Bodies of Water

Voice of the Fish: A Lyric Essay BY Lars Horn. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 240 pages. $16.
Lars Horn. Photo: Richard Allen

As a writer who is the daughter of a fisheries biologist, I have found a dearth of books that make “the sciences” sensorial, not simply factual. I have longed for essays that feel like swimming, where language is aquatic, texts saturated with the sonics of being underwater. When I read Lars Horn’s Voice of the Fish, I found it did just that by submerging the reader in the mythological layers of the marine. Horn begins by describing the Book-Fish, a manuscript that was found dissolving within the belly of a cod at a market in Cambridge in 1626. This poetic and visceral anecdote sets the stage for Horn’s book, which won the 2020 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, and illuminates how books are bodies, and bodies are books. Text trembles on our tongues, is spoken and swallowed, words evaporate off skin, and Horn’s prose hums in a way that often transcends language.

Each essay in Voice of the Fish is a chamber that opens into experiences through which Horn became embodied: the occasions Horn modeled for their mother’s artworks; an assault and an injury which made them lose their ability to speak, read, and write; learning the mystical circumstances of their birth; and inking their skin slowly with tattoos. This winter, I spoke with Horn, who is based in Miami, and we discussed writing essays in Gmail, the possibility of giving up writing, and what it was like having queer parents.

AYDEN LEROUX: There is such a sensibility of your devotion to art and to the act of looking in Voice of the Fish. Reading the book, I feel like I can see through and with your eyes. There’s a palpability of the body on the page. Could you start by telling me about how that act of looking informs the act of writing for you? 

LARS HORN: I hoped visual artists would read the book. The bodily investment required to make three-dimensional artwork felt important—especially connecting that same physicality to writing as a process. I’ve made some multimedia work and enjoy sensual materials like felt, fat, and wax. My mother works in video and installation, and my father is a sculptor. I struggled early on to find an audience outside of the visual arts. Poets sometimes enjoyed the work. Most people said I lacked narrative, but I’m not that interested in narrative.

If I’m being completely honest, I never think of looking as divorced from being embodied as a whole. Looking is textured. It comes with taste, smell, tactility. There’s a glassiness, or oiliness, or something overly developed, too bright, too bleached. Writing feels secondary to physicality, which is perhaps why I use my visual arts training to write. I like to write from direct observation as I do when drawing. My sentences are also very slow—akin to the maxim of looking for an hour, drawing for a second. In fact, if I have to work from memory, I spend most of my time recalling strong details, not writing. I’ll get one word, maybe two. I tend to write in Gmail at five in the morning. I play music, anything I have a strong emotional response to. It’s not uncommon for me to spend four mornings on a sentence.

Wow. How long did it take to write this? 

With “With the Moths’ Eyes” I probably spent three hours per sentence, maybe four hours minimum. I tend to overthink—those sentences are really crystallized. 

There is a density in the sentences. Everything feels compact and muscular and precise. 

I wanted the work to feel sinewy, economic. A little strange, perhaps. I spent a lot of time thinking how to translate embodied experience—sensually, but also syntactically as disjointed sentences. 

When you’re working in three dimensions, materials demand things. Some are fragile, some dirty. Certain elements cannot physically combine. There’s a sensitivity to composition, tension, balance. I’ve never seen the page as linear. I’ve never seen language as linear. When I’m working in an empty email, I scroll up and down, write in disparate sections. It’s spatial. Composition work. Almost curatorial. I really just kept the vocabulary of visual arts—sculpture, installation, cinema. When writing or redrafting, I don’t think of narrative causality, so much as thinking I need something here—flesh, raw meat, gold filigree on fat. I need paragraphs to have tactility. When I wrote “What Manner of Land,” in which there is a lot about color, specifically laboratory-engineered black pigments, I wanted the feeling of putting a Soutine or a Rembrandt into an earth bog and leaving it there. 

That essay has such an absorbent quality. It does feel like the way that light gets absorbed with absolute black. It comes back to that opening fragment about the Book-Fish, a text that was found in the belly of the fish. 

I think it’s fascinating that you write in Gmail. Do you send that to anyone or does it stay in draft form? Is it multiple emails or does the writing accrue?  

I used to joke that I wanted Gmail to sponsor me because I use the platform more for writing than for email. People think it’s dodgy as hell. I can’t save, and I didn’t used to be able to undo. I’m just a technophobe. I’ve lost major work from the computer crashing or accidentally hitting delete all.

If I go into my Gmail account, I have endless drafts and scraps. There’s maybe 103 drafts of notes. Inhibition plays a part in the choice. I associate Word documents with “serious” or finished work. Writing early morning in Gmail carries less obligation; it feels transient, throwaway. The bar is low and so my anxiety about writing is much lower. It didn’t used to correct spelling errors, but now it suggests what I should write. What I loved before was that it was this neutral terrain, like an actual page but with heightened mobility. 

I used to be a very slow typist. I only got a computer when I was twenty-four or twenty-five. I handwrote everything at university. After I lost my ability to speak and write, I found that, emotionally, it was more freeing on Gmail. I could just type and misspell everything. Also, there’s only so much you can see before having to scroll, which helped me focus on one image or idea at a time. 

How did you choose to write a book after you had this experience of being silent and like losing your relationship to language in reaction to being assaulted by a stranger? How did you arrive at the sense that language is essential again? 

We live in a world that privileges the written word, as well as certain registers of writing or speaking, certain languages over others—and all this to delegitimize people for whom language—or communication more generally—doesn’t center able-bodied, whiteness, and classism. So I’m torn. I know language, particularly written literacy, to be fundamental to moving through the world. And, yet, I don’t think language—or at least the written word—is essential. Not to moving toward truth, or kindness, or generosity, to interacting with land or animals or art. I have greatly benefitted from reading and writing—politically, socially, economically, and emotionally. But, if the written word is overly centered, I worry what repercussions that holds for those that lay outside of it. I still say to my wife, I don’t know if I’ll write any more books. I might go into cabinetmaking.  

A lot of writers feel this compulsion to complete and execute a certain thing. There’s a pressure to stay with your practice because to give it up would destroy your sense of self or mean you’re a failure. I used to be really disciplined and write every single day. And then there was this period of four months this year when I gave it up. That felt so liberating, and it felt like I could come back to writing with more patience. Choosing silence allowed for a necessary remove. 

I used to be very rigid. Big shifts in my personality and practice were not ones that I welcomed—they were born out of necessity. When I struggled to read and write, and when every qualification I possessed led me to a job that required those skills, I was forced to change. I’ve managed to relearn those skills but, at one point, I didn’t think I would. I grieved. I was bitter. I was seriously bad company. What I’m trying to say is: I couldn’t be that very tight, regimented person anymore. I had to accept the limitations of what I could do, had to seriously think: If I can’t do this anymore what am I going to do? Who am I?  

If I don’t manage to write another book—and I am working on a second book—but if, at some point, language or writing no longer hold as viable options, I’m more willing to shift again. I’m more comfortable with these kinds of seismic shifts that one goes through. It’s natural for any profession to talk about the essentialness of what they do. I hope writing proves a lifelong career, but, if it doesn’t, I have faith that I will find a sense of self beyond it. 

That relinquishment feels related to your mythological relationship to fish. It’s incredibly moving to read about when you have to fully surrender to your body taking over all the things that constitute your identity and how you occupy the world. I think there is that sense of the clarity of returning to language after losing it, rather than trying to wrestle it into a fixed state. 

Just before I wrote this book, I was actually about to give up writing altogether because it wasn’t going anywhere. And then I met Jaquira, my now wife. She said, “Just shut up and write something.” And so I did, and it grew. I wanted the writing to feel liquid, aquatic.  

People are portals into these parts of our being. I was thinking a lot about the ways you described having a mother who’s lesbian. I grew up with a queer mother, too. I wonder how your relationship with her informed your sense of being transmasculine and reckoning with your sexuality. It sounds like it took some time to arrive there. There is this painful sense that sometimes other people see us before we see ourselves. In your essay “My Mother Photographs Me in a Bath of Dead Squid,” there is a sense of deferral that you experienced in spite of being around queerness. 

Mothers have an uncanny way of seeing things in ourselves before we’re willing to. I’m incredibly close to my mom, and she continues to influence me. Not just in how she thinks and what she does, but who she is. She calls people’s bullshit. She’s a very straightforward person, intelligent, creative, joyous. I’d do well to be more like her.  

In the past, I’ve been angry, sometimes sad, that it took me so long to feel comfortable with myself—especially since I had a queer mother. I felt it should have been easier somehow. But, even ten, twenty years ago, it was different. In my hometown, everyone’s fine now with queer people, but I remember anyone queer getting grief morning till evening. Nobody talked about queer parents. And I said, “Is this just me? Did I misremember?” And my mum replied, “No, it was totally different.” You know, she was told by an LGBT helpline in 1989 that she could lose custody of me, that she could lose her job as a teacher if she came out. I think the experience of queer family really depends on where and when it’s taking place.

As somebody who’s transmasculine, I still hold the possibility that one day I might transition. Maybe I won’t. I try to sit with all possibilities of my future self. Maybe I’ll change careers. Maybe my bodily needs or gender needs will change. Reconciling to how, in the past, I deferred my sense of self as queer and transmasculine, that helps me flip the experience into the future—nebulous mirror image. It helps me reconcile to potential future change. 

That is an interesting mirroring of the fluidity of your relationship to writing and the fluidity of sexuality. To me, that feels very much like a disability-studies lens of understanding that your body is never something that you can take for granted.  

I was thinking about all of the things that your mother makes with your body, and how your body then becomes this object and material in her work. There’s this concept of “reparative objectification” that the artist Gordon Hall talks about in their work. We talk about objectification as this negative, extractive, debasing thing, but what if objectification could be constitutive and affirming? In one essay, they use an example of like being on the dance floor at a queer club and being complimented. How does your relationship to being a material in someone else’s work inform your own work and your sense of repairing your relationship to your body? 

I find moving through the world tiring, and that being alive is, at times, exhausting. Everyone can relate to that, whether trans or cis, even people with a lot of privilege. But in fine-art modelling, when I can exist as bodily entity, as material, when I trust who is doing the arranging or the curating and I feel safe, I rest. 

My mother once did some very feminine work with tissue paper and flowers. When I see the work now, it’s quite strange and alienating to see myself in this incredibly feminine manner. And yet, I don’t feel that I was objectified in a way that negated who I was or am. Mainly because I don’t think that’s me. It’s a division; that’s just my body being a material for that artwork. It’s not me. Looking at the work, the division is so great between who I am and what I am facilitating as a model, I find it a relief. For a moment, none of my own self comes into it. It’s all about the necessity of the work.

There’s a sense that your body can endure a lot for her and for the sake of her work. It also comes back to the silence. I used to be a figure model for drawing classes, and there is this sense that I can do so much more if my body is an object for someone else’s work that is meant to sort of like serve them. I can sit still in a way that goes deeper than my meditation practice. 

When someone see things that can be made from my body—things I would never think can be made—it’s as though, finally, my body has been given a chance to breathe without having to carry me around. In Voice of the Fish, I talk about my body being something that I occupy, and I often think my body must be very tired of me. With art, by removing my desires and thoughts, my body can come to the fore—its potential unfurled. My body shows itself to me in ways I didn’t see before. It appears vaster.

There’s a numinous quality when you just become a skin sack—there doesn’t have to be purpose in everything. By removing that selfhood, you can transmute.

In images where my mother has managed to give wings or scales to this body, I can see my body from an outside perspective—pared of thought, of memory, of self. As someone who struggles to recognize my own body, to look at my mother’s artwork and see my body loved, curated as artifact—precious, beautiful, sacred—it is a rich gift. I am not sure my mother knows how grateful I am.

I’m paraphrasing, but you say something about how to proclaim oneself as an animal is a privilege—it’s a statement about power for white, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied people. There’s a fraught line between humanity and animality and who gets to occupy that between space. Yet calling a slave an animal was a way to debase Black folks. I’d love to hear more about that line between human and animal for you, especially since throughout the whole book you write about how the bodies of fish feel familiar.

I don’t feel very human. Akwaeke Emezi writes brilliantly about being ogbanje. I’ve incarnated into the limitations of a human body, but I feel disjointed from humanness. Landscape appeals to me, the elemental. I feel comfortable around animals. It is this tension between self and body, this identification with an external gaze when looking at myself, that resonates with modeling for artwork. I appreciate—and even identify with—the disconnect of seeing myself from others’ perspectives. 

I’m often at a loss for words when trying to describe the sensation of inhabiting a body that feels estranged. This inarticulation likely propels my writing—the desire to find approximations, to write into silence.

Why do you think so many people have become obsessed with embodiment recently? Do you want to leave us with some bold theory about why that is?

I don’t think it’s a recent phenomenon. I think humans always been obsessed with embodiment in some form, because we necessarily have to inhabit a body. Human culture continues to interrogate birth, death, meat, flesh, sex, desire, love, violence, and always has. It’s a strange, beautiful, terrifying experience to live in a body. 

Ayden LeRoux’s work explores embodiment, eroticism, and illness and has appeared in BOMB, Bookforum, Catapult, Electric Lit, Entropy, Guernica, Lit Hub, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She is the author of Odyssey Works (Princeton Architectural Press).