The Imperfect Names: An Interview with Alyssa Quinn

George Salis: Aside from your creative efforts, what part of you or your life would you want to resurface in the future as a perfect fossil?

Alyssa Quinn: I recently learned that it is—astonishingly—possible for bacteria to fossilize. Some bacteria do this by coating themselves in a fine layer of clay, which helps their decomposition slow. So I guess I like the idea of my bacteria—my gut flora, and so on—being preserved. Another fun fact I learned recently is that our bodies contain approximately 30 trillion human cells and approximately 39 trillion microbial cells. We are less ourselves than we are other, which is something I’ve been writing about lately.

GS: Speaking of your creative efforts, what is the one sentence from Habilis you’d want to survive eons into the future?

AQ: “What is lost always forms the boundary of what is.”

GS: The copy on the back of Habilis (Dzanc, 2022) invokes the likes of Brian Evenson and Eimear McBride. Did these writers provide you with inspirational fuel for this novel? If not, what writers or specific books did?

AQ: Actually, I hadn’t read any Brian Evenson until after Habilis was completed, and I still haven’t read any Eimear McBride—that was my editor’s comparison. The texts I drew on for this book were largely books of nonfiction (biography, history) and books of theory (semiotic, linguistic). As for my biggest aesthetic inspiration, that was actually not a book but an album—Calling Out of Context by Arthur Russell. I listened to that album on obsessive repeat while writing the book. It’s strange, ethereal music that provided the perfect atmosphere for this surreal book.

GS: What is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?

AQ: This is an easy one for me—Triptych by Claude Simon. I read Triptych well over a year ago and still have not managed to pick my jaw back up off the floor. It’s a book I want to say nothing about, other than that everyone should read it. What I will say: Triptych’s prose exemplifies the style of the Nouveau Roman, a certain kind of novel experimented with in 1950s France. In his essay “A Future for the Novel,” fellow Nouveau Roman writer Alain Robbe-Grillet criticizes the idea that the job of the novel is to get to the depths of things, that its goal is a “sacred vertigo” or transcendence. He argues instead for an attention to surfaces, to the careful description of objects. A recurring theme for him is that “things are there,” and the simple fact of their presence ought to be astonishing. He wants to reawaken us to “the shock of this stubborn reality we were pretending to have mastered.” To that end, the Nouveau Roman authors attempt to describe objects without insisting on their significations—attending to their sensual qualities rather than collapsing them into symbols. The result, in Triptych, is some of the most exquisitely attentive prose I’ve ever encountered. Pair that with an ingenious novelistic structure, in which three narratives unfold, not consecutively, but simultaneously, the connections between them gradually forming twisty, wormhole-esque tunnels, and you’ve got a truly breathtaking book that deserves far more attention than it gets.

GS: Where do you draw the line between “true” history and imagination?

AQ: I don’t. At most there’s a highly permeable membrane between the two. Of course, some things are true and others are not—and in an era where so many important truths are doubted, it becomes increasingly important to affirm that fact. But even true things come to us filtered through imagination. We can’t access history any other way. And so my work is interested not in drawing a line between truth and imagination, but in playing within the space of their overlap and mutual exchange.

GS: What about the line between exposition and narrative, especially considering the scientific themes within your debut novel, Habilis?

AQ: All of my work is interested in blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction. While I am primarily a fiction writer, all of my fiction is heavily researched, and the research does not simply form the backdrop against which my stories take place—the research is itself the story. So I hope to undo the binary between exposition and narrative. Exposition is interested in background—establishing information that is taken as a given, the static landscape where narrative unfolds. I am interested in work that abolishes the idea of a “background,” abolishes the idea of “landscape,” abolishes the idea of “setting.” When history and science don’t just supply context or metaphorical resonance to a story, but are in fact elevated to the status of characters, then it becomes possible to truly explore their limits and affordances. When plants and animals and minerals and weather and buildings and furniture and cities don’t just form the setting where human events take place, but are instead viewed as vibrant actors in their own right, then it becomes possible to cultivate a truly ecological imagination. This is the kind of literature that is most compelling to me right now—literature which places everything in the foreground, and so erodes hierarchies between the human and the nonhuman, the text and the world, the part and the whole.

I’m reminded here of the essay “Odysseus’s Scar” by the German critic Erich Auerbach. In this essay, Auerbach argues that Homer “knows no background.” In The Odyssey, writes Auerbach, nothing enters the story without its nature and origin being described. These digressions, which you might call exposition, in fact swell to take up the foreground. They “represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial relations.” I’m interested in a 21st-century version of this Homeric style, one that explicates all the tangled webs of which our interconnected globe is composed. Of course, to actually explicate all of them is impossible—there are far too many, and so white space, absence, and ellipsis will always be features of my work. But I hope to create the impression that anything that seems like background could at any moment come rushing to the fore.

GS: About halfway through Habilis or so, there’s a shift in tone, perspective, and structure. It’s by no means the only shift either. What informed the unique structure of this novel?

AQ: The reason for this shift has a lot to do with what I said about exposition above. Habilis takes place in an anthropology museum, and interwoven with scenes of the characters moving through the museum are a series of exhibit captions describing the museum’s artifacts. The shift you mention occurs with the caption for the Laetoli Footprints, a fossilized set of protohuman footprints found in Tanzania. This exhibit ruptures the main text, taking over with a 68-page caption that interweaves the stories of British anthropologist Mary Leakey (who discovered the Laetoli Footprints), an indentured laborer building the Uganda Railroad, and a museum curator trapped in the basement of the UK’s National Archives. The sheer length of this unruly exhibit is meant to demonstrate that “nothing that is is unconnected.” Every object finds itself at the nexus of innumerable historical threads, and to truly see an object means to trace these threads—a process that can never approach completion. The structure of the book was meant to evoke that fact. In this case, the exhibit explores the connections between the field of paleoanthropology and histories of racism and imperialism, especially in East Africa.

Also, small spoiler alert here, but although there is a shift in structure, there isn’t actually a shift in perspective—the whole book has one narrator, though it might take a tiny bit of sleuthing to discover how that is the case….

GS: Like babies and their first word, what do you imagine the first word was for the human race, or what would you wish it to be?

AQ: In Habilis, I imagine that the first instance of human language was in fact a gesture—the gesture of pointing. To point is essentially to say “this.” So I imagine that “this” was the first word. Although it may seem like a simple, throwaway word, it is in fact very important to me, and to my writing. Ludwig Wittgenstein has this great line in Philosophical Investigations: “Yet, strange to say, the word ‘this’ has been called the only genuine name; so that anything else we call a name was one only in an inexact, approximate sense.” Habilis was in large part an exploration of that idea.

The word “this,” linguistically, is an example of what’s called deixis. Deictic words are those that have fixed semantic meanings, but whose denoted meanings depend on their context—words like you, me, there, that, this, tomorrow, today, etc. You when I say it means you but when you say it means me. Roland Barthes: “That’s it! This cry is not to be understood as an illumination of intelligence, but as the very limit of nomination, of the imagination.” I love the word “this” for that reason—it runs right up against the inexpressible. It refuses all reductionism, and simply affirms—this! All this! Some of my favorite books employ deictic phrases to convey this sense of ecstasy. Mrs. Dalloway is a great example. It is chock-full of deixis: “There she was,” “That is all,” “He was right there,” “Happiness is this,” “It is this,”—and of course, the famous last line: “It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was.” And this is probably another reason why I so love Simon’s Triptych—in a way, it’s simply an utterance of the word “this,” extended to the length of 170 pages.

GS: What is one recent evolution in our language that you can’t stand?

AQ: Honestly, I can’t think of one. I used to be more militaristic about language, but thankfully I’ve left that tendency behind. Language’s diversity and malleability are its strength and its beauty. I have no interest in condemning people’s usage.

GS: Are you familiar with any literary attempts at making an evolved language for the future or the post-apocalypse more specifically, such as Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, or the “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Evrythin’ After” chapter in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas? If so, what are your thoughts on them?

AQ: Slightly familiar, yes. Though I can’t say I’m necessarily a fan of any of those particular works, I am compelled by the idea of imagining a new language. My favorite author who speculates about invented languages would definitely be Borges. He imagines alternative languages in many of his short stories. Often, he’s theorizing the possibility of a perfect, totalizing language. For example, in the story “Funes, His Memory,” the protagonist, Ireneo Funes, has sustained a head injury that has left him with the unique ability to perceive and remember all things perfectly. “He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once,” the narrator tells us. Funes is naturally overwhelmed by this onslaught of information, comparing his memory to a garbage heap. In an attempt to deal with this heap, he contemplates a system much like one postulated by John Locke in the 17th century: “an impossible language in which each individual thing—every stone, every bird, every branch—would have its own name.” Funes, however, “discarded the idea as too general,” for he remembered “not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf.” He considers other language systems that might be able to reduce this welter of memory but ultimately gives up. Perfect languages don’t exist, and the word this can only get you so far—at some point, you’ve got to accept the imperfect names of which our language is made.

GS: Whether as a human being or another animal, what is an age you’d like to have lived in? Why?

AQ: I think I would like to have been a cyanobacterium about 2.4 billion years ago, back when they were in the process of oxygenating the earth. The air would have been so fresh.

GS: What do you imagine the last word will be for the human race, or what would you wish it to be?

AQ: I would wish it not to be one word, but many words uttered simultaneously. One word—even a word as multiple as “this”—is never enough.

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Alyssa Quinn is the author of Habilis (Dzanc, 2022) and the prose chapbook Dante’s Cartography (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2019). She holds an MFA in creative writing from Western Washington University, and is currently at work on a PhD at the University of Utah, where she is also the senior prose editor for Quarterly West. Her website is here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at

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