Susan Perly’s Death Valley (Wolsak & Wynn, 2016).
Canisia Lubrin: Your novel Death Valley gives us the very captivating image of the world as “a blue tumour in space.” Vivienne Pink keeps us aware of human-created illnesses throughout the book. There’s irony in having so much life in a decaying world. Your characters embody the uncertain physical space of Death Valley, and at the same time have little control in the larger institutions that affect its various states. What’s to be said about how we—through individual actions or institutions—bring about illness that is unnatural, in a sense?
Susan Perly: I think I would replace the word illness with purity. The notion of purity that we often place on ourselves is ludicrous to me. The world is not pure now and it never has been. But, should we have a say in how our actions affect the state of the world? Of course, we should. But the question is by what means should we have a say? The least you can do is vote. If you’ve lived, spent time in, worked in, dictatorships, you see how bedrock that is. My eyes glaze over when someone says to me they aren’t going to vote because the system is corrupt. Welcome to the world. Meanwhile time marches on, others carry the burden. Jump into this messy world! Get a little real world grime on you.
Vivienne comes to this stuff through the visual, as a photographer. She photographs actual wounds, she photographs what a human’s body, including a back, tells about hidden wounds. It’s an act of empathy, collaboration.
A phrase like ‘when the world was more simple’ makes me crazy. It was never simple.
It’s the beauty and the damage side by side. Death Valley is a story about five damaged characters going into a damaged desert. A phrase like “when the world was more simple” makes me crazy. It was never simple. Things were always messed up because that’s who we are. I’m not a pessimist, but often times we don’t give the world empathy; either it’s smiling emojis or jump off a cliff. I think it’s much more than that.
I think that’s a different order of things. If you go out into the wild, you can’t control a lot of things. We think that we own the earth and that’s such a delusion, to feel that possession.
CL: This book is brilliantly narrated and has a great intensity and playfulness to it. Can you talk a bit about this line from the book: “the world dismantles men and leaves their parts unholy.”
SP: We enter a chapter of our lives, we have no idea what will come next. We pledge loyalty, we proffer trust, train, give ourselves up to love, friendship. We try to enlist our better angels. It’s all surprises: betrayal, dishonour, broken hearts, physical blowup. I have no idea where that particular sentence you quote came from. I was writing a scene where Andy is, not for the first time, wondering if he should leave the military, as he agonizes about the feelings Vivienne had evoked in him. An older married woman. He can’t get her out of his mind. The rhythm of the syllables to evoke one lonely postwar man aching.
CL: Vivienne Pink’s sexual liberation is refreshing; it’s neither sacrosanct nor exploitative. This strikes me as radical that sex is part of her professional life as much as the camera, her eyes, fingers, and uniform: that pink jacket, leather boots, and so on.
SP: Yes. For Vivienne, the camera is an extension of herself. She’s an artist. She lives her art, so I think sex is about more than the body if we view it as intimacy. For Vivienne, it’s about intimacy.
CL: I am struck by the relationship between Vivienne and her husband, Johnny. There’s obvious devotion but a particular lack of possession in terms of jealousy or how folks typically act out romantic relationship or connection.
SP: This observation is new to me and I think it is spot on. They both make art and making art saves you. You think, “If I didn’t make art, where would that part of me go?” Because each of them makes art, they understand each other in a fundamental way. So it’s also about respect: each of them knows that to bear down on artwork, truly, each of them has to go to a place apart for long periods. And they each know that it’s not really the time away from each other, it’s how you have to give your heart’s attention to the artwork. What intrigued me in discovering Vivienne’s story was that it was her husband Johnny who pleaded with her to come home from war zones. He was terrified she might die. She wasn’t.
CL: What about the medium of photography makes it particularly striking as a mode of experience? Can you talk a bit about how photography helps us perceive each other?
Image courtesy of Kilby Smith-McGregor
SP: The first thing is, photography found Vivienne at a very young age. She saw that she was called to be a witness, to see things firsthand, and not take anybody else’s view of what happened. Vivienne’s finding photography, or a camera’s finding her, also has that element of chance. So, for me, Vivienne Pink is a model for saying yes to a chance offer.
It brought for me, too, the element of having empathy for our younger selves. How much we knew, didn’t know, triumphed over, messed up. I think young women have always been grown up inside. It was important for me to show her toughness. Vivienne was always a noticer but now she’s noticing through the lens, an extension of herself.
Ultimately you’re capturing a moment, the way the light is in that exact time, on that exact mountain, in that exact place, with that exact amount of moisture in the air, and those exact sounds outside the frame. That’s the devastating thing about photography, you capture something that has effectively changed, and photography is more like poetry that way. It devastates you into longing.
CL: I’m thinking about our relationship with the lens. In the book, we read that photography is a very young art but it seems to me that we have normalized the camera so much that it is almost impossible to think of the world and our bodies apart from the lens.
SP: Oh, it is very young. I’m not a fan of the phrase “A picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s hilarious! A total false premise. A picture is a picture. With a few exceptions, photography began in about 1839. Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman were writing when daguerreotypes, the first popular form of photography appeared. The image appears on a mirror-like surface. If you turn it this way and that in the light, the image appears and disappears. How perfect for Poe. But how can we picture our lives without photos? Imagine it—before the mid 19th century, no one had a photo of a loved one who had died, there were no photos of babies during the worst times of infant mortality, no souvenir snaps of a travel. You might sketch. If you were moneyed you might get a painted portrait taken. Then the art form began, and like pretty much all new technology, it became useful for sex, death, and memory.
Postmortem photos of babies and young children began to adorn gravesites. Our own images as markers for milestones began. The American Civil War was photographed. Witness had a new tool. Meanwhile geology kept up its long-time march across the sky horizon. Somewhere in there the modern brain changed. We think in images. I do. We think in movie scenes. We must, by now, have a “streaming binging” part of our brain. We got to feel at home with the instant feeling a photograph can evoke, to trust it, and rewatch still pictures.
In Death Valley, we are not just behind the eyes of a main protagonist, we are behind her eyes behind a lens. The world is telling her, “Tell my story.” She might be shocked by what she sees, at times, but the camera has to be professional. Empathetically pro.
The world is telling her, ‘Tell my story.’
And there’s all this unrest happening around Vivienne and she finds that feeling of being alive. The joke’s on us—we’re alive but we’re seeking that feeling of being alive. The devastating thing about photography is that you’ve captured a thing that will never be the same again. You have it. It is already gone.
Susan Perly has worked as a journalist, war correspondent and radio producer for the CBC. In the early ’80s her Letters from Latin America for Peter Gzowski’s Morningside reported from locales such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Chiapas. During the Iran–Iraq war she broadcast Letters from Baghdad, and she produced many documentaries for the weekly program Sunday Morning. Perly is the author of the jazz novel Love Street, and her short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. She lives in Toronto with her husband, the poet Dennis Lee.
Canisia Lubrin has been dedicated to various artistic practices over her lifetime. An award-winning writer, arts administrator, and educator, her writing has appeared in such journals as CV2, Forget, Prairie Fire, Room, as well as the chapbook City Series 3: Toronto from Frog Hollow Press. She is currently working on her debut novel and her first collection of poetry will be published in 2017 by Wolsak &Wynn.
This is the second installment of a two-part interview in a month long series on writing the body.