The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Books In Conversation

Giada Scodellaro with Julia Brown

Giada Scodellaro
Some of Them Will Carry Me
(Dorothy Project/New York Review Books, 2023)

“Sometimes I want a moment of recklessness, or something altogether new,” the main character of the story “Hangnails, and Other Diseases” declares. Some of Them Will Carry Me, the debut story collection by Giada Scodellaro offers readers both; Scodellaro’s narrative precision and control excavate the epic from small moments. Again and again, the stories entreat: Do not be fooled by the seemingly mundane. Her characters are not coy about needing human contact, or about the risks they’ll take in order to get it. In “False Lashes,” Scodellaro writes: “We sat there at first. He talked a little. I had come to fuck; it was the only reason I had come. I didn’t want to talk, especially not about the extinction of any species, of a black rhinoceros. When I touched his hand I think he understood something.”

In stories like “A Triangle,” the act of observation transforms both looker and looked at: “I saw the couple out of the corner of my eye. I noticed them as I stepped out of a medical building. I noticed them because everything else in my peripheral shifted but they did not. The wind was blowing the leaves, the leaves were dying and leaping, and the couple was so still. The couple was unmoving. I was, too, looking at them.” These stories consider what it means to confer value upon a thing, and remind us of the charmed nature of ordinary objects—a burnt chair left in street garbage, a basketball left behind by a lover, a yellow kitchen wall.

I was eager to find out about the origins and influences of the author of this confident and wildly imaginative debut.

Julia Brown (Rail): Your bio says that you were born in Naples, Italy. How did you get from there to The Bronx?

Giada Scodellaro: My mother is originally from Harlem, and her mother is from Harlem. It was my mother’s decision, I think she wanted to go back home. We didn’t have a choice about it, I was young, six or seven years old. I spoke no English then, and what stood out the most to me of this new place was the dullness of the buildings, the unfamiliar sound, the muted colors, the deep cold.

Rail: I can imagine how strangely displacing that must have been for someone so young. Did you speak both Italian and English in your home growing up?

Scodellaro: I’m almost certain that my mother spoke English to us, but I don’t remember it, or I didn’t acknowledge it or absorb it until we came to the Northeast Bronx. It is interesting to not understand something, and then suddenly to understand it. From one day to another. I learned English quickly, and read all the books in my mother’s collection. Though we always spoke Italian in our home, I began to misplace the language, the vocabulary, the rules, and though I am still fluent in it, I have since lost the ease with which it used to come up. It is a tragedy to admit this, it is a deep and embarrassing loss that I have yet to fully reckon with or mourn.

Rail: A Spanish teacher once suggested to me that for every language you speak, you have a different soul. Even if the facility lessens, that inner expansion from deep intimacy with syntax and idiom remains…What was the first piece of literature you encountered that drew you toward it? Who were your earliest literary influences?

Scodellaro: All my answers regard my mother, she is the reason for most everything. She let me read things before I was ready, she read things to me. Adult things, she did not treat me like a child. She gave me The Bluest Eye, I was in middle school, I think she was trying to communicate something about herself. I didn’t understand much of it, and I didn’t understand much of her, but I was moved, engrossed, and completely changed by Morrison’s work.

Rail: My mom kept a copy of Tar Baby around; Morrison’s sentences are so transforming, even when you’re not quite sure what you’re reading. When did you start writing stories, and how did you find your way to The New School’s MFA program?

Scodellaro: It began early, but I didn’t consider it a serious thing, or a possible thing until later. I was working a full-time corporate job at the time, a demanding job, and after ten years of that I felt that my time there was coming to an end, or that it needed to end. Either way, I decided that I could no longer work there, or even that I needed to invest in myself, to do something worthwhile. It is the first program I applied to, I stumbled upon it, but it completely changed the way that I engage with literature. Since then, I always have a pencil on hand, my books are marked up, soiled.

Rail: I’m partial to that particular way you absorb a story when you annotate it. After that, it belongs to you. During your study, which of those marked up, soiled books influenced you the most stylistically? Where are you drawing inspiration from lately?

Scodellaro: During that time it was Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, Jefferson’s Negroland, Duras’s The Lover, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Sebald’s The Emigrants, Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Øyehaug’s Knots, Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H., Calle’s True Stories, Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Abe’s The Box Man, Hurston’s Mules and Men.

I’m influenced by Black films of the 1970s, lately it is Mahogany, anything to do with Diana Ross. Her heavy eyelids. The Wiz. Deana Lawson’s photography, always. Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants. Keiyaa’s album Forever, Ya Girl. Marie NDiaye’s Self Portrait in Green. Landscape architecture; soil. Any media depicting Black female friendship: Living Single, or Nina and Josie in the cab, (Love Jones).

Rail: Your work so thoughtfully interrogates image; I wasn’t surprised to find out that you’re also a photographer. How are writing and photography related for you?

Scodellaro: My work begins from an image, it gathers details, and silence, and movement. I see the characters before I hear them. I know where they live, their mannerisms, body language. There’s more to say about this, about saturation, lighting, composition, depth of field, but for now I’ll say that everything I write is from the perspective of where the characters exist, what they can see or not see, and what sits just outside of the frame.

Rail: The scrupulousness of your language makes me think of Garielle Lutz’s poetics described in the essay “The Sentence Is A Lonely Place.” Your recursion and compression draw the drama out of unexpected places, out of language itself.

Scodellaro: I was not familiar with this piece by Lutz, though I’ve now read it and it’s wonderful. Diligence, thoroughness, recursion and compression, yes, it’s the layering of information, the repetition of it, how it sounds being emphasized again (I will often choose a word based on its sound) and how it changes in this emphasis; and then stripping it down, tightening it. Sewing it shut. Revision is the center. I edit continuously, generously, and without hesitation. Pulling the drama, yes, I had not thought of it in this way, though I realize that I always hope to create drama in my work. Small dramas, underlying dramas, suppressed dramas. I want the endings of these stories to feel unexpected, to surprise me and to leave me bereft.

Rail: What demands do you as a writer make on your sentences, and how much revision do you find yourself doing to get the stories to their final versions?

Scodellaro: In “The Sentence is a Lonely Place” Lutz says she wants to write “narratives of steep verbal topography, narratives in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude…the sort of sentence that, even when liberated from its receiving context, impresses itself upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itself.” The sentence should stand on its own. It should build, it should reveal, it should hold texture. That’s what I hope for it, at least, everything that Lutz is saying is my hope for the sentence.

Revision is the center. I revise constantly. I start from the top and I begin to revise, to shift, to compose. It is my favorite part, to edit and be edited. When I revise, I play. Not following the rules, pushing and pulling, substituting. I read sentences out loud, it is the only way to know. It is exhausting.

Rail: Alice Walker’s epigraph could be a direct quote from a few of the protagonists in the collection. When and how did this epigraph attach itself to the book?

Scodellaro: Once, Walker’s first book of poetry was in my grandmama’s house. I stole it. The epigraph comes from the poem “Compulsory Chapel”. I had not thoughts of that, but I think that’s right, that it can be a direct quote from the protagonists, it is something that most of the characters attempt to say. The Walker quote also holds ideas of domesticity, sexuality, solitude, hope—ideas vital to the book.

Rail: Although many of the stories in the collection are only a paragraph long, I hesitate to refer to any of them as flash pieces. The collection overall seems to be experimenting with what’s possible in compressed narrative space.

Scodellaro: I think that the American literary way is to describe things, or to elaborate. In my writing I want to trust the reader, one way to do that is with brevity, concision, compression. I am not an epic writer, I like small tellings, I like the silence, I like white space.

Rail: Speaking of brevity and concision, can we talk specifically about the collection’s single sentence story “George Washington’s Dentures”? I remember reading that story for the first time, astonished by the vast psychic and cultural distance traveled from the beginning of that story to the end of it. Can you talk about the genesis of that work? How long did it take for this breathtaking sentence to reach its final form?

Scodellaro: This piece, this line was my way of using ekphrasis. It mentions Lawson’s Nation, and it begins there, with this title, and then with the image itself, with the two men on the couch, another out of frame, his head cut off by a superimposed image of Washington’s dentures (constructed from the teeth of slaves and gold wiring), all shirtless, gold draping their chests, and their mouths. A painting hanging on the wall, a family photograph. The image is complex, it is evoking Black history, legacy, materiality, domesticity. So the single sentence is concise, but it’s also expansive, it moves beyond the bodies. I wrote it quickly, and shaped it over many months.

Rail: The collection is formally audacious as well. In stories like “Leave a Fingerprint, Gnocchi” and “Cabbage, the Highest Arch” I am amazed at how deftly you confer character and narrative possibility even upon the recipe as a form.

Scodellaro: In this debut work I wanted to try many things. The footnote, the recipe, the elegy. I don’t know that they are all successful, but I enjoyed considering them. It is play, so much of it is about experimentation, sitting with the unconventional.

Rail: A few surprising details show up across a few of the stories, which made me wonder if the collection is meant to be read as linked. Is there some subterranean sense of connection you worked with in the course of writing and arranging the collection?

Scodellaro: In the beginning I did not know what I was doing. I did not understand the links, or I didn’t acknowledge them. I began to think about the connections very late, too late and some of them still evade me. The answer though is yes, they are linked in a way. Details are layered and repeated, a burned chair. There is a story that evolves over time, a triptych, and then a constant exploration of domestic spaces, public spaces, and all the abandonment, duality, absences.

Rail: Your characters seem as bound by their willfulness as they are by their longings and desire for freedom amid constraint. They are transgressive in bell hooks’s sense, in that they move against and beyond constraint, via a sort of performance that makes me think they’re after Grace Paley’s “open destiny of life.” How would you describe what your characters are up to?

Scodellaro: This is a wonderful question, and the answer is that I don’t know. It is this not knowing, and not fully understanding the characters, being surprised by them, that allows for the unexpected nature of the work. It is so connected to Paley’s “open destiny of life”. They make decisions, mistakes, I don’t question them. They will change their minds, or change course. There is also a sense that things have already been decided for them. Not by me. These characters exist as is, they accept what is. They endure.

Rail: Music is all over your work. At a choice moment in “Three Months of Banana,” a specific image of Betty Davis is conjured—the why of that particular image, at that particular time is smart and revealing and makes so much sense to me. The album cover invoked in “Pendergrass” is so well-described I could instantly picture it. Can you talk about cultural touchstones as inspiration in your stories?

Scodellaro: These figures, these Black figures are part of my upbringing. I listened to their voices, and I longed to know their bodies. Talented figures, tragic figures. They challenged my ideas of sexuality. And it’s my mother again, and my grandmama. We had no choice in the matter, I heard Teddy, I heard Anita, Nina, Janet. Some of this musicality is also embedded in the language: the pauses, the silence, the hesitation, the syncopation, the improvisation.

Rail: These stories say so much about contemporary urban living as negotiation between bodies. Boundaries between self and other can get watery and sometimes become more permeable than we would like. I think about Serendipitá and “The Balcony” a lot; There is something urgent in the way she defends her balcony, as if that space is inside her, as well as outside.

I’m especially intrigued by the stories in the collection that are driven by issues of space and spatial configuration. I’m thinking now of “YYYY,” and its initial description of two people in a room, fixed in space with relation to each other. That arrangement marks both the closeness and the distance between them, and the story builds charge as it digs further and further under its own surface.

Scodellaro: The division/sharing of domestic spaces, and public spaces is something that consumes me. I have always shared the domestic spaces I’ve occupied; I take the bus. There is a vulnerability to these areas, a desperate intimacy, the behavior and demeanor is changed, there is a social contract there, we must trust these people. But there is also a withholding of the self. It is sometimes a tragic thing.

Rail: To wrap up, what are your current artistic questions, and personal quests? What are you working on now?

Scodellaro: I just left a residency, The Tables of Contents Regenerative Residency at the Glynwood Center, in Cold Springs, New York, where I was offered an old wooden home, painted white. I wrote. I read a lot of books, Reid’s Thot, Pilot Imposter by Hannaham, Abudrraqib’s A Little Devil in America, Quiet: Poems by Bulley, Black Women Writers at Work edited by Tate, Dunn’s Potted Meat. Or I sat in the quiet. Taking notes, cooking, the yolks of the eggs were orange. I visited the cows and the sheep, I witnessed a baby lamb be born, the umbilical cord was swinging and red. I asked myself questions about how to sustain a story, a life. As I embark on this more substantial project, how? And still, how does one write? And how should I employ ideas of urban infrastructure and landscape architecture, or invoke Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, how to summon or call earnestly upon their laughter?


Julia Brown

Julia Brown is editor-at-large of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2019. She is a doctoral candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. Her work has been published in Gulf Coast, Mosaic, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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