The Me/Not Me Game: Uzodinma Okehi Talks with Elizabeth Ellen, Author of PERSON/A

I shouldn’t just say we’ve all had those moments. Who’s we? And speak for yourself, right? So I can tell you, there’s a part of my life so clouded, fraught with delusion, so much more about my own failings, probably, more than any particular woman, or girl—skip the romance, jump cut right to screaming, howling dysfunction, clawing my clothes, at my eyes, on some biblical, or go trip-hop, all sad beats and tears in rain …

Likewise, Elizabeth Ellen’s massive new 600-plus page book, Person/a, reads like a cross-dimensional series of heartbroken, semi-truthful disclosures. The rundown is that the novel’s protagonist, also Elizabeth, also Ellen, at the time attached, pushing forty, begins an ill-advised affair with a younger artist-guy. A couple of hookups turns into nearly a decade of fevered stalking and off-and-on contact via text and email. He strings her along, manipulating her, but then hers is the sole point of view. Early on she leaves her then boyfriend. They get back together, get married. But she remains fixated on the affair, torturing herself, looking for answers. Throughout, but increasingly toward the end, the fiction conflates and mixes in with the verifiable aspects of her life punctuating the text. The Google-able, actual Elizabeth Ellen. Any confusion here is in fact artifice, as the novel she’s writing in the opening sections, becomes, insanely, an entire book about the few-month affair, which then becomes, gradually, the actual book you’re reading as it slides, tumbles, thrillingly into a climax that also feels in all ways inevitable. Despite our own rocky patch[1], Elizabeth agreed over email to resume our never-ending dialogue/debate about the substance of autofiction.

 

(relationships, delusion, freedom)

E-double. That’s what I call you behind your back by the way, full disclosure …

Here’s one. And kind of scary I guess, but do you think relationships all have to function on an underlying power/leverage dynamic? Is that shit inescapable? Or I’ll put it this way: Do you think one person always loves the other person more?

Well, that’s a very simplistic way of putting it or of looking at “it,” at a friendship or relationship between two people, be they mother and daughter, be they platonic friends, be they lovers, be they an ant and a grasshopper, be they a barista and a customer at Starbucks … I think there is an ever-changing dynamic, yes, and a “power dynamic” if you want to call it that, between all who engage with another living being, be it human or tree or cheetah. Trying to make this question interesting. Or, my answer, at least.

I feel that you are very interested in our power dynamic (has it already been mentioned that I published your book?) and that that, might make for a more interesting interview.

You could make the argument that Person/a is a one-woman show, almost a play, a monologue in which the main character, Elizabeth, is the only person you see onstage. The other characters, even, or especially “Ian” exist almost completely off-camera. Also, she’s obsessed with Ian and the fact he largely refuses to see her in effect seals her off from the world. The main action then becomes, shifting perception, not so much a struggle against an antagonist, but Elizabeth reacting to or rejecting outright the way various interactions make her see herself—this is getting Bladerunneresque—but here’s the question: a lot of the book was about being seduced by specific images of ourselves. Or was that just me? How much were you thinking about this aspect?

I’m curious what images you’re speaking of. Are you talking about one’s persona? If so, then, yes, that is the chief point or theme of the book. How the outside world sees you or how you manipulate the outside world and others to view you. You see, U., I can manipulate also.

My fault. Didn’t mean to overlook that

I feel you underestimate the author and the protagonist by mentioning only Ian’s powers of manipulation. Every negative feeling or emotion a reader feels toward the protagonist, toward “Elizabeth Ellen,” while reading Person/a is felt because I have instructed her to feel that. I was uninterested in the reader liking Elizabeth Ellen.

Lightning round part one:
Let’s say you were best friends with Elizabeth’s husband Lee. What advice would you give him relating to Elizabeth?

There are three questions similar to this one in this interview and I am going to delete the other two and answer this one by saying that this is the work of the reader and so there is no point in the author answering.

(Me, Uzodinma? Or rhetorically speaking, the reader?)

Too speculative? Nah, you’re right … I retract that question.

One of my personal themes concerns freedom. I think words like “privilege” and “narcissism” are often just coded terms for people to insult each other based on class. On the other hand, I do think that basic human nature leads most people to let themselves get swallowed up when given the freedom to do so. Charlie Sheen. Dictators of third-world countries, etc. Regardless of class, gender and race. In your book, the character Elizabeth, inherits what must be a huge, huge sum of money. She no longer works, she buys/leases an apartment for her husband when she decides to leave him. She gives him a $50,000 check. She spends the majority of her time consuming pop culture, movies, books, music, surfing the web/other people’s blogs and Tumblrs and masturbating. (By the way, sounds great!) To an extent being married/motherhood is the only system of structure left holding her back. It’s not discussed explicitly, but would you say the freedom she has is as much to blame for her unraveling as unrequited love?

I’m going to turn this question back to you. Because I know something of your backstory, from reading your book (Over for Rockwell) and from what you’ve disclosed to me and what I’ve picked up “online.” I would ask you, if you were back with your family in South Africa or your wife’s relatives in Nigeria, and complaining or mentioning some unhappiness or unease, be it in your marriage or in your life in America (Uzodinma was born, I believe, in the United States, but his father and his wife, to my knowledge, were born in Nigeria), might they not say, “it is because of you having too many choices and freedoms in America, too much attention to materialism, to consumerism, too culturally and morally bankrupt. If you lived here with us in Africa, you would probably be happier,” and might they not be correct in saying so?

Everything is relative and it is easy but pointless to point out someone else’s privilege as a reason for their unhappiness.

It is also pointless to speculate on what one would do in someone else’s shoes. The speculation is almost always wrong.

I’m trying to come up with some similar conversation I might have had with a relative in the past … But yeah, definitely, I’ll give it to you. If I was in a heartachey and/or marital kind of situation I’m sure it would probably be misinterpreted by them as some sort of cultural/class divide. And I agree that it’s a knee-jerk criticism people go to, which is part of what I think I was driving at. But I like your explanation of it. Nuff said.

But, also, when she gives Lee the $50,000 he’s her boyfriend, not her husband, and he could do many things with that money—give it to charity, move far away, save it for a down payment on a house with a future wife or husband who is not Elizabeth, open a business, further his education, travel the world, but he does none of those things. He stays in the same town as Elizabeth and lives off of it and continues to date her and eventually to marry her, so their reactions to inheriting money are pretty similar.

That’s my mistake again. Boyfriend, not husband … And a boss move by the way! I thought about that. That Lee essentially wins the lottery in a sense. Is empowered by Elizabeth, to go wherever, do whatever he wants, and he chooses to essentially stay and wait it out. To come back to her

 

(more disclosure)

Elizabeth Ellen is also my boss by the way. Or was, for the few years I was under contract with her press Short Flight/Long Drive Books. So I guess I’m obligated not to tell you this book is a masterpiece. Or even if I liked it. Instead of the hype, maybe, to give you an idea, I can tell you how much I think I wanted to like those Mein Kampf books by Karl Ove Knaussgaurd. His six volume, ten trillion word Livejournal-style search for the meaning of life, starting from birth. Heartbreaks, his struggles, petty jealousies, his fleeting epiphanies, minutely catalogued. The pic of him on the cover with long hair smoking a cigarette. Still makes me smile when I see it. My Struggle. Like a decrepit Brad Pitt. Absolutely my kind of book. Or so I thought. My Struggle Volume 2 was the book I read right before I read Person/a. And I think the scoop on Knausgaurd, from critics, from fans alike, is that My Struggle is definitely boring. From the different literary celebrities that love him; Zadie Smith, Johnathan Lethem, etc—I guess the spin is that the My Struggle books somehow transcend boredom, or that their boringness taps into some sustaining revelation about, something—whatever … Knaussgaurd though, is an evocative writer. But it took me nearly a year to painfully fight through that book. By the end I was dreading it, leaving it at home on purpose to avoid the endless funeral march of the guy’s deadpan revelations. Which is on me, not him, I’ll say. My literary mind, I’ll admit, isn’t too highly trained. But also, for me, boring is boring, no offense meant. By contrast, after that, I must have devoured Elizabeth Ellen’s Person/a in a quick couple of days. On the train, the bathroom, in the stairwell at my job. Waiting in line at the movies. And here, reading it again for a third time, while doing this interview, feels the same, a guilty pleasure, like those watermelon Sour Patch candies that make you salivate just thinking about them. So let me go on record and say, for my twenty bucks, that Person/a is a much more thrilling, much better autofiction book than My Struggle Volume 2. This is my sole, unqualified endorsement. Also, I figure, a fair enough jumping-off point to dig into some thoughts on genre …

(Elizabeth Ellen: interjecting here to say THANK YOU for that paragraph/lead in)

 

(autofiction, Mary Karr’s ethics, Ke$ha)

Autofiction is its own genre, right? That’s probably the distinction many people fail to make. And every genre has its tropes. I feel there’s definitely a kind of weird pushback against it that would seem ludicrous for, say, sci-fi novels. What’s your experience?

I honestly don’t think I’d heard the term autofiction until after I finished Person/a (or perhaps in the final year I was working on it; it’s possible Tao used the term in an email to me) and now that I have I certainly would not have thought of it as autofiction while writing it. I don’t think I would have spent six or seven years working on it had it been true “autofiction.” But maybe I’m still unclear on the term.

You wouldn’t, for instance, refer to Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story as autofiction, would you?

I think Person/a is way more fictional than you realize. And maybe that’s a testament to my writing skills?

I think I just picked up the word “autofiction” in the last year or two myself. By the way, it’s defined by wiki as a term used in literary criticism to refer to a form of fictionalized autobiography. Combines two mutually inconsistent narrative forms, namely autobiography and fiction.” Would you even feel comfortable using this label to describe Person/a? The rest of your work?

See above but also I would not use the term myself but am not offended if others do.

About the hypertextual aspect of your book, which I like. Is that even real word? A lot of Google-bait for internet deep dives. You give pretty specific instructions to look up various aspects of the story, including the true-life identity of your/her obsession. You also list your actual email address. Have you received any random emails from fans? Any noteworthy responses to the various Easter eggs embedded in the text?

Hypertextual is another term of which I was unfamiliar until after I’d finished the book. Thank god.

I also swear to you I have never understood the term “Easter eggs,” so am unsure to what in Person/a you are referring.

Well, given that there’s the game where people hunt for painted eggs, I think it refers to information/images/clues deliberately placed in a text or movie for people to discover and think about and/or comment on. That’s my guess. I’m surprised no one hit you up though. I emailed you. Does that count?

No, no one emails me, U. I either have no fans at this point or at this point my fans are mute. I think it’s interesting that when you first start writing, or first start publishing, you receive more feedback, emails, messages, from other writers and readers/strangers. I don’t get that now. I spend too much time looking at my spam folder, hoping an email from a fan might be in there. It never is.

In the reviews I read, the structure of the book seems to be the thing most discussed. Heavy use of repetition. Repeating entire scenes, but changing the context or specific details. The three different sections labeled “Volume one”. That the daughter in the book becomes a son, then gradually fades back into being a daughter again … If you could describe some of your process. How did you go from telling the simple story of a failed love affair to deciding to double back with multiple layers and devices?

Hmmmm. Interesting question. Wish I kept a journal. I guess I’ve always been interested in the aforementioned novel The End of the Story, which is as much about how to tell a classic romance as about the romance itself. And I wanted, at some point, to take it a step further even than Lydia. In a much messier, less nuanced/less academic manner. I also at some point began to realize a number of female writers/novels were iconic or cult classics because of breakdowns on the page that mirrored breakdowns in real life and was interested in that, as an ending, or as a justification or apology for, the novel. For the woman having been so forthright. Seemingly.

Mary Karr recently wrote a book about memoir writing in which she insinuates a system of ethics. Do you think something similar should apply to autofiction? Given the heavy use of real-life details?

Um, no. Mary Karr wrote a book about memoir writing because a book about memoir writing equals money and makes her agent happy. I don’t know that her having written it means she believes in the system. Or even in “a system.”

Person/a is nowhere close to being a memoir. It is very much a novel.

I don’t like the idea of ethics in general and even less so as applied to writing.

“Ethics” is almost always about what my neighbor is doing and very very rarely about what I am doing. Read the questions to ‘The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine some Sunday for examples. Most of them are some form of “is my neighbor/relative a bad person for doing X?” “Can I tell on my neighbor/relative for doing X?”

In the opening section of the book you’ve printed a number of emails you received. Rejection letters from agents. One from your mother, trashing your book, also criticizing it with a couple semi-legitimate points. One of the emails is in support of your book. Unnamed, but seemingly from the writer Tao Lin[2]. He goes on to present a pretty impassioned and lengthy defense of “writing autobiographically ”, stating that the direction he feels compelled toward is writing more about himself, to “…  further examine the purposes of autobiographical fiction, the differences between people and characters, the relationships between people and books,” Is this also your direction? In other words do you consider yourself an autofiction writer? Or more of a stylist? Is this just the “style” you felt would best suit this book and topic?

Person/a is just one book. I don’t consider myself any sort of writer. Nor a stylist, whatever that means in this regard (unclear).

I’m beginning, as I answer these questions, however, to dislike the terms “autofiction” and “autobiographical fiction,” as I think they are very limiting and very simplistic and have an undercurrent of judgment about them, as well as an undercurrent of assuming books labeled as such are easily written. Nothing about writing Person/a was easy. It wasn’t like writing in a diary or journal. Because it’s not nonfiction. It’s a novel.

Implied in your mother’s criticism is, I think, the privilege thing. Classifying the subject matter of your book as, perhaps, petty. Inauthentic. And to be clear, I do believe, regardless of class or race, that we’re in a real way, all of us, locked into some sort of legitimate struggle. For me that’s what life is, no matter who you are. On the other hand though, for example, music by Ke$ha, there’s a reason why I can’t take her as seriously as, say, Tupac or something. Not that I dislike Ke$ha. But for you personally, what validates a work of autofiction in terms of authenticity?

a) My mother wrote that email having read only the initial novella/the first “Volume One”.

b) I’m more interested in why you chose Tupac and Ke$ha as comparison points. Race? Misogyny?

Yeah, let’s dig into it. The backstory is that among my rap-head pals, I’m sort of notorious for not liking Tupac. Not to get too deep into it but I think he’s overrated. For a lot of reasons. Speaking of misogyny. I think maybe ninety percent of rap would qualify as misogynistic. But then a large part of that is also just dudes being honest about how they feel or are feeling in the moment. I believe there always needs to be a pressure valve in the culture for that type of emotional honesty. And here’s where I’m going: Gangster rap. Also, your book! In that you make quite a few inflammatory “middle-finger” type statements throughout Person/a. Similarly, I think about some of the more derogatory things Tupac says about women in his songs. Also Jay-Z. Also Kanye. Take your pick. And I love hip-hop, trap, etc. But are they misogynists or no? Does Tupac get out of feminist jail because he had a hit song dedicated to his mother? By the way, is Elizabeth still cheating if it’s only consummated in text and nudie pics? What excites us in art are these deliberately blurred lines … The irony, I suppose, is that as a diehard hip-hop fan I don’t have any Tupac albums, but I do have that Ke$ha song Tick-Tock as a go-to jam on my iPod. I love that fucking song! Was actually thinking about it that day in the car while we were on tour together. Like, if Ke$ha comes on the shuffle, how do I defend this? Pretend it’s my kid’s iPod? Skip songs, or maybe try and quickly snatch it from the console

 

(just a bit more)

Call it a kind of cultural nightmare … It’s not a dark book, not per se, but I’ll admit the so-called monster of Person/a does seem very real. In the same sense a certain kind of blonde woman was projected on me as the ideal, my earliest memory of women, of attraction, movies and television, from print ads and billboards, even if not described specifically, then outlined by the details; flowing hair, paired with cutoffs, nipples and red lips and tank tops and stomping around in boots. That was the available iconography in the suburbs, where I nestled unwittingly, playing soccer, listening to hard rock with my mostly white pals. Fast forward from the Nineties to now, from teenage fantasy to the adult nightmare of the ample breasted, emotionally elusive, “untamable” blonde, white woman. The feminist spin, I suppose, would be about freedom. The mystery, the power of femininity. Which does exist. But the dark side of that, and the subtext of Person/a, from the male point of view, would be trying to live day-to-day, struggling to navigate the fickle, flickering moods of a someone, empowered, maybe, free, but also, like a shitty blues song, somehow never satisfied.

I read all this with interest, particularly the “emotionally elusive” part, since earlier you said Ian was the manipulator in Person/a.

But I think what you’re talking about is the same thing I grew up with, as far as an ideal, and is part of the “persona” of the book. You may be confusing what is real and what the author has ensured you believe in. Monsters and ideals and such.

 

(monsters, pop songs)

You describe a specific kind of female “monster” in the opening notes. In your thinking does the male version of this monster also exist in your book?

I don’t know, you tell me.

Hadn’t thought of it as such.

And the female monster is talked about with a wink, of course. Or, perhaps, with a middle finger.

The punching power of Person/a, I think, comes from its visceral depiction of heartbreak at its worst. Also, as the layers unfold, equating that specific kind of agony to the process of writing a novel. I don’t know if I completely agree when people talk about writing as therapy. And I can’t tell if writing the book is actually therapeutic for “Elizabeth” in Person/a. What about for you, in real life? Did getting this stuff down and in print help slay any demons, or did it wake them up all over again?

I’m not sure what you’re talking about, U. I can’t even remember now having been heartbroken in my life. But if you say I was, based on having read this novel, then I suppose I was.

Okay, one more. I could be crossing a line here, but I want some dirt! Just a little … Maybe midway through the book. I think it’s mentioned more than once. There’s a pop song that Elizabeth is belting out in the car, possibly crying to, on the way back from seeing Ian. She knows he’d sneer at it, being a cool, urban hipster dude. But she fantasizes about it becoming their song, even that they’d dance to it at their wedding … Now I know you must have had something specific in mind writing that scene. At least give me that much. What was that song?

When a writer talks about a song rather than naming a song, there is a reason. Had I wanted a specific song title named in that section, U., there would be one. ☺

Got it … E-double, always a boss. Thank you for doing this!

____________________________

[1] As of this writing, Elizabeth may still be irritated/disappointed, quietly finished with me for comments I made in an interview last spring.

[2] In 2015, I was on tour for a week with both Elizabeth, and Tao Lin, also writers Chelsea Martin, Mira Gonzalez. Just saying. Sounds like him …

 

 

***

Uzodinma Okehi draws comics. Or kind of. A while back he went to Hong Kong. He wrote about that in his own autofiction-y first book, Over for Rockwell, out now from Short Flight/Long Drive Books.

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