A brief conversation with author Geneva Arystan. Read Octopus Prayer, an extract from Geneva’s book, Three People Ago, in Issue Zero of L’Esprit Literary Review.
L’Esprit Literary Review: How did your piece come to be and what do you want our readers to know about your work? Is there any context you would like to provide to either the extract specifically or the book in general?
Geneva Arystan: I started writing this collection with the initial intention of exploring human intimacy. As the book came together, I realized the entirety of all poetic writing is the exploration of exactly that. I think what the work came to reveal was the intimacy with the concept of self and it’s subsequent transformation of identity. I asked myself what if I were to explore those multitudes: the self as a perversion, the self as a container of experience, the self as a performance – who am I at the source? Who was I three people ago, three versions of myself ago, three human connections ago? Which is of course how the title and the concept was born. With regards to the extract piece here, Octopus Prayer, I wanted to channel this raw and natural human impulse that exists in different ways within all of us, of the desire of connecting with someone, not necessarily even romantically, and what that desire can mirror back at you in turn. The idea of comparing the speaker to an octopus, too—this highly intelligent ocean creature shapeshifting and having the ability to disguise and hide itself in any environment—seemed very on par with what that desire can bring out in us and our actions. That too often we all transform and hide our true selves, as a survival tactic. We each do that in our own versions in the wilderness of our lives.
LLR: What is your creative process like? Can you speak to the journey of working on this book?
GA: I write rather sporadically. For the most part, the majority of my work has been initially drafted in the Notes app on my iPhone, believe it or not. I have years of prose and poetry backed up on my iCloud at this point. Because the urge to write always comes to me on the go, or mid-encounter or conversation with someone and a pen and paper aren’t always available to keep track of those ideas. But an iPhone note, in my opinion, is very immediate and therefore accurate. There is also a private aspect to that process: it’s something that only I can access, at any point, and it’s easy to go back, rework and manipulate an earlier note as many times as possible. It’s definitely a tool I would recommend to other writers.
LLR: How would you define your literary ancestors, as a writer generally and/or with regards towards this project? Which novels, stories, literary movements, traditions, or ideas do you see your work as being in conversation with?
GA: I am noticing a really interesting movement happening with New Sincerity in literature at the moment, as part of a greater shift towards metamodernism in the arts. I really enjoy Tommy Pico who embodies the stream-of-consciousness almost rant-like style that is adjacent to some of my work. I recently have discovered the work of Lisa Taddeo and find her phenomenal in capturing femininity and the nuances of a female’s psychology in a patriarchal world. Her grasp on language is absolutely astounding. Other recent favorites of mine have been the works of Sarah Manguso, Mary Robison, David Shields. And of course it’s crucial to mention a favorite of mine, Jenny Holzer, specifically her Truisms series. I think art and writing as processes interlope in a lot of ways, so as far as that goes the conceptual, text-based works of Tracey Emin, and Yoko Ono I have great admiration for. As far as it goes for my ultimate literary inspirations, I am a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Ram Dass, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Albert Camus, the classics.
I am also always looking out for works of emerging young Kazakh artists and creatives. I am very connected to my heritage and hope in the future some of my projects could intercept exploring my cultural identity, my nomadic roots and traditions and generally being a part of that incredible movement that I notice happening back home.
LLR: What was the last book, story, poem, work of art that moved you?
GA: I haven’t been able to get Blake Butler’s In Memoriam (December 2020) essay in the The Volta, honoring his late wife and poet Molly Brodak, out of my head for a long time. There was such a tenderness in that piece, and it moved me to tears. The way he was able to translate that intimacy between them, and bring so much life to who she was, is a stunning example of how to write people. I was a fan of her poetry as well, which is how I stumbled upon this eulogy in the first place. The way he let us in on feeling the undeniable love they shared in that essay – what an honored way to hold and commemorate a life.
Read an extract of Three People Ago in Issue Zero of L’Esprit Literary Review, available here.