Sara Peters was born in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and lives in Toronto. She completed an MFA at Boston University, and was a Stegner fellow at Stanford. Her work has appeared in Slate, The Threepenny Review, and Poetry magazine. Her first book is 1996.
Lauren R. Korn: First, congratulations on the release of I Become a Delight to My Enemies. Like its “chorus of ghosts,” this book is beautiful and haunting and gritty. It’s an endlessly quotable book, but it feels… I want both to keep it to myself and recommend it to everyone.
Tell me about lemons. Tell me about ghosts. Tell me about teeth. Elaboration: I came across a lot of images that were repeated by different voices, and I wondered whether they were the result of a novelist’s intentional planned plot points, or if they were objects of a poet’s unearthed obsessions—perhaps both?
Sara Peters: Lauren, thank you so much for these wonderful, startling questions—I feel deep gratitude for your attention and care, and your paradoxical desire to both keep my book to yourself and recommend it to everyone is my unarticulated dream of how a reader might feel.
I love lemons for their aggressiveness, their eye-bleeding taste, and for the general impression they leave of cleanliness and orthodoxy. I am prone to random nausea and when I feel like I’m going to throw up I often visualize a beautiful, disembodied, supernaturally strong hand juicing a lemon an inch from my face, and this fantasy makes me less pukey.
I wanted IBADTME to be both practically and metaphysically haunted. Practically speaking: the opening section is called A Chorus of Ghosts and the marginalia embedded throughout the book is spoken by those ghosts. Metaphysically speaking: I wanted the book to feel unstable, wavering, bottomless, multiversive.
I think about teeth as a marker of class, so I think about teeth and shame.
LRK: How does your book’s non-linear narrative correspond to trauma, either or both as it’s carried in the bodies and minds of the women who inhabit its pages, and/or as it pertains to your writing practice (i.e., writing about or through trauma)?
SP: You know, there is the ancient cliche “healing is non-linear,” but what is linear? Very few things, in my experience. Trauma as I know and understand it involves a shattering of the self, and/or of the world that the self has come to understand. Trauma overwhelms the human ability to process and make sense of emotional experience. In its wake is fragmentation, chaos, a lack of coherence, a terrifying rejecting alien world.
I am interested in interior and psychological landscapes more than physical ones. I am interested in chatter, incongruence, polyphony, and abstract expressionism. I did not want to think of my book as an uncomplicated whole, as a piece of art that I was consciously building in order to have it enter the world and be assessed and found sentient, articulate and healthy, with thick hair and efficient organs.
I could think of it as a bowl that violently shattered on a kitchen floor, and then someone swept up the pieces, not in order fix the bowl but to put it in the garbage. And in that sweeping they naturally also collected the skin fibres, hairs, dirt, crumbs, insect husks, sand, everything else on the floor, and my book is the entire contents of the dustpan.
LRK: While reading I Become, I was drawn to recurring mentions of orange (and pink, and violet, and blue…). How did you approach writing this collection as it relates to color? Follow-up: How do you see your book’s cover—a beautiful watercolor by Jessica Mensch—conveying your book’s narrative themes?
SP: I did not consciously think about playing with or referencing colour—at least, not in any way I remember—but I do love colour and visual art, and shades and tones feature prominently in my mind when I am thinking about the feel or texture of a person, place, experience, state of mind. Jessica is a beloved friend of mine—we went to high school together—and I have admired her work for years: its variety and viscerality, the immensity of her talent. To me, that painting is energetically contradictory: it is violent but not graphic; deeply intimate yet abstract; absent of obvious human bodies and yet—to me—infinitely infused with human presence; sexual, yet disembodied and ethereal; absolutely a black hole and absolutely a source of frenetic neon life.
LRK: The title of the book is taken from a list of abandoned Wi-Fi networks in a factual-fictional Town—a town like no other, a town like any other. Can you explain to Adroit readers how abandoned Wi-Fi networks (perhaps more broadly, the Internet: permanent but containing ephemera) are representative of the voices and stories that inhabit I Become?
SP: I landed on that idea in exactly the way you might expect: I was sitting at home and my internet was down and I was scrolling through the endless list of baroque/banal/obscene Wi-Fi names and I felt like, wow, there are such worlds here, such representations of people and place and culture, and if I moved 50, or 25, or even 10 feet to my left, to my right, forward or back, the list would change. It felt like such a fascinating access point—I am sitting in an office at the corner of Richmond and Spadina in Toronto at this very moment, and clicking the pyramid I see everything from “euphoria network” to “wu-tang lan” to “puppy machine.”
And: I wanted the book to be titled after some anonymous woman’s kinda-jokey, truly-serious Wi-Fi network. Like a part of her that she could not commonly show was instead siphoned into the brief burst of self-expression/desire/longing, when she decided to call her network ibecomeadelighttomyenemies.
LRK: Throughout the book, first-person marginalia or paratext sits beside the “body” text. The font of the marginalia matches the pieces that open and close the book—which led me to believe they were one (or many) of the same. The numerical “Factory Meat” pieces are formatted in a different font, as well. Why did you relegate the marginalia to spaces beside the “body” text instead of giving these voices (or this chorus) their own pages? And because the book illustrates many stories, each of them different, how should readers approach these different fonts—as clarification? as aesthetic?
SP: Thank you for noticing this! It is so gratifying to hear. Yes: the marginalia is spoken by the ghosts in “A Chorus of Ghosts.” I felt that their role was to add to, support, clarify, deepen, complicate, make plainer or more arcane, the central text. So I suppose you could say that I intend the marginalia to be another aspect of the consciousness surfacing (that is, the consciousness of the character who is speaking the main or central piece). I wanted to draw attention to the “made-ness” or “writerliness” of certain sections—the way in which they are obviously, intentionally shaped, the attempts to make them “vivid” or “affecting” or “beautiful.”
LRK: Your book has already garnered comparisons to Miriam Toews’s Women Talking and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. I’m curious about where you see I Become fitting (or not fitting) with other feminist fictions like these.
SP: I never think of anything I write in terms of how it fits with other writing. It seems like an impossible thing to quantify — is it done through subject matter? style? approach? genre? I am not sure. And yet I am going to contradict myself and say: I think that Women Talking and The Penelopiad are apt comparisons, in the sense that they focus on women’s experiences, as my book does, and there is an investigation of how misogyny works.
LRK: What are the role(s) of humor and laughter in I Become?
SP: I love laughing! (I typed that and then thought: how absolutely fucking asinine, have I ever known anyone say they hated laughing?) To me, humour and laughter felt like very important elements of IBADTME. Number one: laughter is such a joyous and natural part of human experience (I’m really chugging forward with the asininity here, haha). Number two: laughter is flexible and polychromatic and can have many different meanings and be in response to many different stimuli. Number three: I acutely feel the relentlessness of my own drive—as writer, as person—toward DEPTH and INTENSITY and FEAR and SHAME and ABSOLUTE ABJECTION and the RADICAL ROOT or whatever, and it’s important to be able to pull myself back from that, and laugh at it, laugh at myself. At the intensity, the seriousness, the DARK PROPENSITIES and COMPULSIONS and OBSESSIONS. (A side note: I despise descriptors such as “dark” and find them weirdly prim and fundamentally meaningless, though I do recognize that “dark” as a descriptor re: art is a convenient shorthand.)
So I felt that in IBADTME I wanted to be able to undermine and mock the book’s themes (as in “Slumber Party/Spectral Trace,” where Harriet bellows about corrosive shame and fearing the intolerable accumulation of years of thwarted whatever and Reva and Mirjana are just like shut up we fucking KNOW).
Also: trauma is not not funny. Suffering is not not funny. And humour is many things: power, intimacy, distance, truth, avoidance, reverence, and irreverence. It can destabilize, and it can also balance. It can puncture, it can clarify and expose. And in noting these things I am not saying anything new.
LRK: Yours is a book in which women’s bodies are conflated with, in conversations about, and feasted upon like processed meat. Indeed, as we’ve already talked about, a series of “Factory Meat” pieces are spotted throughout its whole. What is your relationship to meat? Are you a meat-eater, or no? If the latter, does your decision to not eat meat correspond with your personal feminism, either as cause or effect?
SP: I grew up eating meat, became a vegetarian when I was 21 or 22, and stuck to that until I was 29 (I’m 36 now). One of the first things I ate as a non-vegetarian was a cow eyeball taco at El Farolito in San Francisco. I can’t remember my reasons for vegetarianism, though I imagine they were important-feeling and also predictable: the environment, animal suffering. And yes, it certainly felt like being a vegetarian would make me a better feminist—I think that, at the time, I felt a lot of (mainly internal) pressure to make my politics actionable, physical. The extremes of my fragility were matched only by the extremes of my rage, and the extremes of my dedication to not exposing either of those parts of me to the world.
I still look for ways to make my politics concrete, mainly through things like volunteer work, advocacy, and incorporating anti-racist, anti-oppressive, trauma-sensitive frameworks into my therapy practice (I’m a therapist-in-training, and I’ve been working with clients for about three years). I am a queer white cis settler, and I want to be as open and accountable as possible, both with my therapy clients, and in life, in general, so I deeply believe in and pursue constant education. I try to cultivate curiosity and attention to all of the ways in which I fail, avoid, retreat, become defensive, misunderstand, cause pain, and sound insufferable while listing these things in response to interview questions!
LRK: How did I Become find its home at Strange Light (a Penguin Random House Canada and Hazlitt imprint of hybrid and experimental work)? Follow-up: How does genre influence your approach(es) to writing?
SP: My agent, the wonderful Martha Webb, talked to my editor, the peerless Martha Kanya-Forstner, who spoke to Jordan Ginsberg, the Strange Light editorial director, and Haley Cullingham, the senior editor, and they took the book. I am so fortunate to be on their list. Haley and Jordan are both brilliant, uniquely sensitive, unusually genuine people.
I don’t think about genre at all. I am pretty much led by instinct.
LRK: Tell me about your time as a Wallace Stegner Fellow. (E.g., How did the fellowship inform your writing and reading practices? How did you feel, being a Canadian poet studying in America? [I’m an American poet studying in Canada.] How did you grow as a writer-person?)
SP: The Stegner fellowship made me feel like hot shit, for a time. (Though then I would have died diabolically rather than admit that.) For me, it even engendered a sense of deserving: for a few months after moving to California I felt like, Oh, maybe I got this because I am deserving, because I deserved it. I didn’t fully believe that at the time, but I absolutely don’t believe it, now. Not that I think of myself as being totally underserving, I just realize that things don’t operate that way.
In a way, I suppose, I am basically speaking about meritocracy: how it has never existed, how endlessly troubling and fraught—problematic!—it is, as a notion. But believing that, abstractly, is a very different thing from synthesizing it within yourself, internalizing its meaning, applying it to your own life, to what you hold most dearly, in the deepest recesses of yourself. And that is something I continue to work on.
The Stegner fellowship was absolutely formative for me. I would not have written my first book without it. And I met some of the best writers I know.
LRK: I see a lot of parallels between I Become and your first book of poetry, 1996 (both of which were recommended to me by Canadian poet Sue Sinclair, who said that I might have a thing or two to learn from your poetic voice). Are you continuing to explore “desire, violence, sex, beauty, and cruelty” in the work you’re writing now, and if so, how are these ideas materializing in ways different than in I Become and 1996?
SP: You know, I would love to be exploring basically anything in my writing at the moment, but the truth is that I am writing nothing and I am idea-less, a state that to me feels farcically tragic and absolutely familiar. I fear redundancy and self-satisfaction, relying on the same tics, voices, words, syntaxes, forms, strategies, manipulations. I want to change.
LRK: I’m currently working on my M.A. thesis, and I’m hoping you might indulge my current curiosity and answer a question (or two) about its topic. My thesis is going to be, if all goes as planned, a poetic investigation on envy between women. How does envy of other women drive or hinder your creative work? How do you embody and process such envy?
SP: —Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia Davis, Anne Carson, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Clarice Lispector, Virginia Woolf, Nathalie Quintane, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Williams, Emily Berry, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Lorine Niedecker, Nathalie Léger, Sabrina Orah Mark, Han Kang, Anne-Marie Turza, Ariana Reines, Emily Dickinson, Octavia Butler, Louise Glück, Layli Long Soldier, Dionne Brand, Carmen Maria Machado, Emily Bronte, Marjorie Celona, Miriam Bird Greenberg, Silvina Ocampo, Leonora Carrington, Erica Ehrenberg, Anastasia Jones, Natalia Ginzburg, Sappho, Ottessa Moshfegh, Renata Adler, Dorothy Baker, Mariann Moore, Jamaica Kincaid, Gertrude Stein, Marguerite Duras, Lucia Berlin, Maggie Nelson, Fleur Jaeggy, Marie-Clair Blais, Eimear McBride, Eve Babitz, Marilynne Robinson, Sarah Kane, Alice Munro, Susan Sontag, Hilda Hilst, Rachel Cusk, Jean Valentine, Alice Oswald, Julie Otsuka—
When I think of these writers (and others not on this list, of course) I feel this extremely specific mixture of untrammelled joy and ferocious despair. I want to scream and die at their feet or in their arms and I equally want to keep living so I can keep reading them. It is a very batter-my-heart-three-person’d-god sensation.