Jean Marc Ah-Sen is the Toronto-based author of Grand Menteur, which The Globe and Mail selected as a top 100 Best Book in 2015. The National Post has hailed his work as “an inventive escape from the conventional.” His second book, In the Beggarly Style of Imitation*, was just published by Nightwood Editions. He lives with his wife and two sons. This interview was conducted by email in spring 2020.
What inspired this collection?
I love miscellanies and Punch magazine and wanted a justification for experimenting with varying prose styles in a new work. I did something similar in my first novel Grand Menteur, which is kind of joined to the hip of this new book as a loose prequel. I wanted to use an artistic conceit more suited to poetry for the book though – using the miscellany as a meta-framework for the styles I’d be appropriating. To try to achieve that in novel form would have upset the integrity of the project a little – plus, Calvino already perfected it in If on a winter’s night a traveler and no one in their right mind would try to follow an act like that.
What is the significance of the specific epigraph you chose for the book?
Vic Godard and his band Subway Sect are a huge influence. I asked Vic if I could use the lines from “Ambition,” a kind of wry mockery of the pursuit of profit, and he graciously consented. With the epigraph I was nailing my colours to the mast in a manner of speaking – commercial considerations would be secondary to writing a book completely motivated by my artistic obsessions.
What is it about short stories that is appealing, whether to function for this project or in general. What do you like writing more, short stories or novels?
Short stories are great because the minute you get bored, you can get the hell out of dodge. I like their immediacy, and the pressure to be pithy can be sobering, especially because writers have a tendency to be voluble. I just finished co-writing a book with Lee Henderson, Emily Anglin, and Devon Code, so I want to do another novel right now, just to make sure the first one wasn’t a fluke.
The two main characters in “The Underside of Love” were “too white” for their friends while they were together, and then are threatened by the (former) landlady later on with their “dirty immigration secrets.” What is the role of race in the book, and what is their relationship with/treatment in North America? If they are too white for some but then later their race is used against them? Is the condition/treatment different for different immigrant groups?
My family hails from Africa and a white African once implied I had less of a claim to African culture than he did because my parents were expats. The experience stuck with me, and I wanted to explore that a bit deeper. “Underside” is the social realist chapter of the book, and as such, I didn’t want to be mealy-mouthed about race and class. The situation you’re describing from the story was about how race gets co-opted to serve political objectives – both on the side of strategic essentialists and groups that want to keep a people down, suppress political agency and the ability to organize. The aim with that story was to come about a kind of dialectical movement in racialized consciousness and narrativize how identity can coalesce around political questions. It was originally commisioned by a friend who was putting together a celebration of Austin Clarke’s legacy, so I’m also engaging with his short story “Give Us This Day: And Forgive Us.”
What are the images before each story?
All the images relate to the stories that follow them. Usually it’s a photograph of the main character within each installment. I was thinking of Patrice Molinard’s photos in Clébert’s Paris insolite that appeared without descriptions or identifications, which lent weight to the supra-fictional reality of which the book served as confirmation.
Unusual character names such as (Borgloon, Ousmane) populate the book – how do you come up with these names? Are they significant?
It’s usually an aleatoric process, a lot of free associating and spitballing. They’re usually the result of bad jokes.
Is there a significance to the order of the stories?
Originally the sequencing of the book chronologically mirrored the evolving stages of the novel’s development as a form. I thought that was too on the nose – the essay, aphorisms, and the bawdy songs coming in early, the epistolary chapter and the picaresque in the middle, followed by the more modern offerings. As it stands now, I just wanted it to have good flow, and not have certain styles like the 18th century stuff clump up and annoy a reader.
Much of the advice in “Sentiments and Directions from an Unappreciated Contrarian Writer’s Widow” is quite cynical. Do the thoughts of one who has experienced great loss, as a widow, become cynical? Is there a benefit to this cynicism?
Cynicism is my favourite mantra for a state of mind. I almost feel that something has gone wrong in your psychic development if you haven’t become a touch cynical after the world has sunk its teeth in you.
*The Miramichi Reader plans to have a full review of In the Beggarly Style of Imitation soon.