- Writers Retreat
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I’m in Ližnjan, Croatia, a village on a hilltop overlooking the Adriatic, built to be pirate-proof. It’s drenched in unbearable sunshine, sea salt and history. I sit on the terrace of a stone house and write in the shade of a giant poisonous oleander, marveling at the violet carpenter bee with no yellow stripes, and how the branch a few meters in front of me is actually a phasmatodea, a walking stick with unbelievable camouflage. I click my reset button more than once a day here, like when I see a kuna, the weasel-like marten scampering by, or an anguis fragilis, known colloquially as a “legless lizard,” masquerading as a snake and wearing five feet of cool, terrifying leather. A small scorpion watches me write.
These creatures give me strange dreams. Sleeping in a library will do that, anyhow.
For the month of June, I’m writer-in-residence at the natural and intellectual wonder that is the Zvona i Nari Library & Literary Retreat. I live in one of several houses that compose the library, flanked by a white wine vineyard. The facility is an NGO and the only library in the entire rural region southeast of Pula, the largest city in Istria. Zvona i Nari welcomes writers, editors, translators and academics from around the world to work, congregate, collaborate and present projects. I’m beyond lucky and privileged to be in a place of such shocking beauty.
I’ve come here to clear my head from the two-year process of writing my latest novel, Mouthquake. By “clear my head,” I mean immerse myself back into it, think about what it means to embrace stuttering as a mark of individuality. I’m a stutterer. I’ve come to consult the oracle of the books that surround me about the connections between broken words and broken narratives.
Nightly, I stare at the light pouring through a sieve of stars, and in the darkness, I try to locate the faces of my hosts, Natalija Grgorinić and Ognjen Rađen. We talk over plum brandy and watermelon, and for hours, they teach me about the complex relationship of Istria to the rest of Croatia, the cultural and linguistic differences of the province, and its role in peacemaking and cultural understanding. They speak of war and displacement, intersections of language and ethnicity, the indivisibility of experiences shared on the same blood-soaked ground. My head spins with new information.
Natalija and Ognjen are novelists, librarians, curators, scholars, outsiders and insiders, ministers of all things weird and fantastic, and parents. They are collaborative writers and have made a life’s work out of studying the ideals, dynamics and fluidity of the concept of “writing duo.” They teach it by example. When they email me, I have no idea which one of them is writing, even after six months of correspondence.
I would even call them accidental historians. When I first showed up at the gates of Zvona i Nari, they were carting books to the library in a wheelbarrow. Someone had left about a hundred unwanted volumes on the street.
One said, “The confluence of literature and farming implements—this is what we’re all about.” The other: “Sometimes we’re more of a book shelter than a library. People don’t want books to be destroyed, so they give them to us, because they know they’ll be safe here.”
The houses of the library are home to the most eclectic groupings imaginable: Meters of leather-bound encyclopedias that claim to hold the entire knowledge of the world before the moment they were printed, obscure novels and works of poetry put out by now-defunct Yugoslavian publishers, socialist tracts, the complete works of Tito, guidebooks that illustrate how to build stadiums, all in a dizzying spectrum of languages and dialects. There are tomes that contain only footnotes, and editions so rare that they may not exist outside these walls.
“Take a look at this,” one of them says.
I follow the wheelbarrow further into the library.
“These are written in Serbo-Croatian—basically rescues. Because of the Serbian component, many of them were removed from the shelves of many libraries during the war in the ‘90s.”
“These were librarians doing this. But no one will admit to it.”
So I’m living in a foster home for books. Beyond that, it’s an aspect of N&O’s work of splicing together disparate narratives—or in this case, of keeping the disparate together—in the belief that when stories collide, something new is created.
On the flight to Croatia, I read their first novel, Mr. & Mrs. Hide. This collaboration is a brilliant prism set in Los Angeles: existential, sexual, self-aware and alive. It presents a motif of two monologues told side-by-side, left and right. Somewhere over the Atlantic, the idea occurred to me that I could intermingle the stories by switching sides of the page at will, and in my powers as reader, I created my own version of the novel. This is what I love most about experimental writing—how it doesn’t automatically assume readers’ laziness, but rather gives them opportunities to create their own meaning. Single, dictated narratives are sometimes too facile to express complex ideas.
But how did they write it?
“If you want to free yourself, try writing in a new language.”
“It’s like writing with an accent. Not much different from stuttering, actually. Just another form of literary constraint.”
Last year, N&O released a novel called Putanje, or Trajectories. It’s a “road novel” that takes place on the highway, in the minds of people who cross paths with each other. It’s a wonderfully bizarre physical specimen; the layout is designed so that the text fades away completely in a different spot on every page, conceptualized as “passages,” where again, the reader is invited to stitch elements together. N&O regularly receive phone calls from librarians advising them of the “misprint” and asking where they can return the novel for a corrected copy. I realize that accepting these phone calls comes as a deliberate part of the book’s release.
In her book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman extensively documents events in the United States and Canada in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including Reaganism, AIDS, different forms of urban gentrification, the disappearance of gay presses and bookstores, the Little Sisters Bookstore’s battle with Canada Customs, and other factors, showing how these collectively led to a contraction of queer lit, and of lesbian literature in particular and, subsequently, how the writers of this literature restricted what they allowed themselves to produce and even imagine. She writes of the irony and tragedy of gays winning certain legal rights, while “sexually true materials” are disappearing.
“This puts gentrified gay people in a terrible bind: we can dissociate ourselves from the full continuum of queer literature, that is, from queer sexuality, thereby falsely describing our literature as ‘quality’ if its sexual content is acceptable to straights.”
This subsuming of the queer experience into mainstream culture also involves queer forms—“bent” narratives that must also be defended and protected. I realize that part of my work in Croatia is to study them, which I kicked off by curating a gathering of books—strays, every last one—that will remain as a permanent collection at Zvona i Nari. Queer fiction on my hemisphere is what I know, so that’s mostly what I brought, with a few juicy exceptions. It’s a work in progress. Each book I chose is a gorgeous aberration of literary convention, and teaches a unique lesson in the search for new language. Artists create change by making people uncomfortable in both content and form, by agreeing to continue experimenting in the face of pressures to stop, to conform, to “grow up.” They do this while working in systems that punish risk-takers.
The collection serves another purpose—awareness. Despite a variety of patchy legal protections, queer and transgender people in Croatia face intense discrimination and stigmatization on all levels, perpetuated by various tides, from religious conservatism to the new wave of nationalist neo-fascism. There’s something kind of dangerous about a queer bookshelf in a remote village in Croatia, because nothing like it exists. I’m happy it’s guarded by scorpions.
The best part of the project is making the physical bookshelf. I draw the blueprints on paper in less than thirty minutes without much thought. My only goal is to make it slanted.
“Do you realize it’s a letter Z?”
“And sideways it’s a letter N. Your bookshelf spells the name of our library.”
Natalija, Ognjen, and I saw, sand and stain wood for the rest of the day, celebrating the mysterious ways that the alphabet can cut against the grain.
I take breaks from my work to organize an event in Montreal for the release of Mouthquake. It’s planned to be a durational performance piece in an artist-run centre, where I will read extensive passages of the book, from morning until who-knows-when, with visitors stopping in at any point to listen (and hopefully ridicule). There will be a recording component. I’ve often wondered if the reason I became a writer was to circumvent my stutter, so this event is a way to bring that interrogation into a live setting where I can publicly remove my ability to circumvent it. Visitors will be able to witness how my mouth, lungs, throat, fatigue, social anxiety, and the gallery space transform the text. They won’t be able to escape the stutter, either. In fact, they will be a part of it.
But have I really used writing to flee from stuttering?
When I look at my work, I see that I build stories by gluing fragments and tangents together. The narratives are ruptured and there’s a strange structural beat, I must enact this on purpose. I acknowledge that by having a conversation with me, you would get a less stuttered story than by reading one of my texts. Do I create literary forms that mimic the way I speak? Could writing actually be a way deeper into stuttering?
Writers like Jordan Scott would argue yes. He publicly examined a “poetics of stuttering” when touring his poetry book Blert, which he deliberately wrote to be as difficult for him to speak as possible. This kind of work challenges our notions of fluency, gets us to talk about it. Maybe someday the word “disfluency” will even be included in dictionaries.
I guess I’ve come to Istria to investigate to what degree fluency is a myth. N&O appear to want the same. They’ve decided to translate excerpts of Mouthquake into Croatian for the writing journal Nova Istra, but it’s no ordinary translation.
“We’re incorporating Chakavian dialect. It doesn’t have any vocabulary to describe queerness, so we’ll be using your book to create it.”
We spend a day remixing different paragraphs of the novel, along with texts of their own, as a kind of collaborative poetry. N&O translate some segments, and we recite in English, French and Croatian simultaneously, echoing each other’s words like a communal prayer, which is recorded as a sound project. They ask me to correct their English and I refuse. I listen to passages from their novel 69/70, which reveal that we’re engaged in the same kind of quarry work, one that needs no correction. “Break the words in two, break a word for two, half of it hers, half of it in his mouth.” It feels like sorcery.
They teach me what the Grand Antonio, a Croatian-Canadian character in Mouthquake, sounds like in real life in his native tongue. I’m in awe.
My search for new language has grown much deeper here, and I have become a more curious writer.