Monday, December 1, 2014
Q&A: MARTHA BAILLIE
Martha Baillie’s fifth novel The Search for Heinrich Schlögel charts the titular character’s dream journey from a small German village to the Canadian Arctic where he seemingly disappears on Baffin Island at the age of 20.Through the obliquely persistent archiving efforts of a unnamed narrator we explore the photos, letters, journals, keepsakes, moods, and Skype-friends of our once romantic traveller. Instead of abrading against the growing collection of recovered objects, Heinrich’s identity gathers the keen sediment of myth.
Who is this archivist? Is this person believable? Is it someone Heinrich knows? Why did he leave the seemingly idyllic hop fields and hedgehogs of his cycling youth? What happened in the river en route to Thor Peak? What has become of his beloved linguistically gifted sister Inge? What is the strange machine Vicky Pitsiulak is typing on? Why does Sarah Ashevak have so many clocks in her home? What did Samuel Hearne say about heroes? Are those giant hares real? Why’s that randomly appearing lady keep getting her fingers chopped into seals? What do the photos tell us? His sister’s letters? Is Nunavut really like this? Do they still make uluit? If everyone is an other, who do we relate to?
Between the unreliable narrator and the story, a whole world of stand alone possibilities begin to overlap like glacial erratics in time-lapse multi-exposure. Somewhere along these questioning lines, I asked Martha, herself, about the presence of erratics, misrepresentation, time, and the Other in her work.
- Brad, who should probably dip into his media archives to mention that The Search for Heinrich Schlögel was just voted one of the Top 100 books of 2014 by the Globe and Mail, and that Martha will be reading in The Bookstore on Wed Dec 3rd with Kate Cayley at 7pm.
BdR: In the "Archivist's note" preceding and framing the narrative, the central subject, Heinrich, is described as a person who is "often mistaken for someone else" and as someone who "notes how gratifying it feels to be enthusiastically recognized, even as someone he isn't". I found myself prone to mistaking the narrator for someone else as well. What is it in us that relishes being so wrongly recognized?
MB: When we are briefly mistaken for someone else we slip into a place of contradiction and surprise, of friction and possibility. This can be pleasurable if the person we are believed to be is someone liked and admired, less so if the person we are taken for is loathed. In either case we enter a lie without having to tell one. We are relieved of responsibility. Inadvertent imposters, suddenly cloaked in someone else’s identity, we are stripped of our flawed usual self. To be seen yet invisible. You ask if the narrator would relish this? Instinct tells me, that the idea of it appeals to her but she’s aware that the experience offers only short-lived delight. The gratification Heinrich feels is quickly replaced by regret, as loneliness and isolation reassert themselves. We want to be appreciated for who we truly are but fantasize that were we to be recognized as more courageous, more intelligent, more beautiful than we know ourselves to be we might become the superior being the other person sees in us. It’s partly about the power of someone else’s gaze.
Certain features of your book resonate with portions of continental philosophy - particularly of the post-structural texture. A quote by Barthes about photography opens the book. Schiller is mentioned. Perennial continental concerns like cultural genealogy, intertextuality (of reference and self), identity in the face of time and death, the Other, etymology, the ambiguity of ethics are considered. Were thinkers like de Beauvoir, Foucault, Derrida, or Heidegger at all on your mind while doing research, reading around this narrative? How does such philosophy fare in the current climate of Canada's actual or imagined attempts at pluralism?
Perennial concerns of continental philosophy, to borrow your term, act as backdrop in Tettnang. If they seep throughout the novel, and I agree that they do, it is because they are part of my mental baggage. No I wasn’t re-reading de Beauvoir, and my knowledge of both Foucault and Heidegger is scant, but I did go back to Barthes’ Camera Lucida, knowing how central photography was going to be to the novel. I did want to look at how siblings carve out territory for each other, when it comes to identity, and to explore how similar dynamics may come into play when a culture is confronted by or fantasizes about the Other. In Canada we like the idea of embracing the Other, and valuing the attempt to do so is central to our sense of national identity, but this certainly doesn’t extract us from an entrenched failure to respect and acquire a more than superficial understanding of First Nations cultures (with emphasis on the plural).
Is this in an essential way a Northern book? The North plays a central geographical and cultural role throughout its entirety. Is there a literary genealogy it follows? Walking around the bookstore, I have noticed more and more writing addressing the concerns of the Arctic. Most of it appears to be travelogue or ecological. Some is sociology. Does fiction's oblique snapshots and characteristic anonymity offer something essentially other to these 'factual' modes? To repurpose a metaphor from your book, does fiction pile up the erratics of the world into markers of direction, of identity?
What a poetic question. I love it. “Does fiction pile up the erratics of the world into markers of direction, of identity?” As a reader, that’s one thing I ardently hope for when I open a work of fiction, the piling up of “erratics of the world into markers of direction.” As for your observation that many of the numerous books being written, now, about the Arctic are non-fiction is very interesting. Why is this? I can only hazard a guess. The North begins as a place of the imagination for southerners; it hangs, unreachable, a vast, sublime canvas. You arrive in the actual north and its scoured immensity overwhelms. To cling to “reality,” to non-fiction, to the rational world of verifiable evidence, seems an understandable, self-protective response to the Arctic’s unreadable hugeness, its surprises, its harsh winds, luminosity, and darkness. But for the Inuit, story is a necessary approach, as central to survival as other acts of close observation and listening. Yes, my novel certainly has a literary genealogy. But it’s the work of contemporary visual artists that most directly inspired the novel – Nadia Myre’s Medicine Project, the works of Brian Jungen, and of Kent Monkman, and of course Inuit understanding of time and death through storytelling.
While you undeniably explore the colonial instinct Westerners have had toward the North were you ever worried about misrepresenting Inuit culture or interests? What measures did you take towards ensuring a respectful mimesis?
How could I not worry about misrepresenting Inuit culture and interests?
Before and while writing, I debated with myself and others regarding my “right” to put words in the mouths of Vicky Pitsiulak and Sarah Ashevak – both crucial characters in the novel, both Inuit, one a teenager the other an elder. I decided I had the “right” to make the attempt, and that what mattered more than my “right” was the integrity of my intention. Mine could only be an outsider’s perspective. Respectful contributions from outsiders are a necessary part of dialogue. I read, I researched on the Internet (the Pirurvik Centre’s site was particularly helpful), I travelled to Iqaluit then to Pangnirtung, and spent two weeks hiking in Auyittuq, I lingered on in Pangnirtung, listening, observing, over the next two years I picked the brains of Connor Goddard, who speaks Inuktitut, works year-round in Kuujjuaq with Inuit youth, and is a seasoned hiking and kayaking guide, I was put in touch with Marcus Wilke, another Inuit speaker, who lives in Pangnirtung where he has been working as a nurse for over twenty years, he read and critiqued my manuscript. I tried to find an Inuit reader, and one young woman from Pangnirtung, now studying nursing in Iqaluit, expressed interest then was swamped with school-work. Someone from the Ottawa Inuit Children’s Centre said they were willing but didn’t find time, which I understood. I was starting to hear in my voice: “Hi, I’m really interested in your culture, what can you give me? What can you do for me?” I didn’t like what I heard in my voice. I was asking busy Inuit women with whom I had no established relationship to make time to read my manuscript. Why should they do so? I stopped asking. It takes time to grow relationships that are reciprocal and respectful. Is the novel I’ve written respectful in its mimesis? Who do I ask to be its judge? No individual reader can speak for all Inuit readers. That said, I’d be very interested in hearing from any Inuq who does, generously, take the time to read my novel. What I’ve created is a fiction and one that openly declares as its subject the act of imagining, a work that clearly sets out to explore how we respond to each other’s realities, twisted as we are by our fears, desires, impatience, and ambition.
Photography is almost a character in the novel. Heinrich is an avid, yet, reluctant photographer. Are you a photographer? How do you think photography and other digital capturing has effected us? Do we now archive at the expense of experience, of human intimacy?
I’m not a photographer. I dislike using a camera. Photographs fascinate me. Yes, I’m very curious about how the ease of digital capturing may be altering our experience of reality. Certainly we are producing abundant material to archive.
Just this morning, I read an essay posted by Toronto writer, Heather White, in which she notes that both Edward Hopper and the Impressionists before him were influenced by looking from the windows of moving trains. She remarks, “Of course, the camera had intervened itself between Hopper and the impressionists. Its invention promoted a sacrifice: the total experience of a moment for the privilege of keeping that instant forever, in detail impossible to notice in ‘real time’ — one eye on the device, concerned with the capture. Photographs can facilitate us poring over what we had briefly or never quite had, missing what we missed out on then.”
Can you describe some of the motivation for and process behind the Schlogel Archive online - presuming you have some involvement in it and it is not being webmastered by your tricky narrator?
The archive is a playful, collaborative exploration. Many of the postcards were donated and I amused myself seeing how I could pair passages of the novel with the pictures on the postcards, hinting at another layer of meaning, historical or psychological. Postcards allowed me to dip into the iconic images sold in souvenir stores. I also created postcards, using photos from the National Archive of Canada, taken in the Arctic in the 1920s and 50s. Travellers’ snapshots of Tettnang, taken from Internet photo sharing sites, a few of my own shots taken in Auyuittuq, and photos of my father, on a cycling trip along the Rhine, in 1937 or 1938 – onto all this photographic material I transcribed the evolving novel over a period of two years, mailing each postcard to someone invited to record themselves reading the text on the card. I wanted to scatter Heinrich, as if I were tossing his ashes, with the Inuit myth of the Fox Wife in mind, a tale that figures in the novel. I wanted to create a non-commercial space where the novel could find readers who would contribute and confirm that a text is never complete until read, and is completed differently by each reader. Postcard receivers could make audio-palpable that fragments of the text now inhabited them; they could do so by reading aloud, and being potentially heard by other readers. All this was figured out along the way. In a bar, I read a postcard out loud, and a friend remarked that hearing it made it easier to connect the words on the back to the image on the front of the postcard. Aha. Heinrich leaves home in 1980. People are still writing postcards and letters. He’s yanked into the digital present. I scanned all the postcards before mailing them. But all this is explained here.
And I’m still transcribing and mailing the last postcards. Care to receive one?
This will also tell you what led to this project. The webmaster is humble but not fictitious. His name is Greg Sharp.
Were you wanting someone to archive your life, what would you leave out? What kind of questions would you wish they asked about you and your work?
Ha!! I’d rather have nobody archive my life. I keep meaning to destroy my old journals and letters. If any of my published novels survive me, that will be trace enough.