During her MFA, Francophone writer Emilie Moorhouse serendipitously discovered the works of a little-known Surrealist poet, Syrian-Egyptian-English Joyce Mansour, who chose to write exclusively in French. Mansour, a glamourous, married woman who came of age as an artist in 1950s Paris under the wing of André Breton, existed as a kind of glitch in the French literary scene—an upper-class, Arab, apolitical woman who refused to become a sex object while making unapologetically sexual work. Emerald Wounds (City Lights Books) is the result of Moorhouse’s deep dive into the fringes of Francophone literature, translating Mansour’s wide-ranging poetry and asserting her right to be known. In this career-spanning edition, Mansour exists as a writer’s writer, a reluctant feminist, an Arab Jew, and most blatantly as a kind of queer “uber-wife,” pissing in her husband’s drink while flying on the freeway between sex and death.
I recently spoke to Moorhouse on Zoom about the life and work of Joyce Mansour as her Wi-Fi was being changed—the warbling sound of a hole being drilled somewhere above.
The Rumpus: How, technically, did you find Joyce Mansour?
Emilie Moorhouse: I was taking a translation course—this was in 2017, and the #metoo movement had just exploded and I thought, “I need to translate a woman who is controversial, someone who the literary establishment doesn’t approve of” which, okay, many women have not had the approval of the literary establishment. But I think I was looking for raw emotion, for a woman who could express her sexuality and who could speak her truth whether it fit in with the times or not. So that was kind of the criteria that I set for myself. And I did find quite a few women like this in Francophone literature, but in the Surrealist tradition or practice, a lot of it is stream-of-consciousness writing. And so, what Mansour was writing was naturally uncensored.
Rumpus: Reading Mansour’s origin story as a writer, I found it obviously compelling but also kind of curious, because there’s this story of her being in a state of grief, both from her mother dying when she was fifteen and from her first husband dying when she was eighteen, and the story is that her grief forced her to write. It was either the madhouse or poetry. That’s obviously a very compelling story behind a first book, right? Especially with the title of Screams from a beautiful, foreign, young woman in 1953 arriving on the Parisian literary and art scene. I wonder if there’s anything problematic in this origin story in your opinion. Is it constructed? Or do you think, in an alternate timeline, Mansour could’ve just been a happy housewife with her rich, much older, French-speaking second husband?
Moorhouse: Well, I think she would have been involved in the arts. There is this really strong personality in Mansour. And as much as she was shaped by the events of her youth, she does have such a rich background as well. She was bilingual before she met her second husband, speaking fluent English and Arabic. So, she obviously had this very rich and interesting life, you know, in tandem with these early events. But at the same time, and I’ve never heard it mentioned in any of the interviews, or, in any research that I did, that she was writing poetry, prior to these events. I guess life is life.
Rumpus: So, in sticking a little bit with her biography before getting to the work, when reading about Mansour’s second husband—which sounded like a problematic relationship in that he had lots of affairs—I feel like in a way that Mansour had this despairing, mourning and grieving personality versus a kind of desiring personality, especially desiring of men who she couldn’t really possess. Do you feel that her second husband supported her, especially the notion of the confessional in her work? I wonder if he even read her work?
Moorhouse: Yeah, I also wondered about that. I know that her son read her work and he actually helped correct her grammar, her French mistakes. And I do know that she never discussed her first husband with her second husband but that her second husband sort of swept her off her feet. He kind of gave her life again after the death of her first husband. But her second husband was not someone who was initially very involved in the arts. Apparently, André Breton hated him! Breton did not consent to Mansour’s husband, basically. He came from a very different world than Breton.
Rumpus: I have a lot of questions about the relationship between Mansour and Breton. In Mansour’s poetry, there’s a lot of female rage against the husband or the lover, even as she is taking pleasure in them. It reminds me of the line in one of her poems: “Don’t tell your dreams to the one who doesn’t love you.” I wonder if there’s this irreconcilable split in Mansour’s life between her domestic life and her artistic life. I was thinking a lot about Breton and his mentorship of her in this way. I think it’s interesting in your intro that you state that they were definitely not lovers.
Moorhouse: I was never able to explicitly find any information that Mansour and Breton were sexually involved, and one of her biographies explicitly states they were never lovers. I think Mansour’s artistic side was really nourished through Breton. They went to the flea markets of Paris every afternoon together in search of artwork. And I do think that Mansour’s second husband, through Mansour, started to develop a greater appreciation of artwork. But it wasn’t something that he was involved in initially and so I really don’t know how present he was in her artistic practice.
Rumpus: You label Mansour’s poetry as erotic macabre. Can you break that term open a bit? I am thinking of her work’s relationship to 60s and 70s French feminism (like écriture feminine) but I’m also thinking of the somewhat contrasting pornographic strain in her work, akin to Georges Bataille.
Moorhouse: I do see it as both. I think she gets inspiration from both. Bataille was very erotic macabre, or maybe he’s a little bit more twisted than that even, but this whole idea of la petite morte (death is orgasm), I do see influences from that in her work. But I don’t think Mansour was loyal to any kind of movement. I mean, she was obviously very loyal to the Surrealists, but when she was asked to write for a feminist magazine, she bristled and said, “Feminism, what do you mean?” I think Mansour liked to remain independent and have her creativity be independent from these different movements. She was apolitical. And I think some of that comes from Mansour’s experience in Egypt, being exiled because she was part of this upper-class Egyptian society, her father was imprisoned and most of his property and assets were seized by the government and apparently, he refused to ever own a house again and lived the rest of his life in a hotel. Then you have the Surrealist movement, which Joyce Mansour was a part of, which was more aligned with anarchism. She was kind of caught between two worlds.
Rumpus: It’s interesting, this idea of Mansour being apolitical and having a sort of disconnect from feminism, because it seems to bring up things around the Surrealists having issues with women, with women being objectified or fetishized in their work, this idea of “mad love” trumping all, even abuse. And so, if we just, say, insert Mansour into our present-day politics—and this is a totally speculative question—how do you feel she would fit into our polarizing and gender-fluid times?
Moorhouse: Well, my impression of her work is that it is very gender-fluid, she plays around with gender in her writing quite a bit, so I feel like she absolutely would, in a way, fit into our now. In terms of the political, that’s a good question because, yeah, everything is very polarized and politicized today. Also, I don’t know that she wasn’t necessarily political. I think she obviously sympathized with many progressive movements and that’s clear in her writing. That includes feminism. She was openly mocking articles that appeared in women’s magazines imposing unrealistic housewife-style standards. She mocked beauty standards and even the condescending tone they had when advising women on how to behave “nicely.” So she obviously did have certain strong leanings. But I think outside of her art, Mansour wasn’t necessarily willing to pronounce them. It was more like my art speaks for itself.
Rumpus: I think that’s probably still the best way of being an artist. And also, it’s not really a speculative question, because we will soon see how Mansour’s work is received with a younger, contemporary, potentially genderqueer readership, right?
Moorhouse: Yeah. I’m excited to see how her work will be received. I do feel that much of her writing is, in fact, very contemporary around gender. But she wasn’t intellectualizing it. It came out in her voice, which rejected any gender confines without having to announce that she was doing so.
Rumpus: Did you find as a translator that you had to make some harder choices around some of the more dated language, especially in terms of race? Terms that people don’t use anymore?
Moorhouse: There were certainly some words that gave me pause. The word oriental comes up a few times, and this is obviously a word that is dated, perhaps more so in English than in French. What is interesting for me though, is that when I read it in context, I think she is using that word in a way that acknowledges the history behind it, the colonialism, the fetishizing, the exoticizing. For example, Mansour speaks of “oriental suffering,” or of a “narrative with an Oriental woman.” I don’t think, even though she was writing in the 60s at this point, that she uses this word lightly. The way I read it, she uses it to evoke her own nostalgia, or longing for her life in Egypt. And to clarify, when Mansour uses oriental in French, it refers to the Near East. It refers to her own Syrian and Egyptian roots. She never returned to Egypt, so even though she did experience a lot of suffering there, she is still a woman living in exile. This is definitely a challenge of translating older work, especially with an artist who, I think, does not use these words lightly.
Rumpus: Interesting. Because what’s making headlines right now is this political urge to kind of clean up certain language that was used in literature in the past that is hurtful or flat out racist today. So, I still do wonder if there was this urge at all for you to clean up the language?
Moorhouse: I didn’t want the language to be offensive. I would hope that I’ve succeeded with that. I don’t want any dated language to draw attention to itself because that’s not what the poem is meant to do.
Rumpus: But the French is the same. You never changed anything in the French.
Moorhouse: No, I never changed anything in the French. I don’t think I’m allowed to do that. The French is word-for-word.
Rumpus: I think this speaks to its time. And it also—yet again!—points back to the Surrealist problems with women. I mean, sometimes Mansour’s work is so radical and standout, and there are also moments in it when it does feel a bit retrograde. I’m inserting her relationship with Breton in here again because I wonder if she was one of those women who lived as an artist aligning herself with powerful men?
Moorhouse: Well, I think that she would have definitely been outnumbered in those groups, right? I mean, women to men. I don’t know if she was loud, and what her personality was like surrounded by all those men. It’s hard to know. But she did smoke cigars!
Rumpus: Right. That is a very alluring look. Also, she was a mother. I think that’s kind of a big deal in a very male-centric artist’s space.
Moorhouse: Yes, and she was a very doting and overprotective mother. But, you know, even though Mansour may have aligned herself with Breton and other men, I don’t feel like she would have been one to just do things to appease them. And you can see that in her poetry, how she rejects the male gaze that objectifies her. So we can’t just put her in a box or in a category of militant feminist or someone who just goes with the old boys’ club, right?
Rumpus: Yeah, you’re right. She’s both an individual and of her time. In terms of her being a woman, what do you make of her disappearance in the canon? You talk about this in your introduction, her work being perceived as “too much.” Do you think this quality relates to the forgetting of Joyce Mansour?
Moorhouse: Being very familiar with the French culture, I would say yes. I use the word chauvinistic because I think that certain French literary elite have this very precise idea of what “French” literature is, and what “great” literature is. And mostly, it’s been men, White men, who write “great literature” and historically women were allowed to write for children. I think it’s a shame because there are so many Francophone voices that are just so rich, so different. And I think that some in the literary elite just don’t know what to make of these so-called different voices, so they kind of dismiss them. And it’s too bad, because these voices enrich the literary landscape. French literature has been very France-centric, right? Which, obviously, has its roots in colonialism. So even though Mansour was somewhat respected as a Surrealist, the wider French literary establishment very easily could have dismissed her. When I was working on getting some of the rights from one of her publishers—and it’s really hard to get through to them—when I finally had a conversation with them, even they dismissed her! This man said to me, “You know, Joyce Mansour would be nothing without Breton. Without André Breton, there would be no Joyce Mansour.” So even one of her publishers in this day and age still doesn’t take her seriously.
Rumpus: There is this suspicion that Breton created her?
Moorhouse: Yes, and that she’s only recognized to the limited degree that she is because of her affiliation with him.
Rumpus: It feels that this relationship with Breton is really at the crux of a lot for Mansour. I mean, he clearly was incredibly important to her, he was her mentor and she loved him, and I don’t know—these very close artistic relationships they can be difficult for others in the world to understand. Maybe it’s why #metoo resonates differently in France, to be honest. And now I’m thinking of Maïwenn and Luc Besson, which is totally different, but still. . . . When did André Breton die? Was it 1968?
Moorhouse: I think it was 1966. I’m not sure.
Rumpus: Because it’s interesting, I was thinking of Mansour’s 1960s publication White Squares and her last work from the 1980s, Black Holes. Her later work is really kind of dark. My favorite line from one of her late poems is: “The world is a shitting bird.” I mean, I don’t want to say that Breton had an unnatural or too strong of a hold on her or a shitty hold on her, but maybe he did. Maybe her work matured after Breton’s death. Maybe it got even wilder.
Moorhouse: Yeah, I mean, I definitely do see that difference between her earlier work and her later work. It’s not just that the poems in her earlier works are shorter. The later ones are more macabre and her identity is more explicit—both her Jewish identity and her Egyptian identity. Also, Mansour evokes disease and aging and the history of cancer in her family. She died of cancer, like her mother did, and I don’t know if her battle was a short one or drawn out. There is another collection of her poems—prose poems that we couldn’t publish because of copyright—but there’s one about the hospital, and it sounds like it’s her visiting someone in a hospital and it’s very much about the human body falling apart and this industrialized hospital where all bodies are falling apart together.
Rumpus: Her mixing of the sexual body and the dying body is so powerful. I love Mansour’s use of urine, actually. Sometimes, it is this incredibly liberatory thing, like, pissing in the street. And then it’s poisonous, or it’s hedonistic, she’s drinking it like honey. Piss is this ubiquitous substance and act in her work. I love that.
Moorhouse: It’s almost like the soul, your soul comes out in your urine. What else can I say about that?
Rumpus: Nothing. That’s perfect. Your soul is in your urine.
Author photo by Selena Phillips Boyle