Indie Fiction Subscription #1: An Interview with Huw Lemmey
Huw Lemmey, co-author of our very first Indie Fiction subscription title UNKNOWN LANGUAGE (Ignota Books), talks to Dan Fuller about writing with Hildegard of Bingen, Holly Herndon Romanesque murals, & Jeremy Corbyn in the mix.
And buy the book.
1: In Unknown Language, where does Hildegard end and Huw begin, and visa versa?
Perhaps a more pertinent question would be 'In the works of Hildegard, where does Hildegard end and Hildegard begin?' When I started to write Unknown Language, imagining the visions of HIldegard as something more than an inspiration but rather a collaborator, I thought hard about when to remain strictly faithful to her visions and when to expand upon them within the narrative. Instead of rearranging the visions to produce a narrative, instead I tried to use the visions, as she did, to illustrate and inform a wider cosmology that around the notion of viriditas that she held.
But at the same time, I was reading more about Hildegard and her relationships with an anchoress with whom she was enclosed for a period, Jutta von Sponheim, and with Volmar, a provost who served as both her confessor and her scribe. It seemed clear to me that between these two and Hildegard there was a huge degree of spiritual and literary collaboration. Perhaps more importantly, for Hildegard she saw her written works on her visions as themselves the work of God, and herself as the vessel, which complicates her relationship with them as literary works, as well as affecting the way they're written. The voice of Hildegard is not a consistent narrator of her own works, and the voice frequently slides between her and God as the creator of the text. The collaborative roles of scribe, vessel, and confessor are vital, I think, to understanding her role as an author, and inform her far more than more modern readings of the author as the progenitor of the ideas and the text.
So when I was writing Unknown Language I tried, where possible, to defer to Hildegard's voice where possible in shaping the prose, and think of her as something like a confessor and myself as both scribe and vessel. But then, while you can choose what you fill a vessel with — honey, wine, sand — it still always takes the shape of the vessel.
2: If you could recommend one album or mix for readers to play when reading Unknown Language, what would it be - and why?
Proto by Holly Herndon [listen on Spotify]. I saw her perform live when I was writing the piece, and found the show very inspiring in helping to imagine a landscape that existed between history and the present. That was a real challenge in locating the book, but the interrogation of tradition as part of technology, as well as the collaborative vocals, helped clarify what the city might look like. As a totally freelancer writer I'm also a big fan of the podcast she produces with Mat Dryhurst, called Interdependence. It's one of the frankest and most expansive contemporary discussions on the value of independent cultural production in the age of the internet, in the new vistas of opportunity opening up but also the importance of ensuring an ecosystem that rewards artists and writers. I don't always agree, and it's often uncomfortable listening, but they're the conversations people should be having right now.
3: Ditto for art, photography, or image.
In the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, which is 5 minutes walk from my flat in Barcelona, is the most incredible selection of romanesque murals taken from churches from a single valley in the north of Catalonia. While they date from around the era that Hildegard was alive (give or take a century on both sides) they seem so different from northern European devotional art of the time, bearing witness to the region's history of being a borderland, and its links across the Mediterranean. I visited them again and again while writing to book. Coming from a background in the more iconoclastic, quietist tradition of Christianity I found at times that the ideas of mysticism were much more familiar to me than perhaps some of the representations of the supernatural within Hildegard's work but the murals at MNAC really gave a visual language for the book to riff off, with their beautiful dust-coloured representations of cities, their horrifying and brutal torture scenes, and their wonderful and terrifying angels. I guess so much of how I visualised the Christian tradition was from these awful schmaltzy baroque decorations and paintings, but in looking for earlier sources it was invigorating to re-encounter angels as terrifying, six-winged, thousand-eye harbingers of holy wrath rather than angelic little apple-cheeked cherubs pissing from the clouds. The Lamb of God, as found on the triumphal arch of the Sant Climent de Taüll, is particularly good, with seven eyes and a face more like a bear than a sheep. If you're ever visiting Barcelona, the murals deserve to be as high on your list of Catalan sights as the Sagrada Familia or Park Guell.
Hand of God from Sant Climent de Taüll.
4: Unknown Language is a hybrid novel. Hybrid authors, hybrid text. Is this a firm grounds for future practice?
I think so. I've collaborated quite a lot in the past on various projects, but this one felt different. The contributions of the other authors, Bhanu Kapil and Alice Spawls, are absolutely fundamental to the text and how it works, rather than the three pieces being standalone, and that felt like a really productive way to work.
I think a lot about writing that uses pre-existing tales and cultural types and reimagines them, but I guess more in the manner of Angela Carter than a sort of post-modern guest cameo way. My friend the solarpunk writer Jay Springett talks a lot on his podcast about how huge media conglomerate are creating new "extended universes" around franchises like Marvel, DC and Star Wars that replace the function of traditional canon in exploring different meanings and collective stories, and how they apply to the lives of readers, listeners and viewers. These are replacing the sort of story canon of figures like Robin Hood, Arthurian legends, or other myths and fairy tales, but the framework of intellectual property they're created under removes the collective ability of other writers to constantly disrupt the meaning of characters and stories. That's why I find both toothy satire and fan-fic really exciting and invigorating forms of hybrid text, and certainly something to continue exploring.
5. How does Unknown Language relate (or not) to your previous writing? Is there a thread that connects them?
I think there's a common thread relating to what I just said, reworking pre-existing literary forms into a new shape. In my first book, Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse I wanted to rework Owen Jones' recent book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class as a piece of fan fiction, using the author as the main character, to look at the current moment of political discord through a gay lens. And in my second book, which isn't a sequel but maybe in the same universe, I wanted to take the popular tabloid representation of the left in the UK under Corbyn, which was essentially a fantasist fiction, as my own. I tried to imagine the wider repercussions as if those newspaper stories were true, and the left were a sort of gang of simultaneously effete metropolitans yet also ruthless Marxist gulag builders.
I guess I do something similar in reapproaching Hildegard's work, although the tone is extremely different. But perhaps the closer relation is the sense of the narrative being driven by an eschatalogical logic, with all the books being driven by a sense of supernatural visions leading to a very queer realisation about the pre-existing state of things. Revelation and realisation are big themes in all my fiction, a slow unravelling of the old world....