Nina Boutsikaris classifies herself as a “nonfictionish” writer. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Third Coast, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere, and were included among the Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2019 and Best American Essays 2016. Her short essay “Surrender” will be included in Brevity’s forthcoming anthology, The Best of Brevity: Twenty Groundbreaking Years of Flash Nonfiction (2020). She has taught at The University of Arizona, Eugene Lang College, Catapult, and Gotham Writers Workshop.
In her debut book I’m Trying to Tell You I’m Sorry: An Intimacy Triptych (Black Lawrence Press), Nina Boutsikaris explores her past self with a level of honesty and emotional proximity not always seen in memoir, if this book can even be classified as exactly that. Divided into three essays, Boutsikaris’s narrator—as she refers to the younger version of herself from whose perspective the story is told—recounts not only the incidents of her life, but her ruminations on sex, power, loneliness, and the performance required of young women as they are taught through experience what this all means. Gendered violence also comes into play, and Boutsikaris does not shy away from engaging with critical texts and other works of art in dispelling these themes, referencing Derrida, Renoir, Kristeva, and Woolf, among others. The result makes for a powerful read, resonating with universal anxieties about longing for connection in a fresh, thought-provoking way.
Natalie Whalen: I was looking at the sculpture on the cover and was wondering if you had any hand in choosing that piece to be on the cover? I thought it was a really interesting choice.
Nina Boutsikaris: Yeah, I fully did. I was going back and forth with the publisher for a while with some ideas for the cover, and I was just really unhappy with all of them, and then one night I was on Instagram (ugh) and I saw this artist and I saw that sculpture and I was immediately like, That is me, that is the book. And so I reached out to her and was just like, Please let us use it! And she did.
NW: That’s so cool. I understand the book came from some published pieces of writing, and I’m assuming that you had some unpublished sections of the book already written. I was wondering about the process of compilation for you, and how you ultimately arrived at the book in its current form?
NB: Definitely, pieces of it were written as standalone essays. Then I started to realize that everything I was writing about was really stemming from the same question. So when I started to do outside research, and to incorporate critical theory and art and other writers’ voices, artists voices, I started to notice how all of my fragments could possibly be connected. I had a lot of sort-of baseline essays, but they weren’t really doing anything that interesting. I was making my way towards the thing that would ultimately be more interesting to me, which was this triptych that I came to.
NW: Yeah, I was also really fascinated by your calling it a triptych, which would make “This One Long Winter” the centerpiece. I was wondering why that piece was in the middle, and what that illuminates about the book as a whole, if anything?
NB: I mean, to me, the book sort of begins with an angry and disjointed narrator who then (in the second section) goes through a year of personal trauma, and that is the pinnacle of her identity, how she perceives herself as both a victim and very much a powerful person, a person who takes action and control. For me, that year [in “The One Long Winter”] helps to guide readers towards the last section, which is being presented by a somewhat different narrator—or a narrator who is at a different place in her life—where she’s potentially much more empathetic, she’s potentially much more resigned and curious, rather than just pissed or obsessed with being powerful or not powerful. But is she really different? Yes and no. For me, the middle part shows the time period where experiences started to really become the thoughts that drove the other parts of the book.
NW: One of the standout things about the book is that you do have these elements of other writers and genres. There’s the engagement with other texts which—a lot of writers do this—but Maggie Nelson is the first one that comes to mind. But there’s also a Sylvia Plath-like no-holds-barred confessionalism, all while the narrator is engaging in these acts of distancing on the page. It made me think about how one of the biggest historical critiques of confessional poets is that they’re—in a very reductive, misogynistic kind of way—whining and asking for sympathy. I think that plays interestingly with the title and theme of forgiveness in the book. What would you say to someone who would say that this book is asking for sympathy for the narrator?
NB: I hope nobody feels that way! I tried to paint a really honest picture of a person. “I’m trying to tell you I’m sorry” is both disingenuous and genuine, and the “sorry” is directed at so many different people—it’s to herself, to others, and also it’s not. I was never writing this to complain about other people or to complain about anything. I was writing it to understand—to figure out what I did and why. I never thought of it as confessional; it’s just what I wanted to do, what I had to do. It wasn’t a choice, really. That’s what I had to work with, and so that’s what I worked with. I think a good essay, or a good personal essay, or good memoir comes from a place of looking hard at one’s own actions rather than judging others’ actions. That’s always naturally been my interest. Why the fuck do I act the way I act? And What does it mean? Rather than, What did other people do to me?
NW: Totally, that’s part of why I found it so interesting that you incorporated the other sources—from critical authors to painting to Greek mythology—and I thought that added really uniquely to this narrative, especially given the distancing going on. What led you to the incorporation of these materials in this book?
NB: I can’t imagine trying to write a personal essay that didn’t somehow look to the outside world because the world is so much more interesting than I am. We don’t really read essays to find out about people’s feelings about what happened to them; we really read it to find out how they perceive, how they make sense, how they find meaning in something that happened. So in order for me to make meaning out of what happened—or what I did, or my life, or intimacy in general, or power, or sex, or any of the topics in the book—I had to look hard at myself and also seek answers from the world. I think it’s interesting what you said before, “acts of distancing,” because that’s the whole thing. It’s very hard for her to connect, actually, and yet the narrator so desperately wants to. I think she sort of does that with the reader as well, this hiding and parading, and is able to do that by bringing in other people’s voices as a tactic to both connect and conceal oneself.
NW: Definitely. Was there a moment where you realized you could write this book, or had to? Even in referring to the narrator as a narrator for a work of nonfiction and not yourself always—was there a moment where you realized you could let in the reader, even under the veil of performance, performance being something you touch on in the book?
NB: I don’t know. I never really thought about the reader. I just thought, What’s the truth?And hopefully other people will be into that. Maybe that’s the last thing that I thought about, to be honest. I didn’t think about that until sending the book out, when I thought, Is this a book? Is the reader going to think this is a book? Because then I was like, If the reader doesn’t think this is a book, then I guess it’s not. Maybe it’s something else. But in terms of the contents and the questions I’m asking and the way I’m trying to ask them, that was between me, the narrator—who is myself and also not—and other people in the book who are both like shadows and also really overpowering forces at the same time. As you can see there is a lot of duality in this book and in my mind!
NW: Yeah, that’s so interesting, given that this book obviously came out post “Me Too” when a lot of people are confessing the details of their more unfortunate intimate experiences. The narrator in this book takes a very different approach to doing so, trying to tell the evolving “you” she’s sorry for putting herself in the situations she recounts in the book. That made me wonder how your relationship to the narrator has changed over time, especially given all that’s going on now and the timing of when the book came out?
NB: I never sat down to write a political book, but I think asking the kinds of questions I am asking publicly IS political. Obviously, it happened to me, and I think when I was able to write it, that was the right time for me to do it, nice balance of distance and proximity to when things had happened, and also when I was actually starting to think critically about them, and just think critically about my life in a way I hadn’t before. It helped me release from a particular identity I had for myself, and I really got to read the narrator as a character. She became a character as soon as I started writing about her.
NW: In another interview, you said something about this book being an exercise in “needing to get things straight,” in telling your story or needing to tell your side of the story that retains power as the archivist.
NB: I think that’s a big part of the whole style, the syntax, the structure—everything is a constant interruption, like trying over and over again to look really hard and say the precise thing, and not exactly knowing how, and trying to do lots of things at once, the duality thing again. Trying to see, trying to explain—she’s repeating herself a lot in order to try to get things straight. If I said that, that’s cool! I don’t remember saying that, but yeah, that sounds good.
NW: And particularly with the first essay, you talked a lot about art that depicts women and the male gaze as an act of violence. It’s interesting that in writing this book you’re archiving yourself, a woman. Is the writing of this book an act of violence towards your past self?
NB: That’s really interesting. I think it’s both a reconciliation and some sort of violence. I think the idea of what gets archived and what doesn’t is—there’s definitely some violence in that. This girl is not a peaceful person, and I think maybe that’s what she’s trying to find? Maybe that’s what she’s trying to get to? And in order to get to that she has to fully face the violence that she’s caused or she’s been a part of against herself and other people. But I think in the end, the very last image of her both being recorded and deciding what to do with that recording is, somehow, both participating in a microcosm of the meta-moment where she’s like, This is what I’ve been doing the whole time, this is what this whole thing is. And I still don’t really have any answers, but that’s a really interesting question. I think it’s both forgiveness and maybe a counterintuitive forgiveness, since it exposes this person in a pretty unattractive light in many ways.
NW: I actually had a question about that last scene regarding the nature of writing about oneself, especially given how the narrator changes over the course of the book. In another section you quote Virginia Woolf, who wrote, “always to be understood would be intolerable.” You go on to write, “But lately I wonder if Woolf wasn’t more interested in calling out her separateness. Maybe she wanted us to understand that she in fact could not be understood. Reading and writing the other, perhaps, in order to read the self.” You talked about how, in writing this book, you processed why you are the way you are, and with that last scene, you seem to suggest how, through the archiving experience, an understanding of oneself can change. In that last scene, the narrator sends the video of her shooting a gun to other boys to demonstrate “how tough she is, how fearless,” even though in the moment, she’s terrified. I want to know what you have to say about how the archiving experience alters how the narrator sees herself, and how having the video and writing about it changes this perception?
NB: Yeah, so one thing I want to say is—going back to something you were saying earlier about letting the reader in—ultimately, letting them in is not that interesting to this narrator. I mean, it both is and isn’t. Even though she wants so badly to be seen and understood and loved, really she also finds a lot of power in not fully being seen, not fully being understood, and ultimately not really being loved, but rather thought of as something or somebody who is inaccessible. She’s maintaining that myth at the end, and even though she is (and I am) now able to talk about that myth, she’s still maintaining it within the binding of the book. In the end, I the writer, was very closely aligned in terms of knowledge to what the narrator could know. If I tried to write this book now, it would be so different because as a human, as a writer, I’m different, so I’m not as close to the narrator as I was when I wrote it. I think yes, there’s definitely shifts and malleability, but it’s all on the page. I’m not doing any tricks or—like I said, by the end the writer doesn’t know much more than the narrator knows. In the beginning of the book, which is a flashback of sorts, she’s basically saying, Things are not the same now, I’m realizing something. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be in this situation where I pretend, where I have this emergency intimacy situation. Something is changing for her, but by the end, she’s actually also realizing she’s still comfortable in that space, so she tries to go back to it and wants to identify with it still, but isn’t sure if it can be sustaining. The shift that happens is very much there, in as honest a way it can be. I’m not trying to tie things up neatly. I was just trying to be honest about who the narrator and the writer both were at the end of both living the book and writing it.