Kate Zambreno Collects Herself

At the coffee shop, Zambreno shook her head. “People were so angry about that book!” She was smiling, but she seemed a little hurt. As we angled our chairs around to avoid the worst of the sun, I thought I understood part of what made the judgments so galling. Zambreno has always been at least as interested in dissolving as in appearing. Her books are endlessly negotiating how much space to cede to her influences—the authors she is reading and the art she is consuming—versus how much to give over to descriptions of her own experience. Even in traditionally memoiristic passages, her voice is hard to disentangle from the voices of others, whether she is transmitting messages from the wives of modernism or reimagining the lives of beloved male artists, Rilke and Guibert and Cornell, many of whom died tragically. (The scholar M Milks has labelled her method “reparative vampirism.”) In “Green Girl,” Zambreno’s second novel, the main character almost seems to flicker on and off, sending out contradictory signals as she walks down the street: “Look at me / (don’t look at me) / Look at me don’t look at me look at me look at me don’t.” The autofictional narrator of “Drifts” and “To Write as if Already Dead” thirsts for recognition from the “professional literary world,” envies male peers, and recalls feeling “unspecial” and “ignored” as a child. But she also craves “ghostliness” and a “space of contemplation . . . where I sometimes don’t feel in the shape of a person.” If Zambreno “irritates” readers, it may be not because she is an egotist in any straightforward sense but because her “I” is unstable, entranced with and ambivalent about attention, longing alternately to vanish and to be seen.

Zambreno gave birth to her first daughter in 2016, two weeks after Donald Trump was elected President; her second daughter was born in the summer of 2020, several months after the peak of the first wave of COVID. It’s reductive to say that motherhood changes everything, but it changed Zambreno’s writing. When she sat down to begin the book that became “The Light Room,” certain roles—the diva of “Heroines,” a flâneuse wandering through a solitary trance of art—were no longer available to her. She was an adjunct professor with two children and no maternity leave riding out lockdown during a terrifying pandemic in the most expensive city in the world. She had to find an approach to her work that accommodated these circumstances.

An air of attrition hangs over “The Light Room,” as if a ghostly battery icon in the top right corner were being depleted with each sentence. “When I read the book now,” Zambreno said, “I see how depressed I was.” At the time of writing, she “was not making ends meet.” She returned to work immediately after having her baby, holding workshops and seminars over Zoom; her students were surprised, when the semester ended, to learn about the infant just offscreen. “The pandemic was a period of, We’re all supposed to work constantly and no one tells us how,” Zambreno said. For ten years, she has belonged to an underclass of guest faculty at Sarah Lawrence; she also has a part-time gig at Columbia’s M.F.A. program. The august affiliations don’t change the fact that teaching is, at its heart, a service profession. “No one asks about you, and you’re always thinking about other writers, their lives, their interiorities,” Zambreno said. “One can become worn down by that.”

In “The Light Room,” Zambreno’s feelings of precarity and insignificance manifest as spectral imagery. She is an apparition eroded by relentless work; she is ghostly with disregard. “The only space I can find to get any real reading done for the class is in the middle of the night, when I sit up and bear the baby across my lap,” she writes. “By the end of the semester I am translucent with exhaustion.” As the book goes on, Zambreno, at her nocturnal crossroads of woman-wife-mother-adjunct, never quite resolves in the eyes of the world. In public, while supervising her children, she experiences an “existential floatiness,” as if she were the sound of a tree falling in a forest that no one hears.

When she was nine months pregnant with her first child and still commuting to work, Zambreno struggled with an odd sense of immateriality. It was as if her almost-baby were the realest thing about her. She e-mailed the poet Maggie Nelson, whose book “The Argonauts” had resonated with her owing to its radical treatment of gender, pregnancy, sexuality, and the body. Zambreno relayed Nelson’s sympathetic reply: Zambreno could stand in front of a blackboard and regale her students with the most brilliant lecture they’d ever heard, Nelson told her, “And the only thing they’d remember,” she finished, “would be how fucking pregnant I was.”

“To this day,” Zambreno told me, “if there’s ever time for student or audience questions, they will usually only ask me overdetermined ones like, ‘How are you a mother?’ Or ‘What’s it like being a mother?’ ” She laughed. For mothers, she pointed out, the question is not very interesting. “Moms don’t know each other’s first names,” she said. “We have no childhoods. We have no memories.” Likewise, “so much of being a teacher of creative writing, especially in this adjunct way I am, is about insecurity and porousness,” Zambreno suggested. “I’m reading everybody else’s writing. They have not read me. They are not”—she laughed again—“particularly interested in me.”

And yet, Zambreno spoke of her students’ indifference as a form of “grace.” “Feeling more humble in my life has been good,” she said. “I take myself and the writing off a pedestal. And to write the consciousness of someone who feels invisible, isn’t that artistically useful?”

Now that Zambreno’s children have scrambled into her work, the “I” feels different: calmer, more settled, perhaps more maternal. How permissive “The Light Room” can seem! Zambreno lets her subjects crawl all over her; she observes them patiently and without discrimination. “I once read an essay by a writer who didn’t want to be a mother because she didn’t want to become a landscape,” she writes. The sentence introduces a buoyant memory: Zambreno watching her kid in the park, savoring the “collective feeling” of being part of the scenery. “The self is a kite sometimes without a string,” she thinks, “growing tinier and tinier, until sometimes it vanishes.” In a strange way, motherhood seems to have enabled Zambreno to finally become a “radiant zero,” to float weightlessly out of her own writing. But instead of losing herself in her artistic practice, as she attempted in “Drifts,” she has achieved her ambition by losing herself in the world around her.

In her earlier work, Zambreno sometimes seemed to be hoarding her “I.” Everything went on the page: lubey fingers, petty rivalries, days of sloshing around in the Internet. The books were cluttered with minute perceptions and involuted anxious spirals and “pink smashed Starburst candy, ketchup packets, Day-Glo straws”: Zambreno was the sort of completist collector who tried to cram the world into a text. In “The Light Room,” she still documents her life’s shifting weather. But, rather than battling against the impermanence and intangibility of her present tense, she registers life as it escapes. The memoir aims for jottings that, like their subjects, are thin, breakable, and already sliding off the page. “I think I’m working on—or perhaps not working on, for that is also writing—a notebook of seasons and exhaustions,” she says. She calls these forms “translucencies.”

The last section of “The Light Room,” titled “Translucencies,” unfolds in the third person. Like the earlier sections, it depicts a family—mother, father, and two young girls—living in Brooklyn during the coronavirus pandemic. Moods brighten and darken the page: the children go to outdoor birthday parties and, on Halloween, they pass out candy through a chute “made of PVC tube and strung with fairy lights.” The mother, who sometimes weeps “to the point of translucence,” cleans and worries, nags and calms, but the tone often feels impersonal: “pleasure was had in craft projects,” Zambreno reports. The mother is present; her emotions permeate the writing, and her attention determines what we see. Yet she is not in the frame. Rather, she is the frame, holding together a precious and mysterious domestic scene: “Nestled inside my careful and constant frame, my daughters are little owls, their faces still like moonlight.” Zambreno’s “I” feels both there and not there, a steadying, attention-deflecting presence.

When we met, Zambreno had recovered from the exhaustion of the pandemic, but she was only just emerging from another ordeal. In August of 2022, after the house in which she had lived for ten years was renovated, her youngest daughter was found to have lead poisoning. The family went on a nine-month rent strike. Their landlord responded by suing them for nonpayment in housing court. “He was financially assaulting us,” Zambreno said. (She had signed an N.D.A. that prevents her from going into specifics, but did offer that she had won both the rent strike and the right to write about the events.) The situation felt so desperate that Zambreno and her husband finally allowed the poet and essayist Sabrina Orah Mark to organize a GoFundMe for their family. The donations that came in were a life raft, allowing them to pay the tenant lawyers and to begin their search for a new place to live. “The institutions that I work for—publishing and academia—they didn’t care. They just wanted me to keep working,” Zambreno said. “So I was really touched when people did care.” At the same time, she remembered, “there was a lot of ambient shame. Like, I’m actually revealing how broke we are and how we’re living week to week.”

The intractability of the money issues seemed to Zambreno like one sign of society’s disrepair—how could she work so incessantly and still not have enough? And maybe her shame was another sign. She wondered whether her need for support and her embarrassment about that need were part of a single shadow that capitalist ideas of individualism and self-sufficiency had cast over her life. In the academic institutions she’s been a part of, she said, “there’s no sense of collegiality for the adjunct class, really.” She cited the scholars Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, who insist, in her words, that “faculty of color, adjuncts, and graduate students must form an undercommons together, because the university is not going to provide that sense of community.”

For Zambreno, the jab and cross of motherhood, and need to provide for others, and housing insecurity, and the need to rely on others, has been transformative in ways she didn’t expect. She has grown more flexible, she said, and more ferocious about community-building. She has also come to think differently about gender. In 2016, as her first due date approached, the “sanitized” image of “mom,” or worse, “mommy,” prodded awake a feeling she’d long carried with her, a quiet passenger. “There’s always been some gender longing and play in my work,” Zambreno noted. Her books obsess over “queer male figures”; in “Screen Tests,” she recounts how, when she first moved to New York, she wore the costume of “a pretty boy who was a pickpocket and an art bitch.” “I look at ‘Heroines,’ ” Zambreno said now. “I look at the simplistic ways I wrote about gender. In that era it was all about ‘girl writing.’ That was the marketing strategy. But my idea of what a girl is, or what a woman is, it’s now so much more fluid.”

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