The Next Chapter

How Jean Genet & Marguerite Duras inspired playwright Jordan Tannahill's love for autofiction

The Governor General's Literary Award-winning playwright shares two works of autofiction he thinks you should check out.
Jordan Tannahill is a playwright and the author of the novel Liminal. (Alejandro Santiago/House of Anansi Press)

This interview originally aired on Jan. 28, 2019.

Award-winning playwright Jordan Tannahill delved into the tradition of autofiction — that is, fiction heavily inspired by the writer's life — with his first novel LiminalThe narrator is a man named Jordan who finds his mother lying in bed and is uncertain whether she is asleep or dead. Over the span of this second of uncertainty, Jordan's thoughts spiral and explore the meaning of consciousness.

In this column for The Next ChapterTannahill — who in 2018 won his second Governor General's Literary Award for drama for Botticelli in the Fire & Sunday in Sodom — takes us to the writers of mid-century France that inspired his love for the autofiction genre: Jean Genet and Marguerite Duras.

A fascination for the in-between

"Autofiction was the form that I had immersed myself in as a reader. I was so struck by the work of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard. I've always been interested in the hybrid — those in-between spaces. I feel like autofiction has some of the most interesting elements of memoir, as well as the structure and propulsion of fiction, and the great liberties that you can have with fictional characters. Also, in my case, Liminal is almost a philosophical treatise, making nods towards the work Maggie Nelson, someone who's able to combine a queer theory so expertly with personal narrative. I was trying to find a way to forge my own in-between book.

"I think autofiction was a departure point. Very early on, I did have a crossroads between whether it was a book of personal essays or whether it was pure fiction. I found the marriage of the two, when I began to combine and collide these texts together, created something altogether new and more exciting."

The Thief's Journal by Jean Genet

The Thief's Journal is a work of autofiction by pioneering French writer Jean Genet. (Davis/GettyImages)

"I came quite late to Jean Genet, to be honest. I only started reading him in the last couple of years. What took me so long to connect with this incredible writer? I think of him as a queer ancestor. It's so important, as a young queer author, to connect with this kind of lineage. He did such trailblazing work back in the 20th century.

"Genet was both loathed and embraced. His work was incredibly popular and critically accepted. Sartre was a huge fan and champion of his work. But of course, with his celebration of thievery, abject sexuality and all things socially subversive, he was seen as a real enfant terrible and possibly even a social scourge. But how fabulous, right?

"His book The Thief's Journal is a projection of Genet's idealized self. He was imprisoned for various petty crimes as a young man leaving the Army. This character is these things and bears a relationship to Genet's own biography. But it is a fantastical, almost heroic-sized version, of that larger-than-life version of Genet.

"In a sense, the character of Jordan in Liminal is also a Genet-like projection of myself, a little bit more transgressive than maybe I have lived or, in some ways, a little bit more naive and in other ways wiser. But definitely I'm inspired by, in Genet's case, a self-mythologization and also a deeply self-critical stance as well. He also shows his ugliest, most embarrassing traits and magnifies them."

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

The Lover is a novel by French author Marguerite Duras, pictured above on the television show Apostrophes in Paris in 1984. (Platiau/AFP/Getty Images)

"The Lover is perhaps one of Marguerite Duras's best known works. It is an extraordinary work of sexual awakening and coming of age in French Vietnam. It tells a story of a young woman who falls in love with a Chinese businessman working and living in Vietnam. This is a very transgressive relationship at the time — it crosses cultural boundaries, social boundaries and class boundaries. She talks about herself, certainly her mother talks about her, as almost being a kind of prostitute. She's using her body as a way of accruing a bit of status.

"It is a beautiful portrait of a complicated relationship, an intergenerational relationship and certainly intercultural one that Duras imbues with an incredible sensuality. There's this incredible passage where she's talking about being on a ferry boat crossing the Mekong River and she talks about the world pouring itself out on a tilt. She talks sensuously about the natural world and also this torrid love affair and the ways in which it's marked her, the protagonist, years and years later."

Jordan Tannahill's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

 

 

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