YOU CAN'T SUMMARIZE A SPELL
an INTERVIEW WITH JONI MURPHY
BY EMMA COHEN
Joni Murphy has been everywhere. After growing up in New Mexico, she emerged from the dream-state desert and flung herself to Chicago, Vancouver and Montreal to study, then eventually to Brooklyn, where she lives and writes now. These places seem to have given her all kinds of wisdom, though that could come from other places too: her mystic-infused upbringing, the fifteenth century wizard novels she’s read, her uncanny ability to skim experiences and pick up on the small physicalities and feelings that stick into your teeth, brain, under your fingernails, so well that you forget you’re carrying them with you about your day, every day.
Her first novel, Double Teenage, traces the pilgrimage of girlhood from the desert to various cities. It follows two girls, Celine and Julie, named after the Jacques Rivette film Celine and Julie Go Boating, as they entwine and unravel their friendship and themselves. Joni Murphy has nailed the lush and anti-climactic details of girlhood. The smallness of being becomes big in her writing: where one douses oneself with essential oils, what records play looped the kitchen, a description of fruit and wine (or tequila and tortillas). Joni tells the coming together and falling apart of the years where both more and less happens that you expect. The novel treats the migration from girlhood to womanhood without condescension or fetishization. Julie and Celine are wise in their innocence, attuned in their fumbling. Their loneliness makes our own loneliness feel situated. And beyond that, so elegantly and terrifyingly woven into their progression is the violence that exists on the edges of womanhood. The pinning down of that violence and trauma is done tenderly and personally. As Joni tells it, books are theatre, books are magic, and this book is a spell.
Julie and Celine are wise in their innocence, attuned in their fumbling. Their loneliness makes our own loneliness feel situated.
EMMA: I remember the first time I read Double Teenage I was really swept away by the mysticism of the desert, but the second time around I was realizing the way that so many people are swept away by that. The characters Julie and Celine live in such a world of danger, but have a cushion between them and the violence. A line that summed that up for me was when you wrote: “The state of emergency was not an exception, but a part of a larger rule.” So I’m wondering, why did you feel compelled to write about this specific relationship to violence culturally and politically, and how were you able to convey that periphery haunting?
JONI: I was trying to talk about class on the one hand, being a kid of the middle class and being an American versus someone in Mexico, asking the question what would I be like if I was in a different country? You could be “the same person” but your conditions make your life very dangerous, or very protected. I was born in El Paso Texas and grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. There’s a false idea that violence is only direct, when really we’re all affected by each other - there’s a denial of porous boundaries. If your friend or family member or someone in your class is hurt in some way, the idea that you are not changed by that is untrue. There’s an idea that a book is about someone’s direct experience, like a book about someone who has had something traumatic happen to them. Double Teenage to me is a lot about not just complicity but how we’re all implicated in the violence of our culture. The desensitization of violence means you don’t get to talk about it unless it happened to you, which puts a lot of pressure on individuals. I thought if we talk about the ripples, it shouldn’t take a completely victimized person for people to take it seriously.
E: When it’s a book “about” violence, it’s always a direct study of a person experiencing a traumatic event, but it seems like what exists around that gets lost.
J: If you have been murdered, you can’t write a book about it. Someone was writing about how violence or rape for women feels inevitable, and there’s always an anticipation of it - we’re all acting like we’re waiting for this to happen and then we can talk about it - it sets everyone up in anticipating the worst. I wanted to not sensationalize violence that has been so sensationalized because then it becomes voyeuristic, disaster porn. I wanted to talk about how something bad is going happen to one of these characters, but then it doesn’t. Instead normal bad things, small bad things happen.
“To expect is to call into being.”
E: There’s a lot of mystical qualities to the book. When the girls Julie and Celine are together in the desert growing up they refer to their relationship as cosmic, fated, and when Julie goes to Vancouver she seems like she’s trying to regain some of these mystical elements through yoga and health practices. And Celine talks about being drawn to alternate realms. There’s a line that appears at the beginning and the end: “To expect is to call into being.” What is your personal relationship to mysticism?
J: Lots of things I wrote are like my Mom in a mirror. She’s a very devoted crystal healer. The tarot was something I experienced all through my childhood and it wasn’t treated as a special thing, but more like the way that someone would go to therapy. The self clarification, mystical practices are so much about training the self to be attuned to reality. Reality is mystical and beyond what a human can take in. But when we learn about these things, they seem super mythical and beyond. I’ve studied yoga for seventeen years. I am a mystical person in that I really believe in practice, and at the same time yoga is an element of self-involved capitalism, it speaks to people needing and wanting something. I take seriously people who have serious practices. But if something is powerful it can hurt you was well as help you. If you take seriously a magical, mystical approach you have to take both sides very seriously - you can’t halfway believe. I am attracted to it, but you have to respect it.
E: Was mysticism something you wanted the characters to carry with them?
J: I was thinking a lot about the bildingsroman, the journey into adulthood. The classical version of that is that you have to seek, go outside your childhood home and you are tested and you become a grown up. [Julie and Celine are] both seekers, and they have to split up, they had to go on their own paths. But the paths were influenced by a foundational place of togetherness in their teenage hood. Magic is discipline and work, and academics, school, they’ll teach you certain things but they have gaps. Both of them are in that seeking stage.
If you take seriously a magical, mystical approach you have to take both sides very seriously - you can’t halfway believe.
E: There’s a traditional narrative - whether culturally or in art - that you have to leave in order to start your “real” life, then you’ll achieve some static place of being. What resonated with me when I read this novel a second time was this sense of anticlimax in that, and when they’re leaving they really just escape into themselves in a way they didn't anticipate.
J: When you’re a woman/experiencing the world from the historically feminine view, that kind of story leaves you out. In so many kinds of literature I love, the implicit frame is the young man going out into the world, and he will find success because there’s room for him to find that role. [Julie and Celine] want that, they want to be participants in the world, but the girl historically goes out into the world before they can be turned back into a homebound person, as a mother. If you’re a middle class white girl in America, there’s room for you more than other people, but there’s not even clear room for that! The implied characters that I felt like I can’t speak for, but I thought a lot about, are the murdered and missing indigenous women, and women in Mexico. If Julie and Celine can’t find the way through easily, that just shows how narrow the path is and how many people are prevented from seeing the path.
E: There’s a lot in this book about bodies and borders. They are very wrapped up in not knowing whether they are enjoying certain sexual experiences. They’re drawn towards violences that they want to enjoy and feel guilty about enjoying. There are borders around their bodies being crossed, then they’re literally crossing geographical borders. How did you come to writing about bodily borders/geographical borders?
J: Something that’s a consistent questioning through my school life was the implied split of the body and mind, men and women. Implied clarity like, this is my body, I know where it ends, this is my individual self, I know where it ends. So I can feel sympathy for you, but I maintain a coherent self. For centuries there’s been a building of that mythology, but also in reality, people don’t just fall apart, get blurry. You’re supposed to be a clear capitalist individual. All that separation leads to violence and psychosis. I grew up near a border. Arizona, New Mexico - those places have been Mexico not that long ago in historical time. Why is New York not Canada? There’s no clear reason, there’s a hard line but also a blurriness of our experience. This insanity of building a wall between two places that are the same place. New Mexico is majority Hispanic Latino, Mexican American, minority caucasian. Coming from a place like that where people have many experiences, families are from this region for centuries, it’s blurry. Language is the thing that makes us aware that the way we talk about a country is often couched the same way we talk about a body. But in both cases what’s really obvious is that it’s far more complicated. All the parts of you that extend past yourself and all the things that come into you and are not “you,” how much we live with that is not “us.” You learn something and it’s in your head and your body and it changes you.
Language is the thing that makes us aware that the way we talk about a country is often couched the same way we talk about a body.
E: When Julie and Celine separate, Julie’s passage into adulthood is largely through her mind and studying and theory, trying to intellectualize things, and Celine falls into this emotionally reflective period in this relationship grappling with love. Was that split something you were thinking about?
J: A criticism I could have of a University setting in almost all fields is the levels of discomfort that seem normal. Academics are more and more estranged from their bodies. They aren’t feeling things even if their whole career is talking about feeling things. Julie’s trying to deal with things intellectually even if her questions are sensational. But where are the spaces in our culture that allow us to study a sensation rich world? As you grow up there’s less and less realm for physicality. Your workplace contains you in the same way school contained you. [In the novel] both characters are trying to understand things but are split and the avenues they find are split and all that splitting leads to a lot of sadness. We seek physical emotional intellectual connection because there’s not very much of that. Most of us are just a mess. Human beings are very intelligent and want connections, and are going to find them however they can. North American culture is not the best for that - we find them but there’s a lot of injury and stunted behaviour.
Making art, you get to say “this is the world I want to be with, these are my people” and some could be dead for three centuries and others you might want to know in real life. Its a way to say “I’m here too.”
E: There are a lot of cultural markers in the book: Graceland, Twin Peaks, Arthur Russell. Why did certain ones feel important to include?
J: When I was in grad school in Vancouver I was writing about film and sound art. I watched way too many movies, I wrote a lot of academic essays about film study - it felt natural. Those were my inspirations so they needed to be in there. They’re also time markers - when you see a movie can be really important in how you experience it. [Graceland] will never not be associated with my childhood, it means something. A lot of the book happens in the nineties - I was thinking a lot about not having everything accessible at all times. When I first watched Twin Peaks someone had a video set - it was hard to get. Art is like a drug, and at certain ages you crave it and it blows your mind and it’s always there but at certain points in my life it felt stronger than others. Nesting references feels respectful, but you also get the ripples - it’s the community of artwork you want to belong to, or are a fan of. Criticism is a way to speak to things I like. Making art, you get to say “this is the world I want to be with, these are my people” and some could be dead for three centuries and others you might want to know in real life. Its a way to say “I’m here too.”
E: A lot of people I know have this dread that everything exists already, so I love that way of thinking of it, where you’re just respecting things you love but you don’t feel like they’ve said everything you wanna say.
J: I know that that is a common worry when you’re young. The reason I wrote this book had to do in part with that I was in a small world in southern New Mexico, I was a kid in a certain period of time, had certain friends, and I know that none of them wrote a novel about what we experienced. Even if they did, they didn’t have my parents, my past, my house. The emphasis is on your specific story - no one has ever told it. People have fallen in love before, had bad experiences before, but not in your town on your street. When I was a teenager, Cormac McCarthy came to our town. So even if you live next to Cormac McCarthy, he’s not writing your book. There’s always space for you because every neighbourhood block and year is changing, we can’t run out.
E: Especially with the internet, you see so many people creating all the time so it feels easy to feel a loss of originality. That becomes debilitating.
J: I think the internet is largely bad. It’s not our job to know everything that exists. I would much prefer when someone reads some book they found really carefully. It’s more meaningful to absorb a couple things than to know everything. My boyfriend has a lot of records, and he’s had records since he was young, and he cares about them in this precise way and knows them. You listen to the whole thing, and it exists as a physical object in your house and he can only own so many records - there’s a physical and economic limit. But if you have Spotify, you have a sort of sense of everything, but you don’t connect. I don’t think the internet reflects our bodies, our lived experience. It’s like capitalism: everything is possible, but I get tired, I can’t actually absorb it all. I can read a book, it takes me some time. But the internet was not bearing down on me in the same way as a young person. I feel for you when you say that, because rather than open up it also does that thing of being like “look at how open this is!” but it also seems to weigh down on people’s beings. You just have to slow down, do your thing. Even if your thing is how far can you walk in a day, how many books can you read. You don't have to do everything. That’s the other thing about people being really into yoga now - it’s about physical experiences - sit here, be here. How do you feel, how’s your breath? It’s difficult but makes you happier.
We maybe have a false sense that writing is not particular, but every word in a sentence is a thing and it could be another thing, if you chose. They have their own texture, feeling, weight.
E: You write with such physicality in a way that I love. Because of that I remember certain passages and distinct moments in the novel more than with other prose styles. I was wondering if you do that consciously or if that’s how you feel when you’re writing?
J: Some of it probably is personal style, but a long time of studying dance, yoga, there’s some of my personality that notices smells and touch. Which I think is the same as a lot of people drawn to art - you get into art because you notice. All artists are so particular. We maybe have a false sense that writing is not particular, but every word in a sentence is a thing and it could be another thing, if you chose. They have their own texture, feeling, weight. Good writing is about good sentences, good words. There’s a lot of collecting of words that connect to images. At the very end of the book I have those passages that are like “this is a world of stuff, this is some of the stuff I remember, or signal my home.” As we grow up, if we do move away, your childhood and home is farther away. I probably have some nostalgia for New Mexico because it’s such a specific place with certain smells, and some of those things become connected to my particular time. I think you have to earn the words that you use just as much as you earn things you find at the thrift store. I’m not going to be satisfied until I got the right one. To go back to the mysticism, I have the idea that I have to put certain letters or certain words in the exact right position otherwise the spell won’t work. In this sixteenth century book I really like, the characters are magicians and they’re trying to do a spell but they’re saying it wrong and it’s coming out backwards. But you can’t summarize a spell, or else it doesn’t work, it has to be very careful in the way that poets are. All writing is like a spell. When it’s right, you know.
E: I was listening to Marie Howe, and she was talking about using mantras and incantations as spells. As I was rereading Double Teenage it made me think, when Celine always says “There’s a white light that protects me” and also throughout the whole thing, once they leave New Mexico, there was a repetition of ‘she’ll be fine, I’ll be fine.’ It has that incantatory quality.
J: We have habits, but your habits become reality in some way. Our habits of thinking. My mom is very into this, she says ‘you have to be careful, you have to speak positively, because you’re creating the reality.’ I do believe it even when she drives me crazy about it. Words are important and help create reality.
E: You move between writing styles - the majority of the book is written in prose, but in the last section there’s poetry and almost a script style writing. It feels like it’s coming at the story from a totally other angle.
J: Originally I had this section of poems or commentary, and thought about doing it as footnotes - the stuff that didn’t fit in the regular prose narrative. These poems would be the voice of a dead person, or a critic, someone removed from the narrative. Women have an internalized sense of being seen, it’s double vision - all women see themselves and see how others are going to see them. The poems were speaking to that and I had a growing body of them, and eventually I had to tell the story, lull the reader into the story, and then I wanted to be like, let’s analyze that story. Almost like a class or an essay about it. Some of the stuff we are lulled into believing is part of the problem. There’s problems in this story which are maybe not the ones that seem to be the real problem. I needed to either write a commentary or undo what you just read. There are these performers in Chicago - Every House Has a Door. They’re this couple and they do performances. They make these intense pieces and sometimes they’re intense because they’re boring. There’s one piece where there’s fifty minutes of very physical but repetitive choreography. People are running, falling on the ground, but it seems to be the same so it’s almost boring. Then there’s ten minutes where they stop and talk and tell these small stories. They often have talks after the performance, and someone asked why did we need to sit through fifty minutes of boring repetitive choreography before the stories, and they said, well you wouldn’t have been in the same state of mind. So for me, I couldn’t cut to the powerful thing in the book right away - you have to get someone to a new place before they’re ready to hear the other thing. If you just jump to that, they’re already walking in stable, and in my opinion art is setting a state of mind where you hear something that otherwise you might just dismiss.
I have to put certain letters or certain words in the exact right position otherwise the spell won’t work.
E: There’s a through line of performativity and theatre in the novel as well.
J: When I was little I was in theatre class - my mom worked at the theatre and I strongly wanted to be in theatre between the ages of eight and eighteen. I felt like I was on that path, I worked in a costume shop. Seeing plays as a kid felt so magical, and it is magical. All these adults pretending so that some other world can exist, and making theses things happen. It’s so different from other kinds of work adults do. You can love something, you can make a magical world, it’ll exist for a period of time, and then that space returns to neutral, and it starts again. So the performance has a personal background for me, but also, a book is a theatre. No one can tell you not to write a book, it’s one of the hardest things someone could stop you from doing, and I like that.
E: In reading Double Teenage, I felt like I’d never read something that showed being a young girl/woman that didn’t have a note of condescension or exploitation. I kept feeling while reading that even when Celine and Julie are naive, and even when they’re doing things they know they shouldn’t - they still have this wisdom to them.
J: The summer before I finished the book I read Elena Ferrante’s books and I think the reason everyone loves them is because they take women seriously, and they’re beautiful books, intellectual and bodily. There’s so much desire for that. There hasn’t been as much literature about women, by women, in all the little nuances. Because there’s the fetishized quality of teenaged girls, but also not taken seriously at the same time, those two things are very potent. Our culture’s obsessed with them but doesn’t want to hear from them. But you don’t just suddenly become a worthwhile person when you reach some certain age. Women were smart fifteen year olds even if they were doing stupid things. Anger was a motivating force for writing this - I refused for this to be the case. Chris Kraus, Ariana Reines, Eileen Myles, all those people take people seriously, take themselves seriously. Not to be likeable. Take yourself and your friends seriously. I think our culture does a disservice to teenagers by not taking them seriously and then being like okay get it together. If you write about something and take it seriously then you argue for a space for it. Men are given more cultural room for taking things seriously. Art is bringing attention to something, and you have to refuse the voices that deny that what you’re bringing attention to is important. You have to believe it, and convince others that it’s important. Good art is an argument to pay attention.
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