A Conversation between Youssef Alaoui and J de Salvo, regarding “Fiercer Monsters”
JdS: Fiercer Monsters begins and ends with an exposition of symbols, specifically letters. In the first section of the book, the Aphorisms, you elaborate on certain letters from the Hebrew Alphabet to which mystical significance has been attributed for millennia. At the end of the book, you explore a similar attributed power that has been assayed to belong to the sounds of letters, specifically vowels. Is this a kind of Borgesian "fiction"? an alternate fictional reality? to be taken literally? figuratively? somewhere in between? What was your intention regarding the reader's takeaway, given these unique choices?
YA: "Borgesian"? I am honored to have this name ushered into my email client. The idea is so romantic, such a compliment! I’m sure my stories would bore Hessians. Truthfully, is "Borgesian" an expression used liberally or conservatively these days? If conservatively, then mark his name within mine, or beside, or as a subtext. I will be happy and proud to bear it. If profoundly creative writing often gets wrapped up in a "Borgesian" catch-all trawler net that might clumsily scrape and kill all varied life of the literary sea floor, then, then, please free me to swim on my own, for I am a dolphin of clear waters, living south of Gibraltar, roaming circuits of creativity with pure life and crispy waves.
Fiercer Monsters is “bookended” by two “booklets.” The book is an exploration of the rich symbolic significance of individual letters—their talismanic power, and their progenitive force, contrasted with the inexactitude of language. Regarding the booklets, I felt that the truest way to demonstrate the power of letters (the building blocks of language) would be in non-narrative form, lest the narrative detract from my point of focus. My intention was to inspire readers to contemplate (the meaning of) one letter at a time on their own time. The end “booklet” with the charts and diagrams is a Sepher Yetzirah-styled instruction manual for nothing less than summoning the Godhead. Borges might have considered such a work. I have read most of his writings, barely the lectures. As far as I know, “The Aleph” is his only narrative fiction that describes the power of a single letter. The narrator’s friend has located the letter Aleph, in gold, hovering in his basement.
Language, if it were an entity, would have been born in a nest of inaccuracy. Language functions at its best when used for manipulation, propaganda, tall tales, or "history." Language can only make us "feel something."
Narratives point around the truth. A writer or storyteller can never relate every last detail or perspective. The brain must fill in the rest. Narratives are a subjectified reduction of reality; therefore a narrative is a kind of lie, but that is the art of language: inaccuracy! Each of the stories comes from something in my life. All of it actually happened. None of the voices are mine. I would be happy to tell you some stories behind the stories.
JdS: To tell the truth (ha!), I am woefully ignorant concerning the etymology and popular usage of “Borgesian,” (though I must have read it somewhere once upon a time…). Let’s assume—whether accurately or not—that I use it conservatively, in order to facilitate the narrative of this interview.
Let’s pretend this is an interview, which is also a pep talk at the beginning of a long day of cold calling (telemarketing) in a basement call center somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago. I am the closer. The closer, in addition to closing sales on the leads generated by the cold-callers, is responsible for getting everybody fired up each morning; for making them excited to be selling this wonderful product. It just so happens that the product we are selling, or the way we make money, or this or that other thing, has three parts, and I use a cheap, tired metaphor about our product (Fiercer Monsters). I compare it to a sandwich.
The meat of the sandwich, so to speak, really is the stories, which here are called fables, or missives, or prophecies; the pieces of bread are the aphorisms and the diagrams.
One of my favorite stories in Fiercer Monsters is Elvis, King of Cats,from the Urban Fables section of the book. I'm taking a wild shot in the dark, but it feels like the stories in both of the fabular sections are more personal than the others. Elvis stands out as the most fantastic of the Urban Fables, though throughout the book the line between surreality and insanity is never very clearly demarcated. (That’s a compliment.)
Talk to me of Elvis, and Paris...
YA: Ah. Paris...
Well… the sad truth is that France, and Paris, made it difficult for me to live within their borders. I could only stay temporarily on a student visa and they made it difficult to get residency. It was so long ago. I don’t recall the details. I did live in Paris.
Until Paris I was a mystery person who was neither black nor white; not Mexican, Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, or anything identifiable. I was just a brown guy with a funny name, growing up in America. Until Paris. In Paris I learned who I was, firstly by being racially profiled by the French police—not at the consulate or the prefecture, but on the streets and on the trains, just minding my own business. I am North African. In the American cities of my youth, no one had any idea what a Moroccan American was, or from where such a thing might originate. They estimated somewhere close to Egypt and the Middle East, but such is the globe of the mind. We are better now at mental maps, as Americans. As a point of Reference, Morocco is GMT, further west than Portugal and one of the three countries that comprise the Maghreb of Africa, so, no...not the "Middle East" of the mind; very much North Africa. Right across the Strait of Gibraltar. Within striking distance of Spain…and guess what happened, from 792-1492?
Elvis “the Cat” Del Monte was a real man, a very treasured member of our community in my college years in Tempe, Arizona. He made flyers for local bands—tiny faces on a field of black. He rode around town with them, posting them at venues. My band was immortalized by Elvis, once! Readers can look him up on the web. His story is fascinating.
JdS: This story—without giving away too much and thereby ruining the reading experience—has, well...rape in it. Especially in these times of painfully palpable tension between the two traditional genders due to the seemingly endless onslaught of revelations of sexual abuse, it’s probably beneficial to provide some context for this. There are those who would say that an author, and particularly a male-identified author, can’t allude to (much less describe) this subject without falling into moral error; that, in short a male-written rape scene is inherently sexist at best, from which point of departure it can only descend into something both sexist and “creepy” in some other way. While this is not a theory that I subscribe to, I do think that, as with all depictions of violence, there does need to be an “authorial ‘why?’”; as in: why has this subject matter been chosen? in what way does it serve the story or its theme?, and so on, down to the “why?” of the “what” itself: why this perspective, this position, those words? Are we serving the story or the ideas it contains, or are we merely getting off on something nasty and violent?
In Elvis, there’s an allusion to the Pyrene myth. For those readers who are reflexively critical of the “rape scene” as a phenomenon in itself, I think it’s helpful to note that throughout the entire body of Greco-Roman mythological/fabular literature, it can sometimes seem like a rape is happening every other page. For whatever reason, the Greeks seem to have been obsessed with rape—to the point, indeed, where its recurrence as yet another plot point in yet another story can begin to seem callous and casual. Peer far enough into the backstory of any important heroine or villainess, and chances are she was taken against her will—often by one of the Gods themselves. People forget, for instance, that the chain of events which caused Medusa to be turned into a Gorgon began with her being raped by Neptune in Athena’s temple. Rape was so normal in these stories that we’re not even supposed to look at her as a victim—though really, if anyone is a monster in that story it’s the Goddesses and Gods that raped her and then transformed her into a Gorgon as punishment for being ravished in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t want to take over this conversation by filling in all the details of the Medusa genesis, but it’s safe to say that by contemporary standards, Medusa ought to be considered a victim rather than a villain. For those who would like to read more, the Perseid by John Barth is an amusing and educational take on Medusa’s plight.
Ok, now that we’ve gotten our situation-ethics-based-rape-scene-apologetics out of the way...back to something that’s more like an actual interview question: rife as the story is with references to Greek mythos and its ubiquitous rapine, that content and its context will be as familiar or unfamiliar as both the text itself and the text it alludes to. Both of these being available and interpretable at the reader’s leisure...you had said that there is also something more personal, here?
YA: As in the story, I actually did live in an apartment on Boulevard Raspail, with Rodin’s larger-than-life statue of Balzac laughing up at the top of the street. My tiny rooftop apartment had been a maid’s quarters at one time. I had a cot, a desk, and a single window cut into the roof. I could barely stick my head through it. The view was amazing. Once I decided where Elvis should live, I began looking at the streets of that area, researching what the street names meant—discovered Pyrène, discovered the Roman temple shape in the streets...it all became so clear to me. All the street names are real, but I’m not certain that Place des Rigoles is in the 20th Arrondissement, or if Amérique is, or if the Place des Rigoles is in Amérique. Check the map. Dare to decode the code of the streets of Paris.
JdS: Why mention rape Here, Now, in this story?
YA: Because mythological rape = colonialism.
JdS: Elvis is always in a hurry, or running away from something real or imagined. This story—its syntax, its language, its pacing—has a kind of manic energy; it hits that sweet spot that’s just short of out of control.
YA: When I pictured him in my mind, I inevitably saw Elvis running through the streets. Running, running, always running, and worried for his safety. The shadows of colonialism haunt the streets. So, I wanted him to follow a walking route that a secret society of Arabs had hidden in these streets of colonialism that took on the shape of the word "Allah," written in Arabic. As he carries out the "pilgrimage," he notes the significance of each letter, much like the aphorisms at the beginning of the book. He has no spiritual or meditative thoughts during his trek—just shadowy, rainy visions that only add to his tension.
I wrote this under a tight deadline, as we were headed toward production and away from editing the book. I wanted to squeeze this story in because it had been on my mind for a while. On the day that I had set aside for writing, I was suffering from a serious headache. I lay on the couch under a blanket, with another one wadded up over my head, covering my eyes. I wrote as thoughts came to me. There is hardly a compound sentence in the text; they were all hammered out under extreme duress.
JdS: That’s very interesting. No wonder Elvis hurries so well...that pacing that I was talking about...when you yourself were in such a hurry. That would explain the story’s syntactical uniqueness as well.
Moving on to the Pastoral Fables…
...When the Telephone Rang feels, to me, like a turning point in the book; one where the stories get darker, more dangerous. The fantastic elements that appear throughout the book are now rooted in—even, in this story, caused by—a more clandestine, hidden, and therefore potentially limitless and unhinged racism. A level of hatred that compels its unseen practitioners to dehumanize their victims. Now we have graduated from police brutality to military espionage, and to torture, with its near obliteration of its victims’ dignity and even humanity. Whereas Elvis is attacked for being what is perceived as insane (Or, at least, this is a plausible justification for his attack by the code of the system of his punishers.), the protagonist of When the Telephone Rang is driven insane by the true “deep state”’s steady, methodical, almost casual violence. “If you thought we were done with you,” these Fierce Monsters say, “We have only just begun.” From here on, the pitch and the volume of the darkness and chaos you so masterfully bring order to throughout Fiercer Monsters are turned up to the highest level at which they are still distinguishable. This is not to say that all of the stories that follow are steeped in violence and torture; that would, of course, get old fast. Rather, what occurs during and after When the Telephone Rang is a shift in mood: the absurd, surreal, and occasionally frightening gives way to isolation, insanity, compulsion, doom. Here is the nightmare terrain that even Borges and Kafka feared to venture all the way into, making do with its suggestion.
If there is an exception, it is your Golem Story: The Corn Woman (Also from the Pastorals). This is somewhat based on your Mother's childhood in Venezuela, is it not?
YA: Exactly. When I was growing up, my mother wrote in diaries, at least once a week. I only witnessed the Saturday morning entries. The habit fascinated me. The contents of her diaries is none of my business. Perhaps I would access a window to my own personality, conveyed by my mother as she reports her life; or directly, as she observed and likely reported on me. Corn Woman is written as a diary entry in one of my mother's many diaries. Her eldest brother, my uncle, now a great grandpa, read an early version of the story and called me up, livid, saying, "Very nice but this is not at all what happened! You asked so many questions about our childhood and got so much wrong!" So I decided I was a liar. I felt bad that he was upset, but I love a good Golem story. I had researched the Golem of Prague, Rabbi Loeuw's creation. Of course I love Mary Shelley's version, and then there was Gustav Meyrink.
The story takes place outside of Caracas. At the time they called it "Los Campitos de Baruta" but today I think they call it Baruta. Venezuela has been priced out of the crude oil business and the government had no safeguards in place. There is a lot to say about it; I do not know if we have family there, anymore. I do know that most of my mother's extended family emigrated to Los Angeles at about the same time, in the mid-50s. They were all Polish-descended white-skinned Jews who spoke Spanish most of the time, Yiddish every once in a rare while, Polish among the elders, and English to me.
JdS: South America is full of these kinds hidden origin--Somehow this feels tangentially related: I love your insistence that some of us have multiple “hometowns.” When I read this, it was one of those “Oh, shit. I could have thought of that, and why didn’t I?” moments that writers have.
YA: Thank you. I embrace some of my home towns more than others, but yes they all live in me.
JdS: Moving on to the Missives. I love them all, but Living in Fog struck me as a masterpiece from that section of the book. I'm a sucker for Victoriana.
Was Brougham a real person? And did he really have a rivalry with Coleridge over Chrystabel?
YA: Thank you for asking about this one. Thank you for asking about any of them, actually. In The Lamb’s Blood, there is really a film of the celebration of my birth and my uncle is quite judgmental. In Mlle RR this is a version of a letter I sent to a friend whom I never heard back from, whom I no longer speak to, who was also romantically linked to "RR," who is actually quite embarrassed about the story, but I digress.
Living in Fog...I lived in Seattle, on Capitol Hill, for a number of years. There is a “Royal Brougham drive”, down by the waterfront. I lived on Pine St, but it’s parallel to Pike, of course, leading from Capitol Hill down to Pike Place Market.
I met lots of depressed people when I lived in Seattle; I would stop and talk with them in the street or in the park, in the dripping rain, on my way home from work in the evening. I wanted a delusional protagonist of this same rough type, borne of this sloshy twilight world of depression and isolation: “Forrest Pike Brougham the third.” In my imagination, Brougham the character in Living in Fog, read Coleridge and appropriated the character of Chrystabel. But he had every right to, as his niece did foster a fawn and named her "Christabel." Brougham’s attempts at Romantic poetry are meant to fall flat, fyi. He has a few good lines, maybe, but that’s it. His account of living on board this ship, so close to others, but so isolated in his soul, is more exciting reading than his purported magnum opus.
JdS: That's what I thought (about Brougham and Chrystabel, I mean.), but I've been wrong every time; and now again, in the opposite way. We started out with Borges, and somewhere in between the lines of the “official” interview, you hinted to me that there was more of Kafka hiding behind you in this particular book.
YA: I am currently reading Kafka's Great Wall of China and Other Short Stories. This book, in many ways, sets literary precedence for Fiercer Monsters. There is a section of aphorisms.
Nothing as "far out" as what I've written. There is no awareness of the rich symbology of letters vs. futility of language. Oppression, disassociation from society, delusion, and war, yes.
JdS: I have the Schocken complete stories, which includes the parables and aphorisms. I have read the Great Wall stories in that form, though; as a stand-alone book, in the original order that Max Brod put the stories in. It's a solid ordering, certainly; Brod was great at dividing up Kafka’s stories according to their themes. The Great Wall shows his gentler side, if he can be said to have one.
I too have a soft spot for Kafka’s parables and aphorisms. They're very traditionally Jewish, but the prose is the same unmistakable Kafka style. The combination of the two elements is certainly a wonder. I can see the connection, now that you point it out, between the superstructure of Fiercer Monsters and that of Great Wall. I guess the reason I thought of Borges not Kafka was the emphasis on letters and numbers and their mystical significance This was only while I was reading the aphorisms, of course. Honestly, I didn't think of either of those writers, or of anyone else, when I was reading the stories and fables and missives. I was too absorbed for such meta-textual reflections. Your command of story is so sharp, and you've definitely got your own prose style—which is what makes it you and not those giants that no well read writer can escape from the influence of.
In America, we are on a playground of letters...once we learn how to play with them, anyhow. Think of all the different spellings of so called exotic surnames. All the doggerel, all the high rhetoric. Words mean “everything and nothing,” here, hehheh.
YA: So true!
...yes I am totally inspired by borges... but I will never "ape" him. But I will spend my life writing short stories and unapproachable poetry...also, aphorisms are found in sutras, ecclesiastes... I usually think of Gibran when I think of aphorisms. In my book, rather than making every aphorism a statement, I prefer to show the wisdom hidden in a question. Aphorism as a question. I like questions... really far-out questions.
This interview was originally published here.
Fiercer Monsters is available from Nomadic Press: