Me, Selah Saterstrom, and Everyone We Violate

Lily Hoang


This is an essentially stolen paper, and I am citing my sources now, lest they go meddling. They are—exhaustively—Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, The Meat and Spirit Plan and Slab; Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism; Lauren Berlant’s “Trauma and Ineloquence;” Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman’s Sex, or the Unbearable; Lauren Berlant’s “Starved;” anthropologist Veena Das’s Life & Words: Violence & the Descent into the Ordinary; Antonin Artaud’s Theatre and its Double, and Zizek’s Violence. Everything beautiful belongs to someone else.

Selah Saterstrom’s Beau Repose trilogy—The Pink Institution, The Meat and Spirit Plan, and her forthcoming Slab, all with Coffee House Books—forces us against unusually suspected genres of violence. In this talk, I will discuss five genres of violence using Saterstrom’s work: the violence of forgetting, of education, of silence and of speech, of form, and of optimism.


The Violence of Forgetting

Well, I’ll tell you Barbara [Walters], it was a little like this: standing on a hill at night, holding a piece of damaged paper. And letting it go. Watching it disappear into the inky depths of night. And you think: that’s not good. You think, there it goes, language.

the ongoing activity of precariousness in the present

It all enters memory, the watery grave of what you will, in other words, forget.

I have terrible anxiety that most people find charming; they find it endearing, cute. I have terrible anxiety and I don’t take medication, as in, I don’t take the medication prescribed to me when I have anxiety attacks. I squirrel them for times I don’t need them, as in, at night when I’m lonely and too sad, as in, every night. The anxiety medication I am prescribed alters memory; it excises. I find movie ticket stubs I don’t remember. I don’t remember and it is all fine, except for the things I am desperate to remember, which already—I have forgotten.


The Violence of Education

Willie called his daughters into the dining room. He picked up a dining room table chair and threw it into a closed window. The window shattered. He said, “That’s a lesson about virginity. Do you understand?” to which they replied, “Yes sir.”

Before, I let my cousin molest me. After, I let my choir director molest me. I did not let any of it happen, but when the dining room table chair went through my window, his name was Mikey Jam and how I wanted his affirmation, calling a maniac, that’s what I did. I saw him recently, Mikey Jam, at the restaurant where we both worked when I was a teenager and he was the drummer in a band called Boxcar Satan. His real name is Michael Smith. He goes by Mikey Jam because he jams it all hard, on the drums, yeah. Before, he told me: I like to make girls bleed, and he did.

We all lived together in this house where my grandfather had a vision of the devil because everyone was poor and when the grown-ups needed us children out of the way, and they always did, they’d tell us to go in the yard and dig for the devil.

Sometimes we felt we were getting close.

We would say: it’s getting hot.

Robert Johnson didn’t really sell his soul to the devil. At least that’s what a podcast told me, and I have a crush on a new boy who sent me the podcast and so it must be true.

Digging for the devil or digging for China, either way, I lose and I am not even Chinese.

The handle on obsession: how to touch it, remove. How?

The old boy says to me: I can’t marry you because you’re the wrong color, ok? Ok, it is not yet 2014 and so I forgive him his trespassing ignorance for flights that predict adventure, ours, together. His honesty, I justify, is refreshing.

He and I, we have fucked many places, but never a sleeping bag. Once, we slept on an air mattress together, in a cabin at the Grand Canyon, Noah Cicero at my feet, in a bed that could not contain him. The places where the fucking was best: cheap motel rooms. In the fancy ones, we couldn’t feel a thing for all that blow.

Sex is not a thing, it’s a relation; it’s non-relation in propinquity to some kind of recognition. It’s a sock drawer for anxious affects.

Jackie Wang and I, over text message and Twitter, we will have a contest: The Coming Syncopation: A Contest of Affect, we will start a whole prep school for it: The Affect Queenz Academy for Younger Ladies who Champion the Largeness of Feeling.

I take two things from this story. One: It explains my predisposition for doing it with guys in sleeping bags. Not in a contrived way; it must happen “naturally.” And, Two: Behind the freak is the symbol. Behind the symbol is breath, filling the oracular cavity created by the collarbone when a person’s back arches and everything corresponds.

In the bathtub, the old boy asks me if my feelings are hurt because he loves choking me with his cock so much. It gets me off so fast, he says. Earlier, I puked on his cock. I couldn’t breathe, I thought: I could die in this moment. Or this one. Or this one. Until he relents and it is his birthday, and we are in the bathtub, and I tell him I think he will live a loveless, miserable life, but he will be rich. He likes this, easy as Facebook.

Cruel optimism is an incitement to inhabit and to track the affective attachment to what we call “the good life,” which is for many a bad life that wears out the subjects who nonetheless, and at the same time, find their conditions of possibility within it.


The Violence of Silence, The Violence of Speech

I knit. Wasp nest stitch. We are weighted. Red eclipsed meat shaded. Found bones inter frozen ground. Our shelves are thin, our sugars, hard. We winter amid the lining.

To Bhanu Kapil, I write: Bhanu, I write this to you sitting outside in the Land of Enchantment. It is sixty degrees and sunny. I am knitting a scarf, for a pretty boy, contemplating our conversation. The pattern for the scarf: k1, *yo, k2tog*, repeat until last stitch, p1. The pattern makes a fabric of holes: where has my sentence gone?

Even those whom you would think of as defeated are living beings figuring out how to stay attached to life from within it.

It wasn’t so long ago that my husband left me—it’s not nearly so tragic as it sounds, but the facts being only what they are, he left me—and six months later my sister died and I was the one who found her and stayed with her and folded books by her bed, unconscious, threading folios and I was on a blind date with the old boy, our first date, and they called and I left and she died and the old boy and I were already in love and six months later my dead sister’s son was arrested for possession of heroin and this was a bad thing and it was a blessing—I am still in debt for his veins, even now that he is free and clean and sober.

The backs of the sounds collapsed. Like chicken spines breaking. In a high-pitched voice, like it had been stuffed and packed with rubber balloons, she woke speaking, saying, I can talk I can talk.

I want to commune with Selah Saterstrom. I want to sell my soul to her, just to write one of her sentences, but who am I kidding? I’m no Robert Johnson.

The violence in Saterstrom’s novels is anything but subtle, it’s anything but quiet; but it’s like Saterstrom doesn’t have a choice in the matter: she must be bold, she must be loud, even at its most quiet, her sentences secrete violence. Each sentence is an epic, in content, in punch.

Let me tell you, I’ve been obsessed with Saterstrom’s writing since her first book came out. I have written her fan mail, exhaustively, and then there was the time she came to my city and now we share a font.

Our skin can talk.   


The Violence of the Material Body

I tell Ian I think I could do it. I think I could slaughter a cow. Thinking it and doing it are two different things, he says. I think I could, I say, I think I could for real. Maybe, Ian says, you should just learn to bloody cook it.

I don’t tell Ian how much I really know. How to first open the carcass and remove the entrails inside the chest cavity using a boning knife. Slowly. As to not puncture vital organs. How to then split the hide back to read with a bone saw in order to efficiently cut open the tailbone to remove the rest of the entrails. How to see-saw the blade up, halving the upper chest cavity. How to flush the cavity with thin white towels. How now the slaughter is ready for hanging. Hang the rear legs high. Remove any remaining hide using the thin blade of a skinning knife. With the bone saw in one hand, grab the head with the other. Saw it off. Angle the bone saw into the front legs and saw and saw. With a boning knife, a skinning knife, a butchering knife, hack and carve. Rump, loin, plate, rib, chuck, and shank (139).

At the forefront of our minds, the obvious signals of violence are acts of crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict. But we should learn to step back, to disentangle ourselves from the fascinating lure of this directly visible ‘subjective’ violence, violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. And how does Saterstrom do it—make the body so material and then make us bear its weight?

Inside—          The chest opens. Gasp. Breath is a hammer coming down. A blank white flashes. Left. Left right left. The thing gathers speed bouncing up and when it returns to the pink organ it otherwise floats above or rests upon it, lands on the organ’s bruised top. Repetition has bruised the organ. The tender organ has become more supple, bashed…

Outside—       A woman in bed sheets, face down. Her limbs curl to center pulled by blue slackless inner chords. The center is soft, feverish, stomach. She draws knees up, one at a time. Left. Left right left. Then pushes them back down, one at a time. Left. Left right left. Arms at elbows bend, casing flanks, pinned.

When fantasy works, one does not appreciate the non-conformity between oneself and the world.

I cannot get out, though all the mouths of water complain. Champ enclosed and pulled me sore, like a recompense, Champ put his hands against me. He broke my breathing, my portion, for the mouth, in the yoke, through the Lord, he turned a hole inside a poppy that bangs inside the mouth. And the face in your face on your face, the pinhole view. The smears cartooned your slit hole with. The articulated clarity of a retained edge, the cresting socket en-unioned with the watery drawn line of your grin. Your swollen honker. Beneath, which raises the brow; yet those brows are pinned. Despite the mist that hardly holds, at your most sincere, I see your Roman nose. Below me, my saddle and my love, you who did and did not want more. From the middle, your sex still fountains. Even here? Yes.

When the inner elastic of the architecture snapped, it was madness. It was yours. The slog of compression does make a sound.

When violence, in the register of the literary, is seen as transfiguring life into something else, call it form of death, or of making oneself… into a ghost.

It is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our minds.


The Violence of Optimism

A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.

There are various stories about how the art [of flower arranging] came to be, Kusami said, and the most famous of these stories says it began with a violent storm.

After this storm a monk was gathering debris and ruined plants and flowers. Instead of stashing it all in the rubbish head, he had an idea. He made an arrangement from the trash on the temple altar and sat in front of it. When his superior asked what he was doing he replied: I am practicing the art of decay appreciation.

Before there was the new boy and before there was the old boy, he the husband says: I think I should move back to Canada. He wanted me to fight for him, but instead, I buy a ticket and he is one way delivered twelve hours later.

Even those whom you would think of as defeated are living beings figuring out how to stay attached to life from within it.

Relationships dissolve. Lauren Berlant says we should rid ourselves of attachment, to the good life. I talk to Jackie Wang every night and we talk about our obsession, how to rid ourselves of obsession, and we agree transference is the worst route. Even Lauren Berlant would agree, and here we both are, transferring along; let us bounce: transference. I dream all the time of bouncing, and even though it is a familiar dream, I bounce vertically and every time I worry my legs will compress, compact, crush upon impact, but they never do and up I go again. The universality of relationship demise is not original, it is collective emotionality, collective empathy, we all mourn.

The dread of admitting knowing what brokenness is while managing the rage to repair it.

I offer flowers. I sow flower seeds. I plant flowers. I assemble flowers. I pick flowers. I pick different flowers. I remove flowers. I seek flowers. I offer flowers. I arrange flowers. I thread a flower. I string flowers. I make flowers. I form them to be extending, uneven, rounded, round bouquets of flowers. I make a flower necklace, a flower garland, a paper of flowers, a bouquet, a flower shield, hand flowers. I thread them. I string them. I provide them with grass. I provide them with leaves. I made a pendant of them. I smell something. I smell them. I cause one to smell something. I cause him to smell. I offer flowers to one. I offer him flowers. I provide him with flowers. I provide one with flowers. I provide one with a flower necklace. I provide him with a flower necklace. I place a garland on one. I provide him with a garland. I clothe one in flowers. I cover him in flowers. I love him with flowers. 

This is an actual song, Teacher says.

Teacher tells us to take out a piece of paper and write down what we think it means. After a few minutes he tells us to stop writing. He points to me: What kind of song do you think this is? A love song, I say. Hmmmm, he says.

I love the song more than any song, ever. It’s like I wrote it or was just about to. It annoys me that it is already written. This is the song about my love for Jack.

A kind of love song, Teacher says. The kind sung to Aztec gods before performing human sacrifice.

Fragments allude to a particular way of inhabiting the world, say, in a gesture of mourning. 



Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Berlant, Lauren. “Starved.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106.3 (Summer 2007): 433-444. Print.

Berlant, Lauren. “Trauma and Ineloquence.” Cultural Values 5.1 (2001): 41-58. Print.

Berlant, Lauren and Lee Edelman. Sex, or, the Unbearable. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Das, Veena. Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Saterstrom, Selah. The Meat and Spirit Plan. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House, 2007.

Saterstrom, Selah. The Pink Institution. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House, 2004.

Saterstrom, Selah. Slab. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House, forthcoming.

Zizek, Slavoj. Violence. New York: Picador, 2008.

Lily Hoang is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. She teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University, where she is Associate Department Head.