AN INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH SCHALANSKY
BY DYLAN NICE
Dylan Nice: You’ve said that you regard your atlas as something in between fiction and nonfiction. In the introduction you write, “What is unique about these stories is that the fact and the fiction can no longer be separated: the fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact.” While you were researching these fifty islands, did you think of the entries you were writing as essays? Are you surprised to have received the essay prize?
Judith Schalansky: Yes, I was surprised. But only for a moment. And then I was very happy—about the prize, and about this way of reading it, as an essay. I hadn’t actually thought of this genre while I was working on the atlas. I knew, of course, that my introduction was similar to an essay, but to my mind my island texts were miniatures in prose—and the book first and foremost a poetic project meant to show how literary atlases can be—a species of book that is more connected to a universally valid objectivity than any other.
DN: There are some entries that feel more fictionalized than others, entries which give themselves over more completely to empathy and the imagination. Or at least it would seem that they do. I’m thinking of Pukapuka, where Robert Dean Frisbie never gets used to the nudity. Or Lonely Island where we can see the last entry written in the record book. How often did you find details like this rising inevitably up out of the essay writing instead of the research?
JS: I didn’t, in fact, invent anything at all. And the parts set in italics are actual quotes. I could write a footnote for every detail. But I don’t know whether or not they’d be true; this doesn’t interest me. The island stories are closely based on the personal reports of certain authors, whom I made into protagonists. Partly to preserve their authorship, and partly to make their experiences palpable. In the text on Pukapuka, it was necessary to use the American protagonist to inscribe the writing, which adheres closely to the stereotypical South Sea island image of unashamed, innocent promiscuity, with a Western perspective. There’s an abundance of anthropological material from this time, of course, field research on island peoples in which the researchers expound obsessively on their subjects’ relationship to sexuality and reveal far more about themselves than those they were researching. I wasn’t interested in how it really was on the islands. Reality is overestimated. But what others saw there, what they found—or more often failed to find—this is what’s interesting and can be written about.
DN: You talk a good deal about the importance of appropriation, the crafting of reality into art. American culture puts a huge emphasis on veracity in nonfiction, though no one seems quite certain what either veracity or nonfiction might mean. Could you talk more about the overestimation of reality and how you found more in the representation than the thing itself? When does representation fail?
JS: Portraying events as true to reality as possible is a goal worth striving for, an honorable task when it’s a matter of exposing injustice and crime. But even when the working method is practically forensic, when sources are studied closely and witnesses interviewed, one quickly realizes that the one overarching reality does not exist, even if that’s hard to accept. This is why I find appropriation highly questionable, because it primarily refers to the authenticity of an experience, as though it were a scientifically tested seal of approval. It always inspires my mistrust when someone claims: “That’s exactly how it was!” I don’t even trust my own memory. An imitation of reality beyond its representation does not exist. Reality is an idea. To believe in all seriousness that you can reproduce it exactly is as crazy as the project Borges relates in his “Collected Fictions,” where a College of Cartographers creates a map of their empire on a scale of 1:1. In terms of the Atlas, my refusal of authenticity is directed more at what I find to be the dubious touristic need to see all four corners of the world with one’s own eyes. Of course traveling is educational. But you don’t have to have been in Venice in order to write about Venice.
DN: I understand that the literary essay is a less acknowledged form in German culture. What is made of your atlas in Germany? Do people readily apprehend and accept your notion of appropriation?
JS: In Germany, the reception of the atlas is heavily colored by the demystification of the paradisiacal island legend and a disappointment over the fact that these remote worlds have turned out to be existential locations where it’s very quickly a simple matter of survival. And so it’s been understood as a kind of anti-travel book, and people have often asked me at readings which islands in the book I’d really like to travel to one day. Many were unable to understand that I didn’t wish to swap my longing for first-hand experience. And so the atlas was mainly understood as research, to a certain extent as a report written by someone who chose to stay at home—and less as the poetic project that it is.
DN: I like that sentiment of longing surpassing experience, of research as a poetical experience. I wanted to ask about your research methods, specifically how you arrived at these fifty islands. Did you decide on the islands then begin the research or did researching one island deliver you to the next? How many islands didn’t make the cut?
JS: It began with Pitcairn, the island where the Bounty mutineers once hid. The story has been told in so many books and films that one can hardly believe it’s a historical event—and that the descendents of those mutineers actually still live on this island. And so I went to the Berlin Library and walked around the six-foot-high globe there and found Pitcairn, and in the end I began noting the names of all these tiny specks of land that seemed so lost in the vast expanses of ocean. I had soon collected around one hundred islands, which I ordered according to categories such as “cartographic beauty” or “promising name.” I quickly realized that there were a few famous remote islands that should not be missing from my book: St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, and Easter Island. By the way, Easter Island dictated the book’s format—it fills up the entire page. All islands larger than Easter Island literally did not fit into the book, which had to have a consistent scale. That was hard at times, but I never would have finished if I hadn’t established a few rules.
DN: The book is a translation from German done by Christine Lo, but I imagine, given your proficiency in English, that the translation was something of a dual effort. How was that process for you? How often did you sense complete and unavoidable shifts in meaning?
JS: Unfortunately, I’m very far away from knowing English well enough to be a real help to the translator (even these answers had to be translated). And so my proficiency is limited to finding a mistake here and there and tracing the sound of the language. To me, it seemed as though many of the texts sounded far more objective in English—in complete contrast to the French, for instance. But I did work on the introduction for the English edition and augmented it with sections that described childhood in the GDR in more detail.
DN: You typeset and designed Atlas of Remote Islands yourself and excellently. It puts me in mind of an elegant textbook—the relative simplicity of the design feels both very traditional and very new. It is also, as asserted in the introduction, a book very much about shucking traditional notions about the utilitarian nature of cartography. I sense a tension here. What do you think the relationship between the books design and its concepts are?
JS: Many thanks for the praise. That was exactly my aim: to find a contemporary design that is aware of history without being old-fashioned or retro. I wrote and designed this book simultaneously; I drew maps, researched, tried out font sizes—always alternating, and always mixed up, never separated. That’s why I can’t answer this question about the relationship between the design and the concept. For me, the two are inseparable. I wanted to make a book that not only couldn’t be classified, but that dispelled with the provisional and incorrect distinction between fact and fiction, form and content, design, image, and text. In this regard, the atlas is an affirmation of the book, which is still the most sensational medium there is.
DN: That’s an interesting notion, the book being the most sensational medium there is. My mind races to arrest what it might suggest. How exactly do you mean it?
JS: Books are a deeply conservative medium in a dual sense: they are both old-fashioned and conserving. In terms of durability, paper is only surpassed by parchment and stone. But the special thing about this medium is that form and content meet eye-to-eye. That’s why ebooks are not really books for me. They’re really just packages of data that have lost their bodies, that have no relationship whatsoever to their physical carrier. Of course ebooks can be practical, but a library can’t be as easily replaced as a CD collection. Books lose something very fundamental, for instance their format. Yet format is the first decision you make when you design a book. Everything becomes the same on an electronic reading device—zoom in, zoom out.
DN: While preparing for the interview, I came across some blog posts that were interested in the statement “Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence” and wondered how much you implicate your own atlas into that assertion. Clearly, the book would be a ridiculous object if it tried to divorce itself from the massive historical circumstances from which its design and material emerged. How did you envision the atlas working with and up against that implication?
JS: My atlas is naturally a product of a colonial appropriation of the world and its island projections. It contains reproductions that are the result of surveying, expulsion, and hegemonic claims. But it juxtaposes the absoluteness of the cartographic system with something that’s unusual in ordinary atlases: texts that remain fragmentary, in which more questions are posed than answers provided. Texts that tell of how much suffering and brutality are connected to the cartographic appropriation of the world.
DN: So do you feel that fragments have a better shot at arriving at or at least suggesting a truth? Are the misrepresentations in history made in its attempt to synthesize, to make whole?
JS: A novel could be written about each of the islands, no: a twenty-volume encyclopedia. And you still wouldn’t have said everything, because you’re never able to say everything. I don’t like that a book purports to deliver a comprehensive narrative. It’s just like in the history books that claim that everything that has happened has been told, and that no question has been left unanswered. Of course each version of the world simplifies things, omits things; this not only goes for history books, but also fiction. The sentence structure always follows its own laws. It would be unbearable, however, without this simplification. Language is never purely objective; it always presents a particular point of view. So, for instance, it’s not possible to take every people, race, and marginal group into consideration, but one can write in a way that makes it clear that there are always other stories between the lines that one could just as well have told. Particularly because the design of the Atlas suggests consistency and objectivity, it was important to break this closed form in the text with miniatures that might report on marginal matters, but that speak of far more.
DN: A basic question about cartography: I found the maps of the atolls among the most visually arresting in the atlas. Taongi Atoll, Pukapuka, and Takuu especially. There’s something ghostly about the faint white outlines of the atolls’ sandbars. I was wondering how your maps achieved this level of precision. Did you work with old maps? Satellite photos?
JS: I used very disparate material, both for the texts and the maps. I did indeed use satellite photos as a basis, but also old maps. I began by experimenting quite a bit to find out how much information I wanted and was able to depict—and what aesthetic I was after.
DN: Could you describe that process of experimentation more and how you arrived at the unifying aesthetic of the atlas?
JS: It’s not easy to describe the design process. At the beginning are a series of variables and a few constants. The font was clear from the very start. I discovered it years ago in a magazine and wanted to work with it one day. The Atlas was the perfect project for it. The font’s various different versions could be used wonderfully. The tiniest sizes for the cartographic information, the display sizes for the titles. In terms of the color, I experimented, tried out various different orange and gray hues and had several test prints made. From the very beginning, I had a strong feeling for how this book should look, how it should feel. And I knew how coercive a static form can be, an almost encyclopedic double-page spread. I was fascinated by the idea of making an atlas—in the final analysis, it is a species that stands for objectivity like no other, and it usually has no author. I had the idea at the start that it should be a relatively large, thin book, bound in half-linen, with five special colors and an orange paper edge that was unfortunately missing from the American edition, with my name and the wonderful word ATLAS printed in capital letters. And the result comes amazingly close to my idea. I’m really quite satisfied.
Interview translated by Andrea Scrima