On Ana Mendieta, Julie Buntin’s Marlena & what we make of what remains.
It’s Thursday. I’m home, back from the boxing gym, where the room’s heavy with moisture and the dull thud of meat against the bag. Recently, I’ve been telling this joke about how I “leveled up in fight school,” as though it’s some dumb video game, but the truth is that sparring classes are hard. Kickboxing is less about learning to hit someone than learning to take a hit. I hurt, but I’m intact. I’m thumbing the stripes where I’ve velcro-ed padding to my body. I’m trying to rub away the pink indentations, each strap leaving behind a sinkhole of salty, dried sweat; my calves, my wrists, my ankles.
I take a bath, soaking up the god-given hot water, and watch a mottled purple bruise begin to creep across my hip. I press my fingers into it. I like it when my body marks experience. I like that I no longer notice when it cracks its vessels open and raises blood into its surface. I like to be reminded that despite everything, my body didn’t die.
My body didn’t die; and in fact, I didn’t either.
At a certain point after your adolescence, you decide to choose to live, but that doesn’t mean living is fun or easy. I graduate college. I go to graduate school. I’m unremarkable, New York City swallows me with ease. I’m lonely, I eat avocado halves to stave off feeling. Proudly, I lose five pounds. I get a job at a literary organization. I am good at my job. I learn the spreadsheets, the data, how to talk to publishers. I learn how to manage to manipulate someone else’s social anxiety to make them feel comfortable; I learn how to bullshit on my feet. I am very pleasing.
One day, a co-worker quits. We begin interviewing for a replacement A woman comes in who‘s highly recommended. She seems smart and capable, and (v. importantly to me), funny. Her hair is really shiny. I smooth mine self-consciously. I smooth my skirt, too. Hers is pretty, printed with flowers, and she’s wearing a gray blazer. Mine is cheap cotton from Forever 21 but the color is nice, I guess. I like the way she laughs and the way her eyes crinkle, the way her shoulders throw back and her mouth grins extra wide. She speaks really fast when she answers questions but she doesn’t interrupt, and when she starts her sentence, it comes on the heels of mine so quickly that I feel thrown. It’s charming. My boss hasn’t said a word, but I know she’s hired.
After the interview, I walk to the elevator so I can catch a quick cigarette before we get back to work. I find her waiting, too, and we smile at each other. We get in the elevator. We’re still smiling. It’s a little daft. Before we reach the ground floor, I turn. “Hey, you want a cigarette?” I ask. “I’m going to have one.” A pause. “I shouldn’t, but sure,” she says. We laugh.
I fall in love with Julie. In the mornings, when we get to work and before our boss shows up, I collapse face down onto the yoga ball that her predecessor’s left in her office. I spill coffee on her desk. We chat by the printer. She tells me to quit smoking. I learn about her cat and her partner, we laugh about my romantic misdemeanors. We sneak our writing in during the slow hours of the work day and cover for each other if there’s more than usual that needs to get done. We make a good team. We go to spin class together on Wednesdays during lunchtime and order veggie green curry with tofu afterwards. I tell her all the poet drama and she teaches me about literary world gossip.
When we do write, we do it differently; fiction and poetry, narrative and not. But we also write the same. We write what we need to write and not because we can. We’re not sure we can do it any other way.
It’s years later, and “tell me what you can’t forget and I’ll tell you who you are,” begins Julie Buntin’s acclaimed novel, Marlena.
The narrator of the story is Cat, a jaded, but successful young professional. Like many of New York City’s young and beautiful, Cat is a transplant from elsewhere — a small town in rural Michigan — who came to seek a better life. She possesses a steely work ethic. It pays off in all the way one might expect — a good salary, a nice apartment, a loving husband. But a singular event in Cat’s life is revealed as the center of the novel: the death of her best friend Marlena, something that happens right before her sixteenth birthday. It plagues her.
Told in fragments, Cat’s coming-of-age story in Marlena seems, at first, typical — she’s a bookish newcomer who’s forced to leave her prep school and move to northern Michigan because of her parents’ difficult divorce. Defeated and lonely, she befriends the class delinquent, Marlena, who blazes a trail of feminine glory through boys, nail polish, Joni Mitchell, and drugs. Brilliant but volatile, Marlena is magnetic. Cat can’t help but get drawn in, with a mixture of envy and admiration. She is desperate for proximity to Marlena’s light, and before too long begins to “act as [Marlena’s] mirror,” jigsawing herself into the perfect companion, her gravity balancing Marlena’s sharpness, her loyalty blunting Marlena’s precarity. They become “us two, one perfect girl.”
Unlike stories of adolescent friendship that tend to glamorize the sacred, transformative connection girls have to one another, the strength of Julie’s novel is in its sharp rendering of the hazardously two-faced interdependence that is the foundation of female friendship. How women can invent one another exquisitely, sure, but how they also have the power to annihilate.
Marlena envies Cat’s privilege — or, as Julie puts it, her “safety”: the warmth of her blonde, casserole-making, wine-drinking mother, who is much preferable to Marlena’s own brusque, meth-cooking father. Cat, on the other hand, can’t help but resent and pity Marlena’s grim attractiveness, the menace and beauty with which she draws others to herself. Because of this, they exploit each other’s insecurities, enact small betrayals, find fleeting revenge. The very qualities that provoke them also make them indispensable to each other.
“Divide it further — between what I mean and what I say, who I am, and who I appear to be, who she said she was and acted like she was and also, of course, who she really was in all her glorious complexity, all her unknowable Marlena-ness, all her secrets,” Julie writes. The beauty of Marlena lies in how it draws their complex relationship out fully — it’s unbearable in its sensitivity, but also in its violence. This lazy ebb and flow of difference and sameness, invention and destruction. How it forces both girls into the roles they’ve doomed each other to play — how in some strange, self-fulfilling prophecy, each girl’s imagination becomes the only medium through which the other lives out her life.
As this dynamic is played out to its logical conclusion, Marlena becomes a testament to the ugliness and beauty and the cyclical, unyielding power of girls who love each other. Girls who can no longer live beyond each other, even after death.
When New York gets too much for me, the neurotics and anxiety of it all, I move to California. Julie stays in New York and finds a job that she is amazing at, where she gets to edit and program. I keep track of what she’s up to from afar. When she is named a Publishers Weekly Star Watch 2016 Honoree I am so proud that I cut the article out and put it on my wall. My co-workers tell me I am creepy and possibly a stalker. I get it, but I can’t seem to find within myself even one feeble protest; all I seem to be able to respond with is, “But I love Julie!” They roll their eyes. “Exactly,” they say.
It’s a Saturday. Clear skies and everything; because I live in Oakland now, and the city’s breezy, slack with relaxation. Nonetheless, my lover and I are in a fight. It’s the kind of bad cyclical argument, you know, where each person’s reaction to the initial problem only triggers another negative response and before you know it, you’re not arguing about anything but the argument itself. It seems silly to waste our entire weekend hating each other, not when the weather’s so nice. We like movies, both the regular and the strange, so we decide to go to the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives (BAMPFA), where some of Ana Mendieta’s short films are showing.
We enter a small, dark room with multiple projections, more installation than exhibition, and sink into the quiet and the cool, each of us grateful for the forced separation that encountering art inevitably provides the other. Titled Covered in Time and History, the show features a number of shorts from Medieta’s oeuvre, mostly from her Silueta Series. Despite their length, the videos feel durational. Using the natural mediums of blood, earth, fire, and water, self-portraits of Mendieta’s own silhouette (siluetas), are composed in various ways. The silhouettes are rudimentary and goddess-like, recalling primitive imagery, and unmistakably feminine. Mendieta’s figures are caved, indented, molded, sometimes even burnt into existence. They appear gradually, built upon mud, a cave, even etched into a pile of fleece. They are erased, washed away by the tide, eroded by stone, turned to ash and smoke. Like the lights from the projectors that criss-cross the room, hit the wall, and spill into video, these siluetas are translucent and viscous. They feel everywhere.
A Cuban artist who immigrated to Iowa as a child in the US’s Peter Pan program, Ana Mendieta’s experience of traumatic separation from family and country means she represents her culture simultaneously as foreigner and as its nostalgic child. Drawing these disparate perspectives together, her films are imbued with a complicated ritualism that both recalls her brownness and almost fetishizes it. In a video entitled Blood Inside Outside, Mendieta paints her naked body with blood while the broad, bright streaks slowly abstract her brown skin. These gestures feel austere and deliberate, reflective of some kind of ceremony. They signal the existence of her image as a raced and gendered one, and yet the subtle exoticism imbued in the piece makes me wonder if Mendieta mobilized these markers to foreground their performance. Indeed, some of the pieces use blood to symbolically recreate the somber remnants of rape or murder — a direct response to the sexual assault and murder of University of Iowa nursing student Sarah Ann Ottens in 1973. In Moffit Building Piece, passersby are recorded reacting to a pool of blood Mendieta has left on a busy sidewalk. This isn’t without humor, as this bloody excess also recalls the melodrama of a Hollywood thriller or a pulp novel — the mild suggestion that something is being staged.
My lover and I circle one another, crossing the room at varying moments in order to view the different projections. We arrange our limbs. We sit, or stand, we descend into the mire of time as we watch images appear and disappear.We return to each other and depart, knowing that in the expansive current of these projections, we’ll come to each other eventually. We’ll end up in front of the same filmic image. And as invisible as the footprints are that we impress in front of and between one another, upon the stubbornly flat linoleum floor, something is still being conjured between us, something emotionally sedimenting; something trace.
A silhouette can be many things — something that has died and rotted away, leaving only a impression of its image. Something that has been cut out of black paper and mounted as a flimsy remainder of a life. But Mendieta’s siluetas — flickering into flame, dripping into bloody form — feel anything but destroyed. Rather, as José Muñoz writes of Mendieta’s work, it is “saturated with an intense vitalism, a concentrated interest in life itself. Work about life itself is often most poignant for its ability to represent death-in-life.”
Indeed, in Mendieta’s cycle of creation and destruction, nothing is fully present or gone. Her siluetas move, recycling material with every breath; feminine figures neither alive nor dead, they exist not because of, but within the very process of composing and recomposing themselves.
Ana Mendieta’s silueta, the figure of Ana Mendieta herself, is not that which is dead — it is that which fabricates itself from destruction. It is what still remains.
In Julie’s novel, when Marlena is found, she is drowned face-down in a shallow puddle against a landscape of Midwestern ice. Her delicate egglike features leave no trace in the world, not upon the freezing liquid that surrounds her, nor the grimness of her town. Even though her body is embalmed and intact, it seems she is already fated not to be missed. Like so many other girls who die amid poverty and crime and emotional destitution, who suffer teenage cabin fever that can find no benign outlet in the barren prison of a small town, Marlena is, as Cat notes, a “statistic.”
Inundated with survivor’s guilt for building a new life in the city (or, perhaps any life at all), Cat drinks compulsively. She flattens her personality around her co-workers, she lies to her husband. She is continually misrecognised by the people around her who can’t seem to fully access the tragic core of her. She might have managed to leave her small town adolescence behind, but can’t help remembering. She can’t stop.
But, if not for Marlena’s death, Cat may have never managed to find the strength to leave her hometown, might never have found the impetus to escape. Marlena’s erasure, in some part, is what created Cat, molded her into her adult form.
Paradoxically, Marlena’s death is the only remaining template through which Cat can live.
I’m in San Francisco, where Julie and her partner Gabe (whose stellar novel Stephen Florida has just come out from Coffee House Press) are reading at Green Apple Books on the Park. We haven’t seen each other in a while, but it doesn’t matter. Every time I see her in person, my chest is so full with pleasure from feeling not just seen, but seen; every time I see Julie I can’t help but fan my face with my excited little hands. I can’t help but double over from almost wanting to cry. This time is no exception.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a fiction reading, let alone one like this, where local writers and booksellers come to pay homage to two figures in the literary scene who are known and respected — not just because they are inimitable, but because they are as generous as they are shrewd. I’m not used to all the well-dressed girls here, with their cute haircuts, their tote bags, their early summer dresses. I’ve let the social muscles I used to flex with ease in New York atrophy with the comfortable shyness of California. I just can’t bring myself to introduce myself, to slide gracefully into a conversation with someone I don’t already know. I choose to step back. And amidst a sickly wave of unease and envy, I feel rusty, lackluster. I’m frustrated with my inability to help myself.
The event is great, but Julie’s the best part. She responds to questions with eloquence. Her demeanor is in no small part that sleek, razor-sharp wit immediately recognizable as so New York. It cuts through any babble with speedy ease. When she laughs with the audience, it’s radiant, and to me, it’s as though she’s ablaze.
People often tell me that if I had stuck out that fifth year in New York instead of moving, my suffering would have numbed; I would have stayed. I might not agree, but sometimes, I’m curious about what might have happened if I had; I wonder who I might have become. Lacking for something to do, I sit in the corner and hide behind my China Miéville history of the Russian Revolution instead.
It’s easy to name what could have happened, but didn’t, as the reason why things remain, the same. It’s even easier to blame what’s happened in the past as an excuse for why things turn out disappointingly.
Most readings of Marlena have emphasied how the loss of a loved one irreversibly changes lives. It’s true that the people Marlena touched remain ensconced in varying cocoons of unfulfillment. Cat’s brother and mother find unremarkable spouses. They have comfortable, boring existences. Marlena’s little brother Sal turns up, twenty year later, with a beer gut and a wife, a tourist in Manhattan carrying shopping bags. When Cat and Sal see each other after so many years, they don’t have much to say. They drink. They remember. Something dull and impassive within them.
But, “who can recognize the ending as it’s happening? What we live, it seems to me, is pretty much always a surprise,” Julie writes. Reading Marlena, I balk against any sense of predestination. To me, it’s impossible to tell if the limp banality of each character’s subsequent life is because of Marlena’s fate, or in spite of it.
How do we know the difference between what leaves a lasting indentation on our lives; and what simply marks it — in the way that time does, as it passes and fades — a bruise?
Either way, Marlena’s death is painted as an event that is as senseless as it is unresolved. Unquestionably, it remains — and yet it is no learning experience, it does not affirm the vitality of anyone’s life. It is no impulse for catharsis. There are no epiphanies that arise from it. No dramatic change, no climax.
And against the painfully realistic backdrop of material circumstances: opioid use, homemade meth, poverty and neglect; against the dawning, mundane reality of imperfect adulthood and impossible responsibility, Marlena begs a quieter, perhaps more frightening question. It’s the flip side of the coin: if Marlena hadn’t died, is it possible that the facts of Cat’s life, her family’s — would have turned out infuriatingly, depressingly, the same?
It’s impossible to know sometimes, what stories we tell ourselves; what we believe in order to make sense of how we have to live.
Ana Mendieta didn’t get to live. Notoriously, her husband Carl Andre was accused of murdering her by pushing her out of their thirty-fourth floor apartment in Greenwich Village. He was not convicted. Imprinted upon a bloody sidewalk, her death seemed an uncanny continuation of her art. Protests erupted around her death — the slogan, “Where is Ana Mendieta?” displayed prominently by artists and activists who spoke out, insisting that her death not go unmarked or unnoticed. It was a mobilization of the kind of feminist outrage that was material for Mendieta’s art — it spoke to a moment “where the politics of representational and actual lived modes of violence collided.” (Muñoz). Feminist artists smearing blood along the sidewalks of museums displaying Carl Andre’s art (of which SFMOMA, I regret to say, is one), publically screaming in its hallways, Ana Mendieta didn’t live, but there were those who made sure that her project, itself a figuration of her person — it continued.
A few hours later, my lover and I leave the BAMPFA. We go to a juice bar because the disjunction is pleasurable, the exit from someone else’s universe into a terse and lurid reality. We’ve found some kind of return, a way to recognize each other. The words from our mouths feel tumbled and new. “I like talking about art with you,” I say, lamely. They smile.
Nevertheless, I feel somewhat ashamed. Having never seen Mendieta’s work in person before, I had made the mistake of seeing her death within her art rather than as something corollary to it. I had assumed the films would feel more like a violation, expected them to be more painful and dramatic.
But this is not the case. Although the manner in which Mendieta died feels symbolic, even predetermined, it is crucial that her life and its end do not become the summation of her art. Indeed, the violence in Mendieta’s work itself does not feel like it is asserted solely upon her person — it feels less like an unwelcome force than a cosmological one. Like the elemental materials she used to compose her films — fire, water, air, earth — the violence that she subjects herself to is part of the natural world. It is the consequence of power as uncontrollable and raw as sunshine and the tide. It is violence that can be mobilized for good, or for bad, for the masculine or feminine, colonized or colonizer. It can be wielded by anyone, including Mendieta herself — and because of this, her works feel defiant, absorptive. They create and destroy at her will.
Perhaps the crucial lesson that Medieta’s work teaches us is that violence is not alien and imposed. Rather, like it or not, it is integral to the cyclical functioning of the universe. It can be shifted, recycled, juggled, even reoriented, but it can never be neutralized. Mendieta’s work exposes the simple, disoriented fact that violence will always exist, in all of its multifaceted forms. It is everywhere and sometimes it is even beautiful.
I’m at Green Apple and we’ve reached the Q&A portion of the evening. Julie talks about the issue of fact versus fiction. You see, Marlena might be a novel, but it contains elements that are not dissimilar to her own life, most notably her childhood in Michigan and the death of her own friend, Lea, during her adolescence. To Julie, these similarities are neither relevant to readings of her novel, nor do events in the novel reflect those of her real life. She believes that once the author decides that they are writing fiction, they by default already are. After all, how real can events be once we’ve sublimated them into art? How different is a feeling after you’ve written it down?
Still, Julie does acknowledge that it’s easier for her to write when she presses on an emotional bruise. It’s not cheating to compose fiction from what this can produce — an ambient and unformed shame, some rootless sorrow. Sometimes, writing from this place means that the heart of a growing fiction can find itself from something truer — something that already lives in the world.
Because here’s the thing about Marlena: we can say that her death was violent. We can even say it was singular. But the larger violence in Marlena, the novel, is anything but exceptional. It’s a violence that is, like Mendieta’s work, systemic, cosmological. It begins naturally in the world. It privileges the strong over the weak — a violence that becomes echoed in capitalist systems that engender poverty, the patriarchal constructs that organize families — and shows how in turn, this violence reproduces the gendered expectations that plague little girls. Extends itself and calcifies, echoing through state apparatuses that embrace capitalism and pharmaceutical big business, trickles down in the manner of poverty and opiate addiction. Something amorphous that finds its echo in loneliness and desperation and two girls who cling to each other to stay afloat amidst this diffuse violence that is impossible to see and even harder to understand. Who, in the process, unwittingly inflict the violences they’ve absorbed through one other.
“Tell me what you can’t forget and I’ll tell you who you are,” begins Julie Buntin’s acclaimed novel, Marlena. But for me, perhaps it’s not so much that we can’t forget Marlena’s death — it’s that it’s a crushing symptom of a violence that’s been here all along.
In both Julie and Mendieta’s work, art and life are uncomfortably jigsawed together by real violence, forced to chafe against the interpretive force that audiences, so frustratingly often, invest in it.
Sometimes, the violence of life can be torqued by the art that depicts it.
Sometimes, the autonomy of art falls prey to the reality of violence.
These artists might operate in crucially different ways, but their works do refuse us the ability to attribute and address violence specifically and directly. They do not give us someone or something to blame. There is no monster. There is no recuperation either. Instead, they share their experiences of violence out out as a tangle of affect that we identify with, experience alongside, are complicit with. Instead, they force us to confront, in their strange interplay of truth and fabrication, identification and disavowal, the unavoidable role that we play in a diffuse and overwhelming violence. How and where we are located in relation to it — both as viewers and as humans ensnared by the complicated matrices of the world.
It’s important here to say that I have no intention of forcing an equivalence between Ana Mendieta, a Brown woman whose work was in part about the weight of race and gender, and Julie Buntin, a white woman who has written a fictional account of loss.
Because, of course, there are crucial, and raced differences that must permeate this sense of loss — Mendieta’s Brownness means she is not automatically afforded the status of being missed. In fact, it means she has already been disappeared — her murder at the hands of her partner is a sobering dramatization of how white society erases brownness at its every whim and volition. Mendieta’s memorialization through the actions of other women and artists involved in the ongoing “Where is Ana Mendieta?” campaigns are not dissimilar to her siluetas. They are acts of fabrication out of loss — recomposing and asserting her artistic project through the figures of other women. Against the odds, it as an active refusal to forget.
On the other hand, Julie’s experience of loss, as transmuted into her novel, is that of the death of a white girl. And it’s true that this girl is imperfect and poor. It’s true that Marlena, her death just another adolescent death in a row of statistics, might have easily been forgotten. But her relationships with family and friends mean she is made visible, she is yet endowed with the enduring and sometimes irksome angelic qualities of the missing white girl. Without much effort at all, Marlena becomes myth.
As such, I only place the two proximal to each other as artists interested in loss — an experience of loss has neither a sense of purpose nor a cathartic effect — as a means of exploring violence.
I’m at the Berkeley Art Museum. It’s quiet and the screening room is dark, the projection beams flickering across the room like a glittery, tenuous web illuminating the dust. I’m sitting in front of a piece by Ana Mendieta titled Creek. It’s more composed, more like an elegant tableau than any of her other films with their improvisational, off-kilter intensity. Ana Medieta herself lies face down in a picturesque creek. A branch of delicate greenery strings itself from the side of the screen, across her marble behind. Her skin is dewy and soaked, her hair floats across the back of her head. Her features are obscured, her limbs are loose, drifting with the current, her wrist, her elbow, her ankle. The stream bubbles alongside her, quietly. She looks as though she might be dead. There is something startling about her clammy, lifeless image. Not something that has been helplessly strewn, as her body seems to appear, but an intensity that insists on straining forward beyond the beatific pose. A raw and dogged strength.
Jose Muñoz writes of Ana Mendieta’s vitality, that “these Brown feelings are not the sole province of people who have been called or call themselves brown. It is, instead, and more importantly, the sharing out of a brown sense of the world, a flowing into the common, that nonetheless maintains the urgencies and intensities we experience as freedom and difference.”
There is not much to be salvaged from the reality of loss, or violence, whether in Mendieta’s work or in Julie’s. It is painful. There is little to be learned or gained from it, there is no relief from or reason for it either — it simply has to be endured.
But perhaps their art makes this endurance a matter of living — living, not despite death, or beyond it, but in a manner that contains its inevitability. Art that is produced, vitally, as a means of wanting to live, art as a way of living that contains the loss and violence that we have to experience in reality, and which doesn’t glamorize or romanticize it. Art that can change nothing — that, in fact, knows it cannot — and yet insists on remaining.
Something we can feel. What else is art but something false, built to evoke the deep center of an immovably felt truth? Something alive.
As Cat writes, finally, when Marlena ends: “I wrote it down.”