Two Memoirs: An Auto+Biography by Amanda Montei
Jaded Ibis Productions, 2015
210 pages – Amazon
Amanda Montei’s Two Memoirs: An Auto+Biography is a unique hybrid of a book. Occupying a space somewhere between journal, personal essay, family saga, and riches to rags Hollywood drama, it’s maybe above all, a coming of age tale that’s ultimately as much about the author’s mother as the author herself. Branching narratives and playful textual irruptions invite new strategies to read and re-read its incredibly funny, sometimes harrowing and always poignant turns. Tinged with layers of nostalgia, it’s a book unafraid to voice regret, unsparing in its depictions of family strife and unapologetic in both its femininity and formal daring.
Released in November by Jaded Ibis Productions, I caught up with Amanda shortly after Two Memoirs’ publication to ask about her approach to genre, the ethics of non fiction, the joys and pitfalls of using footnotes and what’s next for her as a writer.
Seth Blake: I’m curious about the title. I don’t know if this is fair game, but I remember when the book was announced it was called “Two Memoirs: A Novel”—was there a substantial change, either in terms of the content of the book or in your thinking about it that’s signaled by the shift from novel to auto+biography?
Amanda Montei: I’ve referred to this book as a novel, as a memoir, an auto + biography—to me there really is no difference, it shouldn’t matter how we categorize the work. That said, a large part of what I was trying to do with this book is figure out what exactly the category of memoir/autobiography is, how it’s possible/impossible, what are the ethics, especially for women. Traditional autobiography (as in the epic life narrative of a national hero, or a even a Frey-ish recovery story) is a masculine genre, its about overcoming, and women writers have always tried to do something different with it for precisely that reason. How we account for the self in a hero or recovery narrative is really pretty limited—my experience of the self has always been interrupted by my experience of my mother, and her experience of the self has always been plagued by her mother’s history, and so on, in this endless wormy can of feminine sadness and uncertainty and judgment but also humor and deep love. This book is just about women trying to live, and not always doing very well. Ultimately, though, it remains auto+biography rather than say poetry because my writing process was subsumed by my mother’s obsession with storytelling and narrative—so it’s a becoming rather than overcoming. Which, I suppose, is just another way of saying I can’t seem to escape becoming my mother!
SB: I want to hone in on the idea of ethics. Did you go into this book with an ethics in mind for how to approach the project? If so, was that ethics challenged or revised in the actual process of writing? I guess ultimately I’m wondering if there were things you ended up writing about that you weren’t expecting to initially, and the reverse; if were there things you’d hoped to approach but didn’t because of ethical concerns?
AM: When I started working on this book I was a very different writer, a different person actually, as is often the case with books, given their lag time, and self, given its shiftiness. I was very young and probably believed in all sorts of things I would find really ethically awful now—for one, I thought of autobiography as a specific genre that one entered as a writer when you realized you had an interesting life. Obviously, this is somewhat true, I do think my mother’s life is quite interesting, but over the years I’ve learned to problematize that impulse—whose stories are “interesting” and to whom? Who gets access to this kind of storytelling? Working through my mother, her voice, her stories, certainly helped me realize that. In a way, I think she was always attempting to find access to the “Literary Narrative”—she was an avid reader from a young age, but of course low-income single mothers don’t actually get access to that narrative, they’re not invited, they’re just a sometimes lucrative demographic. So, part of what I realized was that the grandiose inflections of her storytelling, which I always felt were self-aggrandizing or attempts at fabrication, were maybe the most important part of her stories—because they were the parts that were begging for a listener.
Most of what I write about in the book I didn’t intend to write about. There’s a lot of exposure here that I’m still deeply uncomfortable with to be honest. I would be lying if I said my family wasn’t upset with me, or at least very emotionally charged about my writing in this book. The whole thing is an ethically vexed undertaking! But in the end this book is a love letter to my mother, an attempt at understanding. There are some redactions in the text that also point to this struggle. There’s a tension in the book, I think, between lies and withholdings, which of course are not the same thing. In autobiography there is always both, but I’m interested in how lies do a kind of work for those who don’t usually get access to storytelling, and how withholdings perform a kind of care work—a kind of mothering. Both are kinds of unacknowledged work.
SB: Your relationship to your mother in the book seems to go beyond empathy, to be in fact, motherly. It’s a sort of motherliness that seems to me to not always be very visible in literature, fiction or non —a sort of intimate collegiality. This is a very personal story, but do you see Two Memoirs as a counter narrative to larger conversations around what motherhood is or ought to be?
AM: Absolutely I’m interested in a counter narrative. The book is certainly about motherhood in all its raw goriness. Mothers are not always what they ought to be—in fact, they never are. They are human, they are adults, they have sex, they do drugs, they hate themselves and hide the history of their bodies, they struggle with depression and addiction and vulnerabilities of all sorts. So if there is a sort of “collegiality” as you say, it’s the kind mothers and daughters find when they realize they are both human, and they both have to be if they are going to be any good to each other. I know I always felt my mother should be more motherly. But what is that other than a kind of inhuman notion of caregiving? Really I wanted her to be less human. The motherhood narrative is one of the most violent in human history, insofar as it completely scratches out the emotions of an entire population and names that erasure “love.” I guess I wanted to understand how love might persist outside of that framework, what that kind of love looks like (it’s not always pretty) while that framework is so obviously crumbling around a mother and daughter.
SB: I think structurally, your footnotes kind of perform the crumbling of this framework in a fascinating way. I’m going to admit to some philistinism here and confess that I get really lazy with footnotes sometimes and just read them straight through after finishing the main page of text, rather than pausing for them and going back. Normally, this is just a flat out bad move on my part, but in the case of your book I actually really enjoyed the effect of these different narratives interrupting each other when I read this way, especially since so many of your footnotes spill onto a subsequent page. It creates this kind of Doppler. Of course, it still works when you read them the right way, too, but I’m curious about your strategy with the footnotes and different ways of entering this text. Did you experiment much with the formal structure of this book and how to accommodate its multiple voices?
AM: Oh gosh yes this book lived in so many forms. And by the end of the book the footnote form really falls apart. Intentionally so, because there really is no form that can accommodate how much the mother-daughter stories move towards and away from each other. I love that you read the book this way, because I think if the footnotes can offer any formal reflection of how stories and memory function, it is only by being read this “wrong” or “bad move” way. I like footnotes for this book because nobody actually reads footnotes the way they are set up. They’re so distracting! Sometimes you just have to skip ahead or skip over them completely or go back and read them in chunks as you suggest. They also sometimes catch your eye and then you can’t help but dive down into them and you get stuck and pulled through and fall out the primary text and then you have to go get a cup of coffee and decide if you want to finish reading the thing. And I think this is really reflective of how my mother’s story and my own interact—and of how I have always experienced my mother’s words. They offer corrections, elaborations, qualifications, but they are also disruptive, tantalizing, totally consuming and haunting the margins.
Footnotes have also, at least in recent literary history, been sort of a masculine form, though there has been some important work by women that upset this tradition (I’m thinking especially of Jenny Boully’s work). I was uncomfortable with them, I still am, but I wanted to undercut that history and think about how they might also function as a more oceanic, less systematic form. While the book begins with the appearance of a bifurcated narrative, ultimately so many more women’s voices emerge that, as you say, the dualistic framework crumbles, and the primary texts travels into the footnotes and visa-versa, new voices take over, the ‘real’ voice of my mother (‘real’ in the sense of coming from her own writings) takes over the purportedly real. The very regimented form doesn’t hold, just as narrative itself never holds.
SB: You work in a lot of different forms; you’re a poet, an academic, an editor, a publisher. You’re also a new mother. Do you think you’ll continue to explore motherhood and mother / daughter relationships in your writing?
AM: I do, at least in the near future, particularly because I have just become a mother, and it has undoubtedly been one of the most transformative, strange, powerful and heart wrenching experiences of my life. Motherhood and girlhood are both sort of pivot points for my work, but so is memoir or memory or autobiography or the feelings I have in my own body and selfhood—however you’d like to characterize it. I’m working on a book right now that began as a chapbook (The Failure Age, Bloof Books 2014), that I’ve variously called an epic poem, a collection of prose poems, a hybrid essay, a fictionalized memoir, a novel in poems. To return to your first question, I like being uncertain when it comes to genre. It’s only a marketing device anyway.
But this new project is working through the subject positions of daughter/girl, woman/not man, mother/wife a bit more explicitly than Two Memoirs. I’m interested in how feminine temporality works in these subject positions, what that has to do with things like aging, beauty, and love. It’s also largely informed by my experiences in academia. I think the current university system still follows a very archaic men-with-wives model for labor and intellectual production that doesn’t generally account for more complex notions of time, care work, and thought production. What can suckling and the death of the body in childbirth offer intellectual labor? What about girly abjection as a model for rigorous thought? These sorts of questions.
I think similar questions inform my publishing and editing practice. My husband and I run Bon Aire Projects, which we began because we both felt that our aesthetics were somewhat at war, or at least if we chose to fit them into available literary camps, they would be. This was during what seemed like the height of conpo-lyricpo wars. We wanted to consider how warring aesthetics might care for each other rather than antagonize. This is not to imply that antagonism and anger (especially now) are not important volitional strategies, especially politically. But when we began the press there was a very hard lyric/conceptual line in poetry and it seemed that our writings might end up on either side of that line. We argue(d) a lot about aesthetics in our house! And sometimes those arguments are really personal/political. But we both still believe in each other’s work, and do not like the rigidity of genres and camps. So we’re trying (and it’s taking a lot of trying) to bring that kind of complex care work into our publishing model.
Editing and publishing is also totally unpaid care work, which I’m not interested in valorizing, just calling attention to the fact. This is one trouble with academic writing and labor that I’m trying to think through now—though it is about a kind of care for literature, this is often obscured by things like ‘the market’ and ‘professionalism.’ All of which is to say that taking care is also a major pivot point of my work. As I type this, my daughter is getting bored playing by herself, looking up at me with wide eyes and a toothless grin as I peek my head out from behind the laptop screen. Here I am trying to say something intelligent, and she just thinks I’m playing peek-a-boo.
Seth Blake earned his MFA in Creative Writing at California Institute of the Arts where he currently works in the school of Critical Studies. His short fiction and criticism have appeared in Trop, [out of nothing], Nat Brut., El Aleph, The Los Angeles Review of Books, HTMLGIANT and elsewhere. His novelette, The Erotic Adventures of Batman: Volume 1, is forthcoming from Rhymes with Drop Books.
Amanda Montei holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts and is a PhD candidate and Presidential Fellow in the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo. Along with Two Memoirs (Jaded Ibis, 2015), she is the author of the chapbook The Failure Age (Bloof Books, 2014) and co-author with Jon Rutzmoser of Dinner Poems (Bon Aire Projects, 2013). She coedits Bon Aire Projects, and edits the literary journal P-QUEUE.