Literary Hauntings and Nameless Cities: An Interview With Amina Cain

Amina Cain

The last time I talked with Amina Cain it was 2013 and the subject was her book Creature. Now, Cain has returned with a new book, Indelicacy — a novel about a woman’s artistic awakening amidst questions of art, intimacy, and class. It’s a difficult book to describe, because so much of its power stems from the manner in which Cain tells it story: what she keeps in, what she leaves out, and how she transforms the familiar into something almost fantastical. I talked with Cain about her new book and how she created it earlier this month.

Indelicacy is a very concise novel, written and structured with a great degree of control. I’m curious — did you have a sense, when you began writing this, that this would be a relatively short book, or did that emerge after you began editing and revising?

I had an idea that it might, just because I tend to write slim books already, and that seems to be my space in a way, one that is smaller, and zoomed in on something. I am probably more a writer of the sentence, and of images, than of plot. That said, I start every writing project from a pretty blank place, and I was open to what the book might want to be or look like. I wrote a lot that doesn’t appear in the book’s final form. I did a year of “pre-writing” that is barely present now, and after writing my first full draft of the book got rid of half of it. I’m big on revision, and at cutting away at excess. 

It’s not until relatively late in the novel that we learn Vitória’s name. What led to that decision, in terms of the pacing?

It was an intuitive decision, but since so much of the novel is “set” in Vitória’s inner world, I think it felt strange at first to bring her name into the narrative. The novel is very much about the ways in which she becomes who she is, how she is always becoming who she is, since that process never ends, and I like the idea that she might be a bit of a mystery to herself as she changes, as she comes to art and writing. And I like to think that the reader might be able to experience her a bit mysteriously too. 

In the acknowledgements for the novel, you write that you took several of the characters’ names from works by other writers, including Clarice Lispector and Octavia E. Butler. What prompted that idea — and did making that decision enable you to create more of a dialogue between your novel and those other literary works?

It’s mostly that I felt I already was in dialogue with those authors/works, and I wanted to formally tip my hat to them, acknowledge the great influence I feel from the books I love, and the fact that in large part they are what make me want to write in the first place. And I’m interested in the things that “haunt” my writing, that I carry with me, even in subtle ways, that become ghosts in the text, that have their own kind of presence there. 

At times, the novel’s prose gives way to the narrator’s own writings. What were some of the challenges that you faced in channeling a very different writer from yourself?

At times it definitely was challenging, because though I share some things in common with my narrator, there are other things I don’t. I wanted to make sure her writing was coming from her own experiences, from her own visions of paintings and dance. I wanted her to be real, to be herself. The helpful thing, for me, is that if I feel I am truly channeling a character then I go into a zone where I’m following her voice, not just what she says, but the sound of it, and I can get kind of hypnotized by that.   

Indelicacy has a very interesting relationship to specificity — when the names of specific places are used, for instance, it has a very tangible impact. How did you achieve the proper balance between specificity and archetype?

It’s funny, a writing teacher once told me after reading one of my short stories that I needed to name my city and also its streets, and I’ve gone squarely in the opposite direction, mostly because I’m for the most part not inspired by realism when it comes to setting, more the atmosphere of a place. Back to the idea of ghosts, I’m interested in how you can haunt one setting with another. Even though the city and country in which Indelicacy takes place are never named, both Brazil and Jamaica are, and I like to think that you can conjure the feeling of a place by bringing it into a sentence in a way that is not informational or utilitarian, and a narrative, by putting it into relationship with one that is imagined. 

Your novel involves musings on the need to create, but it’s also surrounded by art — both literally and thematically. What do you see as the relationship between art and fiction? 

I don’t think there has to be a relationship between them, but for me there certainly is. I said earlier that it’s the books I love that make me want to write, but it’s also art, of all forms, and I almost can’t experience it without wanting to write towards it in some way. The question itself, of what that relationship between art and writing can be, and where they might meet, is what I’m most interested in, because it has reoriented me as a writer, and it expresses what I most want out of the process of writing fiction, to keep trying to find out. Orhan Pamuk, in his wonderful book on reading and writing novels, The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, talks a lot about what he thinks the relationship is between painting and fiction, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t. I believe, for example, as he does, that objects can be as important to a novelist as they are to a visual artist, but I don’t believe all fiction writers are jealous of painters. I don’t want to be a painter; I just want to engage with paintings, and with imagery, the visual, as much as a painter might. And I want to engage with the excitement and energy I feel when watching dance or listening to music. For me, it is very much about the energy I receive from art, and wanting to express that energy on the page. 


Photo: Polly Antonia Barrowman

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