’s partly what it is. It’s the story of a historical moment and its subculture, and my memoir serves as partial-illustration. It’s actually more the story of a couple historical moments – the time in the 3000s BCE at the beginning of written literary art (and imperialism) and the time in the 1980s-90s when one branch of feminism began kicking the moral pedestal out from under itself for a more grounded and elastic experience of being a person.
That said, I experience the world through a narrative filter of mythopoesis, talking animal guides, liminal/perverse spaces, and lyrical didacticism with a punchline. Psychological realism wouldn’t be the best mode for this story. Realism might have been the best mode for this novel if it were a story solidifying notions of selfhood, but in fact it’s doing just the opposite – complicating them. It complicates not only gender, but also other discursive frames for selfhood. Moving away from realism into a mode like fabulism helps a reader to shift away from valuing conventional character development and narrative arc and the conventional values these notions of character/self and arc/progress underscore.
In Relic, you effortlessly wove in the perspective of people that infrequently get to speak their own realities, and you did it in a way that felt deep and universal. Was it hard to write about intimate subjects that are nearly incoherent to most people with systemic, socially sanctioned power? As you wrote, did you encounter any internal blocks or fears about incoherency, invisibility, dis-empowerment?
I guess I anticipate, rather than fear, being illegible to people with the kind of systemic, socially sanctioned power I think you are talking about. At this point in my life, I’m more afraid of hurting others by inadvertently misusing my own socially sanctioned power than I am of being disempowered, misread, or unseen by others. For instance, it was scariest to read this work aloud for my undergraduates, because I’ve always wanted to maintain this distinction between myself as an instructor and myself as a woman with extreme opinions and an intense, complicated history. Some of them are very religious or very sheltered. I was worried they wouldn’t feel comfortable with me anymore, and the relationship between writing professor and writing student is sometimes very intimate, so I wanted them to feel safe with me.
But when I first was interviewing for my job, I called the book a work of fiction. I thought calling it a memoir would bring too intimate a sensibility to the job talk performance. One member of the audience at that talk, the chair of the department, asked me to talk about my next project, which was this book. I gave a very brief synopsis, and he laughed aloud, I guess because the [Gil] character seemed absurd to him. His laughter wasn’t hostile. He just really couldn’t imagine that such a character was anything other than ridiculously tragic, and I’m sure his reaction was compounded by my blasé characterization. What seemed totally normal to me seemed totally unrealistic, even operatic, to him. So, I think if I needed to get something – like a job – and this book were my only way to get it, I would have to strategize carefully about how to contextualize the content for certain audiences. I have to do that anyway, whenever I’m invited to read at venues where people seem to come from very different backgrounds. If I don’t want to function in academic or literary settings as the big working-class queer dancing bear, I have to find ways to frame the work so there’s potential for an interesting discussion, rather than a boring or enraging one.
But I’ve never found it hard to write about personal things. It is hard to write, because writing is so hard – first the part of writing that is about discovering all the layers and nuances of the whole truth of the story, which is emotionally hard and painfully stretches the imagination and intellect. Then it’s super hard in a different way to discover and shape that material into something that can convey the complexity of the whole truth to a reader. It’s impossible to convey it by telling them about it. A writer has to theatricalize, to teach a reader how to read this particular book, to bring a reader into a psychic state, to work on the reader’s nervous system, to pace the experience, to guide the reader, but not overguide, to give moments of crescendo, moments of rest. So it takes a very long time to create a book that can consider a reader’s experience moment by moment, while still remaining absolutely faithful to the biggest truths dictated by the story. It takes some serious labor.
You took a lot of risks, in sharing Nina and [Gil]’s stories and owning it as memoir. Is it difficult to be a professor, and therefore professionalize and theorize your art– to put a name to a book like this, a name that also has to be carried in reasonably acceptable professional wear into a classroom, with authority?
Sometimes it’s disorienting, but not oppressive. Not especially now that I have tenure and don’t have to worry about losing health insurance for pissing someone off. This was my tenure book, so that tells you something about the program I teach in at UCSD. I love being a professor. It’s my dream job. Are you kidding? I get to encourage people to play and interact and engage with truths rather than checking out or seeking certainty all day. I get to talk a lot. I’m allowed to be as smart as I want to be. It’s amazing. And, I also love authority. I love being bossy too, but accepting my position of authority often means refraining from bossiness.
I hear about this sadness of having to theorize and professionalize a lot from grad students in MFA programs. But it’s weird, because they’ve come to the institution, a particular kind of validation machine, rather than going to different sorts of communities to practice their craft. The university is a place of professionalization, whether it’s vocational professionalization like in the engineering schools or fluency in aspects of craft, literary-criticism and histories like in literary arts.
Theorizing my art plays a main part in its making. Without knowing how to theorize what my work is doing, I wouldn’t know how to make it do what it’s doing as well and as thoroughly as it can. It’s important to understand that an individual piece, this book for example, is part of an ongoing conversation I’m hoping to join, not just an individual instance of creativity, genius, idiocy, or self-expression. It’s part of a collective project that I want in on. It preceded me, and it will go on after I’m dead. I want in, so I learn what the conversation is about and I learn about its history.
Importantly, more access to more languages, even the languages of the dominant field, is never bad. It makes for the ability to communicate with more kinds of people. Hopefully I learn how to talk with all sorts of people about all sorts of things. It’s no benefit to me to avoid learning (or using) the language of the institution, even when that institution is in fact oppressive. I have to find some way to get it to hear me, if possible. And also, I have to find a way to hear it, hear it deeply. Not the institution itself, but the people in it. Hear them. Hear them through the hum of the language of professionalism and theory, hear multiple discourses at once. Trying to hear the heart, the life of what they’re saying.
You named your character ‘Nina.’ Why did you choose to change your name in your memoir? Who is the character Nina to you?
First I named her Nina to align her sonically with Inanna. [Gil] becomes a version of Gilgamesh and Winky/Blinky is Enkidu. The character of me, Nina, isn’t me. I want to keep making that point. It’s a representation, and I’m a person, even though in this writing, for you, I’m still more like a character, not so different from Nina. I’m made of words when you’re reading, and when you stop reading, I stop existing for you. But for me, I keep existing, and not just in words. I use the combination of calling this book a memoir, but also calling the me-character by a different name, to draw attention to the character-ness of Nina, rather than the realness of me.
The whole book ends up asking the question in several different ways, “Who are you and how do you know?” or “Which one are you now, and why?” It posits that identity is relational. But it also discards the idea that we experience ourselves only as relational or contingent. As the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, the self is “not one, but not two either.” That is, I’m not separate from my habitat and all the other beings, but if you kick me, I’m the one who gets a bruise. Not being a unified coherent self has a lot of ramifications for our notions of free will, of making choices, of consent. This is all a long way of saying that I didn’t want this book to be about me, Anna Joy, and I didn’t want it to be about my ex, who I named [Gil]. She would have really hated that I wrote a book that would get me attention on the back of her suffering. I had to make the book be about archetypes or literature or a period/culture, but not about us.
Relic addresses issues infrequently owned by multiple communities, as well as infrequently served by most services specific to trauma– namely, that queer people batter and assault one another, too, and that sometimes, BDSM relationships can also be abusive, with terrifically bad boundaries. Did you intend to speak to those realities in this book?
Several years ago it was on my mind to blow the big secret that women could be violent with each other in lesbian romances. I wrote a song for my old band Cypher in the Snow called “Blame the Victim” which came out on a split 7-inch with Sleater Kinney called Free to Fight. It seemed important to acknowledge that not only men, but also women enact active aggression. At the time, I was more into worrying about women and lesbians than queers in general. Women also had been trained to call on passive-aggression and victim-superiority. All these forms of power were at play in adult-to-adult domestic/romantic violence. I wanted to call into question the sanctity of being harmed as a main source of heroism in certain strains of identity politics, without erasing the fact that the abuser is causing real trauma. I could never sit easily with simple good/bad judgments, except where there is control over resources and movement on the one hand and disenfranchisement or lack of any kind of necessary literacy on the other. The song wasn’t a big hit. Certainly a rousing, “Here’s how to be empowered, sister…” song would have been more useful to more people, but I don’t write about how to be empowered. I don’t write about how to create justice. I write about trying to tolerate the expansiveness of what’s true.
With [Gil] and me, there was nothing stopping me from punching her in the face or poking out her eyes or throwing her off me or whatever. She wasn’t bigger than me. She didn’t have a man’s larger, supposedly stronger body and all the intimidation of history behind that body shape. So, beyond not wanting to hurt the person I loved, the only things keeping me from defending myself from her in a fight were my desires to see myself as “ethical” and my total inability to accept my potential for unrestrained violence. Also, I didn’t want to lose her. I had not been trained well, either by gender or by any other narrative, and I was not of the natural disposition to defend myself physically, not especially against the abuses of a loved one.
BDSM can be a special theater for its participants’ most extreme characteristics. People have bad boundaries. People are wounded. People are numb. People are suffering. People are funny. People don’t know themselves. People freak themselves out. People want certainty. People change their minds. So, yes, it’s another way to explore dynamics already there, with the volume turned up and, in some ways, a greater sense of license. That’s what makes it so powerful and transformative, but also tricky. Sex-play can very easily turn into a form of escape just like anything mind-altering or spiritual.
The Vicious Red Relic includes doodles, drawings, diary entries, and handwritten notes that conjure deep intimacy in readers. This combined with the elements of fable – the forest journeys, the re-envisioned elements of the Epic of Gilgamesh- connects the reader both to the very intimate and the mythic, the epic- more towards the universal. It is this mix of deep intimacy and the archetypal that so powerfully resonated with me. That the book features stories frequently unheard- a queer sex worker, a butch bottom, woman on woman sexual violence, the repercussions of being raised in a cult, Dissociative Identity Disorder, a lesbian with HIV- made this resonance so much more powerful and liberating. For a number of reasons, both personal and artistic, I deeply thank you for writing this book.
The drawn pages are meant to have the opposite effect of naming the Anna Joy character Nina. It’s meant to bring the reader’s attention back to an author, a living body not made of words. The anticipated effect is kind of like touch. Some of the hand-made images are actual scans from old notebooks and some are fake. (Weirdly, in order to conjure that sense of intimacy, I had to falsify some evidence.) Thank you so much for saying it resonated with you so deeply! I have to say that in the 1990s in San Francisco, these frequently unheard stories seemed very normal in my crowd (with the exception of HIV-positive lesbians), a crowd of queer artist addicts in or near recovery (or death), born in the 60s and early 70s to counter-culture parents during a major economic transition between types of capitalism and modes of interaction and cultural notions like “health,” “family,” and “woman.”
Did you have an audience in mind as you wrote? Did you write The Vicious Red Relic, Love to any one person, real or imagined?
I always knew this book was for an audience, but I don’t think there was ever a particular face or group of faces I saw while writing. It wasn’t any person in particular, but I did know that I wanted to write a book that my old teacher, Kathy Acker would have found compelling. I cut everything she would have called dead writing. I wanted it to be in conversation with Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, one of my favorite books ever written. And I remembered Laurie Weeks telling me about how a reader needs orientation, footholds, especially in unknown literary realms. And how Gertrude Stein used the term “vaguen” in her draft manuscript’s margin when the language’s denotation undermined its energy. I thought about the work of other writers I loved, and I wanted to make something in response. I also wanted to make the literary version of Gaudi’s cathedral The Sagrada Familia. The book was always for someone else’s experience, but I can’t think like that when I’m in the oracular/ dreamstate phase of writing. I could only think of them after that, in the architectural phase. And then I had to go back into a trance. Thalia Field taught me about this movement between, for lack of a better analogy, turning “inward” and turning “outward.” I thought of my anticipated reader like the audience of a play or a person moving through an installation moreso than a regular story-reader, because I thought of the book as having physical-temporal dimensions to move through, top to bottom of page, front cover to back cover – not just narrative or poetic dimensions.
Oh, and of course I thought about [Gil] a lot, how she’d take it, whether she’d think her character’s parts were exploitative.
Your book also has a musical format. How did you envision the audio and book forms relating to each other? Did you write Relic with the intention if it being spoken aloud, heard?
I didn’t know there would be the audio until Debra Di Blasi, the Editor-in-Chief at Jaded Ibis, said she wanted to publish the book. Jaded Ibis encourages its authors to create audio, as well as other inter-media components to their books. I asked Rachel Carns via Facebook. I respect her as an artist and musician so much, and I was very surprised when she said she loved the manuscript and would help create the music for the forests. She got Tara Jane O’Neil to collaborate on the music and do the engineering. TJO is a genius, and Rachel made the absolute right choice. It was a real honor to get to work with them and go on a little mini-tour performing the work last June.
Also, I love listening to literature, and, with the exception of literature that’s meant to be visual, I would choose to read almost everything by listening to it. I’d love to read the whole book out loud for a recording. There are also posters created for each of the forests, made by 15 different artists. Those posters will be available in the fine arts edition of the book, and they will reproduced in the color version of the regular, bound book that’ll come out sometime before my longer book tour next winter.
What about the Epic of Gilgamesh inspired you to build your book around it?
The person I based [Gil] on really loved the Epic of Gilgamesh, and I thought that tracing the evolution of that story from the earlier Inanna stories to the later Gilgamesh ones would tell me something about the evolution of patriarchy in pre-Semitic culture at the beginning of literature. Also, Gilgamesh is really good for illustrating (masculine) heroic roles and other dualistic narrative tropes like nature/culture. I wanted to question this idea that patriarchal history is the result of man’s obsession with his own impending death, and I wanted to show man to be a relational being, as woman is so often thought to be, who fears losing loved ones, that is, who fears grief. I wanted to argue that acts of aggression, domination, and hoarding resulted from grief and fear of grief, not fear of death. I thought the Gilgamesh epic told this story.
But it was first and foremost the Inanna stories and hymns that I wanted to build the story around. I wanted to elaborate, as Alice Notley does in The Descent of Alette, this feminist narrative trope (and therapeutic tactic) of courageously moving toward what’s most frightening, rather than running away from it or freezing and appeasing. This motion toward the terrifying can sometimes look like “being a victim,” and sometimes it can be that too, at the same time. Agency isn’t always so cut-and-dried. But it’s more productively therapeutic to have really trustworthy support in head-on engagement with the painful or frightening. It’s best if this support comes from someone you’re not having sex with or getting checks from, and it’s best if you’re not both drunk or high on meth.
Part II: The Forest of Riveted Reader Questions
I so deeply resonated with the experience of reading The Vicious Red Relic, Love, that (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) I want the characters to be real– Nina, [Gil], Winky, Blinky– I want to interview you as if you are Nina, and ask questions about the characters and the story as if it all really happened. Interviewing you for this book has actually been quite difficult, because I’ve had to go behind the scenes in ways that I really wasn’t ready to, as a riveted reader vs. an LLF interviewer. So, these next questions are my totally-ensorcelled-reader questions– questions that assume that the characters are/were real, and that you could speak to or for them.
You know, I could tell you the story as it happened to me, I could get myself into a sort of regressed state and become a sort of Nina, and I could tell you about my experience as a young woman in San Francisco falling in love with my first girlfriend and working at the peepshow and going to college and playing in bands – I could tell you that story, and I might even be able to render it in such a way that you could feel like you “were there.” But then it would be such a different book – it would have been a story about me, not you. This novel creates that longing in you. But the fulfillment of that longing would not be satisfying. It would be a way to enjoy an experience of continuity or of certainty, but it would not bring you to the state of connection and desire that the book brings you to. I talk about the strategic formal mechanics, like someone might talk about the parts of a long ornate spell. You know the ingredients, order, and the intentions, but even though I’m talking about the craft of the piece, even though I expose the theoretical and mechanical clockworks, that doesn’t make the book any less effective. Such an explanation can’t really undermine the mystery of how literature works.
Throughout the story, Nina mentions a phone ringing; [Gil] is lost in the forest; Nina is trying to reach her. Do you think [Gil] would pick up the phone, if she knew it was you calling?
Yes. Absolutely. If the phone rang now, not then. Then it was probably off the hook.
Nina writes often to Winky, an aluminum foil elephant spray-painted red that she is instructing so that he can be sent to the past and accompany [Gil] in the forest, so [Gil] will not be alone. Winky goes through quite a bit, in this endeavor, and it’s clear that he is not often comfortable. Do you think it was fair, to put all that on Winky?
First of all, I’m not sure I care that much about being fair. I do care a great deal about being honest.
Winky is a literary device, a transitional object, a character. Winky is like a persona in role-playing. He is a role, not a creature. Now Blinky, Blinky functions more like a creature. Blinky says things and sometimes sort of makes decisions. But Blinky is also a fiction. They both are. They are screens onto which I direct the reader’s gaze. They are functions. You don’t have to worry for either of them. They exist only in narrative. What exists outside of narrative, in reality, is their absence. That’s tangible, and that’s much of their function, to create longing for them in their absence.
I suppose that’s the function of many character types in grand narratives – to create longing for something idealized, for instance “the mother” or “the hero” or “before we grew up.”
Part II: The Forest of Riveted Reader Questions
Relic is told in bits and pieces, structured through a series of thirteen forests– The Forest of Tangential Literacies, The Forest of Unskilled Radical Intentions, The Forests of Myth and Stink, Molestation Cliches, Peril That’s Real, etc. Each Forest shares a bit more of the story between Nina and [Gil], as well as times and places that are of your past. Did you get lost in the forests that you created, as you wrote them?
No, found. Always found.
How long did it take, to want to gift [Gil] even a spray painted aluminum foil elephant, or a phone call?
Oh, moments after I learned she was dead I wanted that. I wanted the true not to be true. I wanted her to feel loved and witnessed. But if she had felt loved and witnessed, she wouldn’t have been able to kill herself, I don’t think.
Is The Vicious Red Relic, Love, a map or blueprint for healing?
It is a record of an honest and courageous exploration, and that could be a loose definition of recovery. But not of being recovered.
What do you think forgiveness looks like?
Like love, forgiveness is both a feeling and the anticipated result of actions. I don’t know if I could ever show it, I could only show examples of it. And one example I show (say, hugging someone I loved who hurt me…to say “hello”) could theatricalize this idea “forgiveness” or “forgiving” and the same act could theatricalize “self-aggrandizement” or “totally checked out.” So this is a case where you can’t use the scientific method to locate it or prove it’s there.
I know this about forgiving: I usually can’t do it once and be done with it. It’s a practice. For the same perceived slight, I have to make the choice to do it again and again, even if I don’t feel the warmth of it or the expansiveness of it at the time. I have to do it with the faith that it will yield better results than not doing it. Forgiving is always forgiving the unforgivable, otherwise there’s no need.
To choose to forgive is to choose to love, which is a form of ego annihilation. By that, I mean, I am choosing to step outside of a win-lose paradigm with another person or a group, if I forgive the unforgivable. I am giving up the gorgeous and energizing seductiveness of righteousness. The tricky part is that forgiveness itself can – and often does – calcify ego via self-righteousness, at least for me. I believe that forgiving hurts a little, it feels a little like shame, but it’s not shame. It’s tender. There can be a lot of light around it and a lot of happiness can come from it, a lot of pressure-relief for either party. But it also kind of hurts to keep choosing to forgive the unforgivable, with only faith to tell you that it’s the best move.
Would you answer the phone?
I’m answering it right now.
Do you know how profoundly healing and spiritually powerful this book is? I’d recommend Vicious to anyone that has ever considered that maybe– maybe– they too could, as you said in the book, “[pry] open [their] shriveled-ass heart[s]”. Your book gives– tremendously– to the universe. It’s more than a good book, more than entertaining or compelling, more than funny or moving– it is also profoundly healing. I believe I’ve thanked you for that already, and am happy to do so again: Thank you. But as I’m reading your comments on theory and crafting, I’m wondering– do you know how deeply spiritually moving this book is? To me, the book is Winky/Blinky; you gave him not just to [Gil], but to us all. Was that gift intentional?
No, I didn’t know how healing the book would be for some readers, but I am learning that now. And that makes me feel really happy, and also a bit shy.
I did know it would be a spiritually powerful book, if I were able to pull off what I was trying to do. And I think I did. It is a kind of interactive theatrical spell. Earlier, when I talked about the form, the crafting, I was talking about it so much because it’s what allows for the creation of a shared sensibility and a transmission of this sacred experience – the experience of going to the underworld together. We become each other’s Blinky, in some way, via the artifice of the book. If I had made some of the chapters longer, for instance, I wouldn’t have been able to keep readers emotionally engaged – they would start getting numb. So I had to get readers right into a scene then out and into a whole different story to keep up the sense of longing for resolution and the forward momentum. The formal theory allows for the articulation, allows for the transmission of embodied experience, like a ritual does. That’s the hope anyway.
It’s a known trope: the symbolic journey to the underworld to experience the whole truth, including the experience of self-annihilation and/or egolessness. It’s one thing to come from a position/positions of power, confidence, safety, health and to choose to dismantle the ego (like in spiritual/recovery practice), and it’s something else to seek comfort in violent self-annihilation. But there’s this overlapping place, between these two gestures of desire. And that’s the place I wanted to explore in this book. A place of overlap between sin and salvation and presence and absence. The book keeps trying to undermine opposites, including self/other, good/bad and rational/instinctual. Pema Chodron’s teachings on compassion and addiction inform the exploration. So does Martin Buber’s I & Thou. And the hymns to Inanna which are relentlessly non-dualistic, even while articulating opposites. Getting out from either/or thinking can be enormously healing, and acknowledging the inherent wisdom underpinning really weird, even destructive “choices” can bring a lot of peace. Maybe even a sort of healing.
Yet, if the book is a kind of potential medicine, it’s only that for a small handful of readers. Sex addicts, co-dependants, junkies, anorexics, whatever. People who dissociate. People with baggy, porous egos. People who’ve been hurt and who’ve hurt themselves and hurt others and still want to be compassionate and have a meaningful, engaged life, who love honesty and who love the wrong things, indiscriminately. This small handful of readers is extremely important to me.
But most people just hate discomfort and uncertainty, and will go to all lengths to avoid it, even in the art they engage. That kind of person will find The Vicious Red Relic, Love too jumpy, heady, and heavy. Maybe too unresolved. I think the book speaks to people who are already very courageous. Some readers will find the story sad, devastating even. And it is. Those who focus on the tears and fuck scenes will think of it as lesbian confessional-erotica and either be turned on or turned off. Some will find it over-theorized, especially as it readdresses questions of identity-formation and semiotics, and another percentage will find it absurdly melodramatic or enragingly viscous and cloying. Feminine. And they will think that is bad. Judgment is super-easy, but curiosity takes a lot of courage, and even some faith.
Also: I misspoke earlier when I said I didn’t care about fairness. I really do.