An Interview with Tamara Faith Berger

Tamara Faith Berger has published four novels: Lie With Me (2001), The Way of the Whore (2004), Maidenhead (2012), and Kuntalini (2016). Her first two novels were recently re-published as Little Cat (2013).
She lives in Toronto. 

Domenica Martinello: I’m interested in your progression as a writer. Your publishing history is a little unconventional—I’m thinking mostly about your way into the industry, how your early work has been revised, reissued, and reframed for new readers, and maybe also the lapse of time between novels. Continuing this trajectory, Kuntalini feels distinct compared to your other books, though it does harness a similarly complex, pornographic energy. Kuntalini is part of Badlands Unlimited’s New Lovers series (lucky no. 7!), but how does it fit with the rest of your work? Is it a move forward, a digression, an experiment?

Tamara Faith Berger: I think my publishing history is unconventional for two main reasons. The first is that I studied visual art in university, so early on I did not think of myself as a writer. The second reason has more to do with my personality, in that I haven’t been ambitious in the traditional sense. My thinking after I finished art school was: take what you can get. For example, when Sam Hiyate (then the publisher of Gutter Press) offered to publish Lie With Me, I didn’t think to myself that I should get an agent. I pretty much just said okay. I was naive and submissive, among other things. I am really lucky that Alana Wilcox of Coach House Books was willing to work with me over the last few years not just on Maidenhead but also on a reissue of my early books. She understood what I was doing and she helped my work reach a much wider audience.

I do think of Kuntalini as a digression from my fiction. When I had the opportunity to write this book for Badlands Unlimited (a friend recommended me to them), I was feeling pretty low about an unfinished book and my abilities as a writer. Because erotica was a comfortable spot for me, I thought that maybe I could write this book for fun and/or to clear away a rather constant feeling of failure. Maybe it also goes without saying that being a fiction writer is not really a viable career path, so I’ve spent a lot of time engaged in other money-making pursuits and family things, which has probably led to a less prolific output. All in all, I don’t regret much except for my naiveté.

DM: It’s so wonderful that erotica is a “comfortable spot” for you, when for other authors even one juicy sex scene can seem like a nightmare to write (and write well). Besides publishing compelling new erotica, the New Lovers series seems to take aim at the constant coupling of love and sex. What do you think about the romance genre—the stereotypes of it, the possibilities? Are there any ways your work is in conversation with these narratives of love and romance? Or are there far more engaging conversations to be had?

TFB: By “romance genre,” do you mean stories where we get soothed by the evidence that love can save all? Stories where women are rescued by the love of a good man or a girl can turn a bad boy into a boyfriend? I have a really hard time with all of these narratives, so, yeah, I am probably in a kind of “I can’t hear you” conversation with them. I think my work might be in a more productive conversation with the YA genre or the horror genre because I relate to stories that test the reader to see just how much their maturity or their fight-or-flight response can take. Anyway, I think that all literary genres exist for a reason and that we can make use of them as writers, warping them as need be. I’m curious as to what you think are the more engaging conversations in this realm!

DM: I think I was getting at something like narratives in conversation with sex and power or sex and spirituality. To me these more interesting conversations break open a framework that seems constrained by romance and sentimentality. On that note, why did you choose yoga and Hindu spirituality as a frame for Kuntalini?

TFB: I have been practicing and teaching Yoga for many years so I had a lot of material. In general, the Yoga world I know is fairly sanctimonious. Yoga imagery and culture in the US and Canada seems to be very teasing—men go shirtless and feminist and proclaim messages of love while the women offer up their asses but we’re not supposed to notice. It was really hard for me to resist smearing all of this. (Maybe I’m not ambitious but I am an opportunist.)

DM: There’s now both literature and porn (and literary pornographic writing) pandering to the conventions of an often white, middle class feminism that, to my mind, disavows anything too disturbing or problematic. Yet your work deals with sexual scenarios that are not always ethically sound or easily reconcilable. What are these titillating/troubling moments doing? Are they meant to be transgressive, to fill a gap of previously unexplored territory in fiction?

TFB: I really like the way you think about all this. Since the election of Donald Trump in the US, I’ve been trying to grasp, like many others, how over fifty percent of white women voted for him when he was clearly a predator-accumulator type who hadn’t ever seemed to be into women’s equality. But maybe this was the exact reason why white women voted for him. I think that white middle-class feminism absolutely needs to be able to look in the mirror and take in more disturbing material, but I would never force my disturbing erotica onto them! What I would force on them, if I could, would be the realization that white male power is not going to protect them indefinitely and that the predator-accumulator, in general, does not make the best executive decisions in life or in bed. Of course, I also implicate myself in this white woman phallus-wanting.

In terms of transgression: I always look for writers who show our human weakness in the space between titillating and troubling—Samuel Delaney, Michael Perkins, Tony Duvert, Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade all come to mind. But I hate Sade. And these are all men. Jade Sharma just wrote an incredible book called Problems that has a lot of abject sexual scenarios. I think it’s likely that transgression stimulates self-reflection. The territory of the sexually troubling is still pretty wide open, as you say, and so hopefully more women get into its aesthetic and political possibilities.

DM: In an interview with Jacqueline Valencia for The Rusty Toque, you touch on how Kuntalini “ignores danger”—this struck me too, particularly in regard to the narrator Dana. The possibility of danger is intensified by the public nature of the encounters in the book. There’s a transcendent rim job in a yoga studio, oral sex under a table at a busy brunch spot, sex with two strangers in a car, and the list goes on. In this way, there are no safe spaces and only safe spaces, as fear doesn’t seem to influence Dana’s newfound sexual agency. What are the stakes for Dana/Yoo-hoo? Why do the stakes feel different for the other women in the book who do seem to be in danger, like the young prostitute Tamara?

TFB: Good question. I think that danger for women in real life is heavily informed by one’s past experience with abuse, physical and psychological feelings of strength, as well as the society a woman lives in, which may be rife with injustice and lack of protection. The yoga chick is less in danger than the teen prostitute: this is clear and this is what I am representing. I obviously stand behind the idea that no woman should ever be in sexual danger and I would like to live in a world where a no-fear female sexual agency could occur across the spectrum. But I’m aware that the stakes are much higher for some women than others. I think that Kathryn Borel Jr. pretty ruthlessly dealt with this in a tweet which goes: “I guess my brand of feminism is trying not to end up murdered in a ditch.”

As it happens, the female co-opting of bad past sexual experience for her own present sexual pleasure is something, to me, that seems very highly evolved. Maybe I was trying to do some of this in Kuntalini in the sexual relationship between Yoo-hoo and Tamara.

DM: Near the beginning of Kuntalini, Yoo-hoo says she “[wants] to forget men existed and everything we did for them was real.” By the end of the story, readers are left with women shedding their bikinis for oversized army clothes, heading toward America with the “[smell] of pussy everywhere.” Maybe it’s the militaristic image of the clothing, the mention of America, or a destructive event left behind them, but it feels dystopian. I think my imagination’s been sucked into the dichotomy of a patriarchal dystopia versus matriarchal utopia, but you’ve got me very interested in thinking about what a matriarchal dystopia might look like. Does the ending of Kuntalini present a new kind of reality or freedom, and is it wholly positive?

TFB: I think your matriarchal dystopia is where we are at. The women who want safety bubbles and love need to toughen up. I also want safety and love—but these desires cannot be hoarded and neither are they sustainable when taking into account that so many women are in danger, need, and pain. I am inspired by women who pick up weapons, whatever those weapons may be, e.g., the female soldiers of Kurdistan fighting ISIS, the words of the mothers of unlawfully murdered children, the presence of young women working the streets for their own survival; also, human rights activist Nadia Murad and chairwoman Huma Abedin, who left Anthony Weiner. What is the “safe woman’s” role in a matriarchal dystopia? It is to align with those women who are stronger than herself and not to succumb or return to the protector. Yoo-hoo is committed to following the girls.

Interview by Domenica Martinello

Domenica Martinello (Interviews Editor):

Domenica Martinello is a writer from Montréal, Québec, and is the author of the poetry chapbook Interzones (words(on)pages, 2015). Work has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM, CV2, The Winnipeg Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Lemon Hound, and elsewhere. She is completing an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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