Broken and accidental topographies in The Obituary, a new novel by Gail Scott.
As a former political journalist and as a queer, feminist, francophone, Quebecois experimental writer Gail Scott cannot help but to radicalize everything she touches. In The Obituary, her latest novel, the evils of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism are complicated into a haunted tale of geopolitical trauma and family history. I asked Gail to speak with me about the experience of what stays buried and what gets exhumed within the rich sediment of her novel.
“No human lineage is certain” — The Obituary
Kim Rosenfield What struck me when I began reading The Obituary was the epigraph you used by psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok: “what haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Their ideas of the Phantom, of the crypt, seem like the ideal theoretical frame for exploring your novel. In fact I’d like to use their thinking to guide this interview. Very few people, even in the analytic field, know their work, and those who do find it difficult. How did you come to read them and what does this particular quote mean for you in terms of the novel?
Gail Scott Kim, I love this question, the epigraph has been little discussed and of course epigraphs play in some part the role of beacon. Lisa Robertson introduced me to Abraham and Torok during a visit to Vancouver. I was telling her about the quandary of writing a work to do with shame in assimilated families, yet adamantly not wanting to do an identitary or quest novel. My prose has been concerned with the redistribution of narration over a broken or accidented terrain in order to trouble conventional relations of narrator, narration, and narrative. I have been avoiding using, as best I can, unary-voiced narration by sharding “character” to allow a maximum porosity or absorption of noise and text along a line where intrinsic and extrinsic meet. To use elements of family history was to risk getting stuck in a conventional rendering of the past (nostalgia). The critical notion that I retained from reading Abraham and Torok’s The Shell and the Kernel was the notion of ventriloquism, which treats the speaking voice as a conduit of multiple voices, past and present, endogenous and exogenous. This allows the unconscious chorus of previous generations and their social conditions to be deployed as part of the present racket. If the chorus remains repressed in the family or historical narrative, then whatever or whoever steps on stage to speak has all her unresolved anger and shame stowed away in a secreted gap “within,” as if walking around with a “stranger” in the belly. How perfect for a tale of First Nation cultural [and actual] genocide, which is, in so many ways, a founding meta-narrative of continental culture. What the novel turned out to be “about,” which I always only learn at the end of writing, was an investigation of “who speaks when ‘one’ speaks.”