To read the books of Quintan Ana Wikswo is to become enveloped in them, and in their author’s wholly immersive juxtaposition of text and images. 2015’s The Hope of Floating Has Carried Us This Far blended short texts with haunting images of structures and landscapes. 2017’s A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be brings together the architectural and the anatomical, in telling the story of a family living on the fringes of a corrupt, hateful society. I talked with Wikswo about the genesis of these books, the process that led to their creation, and more.
At the back of A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be, you write about the places that informed and inspired this book. How does that play into the process of writing?
I write like a haunting – a spirit that cannot be dislodged, that inhabits a site across time and space. Each of our beloved books are those into which we disappear in some way, are consumed, subsumed, absorbed, integrated so completely that we come, as readers, to inhabit the book. As an author, the only time I write is when I am comprehensively subsumed by a place, a site, and what has happened there. I disappear into a place and its timespaces the way I disappear into a night sky full of stars. I grew up in two abandoned plantation houses and those are places that nobody truly inhabits, we just haunt and haunt and haunt. And they haunt us.
In SCAR, the outsider and mixed-race communities of rural Virginia and South Carolina are my birthright for hundreds of centuries – we inhabited places of tremendous import with an everyday familiarity: segregated cemeteries, abandoned plantations, civil war battlefields, eugenics clinics, towns like Lynchburg, from whence the term “lynching” derived. These are everyday places where I arrived on the earth. Before I was old enough to understand the complexities of my ancestry in these places, I crawled on its earth, smelled its humid odors, visited its graves, found its bloodstains, felt it on my skin and in my lungs and hair.
The words – the narrative to these places – came in childhood, in the inconsistent, fragmented stories that familes tell each other about themselves: irreconcilable versions of births and miscarriages and vanished babies, deaths and murders and fading aways, sexual alliances and scandals and taboos. The mysterious room I found as a toddler, with its soiled bedsheets and dusty newspapers from 1954 suddenly had a story – that’s where an alcoholic uncle drank himself to death and nobody ever opened the door again. The strange black stain on the wooden floor was from a confederate soldier who dragged himself to the fireside to die.
So as an adult, I very formally, very clinically returned to these places of ancestry through a National Endowment for the Arts residency grant at the Lynchburg Old City Cemetery – founded in 1806 by John Lynch as the only burial ground for African- and Native-descended citizens…prostitutes, town leaders, slaves, free blacks, indigent people, civil rights leaders. Over three centuries, there are at least fifteen thousand graves. So I started there, looking for records of the members of my family that were especially shrouded in silence. From there, I spent time on Edisto Island in South Carolina where my family first began mixing Scottish and African and Native ancestry, in Charleston, where their paths did not diverge as clearly as I’d been told, and to various plantations and civil war sites where their lives cobwebbed together in ways that I will never fully untangle.
But traces of them remained at these sites, these places, and traces of what happened to many sexually and socially noncompliant folks. I couldn’t have written this without sitting in their/our slave quarters, sitting on the hospital steps, sitting at the gravesides and in desks at public records offices – talking to folks, smelling the air again, feeling it on my body, hearing the accents and seeing the pain of memory spread over another human’s face.
And I couldn’t have written it without realizing that the personal is also universal – that the oppressions my family endured (their queernesses, their racial complexities, their class prejudices, segregation, state-sponsored violence, forced sterilization, forced institutionalization, disowned family members, disappearances and deaths) were not secrets to be ashamed of because they had only happened to us. They are universal American stories that are just now beginning to be published, presented, respected, heard, and navigated.
I needed to leave the land of memory and isolation and conjecture and go into today’s ugly America, yesterday’s bloodstained South, which is also yesterday’s ugly America, today’s bloodstained South. I needed to cry with people. I needed to get angry with people. Living and dead, embodied and disembodied, erased and very much present.
I’m not the kind of writer who can work at a desk.
For this book, did you have the seeds of the story first, or were you inspired when you visited these spaces?
The seed story that drew me in was the collection of mysteries wrapped up in one man, my great-grandfather. Named Lafayette in the book, he was the Scottish (or mixed race?) son of a plantation-owning (plantation working?), slave owning (enslaved?) family in South Carolina, who was exiled (or educated?) with his Ghanese-descendent unfreed slave (or brother? Or half-brother?) to Virginia, where he (or they?) contracted syphilis living (or working?) in a segregated (or nonsegregated?), gay (or heterosexual?) flophouse (or brothel?) after abandoning his wife and daughters, who opened a nursing home (hospice? underground hospital?) in an abandoned (inherited?) decrepit plantation house.
While I grew up and learned more about the underbelly of this nation, my family story rapidly ceased making logical sense as any kind of truth. It seemed more and more a lie, but something worse, something more sad and desperate than a lie. Something desperate and primitive yet also sophisticated and curated, full of fabrications and viciousness, secret kindnesses and alliances that happen when folks are profoundly persecuted and grasping at survival.
At first I thought it was a simple story, and then I realized it was an exceedingly complex story because the number of lies, secrets, half-truths, silencings and deceptions. At first, I thought these questions could be cleared up. My professional background is in the forensics of human rights atrocities. I had training! I thought, we were silenced by those in power, so surely if I go to the courthouses and the public records and cemeteries and hospitals I will find the truth. I knew my people were not being truthful about ourselves, but what and who we were and are – and how comprehensively the truths of our lives were obscured – that only revealed itself when I went back and tried to unerase us.
I remember when I discovered that not only were we erased by the powerful, we also silenced and erased ourselves and each other. This frictive pressure of erasure came from within and without, from those who had civil rights and those who had none, from those who were privileged and those who were disenfranchised, from those who had stayed and those who had fled, the educated and the uneducated, the white and the mixed, the queer and the straight, and my hope to write a nonfiction work had to be abandoned completely. And something else emerged.
You also wrote about your family’s history in some of the same places that inspired this book. Had you visited them before your visits for this project, or were these your first trips there?
My mother fled her ancestry by moving to San Francisco with my father before I was born – unlike hers, his family were quasi-Jewish refugee and immigrant scientists, so I was born near the particle accelerator at Stanford University while my father was a student there. My first memory of visiting my mother’s family was around age four. It was all red clay and white doric columns, church services and a country ham cooked from scratch each week for Sunday supper, cemetery visits and bird hunting, firecrackers, caramel cake and the creeks and fishing, and more church. The house smelled like magnolias and downy fabric softener and country ham.
After age five, I lived in the south and spent most summers with the family in Virginia until I was nineteen. While their family culture was the richest and ripest I’ve ever known, they were profoundly abusive and sadistic to me and to each other. The became a long list of horrors that couldn’t be discussed and questions that couldn’t be asked and feelings that couldn’t be felt and abuses that couldn’t be revealed.
When I turned nineteen, I decided that one day I would get them all back by becoming a writer and waiting for them to die. And so I became a writer, and then they died, and I went back to these places and then it was no longer as easy as getting them back, because I was part of them, and they were part of me. I had to write this book without destroying myself, and it became more a project about how on earth could I inhabit these family places without dying of their illness of the spirit.
The use of photos in both this book and The Hope of Floating… was immediately striking to me as a reader. How do you go about finding the right photos and matching them to the text? Does that generally go through a number of revisions as well, or are the photos generally “set” earlier in the process?
As I mentioned, I’m not a desk writer. I write in the field, while I’m taking photographs. So the two build simultaneously. As a photographer, I’m only interested in the conceptualism of the image – I’m not there to document, but to surround an emotion that is pinned down like a butterfly. The photographs of family houses in Lynchburg, for example, are what I was feeling as I was writing. There are many elements that can only be processed visually, through sight and texture and color and movement, especially the wordlessness of pain, or grief, or orgasm, or falling in love.
Yet other aspects must be voiced, and must be expressed in language. Much of that language comes from within the body as lips, tongue, throat, lungs, diaphragm. The rhythm of regional accent, or moving slowly in the heat, or – in my case as in many – the breathlessness of running from the police.
I really don’t revise either text or image. They emerge together in a fieldwork session and other than working on sequence, or perhaps structure, there is no way to change what happened to me while I was writing. So editing isn’t much of a process for me. My process is the editing of the work before it goes onto the page – finding the capacity in my own self to navigate the emotions and thoughts that engulf me is a way to stay sane in the presence of overwhelming pressure, and that method of naming feelings and sensations and expressing them, and then putting them down on paper, is far more internal. They can’t really be edited afterwards.
Much of the book is written in the third person, with occasional shifts into the first person. What prompted you to take this approach to the narrative voice?
Two answers to that question – my endebtedness to the Harlem Rennaissance writers cannot be overemphasized. Most particularly the writing of Jean Toomer, and most especially his book Cane. I came across it during the writing of my book. No other writer can approach the sophistication of his use of shifting points of view alongside adept internal monologue, stream of consciousness, and the ability to shift from almost clinical specificity to the very conceptual, nuanced, and abstract in lyric prose. It’s a very southern way of storytelling, a very African way of storytelling, and a true art to the circling and spiraling of a chorus – harmonious and disharmonious – of disparate voices, the dodging and weaving and warping and bending of language and the person using that language to conceal and reveal different information to different people. It’s all coded, and there is a lot of politics about who can speak for whom.
In SCAR, most of the first person sections were written because those characters would not have had their truths spoken accurately by anyone other than themselves. So I had to embrace them speaking for themselves.
The third person sections were where I took agency over my family and decided to tell it my way. In many ways, the third person is the royal we, it is the I in this book. My characters talk for themselves, but when I make decisions about their stories, I’m telling my version. How I think it was. How I know it was, or hope it was, or fear it was. But it’s me talking.
When did you first begin working with images and text in tandem with one another?
I experienced a series of traumatic brain injuries as a fieldworker in human rights. In 2009, these multiple injuries combined with PTSD resulted in a significant brain incident in which I lost the use of language almost completely. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t write, and my ability to process spoken or written language was severely limited. I had to take a leave of absence from my NGO because much of my work revolved around writing, transcribing, and documenting the oral histories and testimonies of survivors of human rights atrocities.
Professionally, I had been working on a project about the Nazi ratline smuggling SS war criminals from Portugal to Argentina. I already had tickets to Lisbon but could not do my job because of my brain injury. So I flew over there anyway, and stopped in at an old camera store where an elderly man tried to talk me out of buying an “evil” camera that I thought was beautiful. It had been manufactured for the military by forced labor during Salazar’s dictatorship, and was very old and nonfunctional. Nonetheless, I decided to play with it, never having taken photographs before with a film camera, and go to the sites where I was supposed to take oral histories and instead take photographs.
Those original images became the focus of my first solo museum exhibition in New York City a couple years later. And then, as my language function returned during the rewiring of my brain, I simply began integrating the two in this fieldwork process that was already part of my professional training as a human rights worker.
I am grateful for the former curator at the New York museum, Zachary Levine; for Anitra Budd, the former acquiring editor at Coffee House books; the program director Sean Elwood at Creative Capital; the folks at Yaddo who gave me two fellowships for the book with photographs, and Editor James Reich of Stalking Horse Press for being the very first to truly support my mixing of the two forms, and funding and presenting the integrated work rather than forcing literature and visual art into segregated swimming pools. Turns out different forms can drink from the same water fountain, although apparently it’s still rather distressing to most gatekeepers in the arts.
In this book, there are a number of juxtapositions: the unearthly beauty of some of the images with the visceral imagery that shows up in the text; the structure of the novel riffing on a building and a heart alike. How did you develop that motif as you worked on the book?
My father discovered the magnetic field of the human heart when I was little, and during his experiments I spent a lot of time as a test subject, and roaming around his labs. I did a science fair experiment in the depths of my adolescent existentialism in which I removed and measured the weight of various animal hearts to see how body weight compared to heart size. The alchemy of the heart – a simple muscular apparatus for pumping blood that is also the site that determines whether life is present in a body – was a motif for my entire adolescence.
The heart is the entwinement of the ineffable spiritual sublime alongside the prosaic object of the corporeal body. I always loved that. It seems no different than a house, perhaps a plantation house, which is an entwinement of bricks and wood alongside human rights atrocities.
But I would be remiss to not offer this anecdote I learned while working at the Lynchburg Old City Cemetery. I overheard a group of white folks ridiculing the tradition of local African Americans who, throughout the 20th century, would stand guard around the graves of their dead to keep them from being robbed. How ridiculous and primitive, said the white folks. To think, someone would just come and steal a body. That must be some quaint African superstition. There was a cluster of African American mourners who moved off without saying anything. Later, I asked a few of them about what the white folks had said. No, said the black folks, lots of our people still don’t want to bury here. Because for a long time they came and took our dead. I thought about it for a second and asked, who would come and take them? And one of the women looked me square in the eye and said, The University of Virginia Medical School. So the students could autopsy the cadavers. They just took black folks and cut them open. Mostly from this place.
Almost all my family with college educations had attended the University of Virginia, including my father. So I poked around, and I did find the records buried in their archives, alongside clearly articulated instructions that a certain practice should never be acknowledged: The University of Virginia would come to the Lynchburg Old City Cemetery in the night, disinter African American bodies from their graves, transport them back to the university, and cut them up for experiments at the medical school.
It was around that time that my neurologist sent my brain MRIs to Harvard for analysis, and while in Virginia I received a letter from the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (HBTRC) requesting my signature on an otherwise completed form donating the contents of my skull to their special collection of brains. Post-mortem, I assume.
So of course my book had to be called A LONG CURVING SCAR WHERE THE HEART SHOULD BE. There are folks walking amongst us who may seem to be alive, but where their hearts should be is just a long curving scar.
How did it take, from the initial idea to completion, to create A Long Curving Scar Where the Heart Should Be?
I was a street waif in Texas when I was adopted by a former Black Panther activist, Dr. Robin Kilson. She told me that I should write my family story, and she put me in her library with a case of champagne until I’d written the first three chapters. That was in 1996. She spirited them away and then much later, at an especially hopeless time in my life, she sent them to Maxine Chernoff at the Creative Writing department at San Francisco State University, I was accepted, and my life changed forever. The bulk of the book was written from 2005-2009. For the subsequent ten years, the manuscript was rejected with apologies because it was considered too queer, too racial, and too strange to yield a profit. I am forever grateful to independent presses – to Anitra Budd who initially accepted it at Coffee House Press while she was still there, and to James Reich at Stalking Horse Press who published it with joy and devotion as soon as he stumbled across the manuscript last year.
Do you have a sense of what your next project will be?
I have two books that are 75% completed – both are hybrid form of essays, stories, memoir, poems, and performance scores accompanied by photographic series. Selections from both books have been published in Tin House, Conjunctions, Guernica and elsewhere, and in a great many solo and group museum exhibitions in Berlin, Paris, Los Angeles, New York, Santa Fe, and throughout the south and southwest of the United States. I’ve also performed much of the work at (le) Poisson Rouge, St. Marks, and other venues, and worked with composers and choreographers to make site-specific and video installations of the work.
One of the books is called THE BLUE AT THE BASE OF THE FLAME and surrounds the timespace of genocide: how emotion inhabits the physical, ecological, and archeological sites of genocide, and how it manifests in the human body of survivors and perpetrators across time. It began with a conversation with a survivor of the rape brothel at Dachau which turned into a nonfiction piece with photographs, video installations, and performance works and toured widely. Then I tracked down the descendants of specific Nazis and SS commanders who had murdered my relatives and got to know them rather well. Overall, I spent ten years following the trail of family history in Portugal, France, Germany, Switzerland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, as well as US-occupied Native land in North America, and former slave states in the South. Right now I’m adding new pieces to the book as that research and fieldwork draws to a close with an upcoming residency in Amsterdam.
The second book is called OUT HERE DEATH IS NO BIG DEAL and is a memoir surrounding my two decades living and working along the U.S.-Mexico border, Texas, Mexico, the Tohono O’odham and Chiracahua Apache Nations, and various U.S. military installations. It began as a collection of pieces about helping set up safe houses for survivors of cartel-driven femicide and gender violence targeting women of color. Then I realized that my own life – and my traumatic brain injury – was so impacted on a personal level by hate crimes and gender violence that the book needed to intertwine the larger sociopolitical legacies of colonialism with the physical, and emotional poetics of my own and my sisters’ blood, sweat, tears, resistance. Lyricism, abstraction and poetics alongside, as you say, horrors. What is required to survive in a society designed for mass murder? And what needs to be said by those who did not survive.
After that, I’m doing a chapbook about the physics of feeling. All I can say about that is that there are several very generous mathematicians checking my formulas.