Samantha Hunt on the visual inspirations behind her first non-fiction work ‹ Literary Hub
Jumping from the classic Wallace Stevens poem, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, 13 Ways of Looking asks authors to show the visual inspirations for their latest projects, with a background on how those images have directly or indirectly influenced their book. The first in the series is Samantha Hunt, author of the novel Mr. Splitfoot, the short story collection The Dark Dark, and most recently the unwritten book.
The Unwritten Book is my first non-fiction work. It explores the broadest meaning of ghosts. The chapters bring together the ways we are haunted: the dead, the forest, the family, the addiction, the towering library of all the books we’ll never have time to read or write.
Tucked inside is a book of ghosts, an incomplete manuscript about people who can fly without wings, written by my father and found in his office just days after his death. I read his unwritten book as a way to live closer to the dead, to turn fear into wonder. I read his book as a detective collecting evidence, and, like the dead, the clues are everywhere, in birdsong, pop music, old documents, loves and hates, and in the archives of images floating around me, including those that inspired my book:
When I was young, I dreamed of a small door. Crouching through the doorway, I passed into a series of small, velvety scarlet rooms, like an upside-down birth canal. I knew the tunnel held mystery but I never walked through the tunnel to the end, instead, I sat in the small passageway, content with the unknown, happy to be hidden.
The first time I saw Mr. Morgan’s blood red library, it reminded me of the dream tunnel and I suddenly thought: this is where this tunnel leads, to a library, or maybe at a second-hand bookstore. It left me with a peaceful vision of death. I’m a slow reader, so death as a place where I’m finally going to be able to read is truly heaven.
Saturn’s rings are made up of individual ice crystals and meteorite particles held in a circular orbit. And look how beautiful they are. Saturn’s rings share a structure with the way we think, the way I write, floating from part to part, from cell to cell, from ice crystal to ice crystal across the synapse to form a whole. Several moments of history can rest next to each other or on top of each other, procreating, generating, electrifying the in-between. For example, the New York Public Library has been a potter’s field, a reservoir, a battlefield, a forest.
When I was little, I was given a set of little green lemonade glasses for my dollhouse. My attraction to these miniatures was so strong that I swallowed a handful of the beautiful glasses. My grandmother Norma made me these three little hats. I did not swallow them. The miniature lives a great moment. Tiny is powerful. Tiny has always been powerful. Women, children. A virus, a raindrop, a word. The local is stronger than the global.
Collect the small differences, and the differences too. My mother’s house looks like a sound combination of Nick Cave, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg project, Makeal Flammini’s 13-foot-tall color mountain made of crayon in Milwaukee, and Portia Munson’s pink installations. My mom’s house is a beautiful gut biome, though she would shudder to hear me call it that.
I love images of gut biomes, like this beautiful shot of human excrement by Martin Oeggerli for National geographic . My mum keeps a drawer of nail polish next to a toy turtle next to a pink pillow next to an expired jar of my dad’s cancer drugs next to a golden statuette of the Virgin Mary next to a a wall of art books.
Everywhere there is something interesting and I give it meaning. I tell him, “You can’t cling to all the beautiful things. But watching her sort through a stack of old magazines is like watching an arctic hunter butcher a seal. There is no part of the aimless beast; nothing is wasted under my mother’s attentions.
Like her, I also keep many objects left by my dead. I inherited my neighbor’s end table when she died. I’m sitting on it to write, right now. I found a disposable camera in his drawer. The camera was old, design from the 80s. I sent it for treatment, hoping to find my neighbor or another deep past in the film. Gillian Welch sings of the dream of a highway to people and lost times. She describes the roads we sometimes take to return to the dead. The weather had really brought up the purple, blue and green in my neighbor’s film. Each frame was of its peach tree laden with ripe fruit, an old summer saturated with unreal colors, a glorious fruition in the decay of the film.
Years ago I drew some of the most beautiful stamps from my grandmother’s huge collection, albums she had compiled from ages 5 to 101, when her work was finally finished. After the death of my grandmother, I woke up one night with heaviness and dread. She missed me. I blinked in the dark. Within moments, I heard small footsteps down the hallway to my room. One of my daughters climbed into bed next to me. There are several reasons why this could have happened, but I believe what I can feel. I am affected by fiction in a very real way. The novels I inhaled as a girl, the stress, the bird talk. I chose to believe that my grandmother sent my daughter to comfort me. This reason is the best, the fairest, the kindest. It’s the best story I can tell myself. I fell asleep with her warm body next to mine.
In 1891, my great-great-aunt Ella was committed to Independence State Hospital because she had boarded a moving freight train bound for Council Bluffs. She was 21 years old. Her family took her to Independence Asylum. His admissions interview asks “On what subject or in what way is the disturbance manifesting now?” And the answer: “She wants to travel and will run away if she is not constantly watched.”
Ella died in the asylum five weeks later. His death certificate indicates a brain disorder. I suspect something much darker and more deranged, something to do with how the world fears female bodies because at our cores we hold a void, a place of unimaginable possibilities, the void we all come from. .
In As I died , Addie, William Faulkner’s character, says, “The shape of my body where I was a virgin is shaped like a .” Is the void really empty or just mysterious? In Haruki Murakami’s story “UFO at Kushiro”, a character asks, “What is the something inside this box that I brought here?” and receives a terrifying response: “This box contains something that was inside of you. You didn’t know that when you brought it here and gave it to Keiko with your own hands. Now you will never get it back. A uterus, a tomb, and Carolee Schneemann’s glorious interior scroll of 1975, there to rectify the situation, erase the fear of female holes. A naked Schneemann pulls a scroll of text from her vagina and begins to read the truth aloud.
When I was breastfeeding my twins, one child per breast, I would put a book between their heads and contemplate the wonderful symmetry of the bodies. It frustrated me that unlike my breasts, my eyes had to work together. I wanted to read two books at the same time. One eye to the left, one to the right. What delicacy. What a hunger for books. I couldn’t do it. But maybe you can.
The unwritten book my father started writing and never finished is about an anonymous society of people who can fly without wings. My father was a member of a very large, probably the largest limited company, AA. He also had dreams of flying all his life. He also had a scar on his back where they removed part of his lungs. This scar could be read as where he lost his wings. His partial novel was very close to his real life, but also different. In The unwritten book I printed his unfinished novel alongside my own commentary on his work. My text is on the left page, his story is on the right. Read in tandem, if you can.
In a Hilton Als profile, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks said of her characters’ speech, “It’s, you know, bla-bla-blah doin diddly-dip-da-drop.” It’s just sound. It’s the sound of the dead, and the dead don’t make living sounds.
In Flying Lotus’ “Coronus, the Terminator” video, directed by Young Replicant, a man lies dying in his bed, surrounded by his family. They wash his body. They get their hands on him. As the man walks away from life, a car pulls up, human shadows are cast on the clothesline. The rhythm begins and the dead man descends the stairs. In his living room, he finds three strangers together. They are sprinkled with ghostly white powders. They begin to move in an irresistible way. The hypnotic beat. Its slowness speaks of confidence, of certainty. The man, recognizing why the strangers came, runs away. He runs through the city, trying to escape death.
“Coronus, the Terminator” is from the Flying Lotus opus You are dead! From the intensity I feel in this song and its images, I started to build a device in my head. I call it the grief machine. It doesn’t work yet. This is not a problem. I don’t even quite know what the machine looks like yet, but I know it’s dark inside, a place of transformation, a place where the skin is all pores, all holes.
The grief machine is not made of new stuff but contains a dumping ground of devices that other people thought were too old to work. It contains forgotten engines and tools that have been freed from the service of capitalism. There will be old wagons for Ella and my father, old record players that spin not only at 33, 45 and 78 but at other unheard of tempos, 12, 9, -4, 111.
The mourning machine is about being imbued with sounds, words, images and songs that take our breath away, translate other frequencies to our human ears, sounds that stop our hearts just enough for us, the living , may we approach a place where this might be possible. to speak with, to sing with our dead, even if this song is very similar to silence.