Awkward : Q and A

Q&A with Jan Wenzel, URI Publicist

1. What made you decide to write about awkwardness? There are many kinds of awkwardness–awkward silences, awkward speech, awkward as opposed to graceful, awkward as shyness, embarrassment, etc.

A very specific set of serendipities combined with intentions led me to write a book about awkwardness–and the idea emerged at the end of a semester in an upper level English course I was teaching entitled Immigrant Subjectivities and Documentary Discourse. (Here’s my readymade formal answer to this question).

I couldn’t have told that, by the end of a semester teaching a seminar in Documentary Discourse and Immigrant Subjectivity, “awkwardness” would appear before me as a subject and a form begging for a book. My experiences abroad in 2001-2002, in Russia and Italy respectively, in many ways served as a foundation for my pursuit of awkwardness, most especially because of a feeling of an inability to adjust to life in the United States upon my return, particularly in the year following the events of September 11th (I was teaching and researching in Moscow in Fall of 2001, and in Italy and Sicily in the Spring and Summer of 2002). Originally in search of a conceptual center around which a book set in Italy and Russia could cohere, I found in awkwardness this possibility but much more: a book-length essay that moves out from and returns to forms of national (and global) displacement, but that also follows awkwardness toward unexpected areas of investigation, meditation, and thrall: a complex braid of conceptual kin overlaid with implications for how we live in our bodies, how we manage our souls, and what is at stake in an over-valuation of balance, fit, adjustment and calm. Talking about the book with people from all walks, stations, and classes of life, I realized immediately that awkwardness is a wholly pervasive but woefully undertheorized and underdescribed condition. The necessity for this book was clear.

A striking conjunction of experiences at the end of the year following my return home literally inspired the book: I was teaching Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali; Fear Eats the Soul, a beautiful and dark meditation on a relationship that develops between a young Moroccan immigrant to Germany (Ali) and a white German working class cleaning woman who is many years his senior (Emi). The film is structured around surveying gazes, and, consequently, the people in the film, most especially the couple in question, move in their bodies in “unnatural” ways, stiffly, even as they try to show affection to one another. My students laughed at these stilted-seeming displays of the body, while I was, on the other hand, moved by them. This affective conundrum led me to consider all that is NOT revealed when, in Hollywood films, for example, the body is presented as though its owner has a perfectly seamless and “natural” relation to it. In the ensuing days, my students and I discussed whether perhaps this is what we should laugh at — the artificiality required to make filmic subjects appear natural. On the evening that the class screened the film, we found ourselves confronting a simultaneous, unexpected awkwardness, again at the intersection of immigrant subjectivity, representation, and the body. I wanted to share some of what I call “immigrant traces” with my class, over and against technologies of tracing to which immigrants must submit: to distinguish between the forms of tracing used by immigration services (for example, fingerprinting, and identification numbers, questionnaires and interviews) that are meant to “track down,” and therefore “find out” the immigrant, partly with the aim of always criminalizing him in advance, and the traces that immigrants themselves create in the form of literature, film, etc., traces whose aim perhaps is for the immigrant to be found, rather than found out. I was looking for a particular passage from my Italian immigrant grandfather’s journals, the collage-like traces, sentences in multiple directions, that he wrote in his shoe repair shop. I didn’t find the piece I was looking for, but instead, two letters that my grandfather had written to me when I was a child but that he had never sent. The letters were intensely beautiful in their structure and sentiment, and I was struck by the writing and re-writing that was going on in them, the letters as palimpsest. As I turned one letter over, I saw, penciled on the reverse end, upside down, atop a page the words that my grandfather was teaching himself that day from the English dictionary, accompanied, not by their English definitions, but by their beguiling Italian counterparts. At the top of the page, the word “awkward” appeared. This was followed by “awhile,” and after that “awe.”

That’s how the idea for the book began, but there were other origins too…I like to remember, after a book is written or while I’m in the pleasures of the midst of it, and especially when it is unexpected in that best of inspired ways, how it began. The very BANAL way in which it began. So, for instance, I do think that part of what drew me to this subject was a sense that in my field — literary cultural studies — there have been a lot of books written in the last decade about “shame.” And I remember that one day, my partner Jean and I were driving somewhere, Jean was driving and I was in the passenger seat, and I said to her, “awkwardness–awkwardness is different from shame but related to it…what do you think of a book on awkwardness?” And she said, “Brilliant. You’re on to something. Nobody is writing about awkwardness.” This goes for a sort of “lay” interpretation of awkwardness as well–i.e., most people associate awkwardness with shame or embarrassment, but I really don’t spend too much time in the book retreading that ground because what really became fascinating to me once I started to “follow” awkwardness was just how intricately, wildly VAST the definitions and applications of this word are.

Embarrassment and shame are, for me, among the least interesting definitions of awkwardness. I’m more interested, for instance, in the fact that awkward implies directionality–that it’s related to words like forward and backward but isn’t as clearly definable as either of those. That it takes us into the realm of the body, and in particular, matters of tact, tactfulness, or tactlessness. (Isn’t it interesting to learn that “tact,” when you discover its etymology, has to do with touch AND talk?) Not ALL words have this kind of rich applicability; not all words have the capacity to move across vastly different kinds of experience and discourses. Awkwardness does: it implicates mind, body, soul, political and social relations, habitus.

It can be understood to be at the center of being alive–insofar as “being” depends upon a great many inconsistencies and gaps that we daily try to avoid acknowledging. The gap between being alive and not understanding what it means to be alive–I consider that a kind of fundamental awkwardness. And I also think that awkwardness might be a singularly human condition. It seems to require self-awareness and forms of consciousness that we don’t generally associate with animals, insects, or plants!

2. Can you give some examples of the kind of awkwardness you are talking about?

The book treats everything from ontological discomfort to situational silence. It looks at tactlessness, stuttering, awkward go-betweens, awkward aesthetics, awkward diplomats, to name a few. It looks at the way awkwardness figures in the life and work of artists like Emily Dickinson, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Henry James. It considers the awkwardness that is the result of our desperate attempts to control chaos or our futile attempts to order things when they insist on falling apart. The awkwardness of escaping feeling: you might try to numb yourself, but you’re left with a feeling, and the “feeling” is a feeling of awkwardness. One of my personal favorite sections of the book–because I couldn’t have told in advance that awkwardness would take me to it–deals with precociousness and prodigiousnesss: the awkwardness ascribed to children who know more than their child bodies or child minds are allowed to contain.

In a way, I think there’s something for everyone in this book: I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me when I say I’ve written a book about awkwardness: “That must be a book about me!” It seems that many people experience themselves as awkward but don’t admit it. Or don’t have a way to proudly claim it. For those people, I’ve manufactured “awkward” t-shirts.

On the other hand, the book isn’t for everyone because it situates awkwardness in ways that I think we don’t typically see it discussed.

I realize my description of the book may make it sound as though it’s an encyclopedic compendium of awkwardness, but it’s really not that. There are a few central themes that become more amplified, more voluble in the course of the book’s orchestration. I think of them as ever more “voluble returns,” as though the book is a vibration, and the circle of each of these themes widens or narrows depending on where it occurs in the book.

3. Is the book a memoir, based on your personal experiences? Is it a book-length essay?

Awkward is a form of literary nonfiction. It’s a literary hybrid — part memoir, part cultural criticism, part philosophical meditation. Two writers, Adam Phillips and Edvige Giunta, who have read advance copies of the book describe it as “a new kind of memoir.”

I call it a book-length essay. Here’s my formal description of what I mean by that.

As a deep reader of nonfiction prose and theories of nonfiction, my influences are too many to mention, but two bracing, speculative essays by Cynthia Ozick and Russian cultural theorist Mikhail Epstein constitute an interlocutory space for the form and movement of Awkward: A Detour, which is not after all a book divided into chapters but a book-length essay. In light of the revitalization of the essay in the past decade, I am moved by Cynthia Ozick’s “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body” and Mikhail Epstein’s “An Essay on the Essay.” The essay is neither a polemic, nor a tract, nor an article according to Ozick, but the “movement of a free mind at play.” It has an “interior heat”; an essay is “a way.” The finest essays move among discourses: for Ozick, from reality, toward memory, dreamscape and back again; for Epstein from documentary (description) to fiction (imagination) and theory (speculation). For my own part, I like to think of essays as workshops for making, breaking, and reinventing order. For Epstein, the essay has a “nomadic and transmigratory essence.” In his “Essay on the Essay,” he describes the essay as a literary hybrid, characterized by digression, by surrender, and by weakness. The essay is a kind of reparative act that isn’t closed; notes Epstein, “Essayism [his coinage]…unites fragmented portions of culture. But in so doing, essayism leaves enough space between them for play, irony, reflection, alienation and defamiliarization,” and “The essay is held together by the mutual friction of incongruous parts that obstruct one another.” Ozick speculates that an essay does not persuade but coerces assent, it “courts agreement” without requiring it. Epstein seems to echo Ozick since, for him, “Two conditions must be met in the essay: audacity of vision and awesome respect for things themselves,” or “boldness of proposition and meekness of conclusions.” Though I I am moved to question the ideological implications of Ozick’s and Epstein’s claims–i.e., what does it mean to turn the essay into a repository for fantasies of freedom?–I composed Awkward: A Detour with an eye toward wandering, exploration, and play. If I followed “awkwardness,” where would it take me? This is a question that I asked. Awkward: A Detour neither establishes nor demonstrates an argument per se, though it is keen to recover “awkwardness” for its untapped and radical potentialities. This is what it is trying to do.

4. Should we embrace awkwardness?

I don’t write proscriptively (I like to paraphrase Gertrude Stein who says something like, “I do not write in order to be right”), so I wouldn’t wish to say that my book puts “shoulds” of any kind out into the world. It IS my hope, however, that readers, if they take the journey of the book with me, might be willing to ask what would happen if we embraced awkwardness? Again, to invoke Gertrude Stein: I like to think of reading and writing as places where we can experiment with altered states, and allow for possibilities that aren’t always possible in “real life” but that can become real once they are imagined. So, yes, the book in this sense is a celebration of awkwardness–it offers a revaluation of awkwardness, and maybe this is its political aspect: I think our inability to endure awkward states hasn’t served us well (I mean “we” Americans in a post-9/11 nation). The radical challenge of our current historical moment is twofold in this sense: we must give ourselves over to an awkward metamorphosis and release awkwardness itself from a definitional stranglehold that treats it as a state that is to be at all costs avoided.

The book, it might be said, is, at heart, an attempt to study and sustain forms of discomfort.

About seven or eight years ago, I heard someone on the radio say that dissociation was replacing depression as a contemporary condition and malaise. I remember thinking that was an insightful observation…and then I never heard anything else about it! Awkwardness has a lot to do with dissociation: I think we live in a dissociating age–so we suffer from culturally produced forms of dissociation, but I also think that dissociation can be a sign of sanity, a healthy defense mechanism. Would I suggest, via a meditation on awkwardness, that we “embrace” dissociation? Not exactly–but that we try to understand it (I think a language needs to be found for sundry dissociative states, we need to find ways to talk about our dissociation), and that understanding it may require dwelling with it.

5. Is everyone awkward in different ways?

No doubt the forms awkwardness takes, what “counts” as awkward are different from culture to culture–so it could be said that, depending on each person’s cultural milieu, he has a particular awkward repertoire to draw upon. But I think the best way to answer this question is with a sentence from the book:

What’s awkward about anyone is also what is beautiful about them, all that is attributable to them and to no one else.

From this point of view, awkwardness plays an individuating role for each of us. I do believe this.

6. How long did it take to write the book? Is the book the result of your sabbatical?

I think the book took about two years to write — it was finished when I started my sabbatical though I think I was still working with my editor, Erika Goldman, at the Bellevue Literary Press, in the earliest months of my sabbatical, to pare it down (I edited out something like 80 pages from the original manuscript), and, together, we re-situated sections of the book. My sabbatical has produced essays on entirely different subject matter — an essay on sleep, silence, and silent cinema; an essay on Gunther vonHagens’ bodyworlds exhibit; vast research on a book on taxidermy that I intend to write; research and trips to archives toward an entirely new book on pioneering laryngologist Chevalier Jackson; and, yes, I guess, at the same time, a few essays forged out of awkward leftovers–there’s always more about awkwardness that can be said!

7. Why is “detour” in the title?

I have lots of ways to answer this, with the understanding that different answers will appeal to different kinds of readers. First of all, this book was meant to work as a discovery rather than a treatise or a proof. As most creative thinkers in a range of disciplines know, sometimes the best discoveries are those arrived at by going off the anticipated path–discoveries require detours. But I also liked the idea of imagining this book as inciting a new genre. Often a subtitle of a book announces “what it is”: i.e., :a novel, :a memoir, :a collection of stories. What kind of literary genre is a “detour”? I like the idea of answering the question–“what kind of book have you written?” with the answer, “I’ve composed a detour.” A detour, to my mind, is a necessary wandering, a straying.

Here’s another way I like to answer this question: “Why is Awkward subtitled “a detour”? Because I was more interested in awkwardness as a language (mobile) than as a concept (fixed) (a distinction I draw from French psychoanalyst JB Pontalis’ book, Windows). If you enter something as a language, you find it wants and needs to travel, and it won’t allow you to come to the point, but to wander toward multiple points, arrived at from multiple directions.

Pontalis talks about this need to detour and wander in the context of psychotherapy: the circuitous non-narrative routes a person must take in order to achieve psychological insight and real change in the “talk therapy” that constitutes a psychoanalytic relation. My own indulgence of detours isn’t meant to be therapeutic but to be playfully contemplative: to open up interpretive byways in awkwardness’ name.

8. And, ick, about your next book…are you really writing about things that got extracted from people’s airways and stomachs? How appropriate that you discovered the idea in the “mutter” museum!

What’s icky to one person is deeply pleasurable to another — otherwise the medical profession might not exist.

The book is based on one of the most compelling collections in Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum — over 2,000 foreign bodies that a pioneering laryngologist named Chevalier Jackson extracted nonsurgically from people’s airways and stomachs in the early part of the 20th century. One of the many fascinating things about Jackson is that he saved and itemized and arranged these objects.

Getting back to the “ick” factor: I find that when I show friends or colleagues photographs of Jackson’s medical illustrations (what he saw when he peered through a bronchoscope) or of the objects he extracted or of the instruments he designed, they have one of two reactions: extreme fascination or disgust. What interests me is that either reaction implies a sense of AWE (and the sublime–disgust is often just a manifestation of the visceral sublime). I think either way–fascination or disgust–people are expressing awe: they are “marveling” in some way at what they see. So the book, in one sense, is a study of manifestations of the “marvelous” in the medical domain. What’s more marvelous: the fact of having swallowed a hat pin? The fact that someone was able to remove the pin without harming the person who swallowed it? Or the fact that he then inserted the pin into a weirdly artistic arrangement of swallowed things?

I don’t want to reify the strangeness of the collection; but I also don’t want to evacuate it of its oddness: I’m inspired by the late curator of the museum, Gretchen Worden, who was drawn to the anomalous, the morphed, the monstrous, the marvelous, and who was able to restore a human and even a “warm” element to these otherwise merely “spectacular” phenomena.

Basically the book is going to take off from three fundamental questions that anyone who encounters the collection seems to ask (but my hope, of course, is that my answers will be unexpected ones): who was that man (Jackson?); how does someone swallow that? And what are these things (once swallowed foreign bodies collected and then framed?) I intend to forge unexpected cultural connections between Jackson and contemporary writers and artists who had similar preoccupations as his but who dealt with those preoccupations in somewhat different ways (this includes Gertrude Stein and the portal-obsessed box artist, Joseph Cornell).

Originally, I intended only to write an essay about the collection, but then I read Jackson’s autobiography (which was a bestseller when it came out in 1938) along with some of his textbooks on endoscopic technique, when it became clear to me that there was a book waiting to be written about him and his collection of “foreign bodies.” I’m as much interested in him (he was a one-of-a-kind eccentric genius who saved thousands of peoples lives) as I am in the untold stories that haunt the collection of objects.

Here we have this meticulously documented collection of “things,” and yet, in spite of all of the information that Jackson provides about each object’s sojourn and retrieval in a person’s body, there’s so much more “human” stuff that can’t be contained by his discourse, and that I wish to restore. For complex reasons, Jackson and his method can’t afford to make visible or accommodate the objects’ human element: the “stories” that attend them, as well as the very nature of appetite, and the mouth as a seat of desire, aggression, and language.

I’m discovering (through careful archival work) some of those stories and they include everything from “hysterical swallowing” (a person, usually female, purposely swallowing an object), to a child being made to swallow things by sadistic caretakers, to the significant fact that one of the few children who died in Jackson’s care was African American, to Jackson’s own racism as revealed in letters to his mother, to sexist SONGS about Jackson composed by the Triological Society (Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists), to swordswallowers’ lessons to early endoscopists, to a child accidentally swallowing a dime that she had hid in her mouth so that her alcoholic father wouldn’t spend the family’s last bit of money…I recently interviewed a woman who lives in Kentucky who went searching in the Mutter collection for the hat pin that she accidentally aspirated when she was 8 years old. She’s now 83. Why is she suddenly in search of that confiscated hat pin? The details of the story she shared with me I find very moving, and I’m just as fascinated by the way that a kind of affection and intimacy have grown between us–that a once swallowed hatpin could generate an affection between strangers. I think we both have this sense that we were meant to “find” each other. I intend to devote a good part of a chapter to her story alone. Her name is Margaret Derryberry.

I’ll stop there!