Is It Strange to Be an American? An Interview With Meghan Lamb

Meghan Lamb

All of Your Most Private Places is the first story collection from Meghan Lamb. As its title suggests, this is a collection which zeroes in on the nature of spaces and places — their presences, their influences, and what we feel from their absences. Sparked by this new collection, James Tadd Adcox talked with Lamb about privacy, the difficulties of living in Hungary at the current moment, and the life of inanimate objects.

I’d like to start by talking about a sort of tension that I’ve noticed in these stories, the way they’re kind of always being pulled between the infinite or overwhelming (the desert, sexual transgression, nuclear annihilation) and the mundane. Often at moments of heightened intensity, a character’s attention will be suddenly pulled away by something seemingly beneath notice: untrimmed toenails, a donut shop on the desert’s edge. I wonder if you could talk some about that tension, and maybe the relationship between the infinite and the mundane in your fiction. 

Wow, that’s such a great question, and it’s a particularly great question to begin with because it gestures toward some of the tensions within the book’s title. I think when we’re confronted with something colossal, intense, or uncanny, we instinctively retreat into the mundane—the little things—that seem private, perhaps even sheltering in their simplicity. We look down at our toenails and for a moment, we can forget about the rest of our bodies. We look down at those little donut holes and for moment, we can forget about the black holes in our hearts. But ultimately—as your question so beautifully insinuates—these little, mundane things are never really private, never truly escapes, because they’re all just extensions of the colossal, tiny tributaries of the infinite. 

I think of this tension between the infinite and the (imagined, non-existent) private as a kind of subconscious pulse beneath our day-to-day lives. Like the way we treat our cell phones as these intimate appendages: reaching for them first thing in the morning, carrying them close to our bodies, using them to store our personal information and track our personal habits, collecting our sweat and skin cells all over their surfaces. We don’t really think about what they are or what they’re connected to. On some level, we understand that these devices are extensions of this vast (and kind of terrifyingly unknowable) network, but we’ve kind of inured ourselves to this understanding, numbed ourselves with our mundane rituals surrounding these little portals into the infinite. We treat them like small things, like private places. 

I think the small things—the mundane—can reveal so much about our relationships with the infinite, the ways we process—or refuse to process—the immensities around and within us. 

I really like the image of the cell phone as a point of imagined privacy within something like an infinite public space, ie, the unimaginable complexity of the internet. Do you think privacy is (has been?) always fundamentally illusory, or is the illusory nature of privacy something recent? Has there ever been such a thing as privacy?

These are questions I contemplate all the time—and endeavor to explore in All of Your Most Private Places—in part because I have no cohesive answers! While I know our (American) language surrounding the public and private has changed with the messed-up rhetoric of Manifest Destiny (which I kind of explore in “Sacramento”) and the Cold War (which I kind of explore in the collection’s titular story), I often wonder how much has changed beneath the level of language…if there’s any way to even measure that change (especially when you’re considering the vast terrains of developments—both past and present—you didn’t experience directly). In those particular stories, I try to insinuate the weird epistemic tension between the past and the present (and their respective ideas of “privacy”) by letting them coexist parallel to each other. But ultimately, there will always be part of me that laughs at my own language-based endeavors, part of me that feels like the young woman in “Indoor/Outdoor”: swimming back and forth beneath this partition—between linguistic binaries—from the “indoor” pool to the “outdoor” pool, ultimately knowing that it’s all the same pool, that everything meaningful lives in the murky waters around and below us. 

Seven months ago, I moved to Szombathely, Hungary (for a teaching position at a university there). Living in Hungary, I’ve realized that this collection feels very American in its notions of public versus private, that Hungarians have a very different culture in terms of public versus private feelings, experiences, and information. With generations who lived through the Cold War, I know that a lot of their understanding of public versus private comes from living under communism, under a system with very literal stipulations about what they could and couldn’t express publicly (i.e. aspects of identity that had to be kept private). And of course, this is all deeply unknowable, underwater territory for me, especially since most Hungarians really don’t like to talk about the Cold War. But as an American living in Szombathely, I feel like there’s a whole different atmosphere of public versus private. For example, my colleagues aren’t especially forthcoming with personal details of their home lives, but they’re very open and honest about their emotional experiences. If you ask them, “How’s your day going?” and they’ve been having a shitty day, they won’t just say, “Oh, fine”; they’ll tell you, “Oh, I’m having a really shitty day. I’m tired. My students are horrible. I hate my life right now.” 

Of course, part of my perception is also unique to my situation. My husband and I live in an odd apartment on campus, the first floor of which is housing for international teachers and teachers who commute a few days each week from Budapest, as well as a weird hotel/Air BnB situation. The second floor is all housing for international students. There’s a front desk with a 24-hour door person on the first floor, and a sort of lobby area that people hang out in. This front desk and lobby area are literally right outside our apartment door, so we constantly hear music and talking, hear the overly sensitive fire alarm going off when people come in after smoking…and we’re a bit paranoid that people outside our door can hear us. We keep our shades drawn. We creep around and speak in low voices. We whisper-hiss when we argue. We feel watched, even if we probably aren’t. 

I wonder if we could talk some about the language in this collection. The language is often straightforward in a way that I’d call “minimalist,” but there’s often something that feels intentionally off about it. Realist, for the most part, but not naturalistic. Can you talk some about your approach to language in these stories?

The cadence I write in mimics my own anxious, stilted conversations with (and movements within) the world around me. My body is a very uncooperative body. It sweats, trips, twitches, shivers, bumps things, breaks things, moves out of the way in stupid ways, makes all kinds of really nonsensical gestures, and otherwise does a bunch of weird-looking unconscious things against my will. There’s an amazing moment in the Antonioni film Red Desert where Monica Vitti’s character asks, “What do people expect me to do with my eyes?” I think about that moment every day. 

So, basically: I write in the language of an uncooperative body. 

At certain points in this collection, the narrative point of view shifts to inanimate objects: the shirt in “Sacramento” who, in bed with one of that story’s protagonists, “wishes it could turn into a man”; the mannequins in the title story, waiting motionlessly out in the desert. At times, we could read this interiority as projection on the part of one of the characters—for example, the girl in “Sacramento” wishing that her shirt would turn into a man, and projecting that desire onto the shirt—but other examples, like the mannequins, off by themselves, unobserved, seem to resist such readings. For me, these were some of the strangest moments in the collection (and also some of my favorites). How do you conceive of these moments?

I’m so glad you appreciated the weird, subtle resistance implicit in those moments (as opposed to just assuming I was crazy and writing these stories all wrong)! Throughout so much of our readerly education—i.e. in high school and college-level literature courses—we’re trained to interpret elements of the narrative environment (objects, landscapes, shirts, houses, mannequins, snowmen) as neat, elegant, deconstructable metonyms for characters’ internal developments. Basically, we’re taught the objective correlative as a staid model for masterful figurative writing (thanks, T.S. Eliot, you asshole). While I love the idea that anything and everything in a characters’ environment can become a projection of their beneath-the-surface feelings, I don’t conceive of objects and spaces as these stagnant, cooperative metaphors. I mean, my lived experience (and I think the lived experience of most actual humans) is that nothing in my environment cooperates with my clumsy attempts at meaning-making. 

Like most writers who teach creative writing, I have dumb little pet phrases I like to play with and show off and snuggle up to in almost every class. One of these pet phrases is “containers of change,” and I offer it up as my adorable alternative to T.S. Eliot-style objective correlatives (haha, I almost typed “objective corralatives, and isn’t that precisely what they attempt to do: corral our language into tidy, well-kept pens of metaphor?). Anyway: change is the operative word in my little pet phrase. Objects and spaces can serve as containers of change, and not just in terms of characters’ projected interiorities, or as tracking devices for the ways characters evolve beneath the surface. Objects and spaces have their own voices, and these voices whisper their own private jokes—their own retaliatory objective correlatives—around the elusive, ever-shifting language of meaning-making. 

This is to say, perhaps more precisely: even when characters are not explicitly looking at a thing, even when the story is not explicitly looking at a thing, the thing still exists—and changes—within the story. The world isn’t there because we notice it, and it doesn’t simply work in the ways we tell it to. 

This is also to say, much less precisely: a thing only really works when it doesn’t work (haha)!

The particular moment you’re referencing was the product of my imagination when watching “The House in the Middle” (a 1954 nuclear propaganda film developed by the “National Clean Up, Paint Up, Fix Up Bureau”) and seeing photos of the model houses and mannequins from the Nevada Test Site’s “Survivor City.” I kept having these uncanny, “What if the toys were alive?” moments, and I kept asking myself those kinds of childhood-imaginary questions…questions that have no bearing in real-person reality (which may be the only appropriate questions to ask about something like nuclear weaponry). 

At one point in the story “All of Your Most Private Places,” while editing photos for one of her clients, a character reflects as follows: “Nobody understands themselves, she thinks, fixing the images. She thinks, it’s posturing. The things they do to make themselves look classy.” This felt like a particularly illuminating moment in my reading. Your characters often seem to be interacting with each other’s postures, never able to get beyond that, no matter how desperate they may be to do so. I wonder if you could talk some about how important this “posturing” is in your understanding of your characters. 

I write characters this way because this is how I understand humans: bad actors, bad mannequins, bad photographed bodies in bad dresses, just trying to embody our own badly composed narratives. The posturing is uncomfortable, of course…no one fits the term “classy”—the pose of whatever “classy” is supposed to look like—because the word doesn’t mean anything. And if there’s anything real in us—whatever that ethereal realness or something-else-ness might be—I think it can only be found when we observe our discomfort with these postures, when we gesture precisely to the ways they feel wrong and painful and bad.

But yeah…I love how your question slyly acknowledges how fucking cynical this book is. And yes, I am that cynical. Does anyone really survive in “Survivor City”?

Since we began this interview, the situation worldwide has changed dramatically. What is it like, living and teaching in Hungary in the midst of this crisis? How have things changed in the past couple of weeks?

We’re now spending the whole day in our dormitory apartment. The building is the same building. The apartment is the same apartment. We still hear mourning doves all day long, starting at 5 am. We don’t hear kids screaming on the playground outside of the preschool behind us. We hear our upstairs neighbor exercising with his weighted ball going “thump, thump, thump” against our ceiling. We don’t hear people coming and going because people aren’t coming and going. Two weeks ago, all students living in the other dorms were given less than 24 hours’ notice to vacate. The Hungarian students went home to their families. My Turkish Erasmus students had to go to a quarantine facility because they’d recently visited Vienna. My building now consists of a few international students who couldn’t leave, and us. 

Like most teachers around the world who are still teaching, I have moved all my classes online. I spend most of my day in the spare bedroom that I use as my office (i.e. a desk with two empty twin beds behind me). There’s a window that looks out on the empty playground. There are unused sheets folded at the head of each twin bed. 

Most of my students have adapted tremendously well to the online transition, and they’re heartbreakingly gracious that I’m fulfilling what I believe to be the bare minimum of my responsibility as a teacher. In addition to everything else, that now includes asking questions like, Where are you now? Are you doing okay? When my Erasmus students were taken away to the quarantine facility, I found out through a message board I’d made for my class entitled, “Where are you now? Are you doing okay?” 

It’s kind of funny and surprising how little I’ve had to change the actual content of my courses, though… All the material is still very relevant, but it has a different resonance now. Next week in my American Culture course, I’m digitally screening Rebel Without a Cause along with a lecture that makes connections between McCarthyism and Cold War anxiety, white flight and the suburbs, and the ersatz suburbs of the Nevada Test Site (yes, including Survivor City and the video “The House in the Middle”). My students are writing such beautiful things and asking such beautiful questions. Last night, one of my students wrote me the following email, and my heart exploded:

Dear Meghan, sorry to write this late. I just finished the film […] so that the experience is fresh for me and for others too. I felt this was one of the most most surrealistic movie what’s about “real” things. And it also made me quite sad. But I also think it’s a very moving and nice piece of art. I just wanted to ask, is it also strange to an American? As I’ve seen in real life, The States and the old continent is sometimes like two different dimension. Teenagers show similar “symptoms” around the world, but every period has its own characteristic. 

At first, I misread my student’s question as, “Is it also strange to be an American?”, and the weird confluence of projection, misreading, and mistranslation, mixed with the deep earnestness to understand and be understood on both sides—over a conversation about Rebel Without a Cause, of all things—felt so overwhelmingly apt. Through this conversation, I think I accidentally realized the question All of Your Most Private Places is trying to ask: Is it strange to be an American?

I’ve been asking this question—without even knowing—my entire life.

I’ll probably keep asking this question—with a different awareness—for the rest of my life. 

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