By Sara Patterson
Kate Zambreno (AM’02) crosses the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction with remarkable ease. She is the author of eight books, most recently the novel Drifts to be published in paperback in May 2021 and her study on Hervé Guibert, To Write as If Already Dead, forthcoming in June. Zambreno received a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship in Nonfiction and is at work on an essay collection, The Missing Person.
“From the start, Kate Zambreno was a creative, experimental, and rigorously focused thinker whose writing refused conventional academic modes of reference and explanation, but which also tried to connect to people’s ordinary lives, fantasies, desires, and habits,” said Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. “It was a sheer joy to work with her, trying to wrestle her paper into something MAPH would recognize [as a traditional thesis paper] without destroying the generative, creative energy of her mind and prose.”
Zambreno’s interest in writing about the ongoing, the day-to-day, and the small, unites her fiction and nonfiction. Her writing often focuses on the fragment.
In this edited Q&A, the writer talks about how affect theorists and, especially Berlant, are relevant for her writing. Zambreno also discusses how her teaching and collaboration with others on environmental writing is shaping her forthcoming work.
What makes receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship for nonfiction gratifying for you as a writer?
It is gratifying as a writer to achieve institutional recognition, although it also makes me reflective of precarity and capitalism, and the need to be supported in these ways when outside of the tenured system of the university (as I am still an adjunct).
When you studied in the master’s degree program at the University of Chicago, you worked closely with Lauren Berlant. Has her work influenced how you write and what you write about?
Lauren Berlant graciously agreed to read my thesis, which dealt with the aesthetics of schadenfreude in talk show TV, which seems like a relic now. I spent a lot of time taking notes while watching Jerry Springer, although the theory that I wrangled with—like Bakhtin on Rabelais, or the performance of cruelty or violence—I'm still interested in. I don't think my thesis was very good. I have no idea where it is, and I wonder what it would be like to reread it!
But I was quite in awe of Lauren Berlant, who had given a talk to the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) in the fall of 2001. I think Berlant's scholarly work is important to many thinkers, including myself, as they are one of the most vital theorists and essayists writing today. The rigor of Berlant’s thought is something I aspire to.
Did other scholars at the University of Chicago influence your writing? Did the culture at UChicago make a lasting impression on you and your work?
I am still thinking through what I read in my year there. Just the other day, I was thinking about an anthropology seminar I took on the fetish, that was also through performance theory, where we read Marx.
Originally, you studied writing as a journalist. Has that experience affected how you write nonfiction and what you write about?
I always thought I left journalism behind, after working in alt-weeklies, around the period I was in MAPH. But I do find myself thinking about reportage, witness, documentary techniques in my own work, as well as for the work of my graduate students in the nonfiction program at Columbia University.
How has teaching writing at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence affected your own writing?
I think in the best circumstances, I've been inspired by and stimulated by the reading and thinking for seminar, as well as thinking with others. I also have been teaching writing of the Anthropocene and the animal at Sarah Lawrence, as I have a chair of environmental writing there, which is basically an endowed course. That has shaped the work I hope to be doing.
What writing projects are you working on now—nonfiction and fiction?
My Guggenheim project is a collection of essays of art, the ephemeral, and nature, called The Missing Person, that Riverhead will be publishing. I am also working on a novel of softness and trauma entitled Foam.