Art and Literature In an Endless Cycle: Tomoé Hill on “Songs for Olympia”

Tomoé Hill

There’s a long history of literary works inspired by literary works or works of art. For her new book Songs for Olympia, Tomoé Hill opted to go one layer deeper. Her book opens a dialogue with Michel Leiris’s The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat, which is itself a response to a Manet painting. That said, a detailed knowledge of Leiris’s book is not necessary for enjoyment of Hill’s’; instead, the earlier work by Leiris and Manet provides Hill with a vantage point from which she can reckon with questions of art, gender, intimacy, and her own history. It’s a mesmerizing work, and I caught up with Hill earlier this year to discuss it in greater detail.

This is probably an obvious place to start, but even so: Songs for Olympia is described as a response to Michel Leiris’s The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat. When did you first encounter Leiris’s book? And when did you decide to structure a book in response to it?

As an adult: I was late coming to a lot of writers that it feels like, at least if you occupy certain parts of lit or academic Twitter, some people have known since undergraduate days. Coming across Leiris was random, in the way a lot of life at that point was. One writer became a key to unlock another and another, new ways of seeing and thinking which were, frankly, like an oasis for me after being in an emotional and intellectual desert for a long time. Leiris especially, since there was something about the voice on the page that felt so familiar to me: here was an inner voice I recognised, on a page, out in the world. It was an immediate connection; the way you sometime meet someone you have that kind of connection with: you feel you’ve known them even though you’ve only just met. This was also roughly around the time I first saw Manet’s Olympia in person at the Orsay. ‘Meeting’ Olympia triggered the memories of seeing her for the first time in an art book in my bedroom as a child. I think these things started to come together like a perfect storm in my head. The actual writing was a bit different. Reading the Leiris (tr. Christine Pichini), I found myself talking back to him in my head constantly. Eventually I started to put it down in writing, only with the intention of it being a brief lyric essay: as a matter of fact, I had submitted it for consideration to Adam Moody of The Hobbyhorse when he was at a now-defunct literary magazine. And then I withdrew it! Something was nagging at me and I thought it was just that I wasn’t happy with it; it turned out I wanted to have a much larger conversation, which became the book. 

I’ll admit that I haven’t read Leiris’s book (yet), though I’m certainly planning to; from your perspective, do you think this book would read dramatically differently based on a reader’s experience with The Ribbon at Olympia’s Throat?

My intention was always that it could be read alongside the Leiris or without; whether that’s been successful is of course for the individual reader to decide. I understand that I’ve probably taken a more experimental, less direct—even deliberately opaque—route in everything from how I converse with Leiris, talk about women in art and literature, myself. I suppose you can think of it as layers: reading Olympia without the Leiris will be one layer, reading it with the knowledge of it will add more … but then that is also the function of the images shown or mentioned, or the other books reference—I say one layer, but really, I mean it to be multi-layered, even on its own. Maybe another way of looking at it is the combination of the two will hopefully be polyphonic.

The Manet painting at the center of this book (really, these books) has been the subject of renewed discussion in recent months – I’m thinking specifically of Jerry Saltz’s recent essay on Olympia itself. When you were writing your book, did you anticipate Manet’s painting heading back into the spotlight?

If I remember correctly, somewhere in the back of my mind I knew there was going to be a major exhibition, but I don’t recall they’d announced Olympia as a definite part of it until later—or maybe I didn’t catch that part right away. So no, I wasn’t writing with that in mind at all. Going into full sad writer mode, I wish someone had taken the risk to use that as a reason to review Olympia in a magazine, or go on at length about how we continue to view women in art and life in not that much more progressive ways since her debut, but I don’t think realistically that ever would have happened, being an indie publication. Well, I guess that’s in part why I wrote it. From then to now, progression remains as backwards as it has been forwards. 

At what point when writing this book did you decide to incorporate images?

At the point I realised it was going to be a book, then I knew images were naturally part of telling the story. I probably wouldn’t have argued if my publisher had said they couldn’t, but it was never an issue for them, thankfully. But the image—the act of looking at one, looking at yourself in the act of observing … I wanted the reader to be able to see both those things, have the experience of not just reading, but something like going to a museum or flipping through a book of photos: the sections of the book as images as much as words. I wanted Olympia to be deliberately active in the mind that way. I also wanted the image to see the image, if that makes sense. I wanted the juxtaposition to consider itself. Several years ago I went to Rome and saw this wonderful exhibition at the La Galleria Nazionale titled Time is Out of Joint, where contemporary and classic works were shown alongside each other: sometimes rather amusingly, almost as if they were contemplating each other. It struck me as a conversation, and I remembered it in writing Olympia

Leiris and Manet aren’t the only artists and writers who come up here; the text contains references from everyone from John Berger to the I Magma app. Were there any writers or artists that you found yourself surprised to be including here?

No, but this follows from the question and answer above, really: I was quite strict about reading during writing Olympia. I’d only read fiction at night as way to switch off part of my mind and give it a break. In the day, I was only re-reading Leiris’s book, to the point where for a while, a lot was just committed to memory. I made a point of being obsessive (more than usual) in order to make sure I was fully immersed and able to communicate with it. But even so, I found that a passage or a memory or a word he mentions made me think of someone else: so Berger and Zola, Baudrillard and Huysmans, Lutens and de Beauvoir, etc. Oddly enough, Jenna Sutela (of the I Magma app/installation) is the exception to that! I was reading an article on I think was biology and artists, and it mentioned a previous work of hers. Interested, I went to seek her out, and found I Magma. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, the section where I use it to ‘divine’ Olympia, but at the same time, it felt like, well, this was meant to be. 

You delve into your own personal history throughout this book. When you were finished, was there anything about yourself or your family that you’d rethought based on the experience of writing Songs for Olympia?

I don’t think I had any (new) revelations in writing it or afterwards; if anything, it solidified some the things I’d felt about my familial relationships. In a way that was a reassurance: so much of my life is defined by the choices I made in terms of some of them, like being estranged from my sister, not having children, or simply how I chose (seemingly) very random paths away from my place of birth, that took me further from them. I don’t have regrets, and whether the reader interprets my actions from the writing as negative or positive, overall, I see the familial dynamics over the years (which can be very active despite geographic or psychological distance) as simply part of what made—and continues to make—me as a person. 

What’s next for you?

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I am absolutely one of those people that thinks once they’ve finished something, that’s it—I have a tendency to think I won’t be able to write again. So I don’t have lists of things I’m burning to write about; it’s always been a very spontaneous, organic process from idea to writing. And I have terrible self-doubt in my abilities in the beginnings of a work. Oddly, they disappear when I’m fully into it, but until then, it’s quite precarious. Again, I will be honest: I started to write another book, which was meant to be a rethinking of Breton’s Nadja (tr. Richard Howard), but a mental dérive as much as a physical one. It was meant to be a collaboration with an artist I greatly admire, but I froze so badly about 5K in that I called it off. And I don’t think it’s bad, it was more a twofold issue of thinking, who would want to read this? It’s essentially a love story not about love, in the way Shklovsky’s Zoo (tr. Richard Sheldon) is; an exploration of realising the self in attraction—rather analytically, not narcissistically. 

The second part of my worries was that Olympia was my first time dealing with the dreaded blurb process: my wonderful publisher got most of my blurbs. Out of the dozen or so people I contacted, two said yes, only one actually got back to me after that. The other never responded after saying yes. Everyone else said no or nothing at all. That gave me so much anxiety I thought, I really can’t go through this again, and who on earth does no blurbs? It overshadows the writing, this need for something that in the end, at this level, almost certainly does not have the impact that it does at mainstream (and even there, I highly question it). So I couldn’t see what end the book would have, and that alone seemed unfair to the other person involved; I don’t necessarily mind my own labour to no (practical) end, but asking someone else to accept it (a dead end)? I probably shouldn’t have done it. 

So … this is turning into a therapy session isn’t it? You can present me with an invoice afterwards. What’s next is: I go back to writing smaller pieces, for a start. I have a couple of things to be published in 2024, another interview for Olympia to do. I’ve been reading some things which have lingered and are bringing on the familiar feeling of needing to write; not necessarily about them, but the pleasant connectivity that other people’s thinking stirs in me: Penman’s Fassbinder book, Davenport on Balthus, Agamben on the arts and memory, many others. Maybe I’ll go back to the Breton update again on my own, or maybe I’ll leave it as it is and do something else with it. I think the one thing I’ve learned in writing is that I have to trust my unconscious: writing is observing, reading, thinking and (seeming like) doing nothing as much as it is the physical act, and everything I write has to go through all of that—especially ‘nothing’ process, before the act. What writing comes will come when it’s ready.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.