INTERVIEW WITH AMINA CAIN BY ELIZABETH HALLIn Creature your narrators inhabit a variety of landscapes from the desert to the industrial downtown of an unnamed city. You once lived in Chicago. You currently reside in Los Angeles. How has the unique landscape of LA affected your writing?
The landscape of LA (and Southern California, for that matter) has affected my writing a lot. I wrote towards it before I even got here, when I was living in Chicago, in fact. I imagined it all the time. Both as a person and as a writer, I was drawn to the “emptier” space of the desert and to the way that emptiness seems to pervade Los Angeles, even though it is also extremely urban (you can drive right out of it into a space that is anything but).
Now that I have lived here for six years I am still interested in that spaciousness, but I have also been writing in a more focused way on where the city meets the rural, thinking about the San Gabriel mountains and the neighborhood where I live, for instance, how they are the same piece of land, and thinking about what it means to see those mountains everyday, even just driving around. It’s all part of the same fabric, and now it’s also kind of the fabric of the novel I’m working on, that specific landscape.
Throughout Creature the narrators engage in various acts of self-care such as attending yoga or spending an afternoon soaking at the spa. So often acts of self-care are deemed irrelevant in fiction, or are interpreted solely as an indication of the author’s social and political privilege. Why did you feel it was important to include moments where your narrators care for their bodies?
I don’t know that I saw those acts of self-care as important to include, just maybe inseparable from everything else. For me, so much of Creature is about pleasure and pain, in many different kinds of ways, but especially in terms of emotion and the physical body. The writer Bhanu Kapil once described my stories as making up a nervous system and that felt right. The body as inseparable from feeling and thought. It’s partly through yoga and soaking that the narrators really feel their bodies. One of the things the physical offers is intensity, and I think that intensity allows these characters to get close to something, which the book is also interested in: closeness. But it’s interested in distance too.
How long have you done yoga? Has practicing yoga changed the way you write about bodies?
I first did yoga when I was sixteen, but began practicing it more seriously when I was in my late twenties. It’s definitely changed the way I write about the body, partly in what I describe above. Yoga gives me a closer and fuller relationship to my own body and to the physical. I can’t imagine not stretching, not exercising, and the intensity those things can bring; I can’t imagine not feeling my body in these ways. I think my intellect and creativity has always been connected to the physical, for better or worse. And my practice of yoga is very much like my practice of writing. They are the things I return to, like coming home. I work through things in yoga in the same way I work through things in writing. Sometimes lines or images for a piece of writing come to me in class when I’m not thinking about writing at all.
There is an erotic undercurrent coursing through Creature. Sometimes there is an actual bedroom scene, such as in the story “Delicately Feeling” where the narrator stands naked before a married couple flushed with pleasure at her own nakedness but also half-terrified, not knowing how to proceed. Other times the erotic nature of a scene is less forthcoming: two people sitting alone in the dark, near enough to touch, but not touching. The emotional distances that so often separate the characters create a sense of suffering and longing—both ripe erotic pleasures in their own right. How do you see erotics operating in the text?
I think you describe it very well. In general, I’m interested in currents and undercurrents and the things that exist that are not spoken but which have their own lives nonetheless. There is certainly longing in Creature, and suffering, and as you say they are both erotic in their own ways, and they are just as real to the book as the relationships are. A desire for physical closeness or an unspoken closeness that is sometimes still present even in the midst of distance. I remember once reading a passage (I think in a novel by Hanif Kureishi) about how hurting someone is actually an extremely intimate act. That idea has always stayed with me.
But also, I am drawn to writing not about sex, necessarily, but towards it, towards the energy of it (whether it is an energy that gets expressed or simply exists on its own). And I am also interested in the relationships between characters and sometimes these relationships are erotic. It is part of the continuum of how people know one another.
The characters in Creature are often described, not by their personality, but by what they do, how they move through the world. When characters spend time together, the pleasure they share seems to be primarily rooted in the body, the comfort of physical proximity. In “Gentle Nights,” you touch upon this theme literally. You describe a friendship that endures even when it is awkward, when there is nothing left to say. As the narrator notes, “the body still remembers the relationship, and most likely the bodies keep it alive in spite of the mind. The best thing would be to spend time with each other physically.” Do you find this to be true for yourself? How does your body remember?
Yes, I have found it to be true with certain friends. A few of my closest friendships have also been somewhat physical and as the years pass and we live in different cities and see each other less and less there’s sometimes a sense for me of that earlier intimacy that is still part of how we know each other, that endures even if there’s some awkwardness in not seeing each other for a long time. But sometimes this is true too for friends with whom I’ve spent a lot of time, especially domestic time. My body remembers that relaxation, that feeling of safety and of being loved, and of loving. Friendship is very important to me; it’s been one of my favorite things in life and I think it’s what is now driving me to want to write more about closeness instead of the distance I have so often explored.
Amina Cain is the author of Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009). Writing has appeared in publications such as n+1, The Paris Review Daily, Denver Quarterly, BOMB, Puerto del Sol, Everyday Genius, and Two Serious Ladies; as a chaplet through Belladonna* and a chapbook in the PARROT Series; and is forthcoming in the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde (Nightboat Books). Several of her stories have been translated into Polish on MINIMALBOOKS, and a French translation of “Black Wings” is out in Jet d’encre. She is a member of Betalevel, a basement space in Los Angeles’ Chinatown where she sometimes curates readings and events, and is a new literature contributing editor at BOMB. She is also working on a novel, The Energy of Vitória, as well as a book of essays on fiction.
Elizabeth Hall's introduction to the FEMINISM AND FITNESS feature can be read here.