“This World We Are Constructing”: An Interview with Alyssa Quinn by Nina Shope

Alyssa Quinn’s debut novel, Habilis, takes place in a mysterious anthropology museum that converts into a disco club at night. When Lucy, a young woman with an uncertain past, finds herself thrust into this museum, she must confront her own origins—and, all the more difficult, the origins of the human species itself.

Quinn is the author of the prose chapbook Dante’s Cartography (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019). She holds an MFA in creative writing from Western Washington University, and is currently at work on a PhD at the University of Utah, where she is also the senior prose editor for Quarterly West. Find her work at alyssaquinn.net.

Nina Shope: First of all, I really enjoyed delving into Habilis. It is such an utterly original book and so rich in meaning, association, and idea. Also, the writing is gorgeous. Congratulations on its publication!

We are both new members of the Dzanc family. What was your path to getting Habilis out into the world? Did you ever fear that your idea (a book that tackles evolution and the acquisition of language and identity, while superimposing it onto a museum that is simultaneously a discotheque) was “too original” to be accepted anywhere?

Alyssa Quinn: Oh for sure. I was definitely afraid it wouldn’t be accepted anywhere, and was overjoyed when Dzanc took it. I’m so grateful for presses like Dzanc that are open to weird-ass books like yours and mine!

NS: Which part of this multilayered narrative first called out to you and started you on the process of writing the book? Can you speak a bit about the book’s genesis (even though the book itself radically questions notions of genesis)? 

AQ: The book was inspired by my encounter with the work of cultural anthropologist Eric Gans. Eric Gans, building on the theories of René Girard, postulates that human language originated in a specific moment, called the “originary scene.”

Gans imagines the scene like this: a group of proto-humans has surrounded an object—let’s say the carcass of an animal—which every member of the group desires. The hominids in the circle all reach out simultaneously to grasp the object—but when they notice that everyone else is also reaching for it, they realize that to actually take hold of it would initiate a violent conflict. So this group of hominids just stands there with their arms suspended, until they are no longer reaching out to take the object, but are instead pointing at it. This is what Gans calls the “abortive gesture,” and in his theory it’s the first instance of language. This gesture makes it possible to refer to the object without claiming it, thus deferring violence.

When I encountered this theory it seized me. I was just coming out of my MFA program where I had happily steeped myself in poststructuralist theory. Basically, all of my work during my MFA was trying to grapple with a central poststructuralist truth: words and things are fundamentally split. Signs and their referents are divorced, separated by an unbridgeable gap, and all of language is simply the act of falling continually into these gaps and never gaining purchase. Absence lurks at the heart of all things; meaning is never present but always deferred, and don’t even think about employing words like “center” or “origin.” So I was struck by Gans’ theory because it flouted this framework. It restored objects to the center. It viewed language as something that works, that successfully tethers objects and referents. As the critic Raoul Eshelman writes, Gans’ framework suggests that “a synthetic, unified, object-focused projection—and not an episte­mological aporia—stands at the beginning of all culture and continues to condition each individual act of language.” I didn’t know what to make of this, and I continue to have complicated feelings about it—but I knew instantly that I wanted to write a novel that grappled with those feelings. Habilis was born.

NS: I love the way Habilis employs layering—how the history and symbols aggregate over the course of the book. You play with names and identities (the multiple Lucys, Dina/Dani, etc.), and you also include mirrored images: for example, the subway car in which Lucy is abandoned as a baby mirrors the train that the indentured worker is laying tracks for later in the book, and there are so many other examples. Were you trying to mimic the structure of the fossil record—layers and striations of history as time passes and the earth builds new strata, etc.—along with the way scientific and historical “understandings” and narratives develop and evolve over time? Can you talk a little about your intent in creating such a dense and complex structure for your narrative? Did you keep discovering new resonances that led you deeper, or did you know where you were going from the get-go? What kinds of structures informed the book?

AQ: It was definitely a process of discovering resonances as I went along. They just kept appearing! That sense of constant discovery made the book’s composition a deeply pleasurable experience for me.

You’re right to note the presence of doubles in the book. Echoes, mirror images, alter egos—they all play a role. The reason for this also stems from Eric Gans. Gans describes another important element of the originary scene: mimetic desire. Mimetic desire refers to the fact that we tend to want what we think other people want. This is advertising 101: if we think Taylor Swift finds Diet Coke desirable, we also find Diet Coke desirable. So when those hominids realize that everyone around them also wants the animal carcass, it becomes even more desirable, even as it simultaneously becomes forbidden. René Girard coined the term mimetic desire, and according to him, what’s really happening there is not simply that we want what other people have. Rather, we subconsciously imagine that, if we own the object that the other owns, we might actually become the other. Maybe buying a Diet Coke will make me Taylor Swift! We imagine that other people are happier, that they live fuller, more exciting lives, that they have stabler, more cohesive selves, and that, perhaps, we might also reach such full, rich, cohesive being through possessing the objects they possess. We seek our identities in the images of others. That’s the reason doubles abound in Habilis. I had fun playing with the division between self and other, pulling open the holes in the already porous boundaries of identity.

NS: Habilis is replete with careful research, interspersing theory and history with plenty of fictionalized and visionary content. How long did you spend researching the book? You clearly seem to have a strong background in theory, semantics, and science—but did you need to do extensive research about the Leakeys, the Ugandan railroad, etc.? What was the research process like for you?

AQ: I spent about a year doing preliminary research. This was the period when I knew I wanted to write about prehistory and the origin of language, but I had no idea what the book would look like. I spent that time gathering information about human evolution, collecting interesting tidbits that I thought might lead me somewhere.

After the shape of the book materialized, my research got more focused. I read Mary Leakey’s autobiography Disclosing the Past and The Leakeys: A Biography by Mary Bowman-Kruhm. The autobiography was an incredibly rich source, told, of course, in Mary’s own voice, and revealing a very interesting, courageous, and intelligent woman, who nevertheless benefitted from and contributed to the imperial project in East Africa (even as she sometimes was critical of it). I also read Charles Miller’s The Lunatic Express, a book about the construction of the Uganda Railway, which, as you mention, features prominently in the book. The railway was built by the British Empire around the turn of the century. They recruited some 35,000 indentured laborers from India to complete the project, and these laborers endured brutal conditions—almost 2,500 of them died. Miller’s book on the subject was published in 1972, and it certainly romanticizes the whole business (as you might guess from the book’s subtitle, An Entertainment in Imperialism). That’s the tragedy of projects like the railway—there are so few records left by the laborers who built the thing. It’s the empire-builders who get to tell the tale. Habilis gazes into the historical abysses left by imperialism, and ponders imagination’s ability (or lack thereof) to fill those abysses.

NS: You and I clearly share a number of fascinations: mythology, the gaze, embodiment, subjectivity, interiority vs exteriority, etc. etc. The list goes on and on. What are some other topics that continually call to you as a writer? Do you imagine yourself exploring those subjects throughout future books, or are you the type of writer who wants to jump to something entirely new next? Are you currently working on another book?

AQ: Yes! I recently finished a complete draft of a new novel, titled Notes from the Island. This novel does have some things in common with Habilis: both are interested in legacies of colonial violence, the (un)knowability of history, the nature of scientific knowledge—and the ways in which these three things intertwine.

Notes from the Island centers on the history of surveying and mapmaking in the American West. Taking Utah’s Great Salt Lake as its center and fractaling outward from that nucleus, the book assembles a variety of human and nonhuman actors, from bison and brine shrimp to salt crystals and theodolites. As the Great Salt Lake dries up before the protagonist’s eyes (the result of climate-change fueled drought and excessive water diversion), they investigate connections between the West’s colonial history and its current ecological crises. The novel’s form, characterized by photo narrative, fragmentation, non-linear timelines, and a novel-within-a-novel, seeks to counter the violent forward thrust of technological “progress.” Ultimately, the novel reimagines the Great Salt Lake as an example of what the theorist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject,” an object that is massively distributed across time and space, and therefore demands new perceptual modes. Hyperobjects are central to my work, which repeatedly grapples with the ethical and representational problems posed by large-scale subjects like climate change, imperialism, and global capitalism.

NS: I thought your explorations of sexuality, race, and colonialism were fascinating throughout Habilis. The very notions (and often the de-naturalizing) of “non-reproductive” sexuality and “degenerativeness” is so deeply tied into evolutionary theory, Darwinism, racist supremacy, and the way that history is structured to normalize and stigmatize any kind of person considered to be “other.” Was it scary for you to engage in such personal and inherently vulnerable topics, or is that something that you generally feel compelled to do as a writer? The examination of those topics seems so vital to the book and so inherently interwoven in the subject matter—a deep vein to mine, but also a very intimidating set of topics to take on … Did you choose the subject matter because you wanted to explore those ideas, or did you explore those ideas because they were inseparable from the subject matter?

AQ: It was the latter. As I said, I was first struck by the question of how language originated—that’s what I set out to explore. But once I had picked that topic, I knew that addressing it honestly and rigorously would require that I address many of the complicated subjects you mention. I couldn’t write about the origins of language without writing about evolution. I couldn’t write about evolution without considering how its study has served to uphold racism, imperialism, heteronormativity, and the gender binary. Tackling some of those things did intimidate me, yes. But I felt strongly that I needed to do it. I believe it’s important to fully think through one’s artistic projects—to engage sincerely with their theoretical implications, and to follow those implications through to their logical ends. It’s hard to do, but it’s something I admire in other people’s work—the willingness to commit fully to the experiment at hand.

NS: I was fascinated by how you engaged with language in this book—the way the narrator (and author) are clearly questioning the very instrument they are using to communicate throughout the course of the novel. The rearrangement of letters can change an identity (Dina/Dani), can cause divergence in DNA strands, can begin a chain of utterance, can underlie a system of oppression, and can create a novel. At one point you even bring the “I” of the author into the narrative (something that also engages your interest in transparency vs opacity/what is recorded vs what is erased/what is exposed vs what is hidden). Can you elaborate a bit more on your ambivalence towards language and what you hope to express by examining expression itself in Habilis?

AQ: I love those observations. Yes, you’re right. It’s true that some degree of self-awareness or self-reference is often part of my work. As I mentioned, I cut my teeth on a bunch of postmodernism during my first couple years of graduate school. Think John Barthes, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, etc., etc. I loved those folks, and still do, but I knew even then that the postmodern heyday was over, and I was caught up in the question of what comes next? How to write in the wake of postmodernism, without simply repeating its old moves? How to situate my own work in relation to it? Postmodernism had that kind of “there can be nothing after this” vibe—and I took up that challenge. The postmodernists remind us insistently that the text is just a text. They refuse to let readers “naturalize” it or assume that it’s a transparent window onto a stable reality. The text is a construction, reality itself is a construction mediated by texts. Steeped in that rhetoric, it was difficult for me to “go back” and write fiction whose primary goal was immersion and realism. But, as I said, I also didn’t want to just replicate postmodernity. Postmodern irony, specifically, had begun to feel less viable. Faced with anthropogenic climate change, the sixth mass extinction event, rampant inequality, and the rise of post-truth politics, any cool, hip, distant position felt untenable. Okay, so the world is a construction mediated by texts—sure, yes, okay. So then let’s think hard about our texts! Let’s parse the intricate interrelations between the material and the semiotic. Let’s affirm the role of story-making and rhetoric to shape people’s very real lives. Let’s be absolutely sincere about this world we are forever constructing.

I’m not the only one to be thinking about the resurgence of sincerity in whatever post-postmodern era we’ve entered. There have been many names coined to describe it—the New Sincerity, post-irony, metamodernism, performatism, and so forth. Almost all of these frameworks seem to get at a similar idea—sincerity is seeing a resurgence, but it’s a weird sincerity, a sincerity that somehow coexists with irony. Timotheus Vermeulen, who helped to popularize the term “metamodernism,” describes it this way: “Metamodernism oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.” This oscillation, this paradox, feels pretty central to what’s going on in Habilis. It oscillates between a deep belief in language and an intense anxiety about it, an affirmation of storytelling and a critique of it, an insistence on the empathic affordances of imagination and a recognition of imagination’s limits. These back-and-forth movements need never settle into one side or the other; they continue on, caught in perpetual motion, opening up new spaces to think and write and be in this strange world.

Nina Shope’s debut novel, Asylum, won the 2020 Dzanc Fiction Prize and was released in May 2022. Her collection, Hangings: Three Novellas (2005), won the Starcherone Books Award. She is the recipient of the Calvino Prize from the University of Louisville, the Jeremy Lake Memorial Fiction Prize from Syracuse University, a residency from the Millay Colony for the Fine Arts, and the Barbara Banks Brodsky Prize from Brown University. Her writing has appeared in LitHubThe MillionsQuarter After Eight, Fourteen Hills, 3rd Bed, Open City, Sleeping Fish, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been anthologized in PP/FF: An Anthology; New Standards: The First Decade of Fiction at Fourteen Hills; and Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century

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