Clara B. Jones

An Interview with Nicole Raziya Fong
[I interviewed Nicole Raziya Fong, a Canadian, after reading one of her collections, as well as material available online. It seemed clear to me that she would be a memorable writer for readers of Otoliths to become aware of and that her manner and depth of expression would provide a rare opportunity to experience a novel literary “voice”—all the more significant because she is an early-career artist. The interview was conducted via email in March this year and is presented here as received. CBJ]

Clara B. Jones: Imagine that you are preparing a dinner party for three guests. Who would you invite, why, and what food would you serve?

Nicole Raziya Fong: In the spirit of alchemy, I’d invite Leonora Carrington, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Fernando Pessoa as Alberto Caeiro. Pessoa/Caeiro—a person whose external appearance did not reveal anything about who he was; a self without adequate representation in the outer world. In his writing we glimpse a small, perhaps fictionalized or perfected sense of who he might have been in actuality—this ambiguity is the work’s poetics. Self and perception become a freely roving force, unlimited by the constraints of the ordinary physical world. Carrington—whose subjectivity is always directed elsewhere, a consciousness which has always already been transported outside of the frame. Carrington’s kitchen in Mexico City was much spoken about and she was known for making strange feasts for her guests—I’d gladly take up the challenge. Goethe would be the ideal person to round out such a group; perhaps an ideal go-between between Caeiro and Carrington. While I think these three would be intriguing dinner guests as is, I have questions to ask! I would like to clarify whatever misconstructions we might have of the work of those who exist for us only in the past— it is through their own eyes alone the full trajectory of their life and work might be conveyed.

I’d likely ask each guest to bring something and give them full creative license. Goethe, who manipulated matter in the name of science, likely ate pretty weird things just like Carrington so I’d probably ask them each to alchemize a vegetarian appetizer (though I’d vet Goethe’s contribution for toxicity). I suspect Caiero would bring wildflowers no matter what you requested—we’ll leave him to it. I'd make a layered orange blossom cake with orange custard filling, vanilla buttercream icing and salted caramel topping. This is a cake I’ve only made once using the most rudimentary tools, in a severe heat-wave and protracted state of psychic distress. It was a very intense cake which had a visceral effect on the friends I shared it with. I’ve not made it since but for me it remains a visionary cake, one dreamed into being and therefore suitable only for the most esteemed guests. I’d serve the cake with mezcal, salt, sliced oranges and espresso for the sake of moderation.

CBJ: I realize from reading your poetry and two interviews, as well as, from listening to you read, that you are a very private person [“hiddenness;” “psychic experience;” “suffering and feminine resistance;” “uncovering traumatic memory;” “conceal something ordinarily untouchable”]. If it is not too invasive to ask, what are you trying to “conceal?”

NRF: I like the idea of being someone who works with hiddenness. The privacy of the author is irrelevant to the work; what appears to the outside is always a construction regardless. I don’t so much attempt to conceal some fact or illustrate its distinction from the immediate real so much as I attempt to interpret and reconstruct the shape or knowability of any partially perceptible form I feel exists within me.

Language might act as the exterior to some secret, but its particular landscape doesn’t function to hide what exists beneath it— rather serves as its skin. I use language to cast a veil of containment over this thing in me I feel closely articulates it, so as to find a way to sculpt it a tolerable entrance into the physical realm. While there are experiential precedents to my work, everything occurring in the real is already subject to some kind of warping. I see this warping as taking place within memory. How can one authentically reveal oneself? Is anyone really able to? This is why I think to Pessoa, an external singularity who wrote as many names. What was he concealing? What was Carrington concealing? We are all necessarily concealing some true aspect of ourselves from one another—it is uninteresting to imagine how any radically revealed subjectivity might appear. Perhaps readily usable, apparent; like a rock or a stove or a mountain.

And so I am not trying to conceal anything; something is continually being concealed from me. There is yet more to say and so I continue to write in order to discover the true nature of this thing which speaks in me; to find out what needs to be said, even as the act of its saying remains an indistinct object placed before my eyes, becoming less knowable the longer it exists before me.

CBJ: At what point in your life did you decide to become an Artist, broadly defined?

NRF: At some early moment in my life, I noticed what seemed to be a disembodied gesture of circular leaves parting and rejoining around my physical self—upon closer inspection I saw this inexplicable motion of colour to be, in actuality, orderly systems of leaf-cutter ants rearranging foliage in a soft system of transfer and exchange. This moment, occurring in childhood, remains my earliest memory noticing sudden breakages within the known, noticing the incongruity between the way things concretely were and how they first appeared to me. I suspect this is what being an artist signifies—not what is produced, nor the manner in which practice is tied to theory or technique or lineage; nor the extent to which the art object is lauded or denounced or disseminated or forgotten, but this initial act of seeing which is irrevocably at odds with the world.

I am relieved that I became capable of moving this perplexity in seeing towards language and image almost as soon as I became able to speak and draw—I was always dictating some perceived reality to others and then writing it down as soon as I became able to.

I never made a decision to be an artist so much as I stubbornly persisted in doing this thing which meant something to me, continuing to allow things to reveal what they were beyond how they first appeared.

CBJ: Your writing can be placed in the traditions of Postmodernism [“fragmenting;” “re-construct”] and Surrealism [“psychic experience”]. Are you comfortable classifying your work as an academic or critic would do? Do you see those two intellectual traditions in your writing?

NRF: Thinking of the highly refined practices of past Surrealist works—a highly conscious usage of supposedly unconscious, emanated symbol and the circulation of appropriated imagery, I hesitate to place myself within the tradition. I wouldn't say I haven’t been influenced by the works of writers such as Lautreamont, Roussel, Artaud, and of course Surrealist painting— I would say my work has a definite affinity.

These movements are historically contingent as well. Of course, such classifications are valuable as guides, not only in an academic context (I, myself, am not affiliated with academia) but as a way of considering relations, connective points between practices, people, places, political currents which all intersect at a point and reverberate outwards from there.

The postmodern subject is a radical disassemblage or removal from the previously presumed relation between things which remain nonetheless essential to it even as the subject turns away to find a new path, signifying a change in the gaze. One then witnesses modern fragmentation as a wellspring giving way to a new kind of authorship. A reader is intended to be previously aware or capable of analyzing its specific parts and movements from the perspective of a spectator, having no real attachment to its workings. Of course, this all must begin in an originary spectator— the postmodern author’s seeming distance or non-involvement with the work is only an illusory impression.

I see my work as being spiritually closer to Expressionism—a subjective movement of forces yielding an unforeseen landscape. Post-modernism’s non-reliance upon the myth of a stable subjectivity and modern subject seems to me an experiment which Expressionism fulfills through applied practice. As a prism contains many iterations of the same spectrum, it behooves us to adjust the light.

CBJ: Andy [Martrich, Hiding Press] sent me a copy of your new collaborative book, Leguminocae Delusion Athletics, which might be viewed as a long poem by Andy that you illustrated with abstract art. The book is beautifully realized, produced and is a collector’s item. Would you please describe the act of collaboration, including, how the two of you decided to work together on this project?

NRF: Thank you! Kyle Flemmer at the Blasted Tree did such wonderful work in bringing the design Andy and I came up with into actuality—it’s printed on beautiful paper, hand-bound with red thread and includes a cover in full colour which folds out into a poster reproduction of an oil painting I composed for Legumninoasae Delusion Athletics. Andy came to me with the poem already written—it’s an incredible, dynamic long poem whose imagery and movement I found immediately evocative. It was a matter of embodying it in image—a project which ended up being durational over the course of the pandemic.

The black and white ink pieces were composed on 37 cm x 30 cm rice paper with India ink and soft pastel. These works in ink were all composed on my kitchen table where I did the majority of my work during this time—I’d go between text and image, overworking each piece to the point that the paper would begin to tear. I liked this aspect of the image—the fact that it had already begun to degrade just through the act of being created (unfortunately these structural degradations aren’t visible in the book’s scanned reproductions). At times, I listened to Alice Coltrane as I worked. Sometimes it would be raining and I’d see my balcony garden becoming unbearably bright in juxtaposition against the grey sky. Other times, I composed amongst the fragrance of bouquets kept inside, putrefying in decay. The rain would deepen into a downpour. Then stop. The sun would come out, casting a yellow tint to the sky—it was a time of acute sensory experience.

The cover is sourced from a two-panel oil painting done on paper, each being 40 cm x 80.5 cm. While all the ink pieces were composed from afternoon to dusk, often in one sitting, I would always work on the cover at night. This transition between day and night I felt suited the work, which conducts concealment and the shock of unexpected illumination. I find LDA a work of transitional spaces—that between light and dark, immediate and obscure; an exchange I tried to embody in my accompanying pieces.

CBJ: As an Artist, broadly defined, how do you hope to impact the consumers of your creative work? Do you have a goal in mind?

NRF: I never begin writing a work with the goal to manipulate the experience of a reader. All this may happen through whatever choices I may make in the writing; the use of space, tectonics of a page—it’s a process which always begins in a space of total possibility. Anything could appear. An image, a word, some yet unexplored form… I hope only that this most vulnerable act of trust might be kindly received by those who have the most to gain from reading it; whatever they might want from such a text—to take solace in it, or find affinity, be challenged or immersed in it, find some kind of release in it, have it guide one to others… That the work might find the people it’s meant to meet in this world and exist alongside them, for a time, is the best thing I could hope to gain from any kind of project, creative or otherwise. And to those not inclined to this way of seeing I am most satisfied that my work might continue to pass by unnoticed and unremarked upon.

CBJ: When you are not creating Art, broadly defined, what do you do for fun?

NRF: This is a difficult question as I’m creating whenever I can, and it is (mostly) fun! Over the pandemic, one nice thing was to be part of several extended reading groups with friends. Starting with Friedrich Nietzsche, we moved on to Georges Bataille, Colette Peignot, back to Bataille—now delving into Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic seminars. I find especially with Lacan, who can be pretty impenetrable to approach from the outside, it’s helpful to read with others, speak the work into a new relation.

My ideal use of time would always be painting and writing, but I enjoy beautiful, unexpected books, especially art books with beautiful reproductions. For fun: looking at art, looking at flowers, smelling perfumes (in moderation), being outside in a warm place, swimming in oceans, being alone (in moderation), being with others (in moderation), eating delicious food, meditation, pranayama, seeing new things, reading until I can see again, dreaming (too often)— trying to take in as much as I am able, while I am able.

CBJ: What are you working on now, & where do you see yourself in 5 years?

NRF: I have a few projects in the works. I’m now putting finishing edits on a poetic-prosaic work formerly titled “CANDOUR”—now “ARDUOUЯ.” A book I began writing four years ago in attempt to hold on to experience, which felt like so much sand shifting beneath me. Of course, much has changed over these past years and the book has likewise been subject to these redirections. I’ve also just received funding to work on a project I’m excited for titled “LATE AFTERNOON”— a hybrid book-length work of poetry, philosophical prose and visual art. The work takes its inspiration and at times direct prompting from existing artworks, object studies and philosophical texts on colour, primarily drawing from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s “Theory of Colors” and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Remarks on Color.” My paintings and other visual ephemera will have a part to play in the project. Some work from “LATE AFTERNOON” has already appeared in “7 Series, Iterated by Colour” (Hiding Press, 2021) and is forthcoming in various locales.

As for the second part of your question— I’ve never been able to accurately foresee that which is yet to come.

CBJ: I want to thank you for this interview, Nicole, and I can appreciate the effort that went into your responses which include quite a few memorable phrases & sentences, incorporating vivid images, intellectual references, as well as, sensory experiences. Your description of the Orange Blossom Cake made my mouth water! Your suggestion that your writing is allied with Expressionism provided me with a lot to think about that I had not considered. Your reference to social insects reflected one of my own academic interests. At the risk of projecting my own schemas onto you and your work, the idea that you surrender the power of meaning and interpretation up to your reader is a very Postmodern practice—one that can be a challenge for the artist to achieve. Indeed, independent of any goals you may or may not have to influence a reader’s ownership of your writing, the consumers of your art will encounter a unique voice that is certain to impact them profoundly—in ways demonstrated by this interview. Your writing deserves a wide audience, and I look forward to reading your future volumes.

Clara B. Jones is a Knowledge Worker practicing in Silver Spring, MD, USA.
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