j/j hastain’s Interview With Carolyn Zaikowski

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j/j: Do you feel that there is benefit in working with apparitions and/or ghosts in your pages? If so, how do they benefit? If no, please fill me in on the narrative of what the “dead dream” in your new and exciting book: A Child is Being Killed.

CZ: Ghosts to me are secular and I believe in them. They’re psychological shadows, dead events and people who literally stay. The stayed energy of things past, a person who died or left whose energy is still imprinted in your nervous system, a trauma or tragedy you haven’t been able to “integrate” into what you conceive of as your current living reality/story, so it comes up repetitively in memories, dreams, art, conversations. Ghosts are presenting themselves to be understood and witnessed. I find it useful in that sense to work with ghosts in narrative. To see where they might fit, to make room and try to bring them out of shadows, so we don’t have to feel the torture and confusion of their semi-existence. Perhaps all a ghost needs is to be gently touched or held, or given a lamp of its own. 

“What do the dead dream?” was a writing prompt given by Selah Saterstrom in a workshop I took with her. Obviously it really moved me, as does her work, so I want to credit that wonderful human and her prompt.


j/j: You write widely of Veganism and Politics. These feel (to me) to be particularly socially relevant topics. That said, in A Child Is Being Killed, you also really engage Dream a lot. What is the value of dream in your writing? What does Dream act as catalyst for?

CZ: First, I’m fascinated by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a psychological diagnosis and construct for a variety of reasons that I’ve gone into elsewhere. But there is one aspect of the construct that includes certain types of dreaming as a symptom of trauma. This kind of dreaming is psychologically and physiologically different from “normal” dreaming. A hallmark of traumatized dreams is that they’re a near-replication of lived reality and they happen repetitively in almost the exact way as the traumatizing event did, so as to make one feel like one is experiencing a lived/waking event endlessly. These dreams happen in different parts of the brain from normal dreaming and involve physiological reactions which mirror waking states in a way that normal dreaming doesn’t. These dreams are not obsessed with symbols per say, things that point to other things. They aren’t necessarily “dreamlike”. Or maybe the traumatizing event itself becomes a symbol, something that, in its realness, is so terrible, strange, and impossible to integrate into one’s “normal” reality, that it becomes the stuff of dreams. So there’s this horrifying messiness with trauma that blurs dream-wake states, from our spirit right into our physiology. Traumatized reality is the stuff of nightmares and traumatized dreams are static, literal representations of waking reality. With PTSD, we also have flashbacks, which are similar physiologically and thematically to traumatized dream-states but happen while awake.

It’s a total breakdown of the way our mind navigates reality’s assumed stories and modes. Trauma obliterates the assumed, safe story and leaves a horrifying void, wherein the pre-trauma story/reality doesn’t work anymore, and we search frantically for some kind of cosmic glue or drug to undo and/or understand not just what is happening, but what reality actually is, what its fabric and ingredients are. These dynamics inform the construction of A Child Is Being Killed and its main character, Shrap.

As a metaphor itself, dreaming is vital; we must challenge ourselves to have visions of different worlds in which all bodies are free from unnecessary suffering. Then we must challenge ourselves and each other, when possible, to lovingly manipulate the physical and mental world around us such that these dreams can become realities. Shrap takes on this kind of dreaming, too, on behalf of her own freedom and the freedom of others, including her lover and nonhuman animals.

Second, while writing this book, I obsessed over the concept of the absent referent, as articulated by the feminist vegan heart-revolutionary, Carol Adams. The absent referent is when we co-opt and objectify another’s literal suffering to make a symbol for our own. Examples of this: “Don’t treat me like a piece of meat.” “You make me feel like I’m an animal.” And a plethora of played-out—dare I say, extremely lazy, corny, and boring—metaphors like soaring eagles representing our freedom and birds locked in a cage representing our oppression and a tiger representing our warrior spirits.

The absent referent requires that we hold the container of another’s reality just enough to empty it out and override their story with our own. All kinds of power groups do this to the oppressed, such as when we use blindness or other disabilities as simplistic metaphors and actual disabled peoples’ realities are erased, or when people use slavery and rape as metaphor or hyperbole. Creating an absent referent is a form of linguistic violence to the Other, and it is violence to ourselves in that it potentially squashes compassion, empathy, and liberation.

Meat is actual slaughtered, dead, and consumed bodies. This reality we falsely take to represent our own suffering—“Don’t treat me like a piece of meat”—would hold no weight if we didn’t subconsciously understand that becoming meat, being treated as an animal, is the worst thing that can happen to someone, the ultimate, most abject turning of someone into something. We empty and co-opt the literal reality of animals’ experiences for the sake of saying our own. To do this we must simultaneously recognize (refer to) and erase (make absent) the horror of the literal. Without maintaining a true recognition of meat’s reality, the metaphor would hold no power.

Our subconscious closets understand exactly how we treat animals, which is exactly why we don’t want to be treated like them. It’s exactly why we can use “don’t treat me like an animal” and its variations over and over and over as effective linguistic statements. But uncritical use of the absent referent is a very problematic artistic phenomenon for those of us who are using it to plea for our own validation and liberation. Our pleas become dependent on the erasure of the oppressed and erasure of our own oppressive behavior.

Let me bring it all back around: Shrap knows things about bodies, agency, power, and the false binary of the human/animal construction. Shrap is metaphorically treated like meat. I could have, she could have, said that a million times in the book. People who’ve read it have said it to me. But this is just another way of saying: meat is how you shouldn’t treat a body on this earth, ever. Meat is the ultimate objectification and erasure of beinghood. Shrap knows that animals are the ultimate Other and that others’ bodies are not hers to objectify into a symbol. That’s why she risks her life for the animals in the book. It is heartbreakingly important to me that readers try to understand this one thing: Animals in this book aren’t metaphors for Shrap’s experience. They are their own subjects. Shrap wants a world without meat, which is the same as saying Shrap wants a world without erasure of beinghood, which is necessarily what we all mean when we say, “Don’t treat me like a piece of meat.” Shrap believes there’s enough room for the presence of all bodies.

Animals aren’t inherently instruments or objects, no matter how much we want them to be. There probably won’t be maximal mental health or physical freedom on earth if we continue to use anybody’s body, non-consensually, in non-survival situations, as instruments for our own ends. When one really starts to consider this, one sees that our construction of, and horrifyingly narcissistic relationship to, animals might just be the most underrated, erased ethical and psychological gymnastics routine humanity has ever engaged in. People are very upset by this idea because we actually do experience what can be considered real love for some animals. Our abject, near-total failure in regards to animals is culturally, mentally, emotionally one of the most difficult wormholes to go down. Shrap’s asking people to go there.

I invite people to read social psychologist Melanie Joy’s gentle book articulating the concept of Carnism if they’d like to take the leap.

j/j: How do you understand page in the context of intimacy? (If this does not strike you right away I can lead more, but if it does—feel free to just speak into this.)

CZ: The book is a literal body, an object interacting with the world and human bodies/minds, collaborating at the meeting place between them. The book’s a body of text, a narrative that reflects, interprets, perhaps even helps create and recreate biological bodies (via neuroplasticity, nervous systems, and the interaction of internal physiology with external input). What happens when pages as bodies themselves interact with us? What happens when the characters on those pages, who often reflect/represent “real” situations in the world, are our intimates?

j/j: Can you tell me about the book as safe space or flotation device or ashram  (“I’ll find a way to sneak my books to you”)?

CZ: Book as dream or as a place to encourage a dream, a vision. Book as language. Biological body as text, literally written or said into existence with all kinds of stories so we can have some semblance of the understanding required to live in relative peace in an ultimately unknowable, mysterious world where death exists. This goes back to trauma and the necessity of telling a story, integrating a new story so we can find safety again if we must. Trauma explodes narrative and sense. Books have the potential to give that sense back. But sometimes we have to meet shattered texts (bodies) where they’re at, in all their messiness and confusion and birthing and dying, in order to understand this process, instead of projecting our demand for something linear and comfortable. All the characters in the story understand the power of this. That’s why some destroy books and others covet them. People try to destroy Shrap’s narrative. She won’t let them; even at the end, she will be said.

We have the narrative equation to potentially make us real/whole/integrated/sane/new again. Whether or not we know it, we all thrive on the narrative equation, it’s part of having a big frontal lobe and the inevitability of navigating the world through symbols, abstractions, story-telling: the narrative equation borne from the narrative urge: bodies existing in time plus space, multiplied by interpretation. When we map out this equation on a page, we begin to understand that the page is alive as a body, and the body becomes a place of narrative for all involved, the reader/witness, the characters, everyone. It is a sacred collaboration done for survival, yes, perhaps for ashram’s sake.

j/j: (It would be my preference if you could answer this one lyrically as opposed to logically): Do you think that vegetables consent to human and animal consumption of them?

CZ: My instinct is that lyrically and logically might be a false/constructed dichotomy, so I’ll see what a hybrid looks like and challenge the reader to see beyond the dichotomy. Like a mule or lichen. I love lichen, by the way—everyone should learn about how they work! Such existential brilliance! But the idea of consent doesn’t apply to vegetables because there’s no evidence that vegetables are sentient or experience the types of cognitions, emotions, or sensations that would make consent a relevant concept. I’m concerned with sentience as a moral barometer. But I have deep respect and awe regarding the complicated life-mechanisms that plants seem involved with. Such mechanisms! They’re just fundamentally different ones from animals’. There’s a reason plants and animals inhabit different kingdoms, both glorious.

Wow. Wonderful answer! Just for clarification here: I see lyric answers as one side of a many sided mouth. In other words, I wanted to feel you sing about something green!

j/j: “She must help us navigate the underside.” What changes do you feel need be made in or applied to traditional narrative in order to help us with this type of “underside” navigation? Or do you think that narrative, inherently, is enabled to assist with this?

CZ: Some readers use traditional narrative to navigate the hidden and dark things. But some readers interact with experimental or differently-narrated texts in a way that brings them to whatever their personal, social, or political other side happens to be, in a way that brings all the pieces together. Ultimately, navigating the underside is about healing successfully, which can happen in so many ways, which is gorgeous. As such, it’s very interesting to see how different types of readers interact with different types of texts, and what happens in the middle place where the two come together. Most of it seems pretty worthwhile, in terms of having a social/spiritual function.

j/j: Are there benefits to having a “menstruating mind”? If your mind is in some sort of more usual mood, how can you make it menstruate?

CZ: This phrase would probably mean something different to everyone who experiences it, and I’d imagine it would really freak some people out because people hate female-seeming things. I could experience it as a slur or a neutral state or a compliment depending on why it’s happening, and I think Shrap, in the book, lives the whole spectrum. Questions to ask: Is someone forcing mind-menstruation on me? Is someone compassionate being a witness to it or am I alone and confused? Am I bleeding because I am hurt and violated, or because I am willing to be open and because my insides are wonderful? I can only speak for myself here. At times, people have violated my mind in a way that felt specifically feminine and bloody. But I feel like I’ve made my own mind menstruate in a lovely way by going on silent meditation retreats, partaking in allegedly dangerous forms of travel like hitchhiking, standing just beyond the “stop here” sign at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and eating lots and lots of vegetables and legumes.

j/j: What is the most important part of the room in which you write and why?

CZ: I write outside a lot, in notebooks. In fields, on benches, near trees, with notebooks. I write in bed and on the couch, with and without pillows, on different parts of furniture in notebooks. For writing, the most important part of any room is its notebook.

j/j: Is the relationship between sentience and sentence what keeps you up at night, whether due to feeling compelled or disturbed or something else? 

CZ: You just unlocked my entire psychology. The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, how to live and breathe on this planet? There is so much suffering and pleasure. There is so much sentience and so many questions to be answered about whose bodies get to have their sentience loudly and whose bodies have their sentience shunned and denied by some idea, construction, or power-mode that’s thrust onto them. We must answer those questions with sentences, with language. Life is a sentence and so is death. This is not so bad; it is amoral, it is just the situation. The moral questions are how. In what manner are we going to ride this sentence? To write it? To say it? We are riding, writing, saying our relationship to bodies and sentience, even when we think we aren’t. This keeps me up at night. We might as well own our power to say what we want in/to/for/about/around the sentence. The life/death sentence, the sentence of sentience, the sentence on paper. We might as well stop pretending we don’t have certain powers that we do have, like the power to choose how we relate to other bodies, human and non-human. We are thrown by our mind-habits. Thrown into believing another world is impossible.

But we can say things like: Of course! I am said, you are said! We must consciously decide to see each other. Which is the same thing as saying each other. Which is the same thing as writing, painting, and dancing each other. Love, really. That’s all. To love each other right into existence from absence. Love makes large. That’s its core quality and mode: largeness. We must make enough room in the sentence for all bodies. Then we can have a free world. Then I will sleep.

c zaikowski

Buy A Child is Being Killed at Aqueous Books

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One thought on “j/j hastain’s Interview With Carolyn Zaikowski

  1. Pingback: Notes; recently-done things; selfies can be radical; winter and dukkha | life roar: a safe space for anarchist apes

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