'A Trace of That Darker History': An Interview with Amina Cain

The author of Indelicacy on elitism, inspiration, and cleaning. 

Slightly squinting woman in a white shirt with black hair over left shoulder

Naomi Skwarna is Hazlitt’s interviews editor. She is a National Magazine Award-winning writer with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, The Walrus...

Photo © Polly Antonia Barrowman

Amina Cain is an artist alive in her senses. What she sees, reads, hears, and touches gently permeates her writing, implying its presence with the subtlety of a loved one’s perfume on the neckband of an old sweater. You know it’s there, but you can’t quite find it.

Her first novel, Indelicacy (Strange Light), is a study of a woman, Vitória, who seems at times to be drawn through the world by her senses and the satisfaction they demand. Vitória, as she transitions from impoverished cleaner to mistress of a grand house, pursues art, and her art, with a solitary but insistent ambition. The conflict is as discreet as the novel’s tone: left alone with her writing, Cain suggests an instability beneath Vitória’s fantasy, a 21st century künstlerroman in miniature that questions the artist’s way while pushing forward on it.

There is a precision to Cain’s first-person voice that invites possession, which in this new period of isolation and distance provides a momentary sense of escape (to those of us with that privilege). Re-reading Indelicacy, I find myself wandering around the house as if in a museum, picking things up and putting them down, reorganizing bookshelves, and—in deference to the various women who populate the novel—cleaning. 

Earlier this year, Cain and I met in person to discuss Indelicacy, and the vast world that underpins its aberrantly delicate sentences.

Naomi Skwarna: Indelicacy reads a bit like a meditation on what it takes to live as—or—like, an artist. Sometimes it feels like fantasy, and other times like you’re satirizing that fantasy a little bit. But I was really drawn to Vitória’s peace and solitude! Her access to museums and art and dance and music. Is it a fantasy, or is it a critical perspective on that fantasy?

Amina Cain: I seem to have a tendency in my writing, and especially in Indelicacy, to go towards different things at the same time. Combining time periods and places, in a certain way. I see Indelicacy as taking place in a combination of Chicago, London, and then some imagined place. In order to write it, I had to go into this place of fantasy. The criticalness comes partly from Vitória, the narrator, in terms of how she criticizes others, men and women—often rich women. But then there’s the other layer of me, the writer, where I like to kind of… not, make fun of my characters? But sort of poke fun at them sometimes. I was thinking a lot about the flawed self while writing it, of getting towards her blind spots. It came from me being intensely in my imagination, but also intensely [desiring] a certain place, or some kind of nostalgia. Setting it atmospherically in the late 1800s, but it being more of a fantasy of that time.

When you were writing Indelicacy, did you consciously steep yourself in different kinds of art?

Dance and music and performance and art are all really important for me to experience in my own life. I think that’s how inspiration works, you know? I can’t help but be inspired by so much art and music. There’s a good chance that if I experience something and like it, it’s going to put me in a space where I want to write, too. My favorite books, but also artists or works that I connect to, can send me off into this place. I had a realization at a certain point that it’s because of those works and how much I feel towards them that I may be a writer in the first place. Like, if I had never experienced them maybe I wouldn’t write? I don’t know if that’s true! 

Immersion in/intense perception of art certainly seems inseparable from Vitória’s journey as an artist. Thinking about your short story, “Delicately Feeling,” in Creature, as well—there’s this action that stems from being an audience member in both of them. In Indelicacy there are so many instances of Vitória watching performances, observing people, observing art, observing herself observing art. Are there any pieces of art or writing that feel important to this book, or to your writing in general? 

When I lived in Chicago, there was a performance group called Goat Island. What they did was like dance—maybe more like strange movements—that to me had this really addictive quality. They would also use text from books, and music, and when I left their performances, I would always feel so excited. They were super formative for me! It’s been maybe fifteen years since I’ve seen them, but I can’t stop thinking about them. They really affected what I’m writing about now, in a way, or what I feel like I want to get close to in writing.

Another artist is Bill Viola. I once saw a retrospective of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago. That too—I just walked around, looking at all these video installations and feeling like I loved experiencing it. But again, it sent me into this place of wanting to write. 

I also have a friend, Laida Lertxundi, whose short films I really love, and Indelicacy is partly dedicated to her. She makes short films that are mostly set in the Southern California landscape. Her work is very different than what I do, but seeing them over the last few years and just being very excited by them…I love being the viewer and the one experiencing work, but it’s definitely a kind of thing where if I get too excited by something, I don’t know how to just take it in. I have to somehow respond. It’s not a direct response, but it’s like those works open up the space for me that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. And then from that space, I want to write. 

I’ve always found it kind of funny—getting that good energy from looking at the work of another and then not necessarily wanting to answer it, or react to it critically...it almost makes me want to leave? I’ll feel so excited by something that my instinct is to get out as quickly as I can to go and be private with the feeling.

I know what you mean. I have that experience sometimes where I’ll be reading something that I really love and I won’t know whether to put it down and start writing or keep reading.

Coming back to the sense of timelessness in Indelicacy. Maybe because the novel begins and so often comes back to the context of the museum, where all these different historical periods exist together and you kind of move through them from room to room, Indelicacy’s sense of period seemed like that to me. I kept feeling as if my knowledge of what rooms and clothing looked like changed from section to section in a way that was sort of chromatic.

I like thinking about the museum as holding all these different time periods.

That’s what your book feels like! Okay, on the subject of rooms: I wanted to ask you about the act of cleaning as practiced by the different women in Indelicacy. All of them have very different relationships to cleaning, and it also ties them to their homes and workspaces, all of them cleaning in different ways, with different cleaning styles. I was wondering what drew you to cleaning? 

I definitely have a relationship to cleaning! [I also wrote about] cleaning and maids in Creature, and when it emerged in this novel, I thought, okay I’m not done with it. My grandmother cleaned hotel rooms in Daytona Beach when I was little—that’s what she did for work. So some of this comes out of my own relationship to class, my family being more working class. Some of the people in my extended family were super-wealthy and some were very poor, and so I thought about it a lot—the elitism within my own family.

It’s so strange when one family represents different class groups. It’s a different kind of fragmentation.  

I don’t carry that with me like I did when I was younger, when I was ready to argue with people I perceived as wealthy—not for no reason, but like, somehow if I had to defend myself.

I spent a summer, about twelve years ago now, at the Sōtō Zen Buddhist monastery in Carmel Valley, California. I was there doing a work practice. The monastery opens itself up to visitors, and the rest of the year it’s just the monks and people practicing quietly. I was put on the cleaning crew, and a lot of the people who came there that summer I perceived to be wealthy, since it’s pretty expensive to stay there. So I was put on the cleaning crew, and I think somehow [I was] there because I had issues to work through, there. I spent the summer just intensely cleaning, every day. So many toilets. I think I was somehow working through class issues while cleaning.

I periodically do a form of silent retreat where the only thing you’re allowed to do beyond meditating is to clean, and that’s your act of service. Before I started doing these retreats, I always associated cleaning with gender; being told by men in my life to clean, do laundry, dust—so I resented it. But then in a space that was all women, where activities are limited and silent, I found pleasure in cleaning and connecting with people through cleaning.

Right, which changes it, when you’re doing it silently. Our work practice was also silent. 

Yes. It can actually feel kind of graceful to mop with another person. So when I was reading this, I was really moved by the descriptions of cleaning, which seem so humble within the context of the book.

The people who clean in Indelicacy are women, and I do think about the gender aspect of it too, but for me, I was thinking about class.

Jean Genet’s The Maids also has a significant presence in the book. What’s your relationship to that play?

I actually wrote an essay about The Maids that came out recently in The Paris Review. In a little bit of synchronicity—I don’t really know anyone in Toronto except for one person who I saw last night, an old friend I haven’t seen for many years. Once when she came to visit me in LA, I asked her to record passages from The Maids with me. It’s a play that’s stuck with me for some obvious reasons—maids and cleaning. It’s based loosely on the Papin sisters in France who murdered their employer in 1933. It explores class warfare in the domestic space, which I felt like I was doing a little bit in Indelicacy, but subtly and sort of quietly. I named my four female characters after characters in other books, and Solange comes from The Maids. I wasn’t rewriting any of those characters, but I wanted there to be some trace of each of them in the book in some way. Thinking about a trace of a character, a trace of a certain kind of a violence or oppression; a trace of that darker history.

I liked the specter of feminine violence it brought to the novel. Indelicacy feels very much like it’s from the perspective of someone who has lived as a woman in the world—if there is such a thing. Have you had the experience of discussing the book with people who aren’t women, or don’t identify as women?  

I don’t want to set up binaries in the way I talk or think about the feminine and the masculine, like men and women, but I do know that I’ve written a book that’s very grounded in a feminine way, or in female characters. I wasn’t thinking about that a lot when I was writing it, but it’s something I definitely think about now. And I’m not sure how to feel about it, because I don’t know that I want to be writing along those lines. Someone once asked me to write an essay about “female solitude,” and that’s when I started thinking about those binaries. 

I don’t want to exclude people who are trans or between genders, so it’s become something that I think about. I didn’t want or need an essay about female solitude, because I don’t want to essentialize women and solitude from too much of a heteronormative perspective.

None of Indelicacy’s characters have to be cisgender women. They are people who live as women, in roles that we identify as feminine. Much like you don’t define a clear time or place, the gender representation also feels shaped by art. These are roles that women can play, and it does feel quite theatrical. I also wonder how a man might feel reading it!

This was the first time I ever wrote something where I thought, will men like this book? It seems like there have been some men who can relate to it, like they could still read it, but Vitória makes fun of men a lot, and the male characters are pretty flat. That’s an interesting thing because there are plenty of men I’m close to who aren’t flat! But what I wanted to write about has often been the relationships between women. I have some close male friends, but I’ve had some beautiful, close female friendships, and I think that’s been something I’ve wanted to write about.

I feel like sometimes there’s an interest in the toxic female friendship, which I’ve never quite understood. I understand the complexity of friendship between women, or distance, or how things can be hard like any relationship.  But I was just interested exploring female friendship.

Something that I keep coming back to is the moment where Vitória is describing having Antoinette, her co-cleaner at the museum, over to her house for tea. And when Antoinette does the dishes, that’s when Vitória starts to love her. It makes so much sense, the affection that comes when someone does something small that they didn’t have to do. It was so lovely and unusual to show how women fall in love with each other as friends. 

I feel like I’ve been in love with many of my female friends.

Me too! Those little details feel so tender to me.

Slightly squinting woman in a white shirt with black hair over left shoulder

Naomi Skwarna is Hazlitt’s interviews editor. She is a National Magazine Award-winning writer with bylines in the New York Times, Vulture, The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Life, the British Journal of Photography, and others. Since 2019, Naomi has been producing slow fashion and soft sculpture under the name Casual Clowne.