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Whitney Mallett interviews Tamara Faith Berger


October 18th, 2023

The novelist in conversation about her latest book, Yara, out now.

I love gifting friends Tamara Faith Berger’s books, knowing her prose will hit them like a flash-flood. The Toronto author’s directness is surgical, but her precision is anything but cold. Staccato sentences build stories that crack open with desire, each encounter between characters weighted by burdens that transcend the interpersonal while shaping it. 

Berger’s latest novel, Yara, set in 2006, smashes together nose jobs, Israel, and porn. Its plot revolves around sex tapes that the main character Yara made when she was underage with her girlfriend who was a decade older. The writing is visceral, immersing you in a present moment with vivid clarity while forcing you to reckon with the past’s recycling. A clit pulses like a thimble-sized drum. A body swells like it’s been stung by a bee. Meanwhile, history is continually being retold and embodied. The narrator confronts how we carry what’s happened to us and to those who came before us, her physical sensations seared into the page.

I first discovered Berger’s writing over a decade ago when her bildungsroman Maidenhead won the Believer Book Award in 2012. It’s about a high school student hurtling headfirst into sexual transgression while her parents divorce. A novel as heady as it is headless, the teen narrator googles Hegel to understand the master-slave games she’s playing with an older couple, the whole scenario very interracial; she’s white and they’re Black. For years I kept on my nightstand Berger’s Lie With Me (2001), which strings together an unnamed protagonist’s sex encounters with strangers, picking them up at bars, fucking one in a parking lot. I often read from it one-handed while I jerked off. The Way of the Whore (2004) and Kuntalini (2016) are also a part of Berger’s oeuvre, but I’ll let those titles tease themselves. 

Of late, the author has homed in on Jewishness and Israel. Queen Solomon (2018) features an obsessive affair that’s encumbered by a young woman’s origin story that includes being airlifted during Operation Solomon, a 1991 military maneuver when Israel “saved” thousands of Ethiopian Jews. Yara draws scenes from Birthright, but through the eyes of a skeptic on the free trip to escape a possessive girlfriend back home. Throughout, in the same way Berger has always approached topics with the most taboos, there’s a critical acuity and complexity that splinters a political reality through the transgressive possibilities of fiction. Through a strategy of dissonance, jarring realities and types of violence are juxtaposed, but there’s little resolution or moralistic interpretation imposed.

Berger is one of my favorite writers, and I pinch myself we’ve gotten to work together. Last year, I wrote a smutty Seamless fantasy called “Deliverance” for Smutburger Editions, an experimental erotica series that Berger started with Courtney Toderash. Their latest volume by artist Candystore is heralded as a “piercing of consciousness and cock.” When I started a literary review earlier this year, The Whitney Review of New Writing, I featured on the cover a quote about Berger, by writer-filmmaker Micaela Durand, excerpted from their conversation inside—a perfect sentence that encapsulates the author’s style: “No one but you could make rainbows sound violent.” Truly, no one is as sharp. I’m always trying to figure out how she manages to build sentences that hit me so hard. 

When Berger and I spoke for Feeld, we talked about what compels this approach that’s, in her words, “dissonant and choppy,” its “aggressiveness,” coming from “an unconscious drive and desire to be heard.” We also discussed Patricia Highsmith, heightened states, and which canceled porn star inspired one of her characters.

Where did Yara first come from? 

That’s a really hard first question, actually. I feel like it came from a big mess, which is sometimes the way that I work. Really, really messy. I don’t even know what part came first because it morphed so much. I haven’t read Maidenhead [2012] in years—and I feel like I’m so distant from it now—but there’s a quality to the main character in that book that is somewhat similar to Yara. 

There’s always something similar with your characters, this way that they’re curious but also stubborn. They go forward into things and it seems brave but at the same time they can be very silent. It feels easy to identify with that mix of things—for me, anyway.

I think it’s this looking, right? It’s this looking outward. I try to inhabit the character when I write. I want people to be in the character, and for that to be possible, I have to be in the character. I want readers to feel that visceral-ness, being in a character’s body, for lack of a better word. I feel like we should all be able to be in other people’s bodies. It’s about being specific and broad at the same time—broad enough that many people can go in there.

I was curious about the Jewish porn star character in the book.

I mean, isn’t it clear who it is?

Is it James Deen?

Yes. I mean, I’m not trying to do a one-to-one of James Deen, but I took so much from everything I’ve read about him. I use that horrible scene where he’s dunking her head in the sink. That’s public. That was told by Joanna Angel. I just could never, ever forget that. These things are all public so I’m not trying to steal Angel’s story or anything like that. But I relate. And I really felt so pissed at James Deen, how he started out as this, like, “woman’s porn star” because he knew how to give them what they wanted. And then all these women accused him of abuse very publicly, including Stoya.

I did get that this ethical branding, the character marketing himself as a male feminist, was a reference to James Deen. But part of your character’s persona is being this Jewish porn star. Is James Deen Jewish?

Yes, he is Jewish. I do want to say that the parents in the book are completely made up. I don’t know if James Deen’s parents are a cardiologist and a short little woman who’s like, “we tried, we tried to help him but then we realized he’s fine just the way he is.” 

But James Deen, fuck that guy.

There’s often an interrogation of Jewish-ness in your books. In this one, Yara ends up in Israel on Birthright for a chunk of the story.

Being Jewish, I definitely feel like it is a part of my work to represent Jewish characters and to deconstruct them at the same time. I can’t help but question Judaism and its blind spots, exploring the Conservative Jewish strain I was raised in with its tacit acceptance and embrace of Israel. I’ve read so much about Israel and Palestine over the last fifteen years, everything from The Question of Palestine by Edward Said to the new Israeli historians like Ilan Pappé to Minor Detail by Adania Shibli and currently, Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad, who I just saw speak in Toronto. My favorite Israeli writer is Yoel Hoffmann and I absolutely love the Yiddish writer Abraham Sutzkever. I feel like it's my right as a diasporic Jewish writer, as well as a particular aesthetic choice, to use real political events in Israel in my fiction. I’m working stuff out.  

Your prose style has this punchiness. It’s very direct. There are these flashes of an image or a feeling. Like these lightning bolts that build. I’m always trying to figure out why your writing hits me so strongly.

I watched that Patricia Highsmith documentary last night, I think it’s called Loving Highsmith. And she described two ways of writing that I just thought were amazing. One was like catching a flight of birds, or just even one bird, out of the corner of her eye. And then the other way was when she was madly in love with someone, she said, “Oh, the writing is going so great. It’s going down just like nails.” I was like, “That’s so good.” I thought like nails in a line on the page, or maybe piercing the reader’s mind. I just recorded the audiobook for Yara and I had never read an entire book of mine out loud. It really made me see the aggressiveness in some of the prose, which I think is me, not the character, having this unconscious drive and desire to be heard. 

I’m not a loud person and I’m not a super articulate person, in reality, so I feel like this is my chance to be heard. I want to impose my way of thinking on other people. I can’t elsewhere. This is the place to do it.

There’s no excess. Your writing is just as tight as it could possibly be, like a guitar string that snaps back. 

I definitely do a lot of revision. Shaving things away, or carving things out. I like it choppy, clean. When I was reading it out loud, I felt that there was also a dissonance to it. It’s a technique that I like to use where I’m putting two different things next to each other. Like a collage. Sex is happening but then something else is inserted and then we cut back. The overall effect is dissonant or choppy even at times, but in an interesting way. I’m not trying not to be critical of it, just while I was reading it, I definitely noticed my technique in a different way.

There’s a bluntness and that dissonance can almost have a humor to it too. Like your characters are aware of the absurdity of the world, I would say.

Definitely. I hope. There were times reading it where I found it funny. Not necessarily the text itself, but just like funny that I did that.

This idea of a visceral reading experience and also this dissonant quality makes me think about disassociation and disintegration, like an awareness of the parts that make up the whole. I wonder what your process is in remembering how things feel. Maybe that’s so obvious, but like, if you talk about how a tongue feels, how do you get to those memories?

I’ve been really thinking about these terms “disassociation” and “disembodiment” because actually I think writing is very embodied. It is such an embodied act. And I think that’s why writers—or anyone creative, but I’ll just stick to writers—have historically had the tendency to either drink while they’re writing or do a drug while they’re writing, or go into some kind of meditative state, just to feel it more, as opposed to less. It’s not ideal and most writers who drink a lot stop drinking at some point. I think if you’ve drank enough in your life, you can tap into what that feeling is without it. 

But I find those altered states, they’re heightened, and I really liked that idea of heightened physical sensation because I feel like when you’re transmuting physical experience into text, it should be heightened. It has to be heightened because that’s how we feel it. That’s how it lives in text. Part of the way I do that heightening is through separation or chopping things up, taking your time with this body part or that body part, but always having this kind of heightened sensibility in it, you know. I think it's less about memory, and it’s more about wanting to focus in and then heighten the sensations.

You write about sex so well and in this embodied way. It’s kind of rare. I wonder if your approach to writing [about] it is intentional or more intuitive?

I think in the earlier books, it was more of a political, intentional thing to want to have these long, thick descriptions of sex from the female point of view. I think it’s still there, that desire to slow down the sex scene and just make it go on and on and on. People are writing a lot more sex in books right now, which I appreciate quite a lot, but there’s still not enough for me. Why can’t it go on for five pages? For ten? 

I think a lot about the scene in Yara of this lunch in Toronto with the friend’s mom. She’s been portrayed as this enlightened sexual assault survivor and then Yara meets her and is like, “oh my god, you’re a mess.” Everyone right now is so obsessed with unpacking trauma. We all have these shades of contradictions in our self-awareness. This character is so satisfying.

I’m a sponge. There’s so much that goes into my brain about trauma these days and it has to come out in some way.

I mean, I’m part of the problem. I follow the holistic therapy influencers. I read The Body Keeps The Score. I’m guilty of therapy-speak. It’s not that there’s no value in a lot of it, but it feels silly how it gets packaged into this hardened thing.

I don’t love the word cathartic, but I do think that sometimes reading sex is cathartic in a way. But it has to go on for pages and pages and pages. It can’t just be like a paragraph. It gives your mind a way to go through stuff. This sexual space that people can go into when they’re reading sex in a book or watching porn, it gives you this time to go there. It’s not about healing or self-care or even self-love. It’s this space where you can think about something, and then it’s not tormenting you.

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