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Toward the end of “The Light Room,” Kate Zambreno’s memoir of the early pandemic, she describes corresponding with a friend, the author and professor Sofia Samatar, about the difference between hoarding and collecting.
Hoarding, I muse, is about ugliness. Yes! She writes me back. Ugliness as well as shame. Collecting, perhaps, is about beauty, I suggest. An organizing spirit.
At this point in the book, Zambreno is thinking about the artist Joseph Cornell—specifically, about how he cleaned out the cellar of his mother’s house in Queens so that he could use it as a workshop. He had to organize the old miscellany and sort it into boxes, which he then gave whimsical labels: “notions,” “cordials,” “wooden balls only.” Zambreno posits that this collecting-and-cataloguing project “became as much a part of [Cornell’s] art as the construction of his collages.” In his diary, she notes, Cornell compared the “creative arrangement” of clutter to a “poetics.”
As is often the case when Zambreno is writing about another artist, she is also implicitly writing about herself. “The Light Room,” which spans the almost two years between the fall of 2020 and the summer of 2022, is another exercise in “creative arrangement”—an attempt to creatively arrange Zambreno’s experience of the pandemic. The book narrates her efforts to organize the monotony of lockdown, especially for her small children. (As if starving indiscriminately for structure, the girls spend a lot of time building ephemeral assemblages out of blocks and animal figurines.) While they craft, Zambreno catalogues toys and art supplies and clothes and flowers. She lists the words her younger daughter is learning—“ ‘oven mitt.’ ‘Cacker’ for cracker. ‘Cado’ for avocado”—and the contents of her older daughter’s wonder cabinet: “a dead cicada, with its iridescent wings. . . . A wooden mushroom. . . . A crystal.”
Still, the hours blur together. Like an avatar in the Sims, Zambreno cycles through repetitive activities: cleaning, nursing, tidying, soothing. Life piles up in her journals. She takes walks in the park. She screams in the car. She watches a linden tree in the Nethermead “green and burnish and molt and green again.” Throughout, the book radiates anxiety about whether all of this material will find a shape. Can the process of living through and writing about the pandemic ever be, as Zambreno e-mails Samatar, a collecting that “is about beauty”? Or will the memoir simply be a record of collapse?
When we met last year, sitting at a sunny outdoor table at a coffee shop in North Brooklyn, Zambreno spoke of her writing during the pandemic as a means of alleviating the compound loneliness of lockdown and early motherhood. “I don’t know if I would have written so much, at the intensity that I have, if I hadn’t been in these cloistered spaces,” she told me. “It was a way to think with others, to perhaps transcend my isolation and alienation.” If “The Light Room,” with its e-mail exchanges, extended a collaborative streak in Zambreno’s work, her newest book, “Tone,” which she co-authored with Samatar, goes even further: the “I” that was threatened with formlessness has dropped out entirely. Narrated in the first-person plural by a “Committee to Investigate Atmosphere,” “Tone” examines a literary effect that, as the back copy explains, arises from “shared experience rather than a single author” and that “should be approached through a communal practice.” Zambreno and Samatar imagine an alternative form of social organization based on Susan Stewart’s idea of a “collection”—a group that, existing outside of the market, provides a “stay against the frailties of the very monetary system from which it has sprung.” Whereas capitalism encourages people to hoard, they suggest, a collective can be a path toward beauty.
Zambreno’s turn away from the first person is noteworthy because she became known for staging the theatre of the “I” in her work. Along with Melissa Broder, Kathleen Alcott, and Ottessa Moshfegh, she is among a cohort of female writers who explore abjection. Her books frequently play with negative stereotypes of women, especially white women in Brooklyn’s creative class. The narrator is usually struggling to lift a literary project off the ground; instead of writing, she wallows, Googles herself, and talks shit about the competition. (Where did Ben Lerner get “the confidence to write his novel seemingly in real time?” she writes in “Drifts.” In “To Write as if Already Dead”: what’s with “all of the polished turds being published now”?) She often lingers on her not-writing process, which can entail corresponding with friends or noting down what she is wearing (“old old dark gray Hussein Chalayan cardigan, which has permanent pit stains”) or simply succumbing “again to the couch, my current resting place.” These scenes of creative blockage can feel disingenuous, for Zambreno is conspicuously prolific: she has published a new book almost every year since 2009. (When we met, she disputed my characterization of her pace. “I don’t write that quickly,” she said. “I’m just older than people realize.”)
Zambreno, who was born in 1977, grew up in Mount Prospect, a northwest suburb of Chicago. In graduate school, she studied experimental theatre; in the two-thousands, she belonged to a coterie of avant-garde poets and performance artists. Her début, “O Fallen Angel,” a Midwestern fairy tale about a deranged housewife with a suicidal daughter, was pointedly uncommercial. “I expected maybe one hundred people to read my books,” Zambreno told me. But the title was championed by the post-punk feminist writer Chris Kraus, and, with her encouragement, Zambreno published “Heroines,” a riff on the so-called mad wives of literary modernism, in 2012. This “memoir/group biography,” which Semiotext(e) will reissue in March, 2024, thrust Zambreno onto a bigger stage.
Depending on whom you asked, “Heroines” was either deeply exhilarating or deeply annoying. Zambreno describes languishing in northeastern Ohio, where her partner, John Vincler, an art critic, has accepted a library job. She writes of feeling confined and obstructed, her career erased by his, and dramatizes this resentment by invoking Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and other “women often marginalized in the modernist memory project.” Leaning into tropes of female hysteria, Zambreno compares her house in Akron to the bedroom in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” She buys “glittery silver toenail polish from OPI’s Swiss collection, an homage to [Fitzgerald’s] time in the Swiss asylum.” When John comes home at night, she releases all of her pent-up anger and frustration: the walls shake with “my operatic roars,” Zambreno writes, “the sound of books being thrown.” In one maneuver, she reports, “I pantomime suicide—opening the window and making motions to climb out until John grabs me, embarrassed.”
Zambreno told me that she wouldn’t have written “Heroines” today, that she’s “cellularly a different person,” but, back then, her head was still in black-box theatre: “I was interested in channelling. I wanted to explore bravado by putting it on.” She envisioned the work as a manifesto, all glamour and swagger—a performance of feminine narcissism at a time when the question of likable woman characters still felt fresh. There was also an element of camp in “Heroines,” which experimented with dirtbag humor the same year Lena Dunham’s show “Girls” went on the air. If the book was a manifesto, it was a canny, self-parodying one.
I confess that I adored Zambreno’s narrator, with her “short cropped hair” and “black Joan of Arc jacket,” who reads “with my hands down the front of my pants. . . . Sometimes I feel guilty about my lubed fingers all over library books.” But not everyone did. A flurry of reviews accused Zambreno of replicating the modernist husbands’ crimes against their wives. She was a bad collaborator, the critique went; instead of resuscitating Jane Bowles and Jean Rhys and the others, she had appropriated them for her own ends. “[Zambreno] sets herself among the dead, channels them, digs them up, and tries on their clothes,” the Los Angeles Review of Books grumbled. “The women under discussion remain underground, forgotten, maligned.”
In “Heroines,” Zambreno writes openly of a desire to matter and be recognized. After the book’s outraged reception, she turned inward, publishing quieter and more introspective projects, close-reading fragments of pop culture (“Screen Tests,” 2019); circling the loss of her mother (“Book of Mutter,” 2017); gathering talks and essays inspired by the lectures of Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, and Jorge Luis Borges (“Appendix Project,” 2019). This meditative stretch culminated in her novel “Drifts,” from 2020, which follows a Zambreno-like narrator as she walks her dog; reads “bachelor notetakers” like Kafka, Nietzsche, and Rilke; and tries to figure out how her writing should be. She and Samatar wish to become “radiant zeroes.” They want to subsume their lives in art, to be “drained of the personal.” Yet the novel is also minutely tuned to the body of the narrator, who finds out that she is pregnant in the second half. White-knuckling it through her adjunct-teaching gig, she sometimes has to “rush out of class to throw up in the bathroom.” My students don’t realize I’m pregnant,” she writes. “They probably just think I’m gross.”
Despite being a conscious departure from “Heroines,” “Drifts” incited, in some quarters, a similar outrage. One editor disliked the sections about nausea and navigating the subway while pregnant; his word was “irritating.” Other readers offered a version of the “Heroines” critique: despite Zambreno’s frequent nods not only to Rilke but also to Clarice Lispector, Robert Walser, Chantal Akerman, and many more, she was accused of injecting too much ego into her novel. The result was “evanescent, unrewarding, and ultimately forgettable,” Bookforum wrote. “Drifts,” the Wall Street Journal declared, is mostly an “accessory to Ms. Zambreno’s larger and ongoing public performance of being a writer.”
At the coffee shop, Zambreno shook her head. “People were so angry about that book!” She was smiling, but she seemed a little hurt. As we angled our chairs around to avoid the worst of the sun, I thought I understood part of what made the judgments so galling. Zambreno has always been at least as interested in dissolving as in appearing. Her books are endlessly negotiating how much space to cede to her influences—the authors she is reading and the art she is consuming—versus how much to give over to descriptions of her own experience. Even in traditionally memoiristic passages, her voice is hard to disentangle from the voices of others, whether she is transmitting messages from the wives of modernism or reimagining the lives of beloved male artists, Rilke and Guibert and Cornell, many of whom died tragically. (The scholar M Milks has labelled her method “reparative vampirism.”) In “Green Girl,” Zambreno’s second novel, the main character almost seems to flicker on and off, sending out contradictory signals as she walks down the street: “Look at me / (don’t look at me) / Look at me don’t look at me look at me look at me don’t.” The autofictional narrator of “Drifts” and “To Write as if Already Dead” thirsts for recognition from the “professional literary world,” envies male peers, and recalls feeling “unspecial” and “ignored” as a child. But she also craves “ghostliness” and a “space of contemplation . . . where I sometimes don’t feel in the shape of a person.” If Zambreno “irritates” readers, it may be not because she is an egotist in any straightforward sense but because her “I” is unstable, entranced with and ambivalent about attention, longing alternately to vanish and to be seen.
Zambreno gave birth to her first daughter in 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump was elected President; her second daughter was born in the summer of 2020, several months after the peak of the first wave of COVID. It’s reductive to say that motherhood changes everything, but it changed Zambreno’s writing. When she sat down to begin the book that became “The Light Room,” certain roles—the diva of “Heroines,” a flâneuse wandering through a solitary trance of art—were no longer available to her. She was an adjunct professor with two children and no maternity leave riding out lockdown during a terrifying pandemic in the most expensive city in the world. She had to find an approach to her work that accommodated these circumstances.
An air of attrition hangs over “The Light Room,” as if a ghostly battery icon in the top right corner were being depleted with each sentence. “When I read the book now,” Zambreno said, “I see how depressed I was.” At the time of writing, she “was not making ends meet.” She returned to work immediately after having her baby, holding workshops and seminars over Zoom; her students were surprised, when the semester ended, to learn about the infant just offscreen. “The pandemic was a period of, We’re all supposed to work constantly and no one tells us how,” Zambreno said. For ten years, she has belonged to an underclass of guest faculty at Sarah Lawrence; she also has a part-time gig at Columbia’s M.F.A. program. The august affiliations don’t change the fact that teaching is, at its heart, a service profession. “No one asks about you, and you’re always thinking about other writers, their lives, their interiorities,” Zambreno said. “One can become worn down by that.”
In “The Light Room,” Zambreno’s feelings of precarity and insignificance manifest as spectral imagery. She is an apparition eroded by relentless work; she is ghostly with disregard. “The only space I can find to get any real reading done for the class is in the middle of the night, when I sit up and bear the baby across my lap,” she writes. “By the end of the semester I am translucent with exhaustion.” As the book goes on, Zambreno, at her nocturnal crossroads of woman-wife-mother-adjunct, never quite resolves in the eyes of the world. In public, while supervising her children, she experiences an “existential floatiness,” as if she were the sound of a tree falling in a forest that no one hears.
When she was nine months pregnant with her first child and still commuting to work, Zambreno struggled with an odd sense of immateriality. It was as if her almost-baby were the realest thing about her. She e-mailed the poet Maggie Nelson, whose book “The Argonauts” had resonated with her owing to its radical treatment of gender, pregnancy, sexuality, and the body. Zambreno relayed Nelson’s sympathetic reply: Zambreno could stand in front of a blackboard and regale her students with the most brilliant lecture they’d ever heard, Nelson told her, “And the only thing they’d remember,” she finished, “would be how fucking pregnant I was.”
“To this day,” Zambreno told me, “if there’s ever time for student or audience questions, they will usually only ask me overdetermined ones like, ‘How are you a mother?’ Or ‘What’s it like being a mother?’ ” She laughed. For mothers, she pointed out, the question is not very interesting. “Moms don’t know each other’s first names,” she said. “We have no childhoods. We have no memories.” Likewise, “so much of being a teacher of creative writing, especially in this adjunct way I am, is about insecurity and porousness,” Zambreno suggested. “I’m reading everybody else’s writing. They have not read me. They are not”—she laughed again—“particularly interested in me.”
And yet, Zambreno spoke of her students’ indifference as a form of “grace.” “Feeling more humble in my life has been good,” she said. “I take myself and the writing off a pedestal. And to write the consciousness of someone who feels invisible, isn’t that artistically useful?”
Now that Zambreno’s children have scrambled into her work, the “I” feels different: calmer, more settled, perhaps more maternal. How permissive “The Light Room” can seem! Zambreno lets her subjects crawl all over her; she observes them patiently and without discrimination. “I once read an essay by a writer who didn’t want to be a mother because she didn’t want to become a landscape,” she writes. The sentence introduces a buoyant memory: Zambreno watching her kid in the park, savoring the “collective feeling” of being part of the scenery. “The self is a kite sometimes without a string,” she thinks, “growing tinier and tinier, until sometimes it vanishes.” In a strange way, motherhood seems to have enabled Zambreno to finally become a “radiant zero,” to float weightlessly out of her own writing. But instead of losing herself in her artistic practice, as she attempted in “Drifts,” she has achieved her ambition by losing herself in the world around her.
In her earlier work, Zambreno sometimes seemed to be hoarding her “I.” Everything went on the page: lubey fingers, petty rivalries, days of sloshing around in the Internet. The books were cluttered with minute perceptions and involuted anxious spirals and “pink smashed Starburst candy, ketchup packets, Day-Glo straws”: Zambreno was the sort of completist collector who tried to cram the world into a text. In “The Light Room,” she still documents her life’s shifting weather. But, rather than battling against the impermanence and intangibility of her present tense, she registers life as it escapes. The memoir aims for jottings that, like their subjects, are thin, breakable, and already sliding off the page. “I think I’m working on—or perhaps not working on, for that is also writing—a notebook of seasons and exhaustions,” she says. She calls these forms “translucencies.”
The last section of “The Light Room,” titled “Translucencies,” unfolds in the third person. Like the earlier sections, it depicts a family—mother, father, and two young girls—living in Brooklyn during the coronavirus pandemic. Moods brighten and darken the page: the children go to outdoor birthday parties and, on Halloween, they pass out candy through a chute “made of PVC tube and strung with fairy lights.” The mother, who sometimes weeps “to the point of translucence,” cleans and worries, nags and calms, but the tone often feels impersonal: “pleasure was had in craft projects,” Zambreno reports. The mother is present; her emotions permeate the writing, and her attention determines what we see. Yet she is not in the frame. Rather, she is the frame, holding together a precious and mysterious domestic scene: “Nestled inside my careful and constant frame, my daughters are little owls, their faces still like moonlight.” Zambreno’s “I” feels both there and not there, a steadying, attention-deflecting presence.
When we met, Zambreno had recovered from the exhaustion of the pandemic, but she was only just emerging from another ordeal. In August of 2022, after the house in which she had lived for ten years was renovated, her youngest daughter was found to have lead poisoning. The family went on a nine-month rent strike. Their landlord responded by suing them for nonpayment in housing court. “He was financially assaulting us,” Zambreno said. (She had signed an N.D.A. that prevents her from going into specifics, but did offer that she had won both the rent strike and the right to write about the events.) The situation felt so desperate that Zambreno and her husband finally allowed the poet and essayist Sabrina Orah Mark to organize a GoFundMe for their family. The donations that came in were a life raft, allowing them to pay the tenant lawyers and to begin their search for a new place to live. “The institutions that I work for—publishing and academia—they didn’t care. They just wanted me to keep working,” Zambreno said. “So I was really touched when people did care.” At the same time, she remembered, “there was a lot of ambient shame. Like, I’m actually revealing how broke we are and how we’re living week to week.”
The intractability of the money issues seemed to Zambreno like one sign of society’s disrepair—how could she work so incessantly and still not have enough? And maybe her shame was another sign. She wondered whether her need for support and her embarrassment about that need were part of a single shadow that capitalist ideas of individualism and self-sufficiency had cast over her life. In the academic institutions she’s been a part of, she said, “there’s no sense of collegiality for the adjunct class, really.” She cited the scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, who insist, in her words, that “faculty of color, adjuncts, and graduate students must form an undercommons together, because the university is not going to provide that sense of community.”
For Zambreno, the jab and cross of motherhood, and need to provide for others, and housing insecurity, and the need to rely on others, has been transformative in ways she didn’t expect. She has grown more flexible, she said, and more ferocious about community-building. She has also come to think differently about gender. In 2016, as her first due date approached, the “sanitized” image of “mom,” or worse, “mommy,” prodded awake a feeling she’d long carried with her, a quiet passenger. “There’s always been some gender longing and play in my work,” Zambreno noted. Her books obsess over “queer male figures”; in “Screen Tests,” she recounts how, when she first moved to New York, she wore the costume of “a pretty boy who was a pickpocket and an art bitch.” “I look at ‘Heroines,’ ” Zambreno said now. “I look at the simplistic ways I wrote about gender. In that era it was all about ‘girl writing.’ That was the marketing strategy. But my idea of what a girl is, or what a woman is, it’s now so much more fluid.”
Zambreno sat back. She spread her legs. When she’d walked into the coffee shop, I’d immediately clocked the diaphanous material of her black pants and white blouse, but I’d missed her choppy haircut and androgynous vibe. She pulled down the rim of her cap, shading her eyes. “I wear my little nonbinary visor, you know,” she said, shrugging. Zambreno continues to identify politically as a woman—“I feel too old to change my pronouns,” she told me—but she doesn’t always view herself as a woman in her private life.
This nonchalant rapport with a hidden piece of herself seems to have eased Zambreno’s focus on the problem of the “I” in her work. If earlier books were consumed by an almost metaphysical exploration of the ego, whether swollen up or emptied out, she is currently energized by more nuts-and-bolts questions of “community, precarity, and labor.” After learning of her daughter’s lead poisoning, Zambreno told me, she grew newly attuned to intersections between the city’s lead crisis and its housing crisis. Now she wants to explore a different “material condition” of writing: its relationality. What does it mean for a writer to be a mother, a worker, a community member, a friend? As we talked, our conversation kept returning to dollars and cents; to organizing; to the Marxist feminist philosopher Silvia Federici.
Having laid her translucencies to rest, Zambreno is working on a series of “precarities” or “realisms.” These forms are more ironic. Their vibe is more tough and exasperated than fragile or exhausted. And, instead of depicting the agonies of the creative process, they adopt an attitude, Zambreno said, of “Who cares if I finish my book?”
This statement shocked me. In her writing, Zambreno assumes the persona of someone who identifies completely with her work and so stakes everything on it. Each text seduces readers with the drama of its own importance. What would it mean for Zambreno to abandon this project and with it the self, the body of words, she has constructed? Before I could ask her, she observed that she has spent much of her career collaborating with ghosts. Then, rising to survey the sidewalk’s foot traffic, she gave a wave and plunged into the crowd. ♦