How Do We Become Good People? A Conversation with Amina Cain
Anytime someone excels at a first person narrative I’m kind of in awe because I think it’s really difficult to do well and sustain over pages. Creature, a hybrid thing of short fiction, memoir, and diary like confessions, by Amina Cain, had me initially extremely skeptical in its bold “I” format. But her voice is real, honest, and so crystal clear in her daily observations that I read the book in one sitting. Strange, sad, funny, caged-by-having-to-live, Cain attacks you in multiple ways and does so effortlessly. The narrator, an extension of Cain, also strives to become a good person and I enjoyed spending time with someone fighting not only the external world but the intimate and internal.
I traded emails over the course of a few weeks with Amina and asked her about Creature, food consumption, Buddhism, transcendence through narrative, and if we can really be good people while standing in the shit.
Shane Jones: The writing in Creature is so effortless and exacting. I kept imagining a dark well with crystal clear water and I could see the murk at the bottom. Yet from spending time with the narrator we know there’s an intense struggle going on, even in the simplest of motions. Was this book difficult to write?
Amina Cain: Creature was difficult to write simply because all writing is difficult for me, and the struggle, or what I really want from the writing, often has to do with what you just brought up: clarity. I spend a lot of time in a story trying to see what is present and then clearing other things away so that it can be seen by the reader as well. A distinction is often made between writing and editing/revision, but not only do I see them as the same, lately I’ve been starting to think that for me, the most significant part of the writing process is that clearing away, getting rid of things, which then allows new lines and images and moments to emerge and be in relationship with each other.
SJ: You can really see that in the writing – the clearing away of what isn’t useful to let the truly useful shine, instead of just going wild and messy like lots of writers, who I also like, for those reasons. Does your practice of Buddhism, yoga, vegetarian lifestyle (I’m guessing on this one, you seem interested in animal rights from what I’ve read online) aid the clarity? I’m curious because last year I radically changed my diet to “clean foods” because I thought a novel I was working on needed to be clear, clean, tight.
AC: I’m sure that my practice of Buddhism, yoga, and fairly clean eating (I am vegetarian and a bit obsessed with nourishing food) aids that kind of clarity, but something I’ve discovered is that I look for clarity and spaciousness everywhere, so it isn’t surprising that it shows up in my writing as well as in these other areas of my life, which also include landscape (like the desert, which I feel very fortunate to live near), my own house (I love getting rid of things in this realm too), and my favorite films (like the short works of Laida Lertxundi). The “clearing” of the mind in meditation, the space I make in my body when I do yoga, it goes on and on. I’m both interested in these connections and overlaps and sometimes wonder if I am a very single minded person! I like that you changed your diet for your book. Do you think it’s helped? I also like messy and wild– in writing I admire it a lot, and I’m also glad I’ve had the chance to experience it in life.
SJ: It helped. Eating mostly fruits and vegetables and grains gave me a “lighter” feel throughout the day (I originally typed “door” here which is interesting) where before I’d eat a pastrami sandwich at 11:30. I’m not depressed. The lighter feel gave way to greater concentration and opened up things more. Where before I could only edit for a few hours and felt totally scatterbrained, I could now concentrate for hours on a single page. Do you have any other habits that you believe connects with your writing?
AC: Well, the thing of clearing space in my house connects to writing, just because I find it difficult to write, to concentrate, if everything around me is cluttered. But in terms of other habits, I can’t think of any offhand. I have my patterns, however, of writing towards certain temperatures, for instance. Right now I’m not sure I could write towards hot weather, but in February I’ll be able to do so. This is more like neuroticism. Reading, friendship, they are not habits, really, but they connect to my writing too.
SJ: Throughout Creature there’s a real push to transcend, for the narrator to get somewhere else even though she’s not sure what that something else is (she’s stuck in this body, in this reality), and a lot of that push dives her back into her writing. One of my favorite lines is “Not knowing what is good for anyone, I start writing.” Do you think being a “good” person, or maybe a “complete” person is important to your writing? Can we access a new reality through writing?
AC: Yes, I think the idea of being a good or complete person is important to my writing, but more so the reach toward it, which might explain that feeling of trying to get somewhere else without knowing what that is. I’m not sure I believe it’s possible to be completely good or whole, but there is a way to be in relationship to it, in “practice” with it (which, for some reason was a word I was trying to avoid here, maybe because it’s so overused). I don’t know, I want to be healthy. Often I make my characters “not healthy.” I’m not sure why. Maybe there’s something to look at there.
I do think we can access new realities through writing, but in our lives outside of writing we also find new realities, and writing towards or through them can help us get closer to what they are, what they might mean. For instance, I have been experiencing a whole world of things in yoga classes lately (that almost completely physical world) and writing not about the classes themselves, but to something in that physical practice has felt very necessary. I don’t mean to keep bringing up Buddhism when talking about my writing process, but here it is again so I’ll go with it. One of the things I love about Soto Zen is that it includes both reading/study and a physical sitting practice. They are paired. The reading alone is not enough, and though some people would say the sitting is enough, I need both. Each helps me understand the other. I think that is what is happening in the yoga classes now– I need to pair that physicalness, that reality, with writing.
SJ: How do we become good people?
AC: It might sound simplistic, but for me at a very basic level it means caring about others. Being able to be present for them. Kindness.
SJ: I was having this conversation yesterday with someone, talking about people and if they have kindness in them or if they are fundamentally awful. I said that society, culture, media, makes or judges people terrible (Cheat on your spouse, do drugs, eat meat, etc - you are judged for these things by a system) but she said something interesting. She said that it’s the opposite in the world, that people are hard wired to be terrible, to do awful things, that true kindness is what takes a conscious decision, that you need effort to be good, where awfulness and being fucked is humanly natural.
AC: I guess I think we’re all in relationship to terribleness and goodness all the time, not just one or the other, but I do agree that it can take a conscious decision sometimes to be kind. And questions of “good” get complicated, of course, partly because what we think it is might be very different than what society thinks it is, that system you talk about.
SJ: Norman Mailer (a pretty terrible dude, didn’t he stab his pregnant wife?) wrote really compassionately and beautifully about a serial killer in Executioners Song. And that book really moved people and I think creates goodness and tenderness in readers. Those layers are weird and interesting to me. Mailer also said ‘Style destroys reality’ which I love. Do you think you’ll continue writing in the same style as Creature? What’s next for you? I bet Mailer never did yoga.
AC: The layers are interesting to me as well, and yes, the road to goodness and tenderness isn’t always what we think it is. Style destroys reality. I’m mulling that over. It makes me realize I never think about style as it connects to writing. I’ve started working on a novel, but I don’t know what it will look like in the end. I imagine it’ll have something in common with Creature in terms of narrative voice or preoccupation, but I hope it moves forward too. Yeah, Mailer and yoga, I wonder.