In Conversation with Brian Birnbaum
A graduate of the Sarah Lawrence College MFA in Writing program, Brian Birnbaum is co-founder and executive editor of Dead Rabbits. His debut novel, Emerald City, is forthcoming in September 2019.
R.Y., La Lengua’s editor, reached out to Brian to discuss his writing.
R.Y: You were raised by deaf parents, which makes you a CODA (child of deaf adults). How did this influence you?
Brian Birnbaum: The stereotype about CODAs is that we’re crazy because we were raised by deaf parents and we’re hearing, so we’re split between two worlds and there’s a lot of emotional turbulence as a result. We’re very blunt. I was an only child of deaf adults so I’m used to being very loud. It has also influenced me as a writer. I write a lot about deaf people and deaf culture. But I think that the biggest influence it had on me is that I learned very early on that not everyone's the same and that you need to have compassion for differences and cater to them. By the way, that’s an opportunity to plug in episode 3 of our Dead Rabbits podcast in which my parents talk about their experience of being deaf.
R.Y.: How do you relate to sign language?
BB: I learned to sign when I was a kid, but when I started getting older, my parents started speaking to me more. I made a concerted effort to improve my ASL (American Sign Language) when I was studying writing at Sarah Lawrence. I would go to my mom’s college roommate’s apartment in the upper east side once a week, and we would have sign conversations for an hour. But I wish I were more fluent. I wish I knew every single sign.
R.Y.: Some people say that when you switch languages, you also switch personalities. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. I think language dictates consciousness on a huge level. I feel like my ironic aloof sort of disposition is, in a way, limited in sign language. There’s less room for shades of irony. English has more room for nuance not only because of the specificity of every word, but also because of the way you say things. That in itself sounds ironic. You’d think that in ASL, there would be so much room for the nonverbal. But there is less tone, which is only set by facial expressions. They somehow work the way vowels work in Hebrew or Arabic. If you took them out, it would make it harder to understand the meaning.
R.Y.: But what is the trade-off? Isn’t there anything—
BB: —that is gained by sign language? Of course. I honestly think a lot of it is aesthetic. The gestures are beautiful. Deaf people are also known to be very blunt. This goes back to how language dictates our consciousness. For example, let’s say we had a mutual friend and I said: “They’ve been depressed, they’ve been eating a lot lately.” I’d be implying that they’ve gained weight and we’d be dancing around this euphemistically. But in ASL you’d just sign: “they’ve gotten fat” with your cheeks poofed out. You could say that in English too, but the circumstances required to elicit that sentence are rarer, the circumstantial requirement bar is higher. In ASL, if a friend thinks you’re being rude, they’ll just sign it to your face. It comes from the language itself, from having to gesture things directly. It takes a kind of courage that we don’t have in English where we play those language games with each other, which can be fun and it’s where the nuance can come in.
R.Y.: How did you decide to become a writer? Which books were formative to you?
BB: I was a late bloomer. When I was 7 or 8, I started reading my mom’s really trashy James Patterson and John Grisham novels. At 10 or 11, I found Harry Potter and fell in love with that. Then I became a big fantasy nerd. I was obsessed with Magician by Raymond E. Feist. Then I moved into science fiction with books like Dune and Ender’s Game. I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when I was 15 or 16, and it was my first real experience with literary fiction. The language was doing something that I never thought was possible. That was followed by Steinbeck. The next jolt was Emerson when I was 19. I started writing when I was 20-21. But it wasn’t till I read Infinite Jest when I was 22 that I had the realization that I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know that you could do this, be that smart AND have that much fun writing.
R.Y.: How do you see yourself as a writer?
BB: After I read Infinite Jest, I spent a long time trying to emulate David Foster Wallace and I don’t think that influence will ever go away, although it started being balanced out when I read people like James Baldwin and Anne Carson. They started to compress my sentences a little bit, which I needed. So I guess I’m a recovering maximalist.
R.Y.: What’s the added value of maximalism, for you, as a writer?
BB: Language play. I like florid, beautiful language – which you can get with minimalism – but I like to flex, I like to make things baroque. If I’m going to the Louvre, the first thing I want to see are the Italian renaissance classics. I love adorned things. But at the same time, when I started reading people like Baldwin, I started infusing into my maximalism a certain directness that’s at the core of storytelling. Like in Infinite Jest, a lot of maximalism is based on humor and irony. That’s not going anywhere soon. But it took me a long time to have the courage to get into deeply emotional issues—both on a personal and a political level.
R.Y.: An excerpt of your forthcoming novel was published in LUMINA Vol. XVIII. It’s about a shady interpreting service headed by a deaf man. Your father happens to run his own interpreting company. How much of the novel is drawn from real life?
BB: My dad had a friend who went to prison for the same kind of video relay service fraud scheme I write about in the novel. I’ve recorded my dad and interviewed him for hours about the scheme. My novel is heavily researched.
I’ve always been interested in organized crime and my favorite movie is Goodfellas. My mom is Sicilian and some of her family members were in the Sicilian mob.
R.Y.: There are a few sentences in the excerpt I’m not sure I understand. For example, in the last paragraph, Michelle Thibodeaux makes herself a drink and imagines that she’ll be whacked for ratting to the FBI. But what does the last sentence mean: “Within the darkness was unwell yellow."?
BB: Yes, that’s very implicit. I could have said “within the darkness was her unwell yellow skin tone.” But I think there’s sometimes virtue in vagueness because some people like feeling smart and interpreting things for themselves. But you’re not wrong for wanting a certain level of clarity. It’s just a question of preference and you might be in the majority. The way I write is catered towards a certain audience.
R.Y.: What kind of audience?
People who like maximalism, who like having to interpret a lot of things for themselves. People who like language that’s reaching for something. Unfortunately, and this is something I’ve struggled with for a very long time, I do think that my writing caters to a more educated and privileged class. I don’t like that fact, but it is a fact. But I also see it as trying to get people who may have not been exposed to this kind of hifalutin baroque language to realize: I can figure this out too, I can like this too. I’m not sure how much that works. And at some point, you have to accept that you write for whomever you write for. You don’t want to change who you are to reach a larger audience. This will water down your writing.
R.Y.: Who is that writer you don’t want to change?
BB: What I don’t want to change is that reach for beautiful language, and new, original and innovative language. And that does require me to do things that are catered towards a more literate crowd. There are also things that don’t have to do with language and that I don’t want to change: I’m a dark writer. I’m a funny writer. And I think it’s important to write from a place of honesty. All types of honesty.
R.Y.: Is vagueness something you don’t want to give up either?
BB: Yes. I’ve coined it as vagueness earlier but I think it’s a pejorative way of putting it. To me it’s not vagueness but indirectness and implicitness that leaves room for nuance. The problem with clarity is that when you’re clear, you’re sometimes absolute. But that’s a gamble because you might lose readers who need more clarity.
R.Y.: Do you have any advice for MFA students or for our readers in general?
BB: To the MFA students, I would say: really read and consider the pieces being workshopped. It’s not just for the benefit of the writer whose work you’re reading but for your own. Dissecting the problem you have with a piece and figuring out why it bothers you makes you an infinitely better writer.
My advice to everyone is to be open-minded. Read outside your comfort zone. Don’t be dogmatic. Leave some room for contradictory truths. My forthcoming novel has an epigraph from William Gaddis’ Recognitions: “That's all right, we serve them better than we know, if only we exist for them to reject, for they do not understand as you and I do, doctor, and to be certain of accepting one thing, they must reject another.”
Fitzgerald has a famous quote about the mark of intelligence being the ability to hold two contradictory truths at once. [Editor’s note: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”] But few people understand that.