by Valentina Bonnaire
The Bravery of Braverman: an Interview
with Kate Braverman
Kate Braverman is an experimental poet, short fiction writer, essayist, and author of four novels, whose short fiction has been widely anthologized. Subversive, surreal, insightful and discerningly witty, Braverman never ceases to surprise. Her memoir, Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir recently received the Graywolf Prize for Nonfiction. For more information, see her Web site.
Q: What made you want to be a writer, and who were you reading as a child?
A: My mother read poetry to me. She was a renegade, eccentric, difficult woman, but she was convinced literary was sacred. It was the Ellis Island of our nation’s soul. Books played an enormous role in her conception of herself, as an intellectual and proto-feminist. The other part of her conception was that she was the mythic subject of my life’s work, her history, her tragedy, and her pathology. I was deformed from childhood to serve as her chronicler, to find a vocabulary and geography suitable to the monumental configuration she presented, the sequences of fictions she exhibited as a personality. While virulently anti-establishment and increasingly psychologically unfit and cynical, the sense of words as alchemy was a fact of my existence.
It was also Los Angeles, and we were poor, marginalized, isolated, and dysfunctional. I was afraid of the city, the way a latchkey girl is. I was different from my peers. People always asked me if I was from New York or some other place. I didn’t have the biochemistry to inhabit Los Angeles. I couldn’t process the air molecules; comprehend the values and dialect of those I encountered. It was difficult for me to talk to strangers. I found I could retreat into own limitless kingdom, and I entered into a covenant with the page and in time, we became one.
I also thought I could write myself into a new life entirely. If I could be bold, daring, innovative and exquisite enough, I could make my own life legitimate,the landscape that didn’t exist in conventional literature, the sleepy Mexican fishing village that LA was then, that slow lull rocked by an Oakie beat. I thought if I mastered this craft of writing, it would be another kind of craft, like a ship, and the currents would lead me to an escape. When I was young, I read the Beats. I ran away to SF to join this, but it had already morphed into hippies and departed on a magic bus. I was a child of the 60’s, but I’m a baby boomer. The Beats, the 70’s writers, they are all 20 years older than me. I was in high school when Hunter Thompson was on the Fear and Loathing Campaign Trail. I’m part of an entire generation that has been erased. My whole class from California in that period is gone. Tom Sanchez. Robert Roper. All sort of gone.
Q: Kate Braverman has always meant "braver (than a) man" to me, reading you. What does your name mean to you? and if you had another, what would you have chosen yourself?
A: When I first began writing, women still used initials. I sent my first short stories out as K.E. Braverman. To blatantly admit that one was a female was considered a fatal publishing mistake. I know this connection is often made, Braver than a man. As a female inhabiting the completely male dominion of literature, one must be braver, ruthless, fearless, relentless, sly and improvisational. This is not a natural impulse for women.
One must marry solitude. It’s been suggested to me that I change my name, that I am so abhorred by so many, the only way I can get published is with a new name. Of course, it is easier to publish as a first author than as someone who has been “referenced “ out of existence and hasn’t sold books at a satisfactory marketplace level. I am considering new names. I see streets I’ve never seen before and always put them together for characters names, and just to experience the nuances and resonances. I would put together a flower or jewel with a city. Jade Panama. Lily Baltimore. Camille Denver. I may start doing this immediately.
Q: SF and LA are two huge places to live/inhabit in California, Maybe the best two places, for a writer to live. How is SF shaping you, especially the climate?
A: Now that I actually live in SF, I have been writing essays about SF as a conceptual literary capital. I must walk streets and hills and alleys in fog, wind, sun, moonlight, and rain, to feel the city entering me in a sensory union. I don’t let my writers use their eyes when they write. In this image-saturated culture, a writer must use the senses you can’t in film. Describe a city by sound, smell, texture, and interior monologue, of course. You know a city tactilely, by what flowers you’ve picked that have cut you with thorns, where the cul-de-sacs are, the way winds suddenly rise and you must be prepared. I see SF as the first millennial city, a city constructed on ideas, scientific and artist, with aesthetics as a constant. In my new essays on my website, I am writing a bit about SF literary history and legacy. This is an anti-Los Angeles.
It’s a city of 10,000 votives, each with their dozen devotees like a bouquet of long stemmed red roses and it’s always Valentine’s Day. There is the energy here. It’s a trade route city on the new map. NY and LA are classic 20th century cities, built on commerce that can be counted, loaded onto trucks, put in warehouses. The measurements here are millennial. It’s a new paradigm. I’ve found SF welcoming in all the ways LA isn’t. After charting LA for so many books and decades, SF is quite astonishing to me. I am accustomed to the brutal ugliness of LA and it’s narcissism and cruelty. SF feels like coming home, finally. I was here as a 15 year old runaway, spent the 60’s at UC Berkeley and have been happy here. SF is the only American city I could live in. The psychological and aesthetic climate is divine.
However, I could take it hotter. I like Rome in August, when people are fainting in lines. It’s good, you step over them and the lines are shorter. I like Hawaii in August. I have been spending parts of summers in Tucson. I spent 6 weeks in Tahiti last year. I know a place by extreme exposure. I like to feel sun etching itself on my flesh. I want a heat, at around 108 this happens, where everything begins to buzz and your ears hurt. I crave intimate contact with my landscapes. There are landscapes I’ve been more passionate and intense about, felt more an erotic connection then some of my husbands.
Q: Can you talk a little about Frida and Palm Latitudes and how these themes of femininity juxtapose?
A: They say no writing came out of the 60;s, as if to degrade the firestorm of genre demolition and brilliant writing of the 70’s, when Stone and McGuane were at Stanford and writing brilliantly, as were Kesey, Didion, and Hunter Thompson. Then translation came. Garcia Marquez. Neruda. Paz. I was living in LA in the barrio, where I had my daughter as a single mother. To protect us from de facto joint custody with a guy I couldn’t even pick out of a line-up, I had to go on the run with her several times. Once we lived in a shack in Maui without electricity. Once, we lived in Sonoma, north of SF for 2 years while I took my MA.
I knew LA on a cellular level. I lived in the barrio like a Mexicana, a Latina. I only spoke Spanish. Within LA, I have always gone native. Palm Latitudes was during my indigenous LA period. The great LA novel wouldn’t be about whites, it would be about immigrants from Mexico. I was fascinated by Mexican culture. It seemed both exotic and accessible simultaneously. I came to know LA as a Latina. The feminism of that book rises from my DNA. One reason women’s writing has deteriorated to marketplace pressure, to the most conventional, is that writers tend to begin with their politics and then insert them into their characters. Rich did this, and it hurt her poetry. If your politics are so organic that they are intrinsic to your DNA, your characters will automatically form; will coalesce along your own instinctive impulse. They require no external guidance. Real politics and being politically correct have nothing to do with one another but shared words. Women are forced to be politically correct. They are not permitted to be political. Witness the 19 years for Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer, and she’s still not really in the canon. Palm Latitudes was my love song to LA. I thought the century began with Joyce inhabiting a Jew in Dublin writing from Trieste and ended with a Jew writing as a Mexican in Los Angeles.
I did another novel in between, in 1993. It’s called Wonders of the West and is a sort of prequel to Lithium for Medea. It’s a simple rites of passage story about a girl who refuses to learn how to type or sew or make meatloaf and is going to be sent to an institution. Her 15-year-old feminist impulses are profound. Her fingers resist. One was educated by socioeconomics then, in that era in Los Angeles. Clearly, I wasn’t college track, but I refused the standard female’s training. My character, Jordan, says, you are judged not only by what you know but also by what you refuse to know. That’s important for writers to consider as a lifestyle. Excluding and deleting is at least as important as absorbing and mastering. It’s a constant yoga of philosophy, a lifetime discipline. I don’t have a TV. I don’t know who the people are, the ones being written about in popular culture. I avoid popular culture. It’s a mutually exclusive dialect and has nothing to do with me.
Frida K was an experiment that didn’t quite coalesce. Instead of working organically and letting the page determine morphology, which it does when you have learned there are always 2 stories, the one you may set out to tell and the one you and the page accommodate.
On the surface, Frida Kahlo seemed a perfect vehicle for me to inhabit. An innovative artist, sexual and political renegade, physically and psychologically damaged, half Jewish and Mexican. It was a very problematic novel, and an experiment I won’t repeat. I tried a Q & A with Marilyn Monroe, for whom I feel neither sympathy nor interest, it’s in the new Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir and she was completely malleable, I could get in on an atomic level. In my version, Marilyn Monroe speaks with my voice; she’s a feminist and transcends her circumstances. I don’t think about my political/feminist convictions as separate from my biochemistry, they are naturally in whatever I do, like being brown-eyed or left-handed. I don’t inflict it into the characters. They already have it.
Q: Talk a little about feminism, and what it means to you?
A: You can talk about feminism or you can live it. I raised my daughter with the idea that being a writer was a profession, like being a doctor or architect. That I loved the page, loved it before she was born, and would love it when she was grown. That I spend my decades in my study, inviolate, no intrusions. And don’t carpool or go to soccer practices or PTA meetings. Women are always complaining about the difficulties of writing and being a wife and/or mother. I have divested myself of most of the conventional world. I don’t shop or cook anymore. I never did the domestic things to begin with. I find it oppressive. I want to make bumper stickers that say JUST SAY NO TO SOCCER. As the gal in “Cocktail Hour” notes, these peer induced child enhancements are just another form of consumer consumption. No, every kid shouldn’t master 6 sports; translate a book of haiku by their 13th birthday, take ballet and gymnastics. No children have the aptitude for this spectrum. Every stray spasm of enthusiasm is met with an instant new uniform and coach. They grow up with an enormous sense of entitlement and a false identity. I witness professional women deforming the fabric of their lives for trivial child-related activities, and I want to grab them and give them a reality check. If what you are doing is so insignificant that watching a ski practice is worth more than your day's professional activities, are we showing them committed feminism in action?
I didn’t encounter feminism as a movement until college in the 60’s at Berkeley. Before that, I recognized that the female program in junior high was radically different then the male. The female, with the typewriters I kept smashing and the sewing machine where every time I heard the word “bobbin” I started screaming. I knew that sexual harassment was the norm, how a woman got and kept a job. I knew the world was divided into the protected and the inferior others, the unspeakable caste of women who peroxided their hair on Sunday nights to get ready for the buses taking them to their work weeks where serving coffee and taking off your blouse went without saying. I saw my mother take her savage street skills and turn them into a PR firm. There was a sense that a strategy existed to circumvent the standard, but the methods were not clear. I thought if I continued reading and refusing to learn how to sew aprons and curtains, I would be embarking on an irrevocably different path.
Q: Running away at 15 was braver than I could have ever been. Tell a bit about that time for you, and what fearlessness in life and on the page mean.
A: I was in an insane configuration and the 60’s were a way out of ground zero. I knew my experiences were so toxic, I was being deformed as I breathed, sky above like a massacre. Inside, it was worse. It was a bit daring to actually leave LA and put myself through Berkeley High, but it wasn’t like joining a cult in India. It was the era. I heard Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and I wanted to follow the sound of my boots. It was a natural imperative, a historical singularity. I already knew I was going to be a writer. So I studied anthropology and comparative literature. It was the season of run aways. The war in Viet Nam had to be stopped. A citizen’s duty to resist by demonstration and confrontation.
My husband, who was not my husband yet, refused his draft card and left town. For his 18th birthday, he got 2 felonies and spent 6 years underground, actively engaged in anti-war activities. He was shot and stabbed and hunted. He lived like an animal. For those few who engaged the moment, rather than passed through it, it was defining.
I saw my revolution as being literary. I would take my desire for insurrection directly onto the page and birth women who had never existed before, in situations and circumstances designed to aggressively assault the recognized perimeters. For the page, I have born acres, miles, and regions of solitude. Eating light bulbs has lighted me from within. I have taken vast amounts of various drugs to examine my consciousness.
Such pharmacological explorations were the basis of the aesthetic of the 60’s. That drugs have become degraded by this anemic politically correct daisy bomb dropping set of fools, that the touchstone of the entire 60’s has become considered déclassé and actually legally outlawed is not a change I imagined possible. I have taken narcotics solely for the purpose of studying my interior.
There’s a fearlessness of time that accumulates. The decisions taken become irrevocable, and it is by such bold statements that we know ourselves. The years of rejection, of small successes and bitter disappointments. Watching one’s peers become known professionals, dentists, and psychologists with children, stock portfolios and sports cars while I was still in bohemian squalor was a challenge. Time is also defining. Duchamp noted that to be 20 and write poetry is to be 20. To be 40 and write poetry is to be a poet.
Q: What is courage for an artist like yourself?
A: It’s largely internal, in how I process and synthesize. In the last 15 years, I’ve come to have a more scientific perspective about man, his collective narrative and trajectory. I don’t consider it courage. I know the protocol, the silence, the protection of space, the way I must take care of my health, exercise, and avoid drugs I can’t tolerate. Writing appears sedentary, but it’s actually brutally hard on the body. I wonder if men have achieved more simply because they’re physically stronger. As a girl, female exercise didn’t exist as a concept. I need to do a vast amount of psychological and physical work on myself every day to keep myself in condition to do this work and not be killed by it, the pain of it, the lack of real readers, no critical apparatus, just friends bestowing gifts to one another. I did AA for years, then on and off for more years. Psychiatry. Yoga.
There are the awkward interfaces with the sort of people who decide if they will publish or review you, and I do these actual interfaces with a complete absence of grace or coherence. At this point, I say it’s my job. I write. I read. I review. I teach. I mentor. Modulating my interior with my exterior and making transitions between mutually exclusive situations, like writing and being a wife or writing and making a phone call continue to be difficult. It’s not courage. I’m an outlaw and an anti-American, anti political correctness, which is just painting by the numbers for the morally bereft. I know I am right. Maintaining balance while inhabiting the upper strata most of the time is not easy to juggle.
All my friends are artists, so I am used to collective agony as a mode. My friends are writing, they’re way down in there for months at a time, and I wish I could see them more often. There’s much I wish could have been different. I’ve given my daughter the complete schematics of how to live differently. Courage is a word. We are our actions, deliberate and spontaneous. Most people are not artists. We live in a period of time where all of past history no longer applies. We are merging with our technology, co-evolving with our tools. There is already a collective global apparatus that is fully operational and making our cultural decisions.
That books have had, since the Guttenberg press, a 500-year run is quite a long time, given the quantum leaps of human change. Most artists avoid science, as if suspecting it’s the lethal thing out there that’s going to delete them. It is. But an artist who can truly understand the time in which they live---the fall of empire, the failure of the nuclear family, the triumph of global capitalism, the lack of an ethos for what we are becoming. It’s like painting with your fists in plaster in a pitch-dark room.
Q: What are your favorite films?
A: We don’t have a TV, but find films sustaining. I recently saw a South Korean movie called Bad Boy that was divine. I like science fiction. Blade Runner, Alien, Aliens. I didn’t discover the X-files until recently, and have it all on tape. Barton Fink and Dead Ringers, which are horror movies. Apocalypse Now. Full Metal Jacket. War films have an appeal. The comedies -- Grosse Point Blank and The Big Lebowski, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Certain directors and actors I follow, no matter what. Mickey Rourke. Sean Penn. John Goodman. We’ve been cycling through the same DVDs for years.
I’m struck by screenplays that are 40 years old, how complex ordinary conversation was then, the outstanding dialogue, and the vocabulary level that was considered normal then. Books are over. So are films. They’ll be careening into more interactive entertainments in the immediate future. No books. It began as I was just becoming a novelist. The individual publishing houses being swallowed by corporations. Editors who come up through marketing and sales, rather than anything literary. Celebrity books. The new way books are made, with the print and paper designed to disintegrate in a few years. Film was a frontier. Now there are barely any movies worth the effort. Gone, much of what we took as fundamental is gone or nearly obsolete. I recognize it’s going; yet I continue.
I have a sort of warrior code. I don’t think it’s courage. I have a proclivity for danger and risk. It’s erotic. I have criminal tendencies. Women are barred from these domains. I refuse not to have full access to the page, with real women, who are not like your wife or editor’s wife. Women are denied passion and outrage. They are de facto denied the epic, grandeur.
I’ve experienced more than your typical Creative Writing Prof, I’m sure. I’ve sought the vivid and ineluctable. I was a cocaine junky for twenty years. Later, I had a bit of a heroin problem. I went on safari to Tanzania last Christmas, sleeping in tents, up at 4 am for game drives. I watched a pride of 22 lions take down a water buffalo. Such an event does not translate to film. You must hear the teeth smashing through spine and rib bones and smell the blood on the fur in the sun. I’ve arrived in ports and, intoxicated by the beauty, I have refused to leave. The shack in the jungle in Maui. Sailing. Boating without navigational equipment. It’s a matter of always taking the least traveled path. It
Q: Who do you read?
A: I just read Bill Vollmann's Europe Central and Didion’s National Book Award memoir. One I loved, one I loathed. Reading for reviewing money and student work has rendered reading no longer pleasurable. I read very slowly and at performance level. I read Cormac’s new novel. I read manuscripts of friends. I read on contest committees.
I like being read to. One of my favorite pleasures, and I know my pleasures as I do my pains, is to have Alan read to me. I’m childlike, actually. I feel 14 at most times, in most situations, which I attempt to explain and people don’t know what to do with such information. Alan has read the La Carre trilogy to me, all 3 from Tinker Tailor to Smiley's People at least half a dozen times. He’s a popular writer, but that trilogy is better than Graham Greene. Also Stone’s Dog Soldiers and Cormac’s Blood Meridian. I recently read Bowles and Celine. Richard Rhodes Making the Atomic Bomb is thrilling. I don’t read magazines or newspapers. I read at performance level, every sentence, the architecture, choices, rhythm, sound, subtext. Very slow, much annotation. I tend to re-read the same poets. Blaise Cendrares, Plath, Neruda, Paz. Donald Rawley, a favorite poet of mine who died in 1998.
Q: Can you talk a bit about what your new book is about?
A: Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir is entirely experimental material. I had won the Economist Prize (actually tied with Alan) for an essay about growing up in Los Angeles. I expanded it. I had written essays for the LA Times. Then I put in short stories, rewrote the essays, putting the poetry back in, there are no standard narrative devices. I have stand-up comedy monologues, twenty page poems, real history rendered impressionistically. The best description is on my website on the first page, where Polito compares it to Virginia Wolfe and Thomas Burton. His current introduction is less enthusiastic. It’s a sculptural book. The page is three-dimensional, I’ve always told my students it isn’t a flat surface, it’s a process you engage and choreograph. This book is about spaces and geometries, from houses to gardens to slums to address books; it’s about how perception of size and distance are dictated by childhood experience. The book deals with the 6 years of self-assigned exile we had in the Allegheny Mountains, 6 hours from NY or Boston, truly the middle of nowhere, as rural and remote as you can be in America. It’s about the myth of rural America and the second life. It was quilt-like, and then I wrote it into a fabric.
Of course, I just keep spinning out this magical thread; I have it in cardboard boxes, drawers. Sometimes I can grab a piece of the essential fabric and nail it or sew it into a short story or essay or novel. Just write in fragments and they’ll coalesce. I didn’t quite realize this was a book until I had arranged the fragments, collaged them. Then the sewing.
The book is about poverty, marginalization, small towns, racism, anti-Semitism, LA, the rites of passage that define our lives, like a new address book. I’m not interested in the headlines. I’m interested in the almost invisible betrayals and heartbreak that doesn’t make the evening news. The increments and divisions that concern me are more subtle and ambiguous.
Q: What do you think is missing right now in the world, that other writers had going for them, say in Hemingway's time or earlier. Is anything still mysterious?
A: The world has never been more mysterious, or mysterious in the wonder of complexities and possibilities being revealed. AI is fascinating. The fact that women live outside the patriarchy for the first time in history is singular. For the first time in all of human history, women are citizens, not chattel, freed from pregnancy and millennia of men telling them what they can’t think and can’t do. As the nuclear family continues to meltdown, as women choose to live on their own terms, this is a historical singularity. Technology has enabled women to live as men, to travel and experience. I have seen more than Cleopatra or Eleanor of Aquitaine. The world is more mysterious and open to examination, it’s lying at our feet like a shot beast. What has changed is that there are no more Hemingways. Writers are no longer mythic figures in our collective global culture.
Rappers and TV actresses are this culture’s mythic figures. No writer has mythic stature anymore. The public doesn’t follow the lives of writers, nor read their books. As people read less, as more publish increasingly insignificant books, as anyone and everyone gets to have at least one novel or memoir, writing has become like a lottery. There are writers with the power of Hemingway. They just don’t get on the cover of Time Magazine when they go on safari. They’d have to win an Academy Award to get their picture taken.
With the ease of translation and dissemination now, glorious fusion writing happens. It just doesn’t get read or discussed. MFA programs are graduating 10,000 certified writers a year. We need to graduate 10,000 certified readers a year. It’s the marketplace speaking for you. The marketplace says we don’t consider writers mythic. It’s the public saying we don’t want writers as a life project; we just want to get through this plane ride.
What’s changed since Hemingway is that the artist has been relegated to cultural obscurity by a public that prefers reality TV shows, yes, I’ve read about them. It’s the rise of the new global consumer and books are not on their short list. Books are not even on their extra long list. What’s changed since Hemingway is the entire planet, it’s values, vocabulary, and sense of connection to the word or even narrative. Of course, in all eras, charlatans are in vogue, adepts are rare and even rarely are they recognized. What’s happened is that we are now in post-historical times, and few are prepared to write the books of this time and fewer still will be the readers.
©2006 by Kate Braverman