Interview with Maria Preziuso for Latineos

MP: How much power does the lack of intelligibility in a work of fiction give to the reader? is he/she invited to ‘complete’ the text in his/her on way, and according to her own abilities? Or could this be more a deterrent to the enjoyment one can and should feel in reading – do experimental writing forms create a kind of hierarchy of readership – between the readers who are able to peel off the various layers of the text to get the subtleties in the author’s vision, vis a vis those who while still enjoying the novel, are less able to make links and unpack the symbolism of the text?

Do both these possibilities involve reading pleasure, albeit of different kinds?

MNP: The question of the lack of intelligibility is extremely relevant in the case of my latest book Zong!

The structure of Zong! allows the reader a certain freedom about how they are going to read it – one of the ideas I was working with was that of completion by the reader. The reader is asked to make certain choices, so that in the end s/he is contaminated by the text/ and they become the co-creator and participant in this event.

I use the word ‘contaminated’ very carefully here. Zong! not only deals with an historical event (i.e. the massacre of enslaved Africans on board the Zong in 1784), but also speaks to contemporary times, in the sense that we are all contaminated by that event.  What I mean by that is that – we live in the West, and for as much as you may not want to be a part of this consumerist, capitalistic culture, we have very little control over the processes that bring this coffee , for instance, to us.  Indeed, we are often, willingly or not, complicit in exploitative systems that have been set in place by the West, for the West.

I was and am very interested in the fact that all of us, even though born a couple of centuries after the end of the slave trade, are still contaminated by it, because it continues to cast a long shadow. Today’s speculative financing, for instance, has its roots in the trade in Africans, which allowed someone, while still resident in Edinburgh or London, through a complex system of promissory notes to buy a slave in Africa, transport him or her to the Caribbean, sell him to a plantation owner there and collect payment in England or anywhere else in Europe for that matter.

Going back to your question about the loss of enjoyment in the reading, I am not sure I can answer this question with reference to my own work. A few people have told me that when they get the idea that the text of Zong! is ‘open’, and that they can read it in any way, this generates a kind of excitement for them –  a sense of breaking the rules and conventions of literature in a way.  In this way, I don’t think that the enjoyment of reading is necessarily lost with respect to a text like Zong!

As for the issue of the ‘hierarchy of readers’ that you raise: there is a sense in which Zong! is performed on the page which I think does create a sense of “Oh my god, what am I supposed to do with this?”   Mainly, of course, because we have been schooled and taught to “read” in a certain way.  Top down, left to right –  the conventions of reading are so hard that people believe that they have to start at the beginning and work their way through the text, but as in She Tries Her Tongue…, my idea was that you can begin to read from anywhere – in fact there may be no beginning.  More to the point, the text began before you began reading.  If someone is willing to get past those conventions – and believe me many of the people who can’t do that are at the top of the hierarchy of readers that you mention: university professors for instance – they will understand what is happening.  In fact, I have found that the non-academic reader or listener very adept at this. Zong! was not written for the learned or schooled reader.

Wherever you enter Zong! you will get a story, or at least a fragment of a story.  It suggests a polyvocality that is at times cacophonous in the extreme.  It is a text of silence (of the ocean and the Middle Passage) and silencing (as in the historical silencing of this and similar stories) that is interrupted, fractured and fragmented by the human voice.


Other Interviews

  • “Defending The Dead, Confronting The Archive: A Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip”–view
  • A Poet of Place: An Interview with M. NourbeSe Philip–view
  • Interview with Jasmine Elliott and Amber Pinsonneault from The Windsor Review–view
  • The Weight of What’s Left [Out]: Six Contemporary Erasurists on Their Craft with Andrew David King, from Kenyon Review–view