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Wednesday
Jul082015

"Animals and Oceans and Trees and Vertigo": An Interview with Monica Datta

Monica Datta's work has appeared in Conjunctions and The Collagist, among others. She has received grants from the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund and the summer program at the Fine Arts Work Center.

Her story, "Brotherhood," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, Monica Datta talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about Aristotle, outlines, and islands.

Can you speak about the decision to begin the story with an epigraph from Aristotle’s Rhetoric? How did you choose this quote? How do you consider it to be in dialogue with your story?

The passage from Rhetoric corresponds to the longer interrogation of philia in the Nicomachean Ethics, but defines the verb form, philein, i.e., the act of loving, and therefore it’s something perhaps more profound and complicated than philia, which also includes affinities of utility – between cities or religious orders, or businesspeople and their clients – or relationships based on shared hedonism rather than a depth of caring. Aristotle outlines the emotive components of philia as a kind of fraternal love, close to friendship, but also something deeper, the integrity that binds the social contract.

In the story philia exists as a kind of multiple entendre for not-quite-love, not-quite-friendship, not-quite-brotherhood. Reiko has a lot of integrity because she has never wanted to be anything other than herself. Initially she finds the work merely icky – rather than dangerous – and the other characters unintelligent and therefore deserving of what happens to them.

Your story spans many areas of the protagonist’s life and history—her primary school preferences, her deceased half-brother, her relationship with her divorced parents, multiple jobs. In order to fit so many details into a short story, how do you keep track of these many aspects of a character’s existence? Do you create any outlines, like character studies or profiles, or do you keep it all in your head and let it come out in the writing?

I don’t normally write outlines, but Reiko was so alien to me that I had to sketch her out. After that I saw her everywhere. She’s a star athlete but has never known physical pain. She might share a taxi with friends and take up 80% of the space. She might steal a younger girl’s birthday cake because she wants it. Reiko is expressive of and realizes every desire except for the obvious, influenced perhaps by her mother’s turbulent romantic life. All this, however, allows her to take on, and ridicule, the work she does for Anna.

Her family manifests a series of island conditions: her father has returned to Japan and she’s not close to her itinerant mother and her Algerian grandparents are stranded alone in Sydney, having built and abandoned a whole life in Paris. But Reiko prefers animals and oceans and trees and vertigo. She would have done well with an older brother.

What was your revision process like for this story? How much did it change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any difficult decisions when cutting or adding?

I wrote perhaps ten drafts in four months. It was initially quite plotless; I was conflicted about how much personal growth Reiko experiences and wanted to avoid a morality tale. There was less addition and subtraction than constant refashioning, and then lots of pruning, like a bonsai.  

What writing projects are you working on now?

More alphabet stories, including an alphabet of phobias about a tennis coach with gills, and a tragicomic novel annotated by a sprightly Lacanian psychoanalyst.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

It’s a stretch to call it reading, but I’m making my way through the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, an incunabulum from the Renaissance. It’s a strikingly modern – probably the first book to consider text and layout the way we understand it now – collage of beautiful and often erotic woodcuts and many languages, and likely the product of many artists and writers though attributed to a Venetian monk. It surrounds the dreams of Poliphilo, whose name implies a love of cities and architecture, “everything,” and a lady named Polia, whom he keeps missing, very possibly in that sequence.

More contemporarily I really enjoyed Kim Thuy’s Ru, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island. 

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