Talking with Lynne Tillman About the Everlasting Fight for Women’s Independence

June 8, 2019   •   By Karine Leno Ancellin

KEY EVENTS IN Lynne Tillman’s life reflect the ramifications of so many groundbreaking ideas of our times. Her mind holds the treasures of the literary story of New York City and that of the American intelligentsia abroad. Everything in her writer’s vivacity connects with a larger political and literary movement that has shaped our way of thinking and affected the society we live in.

Tillman has been both a sharp observer of and an actor in the progression of political energies. In her novels (No Lease on Life, American Genius, A Comedy), criticism (What Would Lynne Tillman Do?), and short story collections (Someday This Will Be Funny, The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories), she offers an uncompromising perception of the evolution of American feminism and racism in the United States. In her most recent novel, Men and Apparitions, she questions representations of that nonlinear history, its battles and successes. A Guggenheim fellow and English professor at the University of Albany, Tillman met with me in a café near 11th Street amid the buzz of her New York City neighborhood to discuss embodying male narrators, selective memory, the postmodern glut of imagery, and the uneven progress of feminism.


KARINE LENO ANCELLIN: What took you to Europe, and how did you end up in Greece?

LYNNE TILLMAN: I went to Chania, Crete, on my first trip to Europe. A friend had said, “You must go meet Charles Henri Ford in Chania because he will really want to put you in his film.” It gave me a reason to go somewhere because at that time I had no preference for doing one thing over another. I had just finished college, I was in Europe, I was going to be a writer one way or another and thought the European experience was an absolute necessity. It was proven by American writers abroad — Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Ezra Pound, HD. So many of them! Having grown up as a teenager reading about all these people, I thought that this was what I had to do.

So there I was in Europe. I was moving from place to place, and that way I went to Chania and rented John Leith Craxton’s house. He was an English painter who shared his time between London and Chania, and he had not been in his house in a long time. In the end, I never met him. The place was falling apart, so I rented it for $20 a month. The dollar was incredibly strong then, so I lived for a few months in that little house overlooking the Venetian harbor. I met the American and British expatriates who had a small and lively community there. These were mainly gay men who felt much freer about their sexuality there than they did in America or Britain. This was toward the end of 1968.

Why do you like to embody male narrators?

I am interested in gender, in girls and boys, men, women, others, and I’m interested in finding a voice — not for men, but for a specific character. Horace in Cast in Doubt, for example, doesn’t speak for other men or for other gay men. He speaks in his own voice. I’ve also written short stories from the point of view of the male narrator. I think the imagination is not gendered. For instance, in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a brilliant novel, the fluidity with which the main character goes from male to female and back again is to me one of the important things that the mind can do. We can imagine others, and if I can do it sensitively then it’s a reason to try to do it.

Men and Apparitions is, for one thing, about men as images, ghosts, or something insubstantial. With this novel, I was really interested in thinking about the effect of feminism on men born after the women’s movement and how that had changed them and their attitude toward women. I believe the minority can gain its rights, but only when the majority changes, when the majority recognizes itself as prejudiced, racist. The majority has to give way. Otherwise there is stasis.

Does the main character, Zeke, represent a new form of anthropology through the visual?

I don’t think it’s new, though maybe new as a character. Erving Goffman, in the 1950s and 1960s, was already writing about "self" and gender as performance, along with other ethnomethodologists. Later, his book Gender Advertisements came out [1979]. He was a male feminist early in the women's movement. Before anyone else did it, he showed how, in advertisements, men were pictured in dominant poses, and women in subservient positions. He was working with how visual images create constructs and maintain male supremacy. It’s a fascinating picture book.

One of the reasons I made Zeke an ethnographer of family photographs and a cultural anthropologist was to be able to go from from his and other narratives to theoretical viewpoints and mix them, as he is always interjecting his point of view. While I was writing I developed the family. So much is formed early in life because of and in the family.

Zeke seems to have quite a hard time defining himself.

He is the middle child and, from Zeke’s point of view, his older brother, Hart, is arrogant, too sure of himself, and they have a very bad relationship. Contrarily, he admires his younger sister, Matilda, whom he calls “little sister,” or Tilda. Although she has a disability, a condition called selective mutism or alexithymia — she can only speak in certain circumstances — it’s difficult for him to see that it’s hard for her. He projects onto her all kinds of wondrous attributes, such as that she has a certain kind of restraint and dignity because she doesn’t talk a lot, compared with Hart, who speaks all the time and is a bully from Zeke’s point of view. He sees Hart as a monster. He sees his little sister as a kind of angel.

You call abuse inside families “parental aggression”?

Do I? Zeke doesn’t like his father, but he likes his mother, but he doesn’t really know her. His father is an alcoholic. He comes home from work — he is a lawyer and makes good money probably, they live well — he immediately starts drinking, lies on the couch, and reads the newspaper. So Zeke doesn’t respect his father, but what he takes from his father is his love of the Polaroid camera. He would like to have come from a different family — like many children.

Zeke is born in 1978, and by the mid-1980s he is watching television and is aware of children being abused in nursery schools and day care centers. In fact, most abuse happens within the family. But during the Reagan presidency there was a turn against women who worked and may have wanted and needed to have their children in day care. American women hadn’t had abortion rights very long. Nine years later, after abortion became legal, suddenly there were these rumors that Satanic rites and molestation were happening in day care centers. With mothers sending their children to day care, so she could go to work or write a book, there came an aggressive effort to foster the belief that these mothers were putting them in harm’s way.

I have learned that nothing is won forever, and keeping women at home and out of the larger society is central to many religions and societies. Women having children is necessary for the reproduction of a society, to keep it functioning, and the oppression of women, in part, springs from that.

Isn’t America going a bit in reverse now on these issues?

Oh, yes. Horribly. Here is a curious fact: in 1848, the first human rights convention was a women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists. It was the first-ever convention like this, and by 1869 the Catholic Church issued a papal bull against abortion. Then different laws against abortion came to America, as well. So I think there is a direct relationship between the effects of these early feminists' demand for rights and the fear of women’s independence. Without being able to control your reproduction, you cannot live an independent life.

There is regression, but there are steps in evolution. It is always uneven. Up and down. Back and forth. The #MeToo movement is progress. We would not have this step if it weren’t for the work of early feminists, feminists of the 1960s, and so it keeps going. That said, there is a virulent push back now. I had thought, and I'm not alone, that after Roe v. Wade, a woman’s ability to control her body was going to be secure, but I was very wrong. Now I don’t think it’s ever going to be sure or easy. It’s going to be an everlasting fight in this country, and in much of the rest of the world too.

I remember in the early 1980s learning about clitoridectomies performed in Africa, and there was a bifurcated feminist response: Some said, “This is horrible, it has to be stopped,” and some said, “You have to respect the culture.” I was in the former group. I thought women should be spared that torture, that women's rights are human rights, and, of course, there were women in various African and Middle Eastern countries who were trying to stop it.

Is an obsession with requiring proof still valid in an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts”?

It’s very odd. Documentaries are based on actual events and people, but they have to be realized, narrativized, using the devices of fiction. Sadly, people have trouble trusting the imagination’s use to tell things that are true. We have a distrust of fiction. And, in this moment we are living in something terrible. The false concepts of alternative facts and fake news, where nothing can be trusted and there is no belief in proof of anything, have made everything appear to be lies. We have an administration that disregards evidence and facts — for example, the Congressional Budget Office is a non-political office in the US government that has for decades been the arbiter of budgets on which the Congress votes. The Republicans, when it goes against them in this most recent period, they say, “Can one believe the Congressional Budget Office?” If you can’t believe the Congressional Budget Office, which is not partisan, how can you govern? If it shows that billions more will be added to the national debt because of Trump's policies, the Republicans say, “We don’t accept this.” Horrible! Even the idea that there is a fact or proof is questioned, which is absurd, an aberration.

Is vérité photographique a representation or a language?

[Early 20th-century sociologist and photographer] Lewis Wickes Hine made representations of people living in poverty. Being interested in and writing about photography for a long time and having studied anthropology and sociology in graduate school, I began to recognize that documentary films and photographs frame people from a single point of view; that these forms weren't representing the scope of their lives. They did not capture the full complexity of a person’s life. In that sense, it is a language. When people photograph themselves, the results are very different. If you live in poverty you can also have a good time once in a while, and if you are discriminated against you still find ways to be happy. The form actually created or perpetuated stereotypes.

In terms of readers’ responses, how do we read these pictures? If you are somebody who believes poor people are lazy, you may see it in that picture. It is not inherent in the photograph, it is how we perceive others, say, and interpret visual material. Some documentarians have responded to these critiques, and have changed their practice after the 1980s.

One reason why discrimination is so hideous is that those negative attitudes enter the psyches of those discriminated against. That negativity becomes part of the ways they see themselves. This goes for race, sexuality, gender, class, nationality, et cetera.

What has been changing and happening is that minorities are representing themselves, and very differently. In film, photography, painting, all media, and there are changes in the visual language. It has been changing for many years. The narratives are being  altered, the dominant narratives challenged and hopefully shredded. But again, things move slowly, and there's as much backwardness as ever, the suppression of differences.

Dana Schutz’s Open Casket drew controversy at the Whitney Biennial in 2017. Is it okay for a white, woman painter to portray Emmett Till?

I don’t think imagination should be limited by gender, race, religion, et cetera. I portrayed a young white man in Men and Apparitions. Okay, he’s white. I portrayed an African-American woman in Cast in Doubt. Gwen was totally herself. She represented herself. So far, I haven't had complaints. But who knows?

It is the way we do things that is important. With what kind of sensitivity. With what kind of thought and sense. There are certain things I can't write, things I don't feel I understand, things I couldn't figure out how to represent. Maybe another time I could.

I went to see the exhibition. I saw Schutz’s painting and thought, If there were no wall label saying it was Emmett Till, would it have been paid so much attention? Much of the work in that Biennial was by minority artists, which was overlooked because of the controversy. I am speaking for myself when I ask: what happens if we who are not suffering do not represent the suffering of others? Is this the right question: who is allowed to represent whose pain? I’m not sure. Often the question is more important than any answer. If one only represents one’s own pain, won’t that make for an entirely narcissistic culture? Again, it is about sensitivity in the making and doing.

I was a little girl when Emmett Till was killed in 1955, and I remember the headline and a picture my father showed me of this little boy mangled and the mother standing by the coffin. She wanted white people to see what had been done to her son by white people. To represent is important, to bring back history, to awaken repressed memories, never to forget. Not to produce guilt. But to encourage self-reflection and then a change in consciousness. White people need to be reminded and remind themselves of causing outrageous injustice and pain.

Photography makes an image of us that we may not want to preserve. Some cultures feel the image steals the subject’s soul.

They may be more right than we imagine given how important images have become. That’s why I wrote this book — and we have been saying this for years — we live in a glut of images, and how this affects human lives we can hardly know because we are in it. That is the reason I wanted to think about it a bit more, and have Zeke think about it. He knows he is inside, and he falls prey to the same things. He has two iPhones. He has all this paraphernalia.

Why do we human beings take all of this on ourselves, surround ourselves with this? It alters the space, because if you are always taking photos you are objectifying it rather than being in it. We then become distant from our own being and experience. I was at my friend’s daughter’s graduation from music school, and I found myself wanting to take pictures of her when she was playing the piano. At the same time, I was aware that I was not paying full attention to her playing the piano, and I was really in conflict about that.

Have we finally created a monster: our tech-ego self?

Yes, I think that is in part true. We desire to reflect ourselves always. That’s why Geoffrey Batchen, the photo historian I quote, says that photography came out of positivism from the 18th century — the idea was to have empirical evidence of something. Human beings wanted to have pictures of themselves and things around themselves as proof of their reality, of their existences. Not just "I think I am." But I am because I have a picture of me.

Being called a voyeur is usually used pejoratively, but in some sense we all have scopophilia, which is a pleasure in looking. We look and we don't want to be seen. It seems to me we have eyes and are always looking, and so why not receive pleasure from that? When we talk of voyeurism it’s a more pathological version of scopophilia. In voyeurism, we get pleasure because we are not doing it. Instead, we are spying and experiencing it through someone else’s actions, and it has to be at a distance from us.

What is the symbol of Mr. Petey?

Mr. Petey represents a miracle, when Zeke sees this praying mantis in his garden. He has never seen anything like this, and he feels he establishes with Mr. Petey a unique relationship. It’s not his brother, not his mother, not his father, not his sister — it’s miraculous to him and it’s his own, only his. He falls in love with Mr. Petey, he imagines the way children think about their teddy bear, but this is actually a living creature whose neck turns, who looks human in a funny way.

I loved Zeke’s developing a magical sense of an animal, an insect. Praying mantids are prehistoric. They can hide easily. Blend in. It’s meaningful for him, as he has a desire to have what Mr. Petey has: protection. It is an anomalous, interesting creature in the book.

You use a number of amazing expressions in Men and Apparitions that articulate contemporary societal attitudes, such as “white rage is the silent treatment.” What do you mean by that?

Zeke makes up the concept. Is Little Sister silent because she is so frustrated that she can’t speak? It also relates to how women’s voices have been suppressed over centuries, how a woman was not allowed to speak out. Women were like children and meant to be quiet. The mother protects her daughter and is not happy about her mutism. Zeke doesn’t understand the seriousness of it. He has a romantic image of what she is suffering from.

How about “gender shifts”?

We are living in an age of gender fluidity, of gender neutrality, but my version of feminism is, Why can’t I do what I want to do? If I want to be a writer and not have children, I can do that. Before, we were born in our body. Now we have more of a choice.

“Selective memory.”

Selective memory is a term that has been around for a while. Why do we remember what we do? For Men and Apparitions, I converted it to, Why do we see the way we do? You and I look at something, and you will have a different feeling about it. Say, when it’s a portrait, what does that face, that expression mean?

There are a lot of photos of people on the streets. For instance, I’m thinking of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, a contemporary photographer who made a photo of a living room with a Christmas tree in it. So how do we read this picture? Is it a happy scene, a dismal scene, a ritual? Do we remember a merry Christmas or a miserable, enforced Christmas? It is selective. We read into it things that we want, or don’t want, to be there.

“Just kidding — not.”

Zeke wants to assert something and then he double-thinks and also wants the privilege of saying, “I could be kidding around,” because he doesn’t want to be judged. He wants to present a more ambiguous picture of himself.

“The indifference of life.”

Life doesn’t care. You may care, but life goes on and you have to decide to be in the flow of it or shut down. It’s not going to change because someone you love has hurt himself. It’s a hard concept for us to deal with.

“Patriarchy had its time […] to track progeny for free labor.”
In prehistory, males didn’t know their role in fathering children. Then they figured it out. In early patriarchal societies, there was the need to know, These are mine, and I can have them work for me. Or get a dowry for my virginal daughter. Children weren't children, not as we know them in the West now. That idea of childhood happened in the 19th century, with the Industrial Revolution and the start of labor laws. When people were working the land, and not in cities, their children were essentially their workers.   

“Fiction is NOT falsehood, an image is always fiction.”

Fiction in French means false, and that, to me, is a problem. Fiction can be derived from anything. When I write, I might be thinking of an actual event or inventing an event, or a person, and behavior. Fiction's truths are verisimilitudinous, life-like, true to life. To be "true" in fiction, you don't need to rely on an actual event. It's how you write it that produces its truths. No one can put "life as life" on a page, you can only represent it.

“Backyard of the mind.”

There is a lot that encumbers our minds, and in the American imaginary people have a backyard. That backyard is the free space to have a barbecue and drink beer, and that’s where freedom happens. When someone owns a house with a backyard, he feels he’s made it. It also functions in the American imaginary.

“We see with words.”

What can’t be explained. What Wittgenstein says — and I only understand a limited amount of his philosophy — is that he trusted poetry more than philosophy. That’s why he was interested in describing something rather than explaining it, and that’s what philosophers were trying to do: explain life. Poetry and fiction are about describing rather than explaining. When you describe, you always bring in the imagination and the language you need to express how you see it.


Karine Leno Ancellin is co-founder and director of A Poets’ Agora, a poetry society in Athens, Greece. Apart from author interviews, she writes poetry and translates literary texts.