Sweetly Afflicting: An Interview with Anna Leventhal
illustrations by Júlia Major
I picked up Anna Leventhal’s Sweet Affliction in Montreal in between two weddings—neither of which were mine. In the first, I was the sister of the groom and the second was that of one of my best friends. I had flown nearly twice the width of North America and was in an alcohol-fueled fugue when Leventhal’s stories heroically brought me back to life. Selected at random at Drawn & Quarterly, I wasn’t expecting a revelatory experience. I just needed some respite from all the marital bliss. But revelation is what I soon experienced.
The book begins with a woman who purchases a pregnancy test for her sister while en route to their cousin’s wedding. The subject matter felt very relevant in the moment, to say the least. The story unpacks the complicated intimacies of sisterhood and the heteronormativity that plagues weddings, going a step beyond relevancy into a realm that I am not used to experiencing in short fiction. It felt real.
In the story, one of the sisters explains:
The funny thing about a home pregnancy test is that you are holding your breath either way. It’s not just a neutral purchase. So ‘Good luck’ is a safe bet because no matter what’s intended, it applies. They should make two different kinds of pregnancy tests, one for women who really want to have a baby and one for everyone else. Each test would have the same two graphics: a bunch of exploding fireworks with the words Way To Go under it and, like, a frowny face. The same symbols for both tests, but for opposite results.
The funny thing about Leventhal is that she makes the unfunny, the upsetting, the annoying, and the unremarkable funny. Leventhal explores the subtle shades of meaning in her characters, many of which are women, and picks at the awkward hilarity that makes up our lives. It is funny to be judged for picking up a pregnancy test. It is awkward to encounter a rapist at a dinner party. In Leventhal’s stories these things happen, as they do in the lived lives of women, woven into the fabric of days. Leventhal evoked such a visceral reaction from me that I laughed out loud on a plane surrounded by strangers, because it is truly funny when someone’s fictional musings feel more real than your own life.
With narratives rooted in Montreal, Leventhal’s Quebecois characters attend costume parties dressed as False Consciousness, are jealous of their spouse’s chronic illness, explore openness in their romantic relationships, and generally live messy, complicated, ordinary lives. Leventhal creates a queer world, where women explore complicated friendships and where romantic relationships provide a messy backdrop.
When imagining the legacy she will leave behind, a terminally ill woman in one of Leventhal’s stories recounts the positive adjectives she has collected over her lifetime: “The thing about each of these adjectives is that when applied to the noun pain they both retain their original sense and create a whole new meaning. Incredible pain. Wicked pain. Awesome agony. Bootylicious suffering. Sweet affliction.”
So perhaps this is what Leventhal's writing does. It doesn’t reflect some sort of authentic truth, but instead creates a whole new meaning of the world around them. We talked to Leventhal about Montreal as an influential backdrop, astrology, and the Canadian writers you need to know.
Lizzy Shramko: You start your collection with a story about two sisters, one of which takes a pregnancy test at a cousin’s wedding. It struck me as the realest, funniest wedding story I’ve ever read. How did you decide to start the book with this story?
Anna Leventhal: I really like the sound of the first sentence of that story—its rhythm and syllable count. The way it starts out bold and then doubles back and starts to doubt itself. It felt like an appropriate herald for the book. I also wanted to start with something that would draw readers in and get them on my side, and I felt like Stacey's voice would do it better than some of the other narrators, who are maybe a bit more challenging, less readily loveable (I mean, I find her loveable. I shouldn't assume everyone would). And starting a book with a pregnancy test gives a reader a clue of what they're in for, as opposed to starting a book with a birth, or a death, or a cat licking itself.
LS: How closely do these stories resemble your life?
AL: There's one story in the book that's pretty autobiographical—"The Polar Bear at the Museum." It's also the oldest story in the book, which maybe says something about what it means to mature as a writer. Or maybe not. Anyway, everything else is invention. People tend to assume that Stacey and Angela's family is my family, but it's not at all. I don't even have a sister. But I guess it's disingenuous to say it's pure fiction, because nothing is pure fiction. Of course, there are elements of my life sprinkled throughout the book, and elements of my friends' lives. I guess I'd say that the stories resemble my life in that they display a breadth of experience and observation that is uniquely mine. My "research" for this book was mostly observing and listening to people and stealing things they said, so in that sense it resembles my life the way a collage resembles its source material.
LS: Have you had any pushback about the "Maitland" story? I feel like when women write about sexual violence—no matter the take on it—they often get unsolicited responses and disapproval from readers and reviewers.
AL: No, I haven't. The only hate mail I've ever gotten has been for nonfiction, and it seemed to be a form letter. It was sort of disappointing that this person couldn't even bother to write me a personalized diatribe. Cranks these days.
It bums me out to think about getting that kind of response, and I can certainly imagine it, but I think if you read short stories, or fiction in general, you're used to a certain amount of honest portrayal of sexual violence, because it's everywhere. Fiction is where people explore this stuff. If I published that story as a blog post, I might get mean responses because people don't generally read blog posts as carefully or thoughtfully as they do fiction. You don't go into a book with your pissed-off switch on as much of a hair-trigger as you do on the Internet. Maybe I'm just speaking for myself. But I think that a life of reading fiction prepares you to deal with a lot of uncomfortable situations, so I'd be surprised if someone who was committed enough to fiction to read a book of short stories by a mostly-unknown writer were to take that particular story to task, when it's really very mild compared to what other writers have contended with in their work. If someone's reading my book, chances are they've also read Ann-Marie MacDonald, or Arundhati Roy, or Heather O'Neill, or Margaret Atwood, or a million other writers who have portrayed sexual violence with varying degrees of intensity. Maybe all those writers get hatemail all the time, though. I don't know.
The only specific response to that story I can think of is when a friend told me they were reading it out loud to another friend on a camping trip. They were like, “Oh, a Passover story, fun! Let's read this one!” I was like, ha, sorry about that.
LS: While the content of your stories strikes me as political, many of your characters have a precarious relationship to politics. “Sweet Affliction,” the namesake of the book, features a woman who is nagged by a do-gooder documentary filmmaker. “Moving Day” features characters who seem to shed a layer of their politics when they shift their belongings. Do you think this self-conscious distance from the political is something specific to your generation? To Montreal?
AL: I think that has more to do with the fact that I'm not really interested in writing didactic stories that tell people how to feel about something. I am interested in the tension between values and pragmatism, more than I am in putting forward a strict political agenda. I think it would be a pretty boring story to write, "Once there was a woman who believed in something very strongly, and then she went out and did that thing. The end." That's not how it is in real life, and I don't say that with cynicism or disappointment. It just is. I think doubt and self-deception and duplicitousness are really interesting, and insofar as they intersect political views, they make good subjects for fiction.
The filmmaker in the title story is probably a cool person doing important work; she just comes off as annoying because the narrator is annoyed with her, because talking to her would mean facing the reality of what she's experienced, which is something she decidedly doesn't want to do. It's that relativism I find interesting, the shift of perspective. It's not a commentary on activism or documentary film; it's a depiction of self-awareness, or lack thereof.
LS: Montreal is the setting for so much of your collection—you even include a story about moving day, an experience specific to the city. Did you set out to have such a strong foothold in Montreal in your stories?
AL: I did. While I was working on the book, I had a map of the city above my desk, covered with translucent paper where I'd draw elements from my imagined city on top. I was trying to keep a sort of fantasy-feel of the city, like the maps in The Lord of the Rings or other books that take place in a world that's not quite the one the author lives in. I find it really cheesy when people say "the city is like a character" so I won't say that, but I did want it to colour those stories that are set there.
"Moving Day" is full of a lot of very specific Montreal references, and I sometimes worry it's too much of an in-joke; then again, people seem to enjoy that kind of specificity, even if they don't necessarily get it. It's a sort of anthropological thrill. It's like the Mad Max movies, where there's clearly a very specific culture and language and set of practices, but no one's going to explain them to you; you just have to learn them at 100 miles an hour.
LS: Are there other voices coming out of Montreal, or Canada more generally, that you would recommend for readers?
AL: People need to know about Nelly Arcan. She was a Montreal writer who died in 2009, and she left an amazing body of work that's finally being translated into English. She was an essayist, novelist, philosopher, nihilist, and sex worker who committed suicide after writing about it extensively for many years. She's like a contemporary Quebecoise Djuna Barnes, a modernist writer obsessed with bodies and shame and abjection. A great intellect. I wish I had known about her ten years ago, when I was in school. Many essays would have been written.
In terms of living writers? Montreal's literary scene is very strong right now. Melissa Bull just put out an amazing book of poetry called Rue. Anita Anand's debut story collection. Rawi Hage. Dimitri Nasrallah, who's both a writer and a publisher of some of the most iconic Montreal writing around. Heather O'Neill just published a short story collection that's, IMO, the best work she's done. Guillaume Morrissette, Dean Garlick, Klara duPlessis are all very involved in both writing itself and creating a robust milieu for writers, in terms of publishing and hosting readings and so on. I'm excited to see what Julie Mannell will do.
From the ROC (as we call the Rest Of Canada here in Quebec), people should read Leanne Simpson's short story collection Islands of Decolonial Love. Greg Hollingshead is an incredible short story writer; he just put out a new collection. Do Americans know about Miriam Toews? She's big here but who knows what makes it over the border. She's one of the funniest, most heartbreaking writers going. She's originally from the prairies, like me, so I like to pretend we have some kind of kinship.
LS: What is your sign? Do you follow astrology?
AL: I'm a scorpio—that's the sign where when you tell someone, they go "ohhhhhhhh" in an aggressively knowing fashion and waggle their eyebrows at you. I only follow astrology so long as it's convenient to me—I know the signs and traits of people close to me, and my own, and not much else. I don't necessarily put that much stock in it, but at the same time, it's a sphere of knowledge that seems dominated by women and queers, which makes me think it's something I should pay attention to.
LS: What’s next for you?