Behind Kate Zambreno’s "Book of Mutter": A Shadow Bibliography


Bookmarked is a  column in which writers give us their "shadow bibliographies" essentially, the books behind their books. Which books influenced their writing, and how?  Today's writer is Kate Zambreno.

In some ways Book of Mutter is itself a “shadow bibliography”—a text that exists as an archive of other texts. There are the primary materials and artists that I engage with throughout—the fragmented writings and Cells of Louise Bourgeois, Henry Darger’s obsessions, diaries, and weather reports, Roland Barthes’s work on photography coupled with Mourning Diary, his diary of scraps he kept in the days after his mother’s death, concepts of Victorian memorial photography and collection. Then there are the other obsessions that have informed the topography of the text in the 13 years of its conception, threaded throughout, as ghosts and echoes (like an ongoing fascination with Barbara Loden’s 1971 film Wanda, or Helene Weigel’s silent scream in her playing of Brecht’s Mother Courage, or interrogations into various repressive American histories). But there are also the texts that are sometimes seeded as references throughout Book of Mutter, that crucially inspired or gave me permission for its forms (beyond my séance with Barthes, Bourgeois, and Darger.)


Ghost Image by Hervé Guibert

I think of Mutter as a meditation on photography, mostly thinking through Barthes’s mother fixation, the relationship of photography to absence and memory. But in the final rewrite of Mutter I was inspired by the scrapbook-like quality of Guibert’s own text on photography, his engagement with Barthes, how silence and space works throughout, Guibert’s casual and diaristic tone, and especially his opening vignette about taking a photograph of his mother, the fragility of her beauty and of that memory he seeks to capture.

A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke

In A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke struggles to recreate his mother’s life following her suicide. He says everything in that slim devastating text that I spent pages and pages stumbling around trying to communicate, my tongue stuck and fuzzy. I think of the Handke as a sort of genre of the autopsy—a form of elegy—see also Edouard Levé’s Suicide, a tone of exhausted and detached grief.

Enfances by Nathalie Sarraute

The voice at the opening of Nathalie Sarraute’s memoir of her childhood, interrogating the author’s memories of her origins, wondering why even to recall one’s origins at all, teasing this writerly cliché. In some ways my Mutter is a form of reading these European memoirs of childhood and the mother, that devouringness—the Sarraute, Christa Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Thomas Bernhard’ s Gathering Evidence, Violette Leduc’s La Bâtarde.

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

I once was asked to write an essay on Cha’s text, having mentioned somewhere that my forever in-progress Book of Mutter was inspired by its engagement with Korean history and Cha’s mother-myths, and its form, taken from experimental collage-film, and became so paralyzed at the thought of saying anything about this text that I couldn’t write anything at all. In this version of Mutter I merely visually cite from Dictee, collaging a similar still of Renée Falconetti in Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (and elsewhere engaging with the making of the film and Joan of Arc’s trial documented in the Orleans manuscript), but its influence and importance is seminal.

Syzygy, Beauty by T. Clutch Fleischmann

Clutch is one of my favorite writers who I find myself often in a conversation with in my current thinking and writing. I have long been in awe of what they pull off in this text of space and boundaries and fluidity and desire—also how juxtaposed with these gorgeous witty and surprising lines of a certain unrequited longing they also hold court with the artists Grayson Perry, Tracey Emin, Meret Oppenheim, and especially the Cells of Louise Bourgeois. I had long thought of Bourgeois’s writing and Cells as a formative inspiration for Mutter, as what in fact helped catalyze the project—but teaching Clutch’s book in a seminar at Columbia on Writing the Visual I began to think of how a paragraph could be in a way inspired by a Cell, how it could contain a sort of room, with objects inside, a mise-en-scène of trauma, of memory, of childhood. It is in this last rewriting, guided by Clutch’s language and thinking through the visual, that I began to think of the writing and winnowing of Mutter as a sort of sculpture.

Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil

The moment of communion at the opening of Ban en Banlieue with Cha’s Dictee, of licking the text…Bhanu is another genius whose texts for me—in whatever form—blog, email, lectures, books—are some of the most formative influences on what I want writing and literature to be. Ban is an endless inspiration on new work for me, and I can see its influence seeping also into this final version of Mutter. Books that are books that are failures, or notes for books that don’t exist, or contain the ghosts of past iterations, books that are about not writing as much as trying to write, especially of trauma, of childhood. (I would also include on this list her Schizophrene, and texts like Renee Gladman’s Toaf, Marie Chaix’s Summer of the Elder Tree, the novels of W.G. Sebald.)

Don’t let Me Be Lonely and Citizen by Claudia Rankine

DLMBL was a touchstone throughout the majority of writing Book of Mutter, which has evolved over the entire time I’ve tried to write, over a decade, and thinking through new work—how a first-person text can be a notebook thinking through philosophy, literature, watching and looking, depression, the suffering of others. I’ve been thinking lately through teaching these books and rereading them how both of Rankine’s texts utilize silence and space on the page, how they both seem like such essential texts, acts of intense empathy and encounter and alienation, winnowed through years of thinking and living, the effect of all of this on the body, the political body, how the text is also a body. Also how Rankine engages with artists in Citizen, how the text is itself a visual installation, a sort of essay-film about address and encounter and America.

Shaker Loops by John Adams

I’ve been more and more drawn to listening to trance-like compositions while writing. When working on Mutter the past few years I listened to this piece of American minimalism over and over on repeat—sometimes I would have it on for hours, trying to imagine the tonal quality of the text, that begins skeletally and then builds and builds, thinking through the concepts of repetition and oscillation, of ecstasy and intensity, in the work itself.

Kate Zambreno is the author of the novels O Fallen Angel and Green Girl, both reissued by Harper Perennial. She is also the author of the work Heroines (Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents). She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Sarah Lawrence College. She is at work on a series of small books about time, memory, and the persistence of art, which includes Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e)’s Native Agents, March 2017) and the forthcoming Drifts (Harper Perennial, Spring 2018).