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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 12 — July 16, 2018

In Conversation

Lauren Elkin Author11 minute read

Lauren Elkin is an author, translator, and essayist. Having written for publications including The New York Times Book Review, the TLS and Frieze, her book Flâneuse – an examination of women walking, wandering, and striding through cities — came out in 2016. Her next non-fiction publication, Art Monsters, has just sold to Chatto, along with a novel called Scaffolding. Here she discusses exploring on foot, existing in public spaces, street harassment, blending memoir with research, and why now is a critical time to continue marching.

Rosalind Jana

Interview Rosalind Jana

RI was wondering — what was the first moment with Flâneuse when you knew you had a book on your hands? 

LPretty much from the get-go: it all came as one package. I just knew that I wanted to write about the figure of the flâneuse, finally, after not having been able to as an undergraduate. I’d wanted to do my undergraduate research project on the flâneuse and just encountered a lot of resistance on the part of the critics I was trying to bring in. It just felt like something I really wanted to do but didn’t have the critical wherewithal to deal with the fact that so many important, brilliant female critics had said she couldn’t exist. So when I finished my PhD and thought, “what do I want to write about next?”, I still wanted to talk about women in public space. So I knew the title and I knew that I would have to grapple with all of the different ways in which feminist critics have argued that there could be no flâneuse. 

Were there any specific figures whom you knew you'd be bringing in from the very beginning? 

I knew George Sand... [she] was someone who’d been spoken about quite a lot in the critical material, precisely because she cross-dressed to walk around the city. I can’t remember who specifically said this, but someone said she can’t be a flâneuse if she’s dressed like a man, that the point of a flâneuse is that she should be dressed like a woman, wearing whatever she should wear, and able to walk around in public as she is — so George Sand gets knocked out. But I thought that, actually, maybe now we’re being a bit too binary about defining the flâneuse in the same terms as the flâneur. She was still a woman walking in public, just one whose strategy involved cross-dressing. 

And then when I went and looked at George Sand’s autobiography, where she talked about why she cross-dressed for the first time. She’s not doing it just to be provocative or shock people, or even to be anonymous — though she does like the anonymity men’s clothes give her. It’s because women’s clothes are too fucking hard to walk in! She’s like, “I had these big skirts and they kept getting muddy, and you can’t walk very far in little kid shoes. You need to get a proper pair of men’s boots.” So it was borne of necessity and how inconvenient women’s clothing was — not so much “oh, if I’m dressed as a woman, people will give me trouble”, but “I can’t walk in these skirts.” 

Once I started teasing out the different reasons why people said there could be no flâneuse, the clearer it came to me why there was: she just wasn’t a female version of a male figure. She was a woman developing her own strategies for negotiating public space. So it was all borne of the same idea of feminising this term. 

But when I started working with my editor on it, that’s when she was just really interested in my own walking in cities and responses to these women like Jean Rhys and George Sand. She was the one really responsible for all of the memoir material I started generating afterwards. Initially I was really resistant to that, because I was like, “why are women writers always being asked to talk about their lives?” but once I started doing the writing for fun, just to see what resulted, I was actually like, oh, this is opening up the idea a bit more and making it less of an academic, literary, critical or biographical study and it made it a lot more personal. It forced me to take responsibility for my viewpoint. Using the authorial ‘I’ — it’s almost… you can pretend omniscience if you’re not in the narrative, but if it’s you then you’re like, “this is what I’ve noticed, and there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t noticed.” And it just felt more honest and more germane to be writing a book about walking. You can’t be this body-less, voiceless, omniscient ghost hovering over the narrative.

That’s part of the reason why I love the book, because the two are brought together really beautifully. It seems like quite an interesting time for books weaving together memoir with geography, with travel, with culture, with academic study. Is there anyone else who works in that way of blending genre that you enjoy reading? 

We’re living in a heyday for that kind of work. As I was putting this book together I was definitely looking at Rebecca Solnit – The Faraway Nearby, which came out a couple of years ago, and The Field Guide to Getting Lost. Even more than Wanderlust, which lots of people have said, “you must be inspired by” — but that book wasn’t as useful to me. It was Field Guide and all of those essays that do exactly that thing of weaving together personal experience with research and literary criticism. That was my big model for it. And then I was reading a lot of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts as I was putting the finishing touches to the manuscript. Olivia Laing, obviously, is a big reference point: looking at what she does in The Trip to Echo Spring. I like To the River a lot because it’s very Woolf-y and so much about walking, but I think, technically, The Trip to Echo Spring is a lot more assured. The Lonely City came out after my book was done and about to come out. 

Just at the point that everyone’s talking about urban space! Talking of which: you have this line in the book where you say, “walking is mapping with your feet” — and I adore this image of walking as something very active, like a form of assembly or building things. It seems to me that there’s an inherently creative process that occurs in exploring spaces on foot…

What I immediately meant, that walking is mapping with your feet because, for me anyway, I end up in a new place and the way that I get to know it is by walking around it. I’m sure this is just a thing humans do. But I’ve just moved to a new neighbourhood in Liverpool, just in the south of the city, and I’ve been taken around and sort of have a vague sense of what’s here — but it’s only when I go out on my own, walking around this one road and all the little streets around it that connect up to where I’m staying, that I start to understand how it all fits together. There’s something about being on your own, on foot, which forces you to engage with your surroundings. It’s not more worthy than being with someone and walking around, but it puts you into contact with your own instincts in a way that does feel more active… And I don’t know why movement is so creative, but it is. It’s generative. Even when I was just walking over here… things I wasn’t even aware I was thinking of for pieces and essays were just kind of coming together as I was walking. And I was like, Jesus, who knew? The act of walking! Someone should write a book on this! [laughs] Just putting one foot in front of the other and… it was like I had ideas in my hips, or something, dislodging all this stuff. 

I find, particularly when I’m back at home, I get all my best ideas stomping up hills. There’s a whirring there. And same with London: I love it so much more as a city because I’ve got a strong sense of it on foot.  Anyway, when you’re writing about women walking around cities, you’re also talking about having a female body in a space that can be quite hostile, whether that’s street harassment, or being alone and feeling vulnerable. I was wondering if you could expand on that? 

This was something I went back and forth on a lot while writing the book, in terms of how explicitly I needed to deal with the violence women encounter on the street. I had about five pages that I ended up cutting where I dealt with it in a journalistic way. There’s a piece I did for Liberty – the human rights group — called Public Disservice, and part of that piece made it into the epilogue… tallying up what was happening, what people were saying, looking at studies and whatnot. And then, when [the] time came to have that in [the] book it felt out of place or something — to have gone through this long celebration of cities as places for women to claim their independence. It felt like the ending came together out of a desire to think about how we all produce space together in public, and so, for me, it was about emphasising agency for women on the street, as well as men, and to acknowledge that space — via Perec or LeFevbre – is something we all contribute to. It’s not static. We can participate in it as well. 

I had about three pages where I had a list of all the times I’ve been harassed or assaulted on the street, and all my friends have — like a litany — but I cut it, because it also felt out of place. But now I’m also aware that the book doesn’t deal explicitly with street harassment or violence that women face in public, but I’m not actually sure that it’s my book’s place to do that. 

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Yes, there’s a playfulness and joy placed against these very serious discussions of public space — and I hate the phrase, but there is something about the book that is ultimately very manifesto-y, or perhaps a set of ethics, a way to talk about moving through cities joyfully and actively, that’s very present. 

Exactly – that’s putting emphasis on how we can be active in public space, or we can be agents of — maybe not destinies, if someone comes along and decides to fuck with you. But even then, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to be prescriptive and say, “no, hit him with your bag” or “scream”. It’s so personal how women deal with that, and we shouldn’t have to deal with it. It’s really fucked up and makes me really angry.

On the flipside, one of the other ways we move through cities — which I know you’ve also written about — is via the role of politics, and specifically marches. The idea of occupying your space is a very important, visible thing at the moment. You said somewhere, “I want to keep talking, and walking.” Why is it important for us to be putting our boots on the street, and marching en masse, as well as individually? 

God, that chapter ended up being timely. I thought it was timely because I was writing it around the time of the attacks in January 2015 and the Charlie Hebdo march — and I revised it after going on the march — but it really grew out of moving to Paris and being first skeptical of and intrigued by, then eventually inspired by, how willing the French are to get out there and march! It’s so much of a rite of passage for a young French person. You go through your rebellious stage in high school and you go to all these marches… and it’s this really fun and independence-claiming thing to do. 

Then I started looking at the history of women involved in protest marches in Paris and that took me back to George Sand watching these marches in 1848 from a friend’s window, and how that spurred her to get involved with politics. She became this unelected propaganda minister for the Second Republic. It wasn’t elected or anything… but she was so stirred by this public sentiment — all these people gathered together in the defense of an idea, as against the 1830 or ‘32 revolutions where she saw the bloodshed from her window, and how meaningless it was — but in ‘48 the people rose up... and thought for a moment that it was going to be a republic. That only lasted a few years, but during those years she was incredibly moved and started writing all of these articles and circulating pamphlets in the countryside and trying to get ordinary, everyday, provincial people or rural people to feel like politics mattered to them. 

Over time, Sand became disillusioned. The people weren’t voting in their best interest and she was like, “this is too much, I have to go back to my country estate and get back to being a novelist” — because the people voted for Louis Philippe, who then declared himself Napoleon the Third. And she was so pissed off that she then retired. So I moved forward to 1968 when you had these young high schoolers really inspired by 1848, and looked at Mavis Gallant as another flâneuse walking around the city and observing another protest movement. But instead of being really inspired by them she’s really critical: thinking they’re spreading false rumours — fake news! — and fomenting the same kind of discontent not for any good reason, but because it’s fun to be pissed off about something. So that seems like Twitter in a nutshell! There are really fucked up things happening, but the people who ordinarily would be on the right side of things are getting a little bit bogged down in details that sound really good, but maybe are distracting from the main event… 

Especially online where you have this currency of being able to re-tweet things very quickly, and, I think, have a sense of vindication in a very short-term sense… 

Yeah, so you get more satisfaction from engaging with this on Twitter — which is important. I don’t mean to undercut [that]. We should be fucking pissed off about everything that happens around this man [Donald Trump], that’s perpetrated by this man, but going out to march is a way of putting your body where your beliefs are. He doesn’t give a shit about any of the stuff on Twitter — okay, I’m guessing, maybe he does because he’s a pathological narcissist — but me re-tweeting some critical think piece or thread is not going to have any impact whatsoever on what Trump thinks or does. Me adding my body to the women’s march — that does.

So, we have to keep our foot on the gas. Oh, that’s a bad metaphor: mixing cars and walking! [laughs] We need to keep our boots strapped on. Jane Marcus was my PhD supervisor, I quote her briefly in the protest chapter, and she was like, “it’s too early to take off our combat boots.” Something like that. We have to keep them strapped on and not be like, “yeah, that was a great march, we had fun, let’s go back to our lives”. But I’m finding that personally really hard to do right now… I’m exhausted. 

It’s a hard balance, too — when you’ve got the George Sand approach of wanting to retreat, sometimes, and go, “let the world stay out there for a moment, because I need to get some work done, or focus on not being so anxious that I can’t sleep.” But finding the balance between — if you extend the metaphor — having the combat boots on and occasionally taking them off, because self-protection is also important.

Exactly, and to what extent can we make wearing our combat boots our work?  You know, I’m gearing up to write another non-fiction book and I think it’s going to be a pretty political book about Woolf’s Three Guineas.

I started reading that recently! 

Have you? Well, it’s the right book to be reading right now, my god.

I feel like I need to be going through with a pencil and underlining everything in it.

I’d been planning to write about it before all of this happened, because Jane Marcus, my advisor, died — and she edited and annotated a critical edition of Three Guineas. Her Woolf was the angry, socialist Woolf. So I’d already conceived of this project as a follow-up to Flâneuse, about women in public space, and women in war, and women writing about fascism… and then all of this happened. Now it feels timely, and almost too timely. And I’m like, oh god, I don’t even know if I can spend the next three years on this book. Maybe I need to retire to my novels… [laughs] 

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