This interview contains profanity.
John Elizabeth Stintzi (JES) is a Canadian-born writer and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. Their debut novel Vanishing Monuments was published in April 2020, closely followed by their debut poetry collection Junebat. An exciting meditation on the architecture of memory, Vanishing Monuments follows protagonist Alani across countries and continents as they grapple with their relationship with their mother. Meanwhile, they navigate their “memory palace,” a psychological space imagined in accordance with the contours of their childhood home where they hope to keep their memories safe. In this interview, we explore Alani’s braided, often surreal journey from its relational inception to its ultimate (in)conclusion.
Sarah Cavar: Names, monikers, and pronouns play such a big role in the narrative [of Vanishing Monuments]. I was wondering what your process was in characterizing Alani, given all of the different names they use throughout the novel and all the different pronouns they’re identified by. I’ve never seen that happen in a narrative before, and I’ve never seen something that spoke so honestly to my narrative of self as a trans person.
JES: Really early on I wanted my character to be genderfluid, so I just found a name that felt like it included other names. It just felt like an easy way to narratively flag that. I don’t think I really realized until later all the names that I’ve had. Like, I’ve never really changed my name, “John Elizabeth Stintzi” is the closest I’ve gotten, but throughout all of my schooling, there would always be another John, so I would be “Stintzi.” My middle name was used as my first name for a while in college, so I really have a lot of history using different names, not even necessarily on my own. It wasn’t until last year or maybe this year that I realized, ‘Ah, that’s a weird similarity.’ […] So much of what I was interested in was the instability of identity and tying that to a name and having these…not exactly different personalities, but different faces of Alani, felt like a really effective way of doing that. Also, while I was writing I was learning more about myself and it felt much more authentic. I kind of like that there are all these convoluted names for me, like some people call me “John Elizabeth,” some call me John, some call me Jess. I like that honestly, that not everyone calls me just one thing.
S: It seems like this lack of linear time also really plays into the structure of Vanishing Monuments. It’s really a cyclical story, a narrative that keeps folding back in on itself. I was getting a sense of the narrative itself as “trans,” characterized by this movement both within Alani’s identity and in their movements across time and continents.
JES: I think the way that the structure of the novel works, it’s very natural, fluid, and circular. I mean, you’re in Alani’s head, and I wanted it to feel like being inside someone who was ever-trapped in the past and present, in this weird swirling sense of who they are and also their history. There’s this instability of identity and instability of memory, and the way places disrupt and draw in these memories. I’m just really drawn to that narrative style. It was very intentionally fluid. Does that make sense?
S: Absolutely! And as a writer myself, I was wondering what your process was in planning out the story. Did you plan, or more follow your instincts—especially in how you braided the different pieces of the narrative together?
JES: [laughs] Yeah, that was a pain in the ass. It was a very tricky novel to write. Eventually I realized that the best way to do it was to write the parts I wanted to write that day; I didn’t write them linearly or as they appear. I had a sense of the episodes that were important, like Hamburg, pre-running away, pre-their mother’s suicide attempt…I had a sense of these times I had to fill out, and I’d write whatever I was most interested in.I had a jar of scenes I knew I had to write, and I’d pick out two every day and write the one I wanted to write the most because I knew I had to do it. So, kind of rogue…Then, I had to put [the scenes] into piles and figure out how to weave them all together. […] I don’t really plot or outline at first, I find that’s just an easy way for me not to give a shit about actually doing the work. I feel like the really exciting part is doing it more organically and writing it. There are times that I do things like the jar, and I feel like I’m building the scaffolding two steps ahead of me as I’m going, rather than sitting there and planning out “how is this going to be.” So, it was just writing, and realizing I’d made a horrible task for myself in terms of weaving it all together, when I had 200 or so scenes that I had to put in some sort of order.
S: I think it works very effectively, too. This is one of the most interior novels I’ve read in a very long time, or perhaps ever. What really compelled me about this novel in particular was the lack of “explanatory comma.” There’s no explanation for the narrator’s references to themself across gender. I was wondering if or how you made that conscious decision? What has been the reaction to that total refusal to, well, pander to cis people?
JES: I think a lot of the trans people who’ve read it have noted that. Part of that is just the function of a first-person narrative. Alani’s not going to fucking explain gender to you in this bizarrely abstract way…I mean, they do talk about themself in bizarrely abstract ways, but they’re not going to explain themself to you. I feel like with the first person, it’s hard to justify that stuff, and I don’t think I needed to. Like, no one explained gender to me, I had to figure that shit out for myself. I don’t need to hold someone’s hand. And anyway, it’s really not a book about gender—there are plenty of books about gender by trans people, but [gender] is just something Alani is living with. It would be weird to stop and explain “this is how genderqueer works” or “this is how genderfluid works.” I think I also have a resistance to trying to define anything. If I do define something, it’ll feel like I’m saying, “this is the trans experience.”
[Explanations] were something I definitely resisted actively. I mean, I thought, “nobody who’s cis will probably ever even read this, and I’m not going to pretend that this is something a cis person would read, so what’s the fucking point?” I just wrote what would be most natural to how Alani lived their life. The book is also so much about indefinition; a lot of my work is. My book Junebat is also something that doesn’t try to explain itself. A work embodying its own contradictions, I feel, is just more honest.
S: The contradiction there is also really interesting—Alani’s commitment to indefinition versus their search for meaning in their memory palace.
JES: That was very much the contradiction of the novel. As much as indefinition is reality, the desire for definition is equally true. I mean, I would really like for things to be clearly cut, but I also know that’s not how the world works. I think Alani is fighting the fact that, while they really want the answers, they can’t get them. By the end they just have to make their own in order to move on.
S: Something else that struck me was sort of an “undertheme” of queer rurality. I rarely see stories that address rural queerness and rural transness in such a nuanced way, neither “those city slickers don’t understand what we rural queers have” nor a complete castigation of rural life as uninhabitable. What experiences have informed your presentation of rurality in the book?
JES: While Alani isn’t so much tied up in rurality, there are moments with characters like Ess [Alani’s student and mentee]. I grew up in the middle of fucking nowhere in western Ontario, on a cattle farm, so I know what it’s like to be a rural person. I also didn’t have any concept of queerness growing up. There was no idea…I barely understood. I knew there were gay people in the abstract, but it wouldn’t have crossed my mind that I’d known any, or that I could associate with it. I think that’s a really interesting thing you can apply to rurality, this idea of wanting to leave, but there’s also a real draw to this place. I’d love to live in the boonies, but whenever I go to the boonies, I’m worried someone’s going to be like “trans person!” and kill me. Which, of course, is bullshit, like a lot of the assumptions made about rural people, but there’s also some truth to it. It’s a very weird thing, to have this desire to be in a place that’s not necessarily friendly to you, as much as anywhere is friendly.
S: I think I recognized this especially because I’m living in a rural area myself and dealing with a lot of the same questions. And these are questions Ess, in particular, was trying to address. Hir relationship to Alani was one of the most interesting in the book. Could you speak more about how you imagined that mentor/mentee relationship?
JES: Ess was one of my latest relationships to the story. I needed to add more relationships with people to make the texture of the novel more readable. And I had this idea…one of the things I love most about being a teacher is mentoring, and I’m always trying to envision the possibility of having a queer mentor, which I’ve never really had. I’ve never had a teacher who was queer. When I was coming to the end of my schooling, there was no one—there were no trans professors in my fucking institution! Thankfully there are more now. But I wanted this book to feel like fantasy. I want this to exist. I want to be this sort of person for someone. I also wanted to use Ess to gently bring in ideas of queer rurality, class, and struggles with “home.” I was just like, I want this to exist more, so I’m putting it into the world.
S: In terms of representation, I found both Ess and Hedwig [Alani’s mother] to be interesting vehicles for conversations about disability in Vanishing Monuments.
JES: I try to bring in as much diversity of experience as possible; it feels like an interesting challenge and a responsible thing to do. I never thought of Hedwig as disabled, but obviously in the ways she’s unable to cope with reality, and with her depression, that would certainly count. I don’t know how to talk about that, but it’s true.
S: I guess I consider disability to be a relationship between bodies considered somehow pathological and bodies deemed normal. And relationships were the driving factor in VM, whether that’s Alani’s relationship with themself, with other people, or with the spaces their memories inhabit. I found the disability representation to be most pronounced when Alani was thinking about who they were in relation to those around them: “who am I to my disabled student, my disabled mother?”
JES: Honestly, I need to think more on that rather than pretend I already have an answer! I was trying to be clear that disability, depression, these weren’t only oppressive things. It’s like Alani’s transness, it’s part of a person. It does change things and relationships, because that’s what these things do. They cause conflict. Alani loves their mother so much but can’t stand to be near her. Even with their own depression meeting their mother’s, it’s just incompatible. I think that’s one of the tragedies of this book, and of our reality. The ways we can’t necessarily be close to the people because of these things, because of depression or something else. It’s a sad reality that it’s so hard to cope with your own things that it’s too hard to manage someone else’s. That’s definitely what I was thinking with Alani’s relationship to their mother and in terms of their own fear of themself, where they’re going to be in X amount of years, how much they see themself in their mother and need to free themself from the idea that they’re walking on the same path.
S: And that connection is represented through the camera, a key part of—I guess the camera itself is a kind of key to Alani’s memory palace, Alani’s archive!
JES: The camera is the center of the novel in many ways. There’s this artifact that has all this importance tied to it. It’s the vehicle of their connection with their mother. When they leave, they sort of decide on a whim that they’re going to steal it. It’s their mother’s favorite camera, really old, from back when they were still in Germany. It sort of embodies this inevitable return to their mother, the way they can’t escape their past. They do most of their art through their camera, so there’s always ways in which, even if they can’t be with their mother, the camera lets them collaborate in some way, even if they can’t be connected in a significant way.
S: It seems like, reading their changing relationship with the camera, it’s also the way that they produce a…I don’t know if “healthier” would be the right word, but a relationship with their mother that better reflects the present moment, and a future they’re capable of living in.
JES: I’d definitely agree with that.
S: I’m also interested in the way you pay attention to the house and the body as archives. I believe you use the phrase “piles of memories.” I’m fascinated by the parallel conception here of Alani’s body and the house as a site of collection.
JES: It’s especially interesting because the house is actually barren. There’s not much in it, aside from this box, its own little archive, and we never get to know what exactly is in there. I was using the house and the body as locations of memory. The body has a memory and has been through all of these things, so suddenly there’s this baggage, these “piles of memory” in the body as much as in the house. And in the house, the memories aren’t only in the memory palace, but they’re emerging from the woodwork to confront [Alani]. It’s part of the way locations hold the weight of memory. Like, there’s a time in the book when Minneapolis looks too much like Winnipeg—you get this haunting of places that definitely coincides with memory. There’s also the way [Alani] associates their mother so much with her body and the way she moves, it’s very tied up in that idea of location, the way memories are tied in the places they’re created. The body is a moveable version of that.
S: It truly is a haunting. The passages in which we’re walking through the memory palace, they really are surreal. There’s a sense of magic to them. This book really purposefully evades genre. What was the role magic and surrealism played in constructing Alani’s relationship with their memory?
JES: Memory is a surreal thing on its own! It would have felt wrong if I portrayed this journey into memory as a journey into realism. There’s so many ways in which memory is unstable, how each time you remember, you’re actually rewriting [the memory]. There’s all these ways that memory is false, definitely dreamlike. In terms of the way I think about memory…I mean, I don’t remember most things, and when I do, they sort of just emerge. I’m like, “is that real? Did that happen?” So, I think it would have been dishonest to portray moments of remembering as clean, clear things. There are the moments where we stumble into memory, which were so exciting to write, where we’re in the present and Alani is there, but they’re not there, and there are these pieces that are blacked out…that just feels more true to the way memory works.
Obviously, this idea that Alani has is that they’re going to remember their whole life by putting it in a memory palace, which, of course, is impossible. When I had this idea, I knew it couldn’t be clearly cut, it had to be a frustrated experience, because that’s what remembering is. This surreality was a good way of getting into that, of making memory feel haunted. Really, this is a haunted house novel in a certain way. That feels like a very effective way to get at the feeling I was going for, what it feels like to be alive and have a sense of everything that’s happened to you. It’s a slippery, impossible thing. You go to these places where you’ve really been through despair, and they feel haunted. It felt important to play with that closer to the surface of the novel.
S: And there are so many books in the “haunted house” genre. Of course, I’m immediately thinking of Shirley Jackson. What were some of your primary sources of inspiration for or while writing this?
JES: This is a hard question to answer, just because it’s been so long since I started writing it! I started in 2014 or so. But I think something like The Haunting of Hill House was important in thinking about some of the weirdnesses of the house. That’s a book I read while writing this book, and I can see an influence on the way the memory palace works and the way it resists clarity. If you read Haunting, you come away like “okay, that was fucked up, but I don’t necessarily know more than I came in with.”
Another book I read early on that I think was inspirational was The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert. An earlier version of [Vanishing Monuments] did have other stories, so it was formally similar. That book is all about memory, war, and silence. Another one was All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, just as a proof-of-concept. It’s set in Winnipeg, so I realized I could set my literary novel in Winnipeg. And it’s about mental health, more specifically, working with someone dealing with severe depression. There are similarities between the two, even though in Sorrows it’s the narrator’s sister and they actually converse, whereas in my book, there’s no conversation between Alani and their mother. When Alani and their mother reach contact, they try and nothing really gets through. Really though, reading that book was like, “Okay, you can set this book in Winnipeg, and you can write about this really heavy shit.”
It’s hard for me to point to other specific influences, because it probably goes back for decades. But those books were two that, at certain points of the novel, were really important: Rachel’s at the beginning, and Miriam’s a couple years in. For me, most of the inspiration was someone showing me that it’s okay that I’ve done this.
S: Could you say more about that?
JES: Yeah! It just seems like I write something, and then the next three books I read will be like…so, I just finished a draft of a novel and I’m reading this book by José Saramago. I feel like I could have ripped this book off if I’d read it first. I get a lot of comfort from reading a novel or project that feels like it’s doing something similar to what I’ve done. Suddenly, I’ve found the precedent that I didn’t know existed before. That’s mostly what I’m thinking about—retroactively finding precedent for the things I’m trying to do.
S: It’s frightening to live up to, but it’s also comforting, because it gives you that “okay.”
JES: I think at this point, I’ve realized that there’s no truly unique thing you’re going to do, so I’m not worried about there being a lot of similarity, unless it’s something I’ve already read. If I’ve already read it, I wonder, “am I just ripping that off?” So I like finding out in retrospect that I ripped something off without knowing it. Anyway, someone else might not see the similarities I see, and the book I write is different from the book someone reads.
S: Okay, now I’m going to ask you a very big question: what’s a question that you wish more people would ask about this book or about you?
JES: I feel like I’m always excited when I’m having an interview with a trans person. It’s an interesting experience because the focus is different; I’m excited by the ways in which trans people aren’t so hung up on the transness of the character. I had an interview where someone commented on how Alani is kind of an asshole, and I was like, “yeah!” A cis person probably wouldn’t have told me that this trans main character was an asshole, just because they’d feel it was like…not a thing you can say. It’s really exciting when someone’s ready to grapple with that. Alani’s not some perfect person, and I’m not interested in writing some perfect trans character. I don’t think perfect people exist anyway, so it wouldn’t make sense to place Alani on this pedestal. They’re deeply frustrating and they’re deeply lovable. They’re real. And that’s what I was going for.
There are also the genre-y questions. When people talk to me about this book, they never talk about how fucking surreal it is. I like that you brought that up. That and the “asshole” one are probably the top two.
S: I felt the “realness” most at the very end. The book closes with Alani just falling into Genny’s arms. I thought, I’ve been with this character on this journey and now they’re going to continue it without me. That was incredibly profound: this character has a life beyond me, beyond my ability to observe it.
JES: That’s interesting, I never thought about that ending being closure in itself. It’s beautiful, thanks for illuminating that.
S: Sure! I’d like to pivot to the title of the book. I spent the opening section trying to figure out the title, dreaming up all these links between “Vanishing Monuments” and the story. Then, I came to this very literal, real vanishing monument, the Monument Against Fascism. Was that key in dreaming up this book?
JES: This book actually started as an attempt to write a short story instead of a final paper for a class on collective memory. One of the things that really interested me was the Monument Against Fascism. I found the idea of a temporary, mortal monument so exciting. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and couldn’t make it a short story, so I had to write a paper about it anyway. Actually, a question I got that really excited me was when someone asked if I’d consider this novel an ekphrastic novel, in response to that monument. I think that’s really true. So much of this book was my reaction to the idea of this monument, why I thought it was exciting. It was very much the center of the novel. If anything, that was the inspiration for this book. I also thought about the body as monument, the way all these things like the body, the house, the memory collection, all could stand for temporary monuments. This idea permeated the book; I couldn’t have inserted it at the end and had it be as meaningful.
S: And it’s such a meaningful connection to the surrealism you employ around Alani’s fading memory palace. I’m surprised more people don’t comment on it. Maybe it’s because I’m on the lookout for surrealism in the books I read, but I found it really striking. It was something that made me feel more okay with writing my own “realistic” or “literary” work that deals with the inexplicable.
JES: It’s one of the biggest things about this novel for me, which is why it’s surprising that more people don’t bring it up! Like, there are some weird fucking things in this book. I also find it comforting when people leave space for uncertainty. It’s something I feel is really important to do. When I see it, I like this sort of inexplicableness…it feels honest. It felt honest in this book. Something about leaving things hanging. In the end, we’re not given this satisfactory answer. Like, you might get to know what’s in the box, and you might get closure, but Alani ultimately ends up only pretending that they get closure.
These are all things that felt really important to do in terms of breaking the rules of how to write fiction. Like, you have to answer the questions? Fuck answering the questions! I’m using the questions as a tool to get people to keep going. If I’m trying to make any statement with this book, it’s that life doesn’t give you the fucking answers. You just have to make them up sometimes to survive.