Writing the Self and the Sublime: An Interview with Larissa Pham

Larissa Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer and artist interested in chronicling intimacy in all of its forms. Her work has appeared in Bookforum, The Nation, and The Paris Review Daily, among other publications. CJLC’s Thomas Wee and Campbell Campbell interviewed Larissa about her recent essay collection, Pop Song, which features a remarkable breadth of art writing in addition to personal essays. Cover photo by Adalena Kavanagh.

Thomas Wee: I want to start with the process of putting together the essay collection: What was the process of writing the essays and anthologizing them? Had you written any of the essays before putting the collection together? Did you start the collection with the idea that these essays were all going to be eventually unified?

Larissa Pham: I started this project with essays formatted as lists, which I mention [in Pop Song] in a very meta way. That was how the whole project started: I was in Taos on an arts residency, to which I had applied with something completely different in mind. I was working on this manuscript for the first time, and I landed upon the list format as something that allowed me to connect things without really connecting them. It felt liberating to write in the list format as opposed to the narrative and argumentative criticism that I was used to writing. 

Those four list essays became one component of the book. And I did draw on two previous written essays that were published in the Paris Review and titled “Blue” and “Body of Work,” but both essays were substantially revised in the final collection. It became a very holistic process—I was happy to write these essays, which I consider chapters, that speak to each other rather than act as discrete essays

Campbell Campbell: You borrow from many genres of literature in the collection—art analysis, memoir, cultural criticism, perhaps “MeToo” essays. Were you striving for one of these genres? Or something else? Did you hope to disrupt the conventions of these genres in writing this collection?

LP: I suppose that I was trying to disrupt all of those genres, but perhaps not intentionally when I was writing the project because I wanted to write freely. I wanted to write something that only I could write, and I finally had this book deal that allowed me to have more freedom. I didn’t have to think about the constraints of house standards, word count, or the seriousness of a review. I wanted to be able to flex and do what I am best at, so I was inspired by those genres but was not striving to write in a specific genre or mode. 

CC: You employ theoretical terms to understand yourself in this collection, and I was interested in how most authors borrow authority from theoretical material and slip it into the narrative, but it seems that you are doing something different. What was the role of theory and autobiographical material in this collection? 

LP: I don’t consider this book to be a work of auto theory because I do not consider it to be a book that argues anything. It was important to me that it didn’t. I don’t know if I could argue something clearly when life is so complicated. However, I do use theory and find it very helpful for giving language to and illuminating certain aspects of life. That’s the primary way that I use it. I know some writers who really like to just paste in a chunk of theory in order to bolster an argument. I think that’s one way of using it, but I think it’s a bit more interesting if we talk about, “Why this particular theory? What does it mean? How is it playing off of my other observations?” I enjoyed using theory in that way in the chapter “Camera Roll” with Sontag and in the chapter “Crush” with Barthes. I’ve always felt this way about theory:  you can take what you want and leave what you don’t want, and it is not intended to be an authority on the world. 

TW: I’m curious about your process of selecting the different works of art you discuss in your essays. I appreciated that there is an intermingling of canonical “high” art and—more conventionally thought—“lower” forms of art in this collection. Could you talk about that process of deciding which works you wanted to write about?

LP: I am curious what you might consider to be the “high” and “low” works of art because I like knowing my reader’s sense of references. Some reviews have pointed out that I write about Frank Ocean, but I think of Frank Ocean as high art! I included every artist in this book because I had an authentic experience with their artwork and wanted to write about it and ensure that I was selecting a variety of artists and different mediums. It is mostly contemporary art, which makes sense because it is based on artwork that I was seeing at the time. I wanted it to be accessible when I was doing the research so that, if the reader was interested in an artwork, they could reasonably find it somewhere online and have an opportunity to see it.  

CC: I was intrigued that you included works that act as intellectual and aesthetic objects; and it seemed important to you to find works that could be experienced with the mind and the body. How did this inform your writing process? 

LP: Writing about art occurs on two levels. You can think through art and experience it on a bodily level whether it be listening to music, dancing in the club, or looking at a painting. When I write, I like to think that I am not trying to replicate the artwork. A picture is not worth a thousand words because a picture can do something that words can never do. I am hoping to commit an imaginative act with words in which I convey what I am feeling and enrich the reader’s experience with the artwork. I am trying to understand why art means so much to me. 

TW: In these essays you write about several groups of experience that could be called experiences of the sublime. What do you think of the ability of art, and especially writing, to record or provoke experiences with the sublime?

LP: I’m glad you pointed that out because I had a whole chapter about the sublime and then my editor and I cut it because like it wasn’t quite fitting into the collection. I had a chapter called “On Beauty,” in which I wrote about the work of Anoka Faruqee, who is an abstract painter based in New Haven who I studied with at Yale. She makes these amazing color field paintings. They’re not exactly color field paintings, but they’re similar to color paintings with their abstract compositions. 

I didn’t get a chance to write about that in the text itself, but I do think that the sense of looking for something bigger than yourself does shape the text. Nature is a setting for the sublime, in  the standard romantic sense of the term. Like a sea storm—it’s huge, majestic, romantic, powerful. I think that we turn to the sublime in literature to take us away from the mundane and alienated moments in our day-to-day lives. 

CC: I want to turn to your fear of being misunderstood by your lover in the text and the reader. Could you talk about the way this fear of communication surfaces in this collection? What causes communication and knowledge of others to be limited?

LP: Ginger Greene pointed this out in a review in the Observer, “This writer resents the inability of language to convey everything that needs to be conveyed.” I do think that it’s tragic that language cannot do everything, which is the reason that I’m drawn to other art forms. A painting can do something different than what a book can. 

I know that words are my medium and all I have to express myself. Words are the only thing I have, and I am never going to know what is going on in another person’s consciousness. It is tragic to me that there is this gap between people, and I think that the collection is leaning toward the figure of a lover—it is an address—while knowing that it cannot pass the distance. This space is where knowing forms, and the whole project could be read as an attempt to grapple with the tragic condition of humanity. 

I have a tattoo from a moment in Anne Caron’s Autobiography of Red. Geryon and Herakles are two teenage boys in love and sitting in a car together, and they sit up in joint astonishment when the car starts, not touching but joining in astonishment as to fly parallel in the same flash. It is the space between them that is always going to exist, and they know it but are trying to reach each other anyway. 

CC: Doesn’t fear of miscommunication and being misunderstood suggest that we have knowledge of ourselves? Why are you sure of this fact? 

LP: I am not sure of it! My first book Fantasia was concerned with the idea that I have the trapping of the self, for example my glasses, nose ring, bangs, or general aesthetic, that may not be mine, but who am I if you remove these elements of myself? It is about a girl in college who meets her doppelganger at a party, and they descend into a web of obsession together. I do not know if the self can be known….

CC: You discuss Susan Sontag’s notion that, once you take a picture, it’s over and the image is dead. It would seem that you would have the same concern for writing, how can I write a book in totality if I won’t stay the same person throughout the writing process? What was your relationship to the book ex post facto?

LP: It’s funny because I clearly had to believe in this book to write it. I still stand by it as an artwork, but I wrote it over a year ago, and I think that its mission is to live with readers. It is not necessarily dead, but I know that I am more living than the text is. 

I think that there is a lot of pressure on young writers to write every single thought they have ever had in their debut work, and there is a lot of pressure for debuts to be works of genius and synthesis of their every idea. That is fake and not possible because I am going to write more throughout my life. This book is merely a snapshot of myself. 

TW: Building off your comments on the inability to know the self: Why does this book dramatize the distance between the authorial “I” and the character “I”, and what is your relationship to these two “I”s in this collection? 

LP: I thought about this topic a lot while I was drafting the book. When you write an event, you are writing from a specific moment in time. Fiction has a narrator telling the story, but nonfiction has the seat where I was writing from and the movement back and forth in time throughout the collection. I had to be clear where my narrator was in that moment of time, and the book is written from the authorial perspective of me during the pandemic. The “I” is moving through time and existing at different intervals, and I wrote “Body of Work” in the present tense because I was borrowing that literary trope that writes criticism as though it is currently happening. I thought to myself, I am going to analyze these memories as if they are pieces of art and I am going to use this convention even if it does not work out. There is an authorial “I” from the pandemic time and the character “I” who has porous eyes observing the world. 

TW: I am curious how you think narrative unreliability added to the text. Did you consider one of the “I”’s to be more objective, or are they both imbued with narrative unreliability? 

LP: The authorial “I” pops up at moments when I sit down to write the chapter and can make judgments on the other “I.” That is how you have lines, like I don’t regret that or I was that girl. I am directly grappling with the many lives that I had in the past and that I can see from a distance. 

Unreliability seems to be such a huge component of writing memoir and creative nonfiction. I think that most texts engage with that question—the unreliability of memory. 

TW: In terms of your use of the second person, did you have a specific individual or a general audience in mind? How is that functioning in the text, and how does it affect the intimacy with the reader? 

LP: It was the only way I could write the book. Bluets was a model for me during the writing process, and I think that many poetic texts address the reader as you. It is directed toward a lover, but I did not use a name because I wanted it to be anonymous and about the idea of the person and a literary device. I am still parsing why I did that, and I have asked readers if it affected their intimacy with the text and if they thought they were being broken up with in the text. 

Perhaps it is too much on the nose, but the second person does occur in music and specifically pop songs. It is equally about a specific person and about anyone who is listening to it alone in a room. 

CC: You discuss Carson’s interest in the body losing its boundaries in moments of love, but she further describes this phenomena as the cultural expectation for women from Ancient Greece to modern day in The Men. Do you view this phenomena as gendered? Do you have an understanding of why this happens and what are the benefits? 

LP: I do not think that it is necessarily a gendered phenomenon, but I will anecdotally say that my friends and I are all women and have expressed it. There is a meme that was popular that asks if romantic love was a myth created to manipulate women. Is that true? [Laughs] 

In dialogue with Barthes, all lovers wait for the sense of objections and isolation and have a fear of losing themselves in their love for someone else, and that is not gendered. 

TW: I think that we could even describe Barthes’ and your work as gender neutral in the essays; the notions of love could be leveraged toward anyone. 

CC: I am excited by mysticism and this notion that you can empty yourself to be filled by another person, and it seems that there is a connection between losing boundaries and embodied acts of mysticism, like meditation, BDSM, etc, that weaken you and fill you with something else. What do you think are the benefits and motivations to turn to the embodied acts? 

LP: I have an essay about this topic that is coming out in the Spring issue of a magazine. It is about how I want to believe in god and be religious, but I cannot believe in god and turn to other acts instead. I think that we are talking about accessing some other mental state when we discuss transcendence and mysticism, and I have tried going to those states but have not known why I am drawn to another plane. I do not know if it comes from any dissatisfaction from the instability of this earthly plane, but I strive to leave it. I love hot yoga, meditation, and exercise, and I see this as an important aspect of BDSM even if I have changed my relationship to it since I wrote “Body of Work.” I see myself going to places to be made into a vessel for something else to touch me, whether it be hot yoga or the club. 

TW: I think that it is interesting that many of the visual artists in the collection, including Agnes Martin, are fascinated by this subject and trying to provoke this response in their artwork. Do you think this state is more accessible in other art mediums, or do you think that writing can capture this vessel quality best? 

LP: It’s great that both of you have brought this topic up because I didn’t write about Hilma Af Klimt but do write about her in the new article I wrote for Document Journal. She is such a cool mystic figure and had groundbreaking work long before she was famous, and Yayoi Kusama is similar in her communion with another dimension. 

I think that nonverbal artwork helps us reach that place because the art is not literal and brings out speech rather than relies on speech—the language of the art is not verbal or written. I think that words and literature can take us to that place, but they do not take us there by describing the place. I think that I have felt like a true woman of transcendence when I have been so absorbed in a fictional story, transported to the setting, and made to care about what happens to the characters. I reach that place when I feel swept away by the masterful language in literature. 

TW: Could you tell us the writers whom you’re lovingly indebted to in this collection? Who were you reading and were present in the metaphorical room when you were writing? 

LP: This is embarrassing, but I read a lot of white women’s memoirs. I wanted to let myself go there and not question my ability to tell a story that was worthy of telling; that is such a hurdle to overcome. I read Bluets, Argonauts, The Folded Clock, Ongoingness, and Empathy Exams. I read literature by Kate Zambreno who is such an idol of mine because she is great at switching topics and talking about what she wants when she wants to. 

It is interesting to talk about style because I’m currently in a fiction program—the residency MFA at Bennington—and I’m reading books for the program that are very different from what I read while writing the book. 

TW: What are you writing now? 

LP: I have the article for Document Journal. I am in the fiction program and learning how to write a novel, which is hard [Laughs]. In the next couple of years, I hope to have a draft of a novel loosely based on my family and the aftermath of the First Indochina War, which turned into the Vietnam War and led to my family coming to America as refugees. It will be interested in what we inherit from our parents and what they’ve inherited from the parents—the idea of epigenetic trauma in our memory. 

I have never written about my family before, and I’m enjoying it. I’m also writing short stories to determine how fiction works and to play on a formal level. 

Pop Song available from Catapult Books. For more of Larissa’s work, visit https://larissapham.com/.