Nina Katchadourian: Can I reiterate the thing I told you when we met at my studio?
James Hannaham: Well, of course. Especially if there’s a curse word in it.
NK: I’ll make sure there is one. How can your book be so fucking devastating and so fucking funny at the same time? But that is something I feel like as I am under the spell of last night’s, you know, it was the last thing I did before I fell asleep, and I’m hungover by it still today. And yeah, it’s like one of the roughest things I’ve ever read. And one of the funniest. So that experience of kind of, I felt myself, like, eager to get back to reading this book as I was reading it the last few weeks and also just full of dread every time, I picked it up. And I mean this really at the highest praise kind of way, to be stuck in this kind of strange place, like the fear of what was about to happen. to our protagonist, Carlotta. At the same time as I wanted to get back to her crazy ass voice. And her humor and her chaos, and everything else that makes this book so interesting to read. So, I don’t know. I just wanted to tell you how much that, what an intense experience that was. And hopefully that’s something you wanted to have happen.
JH: Well, I mean, you could almost be talking about the book before Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, Delicious Foods. I had a lot of people say very similar things to me about that. In fact, there was some guy in a—I had stopped into a bookstore over this weekend to like, you know, one of the things that authorssometimes do is stop into a bookstore and see if your book is there and then sign copies of it. So that, you know, those people who just buy books because they’re signed by the author will just grab it and not really even think about what they’re doing, and you’ll have a sale. So I did that, and I was holding my own book after having—I was holding a copy of Delicious Foods, and there was a guy in there who was like, “Oh, that book is so harrowing.”
NK: Oh, wow.
JH: I think he didn’t understand that that’s what I was doing. I think he thought I was buying it.
He was like—
NK: Oh, warning you against your own book?
JH: I think so. He was like, “Oh, it’s so difficult.” I was like, “Yeah.”
NK: And you didn’t tip him off. I assume you let him—
JH: You know, I thought I was tipping him off, but I think he still didn’t realize. Because after, his last thing he said to me was like, “Good luck with that book. It was like, um, I’ve read it.
NK: Jeez. Wow, wow. Yeah. I think these are actually really fun experiences to get to eavesdrop on your own audience or something.
JH: Right, it’s like one of those moments in Mark Twain where the protagonist is listening in to his own funeral or something. I mean, I guess with this book, there’s a similar methodology, I guess, but it’s a different subject matter. And I think one of the ways that I want to approach difficult subject matter is through humor. Because, you know, for one thing, I think that humor is a coping mechanism.
JH: And that it’s not separate in a lot of ways from trauma, or from, you know—I think there’s a there’s a way in which people think that in order to be serious, serious literature just can’t be funny.
NK: Oh, yes. This is so familiar to me from art things. Yes.
JH: And I don’t know how that got popularized, that idea. But I knew from a very early, I should say early age, but I wasn’t really thinking that I was necessarily going to be a writer of books, I was just a reader of them. But I knew pretty early on that this was a complete falsehood and also that I was probably never going to be able to write anything if I couldn’t, you know, if I had to suppress humorous things. Because that’s just how I got through my life, was jokes about stuff that wasn’t actually that funny, which is actually a little bit funnier, right? To just go there a little bit more than you think you should. You’re kind of like, oh, that was both funny and I shouldn’t have said it, but it was true.
NK: Yeah. I mean, you do that writing this and so does Carlotta in her, I mean, her voice does that too for me.
JH: Right. I mean, I was having a conversation where—so yesterday there was an interview for this British publication. And the guy, the first thing he said to me was like, “Your book, it’s an assault on the English language.”
NK: Oh my god.
JH: No, but I think he meant that as a compliment.
NK: Yeah, yeah. That’s funny. Yeah.
JH: And another thing that he said was, you know, “How can this book be so funny and so,” you know, or, “Where did Carlotta come from? ”And I had to admit that Carlotta’s voice is kind of a voice that’s been in the back of my head for a long time.
NK: Well, this is on my little list of things to ask you.
JH: Oh, OK.
NK: How did you find, settle in to the voice? Because, you know, I did think about that. I was like, is this the kind of voice you find—this is like a methodology question for you, but like, is this the kind of voice you find by listening really carefully to people who you encounter around and about? Is it a voice that comes from people you might have known? Like, I don’t know. There’s something that feels so highly worked out about how she talks, and about her— like I found myself going like, it can’t be that he just invented her out of thin air. Which, of course, that’s what writers do. I get that. But I don’t know. I am really interested in how you found your way to her.
JH: Well, I mean, out of thin air is a sort of yes-and-no question. It’s like, this was a thing that was, you know, this voice was something that I think I was hearing a lot at certain points in life, and that I connected with early, like many, many years ago. And whenever I could hear it, I was like, oh, somebody is talking like that.
JH: You know? And I tried to listen as carefully as I could, because it was always sort of the way Carlotta is. Like, funny and, you know, truth-telling and snappy and often, like, really on the money.
NK: Yeah. Yeah.
JH: And I mean, I guess I went to a lot of drag shows when I was coming out in the ‘90s in New York. And I mean, I loved that stuff, and the way that people interacted with various drag queens. And you know, there’s of course a continuum along the LGBTQIA+++ community. It’s not just, you know, it’s not as if there really are striated kinds of ways of thinking of it. And I’m always interested in the ways in which all these things overlap and live together in New York, actually. And I mean, I guess she was years in the making. That’s probably what Carlotta would say.
NK: I sometimes imagined James with notebook being like, I’m going to borrow this line. Like was there ever research that concretely, sort of like, I remember this thing I once heard an actual person say, and I’m taking that? Like I love that, I’m going to use it.
JH: There have been other moments when I’ve—there was a character that I used to adopt, a voice that I used to adopt when I was writing reviews for the Voice named Miss Banji Realness. I would bring her out when I really didn’t want to do something. When there was like a piece of very earnest Black theater that was bad, that I didn’t really want to write the review, I was like, Banji, could you write this for me? And she would be like—
NK: Yeah, I’m going to make you do it.
JH: Yeah, there was a line at one point where I said, like, “Reviewing mediocre productions of earnest black theater is like slapping your grandma, and so I gave this job to Miss Banji Realness, who says, ‘I slap my grandma just for the exercise.’”
JH: So she presented this way of saying what I wanted to say at a remove. And in a way that it was going to be funny and also, you know, could say what it wanted to say. And I think that’s, you know, not to get too personal about this, but I feel like I’ve gone through a lot of my life—I feel like I’m just realizing this—not saying a lot of things, but thinking a lot of things, right? Because I’ve spent so much time in education in circles where I am the onliest one. Be it Black, gay, be it, you know, just left-handed, be it like any number of—
NK: That’s the hardest burden to bear, I’m sure.
JH: You know, there’s this question they always ask as a part of an academic job search interview, which is like, how would you deal with diversity in your classroom?
NK: Oh, God, yes.
JH: And my answer was like: bitch, I bring it.
NK: That’s a really good diversity statement.
JH: I know. I never said it exactly that way, but that’s pretty much what I meant when I answered that question. I was like, “I’m usually the only person in the classes that I teach or, you know.”
NK: I will diversify you by six thousand percent. She has this, I guess this, I thought a lot too about how—you know, oh, by the way, I just realized we’re sort of talking about Carlotta and everything as if everyone knows what the book’s about. Should we backtrack and say, I don’t know, is that important? Should we say—?
JH: No, it’s fine. It’s fine. I don’t mind.
NK: People, just figure it out.
JH: We get to curse now. The book is called Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta. And it’s the story of a person from Brooklyn, who goes to an upstate New York prison, which does not technically exist, called Ithaca Correctional Facility. And during that time, transitions to living as a woman, and then twenty-one-ish years later comes back to Brooklyn on July 2, 2015. And most of the book takes place during her first day back. Oh I mean, the funny thing is that I feel a lot of people are focusing on Carlotta herself, but the book was written largely because I have a really long history with the neighborhood of Fort Greene.
NK: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And I mean, I thought about that a lot, partially because we discovered when we first connected recently, that we both have studios in Gowanus. And then, I mean, you know, for me, reading this book was also like, I’ve been in Boerum Hill for twenty-five years, and Gowanus for fifteen, and so I’ve seen a lot of the neighborhoods you’re talking about changing. Although, you know, I am one of the white gentrifiers. So I am not neighborhood in the sense that she is kind of experiencing a neighborhood that she grew up in that has wildly changed. But I mean, you know, so much of what is described in the book is stuff that I’ve also—like, I know exactly what streets you’re talking about, or that she’s talking about.
JH: Right, it’s that it’s supposed to give you that Abel Ferrara feeling. You know, like when you watch an Abel Ferrara movie, the cuts are such that you feel as if you are actually walking down the street, that he’s, you know, filming in whatever part of New York. It’s not one of those ones where like, suddenly they cut to someplace, and you’re like, oh, now they’re on the Upper East Side, you know?
NK: Yeah, no, there are a lot of like watching through her eyes as she takes it in. That’s kind of in a way a huge experience of the whole book, I’d say.
JH: Right. She walks down Gowanus. She walks down, I’m sorry, Nevins Street at one point.
NK: Yes, yes. Which is right over there, I’m a few blocks from Nevins Street right now.
JH: So it’s, as my students would say, it’s relatable.
NK: Right. Certainly, like I felt very— I didn’t know that was coming, actually. It was kind of interesting, like arriving at the locale of this book for me. But then she’s got also, I don’t know, I feel like a thing I enjoyed a lot was this kind of oscillation in and out of seeing it through her eyes, then this other voice, as we talked about when I met you, that’s kind of not her voice, that’s talking, that’s describing, but the kind of way that those two things slip in and out of each other all the time, very sort of, you know, fluidly. But then it’s kind of also her—it’s temporal, I guess. It’s her observing a life she used to have and a place that used to be, and a constant big chiropractic[ES1] between the then and now.
JH: How do you spell that?
NK: Chiropractic? You know how to fucking spell that, James.
NK: And then I guess, yeah—
JH: But that was really the thing, the germ of the story for me was that, you know, I had witnessed over a long period of time Fort Greene go from the dangerous neighborhood where my grandmother lived—and I have cousins who still live in the brownstone that my family bought in 1956 or something for ,000—and now, where I live there and I’ve just watched building after building, high rise after high rise go up, Russian oligarch after Russian oligarch buy a pied-à-terre after pied-à-terre in each of them. And basically, you know, to see the neighborhood go from dangerous Black neighborhood nobody wanted to live in to not just affluent white neighborhood, but also somehow literary capital of the United States.
NK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
JH: It was a really bizarre transition to me. So I was like, I need to, I wanted to write about that.
JH: But I needed a character who had missed it, right? In order for it to be a fascinating new world of like, all this had changed. And then it occurred to me that maybe it should be somebody who’d been to prison. And I’d been thinking for a long time about, you know, what the carceral system does to African Americans in particular. And I was like, maybe it should be—and then gradually it dawned on me like, oh, man, wouldn’t it suck to be somebody who is transitioning in prison? But that also to me was like, all right, so Brooklyn has changed, but also Carlotta has transformed herself as well. Because it isn’t just like, you know, you come back to a place and it’s changed and you haven’t. And I thought that that was a sort of beautiful way of mirroring the change of the neighborhood and the internal change that happens with Carlotta.
NK: I really liked how there’s a kind of matter-of-factness to the gender change part of this, where I mean, yes, there are some people who are like, what the fuck? Holy shit. But then there’s also people in the book who are like, Oh, oh hi. OK. Hello. Hello again. Like, it’s not that jarring actually.And I appreciated that. But, you know, her grandmother, right? isn’t that the—?
JH: Oh, yeah.
NK: She was a really lovely character who’s really quite cool with whatever comes her way, it felt. Not thrown off very easily, that woman.
JH: Yeah. I mean, I think she’s somebody who just kind of looks at each new thing as an opportunity to do what she does, which is like try to take care of everybody and keep everything together, despite how much chaos there is going on around her. She’s like, “OK, all right, that’s good. We can do that too.” But I mean, I just didn’t want it to be like, all of a sudden everybody has negative feelings about this person, because that’s just not the texture of life. You know, it’s certainly not the texture of life in New York, where this is not like, you know, I also didn’t really want it to be a big deal.
NK: Exactly. That’s what I mean, to kind of, in a way there’s a nice, how can I put it? Like there’s a really good politics to that. That it’s like, OK, fine, now you’re someone else. Like, that’s easy enough, you know, what’s the big deal in a way?
JH: Right. I mean, to me, it’s like, the valence for me is no different than any other change that happens in people’s lives. Like, you know how sometimes something happens in your life and you haven’t seen somebody for a long time and you’ve gone on to do something completely different, and they’re like, “Hey, how’s the chicken farming going?” And you’re like, “Oh, that was years ago. I’m an airline pilot now.” You know?
NK: But they both involve flight.
JH: Right. So there’s a connection, but there’s no, there’s a kind of a through line, but there’s no, you feel like they’re talking about somebody else. And that’s kind of the feeling that I assumed would happen for somebody in transition. It’s just that everybody—and then there was another convenient rhyme between Carlotta returning to Brooklyn and one of the texts with which the book is Intertextual, as they say. Because at a certain point, I realized in the writing of it that writing a story about somebody coming back from upstate New York is like rewriting The Odyssey by necessity, because of the Central New York Military Tract, which is this group of pieces of land that were parceled out to Revolutionary War soldiers after the war. And there was this one guy in the office that was responsible for that—Robert Harper, I think, is his name who was a classical literature buff. And he decided to start naming lots of these places after classical references.
NK: Oh, I had no idea.
JH: So when you go to upstate New York, you’ll notice that almost everything is named after some, you know, classic. And then I think other people picked up on it, because not all of the ones that are from the central New York Military Tract are—like there are more than just that. So anyway, I realized that that was the case, and I was like, well, I should probably make reference to that in some way. So I started folding in all of these things about The Odyssey. And then I was like, you know, everyone and their dog has done that already. Maybe there’s some way to spice it up. And that happened to be the moment when my husband, who is of Irish descent and has been over there a bunch of times, he took me there for the first time.
NK: Right. We talked about this.
JH: I was like, oh, I’ll bring a copy of Ulysses.
JH: Light reading for the plane.
NK: And also as a weapon because it’s a—
JH: Right, of course, yeah. No, you’d make people read it. That’s how you weaponize Ulysses.
NK: I already admitted to you I have never read it. And I feel like one of those classes I wish I’d taken in college was one that that’s all you did. You read Ulysses. And it’s like—
JH: I mean, I watched people do that, but I’m glad that I didn’t jump in at that point, because it was a lot less—I mean, I’m a different kind of reader now. And it was, I wouldn’t say it was easier, but it was easier for me to accept that it was—
NK: The difficulty.
JH: Yeah. And be like, OK, you know, he was—all this deliberate difficulty was a thing in high modernism, that’s fine. And I also bought one of those “Great Courses” sets of CDs and I basically took a class while I was reading it. I was at a residency, and I would let my eyes pass over a chapter of Ulysses, and then I would go watch the lecture afterward. And I felt like the lecture was more entertaining a lot of the time than reading the book. But I did get through it. So I decided to pepper the whole thing with like, structurally it has a lot of resonance with Ulysses, and then also there are a ton of little in-jokes that refer to Ulysses. And I started to notice that various things just kind of rhymed, I guess, in a way with, you know.
NK: Can you give an example?
JH: Well, the story of Leopold Bloom wandering through the city, looking for lost relatives, There was something about that that felt like, wow, this is elemental sort of material that I could shape, that I could just sort of layer over my own story and it would still work.
NK: Forgive me for not knowing this, but is Leopold Bloom’s, is it the same like two-day period?
JH: No, it’s not. It’s actually all one day.
NK: Oh, one day. OK, all right, but that’s a commonality.
JH: Yeah, but I didn’t want to just copy him.
NK: Right. And I’m not going to give away the spoiler, I’m not going to wreck the ending, but it’s in fact, timewise, more happens.
JH: Right. It’s bookended essentially by, you know, the first and last chapter are kind of bookends. But most of the middle of it, I’d say, well, actually, not the entire middle of it, but a lot of the middle of it takes place during the same day. Which is an echo of Ulysses, but not, you know, I had some ideas of my own, actually.
NK: Yes, you did. I have been doing this thing this semester, which has been really fascinating. So I teach at NYU, at NYU Gallatin. It’s sort of my, the academic part of my life takes place in fall. And maybe I told you this when I saw you. I’m not sure. But for those who were not in the room with us—
JH: Tell the people at home. Tell the fucking people at home, Nina.
NK: OK, OK, I’m getting to it. We have, “we” being a group of six people, myself included, five faculty from different NYU areas and one PhD student too. And I guess we are situated across disciplines that include theater, visual art, performance studies, music, interactive telecommunications, digital arts stuff, and English. And we all came together to think for a whole semester on the subject of consent. This was the topic that we picked to kind of think about together. And the idea is that you think about it together for a semester and then in the spring it becomes an undergraduate class. So, this whole semester has been this really amazing immersion into this topic, which is of course a topic that is—it’s so complicated and so huge and so, so many directions one could take it. And we’re trying hard to take it in directions that aren’t only the kind of, you know, cancel culture #MeToo sexual transgressions. Like it’s, I think, a really interesting artistic question, what you sort of step into if you agree to be a viewer or a reader or a—I mean, then as a maker, what are you doing to the people who engage with you? All these things. All these things. But I was just thinking about how often, in my life anyway, like consent, even in just like these little annoying everyday ways, takes the form of a kind of capitulation to something. Like, OK, yes, I’ll do that. OK, I’ll come to that meeting, and how little there’s a kind of consent form which feels like a kind of rousing, screaming, “Yes, I opt in. Like I’m so in.” And so, when I read the last part of the book last night, I mean, without wanting to give away too much again, but there is such a sort of theme of Carlotta just literally screaming “yes.” Yes, to this, yes to this, yes to this. Yes, to a kind of living, to life, to joy, to all kinds of, you know, she has this kind of crazy night, a beautiful, crazy night in Coney Island, without, again, giving away too much. But I just feel like, I don’t know, I just was thinking about a kind of affirmation that is so lovely to arrive at after, you know, an entire twenty-one years of basically having none of it. And everybody else doing stuff to her, violating her body, violating her rights, violating her sense of self, violating every fucking thing. So it was very like eyes welled up gorgeous to arrive at this giant “yes.” I just, I don’t know.
JH: Well this is another thing I stole from Joyce. The last chapter of Joyce, of Ulysses, is famously known as the Molly Bloom chapter, which is all like a monologue that supposedly takes place in Molly Bloom’s head about everything that she’s done all that day. And it ends in a very similar way. But I was like, this dovetails so nicely with my own concerns that I’m just going to, like, rip it off completely.
NK: But I think that kind of joy is really, it’s such an important, I don’t know what to call this, counterweight maybe, or retort almost, or sort of “uh, uh, uh” to all the horrors that have come before. And I mean, you know another thing with Carlotta is that like, OK, I’m always like, “without giving away too much,” but, you know, she goes through hell and back when she’s incarcerated. And it was really difficult for me to read some of those sections. And she has a way of also speaking to them where—
JH: Well I avoided a graphic depiction of what actually happens to her, for the most part.
NK: Yeah, but—
JH: Because like a Greek drama, I wanted all of the war action to be offstage.
NK: Yeah, in the head, filled in by the reader, which I definitely did vividly in Technicolor. But, you know, it’s also interesting when you read those sections, because I think—I’m getting back to the humor theme—she’s talking about it in many cases to this close friend of hers she kind of reconnects with, who, you know, you kind of understand, I guess I want to say I felt like I was understanding how traumatic this was in this weird way where she kind of splits into two people. There’s sort of what she’s actually saying and how she’s describing it. And some of that is said with a shocking amount of humor, you could kind of call it, but it’s kind of that horror humor. And then there’s the reaction of her friend, which you sense how really kind of grave a lot of this is, partially through that mirror for what she’s saying. But it’s weird. I felt like I was reading in two places at the same time, for lack of a better way of putting it.
JH: Well, thank you. You’re saying there were layers.
NK: Yeah. But in a way that, in so many ways what this book does to me is it like bifurcates me constantly into kind of like, I’m here and I’m there, and I’m here and I’m there, and it’s like emotionally, having to be asked to put a lot of things, like keep a lot of things in motion at the same time, which is—
JH: Yeah. Which, it’s life, actually.
NK: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.
JH: I mean, that’s one of my goals actually, is to try to give whatever thing I’m working on the texture of real life, even if it doesn’t have like, you know, even if it doesn’t adhere completely to real life, I still want it to have whatever it is, that weird thing that this does to us, or more of it, I think, than—as much of it as I can cram in there is I think the ideal.
NK: I think you’ve crammed it in there, and then also kind of like, plugged it into a giant stack of amplifiers, and cranked up the—like it feels like everything is under a really extra pressurized intensity somehow.
JH: Well, it’s a book about somebody who hasn’t had any freedom for a really long time, suddenly getting her freedom and just being like, wow, this is all of the things that—it’s utterly bewildering. It’s like walking through New York City for the first time as an alien.
NK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I folded the bottom corner of a page that I really liked. She says at one point: “Maybe that’s what freedom is, the freedom to waste your fuckin freedom, to not even notice you got it till you wind up behind bars getting your ass beat and raped by a rapist who cryin rape.”[ES3] So yeah, I don’t know. I think also she has a view on what freedom feels like that we completely don’t, for the most part, we walk around, those of who are free to not be thinking much about—or?
JH: You know, the whole the whole notion of the rapist crying rape as he’s raping you. I was thinking of Trump.
NK: Oh, yeah.
JH: Who is somebody who is so reprehensible in this particular way, that nothing bad’s ever happened to this guy, and yet he manages to pretend that he’s a victim all the time. So, I was just imagining, like, what is the sort of pinnacle, or nadir, I guess, of where could that lead, right? And it would be like to actually be raping somebody while you’re accusing them of raping you. But I think about this all the time and I mean, essentially, it’s Roy Cohn’s world and we’re living in it now, right? Accuse everybody else of doing the thing you’re doing to deflect attention from the fact that you’re doing it. And, you know, by god, it seems to work.
NK: But it made me even think about, I mean, a few years ago, I co-taught a video class, and we taught this Judith Butler text on Rodney King. And there’s like, you know, she kind of talks about the trial, and how the whole strategy of that trial is like, make it seem like it’s the guy on the ground who is the threat to the police officers. That was sort of the strategy of the trial. So that’s what I thought about actually, when I encountered the Dave character, too.
JH: Yeah. I mean, it’s all kind of a piece, right? You know, the criminalization of the Black body. If you want to call it that—
NK: Yeah. Right. Inherently a threat, that’s sort of the—
JH: Right, it’s like—I mean, there are so many sort of humorous scenarios I think of when I imagine that, just like, OK, there are these policemen who if I just jumped out of the bushes and said boo, they would be afraid enough—
NK: Please don’t do that.
JH: No, I’m not about to, don’t worry. No, I usually take a white person as a human shield. So I’d be like, “Nina! Come here! Talk to this officer.” It really works. I was actually talking to a friend of mine about doing a sort of intervention where we enlisted white people to drive around in cars with Black people who might be stopped by the cops, in the passenger seat. Just like, the Human Shield Project. But I think it would actually work. There have been any number of times when I’ve been stopped by the cops and there’s been a white person sitting in the passenger seat or, you know, or I’ve been sitting in the passenger seat. Well, no, actually, it’s never been the other way around, I don’t think. I think I’ve always been stopped. It’s actually true. But, you know, I mean, I have a variety of strategies for dealing with being stopped by the cops. And one of them—and they’re sort of like oddly perverse because one of them is like, you know, sometimes as a gay man, I find myself, when I say the term “Fuck the police,” I sometimes want to actually do it.
NK: You’ve said that to cops?
JH: No, I’ve never said that. But my strategy, although maybe I’ve blown my cover now for the rest of my life, is to flirt.
NK: Right. Right.
JH: Because men who are not necessarily expecting to be flirted with respond really well to being flirted with by other men. And, you know, not in an obvious sort of like, “Hey, take your pants down, let me suck it” kind of way. Just a flirtation that’s, you know, a lighter sort of flirtation. Like I have tried to talk about sports with cops who have stopped me, just, you know, they look at, you know, I’m sort of physically large. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, how ‘bout the football game?” Actually, they don’t even say that. “How ‘bout the game?” I’ll say, “Oh, yeah, the game, it was a great game.”
NK: Oh, they bring up sports.
JH: So I happened to notice that I’m sitting next to a picture of a sailboat.
NK: Oh, a sailboat, oh yes.
JH: So I thought maybe—
NK: Is this your segue?
JH: This is my segue, actually, into talking about your most recent piece, which is called:
NK: To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World
JH: Tell us about that.
NK: Tell us about, OK. Well—
JH: It has a literary basis.
NK: It does. When I was seven, we lived actually in England for a year. My dad had a sabbatical, and it was a totally wasted year for him, he says. But it was a really fun year for me. I remember really enjoying being there and finding all these—
JH: It was your sabbatical.
NK: It kind of was. It was like, oh, all these kids who do things in weird ways, and they talk funny and like, there are all different things here. And my mom read me a book that year, out loud, called Survive the Savage Sea. And this was the true account of a family of farmers. They were a farming family, poor, really struggling farmers, who decided one day, on a Sunday morning conversation with the whole family, that they were going to sell their farm, sell everything they owned, buy a sailboat, and spend a few years sailing around the world. And the only person who’d ever had any experience at sea was the father, who had been in the merchant navy and during the war had spent time on boats. And the mom was a nurse. And this ends up being important. And so they do it. They actually sell everything they own, they buy a sailboat, and they set off. And about a year and a half into their voyage—
JH: But it’s like a tiny sailboat, right?
NK: The sailboat isn’t terribly small. It’s a twenty-five-foot schooner, is that right? Forty-five-foot schooner.
JH: Oh, OK, I’m getting ahead of the story.
NK: Yeah, the small boat part comes next, which is that when they have passed—they’ve crossed the Atlantic, which was like, you know, trial by fire, “Learn to sail, kids,” because none of them had been trained at all. Spent about six months in the Caribbean and Miami, kind of trying to get the boat back into good shape and earn some money for the next part of their voyage. And then they’re going to cross the Pacific Ocean. And they’re about two weeks into that trip, have just left the Galapagos Islands, when a pod of orca smash their boat and it sinks. And probably these orcas, they were not maliciously sinking the sailboat. They just actually mistook the sailboat for another whale. And orca are whales that predate other whale species. So they attacked this whale probably. It turned out to be a sailboat. So they think, and they have
JH: Oops. The orca were like, “Whoops.”
NK: “Ooh, ow, ow.”
NK: Sorry. Yeah. They have two minutes, under two minutes to get off the sinking sailboat, grab whatever they can, and they wind up adrift for the next thirty-eight days. Six people, which is four adults, two children. It’s a lot of people when you have no food, no water, very few tools to work with.
JH: And that’s really the wrong place on the planet to be stranded, right?
NK: You know, I guess there could have been worse, there could have been colder places. But no, it’s never good to be, it’s just—
JH: I mean, no, the Pacific, that stretch of the Pacific, if you keep going west, there’s like nothing. Nothing. It’s essentially a desert, but water.
NK: Yeah. They are in the middle of a very vast expanse. The way that the currents worked there is that they were sort of going to—and it’s like very ingenious what the father, who knows the sea, is able to do a lot of really good dead reckoning as to where they are and where they’re going to be going. They sort of figure that the current is going to eventually take them north and gradually, gradually, they will start to be brought through the doldrums back towards the coast of Central America somewhere, like maybe Costa Rica’s, maybe around there. And so their plan is to sort of eventually get to the point where they can save up enough food and water to row that last part. None of this comes to pass because on day thirty-eight, after so many hair-raising experiences of almost capsizing, of almost being killed, sharks surrounding them all the time, all kinds of shit that happens, they are picked up by a fishing boat that happens to see them, and they’re rescued. But what happens then in the year after is that the father sits down to write a book, which is essentially kind of his ship’s log that he kept in this scrappy little life rescue manual that came in their dinghy. And that becomes the book that was read to me out loud. So I’ve been obsessed with this story since I was a child. And I really, without exaggerating, I can say that I’ve read that book probably every year, every other year of my life since it came into my life. And I know the thing by heart. I know every bit of it. And there might be a lot to say about why I got so obsessed with it.
JH: Yes, that was going to be my dumb question.
NK: Well, there’s a kind of—
JH: Did it have anything to do with the fact that you had crossed the sea yourself and were in a—?
NK: Um, it has a little bit to do with a relationship I have to the sea, perhaps, in the sense that I grew up spending my summers with my—so I have the kind of, I’m a weird kind of ethnic mutt. I’m Armenian on one side and Finnish on the other. So on the Finnish side of the family, we used to spend summers in this very, very tiny archipelago community in Finland. And as a kid, I mean, we would go there for three months. As a kid there was no electricity or running water or roads or anything like that. It was a very rural place, and we were really sort of very close together as a family unit. And we spent all our time on the water, in and out of boats and all that kind of stuff, which is one of the reasons my mother said she thought I would like this book. Because people were like, what were you thinking reading this to a child? It’s a story of trauma and disaster. But that was sort of a reason, is we spent a lot of time on the sea, and we were also a family, and it’s a story about a family who, you know, and it made perfect sense to me. I never questioned the appropriateness of this choice.
JH: But did you imagine even then what your family might have done in a similar circumstance?
NK: I think there probably were some sort of like, if we were the Robertsons, could we have figured out how to make a gaff to catch dorado and spear turtles and all these things?
JH: Maybe we’d have eaten each other.
NK: Yeah, yeah. The family gets—well, this is zooming ahead in the story a bit. Anyway, so
JH: They don’t eat each other.
JH: They don’t eat each other, do they?
NK: They do not. And in fact, they are very sensitive to jokes about cannibalism. It is like—
JH: Oh, oops.
NK: I won’t tell them you asked. Many people have. But the other more serious answer to why the story might be, that because on the Armenian side of the family, you know, there’s a big old genocide. And I have relatives who survived horrors and, you know, seemingly unsurvivable things. And I think that there’s always been a sense in my life of like, what are we capable of actually surviving? Like, what are we capable of getting through and living beyond and living with? And I mean, it’s kind of a Carlotta question, actually, come to think of it, too, like, can one get over or live with—because I don’t think you ever get over it. But can one kind of absorb live with, somehow move on from an experience of total annihilation? And, you know, I was very close to some relatives who did have that experience and did survive it, you know, reasonably intact, I guess you could sort of say, although certainly with trauma that I can only begin to imagine.
JH: It is kind of powerful to remind yourself sometimes that we are the descendants of the people who made it.
NK: Oh, yeah. But I mean, I have this rumination sometimes—
JH: They were some tough people.
NK: Yeah, like they were badass, tough, incredible people. But then I’m like, what am I made of? Like if the other shoe drops, fuck, like what—? You know, do I have that anywhere in me? Like, it’s kind of a distressing question. I don’t know. I don’t think one can know till a horrible, I don’t know if god forbid, horrible things happened to me.
JH: You also have to be sort of like sneaky and, you know, concerned with self-preservation, I think. Like you have to know how to game the system essentially.
NK: That’s interesting that you say that.
JH: Or to look at to look at a system and say, like, OK, I’m not going to obey authority at this point. I’m going to do some other things that will actually save my neck.
NK: Yeah. And then a disturbing attendant question might be, am I willing to throw others under the bus for me to get out alive? Which, you know—
JH: Yeah, possibly, I mean, I don’t know the exact stories in your family, but it can come down to that, but hopefully it doesn’t.
NK: Yeah, hopefully it doesn’t. So there’s that piece. And I think artistically there’s even a component part of like a lot of the work I’ve made has tried to press on the question of like, what can I do with very little, what can I do with the dumb shit that surrounds me all the time? What can I make in situations where it just doesn’t seem like there’s that much to work with? Like, I really love working within constraints, whether they’re self-imposed or externally imposed sometimes. And the kind of, I don’t know, I try to bring a kind of optimism to that question, I think, of like there is always more than meets the eye. There’s got to be something we can do, like, you know. And part of that, I think, you know, with the Robertson story, the shipwrecked family, is that they were unbelievable in what they managed to invent and the kind of doggedness with which they did it and how they entertained themselves mentally and all these things. So what I did in 2020 is I made, finally, after decades of wanting to, I made a big project about this story, and it involves interviewing the oldest son of this family. The parents have long since died, but Douglas Robertson, who lives in London and is now sixty-nine years old and an accountant and such a sweet man. And we did this kind of very deep, intense conversation together of speaking for thirty-eight days in a row. Every day we would discuss one, on the day that it happened to them in 1972, we would discuss that day’s events, and kind of made our way through the story together. And yeah, that is kind of the foundation, these audio recordings is the foundation of what became this exhibition that I’ve shown three times now. And I would so much like to bring it to the East Coast somewhere so that friends could see it here. But we’re working on that.
JH: Yeah, I would like for that to happen.
NK: Yeah. Thank you. So that’s sort of the, in a rather large nutshell, the story of—
JH: I’ve looked at images from the show, and it seems to me that, and this is a sort of larger question I have about your work generally, it seems as if there are all these fragments of things that you present in a show. Can you describe some of what is in the show?
NK: Yeah, this show had a really particular, you know, the process I would describe like this: It was like, cast the net wide. I’m going to try to do all maritime metaphors here. Cast the net wide, haul in—you know, first and foremost, it was this conversation that we had. And along the way, along those thirty-eight days, I was also making all kinds of stuff. I would sort of show up to the studio in the morning and I would draw, I would read the chapter we were going to discuss that day. And then I would find myself thinking like, OK, they were hit by killer whale. Like they were in the water with twenty killer whales. Like how big is a killer whale? Like, I want to try to really viscerally understand what it might have been like to be in the water with one. I’ll make a giant one to scale. So in my tiny studio, I made a huge-ass orca that was, you know, it was so big it’s head had to go out the door.
JH: With what?
NK: Paper. Just like this giant roll of paper. Yeah. And I ended up making paper replica animals to scale of everything they caught and ate during those thirty-eight days. So through methods like that, through tactics like that, it was a way of trying to kind of get close to the story. It was as if I was making props to sort of use myself to try to have a closer sense of how this must have worked for them. But then I also began mailing the props to Douglas, So I folded up the giant killer whale, and I sent it to him. And when he got it, he’s a very avid text messenger. So I got this great text from him that was him having unfolded the killer whale in his garden, and like him and two family members holding this thing up like trying to kind of hide behind it. And he said, “You know, when I unpacked the killer whale and I saw that patch of gray on its back, this shiver ran down my spine, because I remembered at that moment what it was like to be in the water with them, and I’d really forgotten how terrifying that was.” So one part of me is like, great, I retraumatized you. And another part was like, wow. So this is sort of, it’s helping him remember. And I mean, he was incredibly generous to step into this conversation with me. And many times I said, “You can opt out of this if you don’t want to go there.” Like it was a really, really difficult conversation for him in moments to have. But I thought a lot, too, about what it meant, what it meant for me to be the listener, and what it meant to listen, I guess you could say “ethically” to the story. What it meant to work with someone else’s story what it meant to then kind of translate it for a, for an art exhibition that all kinds of strangers were going to see. And we could talk for hours about how those decisions were made and what I ruled in and what I ruled out. But in the end, what I wanted was for someone coming through the show to experience all these fragments, as you said, bits of evidence, bits of things that I had recreated or researched or unearthed or discovered, and to try to kind of—the way I was trying to get close to the story, like use these kinds of props to bring the viewer close to it too.
JH: But then, you know, it’s presented in a gallery setting. And wouldn’t you get some sort of suggestion that artifacts from the show should be sold?
NK: Yeah. So the way that that was contended with was—well, all the artifacts are replicas, right? I wasn’t selling anything that was originally—
JH: Right, right. Of course. I mean, you weren’t selling the actual—
NK: Some things are for sale, some things aren’t. There are a lot of things that just—I mean, the whole thing is a thing for sale. It’d be nice if someone acquired that. That hasn’t happened, but it could maybe one day. And then there was sort of individual things that could be extracted, that could be sold and that then I could replace. Like it felt OK to me to make another paper dorado if somebody wanted one. So that that happened a few times, those kinds of things.
JH: So multiples is the—?
NK: Yeah. There was a kind of interesting, yeah, there were interesting conversations about like, how does one contend with this as a salable thing? And I don’t know, I think we found some solutions that seemed to work fine, but to me it’s really, the whole thing is a thing, is one big thing. And then some things I want to be just out in the world and free. Like you can hear every soundtrack. I wasn’t selling the audio. I wanted that to be a very accessible thing that anyone could hear from anywhere.
JH: Yeah, there have been a number of times that I’ve wanted to see it, and it has been far away from where I am.
NK: Yeah. I wish, well maybe. Cross your fingers. There’s a few irons in the fire. Maybe it’ll happen here. I’d love to bring it to New York. Yeah, so we’ll see. We’ll see.
JH: Well you never know who’s watching.
NK: You never know. Screaming: curators, museum people, pay attention, bring it here. Yeah.
NK: Should we end by showing each other a picture, since we compiled—?
JH: Um, OK.
NK: Do you want to?
JH: This is, I was always a big Charles Addams fan.
JH: But I feel like this image sort of sums up a lot of my gestalt.
JH: Do you know this one?
NK: It don’t. But I think I’m—is there a caption at the bottom?
JH: No, there’s nothing.
NK: OK, OK.
JH: But some of my favorite Charles Addams cartoons are just completely without words.
NK: It’s really beautiful. It’s nice. It took me a second to find the laughing guy.
NK: It’s really great. Yeah, it’s really great.
JH: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt like that guy. Uncle Fester, I guess is who—
NK: Yes, that’s who it is. It’s so great that the lady in the foreground is totally the red herring. You look at her first. The weeping lady with the floppy black hat, and then you see. It’s brilliantly constructed—
JH: He’s also clearly not with any of them.
NK: Yeah, yeah, yes.
JH: He’s by himself.
NK: Yes. You know what’s crazy?
JH: There’s another one that’s even creepier actually, where there’s no Uncle Fester, but there’s—it’s of a theater where everyone, but it’s from the back, right? And everybody in the theater has turned around, and they’re making this, you know, gasping expression. Yeah. Like that. And also there’s a closeup on the screen of somebody doing that.
NK: Oh, that’s great. Wow.
JH: So it’s as if some real thing has like—like some gigantic monster, like something has surprised everyone in the theater, including the people on the screen.
NK: Well I think I have a good follow-up. All right, so here’s picture number one. No, you’re seeing this now on my desktop, right? Or are you seeing the picture?
JH: I’m seeing the picture.
NK: OK, great. So that guy’s name is Harvey Ball, and he’s the guy who invented the smiley face.
JH: No relation to Hugo Ball?
NK: No. But look at his face. Like, it’s just astonishing to me. It is so astonishing to me how—I love this combination of things. And I learned today, I went and read a little bit more about him. He lived his entire life in Worcester, Mass. Like born, raised, died there, and worked for an insurance company, I think, that basically, they commissioned him to make this, like, cheery thing in some capacity I’ve already kind of forgotten. They made it in 1963 and then paid forty-five bucks for it and never saw another cent from it. And he was quite fine with that, it turns out.
JH: Or so he said. Look at his face.
NK: His face is so amazing. It’s so amazing. And then to be surrounded by this like, yay, yay, yay, yay. And then the fact that now we live with this thing.
JH: Can you believe what I did?
NK: Emoticon, you know, afterlife. But then speaking of afterlife, I have to show you the coda to this, which I only discovered today, which I think is—
JH: His coffin is covered in decals of happy faces?
NK: Oh. You’re not far off the mark.
JH: Oh, oops.
NK: It’s perfect that you said that, because this is his grave.
JH: Oh no!
NK: Yeah. Which like, I think is pretty spectacular. Plus that it says “Ball,” and it’s like a ball above him is—
JH: Right. Yeah.
NK: I feel like someone really had a great sense of humor who kind of ended up doing it.
JH: I think there are several websites that have funny gravestones on them, right?
NK: Oh, well. I’d like to know about that.
JH: I’m not going to go looking for them, but I have images of a couple of my favorite gravestones. This is a nice thing to end on, because it’s about the death of things.
NK: We’ve developed a terrible habit, or fun, but kind of shameful, perhaps a bit too, of walking around in cemeteries in Berlin—we live there part of the year—where because our German really sucks, this all should be seen as effectively in the end, just a reflection of our own shame about speaking such poor German still. But we find these sort of gravestones that have names on them that are very funny if you hear them in in English. Anyway, it’s just terrible. It’s like walking through cemeteries, cackling, it’s very bad. But a fun hobby.
JH: Well, there’s one—I can only describe them, because I’m not going to go looking for the images, I mean, because that would take another half hour—but there’s one in the cemetery where my husband has some relatives buried in Saratoga Springs for somebody whose last name is Bogus.
NK: Oh, wow. Wow.
JH: There was another one right by the highway I lived near when I lived in Austin. It’s pretty much under Interstate 35. And there’s this little area, and it’s right up front, so when you’re walking on the service road, you would see it every time you went past, and it just says, “Hello.”
NK: Oh no. Wow. Wow. Do you think there was a Mr. or Mrs. Hello?
JH: I would only assume that it’s a last name and not just somebody who bought a gravestone in order to fuck with people.
NK: My favorite German one, which isn’t a pun situation thing, but is this one that just says, if I translated it: “A hypothesis is just a hypothesis.” And it’s like, I guess death wasn’t. That was for real.
JH: It happened.
NK: It’s pretty good. Anyway, well?
JH: So with death we shall end.
NK: I think we’ve done it. Yeah, we’ve found an ending, a natural ending.
JH: Yes, and we’re laughing. Ha, ha, ha, death. I mean, I guess that sort of sums it all up, doesn’t it?
NK: Yeah, kind of, kind of—
JH: The connecting point between our aesthetics, I think is—
NK: I think that’s right.
JH: A ha, ha, ha, death.
NK: Ha, ha, ha, till the next death.
JH: Well, I hope to see you alive someday.
NK: I do too, James. I hope to see you alive very soon again.
JH: Yeah, sure. Oh, yeah. You have to come by for a studio visit.
NK: Yeah, I’d love to do that.