When I requested an interview from Barbara Browning to talk about her new novel, The Gift, she agreed and asked if I had a favorite song she could cover for me on the ukulele. Browning possesses many gifts—she is an accomplished dancer, novelist, performance artist, theorist, teacher, and self-described amateur musician—and The Gift is a rumination on the relationship between artistic giftedness and gift economies, an idea Browning borrowed from Lewis Hyde’s text by the same name. Like her previous two novels, The Correspondence Artist (2011) and I’m Trying to Reach You (2012), Browning’s latest is a work of metafiction built from bits and pieces of her own life.
The book began as a gift-giving experiment, an experiment she continues today, where she sends ukulele covers to friends, students, even total strangers on the Internet. Barbara Andersen, Browning’s semi-fictional doppelgänger, follows this experiment wherever it leads her, from the Occupy camp in Zuccotti Park to the Midwest to a random doorstep in Germany. The result, for the reader, is a thoughtful mélange of ideas on art, politics, and human connection in a rapidly changing world.
Browning and I corresponded via email one evening in March.
The Rumpus: I want to start with what might be an obvious question, but I’m curious—I’ve always thought of the ukulele as a very unserious instrument, maybe simply because of its size, but you write about it and the covers you make for people so tenderly. What was it that drew you to the ukulele in the first place?
Barbara Browning: Oh! I read your question, and I had to gasp because in fact it’s very meaningful today—a day when I’m feeling especially tender about the uke! When I was writing my last novel, there was a character who played the ukulele. He was a kind of anachronistic person, based very much on a real person—a guy with an uncanny resemblance to Jimmy Stewart—both physically and in temperament and personality. He was a musician who worked accompanying dancers, and I told him that I was a dancer, but that my dances were generally very minimalist, and I filmed them in my apartment. He said he liked small dances, and he played a small instrument. He suggested that I choreograph a dance in my bathtub and he would accompany me on the uke. I think he meant that to be a playful, slightly flirtatious joke, but I took him up on it, and then I began playing myself. The reason I’m feeling tender about that story is that my friend passed away just yesterday. It happened in the morning, and I learned later in the day. He was a very gentle, kind person. People attracted to the uke tend not to be grandstanders. It’s a little embarrassing now that there are so many girlish singers who have taken to the instrument. It can be really cloying. But there are plenty of true weirdos who have used it to great effect—George Harrison, Tiny Tim, Amanda Palmer, Taylor Mac… I certainly don’t count myself among those! I’m really terrible. But I can sometimes figure out a way to make my deficiencies work for me. I like to leave a lot of holes in arrangements. My dances are similarly deficient. I think writing’s the one place where I have some slightly higher standards for myself… Do you play anything? I ask in part because you live in Nashville.
Here’s my friend playing, the one who just died.
Rumpus: I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. I remember the Jimmy Stewart character and the bathtub scene. It felt so eerie in the book, but the video is charming. You include a lot of real people from your life in your books. In the case of your friend that passed, is it comforting to have a piece of him with you in your art, or does that make it harder?
You asked if I play an instrument and then sent me a video of you dancing to your friend singing “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” which is strange because I briefly played in my friend’s band in college, and he does a really great cover of that song. You can listen to it here.
Browning: I’m listening now to your friend’s cover—it’s so great!
Yes, it’s helpful to me to hold the people I love in my fiction. Of course it depends also on their feelings about it. In the case of Jimmy Stewart (I didn’t know you read that one too! Thanks for that!), he liked being the villain in my novel—in fact he told me he wanted to be even scarier—but he was also a kind of discreet person, and he liked having a different name to hide behind and so on. So he remains hidden in that video, and a little hidden in the novel. Even in the acknowledgments, where his name is an anagram…
In The Gift, there were a lot of very explicit negotiations about how people wanted or didn’t want to be represented, as you know. It’s part of the meta-narrative…
Rumpus: Yeah, there’s a lot in The Gift about the lines between truth, lies, and fiction. You like to blur lines… the personal and the political, the reader and the writer, dancer and non-dancer, etc. I think my favorite thing about your writing is how seamlessly you move between scholar Barbara and artist Barbara. You touched on technique earlier, and I want to ask you about that. How do you employ technique in your writing? Because sometimes your prose feels very tightly choreographed and other times it feels more improvised.
Browning: Oh that’s interesting. I’d have to say that my writing is the place I’m most interested in structure, constraints, and so on. But it’s interesting that you said “choreographed” because that’s a question I’m always asking, in my academic writing as well as my fiction—what can you say with dance that you can’t say with language? But in asking that, I’m kind of trying to push each medium in the direction of the other. In I’m Trying to Reach You, that’s also a preoccupation of my narrator, and there’s a reference to that beautiful dance by Lutz Forster in Pina Bausch’s Carnations, which is basically just him signing “The Man I Love” in ASL, which probably bears some relation to the dances I made to Sami’s voice messages.
I’m not asking this as a trick question or to embarrass you, but did you happen to look at the dances for The Gift that are on Vimeo? In the advance copies of the book, the website and the password were sort of hidden on the copyright page, but in the actual book, I asked them to move that to the bottom of the page with the epigraph. Still, it won’t surprise me if people don’t go to look at them. I don’t mind, in fact, if people don’t want to see them, whether it’s out of principle or just disinterest. But I’m happy if people do go and look.
I don’t think I quite answered your question yet. My writing is usually pretty highly mapped out, and I revise a lot. Some of this book, in the first draft, was written as events were unfolding, so it was improvised in so far as we improvise our way through life, but I knew at the outset more or less the trajectory I wanted. The very end, of course, is always open until the very end. Figuring out where a story ends gives me, always, both pleasure and pain.
Rumpus: No, I totally missed that! But I’m looking at them now. You explain in the novel that these videos you send people are part of a creative gifting experiment that you hope will “jumpstart a creative gift economy that would spill over into the larger world of exchange.” But the book is full of other kinds of gift-giving, too, like Tye caring for his friend in the wheelchair, your doppelgänger dropping a copy of her (your) novel into the free library at the Occupy Wall Street camp, and the friends who drive supplies to Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. Small acts of kindness and compassion. With the country as polarized as it is today and everyone at each other’s throats, do you still think this idea of gift giving could create meaningful change?
Browning: I just sighed audibly.
In the period I’m describing in the book, there were these fleeting moments of so much optimism. And then these crushing disappointments. After I wrote the first draft, for a couple of reasons—some of which are obvious in the book, some not—I had to put it away for a while. When I came back to it to revise it, I wondered if it would make sense, since politically, the ground had shifted. And then, more recently, the ground didn’t just shift—it really imploded. But yes, of course, I still believe in those things, the possibilities of gift economies that aren’t based on notions of magnanimity but rather doing what’s obviously right. And for all that people want to frame Occupy as a failure, I think it modeled for a lot of us ways to deal with what we’re confronting now.
Rumpus: Well, that was going to be my next question. The novel is set in 2012 and 2013, and you discuss some of the issues surrounding the Occupy and Pussy Riot movements, but it seems like a lot of the issues only recently bubbled up into the broader public consciousness during the course of the presidential campaign. I was going to ask if you think it would be beneficial for us to reexamine these movements within the context of our current political climate, but you kind of already answered that. What kinds of strategies and ideas do you think we can borrow from these movements moving forward?
Browning: I see it happening already, in both deep and superficial ways. Actually, the ostensibly superficial things interest me most. I describe in the novel knitting a balaclava during the Pussy Riot trial. I ended up writing a piece in the journal Social Text about a little cottage industry I set up for a while, knitting colorful balaclavas for babies. Anyway, when they came up with the idea of those “pussy hats” for the Women’s March (ack, I wish they hadn’t called it that, but rather a March Against Misogyny, but oh well, they didn’t ask me!), I made a ton and gave them to all kinds of people. At first I was a little irked by the pink thing (like those banal breast cancer awareness ribbons—why such a cute and girly color?!), but I didn’t really agree with the people who thought it was “essentializing” to foreground anatomy. I thought it was quite the opposite: it meant the “pussy” was always already prosthetic, anybody could have one if they chose to identify that way, but the best part was, it was slow activism. I mean, I understand urgency, and I even understand the appeal of accelerationism, but I’m always interested in exploring durational acts—of art, and of politics—and I’m interested in inefficient, handmade actions whose value is largely sentimental. After that march, the pussy hats seemed to diminish in significance, because the immigration/travel ban issues became so urgent, but you still see some around. Anyway, I thought there was something really beautiful about walking into various yarn stores this winter and encountering really diverse groups of knitters sitting around making those silly hats together, talking about politics. Sometimes very impractical activities can have very significant effects in the world. There was little anecdote I ended up taking out of The Gift because it was a little too digressive, but it was about some ramifications of one ukulele cover tune I sent to somebody that may or may not have ended up instigating a kind of wave of Graeber-mania in a Latin American country. I probably wasn’t really responsible, but maybe I was—or maybe Leo Ferré was, since it was a Leo Ferré cover… Two attachments on this message…
Rumpus: Amazing. There’s a yarn store in a suburb of Nashville that announced they didn’t want people buying their yarn to make pussy hats, citing the “vulgarity, vile (?), and evilness” of the movement, but the pussy hats are still pretty popular here. People wear them to the protests at the state capitol every Monday. Nashville has surprised me.
I have one more question, and I’m going to switch gears here. I liked your phrase “inappropriate intimacy,” and it struck me as I was reading that it might make a good slogan for the Emily Books imprint. Your book is the third collaboration between Coffee House and Emily Books, which is described as a publishing project devoted to promoting “weird books by women.” All three books are really raw portraits of women dealing with the bane of everyday existence, or at least that’s how I read them. How do you feel your book fits with the Emily Books ethos?
Browning: Oh, yes, definitely. I love Emily and Ruth. Actually they say they champion books by “(mostly) women.” That’s nice. But yes, I guess “inappropriate intimacy” would be pretty applicable to the first two books they published under their imprint—and many of the books they promoted and distributed before that. Hmm… I started to write about the word “raw” in relation to “cooked” and almost started lecturing you about Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Le cru et le cuit, but it’s late and that would be unbearably pedantic!
Author photograph © Kari Orvik.