Poet, essayist and professor Anne Boyer is in Buenos Aires on a mission. “All my friends have sent requests and lists of books I’m supposed to bring back. I think everybody knows this is the city for people who love books.”
Boyer’s work has covered diverse contemporary issues, developing intersections between literature, politics, motherhood and language. Her experience with breast cancer resulted in her 2020 essay The Undying, a Pulitzer Prize winner that unravels her thoughts on illness and capitalism, with strong prose that moves forward with the fluency of her poetry.
A professor of liberal arts at the Kansas City Art Institute, the author is in town as a guest of the US embassy to participate in the Poesía Ya (Poetry Now) Festival, organized by the Ministry of Culture, where she presented a local edition of her 2015 poetry book “Garments against Women”. This weekend, she is giving a workshop at the Borges Cultural Center (Friday at 4 p.m.) and a masterclass on Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Kirchner Cultural Center.
Are you familiar with Argentine literature? What are your expectations about your first time in Buenos Aires?
Of course I’ve read Borges. But I did notice that with Cortazar and Borges, you can read them your whole life and not have an idea of what Buenos Aires is like. Unlike reading, say, literature from other countries like Carlos Fuentes and Mexico, where you’re like, “oh, I’m good. I know Mexico now”. I have all these Borges books on my shelves and I have no idea what to expect from Buenos Aires, except as “the place of the book”. The labyrinth, the library, the sort of architecture of the imagination, but nothing about what it’s like when you look out the window.
In Garments Against Women you mention that memoirs are “only written by property owners”. The memoir sort of intersects with autofiction, which is sort of a mainstream genre today. If memoirs are written by owners, who writes autofiction?
I mean the thing about memoirs came out of an observation that you’re supposed to write your memoirs from a settled place. And when you’re still in the midst of precarity, and confusion about your own life, it is difficult to make an account of it. It’s like the thing that you write from the country home, where you can look out, in sort of placid recollection. What do you do if you don’t have that? I’m afraid that all of these labels that we have are in some way inadequate, and autofiction, at least in the United States, is used so sloppily. And without much regard for the historical scope of literature. Do you call Augustine’s Confessions autofiction? What about Rousseau’s Confessions?
Those are two men from different eras. Autofiction, at least here in South America, is still usually associated with women’s literature.
Yeah, this is the curious thing about it. In the United States, I think that [Karl Ove] Knausgaard was associated with autofiction. Ben Lerner was another one. And so it sort of came into awareness as a term relating to these works of men. Works of men that are really about the lives of men. Lerner’s work is the account of the life of The Man Child, right? The young man trying or failing to become an adult man. Knausgaard’s is this hyper-masculine account of life. When women start writing this thing that gets called autofiction, that’s when autofiction starts to be used as a kind of slur against the work. So, a writer named Kate Zambreno, who is really an interesting writer, gives an account in one of her books when she submitted her manuscript to male editor and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m tired of autofiction’. So, suddenly, the woman slips into the same sort of work as men and ‘Oh, this is over. We’re not going to do this anymore’. It depends on which life is being accounted for.
Arguably, the latest Nobel Prize winner was a woman who writes autofiction.
I love Annie Ernaux! This is the example, it shouldn’t…they’re just books! In many ways, her work, the best term for it is “diaristic”. Okay, I understand in French it’s probably autofiction. In the US, it’s probably just confusing. Let me just say this: there’s a problem with the American novel. The novel in the United States, which became like the novel of naturalism in the 20th century, rose the expectations about what a novel was, it dominated the conversation around genre. This developed through the writing programs, the MFA programs, which set the boundaries around the novel and around fiction. But it’s a particular myopic fiction of the United States. It does not include all the sorts of varieties of what a fiction might be, what a novel might be, elsewhere in the world. This is the crisis of the label. The crisis of the label is actually the crisis of the limitations of the novel in the United States. If we had the same generous understanding of fiction, of novel, that exist elsewhere, in other language traditions, we would not have the crisis of naming something like Ben Lerner’s work. Or Annie Ernaux. In many ways, the crisis of genre in the United States is one that reflects that overall kind of narrow-minded conservative impulse that underwrites so many of our political struggles. If we expand fiction itself, we will be able to develop more precise, more accurate, more cosmopolitan terms.
Regarding that genre-crossing in The Undying we not only read your thoughts on politics, literature and medicine, but we also experienced your poetic style. How do you feel your poetry, your lyricism, has nurtured your essay-writing?
I’m a poet first, and I always will be, and I think poetry is not just the oldest form of literature, but perhaps along with dance, like the primeval form of art, the thing which requires only our body, our voices. It doesn’t require literacy. It doesn’t require paper. It doesn’t require the printing press. It’s elemental. In its most ancient understanding, it’s like making that which did not yet exist. The poet is always seen beyond. There’s this idea that you climb up the ladder and then when you take a step where there is no wrong, and that’s when you have found poetry. Like that movement into that which is yet to become. And so this is behind everything. Behind all the writing there’s a way in which the more mature I get as a writer, I’m able to see when the poet is coming out. And when those other sorts of aspects of my writing practice get to dominate. I think it’s not seamless, and I think there’s a push-pull between them. There’s the sense in which I’m always cautious that the sort of essayistic or intellectual aspects, and my interpretation of the world, could eclipse that thing that I try to hold on to. The invention, and the lyricism that comes from the poet. But I suspect that this kind of push-pull, this passionate contentious relationship between various literary impulses, that it’s just the nature of being a writer, and perhaps in everybody else, too. If you look, you will see: ‘here’s when the poet emerges to invent or express’, ‘here is where the person who’s been reading philosophy emerges to bring the voice of reason or rationality into the discourse of the poet’.
The book you were going to present in Buenos Aires has been read as a poetic-political statement about being a woman in the US. A lot has changed since its publication in 2015, and I was wondering what are your thoughts on the path your home country took in recent years?
The strains of American culture that have emerged post 2016, sort of culminating in the reversal of Roe v Wade and the various attempts to suppress the LGBTQ community, all of these rightward swings culturally, have always been present in the United States. They come as no surprise. I grew up in the middle of Kansas, I grew up in the Reagan 80s, the land of would-be fascist right. Well, fascism is maybe even the wrong word because it’s like a particularly fundamentalist Christian authoritarian and pro-capitalist mode. And this has always been there. This is the ground of the United States. You combine this with US military interventions around the world, their destructive power outside, and then this latent authoritarianism does not surprise me. I’m not surprised when this kind of illiberalism shows up in the lives and in the culture, because I know what currents are underneath it. I think it surprises me more when we have little flashes or windows of progressive life in the United States, such as, let’s say, the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, the New Deal in the 30s and 40s, like maybe three months of Obama before he became disappointing. Now, the good thing is that as much as there’s like that right word, Christian authoritarian culture in the United States, there’s an equal power of counter movements, subcultural impulses of weirdness, a creative and energetic oppositional power to these things.