By Deb A.
Karen Havelin's Like I'm Indestructible (Agave Magazine Vol. 3, Issue 2) takes on a theme that rarely features prominently in literature: chronic illness. Here we talk to the Norwegian author about her love of Charlotte Brontë, the challenges of speaking honestly about a hidden topic, and why she believes her poetry is better in Norwegian.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: You've been writing since you were a child. What motivates you to write, and how has your writing process changed over the years?
KAREN HAVELIN: I’ve always written when life overwhelms me in one way or another. It became an important way to express myself and handle life in my early teens, which is when I realized I wanted to be a writer. Now, it’s a more complex phenomenon—I notice that life is worse when I don’t do it. It is as if a portion of me exist only inside my writing and when the flow stagnates, it’s bad for my health. It feels like something I have to do. If I put everything I have into this, I can maybe do something no one else can.
It’s taken me a long time to accept how I work. When I was younger, in the typical fashion of new writers, I was convinced I needed to be inspired before I could write, or that I needed to be tortured, or to make my writing process resemble other people’s. Now I have a higher acceptance for myself and a much bigger trust in the process. I have to write a lot before I know where I’m going. But if I show up and keep doing it, something good will eventually come of it.
You studied under some notable professors at Columbia University, including Gary Shteyngart and Donald Antrim. What was the most important thing you learned from them?
The most important thing I learned was to stop relying on charm in my writing, to do my ground work, blocking, dialogue, structure—to put in the work. So much work! I was primarily a poet before Columbia, so I changed both language and form, which was a little nuts, but also liberating. Because of the demands to submit lots of pages, I had to immediately start writing full speed, which was useful in getting past self consciousness and going all in.
The novel which is excerpted in Agave Magazine is written in reverse chronological order. Why did you employ this particular method of storytelling?
The reverse chronology showcases other things than straightforwardly following the character from younger to older. Like, how do people change through the years, and what things stick? How are we influenced by the past, and can we free ourselves? This way, the different time periods in my character’s life sort of exist simultaneously, which feels true to me. Each part works on its own as well. It’s been interesting to see how different the readings of this book are. People have thought it’s everything from uplifting to tragic, torturous to pleasant.
What made you decide to write about chronic illness?
This is one area where I can admit to having personal experience. I work with what I know. But chronic illness is also largely unexplored in literature. I have always longed for good books about illness. Particularly ones where the sick person gets a voice, and doesn’t either die or get cured. Books that show the amount of work that goes into having a challenging body that has to be coaxed along.
It’s a bit of a challenge too, to try to make engaging literature about something that might on the surface seem dull. These are things that influence people’s lives to an immense degree, and that they perhaps don’t ever talk about. You can have crazy experiences that you can’t necessarily share with anyone. There are actually a lot of opportunities for humor. How are people’s lives interesting, even though they maybe can’t have exciting adventures? How are people shaped by lives that are very constricting in certain ways? This is one of the reasons I’m a little bit obsessed with Charlotte Brontë’s characters.
Chronic pain and chronic illness also impact women and men differently and tangle up into money, class, race. Everyone has a body, everything I experience I experience as this body. So for me, it feels obvious to chase that concentration of energy I see there.
Do you prefer to write in Norwegian or English?
This varies—it comes down to one day at a time, one piece of writing at a time, in whichever language feels possible. I’m probably a freer writer in English, and probably also less rigorous. In Norwegian I have a terser voice. My poetry is probably better in Norwegian.
Learn more about Karen and her work at www.karenhavelin.com.
By Deb A.
The many facets of the legacy David Bowie leaves behind as a musician, a writer, an actor, an intergalactic explorer, an icon, can all be subsumed under one broad thought: David Bowie was, in every aspect of his being, an artist. Beyond creating his own art, he was also an obsessive collector who surrounded himself with works that inspired and moved him.
This November, nearly 400 pieces from his private collection will go up for auction.
The incredible scope of David Bowie's diverse tastes as well as his insatiable appetite for art have resulted in an auction of three parts that will take place over two days: parts one and two for modern and contemporary art, featuring everything from Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damian Hirst to contemporary African art to outsider art; and part three for post-modernist design, focused primarily on Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Group.
Highlights of the collection are on display at Sotheby's in London until August 9; the selected works will also tour Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong before the entire collection is exhibited November 1-10 in London.
By Deb A.
Are you ready for a summer holiday? We asked Lisa Byrom, Agave Magazine's Reader, and Emily Fleischer, our Editor-at-Large: Art & Photography, what's on their reading lists for the long hot months of 2016.
Lisa: "I'm currently being a good Canadian reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Then I'm planning to read The Light Between Two Oceans by M.L. Stedman and Cotton by Christopher Wilson. I'll re-read The BFG by Roald Dahl because of the movie coming out and it was my all time favourite book growing up. After that, I'll try to find something interesting/local while vacationing in Australia this summer."
Emily: "I will admit that I started off my summer reading with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga. As Buffy the Vampire Slayer's number one fan, I feel obligated to keep tabs on all teen vampire angst and therefore live in a constant state of disappointment with the genre. Don't mess with perfection. If you're still reading this, and feel like I still have a shred of credibility left, then I'd like to recommend my new most favorite author ever, Caitlin Moran. How To Be A Woman, and her second book, How To Build A Girl, should be mandatory reading for every woman and their college-ageish daughter. After returning How To Be A Woman to the library, I wandered over to the new releases where a book with a cut-out clock face and glowing green lettering caught my attention. The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley seems good so far--three pages in. The exterior of the book also has a smooth, satin-like finish which makes me happy."
In case you're looking for a few more recommendations to round out your summer reading, Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro has some suggestions, too!
By Deb A.
An estimated 3,200 people stripped down to be painted shades of blue and photographed en masse in the bridges and streets of Hull, England.
The resulting images of Spencer Tunick's Sea of Hull, a celebration of the city's relationship with the sea, will be displayed next year when Hull becomes the United Kingdom's City of Culture.
By Deb A.
Sculptor and Agave Magazine contributor S.E. Nash started thinking about fermentation and microbial activity after reading about sourdough baker Chad Robertson, cheese nun Noella Marcellino, and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz in Michael Pollen's Cooked. After a three-week workshop with Katz, Nash's ideas around merging art and fermentation began to take shape. Nash's sculpture, Collaborative Microbes, is featured in the most recent issue of Agave Magazine; here Nash explains quorum sensing, why technically we're all 'they', and how microbes can teach us about human nature.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: Have you ever been surprised at how one of your sculptures has evolved?
S.E. Nash: When I returned to NYC from summer fermentation camp in 2014, I experimented with many ideas on how to incorporate fermentation and allow it to remain edible in the sculptures. This meant including glass vessels that are covered and separate from the sculptural materials, which are definitely not edible. Crafting the sculptures is a very intuitive and fluid process for me. Planning a sculpture in advance usually leads to changes when working anyway, so I will create initial drawings for sculptures that I know will change as I start working. The feasibility and structural aspects of including jars of fermented foods can be challenging, so the evolution of the sculptures is usually contingent on how the vessel will be incorporated. The fermented foods are fairly predictable as to how they will turn out; even if I do not know exactly how something will taste, I am skilled at creating the right conditions for the food to transform in the proper manner. Now that my work is involving other people, either as collaborators or participants, I am opening up the work to unexpected occurrences in social and community based practice.
At the end of an exhibition, visitors can consume your sculptures. What draw does the impermanence of your work with fermented foods have for you?
I describe microbes as my sculptural collaborators. Their waste products are what we like to eat in the form of sauerkraut, cheese, beer, sourdough, and countless other delicious foods. I was drawn to work with fermented foods due to the role they play in cultural production and community involvement. I believe the taste of fermented foods, their umami, connects us to a magical sense of creation. Describing taste and sensory experience with other people feels very unifying. In describing what we taste together we can share subjective experiences, compare notes, and delight in consuming appreciation for the food and its maker. I think that by including foods that are living and that change over the course of an exhibition I am giving viewers an entry point to consider our complex biological and social relationships with the world. The impermanence is a part of life cycles and our perception of time.
Why is fermentation an effective way of exploring notions of gender?
I like to say: if we know that our bodies have a symbiotic and dependent relationship with microbes and we know that those microbes comprise at least half or over half of our cells then we are at least half microbe. If being human means being at least half microbe, then I would argue that our ideology should take into account this incredible symbiosis we share with microbes (and viruses, as we are coming to learn). What can we understand about microbes that will help us untangle sex, gender, and sexual reproduction? Bacteria do not have a sex or gender and they can reproduce in myriad ways, including transferring DNA to selectively become another species of bacteria! From a theoretical standpoint I would like to say that microbes are queer (without choosing to be so), but that they also queer our bodies regardless. I think our language is typically very limited and constricted to binaries in discussions of gender. Thinking about the ancient microbial world puts this in perspective for me. Can we look at the blip of human history in comparison to the billions of years that microbes have on us and understand that our codified definitions of race and gender are shortsighted? I believe that microbes illuminate the idea of plurality contained in the self. This is why I use the gender pronouns they, them, their, and I argue that everyone is technically a “they”.
Why would a future in which humans learn quorum sensing be a good one?
Good question! I hope I can be pardoned by scientists for using “quorum sensing” as a metaphor. Among bacteria, quorum sensing is communication between individual bacteria and communities of bacteria, and this chemical communication can be sensed across species. It can serve as a decision making process, telling the group whether to grow a biofilm or to produce an antibiotic, for example. Quorum sensing may be a key to understanding symbiogenesis, or the evolution of multicellular life forms out symbiosis with single celled bacteria. The idea of quorum sensing appeals to me as a way to decenter the importance of human evolution and human history on earth. We are part of a biophilic world and our increasing awareness of our relationship with microbes has the potential to empower us to make decisions based on an appreciation for complex ecosystems.
What message would you like to share through your work?
I would like to communicate that the work we do as individuals is interdependent. My work is contingent on communities: viewers, participants, actants, and those who are doing the work that I draw on. In the near future, I am enthusiastic about working with farmers and communities interested in sustainability. I love working with children, too, and plan to include groups of children and their ideas in future projects. I hope to bring people together to discover and delight in the wonders and magic of the microbial world, and to realize our connections with one another through creativity and generosity of spirit.
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