The Rumpus Book Club Chat with Jenny Hval
The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jenny Hval about her new novel, Girls Against God (Verso Books, October 2020), working across a range of mediums, the magic of collaboration and community, how writing can stretch into action, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Beth Alvarado, Mattilda B. Sycamore, Randa Jarrar, Morowa Yejidé, Melissa Febos, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Jenny Hval about Girls Against God!
Jenny Hval: Hi Marisa, and everyone—I’m ready!
Marisa: Thanks so much for joining us today, Jenny!
Jenny Hval: I’m so happy to be here.
Marisa: To get us started, can you talk about the writing of Girls Against God, and maybe share a little about its taking shape and becoming a finished book? What was that process like?
Jenny Hval: I started writing Girls Against God when I was about to finish recording an album called Blood Bitch. My producer and I had been talking about film so much during the making of this album; we studied a lot of lo-fi horror films to structure the album, to create textures and even lyrics. So from that process we started talking about making a film. The film never happened, but I started writing.
The process was interesting—because the book came out of recording music and watching movies, I felt like I could experiment with creating a form first and then a protagonist later on. In the beginning, there were three parts and many nameless, faceless characters, like in more abstract, non-narrative films. The voice of the protagonist came later, when I was watching some old black metal interviews from the 90s…
Marisa: It seems like your work as a musician entwines with your work as a writer, then. Do you set out to create these overlaps, or do they come organically? (It sounds like here, maybe the latter.)
I wonder, are there ideas you can better communicate in one form versus the other?
Jenny Hval: I think I work better when projects overlap, at least in the beginning, although it’s also important to separate projects at some point to get into deep focus—otherwise I end up feeling like something is missing. Because I write music, as in lyrics, in English, but everything else in Norwegian, I can easily keep things a bit separate. I think that makes it easier to overlap. Also, writing in two languages sometimes helps me move on, turn words around, etc.
But, I don’t think I necessarily bring the musical aspects of songs into my prose. Switching language is like turning off the music and opening another door.
Marisa: That makes a lot of sense; it’s always interesting to talk with artists who work in multiple languages.
Jenny Hval: When it comes to multiple languages, it’s important to note that I work in Norwegian and second language English, the two are in no way equal.
Also, I think it’s important to note that I always collaborate with other people in my work with music—especially my work on stage. This is really important in my writing, too. Conversations, trying out movements, scenes, even props on stage… it all sneaks into my work. This is a big part of Girls Against God—the idea of the band, the bond, the magical scenes of collaboration.
Marisa: Collaboration definitely seems important for the narrator/protagonist, who is a bit lost until she finds her band to work with. Would you agree?
Jenny Hval: Absolutely. She is craving a community. A community is what makes magic happen. It’s where the words are put into action. It’s also something she has searched for all her life, a subcultural community that opposes patriarchal structures.
I think that is one of the things that motivates me as a writer, too. I write (a lonely practice) to connect with others.
Marisa: Yes, I think we often think of writing as a solitary practice, and parts of it are (at least for me, too) but much of it is collaborative—both with real-life people we’re interacting with in creative spaces and everyday life, and also the writers we’re interacting with through our reading.
This makes me wonder: who are your favorite artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers? What were you reading, listening to, watching, etc. while writing Girls Against God? Are there specific works you looked to while working on the novel, or feel the novel is in conversation with?
Jenny Hval: I think the film script, which is discussed in the main part of a book a lot (both as a concrete project and a conceptual practice), was inspired by the movies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul—I had seen a few of his films before I started writing and was amazed by his use of symbols, spirits, magic, and twists and turns in narrative seemingly motivated by those spirits and symbols.
I was also listening a lot to the albums of Sarah Davachi at the time—a lot of drones and textures.
I felt more connected to other art disciplines than literature when I was writing. Perhaps because I feel like an outsider when I write. I need to engage with something outside the world of literature to be able to feel self-confident. Or at least confident enough to write. This outsider feeling is something I wanted to be part of the book as well. Creating a work that contains its own art history, or theory.
(I could of course also talk about my favorite writers, like Chris Kraus, Clarice Lispector, Juliana Spahr, etc. etc.)
Marisa: Something that felt very important to me when reading Girls Against God (and maybe this has to with our current political moment here in the United States, too) is the idea of resistance. The characters are constantly looking for new ways to resist—to resist patriarchy, racism, cultural gender norms, and more. Can you talk about what the idea of resistance means for you, and what you hoped to explore about resistance, and specifically, female resistance?
I think the outsider feeling is somehow also related to this feeling of resistance, of wanting to remain on the fringe rather than join in society’s norms, but also to have community in resisting, if that makes sense…
Jenny Hval: Oh, that is so interesting. Resistance. I think about this a lot. Resistance is about taking action, about coming together. It is also about redefining what action and community is. The insane machinery of neoliberalism is so good at branding “resistance” that we constantly need to redefine how to oppose something (I was watching something on YouTube today and all of a sudden this ad came on, which was presenting itself as philosophical thoughts about how “this time is an opportunity for change”… but it was just a Coca-Cola ad or something like that). A huge problem is how to contain and trust our feelings when the mainstream portals of communication are constantly wanting us to feel something, to react, react, react, to always be “angry” and “upset.”
I think I am late-night rambling here, and my book does not have good, clean answers to what resistance is… but it’s definitely trying to figure it out. I do think it is something that I feel is slipping away… how to resist.
Marisa: Yes, to all of that. Here in America, it often feels like the “resistance” is so deeply entrenched in capitalism that many feel they are resisting by buying a certain product. And perhaps they are, but they are also participating in a system of oppression. You talk about the internet, and its great potential but also its dangers. I think that ties in to this complicated resistance, also. The internet is a tool for resistance, and also a tool for the capitalist patriarchal systems of oppression at the same time.
Jenny Hval: I think you can’t have resistance without being inclusive, so I tried to look at “female” resistance not as a born-in-a-female-body exclusive type of resistance, but as something that has been seen as threatening in the past (meaning witchcraft, a female threat to status quo/religion/power). I think the magic of a different type of internet, a physical internet, which the book dreams about, is also a (naive, perhaps) dream of a truly interactive web, one that changes you and makes you feel empathy for others by being connected, responsible for your actions, and willing to share, receive and rethink components of your (learnt and experienced) sexuality, your gender experience, your physicality.
Marisa: Can you speak a bit about the role of Edvard Munch’s Puberty in Girls Against God? When did you personally first come across this painting? Did you always intend for it to play a big part in this book?
Jenny Hval: Yes, Munch—I think he is there because I used to live very close to the Munch Museum, and have a love/hate relationship with his work. He is so famous and such a part of Norwegian identity… I found it so interesting to realize that the black metal scene borrowed from his work a lot, because they were opposing so many things in the Norwegian canon/culture. I think the connection between him and subcultures like black metal is why I started studying Puberty.
I imagined the girl in Puberty as the protagonist, but in a previous life. I tried to experiment with her coming to life, and having one hundred and fifty years of hate towards Munch, who objectified her in a painting, with her.
I think I have known of this painting since I was very young—since everything big that Munch did is something Norwegians learn about from when we are very young. At least when I was growing up.
Marisa: I think it was a successful experiment! Having her become a protagonist in the story, and bringing history in the present and vice versa. The time-jumping was pretty seamlessly woven into the narrative, and sometimes I didn’t even realize it was happening until it became very clear.
What are you most hoping readers will come away from the book thinking about?
Jenny Hval: Well, sometimes I surprised myself, too…
I think those seamless jumps create opportunities for escape, and I would like the readers to come away with the feeling that they have taken a trip in which writing stretches into action, or towards action (be it magic, rituals, performing arts, music, activism). It would also be amazing if someone feel like they have tripped into/over some thoughts about the relationship between magic, art, community, and resistance.
Or just thoughts about what the black metal scene could have been! The potential of subcultures.
Marisa: The book does feel like a journey or trip in which, as you say, writing becomes action of different kinds. And these ideas, of magic, of art, of community, and of resistance, are all very present throughout.
Jenny, I know it’s late there, and don’t want to keep you past the hour. Thank you so much for your time tonight! This book was very timely and definitely a mind-expanding work!
Jenny Hval: Thank you! It’s nice to be writing late at night, and I’m very happy to have been part of this!
Marisa: Wishing you a good night, and wishing all of us more resistance and also, some moments of peace!
Jenny Hval: Good night, and may all magic and resistance and all good things be with you in the coming month. What a time to be alive (especially in the US)!
Photograph of Jenny Hval courtesy of Verso Books.