July 5th, 2011 / 4:49 pm

What is Experimental Literature? {Five Questions: Vi Khi Nao}

Vi Khi Nao lives in Iowa City. Fugue State Press recently released her novella, The Vanishing Point of Desire. She appears in the 2011 edition of NOON.

Question #1 – The Body

In the first volume of “Five Questions,” when asked to describe experimental writing, Bhanu Kapil redirected my question to the body: “Or: What are the somatics of an emigrant line?” She then went on to discuss “the diasporic body” -and- “the language of somatic experiencing.” I find this provocative line of inquiry very interesting because it draws our attention away from the role of the mind in creating literature and instead compels us to pay attention to the role of the body. What thoughts do you have about the relationship between the body and experimental writing?

Anti-enthusiasts of experimental literature may view experimental writing as an appendix, to be removed at some point from the body, a vestigial organ, not a pertinent apparatus of literature. It’s, however, a very important organ, perhaps not like the heart where it circulates mainstream through the bloodstream, but it’s an essential organ nonetheless. Experimental writing is a bean-shaped structure that removes waste and is a colander, preventing urine from slipping into a bag. But does the kidney climb the stairs of the ribs to the slippery slope of the esophagus to the brain and ask the Heavenly Pharaoh for rain or snow or ice or the condition of other bean-shaped existence? Perhaps, in the parable of Babel, we learn it cannot be so. As the kidney filters cliché, separates language into many languages, and disperses them throughout the most esoteric region of the literary body. And into the extremities. Away from the Tower of the Mind. While experimental literature steps down from the ladder of the head, deploys a certain air of frugality into the atmosphere of the mind (but not be the mind), and coexists with other organs of the body, it does not aspire to capture paradise.

Question #2 — Politics

In describing experimental writing, Miranda Mellis suggested, “Its politics are its aesthetics and vice versa.” I’m interested to learn your perspective on the political potential and/or limitations of experimental writing. Additionally, in what ways do you think experimental literature can engage with politics differently than other forms of literature?

I don’t know.

Question #3 — Economics

Debra Di Blasi responded to my question about how we might evaluate the success of a work of experimental literature (in light of the seeming lack of established criteria) by arguing that the act of “Determining ‘success’ or ‘failure’ shifts literary significance to product rather than process, to a means to an end rather than a means to a means to a means, i.e., evolution. Product concerns itself with marketing, process with art. They remain antagonistic neighbors.” By shifting my question away from the realm of aesthetic judgment and toward the discourse of commodities, Di Blasi raises interesting economic considerations. How might we begin to think about the use value of experimental literature? Or, to put it another way, what does experimental literature offer society or the individual that cannot be accounted for elsewhere?

In the arena of mutual funds, efficient market theory (EMT), stock and price volatility, India and insurance and jewelry, the Billionaire Investor Warren Buffet states that, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked.” One doesn’t have to wait for the tide to advance to know that experimental literature general swim in the nude. Experimental literature is vulnerable to the rise and fall of stock prices, vulnerable to the devalued price tags that society snaps onto its jugular skin, vulnerable to the linear fleet of mass production harboring on society’s economic seabed, and vulnerable to the gelid temperature of the sea. Its vulnerability is experimental literature’s asset. With a few exceptions, the value of a novel depreciates the moment it drives off the parking lot of publication. The methodical aesthetics (little people impact big people) and inherent traits (courage, patience, nudity) in writers/works of experimental literature combat depreciation. In alignment with Buffett’s maxim for good companies and long-term investment, society profits greatly when experimental literature passes through the hourglass of time. Into the sandy bay of indigent nudity. Brilliant works by Rene Crevel, David Markson, Carole Maso, Stanley Crawford, and others had to stand alone on the dark body of the seabed for decades, converting from flesh to vine, before modern togas invited them in and clothed them and paid tributes to their valuable enrichment to society.

Question #4 – Race

When asked about the relationship between women and experimental literature, Alexandra Chasin responded by asking, “What about the relationship between people of color and experimental literature in the U.S.? What about representations of race and racial Others? Can we talk about that?” Since this sentiment was echoed by various of the previous “Five Questions” participants, and because it strikes me as true that discussions about race and representations of racial diversity tend to be underrepresented in the field of experimental literature, I think it’s important to pursue answers to those questions. What are your thoughts?

I acknowledge that race is important in this discussion and this is why I am mentioning it. However, there is a no race, race, race, in Experimental Literature! It’s raceless. Odorless. Well, not odorless. The finish line. Carole Maso’s sensual novel, the title, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, appeals to me because Chinese and potential reference of conical hat are not underrepresented in the field of experimental literature. And, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Monsieur. The French are hardly ignored in that book! The French are very luscious.

I am only denying the existence of race to make apparent that there should be more race. I won’t deny the strength of the argument in that why learn more than one language when one can adhere to one language and do it well. And, I also want to say the strength of that argument is irrelevant. It’s only a personal preference: I am not concerned with representations of race and color prism or kaleidoscope in experimental literature as I am in gambling and watching gamblers at the M in Las Vegas, horse race, dog race, and free nautical buffets at the different casinos that serve octopus, shrimp, and tiramisu on trays the size of a trampoline. I am more interested in the distinct juxtapositions between Exodus and morning coffee, cowboy boots and Egyptian cotton, basil ice cream and lemongrass, elBulli and Burger King. I enjoy the distinct juxtaposition between two or more things or ideas that generate another race. Another species in literature. I think exploring and discovering the many million creatures, hidden, under the seabed of literature is expanding the universe and acknowledging the diversity of experimental literature and the important role experimental literature has on race and the reinvention of race. John Haskell, a non-namedropper of race, does this well, making the art of bathyorography apparent in his I Am Not Jackson Pollock. He is able to capitalize on the language of commoners and unpacks the luggage of emotions. He has the ability to make the readers fall in love with time and with octopus.

Question #5 – Reading Suggestions

Which are your favorite works of experimental literature, and why?

My mind is just a 5-qt. stainless steel colander sitting under a knowledge tree. But if I must partake in the favorite game, I will drain my intellect the following two pulps in the midst of counting to ten: 1) The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher: Molly Bang [1980]—It’s quite brilliant, very very very few words, and the colors or/and lack thereof draw a dangerous narrative of perennial evil, strawberry lust, barefootedness, & family. The color choices are very postmodern. Amazon it! Very. Also, I believe paucity, brevity, and childlike (but not infantile) are distinct traits of some successful experimental writing and The Grey Lady and The Strawberry Snatcher is an apotheosis of this type of success. AND at the same end of the spectrum: 2) Lust: Elfriede Jelinek [1993]—is, well, boring completely & repetitive & I highly recommend it. Most experimental literature is only half boring, 1/3 boring, or 4/5 boring, juxtaposed against the backdrop of a noisy, sporadic bouts of interesting, where boring scenes are not repeated enough. It is difficult to compete with a certain percentage of boring as opposed to the obese boring because it’s human nature to go after an anorexic bone. Buffalo thighs exist in the wild. Jelinek’s treatment of Lust is cannibalistic: word eating word, sex swallowing sex, man masticating woman. It’s basic. Reading boring literature is difficult and agonizing and tedious and not necessarily fulfilling. Successful boring writing is very focused, and for this, at the end of reading a boring work, after a day of morning and night bookending the consciousness, the reader is eager to make love to or fuck tomorrow. For the existence of Lust, I applaud Elfriede Jelinek.


  1. Corey Wakeling

      holy shit

  2. Drama Dan


  3. Terrybear

      Really? 72 pages [in] and Vi Khi Nao gives her thoughts on experimental lit.? She’s trying way to hard in this ”interview”. 2 yrs. from now she’s going to look at this and cringe. This is what’s wrong with the internet. Why is everyone in such a hurry to be heard?

  4. Anthony

      72 published pages—and I have seen the heretofore unpublished 100s of pages she has in her desk drawer, enough, I’d think, for 3-4 other books. And she hasn’t even got started yet, I feel. 

      As for this interview, Higgs asked and she complied, simple as that. 

  5. Guestagain

      Don’t think so, read it again. “It is difficult to compete with a certain percentage of boring as opposed to the obese boring because it’s human nature to go after an anorexic bone.”
      and “…noisy, sporadic bouts of interesting, where boring scenes are not repeated enough.”
      Successful boring writing is very focused.
      See the answer to Question #2. Nobody says “I don’t know” You never ever see this, it’s refreshing, a blinding flash of honesty.

  6. GuestAgaiN

      Invigorating. Genius.

      Finally! A recommended, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. A humble nod to a book that doesn’t make the penis or vagina bust through the pant.  

  7. Guestagain

      at least you’re pussy enough not to use the Guestagain moniker, ask yer mama whose penis is bursting through the pant

  8. Gladys

      ” Your language is wantonly extravagant. I am not sure that I know what you mean. If you are by any chance
      speaking of my cat, I can assure you she will not mind being left at

  9. Gladys

      “Curious! Curiouser! Curiousest! I mean, curious, more
      curious, most curious. I heard you mention a penis.
      I’d give anything in the world to see a real penis.”

  10. Leopoldbloom

      Really, Terrybear?  I must adamantly disagree with you.  I found her answers interesting and thought-provoking.  Is “trying way too hard” just your euphemism for a well-crafted measured response?  Aren’t writers allowed to express anymore?  Terrybear, the tide will eventually go out and you will be seen to be swimming naked.

  11. Leopoldbloom

      Though the questions might be viewed as pretentious, Ms. Nao thinks and writes compellingly.

  12. Terrybear

      “A fish skinny-dipping inside of another fish, who is also skinny-dipping.” / “The Babel fish is small, yellow, leechlike, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe.
      It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from
      those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from
      this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the
      mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the
      conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the
      speech centers of the brain which has supplied them. The practical
      upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can
      instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The
      speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has
      been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.”

  13. WaaaaaaaWaaaaaa

      The only thing “wantonly extravagant” about Mrs. Nao is her dumpling soup. 
      72 pages in? Really? As if quantity trumps quality? Irrelevant. She adds a refreshingly diverse perspective. There’s enough homogenization (275,785 pages in, 678,797 pages in, 2,457,876 pages in)  in this series to spur lactose intolerance.