Books Magazine

Marxism & Snot Rockets

By Stephanieregnif @OnHerBookshelf


Siân Evans is a librarian and former medievalist living in New York. She works for a digital image library and in her spare time writes about open access issues in art history. She also runs the Tumblr, Conversations with Women.

Brooklyn was quiet, almost windless. As I waited on the doorstep for Siân, a couple in black coats alternated taking funny-faced portraits of each other across the street, faintly giggling each time the camera flashed. Otherwise, it seemed silent, maybe the whoosh of a car here or there. An old man walked up to the building, turning his key in the lock. I could hear the cylinder shifting, the bolt snapping back from the latch. Then we danced, awkwardly shuffling around the question: who holds for whom? It was an apropos beginning to my conversation with Siân, who calls feminism her oldest love, particularly “feminism as practice,” which, in a really reductive way, is the door holding kind.

Once the who-holds-for-whom conundrum passed, I met Siân in the stairwell. In contrast to the stillness of outside, she seemed in constant motion, padding up the cement staircase barefoot, her thick bangs bouncing in rhythm with each step. Her apartment was bright with tapestries. She apologized for its size, its resemblance to a college dorm, but it had a kitchen, the art was framed, there was a vanity sparsely draped in vintage jewelry. The bookcases were color-coded…like a rainbow.

I photographed Siân in her favorite reading spot: bed. We listened to what she dubbed her “solo-dance-party-playlist,” probably the only place where Phil Collins and Joey Bada$$ coexist, and we talked about picking fights, gossip as art, and our shared admiration for Shiela Heti.

What are you reading right now?
I’m actually reading two books right now. Chris Kraus’ Torpor and Raya Dunayevskaya’s Rosa Luxbemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution.

Are you usually the type that reads multiple books at once?

No, I generally read one book at a time. I think I’m just out of practice at reading theory, so I needed some fiction for a break.

What attracted you to Torpor and Rosa Luxbemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution?

I’m reading the Dunaveyskaya for a reading group I’m a part of, and I picked up Chris Kraus because I needed a break from all the Marxist theory. I’d read I Love Dick before and absolutely loved it, so I figured I’d give Torpor a try.

Give us a brief synopsis of Torpor.

Essentially, Torpor picks up where I Love Dick left of. Or, rather, serves as a fictionalized prequel to I Love Dick, which chronicles the end of Chris Kraus’ relationship with Sylvère Lotringer and the development of Kraus’ “Lonely Girl Phenomenology.” In Torpor, Sylvie (Kraus?) and Jerome (Lotringer?) travel to Romania in a vain attempt to adopt a Romanian child and save their failing marriage. The text is peppered with references to famous art world types, some in code and some (like Félix Guattari) not.

What do you love about it?

I love the way Kraus plays with the idea of memoir and fiction, weaving her own experiences with fictional ones. I love how she plays with the idea of gossip as a form of art. Mostly, however, I love how Kraus talks so nakedly about her feelings, about being a woman, and about the notion of failure.

Let’s play a quick game of fill in the blank:

Read this if…you want to feel inspired to write about things that scare you.

Definitely don’t read this if…you’re trying to make a go of a heterosexual relationship.

Can you share a favorite quote?

“Because the world itself is now unfathomable, the only complexities that really count are small moments of domestic life that combine to trigger deep emotion. There is no longer any way of being poor in any interesting way in major cities like Manhattan.”

I think a lot about this quote — the layers of meaning, the politics of the everyday, and what it means to live in a city like New York now. I’d love to have a conversation about this and Girls, because the moments I love most in that show are the small, strange, quirky ones (like Jessa snot-rocketing in the bathtub); the parts that attempt to approach a broader meaning about what it means to be a girl in New York often fall flat for me.

So you aren’t a fan of Girls?

I actually am a fan of Girls and I think it’s a really interesting take on the young woman as subject.

The show is interesting to me because it does play so much with the idea of memoir and fiction, like you said about Kraus’ work. I often have  a difficult time distinguishing between Hannah and Lena, and for me that adds more meaning to the show. Also, it’s striking that it’s those little moments -  rather than the narrative arc at large – that you enjoy about Girls, especially given the content of your website, which to me does something similar: it captures passing exchanges between women that represent deeper connections.

While I do think it’s important to distinguish between fiction and memoir to some degree (Hannah is a character, after all), I think the broader phenomenon you address is interesting. It seems that a lot of writing by women these days seems to trouble this distinction, and I find it really interesting. For me, Conversations with Women is kind of liberating in that, in the age of social media, we all spend so much time constructing public images of ourselves and I’ve always loved those little moments of vulnerability more than anything else. I think that’s where we are who we are, when we’re talking about farting or taking a pregnancy test or feeling scared about something. It’s the stuff so often left out.

Is Torpor representative of your bookshelf at large?

I have two grad degrees, one in library science and one in art history (specifically, early medieval art), so my bookshelf is a little schizophrenic. I have a lot of books about information science, a lot of books about medieval art, a fair amount of postmodern theory (including a fair amount of feminist theory). Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Kraus-like literature that blends fiction and memoir and broadly approaches topics like being-a-woman-and-making-art, though, so my recent purchases include Eileen Myles, Maggie Nelson, Sheila Heti, Kate Zambreno, and the likes.

Do you have a literary guilty pleasure?

Not really and I kind of feel guilty about that. All avid readers seem to have some guilty pleasure, but I’m not much of a collector. I think I bore too easily to stick to a genre.

That’s a good thing. You must have quite an eclectic shelf. Can you give and example of its range?

Well, a few years ago my parents tried to get rid of all my children’s books, so it literally ranges from children’s books to Sophie Calle’s Address Book to the collection poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Tell us about what you do.

I work for a digital image library in sales. So, I talk to librarians about image cataloging and managing multimedia assets at their institutions. I also try to write and publish about open access issues and art historical research.

Does what your reading ever influence the way you go about day-to-day life?

I have a hard time separating myself from narratives or, rather, from the moods of things I read. So, yeah, I started a massive fight with the guy I’ve been seeing when I was reading Torpor.

What about the book triggered the fight? In the end, were you just like, “Sorry it’s Torpor talking, not me…”

Oh, I think the book just addresses the doubts we all feel in relationships. Essentially, the main character (Sylvie) is happier alone than in her marriage. This is something I often wonder about myself, or all of us, are we happier alone but are just told we should be in relationships?

How did you get into feminist theory?

I have a little inside joke with myself that feminism is my oldest love. Unlike some of my more academic friends, I don’t read a ton of feminist theory anymore. I bought a Kristeva reader last year and only made it through a few essays. I think the presence of feminism on the web and the popularity of sites like Feministing and Jezebel sort of rejuvenated my interest in feminism as a philosophy, practice, and lived experience. I’m really interested in pop-culture-feminism, so to speak. I think it’s so important to make feminism accessible and interesting to folks and counteract the backlash of the 1980s and 1990s, when I was coming of age.

That’s interesting. I’d never heard of the term pop-culture-feminism. Are there feminists that might argue it’s working against the feminist imperative? Just curious. 

Yes, I think there are actually a lot of feminists who find the use of humor and sex appeal in contemporary feminism to be entirely problematic. I was actually having a conversation with a friend last week about this, whether or not there has to be a distinction between ‘angry feminism’ and ‘accessible feminism’? I’m not sure I think there has to be a distinction, but I understand the counterargument and sometimes I worry that I am just not theoretically rigorous enough.

How did you get the idea for Conversations with Women.

I’ve always been an avid email writer and I have a lot of friends who are such beautiful writers that I’d often joked about making a book of emails. Then I read Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and I related to the notion that some of the most profound things we think and do are parts of conversations with people we love. Later last year, I read Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and got really interested in the idea that the young woman (jeune fille) is not taken seriously, that the things she writes are systematically ignored. At the time I was writing back and forth with a dear friend of mine who is writing her dissertation on this subject and who has a really great feminist project I admire, Appropriately, Conversations with Women came out of those conversations.

Can you share an excerpt from a conversation  you especially love.

Of course… I have lots of favorites, but here’s a funny/sad excerpt from a recent conversation:

K:  im just gonna have a coffee and some water
haha so last night we were joking around
about advil
all like “how does it know where to go?!?!?!?!?!”
and i was like “how does it know to go to my crampy ovaries, but still ignore my achey heart?????”
and everyone was like


D:  hahah aww
your heart is not so achey these days!
i could use some heart advil, always
K:  i had this crazy moment of insecurity before bed last night
it will hurt soon
i can feel it coming
K:  the blind panic
D:  fuck it all
i get so mad about it
because i honestly blame it on the fact that i’m a woman
and we are taught that we are nothing
without a man
and so it’s so easy to get so wrapped up
in a relationship
and forget your whole other big, beautiful, special, weird life
it makes me so mad
because i find myself doing it
even with dudes i don’t LIKE THAT MUCH

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