A Pointed Narrative Choice: Talking with Lydia Kiesling

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In Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, forthcoming September 4 from MCD, Daphne, a young mother, feels a restiveness she can’t define. So she puts her baby in the car and drives away from a perfectly respectable job at UC Berkeley to an abandoned mobile home deep in northeastern California, where the land is stark and the neighbors include gun-toting separatists. With her husband stranded in his native Turkey, Daphne fends for herself in a place that is stranger than it ought to be.

Alone with her baby, Daphne’s thoughts spill out in a hyper-intelligent torrent of memory and observation as she confronts her growing doubts about motherhood, adulthood, and what it means to be a US citizen today.

Recently, Kiesling and I spoke about Turkish dream boyfriends, novels with hidden babies, and how bureaucracy can be weaponized.

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The Rumpus: So, our protagonist belongs to a family of three that’s been split up, for maddening reasons, by a US bureaucracy that is either malicious or incompetent or both. And you wrote this novel before the recent crisis at the Mexican border. Why did you choose to write about a family that’s been separated in this particular way?

Lydia Kiesling: There were a few reasons. First, a version of this happened to some people I know (during the Obama presidency). The situation was not identical, and the country of origin was different, but there were similar elements of obvious malice and illegality on the part of DHS/USCIS/CBP (there are many acronyms), and a subsequent display of ineptitude and bureaucratic clusterfuckery when they tried to fix the problem through legal channels. I was struck by the fact that you can follow the rules as they are stated (and they are stated in utterly opaque and convoluted language), but if you run across the wrong border agent in the airport you can still end up detained, lose your green card, etc. And if you are in that situation you have absolutely no power. (This is one reason the denaturalization task force, the op-eds about taking away birthright citizenship, etc., are so terrifying—some people are already making their own rules at our borders and have been doing so for years, and now they are being overtly supported at the highest levels.)

So these people’s situation was on my mind, because I’m a Foreign Service brat and my orientation has always been toward the US as “the good place,” and my adulthood has been a series of dramatic readjustments on that front. And in purely practical terms, this scenario was effective for the book because I wanted the protagonist to be alone with a small child. And the reason, whatever it might be, that a mother is alone with a small child always carries its own universe of meaning (e.g., working dad, acrimonious separation dad, deceased dad, deadbeat dad, donor dad) that, I imagine, inflects the day-to-day experience of the remaining parent differently. What I wanted to explore in the book is the way that bureaucracy can be weaponized and how helpless and anguished that might make someone feel (even when they have many privileges relative to other people who might find themselves in that situation). Finally, the underlying reasons for the separation, in this case, aligned with the nativist rhetoric that the protagonist encounters in her erstwhile hometown.

Rumpus: A big source of drama in the novel is whether Daphne will get her shit together as a parent, from one moment to the next, and manage to accomplish some pretty mundane tasks, such as wiping up her child’s vomit, or finding something to eat for dinner. This strikes me as an unusual foundation for a novel. Not many novels focus on this day-to-day labor of parenting. When you foreground this type of labor in The Golden State, are you thinking of it as a political act?

Kiesling: Yes! Or at least a… pointed narrative choice. It’s not (at all) that I think novels have to represent an experience that you personally have had in order to be compelling, but it did seem remarkable to me, a lifetime reader, that I had almost no fictional frame of reference to refer to when I had a baby. I vividly remember reading Elisa Albert’s After Birth shortly after giving birth (or maybe right before) and thinking, “Huh, I’ve never read anything like this.” Where are the babies in novels I’ve read? The dead baby in Rabbit Run? I don’t think so. One reason I so love Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is that there is a small child who has to be accounted for throughout the text by his mother, who is also our primary narrator. When my agent first read my book, she said something like “Normally when I read books where there are children I spend a lot of time thinking, ‘where’s the baby?’ because they are conveniently off-page a lot of the time.” I wanted the baby to be very present.

And since being alone with a small child is a very particular kind of experience, often a very boring one, I set a challenge for myself to try and convey it in a way that wasn’t excruciating. I know some people do find it excruciating (the book), but I can live with that. It’s a tall order, to just have a toddler hanging around all the time in a book and have it be readable.

Rumpus: Turkey plays a big role here. Daphne speaks Turkish, is married to a Turkish man, works at a Near Eastern Studies institute, and often thinks about how her life would be different in Turkey. Also, you speak Turkish. (Like a boss, I might add.) But the novel never “goes” to Turkey. Where does all this Turkey come from?

Kiesling: I first need to say that, while there was a time circa 2012 when I would maybe have considered accepting the “like a boss” designation, my Turkish fades away more and more each day in a way that is deeply sad to me. In one sense, that yearning, sad element is built into the book. I felt delight whenever I could stick in a Turkish phrase, or to try and put myself in the headspace of a person who was speaking Turkish all of the time in her domestic life. But that carries a lot of baggage! I tried to be very aware of those feelings as I was writing. On the one hand it’s necessary structure for the book, but I was also anxious about romanticizing Turkey or Turkish too much. If you study what is called “Middle East Studies” or “Near Eastern Studies” or some variation thereof in the US you are (or should be) very conscious of the history of Orientalism, both the discipline of Oriental Studies that is the forefather of modern area studies, and the practice as famously identified by Edward Said. On the one hand, I didn’t want to make the book a fantasy love story, or like sublimated wish fulfillment about some Turkish dream boyfriend. But obviously there is a kind of subterranean love I have for both Turkey and Turkish (and for northeastern California, another place I was anxious not to misrepresent or romanticize!) that was working itself out in the book.

Rumpus: Did you find the Turkish language influencing your prose? 

Kiesling: As far as the prose goes, I considered trying to be more literal with the English translation of Turkish phrases, and to weave that into Daphne’s internal narrative, but I ended up keeping it fairly basic. I’m not Helen DeWitt and I didn’t think I had the chops to really go there with the prose, and I worried if I got too excited about different phrases it would just become, like, lists of words that I like in Turkish. So there’s not really a Turkish affect to the English of the book.

Rumpus: So what about your literary devices? I’m sure there’s a Greek word for the rhetorical technique that you use to great effect in several bravura paragraphs where you let your sentences run long and the language just accumulates, listing all of Daphne’s anxieties and troubles. Would it be crazy to your suggest that style is inspired by something ancient and Mediterranean? Also, this thing with the triplets, where you emphasize a word by repeating it three times—“beautiful beautiful beautiful,” “I will die I will die I will die”—that’s reduplication, which I’m guessing is more common in Turkish than in English.

Kiesling: Haha, it’s not, to my knowledge, a Turkish or ancient or Mediterranean feature. The voices that influenced the book the most, I see now when I read how it turned out, are the aforementioned After Birth, How Stella Got Her Groove Back by Terry McMillan, and Mating by Norman Rush—all books I’ve read multiple times at various points in my life and which have restless, intelligent female narrators with very particular, present, forward-moving but backward-looking voices. I did not initially want to use the voice I used—first person, present tense—but as I was writing that was the only thing that came out that felt like it could approximate the experience of being with a small child, while also carrying the moments of the day forward. The voice has a lot of work to do, time-wise. And then there’s the juxtaposition of the sort of feral racing thoughts you have when you are coping with a baby, and the singsongy “Motherese” almost everyone uses to speak with a baby whether they want to or not—it’s jarring to experience that contrast and I wanted the reader to feel something of that as well.

Rumpus: The other major location in the novel is northeastern California. What’s up with the State of Jefferson? Your protagonist isn’t too keen on them, and they kind of shit the bed at the end of the novel. I would not describe this as a pro-separatist novel. Do you view the State of Jefferson as a legitimate movement?

Kiesling: The end of the book conflates a couple of things—namely, the neo-Sagebrush Rebellion-type stuff that has been going on at, for example, the Malheur preserve in Oregon or the Bundy ranch in Nevada, with the State of Jefferson movement, which is a long-standing regional effort to create a fifty-first state out of the northeastern part of California (and part of southern Oregon, in some cases). The events at the end of the book have a Malheur flavor, but they are based on a moment in 1941 when State of Jefferson supporters symbolically blocked the road around the Siskiyou county border every Thursday for a period of time (it was interrupted by Pearl Harbor). There’s some question of how serious this secession effort was, but it did happen.

It’s probably a bit unfair to mash them up, but there were State of Jefferson supporters who went up to Malheur to cheer things on, and a lot of the rhetoric is the same, so in a work of fiction I felt it was acceptable to do some blending (and the 2016 election, which takes place after the book ends, has flattened a lot of these ideologies in any case). You’ll note that there is actually no Paiute County in California—It’s a mishmash of a couple of different North State counties, all of which have had some formal recognition of the State of Jefferson cause put forth by their respective Boards of Supervisors. (Which does not mean that it is going to happen—it’s basically just an acknowledgment of the movement.)

My grandparents lived in Modoc county (and had no interest in joining a fifty-first state) and I grew up visiting every year and feel connected to it in much the ways that Daphne feels connected to the fictional Paiute county. I do think that the way of life in those counties is utterly different on a logistical, day-to-day basis from the way of life in major California cities or suburbs, and that a certain amount of feeling left-out of political decisions—particularly ones having to do with resources like water or land—is understandable. That’s a set of concerns that I don’t have or understand and I can’t discount the lived experience of people who do. (One thing I wanted to do in the book is show that distrust of the government can come from a lot of different ideological directions but end up in the same position vis-a-vis how you view “the Feds.”) That said, ideologically speaking, the North State is, overall, Trump country, and there is a lot of rhetoric circulating that matches his own regarding immigration and other matters, and that significantly erodes the sympathy I might otherwise have. And on a practical level, it’s hard for me to imagine that making a fifty-first state out of an area with a third of the landmass of California but five percent of its population is really going to be a panacea to address things like unemployment or poverty in the North State, particularly when the Forest Service and the BLM and other governmental entities have been major employers there for a long time.

All this said, the North State is not monolithic and there are people who live there who hold differing views. Not everyone is white, either (although a large majority is) and, like all of America, it’s land that originally belonged to Native people. There are many communities and points of view that are not encompassed by State of Jefferson activities. I subscribe to my mom’s hometown newspaper and my favorite thing to read are the Letters to the Editor, which often surprise me with their diverse political positions.

Rumpus: You’re active on social media. And you often post about parenting, travel, California politics—all of which are major themes in The Golden State. How blurred is the line between your Daphne voice and your Twitter voice?

Kiesling: Ha. I do spend a lot of time on Twitter, much to my mother’s chagrin (and mine, sometimes). I’d be lying if I said Daphne and I didn’t have a lot in common, personality-wise. But her circumstances are much different and harder than mine, and I think she is generally harder on herself as a person and a parent than I am. And my Twitter persona is a lot snappier than I am in real life—less morose and fretful than I tend to be. So I guess we could say it’s all on the same continuum.

Rumpus: Okay, please fill in the blank. Motherhood is like citizenship. They both…

Kiesling: They aren’t the alpha and omega of your personhood but they fundamentally affect your life—how you categorize yourself and how other people categorize and treat you. And your experience of each condition is significantly impacted by your position in the political state where you experience it.

Rumpus: Is The Golden State a hopeful book?

Kiesling: I think people will read it a few ways—I’ve already gotten a couple very different reactions, which seem to depend a lot on whether the reader sees Daphne as a likeable or relatable person. There isn’t a big narrative arrow drawn around the calendar, but the book takes place in summer 2015. In terms of American Islamophobia, which is a theme in the book, that’s just a few months before the San Bernardino shooting, and the Paris Bataclan attacks, both of which ratcheted up anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. even further. As far as Daphne and Engin are concerned, it’s a year before the Turkish coup attempt, which has had such deleterious consequences for political and social life in Turkey. There has been a spate of horrible bombings across Turkey since then, including in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. And then, obviously, in the States there’s a significant, disastrous election on the horizon. In the book, Donald Trump, who is not mentioned, would have only just announced his candidacy; Daphne and her colleagues, I’m sure, would have incorrectly assumed that he was a joke candidate. So in the worldwide sense, no, not very hopeful. But I’m also a very sentimental person, and I wouldn’t have written a book that had no joy in it. Or what I view as joy, anyway.

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Photograph of Lydia Kiesling © Andria Lo.


Brian Hurley is the Publisher at Fiction Advocate and an executive editor at a book publishing start-up in the Bay Area. He used to be the Books Editor at The Rumpus and the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press. His writing has appeared in The Millions, Full Stop, and Electric Literature. More from this author →