Alexandrine Ogundimu Interview
The chapbook format needs to be taken more seriously. Desperate by Alexandrine Ogundimu is only ~50 pages long. It’s super wordy and it doesn’t contain many blank spaces. Some of the sentences are basically one entire paragraph. It’s hard to follow (at times) and it doesn’t hold your hand. There’s a lot to go through and there’s a ton to unpack. Yet, still… it’s just ~50 pages. And it’s probably one of my favorite texts of 2021.
Desperate, to me, is unclassifiable. You cannot read Desperate and walk away from it or forget about it. Desperate is a mirror you forgot existed and now that you’ve seen what you look like, you can never go back. You can no longer pretend.
Desperate is a truth and a lie, all at the same time.
Desperate is available through Amphetamine Sulphate. There’s also the sequel, Agitation.
Who are you?
I don’t often describe myself because I am not often asked to. The description on my website (I couldn’t remember it, I had to check) came about from a kind of desperation I felt about not being able to define who I was, and so I chose the most hyperbolic language possible. Looking at it now, it’s a little embarrassing and juvenile, and I will probably change it. My identity is currently in flux, as it usually is every couple of years. Job-wise, I’ve gone from a writer to a paper pusher to a kind of junior academic in the last five years. I do tend to define myself by my work, but the older I get the more limiting I find such a definition. My identity as a queer person (in every conceivable sense of the word) is also inadequately capacious. So, if I had to define myself, I would say I’m a queer writer, which wouldn’t answer your question, and I don’t think I can answer your question at all.
You know, I actually feel like the question has been answered—believe it or not. And I must add, it’s quite fitting… you mentioning “desperation.” What exactly is Desperate?
Desperate is an experiment in style that began with my short story “The End of Evangelion” published on Nauseated Drive. I thought I happened upon a kind of coked-out rhythm that was interesting and wanted to see how long I could stretch it, which turned out to be about 57,000 words written over the last 14 months, the first section of which was published as Desperate at a time when I initially thought I had reached the end of the experiment. The title and cover image came later, courtesy of Philip Best at Amphetamine Sulphate, who tweaked my original offerings for both into a better form. For me, the title means that the characters are making desperate pleas for something, for attention, for love, for drugs, for whatever. I honestly never inquired after the cover image. It makes me think of V searching for his inner child, which has gone missing. That and the grin of pain in the face of oblivion. I like to think he smiles without joy quite a bit.
I think, mentioning Evangelion, has sort of added a whole other layer to the work, in a way, especially for those who are familiar with the series and what it represents (as well as that iconic ending, from the original show… “Congratulations…”) I’ve noticed—you write long sentences. Like, really long sentences. Some sentences are an entire paragraph. Why do this?
Evangelion, especially the ending film I took the title of that story from, hangs over all my work. I connect my first depressive episode to watching it for the first time: Something about the end of the world being tied to the angst of not being known as a teenager has resonated through the years. As for the sentences, I like how they lay on the page. There’s something about one thought running into another related thought that I think benefits from a long sentence instead of being broken up into a few different ones, and there’s also something about the rhythm and sound of a long sentence, it’s breathless and I think it simulates being fucked up, from drugs or otherwise.
I think there is a lot happening, in terms of immersion. Your explanation for these long sentences makes sense. Something else I noticed that I thought was a little different: the main character and another character are only initials. Certain characters are described by their profession or the kind of drugs they like to do. Why?
Here’s where we get into my weird fetish for interconnected stories and recurring characters. Before Desperate I wrote a novel where the main character’s lover called them “V” and I had that character on the brain when the initial short story came flooding out of me, the vague idea that perhaps these characters were connected some way, if only by their shared name. X is called X because V is called V. The other characters are defined by professions and drugs because I didn’t want a sea of monikers swarming around the reader’s brain while they’re trying to process what is already a dense text. Coke Guy is just Coke Guy. He serves a purpose in the narrative and V sees him in much the same way, so there’s no need for him to have a name. Same with some of the other characters, they’re pure utility for better or worse. V is kind of a bastard like that.
It’s interesting that you mention interconnectedness and recurring characters. Osamu Tezuka famously brought back characters from previous stories in a lot of his manga, and this seemed to confuse people. In an interview, he once likened it to actors in films. Why can’t one character either re-appear as the same from a previous story or just a different entity, altogether? Another Japanese creator, Yuichi Yokoyama—there is a strong emphasis on outward fashion, what each character is wearing, and the sounds they make as they exist in the world, so much that very many times, they hardly speak. I bring him up because each character is always adorned with such elaborate costuming. I’ve always thought he keeps re-using the same dozen or so characters, and just keeps changing their outfits. Without their outfits, many of them just look the same. And I think there’s definitely something to unpack there. I am also a fan of either non-names for characters (i.e., Coke Guy) or super plain names, like Jane or Todd or Conrad. Sam Pink, I think, is great at doing the whole non-names thing. Speaking of name-dropping totally random author names into this interview, how do you feel about comparisons made to other authors? Not just for yourself… but in this moment, yes, particularly for yourself. For instance, if I said, “I am getting very strong BEE vibes” because:
a. He is the epigraph;
b. The opening fantasy sequence reads like something from American Psycho and;
c. There is moment, later in the text that takes place in the subway—there’s the NYPD, a gun, some sex… violence.
Are these valid comparisons to make? Do you feel it takes away from the work (when one author is compared to another author)? Is it necessary for readers to be given some sort of context (in this instance, in the form of a comparison) or should we be expecting more from readers by not comparing authors?
What Tezuka said is something I can vibe with. For me it’s part laziness, but mostly about just not being done with a character just because that particular narrative I’m working on is done. The people keep living past the end of the story, and sometimes it’s generative to dig back in and see where they’re at a year later or ten years earlier.
Comparisons are definitely valid. I’m a huge Ellis fangirl and apologist. I don’t take much issue with the comparisons and I don’t think it detracts from the work because I think one way we understand texts is by comparing them to other texts. The epigraph is there to give some kind of context for the reader, to give them an impression of the kind of New York story this is by way of comparison. I don’t blame readers who make comparisons: If they find they can analyze the text, if they practice close reading or like to look at texts in isolation, that’s great, that’s a very fruitful way of reading. But it doesn’t mean comparisons should be forbidden or that they are a lesser way of understanding a text, even if part of me would prefer readers to interact with my writing in a more intuitive fashion.
Epigraphs are truly an underappreciated art form. I have sometimes spent more time stressing out about an epigraph (or epigraphs) than the actual content of the work it is being injected into. Like, I will care more about the part that 90% of the readers will not even read, or worse… they will read it but not understand the significance and just think, “huh, cool.” How crazy is that?
I don’t think it’s crazy at all. In fact, I’ve spent plenty of time agonizing over epigraphs, sometimes before I put a single word of my own on the page. They can do so much work when it comes to contextualizing and providing tone and theme in a text, and I can’t help but love the idea of finding the right quote for the text which follows to be in conversation with. The fact that most will not read it never even occurred to me, since as far as I was concerned it was an absolutely vital element of the story. I chose the Ellis quote because to me this is very much the New York of American Psycho, 30 years in the future and from a different point of view, where you’re crushed, sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once, under the machinery that provides a grotesquely lavish quality of life for those who have the funds. In my mind there’s a startup CEO with a pocket full of hedge fund cash and a wallet full of crypto hacking up and eating sex workers the whole time V is stumbling from bar to bar, trying to figure out a better way to be.
What genre is Desperate? I am asking this mostly to be a contrarian. I personally do not like the idea of genres, especially when it comes to writing. The dreaded “experimental” umbrella bothers me a lot. But if someone asks that you categorize this book, what do you say?
I too dislike discussions of genre when they get too narrow, so while I think it could be classified as literary fiction or transgressive fiction or an addiction narrative or an immigrant story or queer fiction, I would rather not classify it as anything other than a novella, a piece of prose between 10,000 and 40,000 words. If pressed I can slot it into any of those categories I mentioned and have done so, but that’s a less than ideal categorization. If that’s pretentious, well, so it is.
I think I can accept classifying a piece of work by its length, rather than the content. Length is objective and very easy to demarcate. As a matter of fact, I think telling someone something is a novella offers more in terms of how long is this thing going to take me to read it than anything else. It’s almost like you are providing the reader with an advanced service. “Look, I know you don’t have a lot of time so I wrote this and made it short because life’s hard and stuff.”
The objective part is what makes it appealing to me. It prevents any kind of waffling about what the text could be but isn’t, and it just gets to the heart of what it is, which is this amount of pages representing this many hours in the life of a character, which is how I think of literature in general. The shortness of Desperate, I hoped, would lower the buy in for a lot of people, and get them interested in reading something longer one day should I get the opportunity to publish it, but it was also the maximum amount of pages V could spend in New York without it getting too repetitive or meaningless, which is how I think of New York anyway, that you spend as much time there as you can stand and then you’re ejected with little ceremony to some other place. If that makes it easier for the reader to read then I am both concerned that the quick, consuming way of being that is New York is infecting other places and also glad that I could offer them something substantive to read in the little time that is allotted to them between serving their corporate masters and caring for their families and themselves.
The main character V leaves one shitty life in Indiana working retail, to go live another shitty life in New York City to pursue a MFA. V even says that New York City is “harsh” and he knows this, yet, he is willing to take the plunge. Tell me about the human condition and some of the characters in Desperate. While the focus is obviously on V, I kept feeling like everyone in this text was desperate… and they didn’t even need to say it out loud. V’s mother, Avery, X, the father, the fat girl he hooks up with for a brief time, his cohorts, Coke Guy—every single character is doing something that appears to be some form of escape… from… I am not exactly sure what.
It could be a dozen different things: Capitalism, the body, intellectualism, all of those are part of it and it’s all the same thing. I think they are running from what it means to be alive in the United States around 2015, when the text begins, a state of being materially comfortable while also being spiritually and intellectually dead, even while part of the university. In the case of the black characters, they’re also, and perhaps most importantly, socially dead. There is no human condition for V, because he is not a human being. The setting of New York intensifies all of this. So, V in particular is dead twice over even while his material needs are cared for, and so he is constantly searching for a way out of that state of being, a way to be resurrected, which (spoilers), he does not find by the end of the novella. That’s why it doesn’t matter if he throws himself in front of the train or not.
What it means to be a human being. I think we could go even further with this and look at the different eras and societal expectations from each. The Nuclear Family. A functioning member/drone who works and provides a service. The need to always be connected. The repetition… the daily grind, as it were. There is a particular moment where a word is repeated over and over, until it morphs into another word, and the book pauses on this moment for what feels like a substantial amount of time. (“The mother the mother the mother…motherfucker.”) Can you discuss this particular moment?
Grinding is apt. I often think of what happened to V in terms of grinding, crushing, processing, being fed into a machine in order to be transformed from raw material into something useful or else discarded, either way losing something while maintaining part of his essence. That ties into the line you mentioned, a bit of free indirect discourse, as I think they keep calling it in workshop. The mother doesn’t have a lot of direct influence but she’s always there in V’s consciousness, and that crossfades into his own perception of himself as a motherfucker, which he has become more of since moving to the city. At least I think that’s what it means. I’m not entirely sure.
I like that the mother is only mentioned a few times and appears not that frequently. I felt bad for her and V’s summaries of what his mother was probably thinking, each time they interacted. The father is a perfect contrast (albeit in a terrible way) to everything the mother represents in the eyes of V. Or at least, what the mother is supposed to represent. A lot of the descriptors for the father (maybe even all of them) are about the things he is not. Each character possesses a unique charm. Obviously, I am not going to ask, “Are all these people actually based on real life?” since that is a meaningless question that will add nothing to the text. I will ask you this, though, could Desperate be made into a movie?
I think about this a lot, because I’m vain and tend to think of things cinematically. It was inspired by Shame, the Steve McQueen film, and so I think if that could be a film so could Desperate. There’s a similarly scant plot and aimlessness and repetition, not that I think I’m nearly as good of an artist as McQueen is. I think the bigger question would be if audiences would be cool with a drawn out, aimless sort of film, with a guy doing shots and snorting blow and masturbating for 90 minutes and then it just kind of ending.
The idea of it just kind of ending. I like that. I like that a lot. I think the most effective ending is always the freeze frame. All the best films do it. 400 Blows, Fat Girl, Sword of Doom, Smithereens, Funny Games… The list goes on and on. Agitation is the sequel to Desperate, right?
It’s an earlier version of the second part of the 57,000 word manuscript that stands on its own. I’m not going to say much, so as not to cheat readers out of experiencing it themselves, but suffice to say if desperation is the theme of the first then agitation is the theme of the second. V is in a very different position and still running from that same confluence of comfort and death, but it takes a radically different form.
What’s changed for you, since Desperate has come out and is now available for people to experience/consume?
Not much. People read it and either tell me nothing or tell me they like it. I’m still a very marginal writer. I did enroll at a PhD program since it was published and my ex broke up with me in part over the content, so there have been changes.
Congratulations on the PhD program. What do you think when I say the phrase, “write only about what you know”?
Thanks! It’s the easiest starting place, and the one I use. I think it’s inevitable that we write at least in part what we know, but it should not be a restriction, especially since even if taken literally it’s just an exhortation to know more. It’s a paradoxical statement I don’t particularly resonate with.
I like that answer, and I think it’s a good segue to my next question. What made you pick Amphetamine Sulphate?
I read Thomas Moore’s excellent Alone, which is a short, queer book, and it made me think they might be a good home for my own short, queer book.
I remember you reached out to me in June of 2020 about AI-assisted writing and automated text generation. Then our conversation turned into all the different presses available for publishing. And I remember asking you something really dumb, like, “Do you care if your book shows up on Amazon or not?” At the time, the point of that statement was to sort of explore the idea, or at least, the sentiment (and this is totally just me thinking out loud) that a lot of indie writers feel their work can be taken more seriously if it is available on Amazon or if they can provide a link to the book that is on Amazon.com. At the same time, sometimes, either the algorithm fucks up or the person running the account didn’t set things up right but Amazon will show the publisher actually as “Independently Published,” which throws all of that perceived credibility out the window. I say this was a dumb sentiment only because I have realized now that it does not matter. The audience, those who are actually waiting for this kind of work, and are willing to put in the time to read it and then have the discussions… they don’t care if it is available on Amazon or B&N or anywhere else like that. If they can pay the publisher (or writer) directly, more times than not, they will do that. And to me, that’s amazing. Are you content with the current indie lit scene or are you hoping to move beyond? Were you originally wanting Desperate to be published this way, or were you after the more traditional publishing route (i.e., lit agent, NYC publisher, book tour, advance, etc.)?
I don’t think it was a dumb question on your part at all. I want to reach as wide an audience as possible and some of that is being present on the biggest platform possible, but the reason I decided Amazon didn’t matter that much for this text is because I realized the audience for a dark, dirty little chapbook about drinking and masturbation was, as you pointed out, only ever going to reach an audience that was willing to go to a publisher’s website and click to order, that it might engender a bit of conversation but it was never going to be the kind of thing people casually added to their Amazon cart next to the toilet paper and hand soap and dildo and book about space ninjas. I always saw Desperate as an indie thing, but if I get the opportunity to publish the full 57,000 word manuscript it’s part of I’d probably seek an agent and do that whole runaround again, and it’s at that point I would care about distribution. I’ve got a very different kind of book coming out on a press in 2023 with a press that has wider distro, and that’s just because I figured they were a better fit for that particular text. That said, I’m not even sure if I want to put the longer text Desperate is part of out there like that. I’ve put myself through agent submissions before and found it to be almost not worth the hassle, but as of now I would like to get a permanent job at a university and the best way to do that is to publish traditionally. I prefer the indie scene to be honest. I generally prefer the vibes, and most of my favorite books of the past couple years have come off small presses.
But is the literary agent really still necessary in 2022?
Honestly it depends on what you want to do. If you just want to write and publish I’d say no, a writer can get a following through small press and social media. If you want the university job, the New Yorker publications, the public intellectual lifestyle, then the agent is still the first step. But that’s not the only way to live, and it might not be the best way for a writer to live. The best way for a writer to live is whatever allows them to keep producing work while staying sane.
Fair. How do you feel about contemporary literature(?)—what’s considered popular these days and what is selling for a lot of money.
So as not to just say a bunch of mean things that will get me canceled, I’ll start by saying I just read What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell and absolutely loved it. There are good books coming out on the Big 5. That being said, what I see out of so called “literary fiction” is a lot of books about professional class people, having professional class problems. Now people will read that and immediately think of something that I haven’t read that breaks the pattern, but that’s just something I’ve noticed. I would like to see more working-class stories across all races, orientations, and genders. I’m also something of a hypocrite: Desperate is about a grad student having grad student problems, which fits the contemporary paradigm. Am I cynical enough to have done so intentionally, so as to gain more traction? Absolutely. I have written about different classes of people having different classes of problems, but the market is definitely on my mind when I decide what projects to pursue and which to maybe hold off on.
I think it’s totally fine to be aware of what constitutes the current contemporary paradigm. It’s almost impossible not to and it certainly is a lie, to say, “I completely do not care!” I’ll ask you this: what, then, is experimental literature?
I cannot stress enough how much I wish I was above such considerations. As for experimental literature, like pornography, I know it when I see it. I wish I could offer a more substantive analysis, but it’s really just when something is weird enough to cross an arbitrary line, usually on a sentence level.
Personally, I don’t think there exists a definition for experimental literature because experimental literature does not exist. Much like the term cinematic, especially used when describing a piece of writing—I feel it holds no meaning and is akin to the person using it saying, “I did not completely understand it so I am going to say this thing because it is all-encompassing and yes it is lazy, but so what?” The plague of experimental fiction is that generally, it is the lay reader describing something that is even a little bit different to what you’ll find in the action aisle at B&N. And that’s totally fine, for them to say that, but I don’t think it’s fair to call, say, House of Leaves experimental fiction and then, within that same breath or sentence, also declare Glamorama as a piece of experimental fiction. Do they both do weird and different things that set them apart from more mainstream literature? Absolutely. But they are also doing two very different things, yet, people want to throw them into the same experimental fiction box. I’ll ask you about another one. What is transgressive fiction?
There’s a video store in Seattle called Scarecrow that has a whole room of “psychotronic” films featuring everything from Giallo to Troma to The Matrix to the New French Extremity, just this jumble of films in various genres that share an edgy aesthetic, with this little sign on the wall listing the five or so most fucked up movies they carry. That’s how I view transgressive fiction, this kind of grab bag of different texts that might have nothing in common besides being edgy or gross in some way. Transgression in fiction is real, but I’m not as positive that it constitutes a genre in and of itself as much as I used to be. If I absolutely had to nail it down I would say it’s literature that tends towards the postmodern (itself a vague genre definition) and breaks taboos.
Defining genres is hard. I’m just going to jump to the next point. I have no good segue for this one. How important is social media right now?
For me, it’s vital. It’s how I’ve connected with writers and presses outside of the academy, and I truly value those connections. For a lot of other writers, I still think it’s vital, since that’s part of how they build their audience and establish themselves. But it’s not universally needed to engage with it directly: I think a lot of writers who aren’t on social media still get an audience even if their work tends to be marketed by and propagated through social media.
Now I’m going to ask a series of quick questions. They’re a bit more to-the-point and after a particular type of response. You’ll see what I mean. For instance: what advice would you give to someone about writing?
Decide, early on, what your goals are and calibrate your expectations. Publishing is a different game from writing and it’s important to know what you’re getting into. As for the writing itself, just read and write as much as you can and learn to read like a writer.
What are your thoughts on literary awards?
I don’t really think about awards. It would be cool to win one and I’ve put in for a couple but they’re just super subjective. They can be a way to curate or expose texts. I really like The Sellout by Paul Beatty and I probably never would have read it if it hadn’t gotten the Booker.
What do you have to say about MFA programs?
I ought to be careful how I answer this. I think they’re a great way to meet your readers and build community and get to know established writers you might not otherwise have a way to meet. I think I started to learn how to write for real at my MFA, even though I didn’t totally learn how to do it until afterwards. I don’t think they’re as good at teaching people how to publish and how to live as a writer, I don’t think it’s a terminal degree that prepares you to teach anymore, and I definitely don’t think anyone should pay to attend one.
Why do you write?
I’m hyper-fixated on it, probably due to ADHD, and I have been for a lot of my life. I’ve always thought in terms of stories and texts so it was inevitable for me to start making some of my own. Besides that, I’m not good at anything else and few things bring me anywhere near the same level of satisfaction.
How do you write? (Every single day, once a week, whenever you feel like it, etc.?)
Fits and starts. I try to write every day but fail, so recently I tend to, when generating material, churn out several thousand words in a few days then take a few days off.
What is the single hardest thing about writing?
So many things I’m not sure I can pick one. If I had to identify what’s been hardest most recently it’s the discomfort I get when drawing from the emotional core that I have to tap into to get my best work done. The deepest stuff is the best and that’s the place it hurts the most to draw from, so there is this masochistic element where I’m getting the pleasure of having written but the process is painful.
Do you talk a lot about your writing IRL? Especially to people who don’t write—i.e., regular people?
I used to talk about it a lot with my most recent ex. That was probably a mistake. Otherwise, unless I’m talking shop with other writers I don’t really get into conversations about my work.
How do you decide what you want to read—what is worth your time?
I read less than I should. I mostly just go by descriptions and recommendations from other people. I also read things that might be akin to what I’m working on. Next up I’ll probably be reading The Mad Man which will be my first Samuel Delany book, I’m excited for that. Someone in my PhD cohort recommended it to me based on a project I outlined.
We’ve arrived at my final question. When you are (re-)reading this interview, and reviewing all of your answers that came from the Alexandrine of Q1 2022—is there anything you want to tell your Q1 2027 self, right now?
I am imagining myself at the end of this academic program and staring at the job market. I would like to remind myself how unhappy I was on January 1 of 2021, watching the Dwayne Johnson Doom movie and hating my job and staring at the liquor store from the roof of my building, and to remember that’s why I did this in the first place. I would like to apologize for sounding pretentious here at 32. I would like to tell her that her ass better still be sober. I would like to remind her to say a prayer now and again and to drink more water, cause I know that bitch is dehydrated.
You probably wanted a writing-related answer. I would like for her to remember that no matter how much or how little success she’s had, what matters is that she’s still writing things she thinks matter.
Alexandrine Ogundimu is a Nigerian-American transgender writer from Indiana. Her novellas Desperate and Agitation are available now. Her fiction can be found at Maudlin House, Exposition Review, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Fiction at New York University and is pursuing a PhD in English at University of Illinois at Chicago. She runs the online literary magazine FILTH at filthlitmag.com, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @cross_radical.
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