I’m From Nowhere — Conversation With Lindsay Lerman & Genevieve Pfeiffer
Lindsay Lerman, a writer and translator, holds a PhD in Philosophy. Her book, I’m From Nowhere, is an investigation of grief and relationships, impermanence, and the construction and loss of identity. The reader follows Claire as she is unmoored by her husband’s death. She beings to explore who was and who she may be, and how to move forward in the world without him.
Genevieve Pfeiffer: The reader feels Claire’s loneliness and desperation. Yet, we are also acutely aware that she has depended on John. Claire doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere — she doesn’t feel comfortable around women, and she doesn’t trust other men. She has been upset with John and felt he had power over her, since she wanted a child and waited for him to be ready for one as well. She is unhappy with everyone, and herself. Yes, this reflection is part of her grieving, but this grief exposes the intricacies of our society that often dictate the terms of relationships. What was it like to write about this? And, as we often have to go into these dark place to write about them, how did this writing effect you?
Lindsay Lerman: First of all, thank you for reading and for being such a thoughtful, generous reader! In general, I’m fascinated with grief and how it can expose so much of what often goes unexamined. It forces us to confront the basic conditions of our existence (that we were born and we will die, that we are deeply dependent on one another, that we sometimes have to live with our solitude), but it also allows us to see, sometimes with exceptional clarity, how our lives have been structured. We have to know our mortality to understand ourselves. In the case of Claire, I think grief forces her to see that her hopes, dreams, projects — the direction and focus of her life — were so tightly bound up in her husband’s hopes, dreams, etc. that she had too little ownership of her own life.
I wrote this book to more deeply understand the often-invisible intricacies that make up our lives, as you say, but I also wrote this book to break free of as many of them as possible. So writing this book was painful and often intolerable, but I had to do it. There was also joy and some kind of reveling in the act of creating it, once I let myself admit that I was *actually* creating it.
“…writing this book was painful and often intolerable, but I had to do it.”
GP: Claire experiences a death of identity through the death of her husband, John. Could you expand on the almost unavoidable pairing of these deaths?
LL: I don’t want people to get the impression that I think all entanglements of identity are problematic, because I think to a certain extent it’s just what happens when we live our lives with other people. We get all bound up together, we extend into each other, we experience each other’s joys and sorrows as our own — this is part of what it means to share lives. There’s always danger in this, though. Women are still taught to fall in love and give their lives over to that love. It’s still held up as a crowning achievement for a young woman — falling in love and committing herself to that love. What often comes next is a series of self-erasures, and this is conflated with deeper love, stronger love. That’s what I take issue with. That’s why Claire is a kind of cautionary tale. There were some crucial moments in her life when I wish she would have caught herself, would have seen that she was disappearing into a relationship, but the reality is that it’s really hard to see ourselves clearly enough to catch ourselves. Claire is very much a real person to me. She is like many, many women I have known.
As for identity in a larger social and political context, I’m generally in agreement with Donna Haraway that disrupting categories for identification ought to be the long-term feminist goal or project (as opposed to merely “speaking as a woman”). But we have to start somewhere, and I don’t think “speaking as a woman” and messing up and challenging categories for identification are mutually exclusive. Claire’s process of “speaking as a woman” is the beginning of her challenging the categories she’s been handed (we’ve been handed).
GP: You write about death in many forms — the physical death of John, how his death creates a symbolic death in Clare. You also write about another kind of death, the death or impending death of various species. We can connect these continual references to extinction to the impending sixth extinction. How do you relate Claire’s loss to the loss humanity is facing? What inspired you to these connections?
“It’s safe to say that I’m obsessed with impending extinction.”
LL: It’s safe to say that I’m obsessed with impending extinction. We see more evidence of it everyday, and it gets more and more real, but it’s so unthinkable that it actually doesn’t get more real for most of us. We just carry on. I’m interested in what happens in those moments — what’s going on with our need to just carry on. I wanted the book to feel real in this sense. There is abundant evidence of extinction and attendant global emergencies in the book, but it’s in the background (or subcutaneous, as a friend put it), just as it is for most of us in our day to day lives.
The connections between all the deaths in the book developed pretty organically as I wrote it. I knew that one person’s interior life needed to be an anchor or a lighthouse — something to guide and orient the reader — otherwise it would just be a sea of various forms of death and sex.
GP: Chapter ten is the only chapter we hear from John, who explores his purpose, or perhaps fulfillment, in life. In this exploration, he finds he is equated with the amount of money he earns. He reaches the conclusion that “all any of us has is each other” (69). He serves as an anchor for Claire, and she is an anchor for him.
Yet it is Claire that must go on living without him. What do you make of us, as humans, whose tenuous connections both define and confine each of us? What persuaded you to give us readers this brief insight into John’s mind?
LL: After I wrote the section that gives us access to John’s interior world, I toyed with the idea of writing more of them, but I ultimately decided against it because this book is about Claire. John is a ghost who haunts the pages and makes occasional appearances. John’s action is offstage, though it is still important. Traditional notions of masculinity and pressure to inhabit the category of masculinity or manhood has been damaging to him too, and he knows it. It seemed important for the book to acknowledge this in some way, even if John couldn’t clearly articulate it (just as most of us can’t clearly articulate how the categories harm us). John’s understanding of this is fleeting, but I knew it needed to have emotional weight, so it made sense for him to see it alongside his understanding that he was made vulnerable by his love for Claire.
GP: On page 90 you give the reader a vivid, visceral, re/construction of Claire’s identity to include John. She recognizes his power, recognizes it as ‘the source of a new version of her.” How do you feel about this moment? She is empowered, but she is empowered though him, or, through a masculine energy — do you see this moment as nonbinary, or should the reader take Claire’s recollection of the moment as she describes it, as not her own power, but as a power that John is sharing with her?
“… I don’t believe any of us is fully binary — that is, I think fluidity rules all aspects of us, and we work hard for our entire lives to shore up that fluidity with an endless series of rules and regulations and guidelines and boundaries, some of which are beneficial for our health and safety and sanity, some of which are pretty detrimental…”
LL: I want readers to do whatever they want with this moment. But I don’t believe any of us is fully binary — that is, I think fluidity rules all aspects of us, and we work hard for our entire lives to shore up that fluidity with an endless series of rules and regulations and guidelines and boundaries, some of which are beneficial for our health and safety and sanity, some of which are pretty detrimental to our health and safety and sanity. We see Claire confronting this when she understands that living with a man (who she loved, and who loved her) allowed her to participate in the masculine power structure, to a certain extent. This is a little more complicated than a case of someone simply following the prescribed rules for hetero relationships and being rewarded accordingly (with social acceptance, tax breaks, what have you). To me this is more like Claire understanding — even just intuitively — the complex forces that made John “a man,” and wondering if she might also have access to those same forces.
GP: Could you expand on the phrase Claire repeats throughout the book— ‘suicide or submission’? What inspired this phrase?
LL: As I wrote this book, I spent a lot of time thinking about the representations of women we have in the western literary canon. It’s a depressing fact that the vast majority of what we’ve been offered is stories written about bourgeois white women by bourgeois white men, and these women have two options in life: suicide or submission (often regardless of class, which is interesting in its own right). I’m using these terms really broadly. I don’t take suicide to exclusively mean death by drinking the poison (though of course that happens in much of the canon), but everything from the slow death of drinking oneself to death over the years to throwing oneself on the train tracks. As for submission, all we have to do is examine the literary obsession with people who live lives of quiet desperation (especially in the popular “highbrow” literature of the twentieth century) to see the logic of submission at work. The men in these stories submit in some ways too, but it’s safe to say the women in these stories are expected to submit in big, all-encompassing, life-denying ways. I wanted my book to be an expression of discomfort with this fact, in a kind of subliminal way, while at the same time being an active seeking out of another way, a third way, a something other than suicide or submission.
GP: Claire surrounds herself with men. She has one other friend, Rebecca, who identifies as a woman, and Claire has moments where she is annoyed with her. I think of the quote on page 149 “…if you’re a woman built by a man, does that make you part man?” I often wonder how cis/hetero patriarchal society has shaped not only our physical world and structures, but our emotional worlds and how we relate to one another. Without this world, Claire may not have to grapple with her identity as she is, and there may very well be different structures in place to allow for grief. What made you introduce Rebecca, and how did you see the relationship between these two women? Was Rebecca a character who called out to you to be written, or did you feel that Claire may need another friend, a Rebecca?
LL: At some point I realized we needed to see Claire with someone whose potential love and care was less mixed up with desire. In this case that takes the form of an old high school friendship that doesn’t seem to have remnants of sexual longing. And it’s in her interactions with Rebecca that she realizes she might not have ever *had* good friends, that she might not know what a good friendship is. This seems like an important moment for Claire. We all know how girls and women are made to understand relationships with each other as ones of competition (or more generally, within a scarcity model), and I don’t think we can liberate ourselves and each other until we face that. You’re so right that our emotional worlds are shaped by our physical worlds and its visible and invisible structures.
GP: Did you ever find yourself writing about John’s parents? They are two people in the book that continue to pop up, but are never seen. How did you interact with them in ways that may not have made it into the novel?
LL: This is such an interesting question! I did find myself wondering about them — and everyone else who appears in the book — but I stuck with the fact that I wanted the narrative structure to be as tight as possible. There wasn’t room in this book for all the characters I wanted to spend more time with. I wanted the book to seem really accessible and approachable, so I kept it short and simple. I know that lots of characters and character studies can make books (especially ones written by women) seem more accessible, but I felt that wasn’t right for this book. I think it needed to have a stark quality to it.
Lindsay Lerman holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She lives in the U.S.
Genevieve Pfeiffer is Assistant Director at Anomaly where she is curating a folio on reproductive justice and its intersections (she urges you to submit).
She is a writer and poet, and facilitates workshops with survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Her work is forthcoming or has been published in Erase the Patriarchy, Juked, So to Speak, Stone Canoe, and more.
She blogs about outdoor wanderings and herbal birth control, witchcraft, and the environment at https://medium.com/@GenevieveJeanne