Forsyth Harmon is a writer of clean, precise sentences and an illustrator with an eye for the perfect evocative detail. She is author of the illustrated novel Justine, out this week from Tin House Books. She is the illustrator of the forthcoming Girlhood by Melissa Febos and The Art of the Affair by Catherine Lacey. She has collaborated with writers including Alexander Chee, Hermione Hoby, Sanaë Lemoine, and Leslie Jamison. Her work has been featured in The Believer, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Awl. She received an MFA from Columbia University and currently lives in New York.
Much of Harmon’s work, in both image and text, represents and interrogates and troubles desire. Justine is the story of an isolated teenager, Ali, who falls for a checkout girl at her local Stop & Shop. Ali is captivated from the moment she enters Justine’s orbit: “Justine was the light shining on me and the dark shadow it cast, and I wanted to stand there forever in the relief of that contrast.” The book is flooded in that light and shadow, moving over the days of summer 1999 as the girls roam Long Island together.
Seeking old-school communication in the time of Zoom fatigue, Harmon and I recently emailed about her sharp, richly textured novel. We wrote about the difficulty of communicating about loss, the new Britney Spears documentary, and that buzzing line between erotic desire and emulation.
The Rumpus: The book is propelled by an electric energy between the girls—we don’t know if Ali wants to be Justine or be with her. At Justine’s pool, there’s a breathtaking turn to this: “I wanted to touch her ribs. I wanted to untie the strings at her neck, triangles floating away to reveal the flat nothing they covered. I wanted to be inside her body, drawing her knees and arms up, pushing them down against the water, propelling myself across the pool’s glittering surface.” Later, at a party, Justine puts her mouth on Ali’s to blow smoke into her. Ali swoons, but immediately wheels off to find their friend Ryan. We never see Ali wrestling with anxious questions about identity, trying to define herself as gay or straight. To what degree did you want this to be a book about queerness? Did you have any other queer narratives in mind?
Forsyth Harmon: I wanted this book to investigate repressed queerness specifically. Ali is only able to feel her desire for Justine physically: a surge of warmth up her leg to her groin, a burst of nervous energy. She doesn’t allow herself to reflect on these physical manifestations for a minute. Even if Ali were a less restrained character, the ‘90s conservative suburban context doesn’t give her much space to explore her identity. So Ryan becomes a “safer” outlet for Ali’s desire. I thought a lot about Ghost World while writing this book. The young women in Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel also avoid their mutual attraction; they joke about it, and project it onto a male friend. And, of course, there’s Brideshead Revisited: Sebastian’s love for Charles, redirected toward the latter’s sister, Julia. I love, too, the 1962 Quentin Blake and 1970 Peter Bentley cover illustrations. I was thinking of Sula as well, though Morrison herself has disavowed queer readings. And Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.
Rumpus: I couldn’t help but notice the Julie Buntin echo: the paired girls in Marlena are Cat and Marlena, and, in your book, Ali’s cat, who is the only character she can really feel emotionally close to, is named Marlena. Was this purposeful?
Harmon: It was a total coincidence! Marlena came out while Justine was on submission. I loved the book, and was also freaked out by the overlap.
Rumpus: That book, too, is set in the ‘90s, again allowing any sexual attraction to stay sublimated. What do you think Ali and Justine’s friendship would look like today? How might you have written that differently?
Harmon: Justine takes place more than fifteen years before gay marriage is legalized in the United States. ‘90s mainstream pop culture—the only culture Ali has access to—is, of course, deeply heteronormative. 90210 sets forth the model for young love. Even the more progressive My So-Called Life never puts Angela and Rayanne together. Instead, they triangulate over Jordan. Today we’ve got Euphoria, though of course Rue and Jules have their own struggles.
I think if Ali and Justine met today, they would have a better shot at both recognizing and consummating their love. I like to imagine how different the rest of their teenage years—and lives—might have been.
Rumpus: But Ali only has Ryan, who likely wouldn’t have attracted her on his own, without the connection to Justine. He’s ugly, he’s odd and disrespectful, he does these robotic recitations of facts about music and landmarks (like Justine does re: models), whether or not anyone cares. I love how you still honored the complications of that kind of physical connection, one that’s not really healthy or loving at all, but that still delivers a sort of freedom. I’m also interested in your choice to have Ryan self-harm by cutting, a practice more common in girls. Can you talk a bit about that decision?
Harmon: Ryan tries to come off so tough, with his skateboarding tricks and cop father. So, I probably conferred him a more feminine habit of self-harm to give him dimension, and, perhaps, to allow Ali (and, I hope, the reader, and, frankly, me) to feel more empathy for him. It’s when Ali see’s Ryan’s cuts that she thinks: “Something about the cuts made me realize I’d wanted to touch him all this time. He was a real naked person standing there, all cut up.” It’s the surface manifestation of Ryan’s pain that finally moves Ali, who is so obsessed with facades, from Bloomingdales’ shiny black-and-white-checkered floors to the cover of Edie Sedgwick’s biography. When they first meet, Ali assumes Ryan hates her, and she seems to dislike him as well. But when she sees the cuts, she recognizes that she and Ryan are bonded in self-hatred, a connection that subverts her disgust and allows her to experience pleasure.
Rumpus: That moment is a glimpse into Ali’s inner landscape, but the story is very much sutured to individual moments of action. We see Ali’s actions, and she shares the occasional physical sensation occasioned by an upsetting event or comment, but we don’t have a lot of that internal ruminating or reflection from her. There’s a bit of distance, a withholding. And, of course, the fact that her mother has died is only mentioned a couple of times, and glancingly. What drove your decision to keep Ali’s grief and other emotions, shall we say, subterranean?
Harmon: Early readers gave me a lot of pushback for the lack of interiority, but whenever I tried to “add” some, the result felt false. Ali’s grandmother isn’t a good communicator, not so much because English is her second language, but because she lacks the emotional tools. Grandma’s inability to discuss her daughter’s (Ali’s mother’s) death sets the tone, creating a silence in the home and in Ali herself.
I did try to use the illustrations to do some of the emotion work. There, I felt, I had an honest way to explore Ali’s interior. The images are black and white—just like Ali’s thinking—and at close range, since she doesn’t have much perspective. The image sequences in particular emote for Ali: a makeup compact opens as she warms to Justine; a cassette tape unravels as she gets closer to Ryan; a piece of looseleaf crumples when Ali is unable to have a proper cry.
Rumpus: That tight fidelity to Ali’s first-person perspective in the text is appropriate to the intense subjectivity of our teen years, when your worldview is necessarily limited. But we can also feel an authorial presence selecting what we get to see and when. Did you ever imagine a storytelling circumstance for Ali, from which she tells this past-tense story? Do we have any hint of who she will become?
Harmon: Yes: in terms of an authorial presence, I tried to tread lightly. I respect coming-of-age novels that look back through the lens of adult wisdom, but I didn’t want Justine to be that. I wanted immediacy.
Justine is the first book of a trilogy. Each book situates Ali ten years after the previous. And so we do, finally, get to see how Ali processes her teenage years, as well as how that time affects her adult life. The trilogy is interested in how trauma repeats itself, the role addiction has in prolonging this repetition, and the extent to which recovery, and recognizing and accepting our trauma, can lead to healing and change.
Rumpus: You’re impressively multi-talented: it’s only natural that you combined your talents for this book. You’ve illustrated other texts, including Leslie Jamison’s “The Breakup Museum,” in VQR, and, of course, The Art of the Affair. The images in those works are looser, in watercolor, while the ones in Justine are precise line drawings, full of detail and scattered through with little Easter eggs—”Fuck Billy Joel” on the tape, the Smiths lyrics on the cash register—all the shadows drawn in with perfect parallel lines. Can you say more about your process of illustrating—how you match the style to the work, how you select the images?
Harmon: Thank you. I worry being a generalist just makes me mediocre at a lot of things. And yes, you’re right, the images in Justine are different from the ones that appear in prior projects. In the first draft, the images were in fact loose watercolors. But as I rewrote, and the text got tighter and more economical, it felt right to redraw the images to align. I was attending a lot of poetry readings while working on Justine, and was also inspired by the minimal writing and art explored in my husband Paul Stephens’s most recent book.
As I mentioned, in part, I selected and drew images based on their ability to perform emotion work for Ali. But I was also interested in using them to cement us in a very particular time and place. An unraveling cassette tape can suggest a feeling; it’s also a cult object of ‘90s adolescence. Too, the parking lots, strip mall signs, and power lines are ubiquitous to postmodern Long Island.
Rumpus: Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary that just came out, shows how our dismissal of teen girls (as weak and silly, as either too eager to please or too difficult) coexists with the massive pressure we place upon them. Ali is certainly vulnerable, diving headfirst into an eating disorder along with a friend who looks like the magazine covers they are inundated with. But their eating disorder is a foundation of their relationship; it’s not simply about conforming to beauty standards. How do you see the relationship between love and food in the book?
I see desire for food and love as being inextricably linked, and in this case, self-starvation is tied to both becoming an adult woman and queer desire. As a teenager, Ali is in transition, moving from girlhood to womanhood, and she starts to both occupy and desire another almost-adult female body. She finds both uncomfortable. Self-starvation is her way to freeze both her transition and her desire. Melissa Broder writes beautifully about this relationship between the desire for food and sex in her new novel, Milk Fed.
Rumpus: The images that added fuel to that impulse exist in your book in text as well as drawings. I was struck by your descriptions of those magazine covers and images—there were so many that I remembered: the Guess girl in the shopping cart, that chilly image of Nicole Kidman. These images are deeply ingrained in us, still forces of pressure and seduction. Although women have always been under pressure to conform to ridiculous beauty standards, this book really goes back to a root moment: it’s key that you mention Kate Moss, who was a sort of a late-‘90s turning point, away from curvier, more muscular supermodels like Cindy Crawford. And later, when Ali discovers Edie Sedgwick, we’re reminded that this is a cycle. Where do you think we are in this cycle, now? How do you think the isolation of the pandemic has affected teenage girls’ self-presentation and body image?
Harmon: I ordered old copies of Vogue to make sure I got the images exactly right, and I had that same experience you describe: I was chilled by how familiar they were, almost as if no time had passed. And you got it: the image that had seared itself into my mind most powerfully was a backlit photograph of Kate Moss in a white Calvin Klein string bikini. I reproduced it as the first illustration to appear in Justine, and it actually appears again, revised, as the frontispiece for “The Mirror Test” essay in Melissa Febos’s Girlhood.
I wonder whether the internet has upended the cyclical “one perfect female body” ideal to a degree. Rather than a single broadcast, it offers a seemingly infinite number of micro-feeds, which do feature women of different shapes and sizes. But I’m not sure that I see this change as particularly redemptive, since the focus on the female body is no weaker, and, despite being varied, has perhaps become even more obsessive. I learned from Brianna Holt’s Guardian piece, “The nobody-nose job”, that since the pandemic, the number of cosmetic surgeries has soared because, yes, recovery can happen more discreetly, but also we’re looking at our mirror reflections—on Zoom, or via our camera apps—more than we did pre-quarantine. After hours of video calls, I myself had what felt like a suddenly crucial facial peel. I have little faith that our culture will ever stop scrutinizing women’s bodies. It’s no wonder Ali renounces hers.
Photograph of Forsyth Harmon by Emma McIntyre.