Like Lips, Like Skins, Andrea Scrima’s second novel (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl 2021), is a diptych; the first half of the book is dedicated to the first-person narrator’s mother, the second half to her late father. We meet Felice in the early eighties as a young art student in New York and as a newcomer to West Berlin before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall; ten years later, she returns to New York to install an exhibition of her work. Another fifteen years pass and we encounter her as a single mother poring over her father’s journals in search of her family’s past. Like Lips, Like Skins is about art, memory, and the repetitions of trauma. The first chapter was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte. Ally Klein interviewed the author over the course of several weeks via email.
Ally Klein: There’s a scene in Like Lips, Like Skins in which the first-person narrator, Felice, recalls studying the Sunday comics as a child. She buries her nose in the newsprint; when she fetches a magnifying glass to get closer, she discovers an “accumulation of tiny dots.” Individually, they’re no more than “lopsided splotch[es],” but together give rise to a bigger picture. I see a parallel here to the way the novel is stylistically conceived. Memories pop up seemingly at random, and in the end, they produce an image that works intuitively. The book eludes a stringent retelling, but leaves the reader with a sense of understanding something that can’t be expressed in terms of an idea or concept. The discoveries, if that’s what they can be called, are situated elsewhere.
Andrea Scrima: As a child, Felice doesn’t yet know that the interaction between the eye and brain fills in the gaps, the missing information between disparate points; for her, it’s just magic. I use language to create imagery that can exist outside of description or symbolism. In literature, images often have a function, they’re there to convey a certain idea. But some images are irreducible, they’re not all that easy to explain. And these are the ones that interest me most: they’re autonomous, they have a life of their own. Sometimes they’re a bit uncanny.
I’m interested in literature’s resilience, its ability to find a formal language for phenomena that can’t be easily captured in words. A language the reader somehow perceives as “true,” even if they can’t necessarily say how or why.
Your novels operate intuitively, obliquely. If we don’t “understand” things, if something isn’t available to us in the form of concepts, we can’t express it in everyday language. And so we’re unable to articulate what’s happening inside us. This is confusing, it’s unsettling.
The first-person narrator is haunted by memories she’s powerless to resist; she suffers from recurrent dreams. The conclusions she draws are not, however, necessarily correct. Felice sees things, she understands things, but like the other characters in the book, she’s prevented from gaining a certain insight into herself. This disjointedness is transferred onto the reader. It leads to a feeling of unease, but also to a porosity that’s not all that different from the sensitivity required to make works of art. Just as dreams follow an inner logic that can’t be reduced to any one unequivocal interpretation, art’s formal language can convey perceptual phenomena that are fragile, ephemeral, that don’t easily lend themselves to words. And so the book makes a strong case for art, expressed, I hope, in a language accessible to readers not particularly versed in the visual. Because in the end, it’s the reader’s own mental images I’m interested in activating, as these are the more personal, powerful ones.
The uncanny also carries through the novel thematically: trauma lies in wait for Felice in banal, everyday moments, it ambushes her and elicits extreme reactions, virtually out of nowhere. She becomes overwhelmed, she reverts to what almost feels like childlike behavior, she’s seized with irrational fears. In Like Lips, Like Skins, two types of memory take shape: the recollections Felice deliberately delves into as she tries to reconstruct her past, and those that pop up “randomly.” These memory flashes, triggered unwittingly, can lead to extreme emotional outbursts. Felice has no access to what might be causing her state of mind, or to a language that might explain it.
Some memories turn up out of nowhere, and for a split second you recognize the precise atmosphere of things long past. But we also know those involuntary flashes of memory that are accompanied by physical symptoms or intense emotion.
The moment a traumatic experience occurs, certain regions of the brain, for instance the frontal lobes, are effectively switched off, while other, older parts of the brain—the regions responsible for the organism’s survival—take over. It’s similar with flashbacks: because our understanding of time lies in the neocortex, we experience a threat from the past as immediate, as though it were happening in the here and now. Cognitive thinking as well as language and memory formation also freeze up; in other words, all of a sudden there’s this huge blind spot ballooning outwards. The senses of a person experiencing a flashback become flooded, they fail to understand that they’re not in danger, they can barely find an explanation for their affective state and physical reactions and afterwards, confused and disoriented, they remember very little.
I find the mother interesting in this respect. She’s the one character who literally makes up her own past. She has this idea of what she was like as a mother, and in many respects it’s the opposite of what Felice remembers.
The mother is just trying to make sense of her life. But it’s primarily the gaps in her memory that shape her view of the past; Felice suffers from this, she struggles with it, because it means an obliteration of her own history, as well. Essentially, the mother understands very little about her life; the past is a minefield, she takes pains to avoid it, she’s not even aware of what she’s blocking out.
The mother has also lost access to her inner self; we feel this from the way she speaks, which consists for the most part in truisms and empty phrases, or it becomes emotional, seemingly out of nowhere. She vacillates between a fear of abandonment and lashing out in fits of rage that terrify her children. Felice sees her as a kind of monster.
Yes, the childhood image of an ogre still sticks: a looming figure, larger than life, dangerous and unpredictable—someone Felice still, even as an adult, occasionally experiences as a physical threat.
The character of the mother is dualistic: on the one hand, she’s described as “girlish” in her behavior, on the other as an actual danger. She’s obese, she suffers from an eating disorder—she’s like a prisoner in her own body. There’s this sense that she keeps spreading outwards, keeps taking up more and more space in the house Felice grew up in.
We always want to believe that aging brings wisdom. You learn from experience, try to make sense of what you’ve lived through, you discover mistakes, feel remorse. You need the past as a reference to go on living; families are emotionally connected to one another through shared memories. But what if this doesn’t happen? If a person’s reality remains unacknowledged and misunderstood, emotional closeness becomes impossible: interpreting the past together is what creates a common reality. One could even take this further and claim that a person on the run from their past is also fleeing from the need to think. The mother cannot accept her life, she has barricaded herself—albeit sometimes quite charmingly—in a parallel universe of soap operas and selective childhood memories. The years of her marriage, all the years her four children were growing up: it’s as though she’s blocked it all out, as though she were trying to reconnect to a happier period in her past. Basically, she’s remained a girl who never grew up, never became a mother. And Felice feels compassion for this girl, because she’s never actually had what could be called a real life.
While the first part of the novel focuses on the mother, who comes alive on the page and seems physically present in an almost fleshy sense, the second part searches for clues about the father’s inner life by examining his journal entries, which consist in little more than dates and various random events. He himself seems absent, unreachable. There’s an inability to communicate in both parents, but because the father remains silent throughout most of the novel, his character serves as an opposing pole to the mother figure.
In contrast to the mother’s rewriting of her past, the father’s calendars and journals stand for a seemingly objective reality. Felice studies these records of the family’s history meticulously, one could almost say forensically. They consist of a series of everyday, for the most part unimportant family occurrences; sometimes they come across as coded messages that stand for feelings, confessions, crises that he might not have been able to express otherwise. Sometimes, rarely, he phrases things more directly, for example in the case of a particular déjà-vu: but here, too, we only learn of an uncanny coincidence of numbers, times, signs to which he apparently ascribed some special meaning—the meaning itself, however, is something he never actually reveals. Occasionally the father records world political events, but apart from these, his entries serve as private reminders and are not intended for anyone else’s eyes. Felice takes it upon herself to reconstruct these fragments, so to speak—she’s not only trying to understand her family’s history, but also to get emotionally closer to a distant father.
Felice also learns from her father’s journal and calendar entries that there’s a genetic predisposition to depression on his side of the family. And so she’s faced with the question of whether her own depression is inherited or derives from the trauma the mother inflicted on her and her siblings.
Or is it an identification with the father, a form of loyalty? At one point in the book, Felice wonders if she studied art in an effort to fulfil her father’s childhood dream. Children absorb their parents’ unrealized ambitions; we’re familiar with the idea of the “assignment” as part of the delegation theory of psychology. And sometimes children feel guilty for escaping their parents’ trapped lives. Like Lips, Like Skins can be read, among other things, as a story of overcoming depression. Art is not, however, presented here as therapy, on the contrary: it merely makes a different language available which, like dreams or the symptoms of trauma, has to be deciphered.
So does the title of the German edition of Like Lips, Like Skins, “Kreisläufe” [in English: circles, circuits, circulations], suggest a circling around and around in an attempt to get closer to the self through art?
The English title, Like Lips, Like Skins, occurs in a passage that describes an artistic sort of perception:
Winter arrived, and when the snow fell, I became transfixed by the edges of things as the snow melted and froze again and covered what had been there before. There was an archaeology of layers: first an inch or two, inscribed with footprints and paw prints and bicycle tire tracks, and then a partial thaw as the dry white powder turned translucent and glistened and the crisp articulation—finely chiseled soles of running shoes, the parallel lines of a baby stroller—blunted and turned blurry. And then everything froze overnight and the edges between snow and slush, crisscrossed with the fragmentary traces of all these intersecting tracks, grew rigid, and over the next few days, the dirt of the street and passing traffic sprayed a brownish glaze over the sidewalk’s slippery surface until one bright morning I found it covered again by a new layer of snow. It was like painting, or like seeing things in terms of the painting process. And when noon approached and the temperature rose, one, two degrees above freezing, it was enough to blend the brownish underlayer into the pristine white, giving rise to a slick creamy color that gleamed in the slant of the late afternoon sunlight and reflected the silhouettes of passersby. [. . .] It had to do with edges, with how things touch one another—it was like lips, like skins, membranes vibrating with connection and communion.
Felice’s ability to “read” the many layers of snow and how they’ve formed—the blurring and blending of different states and her understanding of how they accrued—is similar to the painting process. I wanted to emphasize this mode of perception, which already permeates her everyday life—this merging of art and reality. When it became clear that the English title was untranslatable, I began to look for a different word or phrase that references one of the works of art described in the novel. I chose a drawing project described in Part Two of the book: there’s a geometric figure consisting of eight elements assembled into various constellations; these, in turn, are organized into larger progressions. The book’s title, combined with the image of one of the drawings on the cover, turns the description of this work into a kind of metaphor for the psychological entanglements of the characters and the hidden laws governing their actions.
The form of the circle, the loop, often conveys an idea of incessant repetition. Do always obsessively circle around the topics that preoccupy us?
In the book, there’s no clear separation between artistic and everyday perception; Felice recalls that she discontinued the series because she was afraid she would no longer be able to tell the difference between reality and imagination. This blurring of perception—this “being on the verge” of losing one’s mind, or at least in a state in which it becomes difficult to master life on a practical level—can be understood as one possible key to the book. And so the title takes on various layers, because on an artistic level, breaking out of the cycle, and by implication departing from a particular perception of the world, leads to loss.
The theme of autofiction seems inevitable in the reception of your novel. But although you’ve given Felice several of your artworks, and her parents show similarities to your own, you’re reluctant to apply this label to your writing.
I have trouble with the term “autofiction,” I find it to be misleading. As if you were simply drawing from your own life, changing a few names and details—and not engaged in the laborious project of constructing the overarching, intricate architecture of a book of ideas. It’s tantamount to a misunderstanding of literature, a blindness to art.
We know that we’re always rewriting the memories we consciously conjure up; we sort out the disparate fragments in such a way that they result in a narrative, and we repress certain things in the process. I consider the very idea of autobiography to be a misunderstanding, because our memory is already tied in to a process of fictionalization.
Writing in the first-person singular means that you can’t analyze a character on a meta-level or from a distance, you have to make them do things, dream, talk, think. This establishes a closer link to the reader. I gave Felice certain elements from my life, I gave her Staten Island and Berlin and some of my art—to an extent, I even lent her my own late parents. This can be misleading, of course, and it can mean that people confuse the character with the author. However, if you start reading the book in an “autofictional” manner, you’d have to become skeptical at the very latest with the character of Micha. I’ve been living in Berlin for 37 years and wanted to write about my adopted home. It was clear to me that my view of Germany would be perceived as that of an outsider, a foreigner, even if I’ve spent my entire adult life here. And so I designed a fictional character to speak in my stead; over time it became increasingly clear to me that this person had to come from the East. Micha was a vehicle for me to lend a face to some of my own observations on a divided Germany and German Reunification. I live between these two cultures, I have both an inside and an outside view of the two countries. As a former inmate in a GDR juvenile detention facility who never really gained a foothold in the West, Micha is also caught between cultures. He’s stuck in this dilemma, but as a German he has the authority to articulate his thoughts about this country. And so suddenly, the figure of Felice could become his counterpart and take on the role of the somewhat clueless American. This is where an attentive reader would have to notice that the first-person narrator can’t be autofictional—because Micha and his observations are of course the author’s thoughts, statements, and hypotheses. In other words: Micha, c’est moi.
Andrea Scrima studied fine arts in New York and Berlin, where she lives as a writer and artist. In 2018, Literaturverlag Droschl published the German edition of her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, New York) under the title Wie viele Tage; Kreisläufe, the German edition of Like Lips, Like Skins, followed in 2021. She writes essays for the Times Literary Supplement, FAZ, Schreibheft, Music & Literature, The American Scholar, LitHub, and The Brooklyn Rail and is editor-in-chief of StatORec.
Like Lips, Like Skins is about art, memory, and the repetitions of trauma. The first chapter was published in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; other excerpts have appeared in English in Trafika Europe, StatORec, and Zyzzyva. For English-language rights please contact Soumeya Roberts of HG Literary. The German version of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte.
Ally Klein studied philosophy and literature; she lives and works in Berlin. Her debut novel Carter was published in 2018 by Literaturverlag Droschl, followed by Der Wal in 2021. An interview with her appeared in this column in 2018.